It was nearly two o'clock when Merlin and Jo finally stepped through the pods. Their replacement had ended up in a traffic jam caused by an accident. It had taken them nearly two hours to get back to Thames House. Ros understood why they couldn't leave their spot until someone else had taken over for them. The last thing they wanted was for Nadif to disappear. But heaven knew she wanted someone to blame for this mess.
Lucas was already in the meeting room when she entered, holding his cup of coffee like it was some kind of lifeline. Come to think of it, he looked exhausted. For someone who claimed he could do without a few nights of sleep, he looked positively dead on his feet.
'Don't fall asleep during the meeting,' she quipped.
'I won't.' He didn't even look up from the papers he was studying.
She snorted. 'I thought you said you could handle one night.'
'I can,' he muttered, barely audible. 'Just not every night.'
She didn't think she was supposed to hear that, so she ignored it. That was the most sensible thing to do anyway. Ros Myers didn't do emotional. 'Anything interesting in there?'
He shook his head. 'Nadif's trying to be as clean as he possibly can be, but Ben told me that he has ordered him and this other guy he's staying with, Jawad, to call in sick tomorrow.'
A shiver went down her spine. Would it really be that soon? 'You think it's the dry run?' she asked. She certainly thought so. But it was too soon. The waterfall only started today. But then, Marlin hadn't exactly given them a time scheme to work with. Maybe he didn't have any. But somewhere deep down she had assumed they would have a little more time to prepare. What for? she asked herself sharply. Get a grip, Myers. You've done everything you can. Do more and you won't have any time left to eat and sleep.
Lucas shrugged. 'Possibly.' He didn't look half as concerned as she felt. Sometimes that easy-going attitude of his was really getting at her nerves, even though he was probably right to behave as he did. When it came to it he was as professional and devoted as she was. 'Ben says usually Nadif wants them to take a day off, it means a lecture on jihad.'
She snorted. 'Are you sure you don't mean a lesson on the ten best ways to detonate a bomb?'
He gave her a lopsided grin. 'Same thing, isn't it?'
The corners of her mouth curled up without her giving them permission to do so. What was that about him that made her want to smile back despite her mood? You're going soft, Myers.
The arrival of the rest of the team saved her from having to give a response. She got up and pointed the remote at the screen while the rest of the team took their seats. She noted with interest that Arthur had become somewhat jumpy since he had realised what exactly it was what they were up against. Merlin on the other hand behaved almost as if he had been doing this for years, joking with Jo whilst glancing over some reports. The only thing that gave him away was the bewildering face he made as his mobile phone bleeped. Not that well-adjusted yet.
'So, what do we have?' Harry began, slipping into commander mode almost immediately.
'Trouble,' Ros replied curtly. And an awful, potentially bloody, lot of it too. She pointed the remote at the screen again. She didn't watch as it displayed the horrors Nadif Abdul Rashid had managed to cause in his life. 'Thirty dead in Turkey, 2004,' she commented. 'Two hundred in Somalia, 2007, and dozens more dead or maimed by Nadif.' And only God knows how many more there were. Their big fish may not look like much of a danger, but he was. She skipped to a picture, showing him in all his glory, looking all too pleased with himself. 'You all know we went to meet Marlin this morning. He is deep inside Pakistani intelligence and he said Nadif's planning something nasty. I think he knows a little bit about that.' As far as she knew nasty was the Middle Eastern speciality. They didn't do anything else.
Arthur was unable to keep quiet any longer. 'One man did all of that?' There was definitely disbelief in his voice.
'Welcome to the future,' Harry said sarcastically.
'I'm afraid it turns out to be somewhat of a disappointment,' Connie remarked.
The expression on Arthur's face told Ros that he wholly agreed with the intelligence analyst on this one. How strange, they had taken quite a liking to each other. Well, not that strange maybe, with Connie playing Arthur's personal guide to the twenty-first century.
Merlin frowned. 'The people,' he said thoughtfully. 'Don't they know? The danger they're in, I mean.'
