Cyprus, present day
‘There’s a man holding a gun to Stefano’s head.’
For a fleeting second, Eva’s first thought was that Alex was talking about a character on the show playing on the television in the front room.
Then, she wondered what the hell he was doing changing the channels and watching something wholly inappropriate.
Finally, before the digital clock had blinked to the next second on the hour, she registered the frightened tone in his voice, and her head jerked up from the magazine she’d been reading.
Above her head a ceiling fan spun, pushing a cooling breeze between the open window of the dining area through the room and out towards the hallway. Moths dive-bombed against the window’s fly-screen that separated her from the outside world. The pages of the magazine article fluttered under her fingers, then her hair lifted off her shoulders as she spun on her heel.
She dropped her coffee mug as she moved, the sound of it smashing against the tiles following in her wake as she reached out to grab the kitchen bench to turn the corner without slowing down.
Eva cursed under her breath as her bare feet crossed the minefield of plastic building bricks Alex had left strewn across the floor in his haste to answer the intercom, before she raced to where he stood staring up at the wall next to the front door, fixated at the image streaming via video link from the condo’s gatehouse.
Almost within touching distance, she realised he was still dressed in his school uniform, instead of the pyjamas she’d asked him to change into twenty minutes ago. Her throat constricted at the sight of him, his vulnerability all too evident as he shifted from one foot to the other.
His hair sticking up on one side from where he’d been lying on the sofa, his blue eyes widened at the flickering image on the screen, before he turned to her, his mouth open in a little “o” of shock.
Eva held her finger to her lips, shook her head, then beckoned to him, fighting to keep her face calm and not let him see the fear that was crawling through her veins.
He blinked, then moved away from the camera’s range, edging along the wall to where she stood, her heart pounding.
He tried to slip his hand into hers, but she gently brushed it away and ruffled his hair.
‘Stay here,’ she whispered.
She lifted her chin, not waiting for his response, and instead took a deep breath and stepped in front of the monitor.
Stefano, the security guard that manned the small security office from noon through to eight o’clock in the evening five days a week, was staring at her, sheer terror in his eyes.
She’d spoken to him on a regular basis, often stopping to chat after collecting Alex from the private ex-pat school he attended. He was in his late teens, and had taken the job to pay for his evening classes. He dreamt of becoming a chef, he’d said. Finish the course, then apply to some of the best cookery schools in France.
She’d asked him, once, how he’d got the job, as she’d wondered how effective the young man would be if threatened.
He’d rattled off his martial arts qualifications, the training the security company had given him, and she’d relaxed a little.
Perhaps a little too much.
Now, the barrel of a gun pressed into his brow so hard, she could see the skin puckering under its weight.
The owner of the gun was off camera, out of sight.
Alex was still small enough that he could only reach the lower button on the console to activate the video connection, and she silently counted her blessings that he couldn’t stretch up to touch the other controls.
Keeping her eyes on the image in front of her, she clicked her fingers once to make sure she had Alex’s attention, then made a movement with her hand; a movement she’d spent three years praying she’d never need to use.
She wondered, for a moment, if he’d remember the training because it had been a few weeks since they’d practised, and then she heard his tiny feet pattering away down the hallway towards the door next to the kitchen, the one that led to the special room that she’d insisted the condominium be built around. His footsteps stopped, and the sound of four staccato beeps reached her.
She waited until she heard the door slam shut, then counted to three.
On the screen, Stefano’s shoulders moved up and down, and even before pressing the intercom to connect their voices, she knew she’d hear his breathing, hard and panicked.
She punched the button, and didn’t waste time on niceties.
‘Who are you?’
Stefano’s eyes widened as the gun was pressed harder into the side of his skull, and Eva saw a tear roll down his cheek as his hand moved forward.
No, no – don’t open the gate!
‘Who are you?’ she repeated. ‘What do you want?’
She fought the tremor in her voice, her brain already planning, evaluating, discarding the different ways the scenario could play out.
Before she could move her lips to form another question, the front of Stefano’s skull exploded, blood and gore striking the screen as his body slumped forward.
She cried out, covering her mouth with her hands.
On the screen, a hand pushed Stefano’s body out of the way, and a figure wearing a black mask bent down until his dark eyes blazed from slits in the material, straight at the camera.
‘You,’ he said. ‘We want you. And the boy.’
The screen went blank, and Eva stepped away from the wall, terrified.
How had they found her?
She’d been so careful, severing all ties to the old days. She bit her lip, cursing herself. She’d missed something, evidently. Somehow, they’d tracked her down.
How long had they been watching, waiting?
She turned and ran to the front door, bent down to the mat and tugged her old running shoes onto her feet. She straightened, and sprinted to the kitchen, where she started pulling open the cupboard doors, lifting a bottle of cleaning fluid out and placed it on the counter-top.
She glanced at the closed steel door, the red light on the entry keypad blinking a steady beat, and bit her lip.
