In the rearview mirror, she catches Sylvia’s eye on her; Sylvia offers a small hidden smile. She shrugs slightly, not turning her head, and senses the other woman relaxing next to her. It takes little: Sylvia is a temperate soul. In all likelihood, she supposes, Sylvia would be the better greeter—but she might as well start them at the top, as they’re being fast-tracked there anyway, and her fingers tap sharply on the backs of her gloves as she weighs them in her mind, as 98 pulls up the car. She twines her scarf around her neck, once, twice, and tightens it as he parks.
Sylvia is glancing at her again, sideways, wry and consoling. There is something in Marianne that loosens at it, but she mobilizes her face into further stillness; she will not be thought in need of consolation. “Come along, troops,” she says, and opens the door.
The Baineses don’t seem to pick them out of the crowd until they reach the sidewalk: she watches the one on the right push his glasses up on his face, look at them with naked, arch curiosity. He elbows his brother, and she gives a slight snort to herself at his lack of covertcy, audible only to herself and Sylvia.
When she arrives in front of them, they have recollected, squared their shoulders back up. “Agent Baines, Agent Baines?” she asks.
“You’re our contact?” asks the one on the left.
“I’m Marianne Tallard.”
The one on the right offers his hand. “Jack. He’s Nick. Pleased to meet you, Ms. Tallard.”
“Agent,” she says pleasantly. “Agent Baines—Agent Baines. And these are my associates, Grange and 98.”
“Allen-Burrow will do,” 98 says quietly.
“Pleased to meet you, Allen—”
“No, no—” “You must be cold,” she continues, voice moderate and welcoming. “We can discuss the terms in the car.”
The one on the left—Nick—shoots his brother a sharp look, and Jack shrugs. “All right. Terms.”
Nick fiddles with his sunglasses as they walk; Jack has a broader stride. She catalogues their habits as they walk, silent and exhaling cold puffs of breath into the cold air; she compiles them, internalizes them, makes order out of them, thinking as they go of the little she could piece together from their file. Division 5 was hardly forthcoming in regard to the project, and the Baineses are difficult to profile in the best of circumstances—that this was far from that optimum, she did not need to think about. They had slept in their suits, she sees, and neither has shaved today. It comforts her, somehow: they are meant to be groomed into crispness, and they have failed. It equalizes them, she thinks.
In the car, she slips into the front, leaving Sylvia, she realizes belatedly, to be sandwiched between the two men. It is a fine car, but it is a small car, and when she meets Sylvia’s eyes in the rearview this time, Sylvia visibly winces.
“Did you have a good flight in, lads?” she asks in a small, squashed voice, and Marianne listens to their perfunctory effusions. She cocks her elbow against the window and braces her cheek to her fist, temple against the cold, rattling glass. You are not tired, she thinks to herself sternly and revises what she remembers of the files. Files, plural: the Baines and Baines record exists in pieces, half dispersed between state-specific bureaucracy folders and half stolen for confidentiality. It’d take a bloody war to let the CIA release some of the information they’ve locked away—she’d asked. Counterfactual of them, she thinks, isn’t it; it’s as if they’ve determined to make her job as difficult as possible.
Behind her, the back seat has fallen into a flat hush, and she straightens up just that increment straighter, tilting her face back toward them.
“We’ve office space ready for the both of you.”
“Great,” Jack says. “Thanks. Though I don’t think we’ll need that much—”
“I hope we didn’t put you out,” Nick interrupts.
“No, no, of course not.” She smooths her hands over her knees. “I can take you around, if you like, but I scarcely think you’ll be getting much work done today. I’m sure you’re both running on fumes. If you tell me where we’re staying—”
“Oh, we don’t have to go there just yet,” Jack says. “Why don’t we sit down some, get a drink?”
Her spine straightens sharply. In the rearview, she sees a brief moment of open outrage flicker across Nick’s face, the sort that suggests that were he next to Jack, Jack would have profited from a sharp elbow in the ribs. (Sylvia’s face suggests that he might, reflexively, have tried.) “Jack—”
“I hardly think that the most prudent use of any of our time.”
“Believe me, Ms. Tallard—”
“Agent 08.” She enunciates the numbers crisply. “When we are in professional contexts, if you please.”
“Sorry,” he says, lifting a hand—she catches the tips of his fingers splaying their way into the corner of the rearview mirror.
Her voice drops, cool. “98, these gentlemen will tell you where they’re staying, I’m sure it’s nearby. If you’d just drop me off at the office first—I have work to be doing.”
Perhaps I can talk to Sylvia on my own, if 98’s off playing chauffeur with the American boys.
The ride passes in silence until they pull up over Vauxhall Bridge. She exits, not waiting, and begins to climb to the front door.
The footsteps behind her are not heels—she does not look behind her until she is halfway up the steps. Jack has exited the car behind her; he is leaning on the trunk, patting it like the flank of a reluctant horse before it speeds off without him. He looks up at her when it’s gone, dusted with exhaust, and has the nerve to grin.