Lucas snorted. 'They have gotten worked up about stuff like this before, but not anymore. They've seen too much to bring themselves to do that again. The British public is practically sleepwalking through all this. No one cares anymore and Iraq's just background noise.'
'Another region where we've "not been nice",' Ros explained with half a smile as Merlin and Arthur both gave her colleague a confused look.
'Right,' Lucas nodded. 'It's the odd failed bombing here, the odd round-up there, Harry in Afghanistan…'
Two heads swivelled in Harry's direction, clearly even more confused than seconds before. Lucas had been so busy ranting about the famous British ignorance that he had forgotten that there were actually people in the room who didn't understand everything.
'Prince Harry,' Jo clarified quickly.
'Yes,' the Harry in the room said. Ros noticed he had been a little confused for a second as well. He was also trying his hardest not to show it.
'So, the people, they just don't care?' Merlin asked, still in that same disbelieving voice.
'The British people, no, they don't,' Ros stated. Most of them didn't anyway. 'Al-Qaeda, however, does.'
Lucas snorted. 'Well, that's just bloody brilliant of them. Just when we're sliding back into complacency…'
'… They step up their game,' Ros finished. Lucas was right. Al-Qaeda had done a good job planning their next big attack here. People didn't even consider a terrorist attack on British soil a realistic option anymore. That had been reduced to the realm of film scripts and paranoid conspiracy believers. No one suspected anything anymore, except MI-5. 'Noise, dry run…'
'Boom,' Lucas helpfully finished. Ros noted how they started sounding like Donald Duck's nephews, finishing each other's sentences like that.
She pointed the remote at the screen again, now showing the pictures of their wannabe bombers. 'Now, the spike in the intercepts means that Marlin's information was correct.'
'That means this was the noise?' Merlin checked. 'That's very soon.'
'Your observational skills never cease to amaze me, Merlin,' Arthur commented in a mocking voice.
At least three people in the room had opened their mouths to tell Arthur off, but Merlin beat them there. He offered the legendary king a big smile. 'That's because I'm not a dollophead like you.'
Ros closed her mouth again, as did Jo and Harry. She was surprised at herself. Had she really just been about to stand up for Merlin? Good heavens, she must be going soft.
Arthur let out a bark of laughter. 'Can't you ever think of something a little more original?'
The warlock shrugged. 'Clotpole.'
Lucas frowned. 'Clotpole?' he mouthed at her.
She gave him a look that told him she didn't know the word either. 'Well, gentlemen, playtime's over,' she said briskly, even though she was secretly grateful for their banter. It eased the tension a bit. That had to be worth something. She beckoned at the screen. 'These are the four young men that are under Nadif's command,' she explained, mostly for Arthur and Merlin's benefit. The rest of them had been briefed on them weeks ago. 'One of them is in fact one of ours, Ben Kaplan.' She pointed out his picture. 'He's been working undercover for the last few weeks. He thinks something's bound to happen soon.'
'Nadif's told them to take the day off work tomorrow,' Lucas enlightened the rest of the group.
Judging by the faces of her team everyone knew what that meant. Even their ancient additions had stopped smiling. Ros spotted determination in both their eyes. For one reason or another they were actually taking this seriously. They might even care about what happened here, although she could not for the life of her tell why.
Connie broke the silence in the end. 'Shouldn't the terror threat go to critical?' she asked.
Yes, Ros thought.
'Probably,' Harry admitted. 'But we'll leave it where it is for now. Give the Home Secretary a bit of breathing space. He's normally a good friend to us.'
'Like the time he ordered our assassination, you mean?' Jo muttered in a bitter voice. It was barely audible, yet everyone looked at her: Merlin and Arthur in shock, Lucas confused and the rest of them knowing, even Harry. Ros still didn't know the details of this episode in the story of Section D. She had been in exile when that particular incident had occurred. What she had found out was that Nicholas Blake had ordered Section D to be murdered to secure a deal with Iran. Their deaths should be the price for peace. Well, if anything told her never to trust that man, this certainly was.
