Just Another Normal Operation (Normal Days II)

Chapter 9

Chapter 9

Borkhovin was a Sugarhorse asset. It was only when the silence around her became so uncomfortable that Ros realised that she had spoken out loud. That had not been her intention and anyone who knew her could tell that if anyone was in control of their tongue, it would be Ros Myers. Today, shock had made her more talkative than she liked by far.

And one of the reasons for that dislike was Richard Dolby, whose face was taking on most of the characteristics of an overripe tomato. 'How do you know about Sugarhorse?' he shouted. Ros resisted the urge to dive out of the way of the saliva that she expected to accompany his indignant shouting.

'Shall we take this to your office, sir?' she asked pleasantly. Heaven only knew what she had put at risk by blabbing such a piece of information in front of a potential traitor. Now she was sure that they knew that she knew and that was a development she could have done without. The least she could do now was to contain the damage.

That seemed to make him realise that they were not alone and that there was in fact a lot of unauthorised personnel watching the exchange. And she had the good fortune of his phone starting to ring just in that moment. Normally he might have verbally torn her to shreds – if she'd let him – but now he settled for a glare that was supposed to pass as scaring. Ros was not impressed; she had been on the receiving end of Harry's often enough. 'My office, five minutes!' he snapped at her as he turned and answered his phone.

Ros bristled at the possessive pronoun, but kept her silence. She was in trouble enough as it was. Just wait until Harry's proven innocent and back in that office. Then we'll see who's laughing last, you bloody bastard. She was not afraid to face Dolby, not in the very least. She'd seen too much to be frightened by one of the officer class, who sat in a chair all day letting the traitor pull so much wool over his eyes that he didn't know right from wrong anymore, although Ros would have to admit that confusing Dolby might not have been such a feat, considering how little brains there seemed to be in his head.

It would however be nice to have a knight in shining armour with her. As if the king of Camelot had read her mind, he chose that moment to emerge from the pods, with a face that looked rather disgruntled. This did nothing whatsoever to trigger any alarm bells though; Laurie Werner had that effect on everyone, not just the legendary King Arthur.

'Nothing,' he reported as he joined her. If he felt the curiosity radiating off the other team members, he did not show it. 'All their assets have gone quiet.' It was only then that he seemed to register that something on the Grid was not as it was supposed to be. 'What happened?'

Ros took a moment to glare at the others. 'What is this, a bloody theatre show?' she snapped. 'We have a crisis to deal with!'

There was some muttering, some of which might have been a bit ashamed, but the Section Chief could not care. She had other and better things to occupy her mind. From now on she would need to be more careful. The traitor was probably on the Grid itself and would by now be aware that she knew about Sugarhorse. That meant that there were very little people she could trust until the traitor had been revealed. Jo, Ben, Arthur and Merlin. Everyone else, and that still included Richard Dolby, could be a threat.

'You, with me,' she told Arthur. He may be hopeless at spying, but he was a loyal sort of man, the kind to stick with his friends even when things got dangerous. He'd risk his life for them if need be. And he had the additional bonus of not being able to stand Dolby. She could face that man on her own perfectly, but to have Arthur there might swing the odds in her favour beyond the shadow of a doubt. Friends Arthur and she would never be, but maybe they could try to be colleagues. She found she was in need of those.

'What happened?' Arthur demanded when the others had left.

'Borkhovin was a Sugarhorse asset,' she reported. 'And Dolby knows I know about it. I've been called to the carpet to answer for that crime.'

Arthur needed all of three seconds to connect the dots and then fury marred his face. 'I'm coming with you.' Arthur really was the knight in shining armour. Ros suspected that it was the way he was brought up, but she was grateful for it. And she wasn't about to pass up an opportunity to get one over Dolby, who might still be a traitor. One way or another, she'd have to find out who it was, preferably without alerting any of the people she still had under suspicion. Jo and Ben were needed too much on the Grid to have them dig into the traitor issue and Malcolm and Connie were suspects until further notice. With both Harry and Lucas gone, that made her list of opportunities rather short. In fact, it left only Arthur and Merlin. She had her doubts about those, wasn't even sure if their spying skills were up to scratch, but she may not have much of a choice. She'd have to risk it.

'Don't be surprised at anything I say,' she told Arthur as they walked over to the office. 'Just play along.' He should be able to do that, she hoped.

She didn't bother to knock before she ushered Arthur into Harry's office and followed suit herself, closing the door firmly behind her. Dolby had been on the phone, but clearly Ros's arrival took precedence over whatever it was that had needed his urgent attention before. He was already on the verge of saying something – more like doing an attempt to bite her head off, Ros observed – when he caught sight of the king of Camelot.

