What if you knew the next prime minister was a Russian spy? Tom Bradby explores this question in his ripped-from-the-headlines new thriller, Secret Service.
What if you knew the next prime minister was a Russian spy? Tom Bradby explores this question in his ripped-from-the-headlines new thriller, Secret Service.
Kate placed the mug of heavily sweetened tea carefully on Stuart’s side of the bed. ‘Morning, Rocky.’
Her husband was splayed across the mattress, snoring loudly. He reeked of alcohol and cigarette smoke, and the black eye he had achieved the night before was darkening nicely. He groaned in acknowledgement and she opened the curtains to let in the dawn.
‘Jesus . . .’ he said.
‘Not exactly. I do a passing impression of Mother Teresa, though – rather too often for my liking. You need to get up.’
‘What time is it?’
‘As you will no doubt recall, it’s the school’s National Costume Day. Gus will kill you if you put him in a kilt. And so will I.’
‘What about Fi?’
‘She’s going as a Swede.’
Stuart pushed himself up onto his elbows. ‘Why?’
‘Because she’s fifteen.’
‘What does going as a Swede involve?’
‘I don’t know because she won’t tell me. And I’m not sure I want to know. You definitely won’t.’
‘Great.’ He sipped his tea and looked at her overnight bag by the door. ‘Where are you going?’
‘I’m worried you really are getting Alzheimer’s.’
‘No, wait, I do know . . . Of course I do. You told me. I’m sorry. Vienna.’
Stuart looked at his watch. ‘I have a conference call at eight thirty.’
‘Then you’ll have to delay it.’
He rubbed his stubbled cheek. ‘Right, right.’
Kate moved back to the bed and sat beside him. ‘Was there anything left of the goalpost?’
He looked confused.
She pointed at his eye. ‘When you got home at dead of night, you kindly woke me up to tell me you’d collided with a goalpost.’
‘Oh, shit, yes . . . Sorry. No. It was in a terrible state.’
‘It would be fine if all the other bastards weren’t so young.’
She touched his hand. ‘I have to go. I’ll sort Nelson out, then you’re on your own.’
‘When will you be back?’
Kate got up and went to grab her bag. ‘You should know better than to ask.’
‘How about a goodbye kiss?’
‘No. Because (a) you absolutely stink, and (b) you don’t mean just a kiss.’
‘You are an incurable romantic.’
Kate made it to the door before she relented. She came back and gave him a kiss that she allowed to linger. ‘You are my one true love . . .’
‘Stay a moment . . .’
‘No!’ She pulled herself free of his octopus arms.
Stuart groaned again, in frustration this time, and turned over.
Kate went downstairs. She put her phone back on charge, thenwiped the island clean in the pathological way she always did when she was leaving or returning home. She took down Nelson’s lead, clipped it to his collar and pulled him to the front door. Once upon a time any trip to the park would have sent their white and tan Beagle into raptures, but he was ageing now, fat, lazy and grumpy. He lingered on the pavement and only advanced when tugged hard. His collar kept slipping over his head. ‘Come on, you old codger,’ she said. ‘I really don’t have time for it today.’
She crossed the road and coaxed him through the park and up towards the river. The sunlight filtered through the trees and sparkled on the water. Nelson had perked up a bit – perhaps it was the weather. His belly almost brushed the ground as he went. Kate insisted it was just his fur, but Gus had taken to googling ‘animal fat farms’. The dog had been with them almost since Fiona was born and Kate could see he was approaching the end of the line. ‘All right, then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
She started back. Nelson never needed a lead on the return journey because it meant the end of his morning torture and the strong possibility of food. When they got home, he slumped into his palatial basket in the corner of the kitchen. Kate put his breakfast in front of him, but he didn’t stir. He gazed at her mournfully from beneath eyelids that drooped with age. She knelt down to stroke his head. ‘You’re almost done in, aren’t you, old chap?’
Kate cleaned the island one last time, then picked up her bag and headed for the door. Anton was this morning’s driver, and he was her favourite because he didn’t like to talk beyond their exchange of greetings.
‘Would you like the radio, ma’am?’ he murmured.
‘No, thank you.’ As if there wasn’t enough to be depressed about already. Kate rested her cheek on the window, relishing the cool of the glass. She wished she could share Stuart’s easy and uncomplicated relationship with sleep. But then, while he knew about her mother, of course, and her slow and terrible decline, he didn’t know that Fiona wanted to dress as a Swede so that she could look like a porn star and thus, in her mind, increase her chances of getting together with the inappropriate boy in the sixth form. And he couldn’t know about Operation Sigma, which was about to unfold in Istanbul and had deprived her of any lingering chance of a good night’s rest.