The Caretaker had told her the room would hold, that no matter what happened to the house around it, the space would be impenetrable.
Alex had enough supplies inside to last four weeks; easy-to-open packets of snacks, and plenty of water. If she missed her daily call to the Caretaker, he’d come. Wherever he was in the world, whatever hellhole he was currently inhabiting, he’d come.
She reached out to the cooker hob and turned the four gas outlets on full, then opened the oven door.
Within seconds, the putrid stench had begun to fill the space, and she ran across the room to close the window.
Dashing back past the kitchen bench, she grabbed the bottle of bleach, and moved back along the hallway, flicking off light switches as she went.
She ran into the living room, switched off the television and the table lamps, and the house finally plunged into complete darkness. Leaving the room, she pulled the door shut, then lunged for the front door and wrenched it open. She checked the security screen was locked, then uncapped the bottle of bleach, pushed the door so it was only ajar, then reached up and balanced the bottle on top of it.
Her chin jerked down at a slight movement at the end of the short path that led to the expensively paved road that curved round the exclusive housing estate, and she stepped back into the shadows of the house.
In her mind, she ran through last-minute checks.
The back door was already locked; unless she or Alex went out into the garden, which was rare, it was never opened. The kitchen window had been the only room open in the house as she’d planned to put the air conditioning on upstairs half an hour before she went to bed. Alex felt the cold, and so it would be another month before he’d acquiesce to the unit in his bedroom being used.
That was it.
She darted back towards the kitchen, covering her nose and mouth with her sleeve, and tried not to gag at the stench.
She spun in the centre of the room, her eyes fully adjusted to the gloom as she spotted possibilities, but nothing that would be guaranteed to work, before she lunged across the tiles to the floor and grabbed the remote for the air conditioning unit that had been set into the wall above the dining table.
A moment after she’d touched it, a crashing sound reached her ears as the intruders began to tear at the security screen at the front door.
She dropped to the floor and crawled across it on her hands and knees, reached up, and pushed the kitchen door closed.
Next, she placed the remote control on the floor so that it faced the closed door, lining it up with the spring that prevented the door from hitting the plaster wall when it was opened.
She leaned down, her cheek touching the tile, gauging the position, and shifted the remote a little to the left, then straightened and dashed towards the secure door.
As she punched in the last number of the four-digit pin code, she heard a loud thump against the back door, and then the security screen door at the front of the house gave way.
She felt a momentary note of triumph as one of the intruders cried out, no doubt blinded by the bleach that had spilled out over his head, then she pushed open the door and stepped over the threshold.
Alex was standing in the middle of the room, a torch in one hand, his thumb in his mouth. He removed it as she entered, and looked up at her, his face contorted with fright.
Eva slammed the door shut behind her, felt the structure shudder as it settled back into place, then launched herself across the floor towards him, scooped him up in her arms, and pulled him into the far corner of the room.
She sat on the floor, hugging him to her chest, and stared at the steel door.
‘Cover your ears, Alex,’ she said. ‘It’s going to get loud.’
British Embassy, Berlin
Miles Newcombe slid the manila folder under his arm, the Queen’s seal on the outer cover as faded as the stamped “Top Secret” lettering printed underneath it, and snatched two plastic coffee cups from the dispenser next to the machine.
He slipped the first cup into place, pressed a button, then wrinkled his nose as the hot liquid spat into the cup, and took a step back.
The beans were burnt, again, and the aim of the jet was temperamental at the best of times.
He peered down at his wrinkled shirt, and wondered when he’d get time for a shower and change of clothes.
The signal had been received at nine minutes past seven the previous evening, mere moments before he was due to leave the office. Twenty-one minutes later, and it would have been someone else’s problem.
Instead, he’d phoned his wife, and apologised profusely. His gaze had drifted to the photograph on his desk as he’d hung up the phone, and he’d wondered how much of his kids’ childhood he’d have missed out on due to his career, if he and his wife had been able to conceive.
The coffee machine spluttered to a standstill, and he swapped the cups over, leaving the first to stand on top of the vending machine. He peered over his shoulder at the beige-painted corridor that led towards the secure reception area. The soundproof lining of the walls lent a muffled, cocooned effect to the offices, the muted interior a poor reflection of the beautiful city outside.
The machine coughed, and checking the second cup was full, he adjusted the folder under his arm, then picked up both plastic cups at the rim, trying to ignore the burning sensation that scorched his fingertips.
He turned and hurried along the corridor towards Room D-41, questions churning his thoughts.
The contents of the folder had been disturbing.
If Philip Petersen hadn’t retired last July, it wouldn’t have come to this. Management would have phoned Petersen at home, demanding he return to the office immediately.
Instead, Miles had been handed the folder – after it had been retrieved from the secure archive three floors under where he now walked, a complex library of secrets hidden beneath the German streets.
He passed one of the rare windows in this area of the building, its bulletproof tinted glass lending a smoky aspect to the early morning city skyline, before turning right to face a closed door.