'What is he doing here?' he demanded.

Ros conjured up her sweetest smile. Her subordinates knew they were in trouble whenever that was directed at them. 'Harry briefed us about Sugarhorse,' she answered. It was not entirely true, since she was the one to brief Arthur, but that was none of Dolby's concern. The less he knew, the better it would be. 'He was trying to save the operation.' And a lot of good it had done, what with Borkhovin being as dead as the proverbial doornail.

Dolby's glare should have made her drop dead on the floor. 'By telling unauthorised personnel about its existence?'

Ros was trying to bite back a scathing remark about how she was at least competent, which was more than she could say about the man behind Harry's desk. 'Whoever leaked that image is sending us a message that they're onto our network,' Ros pointed out, quite unnecessarily in her opinion, but then Dolby was the type that needed things spelled out for him. 'If Harry was a mole, why would he expose himself like that?' Even a child could have thought of this, which spoke for Dolby's lack of intelligence. This was of course old news.

'Because the damage is already done. He's already leaked the names.' Dolby was speaking slowly, as if he was talking to a particular stupid child. 'When Hugo died, Harry and I split his assets. We never knew each other's, but we both knew Hugo's. Now an asset Harry took on has been murdered, just when we might have needed him.'

That doesn't mean Harry is responsible, Ros meant to say. Arthur beat her to it. 'And that makes Harry your only suspect?' he demanded. 'You're saying you knew about Borkhovin as well.' There was a barely concealed accusation in the king's words and Dolby wasn't thick enough to miss it. The angry glare now settled on the king of Camelot, who seemed wholly unimpressed.

Ros stepped in before things could get ugly. She appreciated Arthur's input, but she'd have hoped that he understood the need to watch his tongue. After all, she had taken him with her more to cower Dolby into cooperating than that she had taken him to make an active contribution to the meeting. It was not his job to make matters worse. 'Someone could have gotten to the names through Hugo Prince,' she pointed out, stepping on Arthur's toes to make him get the message that he should proceed with caution should he want to start out on his righteous crusade to make Dolby see sense.

Dolby sputtered out an explanation of how he had known Hugo as well as he had known his own family. Ros idly wondered how anyone in this line of work could know their family at all with the hours they were working in this job – provided they were still in touch with their families – but refrained from commenting until Dolby began to babble on about the proof he had of Harry's guilt, pushing a file over the desk at her. 'Hugo wasn't a traitor,' he stated as if it was a fact. 'If you care to look at it, I have proof of who was.' The smug expression on his face made Ros want to spit in his face.

I most definitely don't care to. The Section Chief was tempted to shred it, burn it or feed it to Harry's dog, who at least had the good sense to treat that pathetic excuse for a file as it should be treated, but nothing in the world would persuade her to read the sorry thing. 'Anyone can fake a dossier,' she said. It took all her efforts not to explode in true Arthurian fashion.

Her words seemed to miss their target. 'Lucas North never arrived,' Dollophead Dolby observed. 'Caught up in traffic?'

Ros knew full well what the man behind that desk was implying and she hated him for it. Flight to hell, Lucas had written. She knew that was what it was to him. She might have entertained doubts about him when he had just returned, but those doubts had long since gone. Lucas was no traitor, yet people always seemed to suspect him first when there was something wrong. It grated on Ros's every nerve and, if Arthur's expression was any indication, she was not alone in that. 'Who knows?' she said, unable to bite back a scathing comment. 'London traffic can be quite a bother.'

'If you know where he is, you have to tell me,' Dolby said. His eyes were narrowed in suspicion.

So that you can sell him out to the FSB? I don't think so, no. Maybe she was going paranoid. Suddenly she was seeing traitors everywhere. Good grief, keep this up and she would be as bad as Connie, who smelled Russians everywhere. But given the current situation, Ros had to admit that the intelligence analyst may have a point after all. 'Wherever he is, I know he's not a double agent.' Colleagues are okay. At least that colleague was okay, even if she could no longer be sure about the rest of them. Malcolm had tried to dissuade her from looking into Chandra Paturi's death, Connie had offered to deal with the matter of his post-mortem in spite of Ros having given the job to Jo and now Richard Dolby was trying to get her to reveal Lucas's location. What if there wasn't just one traitor? What if there were two or, heaven forbid, three?

Dolby was trying to out-glare her, and failing. 'The first Sugarhorse asset has been murdered,' he reminded her. 'Soon others will be too.'

