Distant Thunder

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Six Months Later

“She’s where?” Henry Vauntleroy hammered a fist on the table, and everyone assembled jumped: Dukes, peers and spies included.

James, though, was used to his employer's moods, and barely blinked. Working with Vauntleroy was like walking a delicate tightrope, day in, day out: the end result- a mission successfully completed, a spy apprehended- could be spectacular, but you had to tread a razor's edge in order to get there.

“Why the devil wasn’t I informed of this before?”

“With all due respect, sir,” James laced his fingers and placed them on the table in front of him, “We only just found this out ourselves.”

“I need to see her immediately. James, you come with me. We’ve been chasing her damned partner all around Europe for those documents- ever since we lost them from under our noses- and now you say we have his accomplice hiding in Newgate, of all places? Disgraceful.”

The assembled company murmured something vaguely apologetic. James could sympathise. Vauntleroy was a real terror when roused- and it wasn’t hard. A man with a face as red as his must have been born expressly with the aim in life to shout at as many people as possible. In his fonder moments- when he was missing his brother, mostly- James thought of Vauntleroy as a father. In his less fonder moments, a beetroot in a wig tended to come to mind.

“The infamous Katya. What is it they like to call her on the Continent?”

James shrugged. “Something like the Wasp, sir.”

Murmurs travelled up and down the table with lightning speed as every ear in the room pricked up. This name had certainly struck a nerve.

His supervisor let out a harsh bark of laughter, and the tension in the room dialled down a few notches. “Well. We’d better get on for meeting her. Gentlemen, until tomorrow. I’ll deal with the case of our agents in the New World then. Thank you for your time. Morgan, with me.”

James nodded and pushed back his chair, rising and threading his way between the throngs of massed gentlemen. The great and good of England, supposedly the best and brightest- tasked with thwarting Napoleon- and they’d only just found out that one of the most wanted criminals in the country had been under their noses for half a year. He had to suppress a sigh at that. Inbreeding.

“Mr Morgan!” A man bobbed up at his elbow, small and round face shining with perspiration, despite the fact that the April breezes thronging London’s streets could hardly yet be called warm. “Should I call the Home Secretary?”

“No.” James said firmly. “We don’t even know if we have the right person yet.”
“Very good, sir.” The man- generally called Fitzy in the way that an affectionate pet was always called Fitzy- nodded and faded back into the crowd, allowing James to duck past another man in a top hat and make a beeline for his employer. Vauntleroy always rushed ahead without thought, leaving his staff to catch up with him as best they could, and today was no exception. James rushed through the hallway and burst through the door to see a carriage ready and waiting outside their office- in Cheapside, there were plenty. Typically, James saw that it had already been commandeered by his boss.

Vauntleroy’s head appeared through the cab window. “Morgan! Hurry the devil up!”
“Sir!” James said smartly, and flung himself through the open door as the cabbie clicked his tongue and the horses set off. After several cracked heads and one broken nose, he had that particular move down to a pinpoint precision by now. He slammed the door shut and leaned back in his seat, studying his employer’s face in the half-light. Vauntleroy looked well for a man in his sixties- ruddy-faced, luxuriant of moustache, and with a bull’s physique, but right now, he looked weary. Bone weary.

“Well, this is a mess, and no mistaking it.” He said gruffly. “Those blasted documents- I told Arthur he should have hidden them better, and then some foreign agents swan in and steal them from underneath our very noses!”

James knew how he felt. The last six months had been a nightmare of questioning, searching, and plotting- all in vain. Those documents had been whispered about for years- nobody knew quite what they were, only that they were a goldmine of intelligence. They’d thought it a rumour, but, incredibly, they’d received word seven months ago that one of their agents had managed to obtain it. He’d deposited it in the Service’s hidden deposit box in the Bank of England- supposedly one of the safest banks in the world, if you could believe that- under the alias Arthur, and the next thing anyone knew, two people were dead and the box was empty. They’d lost a good few weeks’ sleep over that.

“Well, we might have a lead, now, sir.”
“If this Katya proves valuable.” Vauntleroy passed a hand over his face. “What do we know about her, Morgan?”

James considered it a mark of personal pride to be as prepared as possible. Sadly, he had to swallow his pride at this point and concede defeat. “Not much, sir. Operational around Europe…we don’t know how many missions, though. As the Wasp, she’s been most places we wouldn’t dare send most of our agents. We think she might be one of Hyperion’s.”
His employer sucked in a convulsive breath. “Him? Sweet Lord, then we’re in for some trouble- as you know yourself, Morgan.”

James nodded grimly. He adjusted himself in the cab and tried to ignore the slow, painful throbbing of his leg as the wheels rumbled their way over London’s grimy cobbles, all the way to the hell on earth that was Newgate Prison

He strongly doubted that Katya would even be alive by the time they got there.

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