Just Another Normal Operation (Normal Days II)

Chapter 8

Chapter 8

Merlin felt very uncomfortable about leaving Mordred on the Grid unsupervised while he carried out Ros's order. But it could not be helped. At least Jo seemed to be keeping an eye on the young Druid. She seemed to sense something was off without him telling her. He was grateful for small mercies, although, without Arthur nearby, he didn't think there would be any immediate danger. Mordred was a threat, true enough, but he was mostly a threat to Arthur. Other people were quite safe. And Mordred seemed to be so far out of his depth that Merlin sincerely doubted he would be able to think of murder and treason anyway. It should be safe for him to leave for a while and, as per Ros's instructions, hide in a broom cupboard.

It had not been very eloquently phrased and Merlin did not think he would ever be friends with the woman. Good grief, he didn't think he'd ever come to even like her, but he found that, as time progressed, he started to respect her. She was harsh and about as friendly as a starving lion, but she kept her head even when the whole world fell around her. And then there was that unwavering loyalty of hers to the people she cared about. There weren't very many of those, but Harry and Lucas were persons she very much cared for and just for a brief moment he had seen just how much. I need to know what is going on in there. That was what she'd said, but the warlock was convinced that she hadn't meant to emphasise the word need, almost as if she was begging. Ros Myers did not beg. Not until today at the very least. And there was one thing of which he could be absolutely certain: she had not meant for him to see it and to comment on it would be as good a death sentence as handing the executioner his sword himself. And he was not about to do that.

Strangely enough, this made him respect the woman only more actually. It showed that she was human, just like the rest of them. She too could be vulnerable and insecure, she was just better at hiding it than most people.

But her command was easier said than done. If Dolby wasn't to catch wind of what he was up to – and he should not poke his nose in, because spying on this interrogation was without a doubt all kinds of illegal – then he had to get away from the Grid unseen or at least inconspicuous. And given the fact that he would need a bowl with water for his task, that was going to be something of a stretch.

Well, a bowl was found easily enough. Those were kept in the small kitchen just off the Grid, where everyone went to make themselves coffee, because it had been collectively decided that the coffee emerging from the instant coffee machine was only fit to poison people with. The bowl they'd used to spy on Lucas's meeting with Morgana two months ago had come from here. It would serve for his purposes as well, if he could get his hands on it and smuggle it from the Grid.

That was of course the problem. Dolby was watching this place like a hawk and he was hardly going to let Merlin walk off with a bowl that did not seem to serve any purpose at all. And the thing was too big to hide under his shirt, his preferred method of smuggling objects past guards who were not meant to see what he was up to.

'Problems, Merlin?' an amused voice asked.

The warlock turned around to see Connie. The intelligence analyst clearly thought she had caught him dawdling again, and, if he was not quick, she was sure to comment on it. 'Yes,' he replied. He pointed to the bowl in his hand. 'I need to get this off the Grid without Dolby noticing.' He could imagine Ros's reaction when she found out he had blabbed details of his mission around all too well, but the fact was that he needed some help now and it was not as if he had told Connie what exactly he had been told to do. As long as he didn't do that, he'd be fine.

Connie tutted disapprovingly. 'I'm not sure what Ros would think of it, young man,' she commented.

Merlin then understood that she had taken this the wrong way. She thought he was suspecting Lucas of doing something illegal again, but that was not what he had on his mind. 'No, no, it's not that,' he said quickly. 'She asked me to do it, to check up on Harry.' Right, so now he had told her what he was up to, but given Connie's anger at the treatment of her boss, she was hardly going to object now, was she? I'm just surprised they're taking so long to realise their own stupidity, she'd said. She didn't believe that Harry was a traitor any more than Merlin did.

She smiled in understanding. 'Leave Dolby to me,' she said, the twinkling in her eyes betraying that she had already some kind of plan. 'Give me two minutes and then get off the Grid as fast as you can.'

Merlin favoured her with his most dazzling smile. 'Thank you, Connie.' He may start to like the woman after all.

'And act normal,' she all but snapped, as if to undo all the liking he'd just found for her. 'No running or looking over your shoulder like a startled criminal running from the police.' She marched back to the Grid before Merlin could have formulated a coherent reply to that. Well, it was hard to like Connie, but she was devoted to her work and for one reason or another she seemed to have started to take a liking to the king of Camelot, treating him like she would a young, inexperienced recruit to the team.

