Scorched Earth Policy, Part 2

2 – Insignificant

One Week Earlier

This time, the meeting was in a movie theater. It was early on a Tuesday afternoon on a sunny but cool day, and this picture was apparently a flop, which would explain why there was only Sir Randolph Frost sitting in the center of the second topmost row of the otherwise empty theater. Z hadn’t really been expecting to find him eating Junior Mints, but he was. This proved he was an old spymaster: always keep them guessing.

She didn’t acknowledge him in any way. She just sat down beside him and put her feet on the seat back in front of her as a loud promo for some network series or another unspooled on the big screen. Never mind that there were only two people in the entire theater, they were going to play this grim entertainment death march out.

Frost leaned over and shook the box of candy. “Want one? The chocolate’s plastic, but I can’t stop eating them.” His hair gleamed liquid silver in the dark, his accent still unbearably Cambridge upper class. In spite of that, he was still the most decent man she’d ever encountered in the spy game.

“No thanks. I prefer unbuttered popcorn.”

“Now where’s the fun in that?”

“I prefer salt over grease. I thought last time was the last time we were going to meet.”

He popped a shiny black button of candy in his mouth and chewed it thoughtfully, looking up at the flashing images on the screen and yet ignoring them. “There’s been a change of plans, I’m afraid.”

“That’s never good.”

“No, it’s not. Six leaked word to the Home Office that you were still alive.”

Z closed her eyes and mentally cursed, imagining eviscerating Six with a heated coat hanger. It only made her feel marginally better. “But didn’t he screw himself? He just admitted he was alive too.”

“Yes, but he’s not in as much danger now, as he’s fallen off the American’s radar. They’re only interested in Arab terrorists now.”

“Am I that lucky?”

“Sorry, no. You do look vaguely foreign.” There was a hint of wry humor to his voice, but his expression belied it, as it was a disgusted grimace. “But the Americans don’t know about you. Yet.”

They wanted her because she was MI-6’s sacrificial lamb to cooperation. One of their operatives betrayed them all and she killed him, but the Americans insisted she was the turncoat, not their man, and rather than fight, one of the higher ups decided she was best tossed overboard in the name of unity. Frost had gone to bat for her and tried to fight, which was probably why he found himself looking down the barrel of retirement soon afterwards. Not that it seemed to bother Frost; unlike many ex-spooks, he seemed to have settled into post – espionage life quite well, happy with his partner Gary living in some quaint English village who didn’t know that one of the queer old ducks at the end of the lane could actually kill you with a rolled up magazine. Of course that was just the kind of surprise you wanted to save until an appropriate time arose.

“Who’s gonna drop the hammer on me? Home Office? Six?”

“If anyone, it’ll be Six. Home Office is a little cooled on the Americans right now.”

“Why? Because they’ve colossally fucked up foreign policy or because they couldn’t find their own assholes with a GPS locator, satellite photographs, and a three week head start?” But she was glad that the Americans were around, as she wouldn’t know who else she’d have to kick around.

“A little from column A, a little from column B,” Frost replied with a wry smirk. “But I can’t help but notice you’re not surprised by the mention of Six.”

“I’m hard to surprise.” Six, the perpetual thorn in her side, used to be an Interpol asset in Germany. He’d aligned himself with some radical right wing Neo-Nazi organization known by the initials KMF, but in a deal to keep from prison he turned mole, and the firebombing of (mostly Turkish) immigrants’ houses and businesses dropped dramatically. But Six wasn’t quite as stupid as he first seemed, as he made connections with the Russian mob, and suddenly he began informing them of Interpol operations. It was Z herself – on a joint MI-6/Interpol operation – who discovered that Six was their mole, and not only that, but had participated in an aborted bombing of the Metro in France. (The hope was that Al-Qaeda would be blamed, but it was just a Neo-Nazi group who didn’t like all the Muslims calling France home nowadays.) Oh sure, in movies it was almost glamorous to chase someone through trains and train tunnels, but honestly? No, it wasn’t, it was a huge pain in the ass. And if civilians got a hint of what was going on, panic inevitably ensued. That made things that much worse.

Six escaped in the general chaos of the French subway system, but supposedly died in a bomb making accident a few days later. Z had always been suspicious of it and figured he’d faked his death with the help of his Russian mob contacts. Only after she faked her own death did she find out definitely that yes, Six was not only still alive, but he had a mad on for her bordering on obsession. It was his attempted killing of her that spurred her move to Canada. She suspected that Six would find her sooner rather than later, but so far he hadn’t … at least, as far as she knew. The only thing that actually surprised her was it had taken so long for him to leak her status and location to others.

“Is he still after you?” Frost wondered, but he said it in a way that suggested he knew the answer.

“Yes. When I was in America, he actually tried to get me with a car bomb.”

“Oh dear. What did he blow up instead?”

“Just a car no one would miss.”

“Oh. So he inadvertently helped urban renewal.”

“Not on purpose.”