Harry was the only one who remained visibly unmoved. 'Like I said, he's normally a good friend to us.'
But Arthur wasn't going to let this one go in a hurry. 'Your own leader ordered your execution?!' he bellowed on top of his lungs. 'He should have protected you, at any cost.'
Connie gave him a sympathetic look. 'I think you'll find politics are a little more complicated these days, young man.'
Perhaps. Ros privately agreed with Arthur, though. Protecting people should be Blake's first priority. Maybe Arthur's views on leadership weren't as outdated as she had initially thought. Good grief, she found herself agreeing with him a lot this day. Maybe there was a good reason why history had remembered him after all.
'Yeah,' she said. 'And our Home Secretary's state might go to critical if we up the threat level,' she remarked. If only. 'But at least Al-Qaeda's done us the favour of showing us exactly what they're going to do this time before they blow some hundreds of people to kingdom come.' She plastered a convincing smile on her face. And she was pleased that there was a dry run. Just a shame not all the terrorists did it.
'And if that works, they'll go for the real thing, right?' Jo checked.
'Yes,' Lucas confirmed. 'But with a different team, according to Marlin.'
'Why?' she asked, not understanding.
'Because they don't want to risk another debacle,' he explained.
Yes, they had quite enough of those already, Ros thought, remembering Lucas's earlier remark about the odd failed bombings.
'This time they're going to bring in some real professionals,' the Senior Case Officer finished.
God help us, she thought wryly. They were bad enough when they were just bloody amateurs.
'Ben's team are not the front runners,' Harry said. 'Who cares if they're picked up?'
Well, it wouldn't be Nadif, that much was certain. The way he acted made it perfectly clear that he didn't care about lives, not even those of his own followers.
'Ben knows that, of course,' Lucas put in. 'The rest of them still believe they're holy warriors and not just a bunch of cheap canaries.'
Connie snorted. 'Any sane person would of course be grateful for that fact.'
Unfortunately Al-Qaeda's employees were seldom sane.
'So, we watch and we go after the second cell?' Jo summarised. 'And we get our hands on some of their big guys?'
'Makes sense,' Merlin muttered. He had been remarkably quiet during the meeting.
'But they must not get the slightest idea that we're watching,' Harry emphasised. Or else Nadif would either disappear or set off the bombs much earlier, with all kinds of lethal consequences. He didn't say it, but then, he didn't need to. They all knew what was at stake here. The silence that had taken over the conference room was proof enough of that.
It was Harry that broke the silence in the end. 'And on that happy note, I'm sending you all home for the rest of the day.'
Ros's head swivelled in his direction immediately. 'What?!' she asked sharply.
'There's nothing more any of you can do for the day and the dry run is not until tomorrow.' The head of Section D sounded wholly unconcerned. Had she not known better, she might have said he underestimated who they were dealing with.
'Harry…' she began to protest.
'That is non-negotiable, Rosalind,' he said in his sternest voice. 'You all need a clear head in the morning. Jo, I believe you have a spare room?'
'Yes, Harry,' she nodded.
'Then make sure Merlin makes good use of it,' Harry ordered. 'Lucas, you make sure Arthur knows where to find the spare room in your flat. I want all of you back on the Grid bright and early tomorrow, so if any of you is as much as a second late, you'll be serving tea for the rest of your working life. Do I make myself clear?'
Lucas grinned. 'First a decade and now the rest of our lives,' he commented. 'It does keep getting more.'
Harry's stern look wiped the smile off his face.
'Sorry, Harry,' he muttered, not really sounding sorry at all.
'Good,' he said. 'Now, shoo everyone. Go home and get some rest.'
The team got up and began to leave. Ros wondered if she could get away with just working inconspicuously at her desk. She was sure there were things that she needed to be doing before the morning.
Unfortunately, Harry was on to her. 'That goes for you too, Rosalind,' he told her, not unfriendly. 'Get a break.' He raised an eyebrow. 'Or do I need to threaten you with disciplinary measures first?'