He gave her the two minutes and then followed her instructions. He walked across the Grid, bowl under one arm and a newspaper he'd snatched from an unsuspecting officer's desk in his free hand to cover the bowl from sight. As much as he was trying not to steal a glance at the office, he did it anyway, but Connie had kept word. She was keeping Dolby's attention on a lot of files she had deposited in front of the spy boss and even if he would look up, her body would still block most of the area around the pods from view. The warlock found he liked the woman better with the second.

He didn't have a very intimate knowledge of Thames House yet, but the broom cupboard was not all that hard to find, since it said so on the door. It was cramped, but it would have to do and at least Dolby was unlikely to come looking for him here. And that was what he needed for his mission. But to be sure that no one would come in, he magically locked the door behind him. Better safe than sorry.

The bowl was easily filled with the water he'd put in a water bottle. Merlin was starting to feel a little nervous now, fully aware that this was considered illegal in Dolby's book, but then, he'd rather take his orders from Ros, even though he still did not like her. At least they were on the same side.

The spell was difficult still, but easier to perform every time he cast it. The difficulty now was that he did not exactly know in which interrogation room Harry was being held, which complicated matters somewhat. It took him three interrogation rooms and then minutes, before he finally found one that had people in it.

There were two of them, two men. They were seated on opposite ends of the table. One of them Merlin recognised almost immediately as Harry Pearce, but he was different somehow from the Harry Pearce Merlin had come to know. The Section Head was usually dressed in a suit and tie, crisp and clean. He wasn't dressed in the usual suit now. Instead he was wearing something the warlock didn't have a name for, but it made him look old and vulnerable somehow, not something he particularly liked.

Because it was just wrong. Harry Pearce was the kind of man who was always in control of things and when he wasn't, he pretended that he was all the same. The team needed that, because if they did not have Harry as the steady rock, the whole team might just fall apart. Merlin had already seen it happening. Ros was taking charge, but nerves were frayed and tempers were short. Add to that the fact that so far they had next to no results and the chaos was as good as complete.

The other man in the room Merlin had an immediate dislike of. He bore an expression on his face the warlock so far had only witnessed on the faces of villains. This man was clearly the interrogator and he seemed to be taking a lot of pleasure in that job. Now there was something infinitely wrong. Interrogations may be necessary at times, but that was supposed to be all they ever were: a necessity. It should never be a pleasure.

'Betrayal is a lonely business, isn't it, Harry?' the interrogator said. He sounded totally relaxed and Merlin's stomach clenched in reaction.

'I wouldn't know,' Harry said forcefully. He may look weakened, but he sounded as determined as ever. In fact, Merlin thought he sounded rather angry.

'That secret feeling of power fades so quickly.' The other man went on as if Harry had not spoken at all. Merlin even thought he saw a hint of a smile on his face. 'And the only thing that can bring it back is more betrayal. But the irony is that each betrayal can only lead deeper into the loneliness you were trying to escape from in the first place.' He looked Harry right in the eye now. 'I'm here to help you, to release you from your loneliness.' This time there was a real smile.

It made Merlin want to vomit on the spot. After a few visits to the twenty-first century he thought he understood at least the basics of how this society worked. He understood the world of intelligence to a certain extent and had, thanks to Lucas, a rather good idea of what happened to traitors and captured spies. He knew that the Senior Case Officer had gone through a great deal of physical torture at the hands of the Russians.

But this was unexpected and in a way even more wicked to him. This man, this interrogator, was not doing any physical torture as far as he could see, but he was playing mind games. Pretending to be here to help Harry, while he was only trying to get him to talk, that was low. It was not the right thing to be doing. There was no honour in it, none at all. These were dirty tricks.

Then accept the fact that someday somewhere someone will kill your king, Lucas had once told him. Because that is what happens when you choose to stay on that precious moral high ground of yours. The spy had spoken in anger, as if Merlin did not understand the world he lived in at all. It was only now that the warlock came to realise that Lucas had been right in that assumption.

There was no moral high ground in that cell. There was just danger; backstabbing and mind tricks. Maybe this interrogator did what he did for the greater good, but if this was how the greater good was served, then Merlin was not sure he wanted to be a part of that. True, he would do everything in his power to save Arthur, but he would never sink that low.

Harry seemed to become irritated as well, but Merlin personally thought it was closer to anxiety and frustration than mere annoyance. 'The only help I need is in apprehending Qualtrough and working out how he framed me.'

Qualtrough. Merlin had never heard the name before, but it was an important one if Harry believed him to be responsible for framing him. Merlin had not entertained the idea of Harry being guilty of treason before and he wouldn't start doing so now, so he had to treat it as important information.