He glanced down at the full cups, contemplated the folder under his arm, then raised his chin and glared up at the security camera before jerking his head towards the door.
The camera stared back at him, its opaque lens taunting him below a single red flashing light.
‘For fuck’s sake. Pay attention,’ he murmured.
He kicked the door twice, then glared at the camera once more, and raised the coffee cups a little.
An electronic beep sounded from the other side of the door, then it swung outward.
He stepped back, sloshing hot liquid over his hands, and the folder slipped from his precarious grip, dropping to the floor.
Miles swore as two pages escaped from it, fluttering to one side and landing on the carpet tiles.
‘Whoa, sorry, Miles.’
He glared at the bespectacled man who peered around the door, thrust the coffee cups at him, then crouched to retrieve the folder and its contents.
‘You’re supposed to monitor the camera feed, Nathan,’ he grumbled.
‘Sorry, I was—’
‘Yes, I know. Watching the interview room.’ He stood, flicked the folder under his arm, then reached out for one of the cups. ‘Lead the way.’
He kicked the door shut and followed Nathan Crowe into a small darkened room; the only available light was provided by a row of six computer screens that illuminated Nathan’s face as he pulled out one of the two swivel chairs for Miles, who put his coffee cup on the desk below the screens and sank into the cracked leather upholstery.
Crowe ran a hand through dark unruly hair, his brown eyes troubled as he returned to his seat in front of the computer.
Somehow, the Section’s systems had failed Eva Delacourt, and they needed to find out how.
Miles placed the folder on the desk, a little to the left of the coffee cup but still within easy reach, and raised his gaze to the large panel of glass above the screens.
His research proved one thing – the man assigned to watching her was unaware of what the woman was truly capable of, and that troubled him.
‘How’s she doing?’
Nathan leaned forward and pointed at the screen nearest to Miles. ‘Her heart rate is up, but that’s only to be expected. Humidity in the room hasn’t changed dramatically since she arrived.’
‘So, she’s not panicking?’
‘Not yet. Should she be?’
‘What’s her background?’ asked Nathan, leaning across the desk and placing his hand on the folder.
Miles tugged it out of his reach and yawned. ‘Special operative. Hasn’t seen active service in three years. Until last night, that is.’
He sipped the coffee and contemplated the woman sitting at the small table in the interview room.
She looked bored, her head propped in one hand, her elbow on the table, while she traced patterns on the table surface with a finger, her eyes firmly fixed on what she was doing.
‘Has she looked in the mirror?’
‘She obviously knows it’s a fake.’
‘Of course,’ said Miles. ‘She’s been on this side of the room often enough in the past.’
‘Oh.’ Nathan sat back in his chair and stared through the window. ‘I didn’t know that.’ He frowned, then turned to Miles. ‘So, what has she been doing?’
‘Keeping her head down,’ said Miles. He flipped open the folder and glanced at the executive summary, a one-pager that he’d typed up at one o’clock that morning, and one that he’d already committed to memory.
‘Okay, so we know she’s been living in Cyprus for just under a year,’ he explained. ‘In plain sight, under an alias that changes every twelve months when she moves country. Before you joined the Section, she was in Prague, then moved to Bermuda, then Cyprus. She bases herself somewhere with a British ex-pat presence, usually in a gated community.’
‘Why that particular order of location?’
Miles shrugged. ‘No reason that I can see. It just is what it is. She was due to move again in two weeks’ time.’
‘What about the job she had in Cyprus – at the British Embassy? Was that a ruse to keep her close?’
‘Or a ruse for her to keep an eye on us.’ Miles rubbed his chin and flipped the folder shut. ‘Where’s the boy?’
‘Next door, in D-43, watching cartoons.’ Nathan pointed to one of the other monitors.
‘Any indication from the psych report how he’s holding up?’
‘He seems fine, all things considering. Asks for his mother every now and again, but seems to be okay when they’ve told him she’s just next door and helping us with some stuff.’
Miles sighed. ‘Poor mite.’ His thoughts turned to his own nephew, only three years younger than the boy, and wondered how he would cope in the same circumstances. He shook his head to clear the thought. He didn’t want to contemplate such a scenario.
‘All right,’ he said, and stood, stretching his arms over his head. He stifled a yawn and snatched up the folder before turning to the inner door. ‘Let’s see what she’s got to say for herself.’
‘How did they find her?’ asked Nathan. ‘She must’ve made a mistake.’
Miles shook his head and thought of the documents he’d been reading all night. ‘Eva Delacourt doesn’t make mistakes,’ he said. He pointed towards the two-way mirror between the office and the interview room.
The woman sat forward and put her head in her hands, momentarily letting her true emotions show, and obviously not caring who saw the gesture.
‘Someone knew where she was. Someone sent the strike team there.’
‘Well, that was a monumental fuck-up.’
"Gives Bond, Bourne and the others a run for their money"