'Then I suggest you get off that chair and start doing something.' Ros should not have been surprised that Arthur lost his patience and exploded before she did. If she was really honest, then she had to admit that she was surprised it had actually taken him this long to lose his patience with their temporary – she at least hoped so – boss. Of course it was only when he started to take it out on Lucas that he lost it. Looking at it that way, it was hardly surprising that he acted the way he did. He considered Lucas a friend and Arthur Pendragon was nothing if not loyal to his friends.

Dolby however did a good job of ignoring Arthur. It could also be that he was too busy ranting that he had not heard Arthur in the first place, which was a distinct possibility. 'By the time the US and Russia sit down to thrash this out, our intelligence on Russia will be a joke, unless you can force Harry into giving up his names, before they are killed.'

Now her blood reached boiling point as well. 'You want me to use Harry's team to prove that he is a traitor?' She had to keep her arms folded across her chest to stop herself from making good on the urge to drag Dolby over the desk and march him off the premises by force. Heaven knew she was tempted to. What the hell did Dolby think he was doing? Was he completely insane? She had told him that this team was utterly loyal to Harry Pearce and now he expected that they were going to cooperate?

Arthur's thoughts ran along another line. He was angry too, that much was obvious, but clearly for other reasons too. 'Well, then perhaps you can start debriefing your own assets or are they all so useless that they have nothing to useful to say? Can't say I'm that surprised, seeing what a dollophead the man who recruited them is.' Arthur was glaring daggers at Dolby and Ros could not even blame him for it.

Under any other circumstance she might have laughed at the face that man was pulling at hearing Arthur's words. Dollophead was not a common insult – as far as she was aware, it was not even a word at all – but the recipient got the gist of it. Ros was more or less surprised there was no steam coming out of his ears. 'It is not your place to question my orders!' he bristled.

'I'm questioning your actions,' Arthur countered. He may be a bit more capable to handle himself in the twenty-first century than he had been the first time he visited. He may even be a bit more skilled in spying than he had been and he certainly had become quite a bit more manipulating, but there were things that never changed. His unwavering loyalty to those he considered friends was one thing, his inability to keep his big mouth shut when he needed to was quite another, a trait Ros now cursed. She was not the most tactful person around, but even she knew better than to court danger in such a way. Arthur would do well to remember that he was not in Camelot, where he could throw people in the dungeons whenever they acted in a way that displeased him. But Arthur was like a bull who'd seen a red flag once he got warmed up and there was no stopping him now. 'And your sanity. You've worked with Harry for years. You should know better than to think that he was a traitor. I've only worked with him for a couple of months and even I can see that.' He huffed indignantly. 'And then to think that Merlin says I am an idiot.'

Ros knew they would both regret this later, but at the moment she enjoyed the triumphant feeling of seeing Richard Dolby stare at the Once and Future King with a look of utter bewilderment on his face. And goodness knew the bloody man deserved it after his venomous words from just now.

She took advantage of his temporary speechlessness to make her escape. 'If that's all, sir, we have a crisis to deal with.' She delivered the line with her most professional smile, the one that never quite reached her eyes. 'If you'll excuse us?'

She made for the door without waiting for an answer. Dolby was unlikely to remain flabbergasted for long and she wouldn't want to be anywhere near him when he did find his tongue again. And it would seem that there was a little bit of luck left to her in the world, because the moment she stepped foot on the Grid, the pods whooshed and the Home Secretary entered, effectively ensuring that Dolby's attention would be elsewhere for the next half hour. Saved by the politician, she thought wryly. Wonders never cease.

Merlin practically ran through the corridors of Thames House back to the Grid. He would have bumped into quite a fair number of people were it not for his experience in weaving his way through crowds born of running after or for Arthur through the castle of Camelot. He ducked out of the way of a man in suit and tie and dived past a woman who clutched a sheaf of papers to her chest, flashing her a smile by way of an apology for startling her with his racing past her.

His heart wasn't in those smiles though. He had seen too much for that today. Seeing what was being done to Harry in this very building had made him feel sick to his stomach already, but it were the events in Moscow that had truly shocked him to the core. Initially he had mostly been relieved that Lucas was alive and well, even though the woman he had met had said something about people looking for the spy, which was an alarming development in and out of itself.

