“Do you know Julian May at all?” Mr. Conran said at last. “He’s in our Business Support Team. He’s a writer.”
Ronin finished his mouthful and meticulously wiped his lips with a paper serviette. Even when he felt like a boy, he was never crass or ill-mannered. “No, sir, I don’t know him.”
“You are going to get to know him—as Scarlett. I believe he’s heterosexual, though I could be wrong.”
Disappointed, Ronin said, “Sir, I don’t want to spend my career taking my clothes off and having sex with strangers. I was trained to be a field operative, not a prostitute. I thought the honey trap was a one-off.”
The chief met his gaze steadily. He had nice eyes, pale blue, full of kindness, but he clearly wasn’t budging on this one. “I understand that, Seabrook. But you are proving to be a very good agent, and I need you for this.”
“Why me?” Ronin asked, though he was pleased at the words, I need you
“Because we might have to have something over May in order to find out what’s going on with him. His family is very lofty in the church, his father being the Bishop of London. As much as the Church of England is still grappling with the nuances of homosexuality and if it is compatible with church doctrine, I doubt very much that May’s parents would be happy if he was caught with a cross-dresser. And he is close to his parents. He would not want to upset them, and by the sounds of his mother, she’d not be too pleased at anything unusual her son got up to.”
“I’m not a bloody cross-dresser!” The words came out rather more loudly than Ronin intended. He looked around, embarrassed at his outburst. “Sorry, sir,” he said quietly. “I’m not a cross-dresser. I’m gender-fluid. When I dress as a girl, I become a girl. When I’m a boy, I feel like a boy. Sometimes, I don’t feel like either.”
“All right, calm down. I apologize. I have no desire to offend you, Seabrook,” Mr. Conran said gently. “However, there’s no choice here. I want you for this assignment. You’re the best person for the job. After this, I promise I won’t ask you to do a similar assignment, at least not for a while. But bear in mind, you must turn your hand to whatever you are good at. I don’t give out assignments lightly. Each project must succeed, and to that end I choose my people very carefully. You were open from the start, at least with your trainers, about the fact that you are gender-fluid. It’s a very handy trait to have in the covert world.”
“Yes, sir, I know that.” Despite his disappointment, Ronin felt vaguely guilty. He really liked Mr. Conran and wanted to please him, and he loved his job. He was proud to work for the Secret Intelligence Service, even if he couldn’t tell anyone about it. “What do you want me to do?”
The chief took a sip of his tea before continuing. “Yesterday I observed May sitting in his car in the car park of the Tesco on Kennington Lane. He went from parking space to parking space, and each time he used a mobile phone. It was as if he were trying for a good reception. You know, moving from place to place until he was able to make contact with someone.”
“Sounds like he was calling out of the country. Was he phoning them, or was he answering the phone?”
“I don’t know; I couldn’t tell,” the chief replied. “But it struck me as suspicious. It’s possible it was nothing untoward, but he writes internal memos and press releases, not to mention my speeches. He has access to a lot of classified information, and so he must be above suspicion. To date he has been, as far as I know.”
“Yes, sir, I see.” Ronin finished his tea, which had grown cool and unappealing.
“Get to know him, and if he’s up to something, we will need to deal with him. If he’s not, at least I’ll know.”
“What will you do if he is up to something?”
Mr. Conran looked him in the eyes. “Get all the information you can on May. I’ll take care of the rest.”
“Yes, sir,” Ronin wasn’t happy about the idea of spying on a fellow MI6 employee, but it was part of his job, and he trusted Mr. Conran.
“Report directly to me. I’ll get others involved if I need to, but for now, see what you can find out. May is very good at his job. I’d hate to lose him, but security must come first.”
“Yes, sir. Do you have a picture of him?” Ronin asked.
“Not on me, no. I plan to send my secretary, Mrs. Lane, on holiday for a couple of weeks. Actually, she’s not Mrs. Lane anymore; she’s divorced. I just can’t remember to call her Miss…er…something or other.”
Ronin smiled. “So I’ll be your secretary for a while?”
“Yes. That will give you a reason to be in the building and have contact with me. I’ll get you a security pass in the name of Scarlett Whitfield. It will be waiting for you on Monday at the entrance. Do you go to church?”
Amused at the thought, Ronin chuckled. “No, I was raised as an atheist. My parents are dyed-in-the-wool communists, Marxists to be precise. Religion is the opium of the people…and all that.”