“We all do good things accidentally.”

“And bad things deliberately,” she noted. “Home Office isn’t going to let this ride. What are they doing?”

Frost enjoyed another Junior Mint, and briefly ogled a handsome young actor on the screen before admitting, “They sent me here to bargain with you.”

She sighed and let her feet fall to the floor. “They figured you could get to me.”

“They figured you wouldn’t kill me on sight. No one has forgotten how dangerous you are.”

She snorted derisively. “You Brits. You’re just afraid ’cause I’m an Ozzie.”

“Well, you did kill your father with a shotgun.”

“Ancient history. Besides, it was deemed self-defense and I was never charged. MI-6 wouldn’t have accepted me if they thought I was a psychopath. Well, a real psychopath. They were counting on my basic inability to forge emotional connections.”

He dipped his head in acknowledgement. “There was some concern that you had a disassociative personality, but no one could deny you were good. And you had my favorite quality in a candidate.”

“Nothing to lose,” she said, remembering. He had told her ages ago, when she was originally recruited, that he loved to bring in those that had nothing to lose because they were so spectacularly dangerous. When your back was to the wall, you ironically had a type of ultimate freedom. No matter what you did, it wouldn’t change the fundamental fact that nothing would be taken from you. You could do absolutely anything. And she must have proved his point, because she had. “But I have something to lose now, don’t I? What the fuck does the H.O. want?”

“They want to take you back on a provisional, freelance basis.”

She chuckled without humor, letting her feet fall from the back of the chair in front of her to the floor. “Freelance? Meaning if it all goes tits up, they disavow any knowledge of me, and if I accomplish the mission, they pretend they did it and reap all the glory. Wow, what a deal. Where do I sign up?”

Frost sighed wearily. “My dear, I am very sorry, but it’s not precisely a choice.”

Son of a bitch. “They gonna come get me if I say no?”

“They didn’t say that in so many words, but the implication was pretty clear: they don’t want you running around on your own in any capacity. They’re afraid, not only of what you can do but of what you know. Cliché that it is – and I am loathe to say it – but … you simply know too much.”

“How can you even say that?”

“I told you I was loathe to.”

“Fuck.” A trailer for a movie started playing, all ominous music and quick cut violence, and Z viewed it with open hostility. “I’m gonna hafta die again, aren’t I?”

“I would hope not,” Frost replied. “Home doesn’t have many freelancers on its roster; the fact that they want you to join it is flattering.”

“Do they want you back as my handler?”

“I’m sure they’d rather pass you off to a handler closer to your location, but for now, I imagine I’m it.”

“’Cause I won’t kill you.”

“And we have an established relationship.”

“And I won’t kill you.”

“You’re just going to harp on that, aren’t you?”

“It seems startlingly relevant.”

He shrugged, but coming from Frost, that was a concession of agreement. He shook the last mint out of the box and into the palm of his hand, and tossed it in his mouth with surprising casualness. He then flattened the empty box and looked around. “Where do I put this?”

“What d’ya mean where do ya put this? It’s a theater; drop it on the floor.”

He looked at her like she’d just suggested he dig up his own mother and skin her, and wear the pelt as a cardigan. “Are you insane, woman? Drop it on the floor? Were you raised in a barn?”

“Well, duh. I’m Australian, aren’t I? And haven’t you ever been in a theater before? Everyone drops their trash on the floor. It’s what the clean up crew is for.”

He made a sour face. “It’s so lazy. And disgusting.”

“Welcome to the world. Now drop the fucking box.”

He looked around with a frown, as if he just realized they were sitting waist deep in filth, and after a moment, he flattened the box between his palms and put it on the arm of the seat beside him. As if that was any better. He was barmy sometimes. “So what is it Home wants me to freelance for them?”

“They want you to bring in Six. Alive is preferred, but if you kill him, no one will be heartbroken.”

She sighed heavily and settled back in her seat. “Why do they want him now?”

Frost reached into his pocket and pulled out some variety of smart phone. After a moment, he called up a picture on the small screen and showed it to her. It was a picture of Six, aged quite a bit, an aged anarchist wannabe gone to seed, his face as long and oval as a horse’s, but narrower, acne scars leaving his face as pockmarked as the surface of the moon. His eyes were bullet holes, small and dark, his hair close cropped and a pale grey-brown, like ash on a tree branch. His clothing sense had changed a little; Old Navy t-shirts and Army surplus jackets, stuff anyone could wear. He used to favor the European neo-Nazi look, but that wasn’t flattering to anyone.

He was standing next to a man with a hard face, head shaped like a bullet, his hair a military bristle cut and his shoulders broad under an unmarked black windbreaker, tight purse of a mouth half open in a sneer as he was caught taking a drag off a cigarette and looking up the street in a manner too casual to be genuine. His eyes were like stones pounded flat, devoid of everything, all solid surface. He almost looked familiar. “Is he a spook?” she wondered.