The interrogator had gotten up and walked over to a table, fidgeting with some objects Merlin could not see clearly. 'I did make some inquiries after you mentioned him earlier,' he said. 'I learned that Bernard Qualtrough has been a permanent resident of Bangkok for the past twelve years. Apparently he loves the climate. Either way he hasn't set foot in the UK since 1996.'

Not for the first time Merlin wished he knew more about what was going on. He doubted it would be the last time either. What was going on here? What was that man doing? Who was this Qualtrough?

'No,' Harry said, sounding more panicked now. 'He is in this country now. He is in this country, because he forged that dossier you've been reading.'

Qualtrough, false dossier, probably in the UK. Merlin hated the way his mind worked now, collecting information as if he was a real spy, with no consideration for the people he extracted that information from. Part of him wanted to magically transport into that cell to blow that interrogator to smithereens, but he was not allowed to. Instead he had to sit here, gathering intelligence at someone else's expense. It made him feel sick. If this was what it meant to be a spy, Merlin was not sure he had what it took. He didn't think he ever wanted to have what it took.

'Give me the names of your assets, Harry.' The other man went on as if Harry had not spoken at all, dismissing the information he had been given as worthless. 'And this can all be over very quickly.' To Merlin it sounded like a threat.

This time it was Harry who did the ignoring. 'You'll have to go to his book shop.'

'There is no book shop,' the interrogator said.

'It's in Greenwich,' Harry went on.

'The names, Harry,' the other man insisted. The longer this went on, the more threatening he sounded. Merlin didn't even know exactly why, but he felt that this was about to go all horribly wrong.

'Listen to me!' Harry's voice was building up to a shout. 'I can't give you the names. If I give you the names, it will destroy the network! It will just lead the FSB straight to them!'

Merlin was on the verge of wondering what network and what assets Harry was referring to, when he noticed the needle that man stuck in Harry's neck, making the Section Head gasp at first and then slam on the table over and over again.

And the warlock could not stop himself from gasping too, nor could he stop himself from backing away from the scene in the bowl in disgust. His stomach was turning, and he was close to losing his breakfast on the floor of this broom cupboard. Because he knew what needles were used for, and it was not just for sewing in this day and age. He knew that from experience.

In this time, Jo had explained, sedatives didn't just have to be mixed into food or drinks, but it could also be put directly in one's blood by using needles. All kinds of drugs could easily be admitted to a person. They could be used for good, like they did in hospitals, but there were ways to use them for ill as well.

Merlin himself had been dosed with some kind of pain reliever when he had been forced to visit a hospital three weeks ago after having made a nasty fall from the stairs in Thames House, courtesy of his own legendary clumsiness. The doctors had dosed him with something while they stitched him up. True, he hadn't felt any pain, but he had felt quaint for hours after. And something told him that Harry had not been given an innocent pain reliever at all. This was something far more harmful.

And he just couldn't watch it. He couldn't. Besides, he'd seen far more than he ever even wanted to see. There was information to be brought to Ros, sooner rather than later. This must be worse than any of them had been expecting and yet at the same time he hated himself for being so relieved that they had obtained some information at least.

He stared at the bowl. Yes, there was something he could contribute to this operation and strangely enough it had been Ros who knew how he could. And Lucas was still out there somewhere. The Section Chief was worried for him too, he knew.

The plan had formed before he could even begin to stop himself. He stepped back and looked back into the water. Finding his focus was more difficult now, because he was searching for a specific person and not a place, like he was used to doing. The spell failed the first few times, but then the water showed a small room with not a lot of light and then he saw the man he was looking for, sitting on a chair, waiting…

Finding the small flat belonging to Maria Korachevsky had not been a difficult feat. He had memorised the route to it from a map while he was still on the plane. He had ditched the map and had navigated his way to the flat on memory. Lucas was sure that he had no FSB company for the duration of the trip. If they were aware of his presence in Moscow, they did not know where to start looking for him and that was a relief.

But he still hadn't met the asset and he was nowhere near London still. Last time he had met his asset before he had been snatched from the street like a common criminal. Maybe the FSB were just biding their time, waiting to see who he would meet and then taking both him and the asset, like they had done last time.

Get a grip, North. His mental voice gave him a mental kick in the behind. Wallowing in sentimentality would not do him any favours after all.

He had knocked on the door when he arrived, but was met by silence. That didn't matter though. There were more ways to get into a building apart from being admitted by the person who owned it and as a spy, Lucas knew most of them. It took him half a minute before the lock gave way and he was inside.

The flat was tiny and sparsely lit. Maria Korachevsky seemed to live in a flat with only three rooms: bathroom, kitchen and living-and-bedroom. There was one light on the bedside table that was still burning and that was necessary, because the curtains were all closed. It was also entirely empty and Lucas found he let out a relieved sigh; part of him had been expecting a welcome committee. Now that there was none in sight, he found he could relax.