She snorted and got up. 'Till tomorrow then, Harry.' After all, it could be worse. It could have been her that had been chosen to babysit the new additions to the team.
Merlin curled himself up on Jo's sofa, watching as the young spook entered the room again, carrying two glasses of red wine. He reflected on how on earth it was possible to go from a cell to this cosy place in a day's time. But then, last night he had wondered how he had gotten from Camelot to those cells in exactly the same amount of time. Maybe this was just the way his life went. He had long ago accepted his life was never going to be ordinary, not while he had Arthur to protect.
It didn't feel good to be so far away from him now. This city was a dangerous place. There were so many things that could happen to him and Merlin wasn't there to stop it from happening. But the anxiety wasn't as bad as it could have been, he thought. Lucas looked like a good fellow, more than capable of keeping Arthur alive till the morning. And of course there were no magical dangers here he had to worry about. Had there been, he would never have let the king go to Lucas's house alone.
'Thank you,' he said when Jo handed him his glass.
'You're welcome,' she smiled. She took the large and luxury chair in the room, folding her legs underneath her, pointing the remote control at her television.
The screen flared to life, revealing a woman behind a desk, telling them about a political crisis in some country he had never heard of before.
'Do you mind?' his companion asked.
'What, the television?' he asked.
She nodded. 'I tend to put it on as soon as I get home, to watch the news. Force of habit, I'm afraid.'
'No, not at all.' Truth be told, the technology of this time fascinated him. 'What is it we're watching?'
She smiled. 'The news. That's basically telling us all the important things that happen all around the world.'
'All around the world?' he echoed. 'That crisis, when did that happen?' he asked, referring to the topic that was being discussed on television at the moment.
'Today,' she replied. 'Better means of communication here, you see?'
He kept forgetting about that. In Camelot you could often find yourself waiting weeks for important news and when you got it, it was already outdated and irrelevant. How different were things here.
The woman finished her report of the crisis and moved on to the next topic. 'And today the Home Secretary has announced a proposal for a National Day. It is believed that this proposal is a reaction to the current high threat level.'
The screen now showed yet another man dressed in suit and tie, leaning over some kind of desk. 'I propose the start debate on a National Day, which celebrates being British,' he said. The people that were visible behind him cheered a mild and uncommitted support. Merlin allowed himself to imagine the council reacting like that to Arthur's ideas and that resulted in a barely bitten back snort of laughter.
Jo didn't notice. She was looking intently at the screen where the Home Secretary went on about his idea. 'To celebrate the things that bring us together as a nation. A nation with many differences, but with shared core values: a belief in democracy, in justice and in human rights.' Each pause was met with more of the same cheering. Apparently that was the habit here, but Merlin found it altogether weird.
Jo snorted and turned the television off. 'He should be warning the public,' she said bitterly. 'Not trying to distract them by discussing a National Day which we all know won't happen anyway.'
He frowned. 'How are you so sure?'
She snorted. 'That's how it always goes. Politics in the twenty-first century.' The last sentence was spoken as if it was some kind of explanation. Maybe it was.
'You don't like him, do you? The Home Secretary?' he clarified.
She shook her head. 'Not after last year anyway.'
He remembered her bitter remark about the man ordering the execution of the entire Section he was now working with and felt stupid for not remembering faster. 'Why did he want you dead anyway?' he asked.
She snorted. 'It was a deal with a country we might have been at war with otherwise. We wanted peace, but we knew too much about some of their secrets. The Iranians didn't want to take the risks of those secrets ever getting out, so we had to go.' It didn't escape Merlin's notice how pale she had become. Even though her reply had only created more questions, he decided to let it go.
'Sorry,' he said.
She smiled. 'Don't worry about it. I'm fine,' she assured him, sipping her wine. 'And at least I know he won't do it again, not if he values his life. Harry managed to threaten him rather effectively.'