“Good guess. No, but close. Ex-military, he used to be in White Wolf.”

“Fuck me. Six is in with White Wolf?” White Wolf was the British equivalent of Blackwater, a mercenary outfit full of former soldiers who seemed to find their inner sadist when the money was right, and especially when it was wrong. You couldn’t trust any of them as far as you could sling a fragmentation grenade. And given half a chance, she sling the whole crate at all of them.

Frost shook his head. “His name is Bradford Oswald, and he was forced out of White Wolf under a cloud of suspicion after that … incident in Eritrea.”

“Which one?”

“The village that inexplicably disappeared?”

“Great. So he’s a mass murderer.”

“Allegedly,” Frost corrected her, his voice dripping with that essentially British dry sarcasm. “This picture was taken last week in New York. Shortly before the body of Sidney Whitten was found floating in the Hudson River.”

“That name means nothing to me.”

“He was one of Six’s former contacts inside MI-6. He was on vacation with his wife, who said he left their hotel at eight in the morning to go buy a London paper and never returned.”

The glow of the phone’s screen lit up Frost’s face from underneath, giving shadows to his otherwise dignified wrinkles and making him look vaguely spooky. “Six was a Home asset too? Why was this never mentioned?”

He snorted in mild disbelief. “My dear, Interpol looked like idiots after it was revealed he was their asset. Did you really think we were going to join the moron queue?”

True enough. Intelligence agencies covered up their own shit as well; that’s what nearly got her locked up. “Hit me with the short version. The movie’s starting soon and I wanna be outta here before it does.”

“Have you no appreciation at all for the oeuvre of Nicholas Cage?” he teased, smirking ever so slightly.

“I’m fucked in the head, but I don’t have scrambled eggs between my ears. Neither do you, so spill already.”

The short of it was kind of long, but it was probably inevitable in such a case. It looked like Six and Oswald were putting together their own outfit, as they’d gotten themselves quite a few followers in the form of petty criminals and sadistic wannabes of no real importance – expendable cannon fodder, as it were. Enemies of both Oswald and Six were turning up dead in violent ways, as was anyone that had any contact with Six when he was supposedly working for the good guys. It seemed they were cleaning house, although it wasn’t clear why.

And this is what made MI-6 nervous. They had an inside man in an international smuggling ring, Denis Brosseau, currently residing in Montreal (it was a joint MI-6/ Canadian Security Intelligence Service operation), and he had once worked with Six while in France. They were fairly certain he was on the hit list, and yet any move to protect or extract Brousseau would fuck up the op big time. That’s where she came in.

She was bait.

The idea was to plant a news story – nothing spectacular; local interest, which meant of almost no interest to anyone – in Canada’s biggest newspaper, and have her visible in the background of the photo. It would be nothing to absolutely everyone who saw and read it … except Six. He had such a mad on for her that they were certain he’d see it and come after her first. Either he’d pull a reluctant Oswald along, or they’d briefly split in two over this, but either way they saw that as a positive development. MI-6 couldn’t provide any back up in this instance, but the CSIS could.

She didn’t like the sound of this at all, too many things could go wrong, but it was also equally clear that MI-6 had made up its mind to use her. Although, honestly, it would be nice to finally bury Six, that motherfucking bastard.

“I have my own back up,” she said, as she wondered if she had any secret weapons she could use. Beyond the usual, of course.

Frost clicked his tongue in a scolding manner and shook his head. “Not the brain damaged man, dear. He has no intelligence training, and, may I add, he’s brain damaged?”

“He’s a natural fighter, Frost, and he epitomizes what you thought was so special with me: He has nothing to lose. He’s lost absolutely everything it’s possible to lose, including a portion of his brain. He’s constantly underestimated too, which is just a bonus. And playing team sports for so many years of his life has made him inclined to follow orders, as long as he thinks you’re the captain. He thinks I’m the captain, and while he’ll occasionally balk and protest, he always does what I ask, ‘cause he assumes I know what I’m doing.”

Frost’s look, even in the dim theater, was enormously skeptical. “Do you?”

She shrugged “As far as he’s concerned, yeah.”

He studied her for a moment, eyes reflecting the movement on screen like tiny mirrors. “Your loyalty is heartening, but he’s more of a liability than a help. He doesn’t know the game.”

“He doesn’t need to.”

“He’s a civilian. He’s at risk.”

“He knows me. He’s always at risk.”

“And what about the risk for you? For us?”

“He can’t hurt you. He knows nothing about MI-6. He thinks I used to be a copper in Australia.”

Frost raised a silver eyebrow at her. “And what about the risk to you?”

She shook her head. “There’s none. He’s proven himself way too many times for me to be worried about him.”

Frost didn’t look convinced, and she really couldn’t blame him. After all, there was the issue with the seizures, and no medication could completely knock them out.

But if absolutely everything went tits up, Six and Oswald would probably consider Shan too pathetic to kill, and she took that as something of a comfort.

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