But only just a little. He was not back in London yet and until then he would be running on adrenaline. But he had a few moments' respite as he waited for Harry's asset to come home. It was the middle of the day, so she was likely to be at work, whatever that work may be. If he was right in his assumption that this woman was a Sugarhorse asset, then it would be safe to say that she worked somewhere high up, close to or in the government.

He waited for what felt like hours, but his watch told him was only a mere fifty minutes. But they were uneasy minutes. Every noise outside was a possible FSB snatch squad to him and he caught himself holding his breath until he was sure they were gone. Spooks paranoia, he knew, but paranoia had saved him a few times already.

So it was hard that when he did hear footsteps outside eventually to remain seated and wait for the lock to be turned. At the same time this reassured him; the FSB didn't trouble themselves with locks and keys. If they wanted entrance, they smashed the door in. The only locks they used, were situated on cell doors, he knew from bitter experience.

The door swung open and revealed a woman of about Harry's age, greying hair and old-fashioned clothes. If anything, she seemed to belong in this room. Maria Korachevsky was not very tall; Lucas didn't think she'd even reach his shoulders if he were standing.

She was intelligent, though. For a moment, when she first saw him, she seemed to freeze into place. Lucas feared she would start calling for help, but then realisation dawned and she closed the door behind her, instead of doing a runner, as everyone in their senses would have done when they found a stranger in their house. Well, anyone who was not a spy would act in such a manner. Spies were of a different mould. They sought out the danger when anyone else would run. If anything, that told this particular spy that he had met the right woman.

He held out the ring with the blue stone to her and she came a little closer to study it. After that she gave a curt nod and moved away again to put on the radio. The voice of mumbling Russian voices filled the room.

It sent a chill down Lucas's spine. 'Are they listening?' he asked in a whisper. If this woman thought she was under surveillance, then that would justify her actions. It was a classic trick to use a radio or a television to drown out the sounds of a conversation taking place. Suddenly this place felt awfully like a prison cell with no escape routes. His hands felt sweaty.

'Naturally,' the woman replied, as if this was old news to her and she could no longer truly care about it. And that was disturbing in and out of itself.

But if he went to pieces now, that would put the whole operation in jeopardy and that he could not stand for. He had a job to do and therefore he reached in his pocket and pulled out a plane ticket. 'He gave me this for you,' he explained as she examined her way out of Russia. 'Are you ready?'

The woman looked up in what appeared to be exasperation at his question. 'I have been ready for fifteen years,' she pointed out. 'But poor Harry, this must be serious if it has come to this.'

Lucas could not bear to think of just how serious things might be at home. Arthur had told him more than was good for his peace of mind. Harry had been arrested, Dolby had taken over control of Section D and somewhere there was still a traitor on the loose, a traitor who might just make a habit of selling him out to the Russians. Yes, things were serious, but he could not tell Miss Korachevsky just how serious. 'Harry asked me to apologise for not being in touch.' That was the message he had been asked to give and it was a better alternative than telling the truth. 'He said that he hoped you'd understand.'

Maria Korachevsky made a sound that might pass as a snort and then said something in Russian.

'When you love someone, everything is understood,' he translated, wondering briefly what kind of relationship his boss had with this woman, before he decided that it was none of his business to know. Spies had little enough personal lives as it was, so they must be allowed to keep some part of it to themselves.

'Gorky,' she said with a chuckle, approving, he supposed.

But this was no time to quote literature. If the FSB was listening, then there was no time to lose. To be honest, the sooner he was out of here, the better it would be. For all he knew they were already on their way and he was in no mood to be dragged back to one of the hellholes that passed for prisons in this country. 'Do you have what we need?' he asked, a little more harshly than he ought to have perhaps, but he was ill at ease. At least it was a consolation that he was a great deal more polite than Ros Myers, not that one could get any less polite, for that matter.

'I had to plant the package,' she said and Lucas tried to hide the chill that went down his spine as he realised that his mission was far from over. In fact, it might even be that he only just started out on his journey. That was not a prospect one could call tempting. 'It is one thing if I get picked up, but this is too important to lose.'

Of course, Lucas meant to say, but the words got stuck in his throat. Speaking as an intelligence officer, he would agree with her. It was the Ros Myers Conduct Protocol: work first, everything else later. But he had been in a prison and he, as a person, longed to say that she did not know what she was saying. She may have grown up in this country and may take the risk of getting picked up every day, but she did not know what it was truly like. For her sake he hoped she would never have any reason to find out.