Merlin didn't doubt that for even a second. The head of Section D was a man who did as he promised, that much had become clear. He was a leader through and through, absolutely loyal to his team, determined to do whatever it took to do his job and keep them safe. In that respect he reminded him strongly of Arthur, or the man and king he was becoming.
'Yes, I can see that,' Merlin replied. 'What's going to happen tomorrow?' he then asked, switching to another subject.
'We'll be following one of Ben's team, like we did Nadif today,' Jo explained. 'That is, if tomorrow really is the dry run. And we'll only need to watch and report. Not a big deal.' For someone who said it wasn't a big deal, she seemed awfully nervous.
'Are you worried about it?' he inquired.
She shook her head. 'Not really. It's just that it's the first time I'm really back in the field without a colleague since I was abducted.' She averted his eyes, looking intently at her wine.
'Without a colleague?' he repeated, feigning shock in an attempt to lighten her mood. 'What am I then?'
It worked. She cracked a smile. 'You're right. And I'm overreacting anyway.' Merlin was about to protest that claim, but she cut him off. 'Well, it's still kind of early and I want to bet that you have never seen a movie before.'
Her distraction worked perfectly. 'A what?'
The smile became a wide grin. 'Like I said. Shall we try one?'
'Ehm… fine?' His face probably made it perfectly clear he had no idea what she was talking about.
The worry disappeared out of her eyes altogether as she laughed. 'You'll like it,' she promised.
And she made good on it. They sat back and relaxed as they watched the adventures of a small creature named a hobbit with an important ring that he had to bring to some kind of evil land on her television screen. It was like reading a book, Merlin pondered, only now didn't he see it in words, but playing out before his eyes. This was one of those inventions he might get used to. And besides, he couldn't remember the last time when he had spent the evening relaxing. Come to think of it, he wasn't even sure if he had ever done it.
At the end of the movie Merlin's eyelids started to drop and he couldn't summon up the energy to open them again. He promised himself to sit like that for a few minutes and then ask Jo if it was okay for him to go to bed.
He forced his eyes open again when a sound, no, a tune, penetrated the suddenly quiet room. To his surprise it was almost dark in the room. Only the light beside the television was still burning. His gaze focused on Jo. She had curled herself up in the chair, a blanket tucked in around her. She was still asleep and didn't look like the sound was waking her up.
The object producing the noise, Jo's mobile phone, was lying on the coffee table. Merlin hesitated for a moment, but then shed the blanket that had somehow ended up covering him and grabbed the device. Fortunately Connie had lectured him on the use on these things, so he found it not too difficult to find the right button and push it.
'Hello?' he said hesitantly as no one on the other end spoke.
'Jo?' a voice, belonging to Ros Myers, asked.
'No, it's Merlin,' he replied.
Now he had managed to confuse her. 'What are you doing with her phone?' she demanded.
'Well, she's still asleep and I didn't want this to wake her, so…'
He realised too late that Ros interpreted this quite differently than he had meant it. 'Oh,' she said, her voice betraying her surprise. 'Well, it's none of my business,' she continued briskly.
'But…' he started to protest. It somehow seemed important that he made her understand that it wasn't what she thought this was.
She cut him off. 'It isn't any of my bloody business,' she repeated forcefully. 'You just wake up your princess charming and then get yourselves down here. Lucas has spoken to Ben. The dry run's going to start in an hour.'
He had been about to protest again, but her last words cut that short. The knots in his stomach, that had been untying themselves gradually since arriving at Jo's house last night came back with a vengeance. This was it: the second step on the road to boom. And it was up to them to stop it. And he wasn't a fool. He knew Harry Pearce expected a lot of him and his magic. The pressure was suffocating, because if he messed this up, chances were he wouldn't get the help for Camelot, to unmask Agravaine. And they needed the help.
'We'll be there,' he promised, trying to keep both his hands and voice from trembling.
'You'd better,' Ros threatened before hanging up.
Merlin stared at the device for half a second and then put it down. It would seem he didn't have the time to sit around and do nothing (did he ever?). There was yet another kingdom in need of saving.