But that had not been what had left him feeling cold inside, with a desperate urge to vomit on the spot. It was what had happened after Lucas's departure that had made him feel like this. The woman – Lucas had called her Maria – had been packing a suitcase when the door to her flat had been forcefully thrown open and two men had come in, with guns. Maria's movements had stilled and she took a deep breath, almost as if she knew what was coming. The next moment she fell on the bed, dead, shot by the two men who had broken into the sparsely lit flat. The worst of it was that the murderers exited again with hardly a look at their victim and when they were back on the street, they started to talk in a tone of voice that suggested that their actions meant nothing much to them.

That was when he had vomited, in the bowl with water. It had disrupted the vision, but Merlin had seen more than enough anyway. So he had magically vanished the water and his own sick and left the broom cupboard he'd hidden in to search for Ros Myers and tell her what he had seen. At least he was in no danger of forgetting any of it in the foreseeable future. The visions had been burned on his mind's eye and he was sure they would haunt his nightmares for months to come.

This world, this age, even for all its wonders, seemed a crueller age than where he came from. Well, he would not be as naïve as to say that Camelot was peaceful all the time, but it was the people's attitude that had him in a state of shock for half the time. Heaven knew that Merlin had seen more than his fair share of humanity's cruelty, but mostly he did not bear witness to murders such as these.

He passed the pods, emerging just after the Home Secretary and some of his followers. He had only met Nicholas Blake in person once, during Operation Camelot, but he had seen him a couple of times on a television screen as well, enough to recognise him when he encountered him. But the Home Secretary didn't usually come on the Grid. Harry and Ros went to see him in Whitehall, never the other way around. That did not bode well, Merlin knew.

But the Home Secretary was not truly his problem now. He needed to find Ros and report to her what he knew. A quick glance around the room taught him that she was nowhere to be seen. Connie was seated at her own desk, with Mordred on the chair next to her. It looked like she had taken the Druid under her wing the way she had done Arthur when they had first come here. Malcolm, Jo and Ben were huddling together near Jo's desk, but there was no sign of either Ros or Arthur.

As if called, the two of them exited Harry's office that moment. Arthur looked like he had been faced with the prospect of having to make nice with King Alined and Ros gave every impression of being seriously displeased as well. Merlin could not truly blame them for acting in such a manner, considering who it was they had just been meeting in that office.

Ros saw him first and made a beeline for him. 'Found anything?' she demanded briskly. Only her eyes betrayed that she might be out of sorts, the rest of her was as composed as ever.

He gave a curt nod. 'Yes.' He glanced at the Home Secretary, not sure if this was something that could be discussed in public. Given Ros's order for secrecy, he rather doubted it.

But his report might have to wait, because Mr Blake had announced that he wanted to see Richard Dolby, who came walking over to them with a too bright smile and an attitude that reminded the warlock of a puppy eager to play go and fetch with its master.

'I just had a call from MI-6,' the Home Secretary announced. 'A second Russian official has been found dead. Her name was Maria Korachevsky, she was a senior civil servant in Russia's nuclear program.'

Nicholas Blake kept on talking, but Merlin didn't hear him. It was as if someone had stuffed his ears and he only heard sounds coming through from afar. But they did not make any sense, not anymore. Because this name meant something to him. Well, the first name did. Maria. The woman Lucas had been talking to had been called Maria and she had been working for MI-5. She had been killed shortly after Lucas had left. Coincidence? He didn't think so. Connie had once told him that coincidence did not exist in this line of work and she had been right. There had to be more to this.

He felt himself go all cold inside. What was really going on here? What was he missing? What were Arthur and Ros keeping from him? So far it seemed as if they were the only two who were fully in the know about what happened here and it frustrated Merlin to no end, as much as it frightened him too. Something big was going down, he felt, and it was all connected to Harry being arrested as a traitor and the Americans' plan to build a missile defence shield in Poland. He was no fool, no matter what Ros and Arthur thought.

He had seen the reactions of king and Section Chief too and neither boded well. Alarm flashed across Arthur's face and he exchanged a glance with Ros, who seemed to have gone rigid. She could have turned into a stone statue for all Merlin knew.

But she was the Section Chief for a reason. 'Sir, if you want us to work out what is going on and do something about it, I believe the team would be more effective if they were granted full authorisation to the relevant information.' The only sign that she was not her usual snappy self was the far more subdued tone of voice. Ros Myers didn't do shocked, but she sure came close to it now, which worried the warlock only more. Something was terribly wrong, but at least she explained why he had not been told what was really going on; it simply was above his clearance level. There was no ulterior motive and neither was he being deliberately shut out. But then why has Arthur been told?

Richard Dolby looked far too pleased with himself when he answered. 'No,' he said immediately and dismissively. 'You're all tainted by your association with Harry Pearce.' He even sounded like he was enjoying this.

