The tap of heels echoes in the hallway outside Marianne Tallard’s office, breaking her from a reverie that she must have been in for nearly an hour. She glances at her wristwatch. It’s nearly midnight. It’s nearly midnight and she’s been paging through the files for over half her day; the minute she stops moving she knows fatigue will set in, which is as good an incentive as any to keep paging through, keep ticking through names and numbers. It’s not like her to have misplaced something like this. She’ll have to ask Sylvia, although it wouldn’t be like her either—maybe the new girl, Elisabetta. All right, she’s been there for almost six months now, but she remains the new girl in Marianne’s mind, all soft voice and try-hard hours. Marianne hopes it’s Sylvia come back now, but like as not it’ll be Elisabetta, asking if there’s something else she can do. She came with good credentials from the Bristol office, but Marianne can’t help but find her trying somehow—too soft, somehow, too bloody quiet.
The footsteps tick closer and she drops her head into her hands, smoothing her fingers hard against her forehead and eyelids. Well, regardless, either one ought to be game for making a cup of tea, and maybe after that she’ll get at least halfway through her current stack before two a.m.
The door opens. It’s neither.
She looks up and it’s a girl she doesn’t recognize, yes, girl, just a year or so out of university-age, if that, a girl in a slightly damp trench coat with a satchel slung over her shoulder, face a pale moon starkly whitened among the shadows. “Can I help you?” she asks.
The girl steps inside. The room’s harsh light blanches her skin all the worse; the features of her face are delineated in harsh lines: the darkness of her brows and hair, the heavy almost purpled shade of her lipstick. “I’ve come to talk to you about Elisabetta Carson.”
If the Bristol wing has sent me another overeager and unpolished trainee, I shall scream, she thinks, but it’s past midnight and no hour for beginnings. The girl is an American, in any case, perhaps an expatriate, her vowels clear and polished to near-nativity but still retaining trace curvatures of the States. Northeast, if she had to guess, perhaps Connecticut or Massachusetts. “Who are you under?” Marianne asks.
“You misunderstand me.” The girl closes the door. When she turns back around, she is smiling slightly, lips closed. Without being bid, she sits down at a chair opposite Marianne’s desk. “I’m with the Times. And I’ve come to talk about Elisabetta Carson.”
Slowly, Marianne sits up.
“I beg your pardon,” she says. “Who are you talking about?”
“Agent 78, if you like. Formerly 53 in Bristol, transferred to London division and now working with you in MI6 detail, future liaison with the CIA. Lives at 44 Bickenhall Street, Paddington—”
“Stop talking,” Marianne says sharply, and the girl leans back in her seat, that smile still ghosting her mouth, quiet and complacent. “If you know this much, you ought to know why coming in here unannounced is a bad idea.” You shouldn’t have been able to get in in the first place, she leaves out. That much is a given, and the night has taken a turn for the shouldn’t all the same.
“I thought you’d want to see this.” The girl kneels and pulls a manila folder from her satchel, sliding it across the desk.
Marianne glances through and blanches. The papers ruffle, carbon-light in her hand: copies. “Where did you get this?”
“From Elisabetta,” the girl replies calmly.
“This is madness.” Marianne shakes her head and closes the folder. “What’s your name?”
“Gardner. Faith. I expect you’ve seen my work.”
“Byline of the art ring story last year, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, among others.” The girl’s—Faith’s—smile finally earns teeth, small and white and biting into the dark edges of her lipstick. “A fine hour.”
“A sad loss to the journalistic world,” Marianne offers, as neutrally as she can keep herself, watching her face closely, “if something were to happen to you—”
“The editor receives a letter in my hand one week later, detailing the location of the originals, as well as elaboration on the context,” Faith replies, unblinking. “I become a martyr, the information becomes a conspiracy, MI6 is spotlit, the department is humiliated in the public eye, you defect.”
“So.” Marianne folds her hands on the desk. Not a wholly unexpected response. A girl like this wouldn’t come here unprepared. It feels like a test, which feels maddeningly like a waste of time tonight: there is something wrong here, far more wrong than Faith. It nips at her heels; it might just have felt wrong for six months. She can feel her heart beating in the swallow of her throat, and she loathes the feel of it—like swallowing blood at every breath. Drowning, then, if only from the loss of surface. She forces herself to clarify, to think and speak in straight lines. “She came to you?”
“Directly. And you’re right—it is madness. Clearly faked.”
“You aren’t gunning to publish.”
“It wouldn’t be right.” Faith leans back in, pulling the folder back toward herself. “The public would get into such an appalling stir, and for what? Psychotronic weaponry, the idea of this great mind control scare—it’s like something out of H.G. Wells.”
Why, Marianne thinks, and realizes all at once that that’s the answer itself. Not the facts: the stir. She pauses, drumming her fingers against the papers before her, and finally pulls the phone toward her from the corner of the desk. Without taking her eyes off of Faith, she dials.
“Get field over to Agent 78’s flat right now,” she says. “44 Bickenhall, Paddington.”
She does not have to think for very long. “As much as need be.”
The line dies. When she drops the phone back into its cradle, Faith shuts the folder. “Some of this is true, isn’t it? The CIA liaison?”
It takes every measure of strength in Marianne’s body not to let her head drop back into her hands. Her temples are aching with almost supernatural force. “Give that to me.” Faith drops it onto the desk before her. “Please.”
Faith pushes it forward. “Like I said, there’s all sorts of elements to it that I’m not fond of. The public never likes hearing the Americans are coming, either. Makes it sound like we’re on the brink of WWIII, and God forbid we touch that powder keg.”
“You’ve done your research.”
“I know my audience. I know my story. An exposed double agent—” She tilts her head, considering. “There we are. Now there’s a story I’d be more than willing to run.”
“Are you asking my blessing?”
“Do I really need to, now?”
Marianne bites the inside of her lip. Cheek. “No,” she says, voice even. Sit still, she reminds herself; don’t draw blood.
“Well, I’d be honored to have it all the same. May I quote you?”
“May I have the originals?” Marianne indicates the folder, and Faith nods easily.
“Once I’ve drafted my article? Without question.”
Marianne doubts that greatly, but says nothing. “Me and mine, then. I’ll see if I can get some of the department down to you,” she adds, feeling a sharp jolt of pleasure at the idea of making Bristol talk to her, at the rest of the suits trying to make soundbites. “You’ll want more than just me.”
“You’re too kind.”
The phone rings again.
“The flat’s empty. No sign.”
The other line rings with static. Marianne drops the phone back in the cradle.
“She’s gone?” Faith asks.
Wordless, Marianne nods. Too bloody quiet, she thinks to herself again and swallows the rise of hysterical laughter like bile in the back of her throat. If she’d just trusted her fucking instincts, if she’d questioned her a bit harder, if, if.
“When can I get you quoted?” Faith continues, voice still light, and Marianne nearly recoils.
“No.” Faith shakes her head, dropping the folder negligently on the desk. “As before. The intrusion, halted in the nick of time by MI6 diligency—I like that much better, don’t you?”
Marianne feels herself stop, forces herself to stay there, to collect, make sense of the stillness, make sense of the night. Faith cocks an eyebrow, and Marianne, eyes locked on her, nods once more. She collects her words, too, before she says them, carefully, picking through them like shards underfoot. This is wreckage, now; it shall land on her head in the morning, and like as not it shall follow her. Perhaps, though, if she’s careful, if she’s clearheaded and steady-handed, she can make something worth salvaging.
There is a paper waiting for news of her, she thinks.
“Tell me,” she says, “how would you like a job?”