She’d got clearance for it on a series of half-truths, but it represented a huge amount of work and expense. She had to make it pay. And she had to make its pay-off look like a lucky break.
The ping of Rav’s incoming WhatsApp message interrupted her thoughts. All set. See you when you land.
True to his word, Rav was waiting for her in Arrivals, with an umbrella. A savage electrical storm was raging over the city.
‘You brought the weather,’ he said, as she climbed into the car. ‘And it’s messing with the signal.’ He handed her his phone. The pictures on it streamed live but not fluidly from their camera on top of the Hotel Kempinski.
Kate watched a black Mercedes pull up in the centre of the screen. Three young women got out and trotted on high heels towards a motor launch bobbing beside the quay. ‘How many does he get through?’ she asked.
‘They’re the third lot since we arrived. He appeared to be having some kind of party last night – old men and a lot of young women. He must be keeping Viagra in business.’
‘Is Mikhail there?’
‘Not yet. He’s landed, but went straight to the embassy. Katya checked into the Kempinski with their kid.’
‘What time is Lena’s interview?’
‘Six. We arranged the meet for between four and five, so you’ll be in position in good time.’ Rav tapped the driver’s shoulder. ‘Let’s go.’
‘You’ve briefed the teams?’
He smiled. ‘Don’t worry. It’s all good.’
‘I do worry, Rav. I always worry. That’s my job.’
‘Well, if you worried less you’d sleep more, and we’d all be the better for it.’
She touched his arm and he gripped her hand in return. As far as a chief and her deputy could be, they were close friends. Rav was quiet, laconic and intense. The son of two Pakistani doctors, he’d only come out in his mid-twenties and had yet to tell them he was gay and living with his partner, Zac. But, then, no one kept secrets like members of the Secret Service.
‘We should go straight there,’ he said.
‘Where are we set up?’
‘Four Seasons. Not far from the Kempinski. We have a team on the roof with a good line of sight to the stern of the yacht.’
Kate looked again at the video stream on Rav’s phone. The Empress was a sleek multi-storey gin palace with a helicopter pad, a shining beacon of ostentation in the grey afternoon. But even at a hundred and fifty million plus, it had made hardly a dent in Igor Borodin’s fortune. Kate’s Russia Desk estimated his total net worth at around sixty billion – roughly half the sum accumulated by the Russian president, whom they had assessed to be, by some distance, the richest man in the world.
A former head of the SVR, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, Borodin had been a close friend of the president from their KGB days, and they were the principal shareholders – via proxies – in Keftal, which sold the lion’s share of the Motherland’s oil and natural resources on the world market. Nobody had to trade through Keftal, of course, but few wished to contemplate the consequences of trying to go a different route.
Igor’s only son, Mikhail, and his new young wife, Katya, had rubbed shoulders with the cream of the British public-school system – at Eton and Downe House respectively – in order to get to know the landscape they intended to dominate or destroy.
Another incoming WhatsApp message prompted her to pull out her own phone.
Stuart: Had massive argument with Fi over her costume. Is she completely insane?
She responded: No. As I said, she’s fifteen.
Their SUV pulled up and they stepped out into a sudden burst of afternoon sunshine. The hot, humid air ramped up the claustrophobic atmosphere of the tightly packed streets. They headed for the entrance to the Grand Bazaar. Kate pulled a scarf from her pocket and wrapped it around her head as they passed a group of women, wearing niqabs, walking with a young boy in a clean white T-shirt. As if to emphasize the international flavour of the city at the crossroads of two continents, two old Turkish men sat by a stall selling sweet pastries in front of a Chinese restaurant painted a deep red, with lanterns that swayed in the warm breeze.
Kate’s stomach tightened. ‘Are the teams out already?’
‘No. We told them to spend the day sunbathing and getting drunk on raki.’
‘Very funny. You gave them the picture but nothing more?’
‘Nothing more, as you said.’
Kate led the way into the covered bazaar. She had a profound affection for Istanbul’s easy secularity. Women in headscarves mixed with scantily clad tourists as they moved between tiny stores selling silver teapots and hookah pipes, rugs, Turkish delight, chessboards and handbags. They passed a café where old men sat smoking and watching the world sweep by.
She glanced over her shoulder.
‘Relax,’ Rav said. ‘We’re clean.’
That’s all very well, but we’ve missed the signs before, Kate wanted to say. She turned right and swung through a doorway at the end of an alley.
Julie’s wide smile and auburn hair lit the money-changer’s gloomy interior. She’d become an indispensable part of the team. ‘All set.’ She draped a scarf over her head and departed.