Arthur looked like he wanted to challenge the man to single combat, a fight to the death, but Ros's death glare prevented him from making good on that intention. Now there was a novel thing to be seen. Arthur didn't usually listen to anyone who told him he could not tear into a person who had offended him. The Home Secretary was bleating on about how they had to work out what the Russians were up to anyway, in spite of the team not having access to all of the information they needed. It seemed like an impossible thing to be doing.

Richard Dolby took Nicholas Blake into his office, probably for the discussion of more things Section D wasn't to know. Arthur's foul look should have burned holes in both their backs, but they reached the office alive and in good health. Merlin was almost surprised.

Ros smiled wryly as the door closed behind the two men. 'Okay,' she said. 'If we are going to continue, there are things you deserve to know. Meeting room, five minutes. Arthur, Merlin, my desk, now.'

The shock was still having Merlin in its clutches, but he managed a smile when he realised that Ros had no intention of obeying Dolby's commands. It was a rule-breaking streak he recognised in himself. And it was a pure Ros Myers attitude: she would do whatever was needed to conclude the operation in a satisfactory manner, orders of her superiors notwithstanding.

So he followed her to her desk and took the chair she commanded him to take. 'What did you learn?' she questioned without further ado.

He reported what he had seen in detail, even if it made his stomach almost turn itself upside down.

'The interrogator, did he have a name?' Ros asked. A deep frown had crept onto her forehead as she listened, which was still better than the I'm-going-to-kill-the-one-responsible-for-this-loo k that graced Arthur's face.

Merlin shook his head. 'No, not that I know of. Harry did speak of someone named Qualtrough though, Bernard Qualtrough.' He recalled the name so well because it had sounded queer to him. 'Harry said that he was the one who had framed him, the one who had faked a dossier of some kind. He's got a bookshop in Greenwich,' he added. 'But the interrogator said that Qualtrough has been living in Bangkok – wherever that may be – for twelve years.'

Ros cursed, even if Arthur looked confused. The name meant obviously more to her than it did to king and warlock. She must have heard it before.

'You know him?' Merlin asked.

'I know of him,' Ros corrected icily, a tone that suggested she wasn't going to elaborate. 'What else?'

'Just that Qualtrough is probably in the UK now,' Merlin reported. 'Ros, I think they drugged Harry. There was a needle and…'

'I get it.' The Section Chief was snappy, but Merlin doubted it as directed at him personally. 'Meeting room, now.' If there was any indication that she was ill at ease, this was it. Ros Myers would never be the school example of a people's person, but the tension had burned away what little social skills remained to her.

'Wait!' Merlin exclaimed, possibly a little too loud, since several Internal Security officers still hanging around looked up in mild alarm. At least it did the job of stopping Ros in her tracks, but he lowered his voice all the same. 'I know you didn't ask me to look out for Lucas, but I did.'

He half expected wary looks and accusations of not trusting the Senior Case Officer still, but Ros's eyes only briefly betrayed some relief before the usual mask went back on again and she was just the forbidding Section Chief again. 'What did you bloody well see?' she prompted when he didn't speak immediately.

'He was meeting a woman called Maria,' Merlin replied. 'She told him there was information hidden in some café somewhere, that she'd had to plant it.' He thought hard. 'Her superiors knew that Lucas was not in London and said that "they" were already looking for him. She got him another identity with the package in that café.' He swallowed hard to get a grip on himself as he related what had happened next. 'Ros, after he'd left, two men came in and shot her. I'm not sure, but I think she's the same as the woman the Home Secretary said has been found dead, Maria Korachevsky. I saw them do it!'

That he certainly did and he passionately wished he hadn't seen it. That poor woman. She had not deserved her fate. Merlin thought her brave and selfless, because of all the things she had done for Lucas, even though he must have been a stranger to her. It was the same kindness that Gwen possessed, a little ray of goodness in an otherwise harsh world. To kill a person who was like that, that was more than just a crime. It was an abomination.

Ros gave a curt nod to signal that she had heard him.

'Do you think she was a Sugarhorse asset too?' Arthur asked.

Merlin did not know yet what Sugarhorse was or what Arthur meant by it, but he had a feeling this was part of the reason why his friend and his temporary boss were so on edge, something that was above his clearance level. Something bigger was going down and he was torn between keeping his patience for a little longer or just asking Ros what the matter was out right.

As it was, she made the decision for him. 'She was,' she said. 'Come.' She marched off to the meeting room and Merlin had no choice but to follow, hoping that he would at least get some answers now.

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