“Just teamsters, no superiors, see,” he says, loping up to meet her on the stairs. “See, no power imbalances there. Let Nick bond with the team a little bit. Honest, he could use one.”
Sylvia’s babysitting, she calculates, brief and clear through the climbing fixity of her anger. Good.
“And you came along because—”
“I wanted to talk to you.” He takes the stairs two at a time, gets to the door before her and holds it open.
“Thank you.” She sounds like midwinter even to her own ears; she hopes Sylvia is being nicer, perhaps, but to hell with nice, it’s hardly had an effect with Departments 4 and 5, and she doubts that sugaring the Americans is going to be any more efficacious. “Do you have something germane to tell me?”
“I hoped that discussing the details of the operation would be germane enough. Wanted to take it straight to the head.”
“And that was your job?”
“Nick wouldn’t have done it.” He shrugs.
They pass through the lobby, almost too quick for Jane at the phone to give them a nod, and wait for the elevator side by side. “They sent us a cowboy,” she said drily.
“They don’t employ anyone else for our kind of job.”
“Your kind. Your record is woefully unspecific; I’d love to hear it out of the mouths of—”
“Right.” The elevator dings its opening; he follows her inside. “Yeah, well, as the practicing, we mostly go where we’re needed to do what needs to be done.”
“How picturesque.” The doors shut. She watches the floor numbers grudge their way up, time feeling claustrophobically slow. Why couldn’t they put together a decent file? One more month and she could have broken down the Arizona division’s bureaucratic firewalls; a few more field agents and she could have got around them. But no and no again, and here they are, and there are patches in her record and the culmination is taking up two-thirds of the elevator with her. “Did you come here to shoot a Western or did you come here to work for me?”
“No.” The doors scroll open, finally. “I need to know that you will work for me, or I will take measures to ensure that you will not be working.”
“That,” he says, pacing sideways next to her as she walks him through the maze of desks, “would be a waste.”
“I came here—Agent 08—to work with you.”
“And I think you were sent. Hardly your idea.”
“Your supervisor’s. Whose jurisdiction? Do remind me. The paper trail got a bit fragmentary.”
“We don’t, as such, have one.” He clears his throat, grinning with an inappropriate dash of self-satisfaction. “Like I said, a lot of trekking around—covert ops shuffles its fieldmen around wherever they’re needed.”
A problem with authority, she thinks, irritated, that nobody’s beaten out of them. It seems gauche to keep cursing the CIA on a nationalist level, but—bloody Americans.
“And now you’re in the field. Arizona got very terse about whichever aspect of your specialty they were capitalizing on, you know.”
“Bastards.” He grins again. “I’ll tell you about it some time.”
“You will tell me now, and in detail. Your desk is here, by the by.” She indicates, leaning hard on its edge; he plunks down easily into the chair. “We cleared field for you two, you know.” Or, in any rate, someone did.
“Thanks, great. Right. Yes.” He spreads his hands. “You now have in your employ the useful and, I suppose, disposable brothers Baines, known for their facility in dealing with all the phenomena the uppers are scared shitless of putting on paper. Don’t trust the pushers, I guess. But it’s gotta be a bitch to get your hands on a full record.” He whistles through his teeth. “Sorry.”
It has taken all of two minute’s company to figure out he only bothered to say it when he was pointedly not. “So. Russians?”
“It all comes back round to Russians,” she insists. “I know what your government is up to out in Arizona; it’s the worst-kept secret in national affairs. You and them alike.”
“No, no. I said worse. We’re not people people.” He leans back in his chair. “The brothers Baines specialize in ghoulies and ghosties and eight-legged beasties.”
She snorts. “I hardly expect to be working with you on our tarantula problem.” Pushing herself up from the desk, she looks at him hard. “Rats, maybe.”
“We didn’t come to exterminate.”
“Oh, really? I apologize. You come off like a blunt instrument.”
“Fair.” His head tilts, looking at her bang in the eye, that grin cocking at his mouth. “You know, I’m starting to think you wouldn’t believe it if I did tell you.”
She wants to say something pragmatic; she thinks she nearly does. You have to work for me, she is thinking when she opens her mouth, you were sent to give me information, will you just do your bloody job so we can all get on with our bloody lives, she is thinking there is a war to avert and of Carson, of the media blackmail she’ll come home to calibrate and the upstairs eyes on her and the great empty departmental sprawl around them. He is sitting in 68’s seat, Agent Denning, better than he’ll ever be, he should be in 48’s, Severn’s, who beat time out of there even before the Carson fiasco, but it doesn’t matter, in the end, when they are all gone and the space of a fifteen-twenty rotational is filled in by two Americans who’ve not been briefed. “You don’t know what I’ve seen,” she hisses, and she has no team and she is angry.
He sobers up. Sharpish.
“Aliens,” he says. “We’re thinking aliens.”
She turns round, walks to her office, and shuts her door.