Kate took her seat behind the desk, positioned so that she could see out of the window while remaining almost invisible to the outside world. She picked up a set of worry beads and flicked them over and over her fingers as she thought of the succession of shops, cafés and houses she’d sat in at times like this. Vladivostok, Riga, Kabul, Lahore, Riyadh, Beirut, Cairo – the list was long, but the sensation in the pit of her stomach never changed.
A sitting duck once more.
She’d been cornered only once, in Lahore, and ended up having to fight her way out. An al-Qaeda double had arrived at the rendezvous with two gunmen. All three were dead before they’d managed to fire a single shot. She owed her life that day to the speed of Rav’s reactions. For a slight man, he packed one hell of a punch, with a gun in his hand and without.
‘So how was the legendary dinner?’ she asked, in an attempt to distract herself.
‘Urgh.’ She turned to face him. ‘What happened?’
‘The boy, David, doesn’t speak to me. And I wish his sisters wouldn’t. It’s like they’ve taken a course in how to lace every sentence with enough poison to wound, but not quite enough to justify a reprimand.’
Rav’s partner, Zac, had left his wife and children to be with him. None of them had taken it well.
‘It will get better.’
‘So you keep saying.’
‘You have to keep trying.’
‘What – until they’re fifty?’
‘Teenagers are teenagers. If it’s any consolation, it’s not much easier when they’re your own.’
‘Well, it couldn’t be any fucking worse. They’re just bloody rude. And don’t start lecturing me again on how tough it is for them. It’s not my fault their father’s gay.’
‘For an emotionally intelligent man, you can sometimes be a right pillock.’
Rav was staring at his phone. ‘She’s en route.’
Kate glanced at her watch. ‘Early.’
Kate tapped the worry beads against her leg. And, sooner than expected, Lena was in front of her.
‘I’d like to change a hundred dollars.’
‘Of course.’ Kate fished the package out of her handbag. ‘Remember what we said?’
Lena didn’t answer.
‘There’s no rush. Just see how freely you can move around the yacht. We’ll be keeping an eye on you. You should activate the microphone and plant it where they’re most likely to exchange confidential information. Remember to look as if you’ve dropped something. We don’t know where the security cameras are hidden.’
Lena had turned the colour of icing sugar.
Kate pushed the small brown package across the desk, but the girl didn’t take it.
‘I need some air . . .’ Lena raised a hand to her forehead and was a couple of paces outside the door when her knees folded.
Kate leapt to her feet. ‘Rav!’
He was already in the alley. Together, they gathered her up and carried her back into the shop, where she shook them off, bent double and vomited.
Kate crouched beside her. ‘It’s okay,’ she whispered. ‘It’s
Lena was sobbing, in great, lurching gasps.
‘Calm down,’ Kate said. ‘It’s all right. Really . . .’
‘I can’t . . . I can’t do it.’
‘Just wait a moment—’
‘What if they catch me?’
‘We’ve been through that. They won’t.’
‘But what if they do? I can’t stop thinking about it.’
Kate took a handkerchief from her bag. She held Lena tight, straightened her and wiped the remnants of vomit from her mouth. ‘Just breathe, breathe deeply,’ she said, ‘and get a grip on yourself.’
Lena did as she was told and her panic gradually subsided.
‘I’m here. And you trust me, right?’
Lena nodded uncertainly.
‘We’ve talked about the risk. In the worst case, you could expect an hour or two of shouting. Our relationship with the Turkish security services is good. The Russians simply wouldn’t risk anything more than throwing you back onto the quay.’
‘But if they—’
Kate took Lena’s chin in her hand and fixed her with a steady gaze. ‘Believe me, Lena. Please. I have your back.’
Lena tugged anxiously at her ponytail.
‘Forget about us,’ Kate said. ‘Think only of the part you must play. Have you ever been on a yacht like that?’
She shook her head.
Kate smiled. ‘I’d love to have a nose around. It looks bloody amazing.’
Lena managed to smile back. ‘Why don’t you do it, then?’
‘Tempting . . . but, sadly, they know all too well who I am.’ Kate touched her arm. ‘Come on, enjoy it. It’ll be something to tell your grandchildren about.’
‘Who says I want grandchildren?’
‘That’s more like it.’
Lena took a deep breath and picked up the small brown package. She looked up at Kate once more. ‘I do trust you,’ she said. ‘You remind me of my grandmother.’
‘I’m not sure that’s a compliment.’
‘She is very young.’
‘With respect, she can’t be that young.’
‘She is a good woman.’
‘And she would be proud of you.’
Lena started for the door.
‘Next time I see you, we’ll work out a plan. There’s no pressure. You’re there to look around, no more.’
‘If I get the job.’
‘You will get the job.’
Lena turned and the door snapped shut behind her. Kate watched as she passed the window. She didn’t look back.
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