And so he stuck to being professional. 'Where will I find it?'

Maria Korachevsky turned around and wrote something down on a piece of paper, which she then handed back to him. 'I hope it contains what you need,' she said. 'Café Bedouin. You will find a friend there.'

Lucas merely nodded as he committed the name to memory. For form's sake he accepted the piece of paper, but he already knew that he would get rid of it as soon as he could, burn it if he could do so inconspicuously. He would have to make it unreadable first and foremost. Paper trails were very dangerous things and the less people that knew about where he would be going, the better it would be. At least the FSB wouldn't learn it from a piece of paper.

'You will have to be on your guard,' she added. 'I intercepted messages to my superior. They're looking for you. They know already that you're not in London.'

And they made an educated guess where I might be. Or they were told. It took him all the self-restraint he had not to shiver.

'Next thing they'll do is check the flight manifest,' the woman went on. 'You cannot leave Moscow under the same name.'

The nerves were turning his stomach into knots. Last time he at least had not known that he was being hunted. This time was different. Lucas found that the anticipation made things all the worse. But he was not yet detained, not yet back in prison. He was still free, still capable of trying to outwit them. 'Can you get me another identity?' he demanded.

'I have done that already,' she said, as if it was nothing important at all. Lucas realised that the message to her superior must include his name and a few photographs if she had been able to create a false passport with it. It would also account for her appearing not frightened at all when she found him in her home; she already knew his job, his name and what he looked like.

At the same time though this was an alarming development. His cover was blown wide open and it could not be long before he would have the FSB after him in a full-blown witch-hunt. Whatever it was that was going on, it had the Russians extremely tetchy already. Just how much had they found out about Sugarhorse since he had been interrogated about it?

'My friend will give you the documents you need to get out of Russia,' she said, studying him closely. Lucas had the unpleasant feeling she knew what was going on inside his head.

'Harry said you were formidable,' Lucas said. Well, he'd written it on a piece of paper he'd found in the envelope, more like. Now he saw the truth of that for himself. Formidable this woman was indeed to have taken such steps already. And she had done it for a stranger too. She must have taken great risks to do all of this and he could not deny that he felt touched.

'We were well matched,' Maria said wryly.

Lucas nodded; he could see that. Harry was not all that different. He made for the door.

Her voice called him back. 'Be careful. They will be everywhere.'

He knew that and how he dreaded it. But there was not much choice and he had some skills in counter-surveillance. You're still fighting, North. Don't you dare give up. Ros Myers would scold him for this attitude, should she be here to see it. And she would be right to do that too. This was not the way he should behave, not while he was still on an op.

'Maria, it won't take them long to notice what you've done,' he said. He didn't even know why he used her first name, maybe because thanking someone who had risked so much with just a formal acknowledgement felt wrong to him.

'I'll be on a flight to London,' she countered briskly. For a moment there she reminded him closely of a certain Section Chief.

And for Maria's sake, he hoped that she would make it there in time. She was kind and had risked a lot for him. If she made it out, he would search her out to thank her properly, he promised himself. He owed her that, but now was not the time for it.

As he exited the building he made a mental list of what to do. Go to Café Bedouin, get the package and get back to London as soon as he could. Having a goal helped him to keep his head. Harry was still interrogated, he imagined and his information was vital to get him released. He hoped so anyway. I hope it contains what you need, Maria had said. She was not certain herself. But it was all he had to go on. Things truly were that desperate. But there was also still hope, he had to remind himself.

He was close to the street when his newfound hope went right down the drain again. Two men, both clad in dark clothes, made a run for the courtyard he was currently in. One of them seemed to be reaching for a gun. They might as well have had a neon sign with 'FSB' above their heads.

His first impulse was to throw himself against the column that was only half a meter away from him, hiding behind it, but he suppressed it. That would draw the attention to him if it was seen. Instead he walked around it, which hided him mostly from sight as the two men ran past on the other side. They did not seem to see him and Lucas exhaled in relief as they appeared out of sight. That had been a very close call.

But he also knew that right now a kind elderly woman was in danger of experiencing Russian hell for herself. If he had any compassion he would go back to help. He may not have a weapon, but he was an experienced fighter if need be.

But he could almost hear Ros's scolding if he acted like that, risking the operation for a woman who had just outlived her usefulness. It was cold and unfeeling, but that was the way she worked and it had to be the way he worked as well. There was too much on the line to risk everything for the sake of one person, no matter how kind she had been.

And so with heavy heart he turned to the street and Café Bedouin. If he could not help her, he could at least make sure that her sacrifice had not been for nothing.

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