“That’s right; it’s in your file. Well, never mind church. You should have plenty of contact with May at Number 85. But tell me, Seabrook, what happened to your face? Surely Mr. Al-Hassan didn’t do that?”
Ronin’s hand flew automatically to his cheek. He had a nasty bruise blooming on his left cheekbone. It had spread under his eye, and there was a small red swelling on his chin. The shame that suddenly enveloped him was overwhelming. Admitting he was a battered boyfriend was not a thing he could do to the chief, especially when the man knew that Ronin was a highly trained close-combat fighter. “I fell off my bike. London traffic is not kind to cyclists.”
“You arrived here on foot,” Mr. Conran pointed out. “I didn’t know you liked to bike.”
“I won’t be doing it for a while.” Ronin didn’t own a bicycle, but he’d keep that to himself.
“Your face should have improved by Monday. Wear lots of makeup to cover that eye until it heals. Don’t dress too fancy. Smart, but not nightclub wear.”
Offended by the chief’s advice, Ronin said, “Yes, sir, I do know how to dress for each occasion.”
A little smile crossed the chief’s face. “Of course you do. If you need new clothes, buy them on your expense account.”
Thrilled at the offer, Ronin said, “Thanks. I might just do that, though I have got lots of smart office wear from the embassy job. I do get to keep them, right?”
“They’re all yours,” Mr. Conran assured him, smiling in a way Ronin could only describe as indulgent. “You trained as an actor, didn’t you?”
“Yes, sir. I went to LAMDA, but you know everything about me from my initial vetting.”
“Of course I do. Are you sorry to have given it up?”
“I haven’t completely, and part of my interest in MI6 is that I get to act, even if it’s not Hedda Gabler
or A Midsummer Night’s Dream
. Right now I’m in a production of The Importance of Being Earnest
. I’m playing Cecily.”
“Oh, lovely. Do let me know when you’ll be performing. I’d love to come. I’ll bring my wife.” The chief appeared genuinely excited.
Surprised, Ronin smiled. “Thank you, sir.” He picked up the remaining half of his sandwich and ate, feeling happier than he had when he’d walked into the sandwich shop.
The cafeteria at 85 Albert Embankment was excellent, with a wide variety of freshly prepared meals, including vegan, vegetarian, and ethnic foods. Scarlett wasn’t terribly hungry after the hellish argument she’d had with Owen that morning—she’d just managed to fend off another blow to the face—but she needed to be cheery and to put something on her lunch tray so that she could join Julian May at his table.
During her training, some of which was conducted at Vauxhall Cross, some at Fort Monckton, and some at other SIS locations around the city, she had only ever entered the building as Ronin. No one knew her as Scarlett.
After paying for her small feta cheese quiche and bottle of mineral water, she turned from the cashier to peruse the tables, as if wondering where to sit. In fact, she had located Julian May the second she’d entered the restaurant and knew exactly what he was eating, the fact that he was focusing on making notes on a pad of paper, and that he was ignoring those around him. He leaned forward over his work, often squinting as he wrote.
MI6 boasted both Kaleidoscope, its LGBT organization, and a Cultural Diversity Group, yet there was still a culture of heavy-drinking, heterosexual, macho men that was very visible within the organization. A couple of nice-looking men called out to her to sit with them, and a whistle or two screeched across the extensive room.
Sexual harassment in the workplace was a reportable offense, but she wouldn’t be around long enough to follow through.
Scarlett looked directly at the men and then down, as if they had embarrassed her, which made them laugh. She was not in the slightest bit embarrassed; it was all part of the act, but she was disgusted that they would treat a colleague with such disrespect. Hurrying away from them, she made a beeline for Julian May’s table while making it look as if she’d ended up there by accident. “May I sit here?” she asked, her tone flustered.
May looked up from his work and seemed to take a moment to focus on her. “Of course.” He shoved the yellow notepad away and glanced at his half-finished soup and sandwich. His noncommittal tone told her he wasn’t thrilled to join her as the center of attention of a group of loud men. He raised a spoonful of soup to his lips but put it down again without tasting it. “My soup’s gone cold,” he muttered.
Scarlett settled herself in the chair opposite him. She’d worn a smart black skirt with a matching jacket and a blue oxford shirt. The skirt was three inches above the knee and showed off her long, slender legs. She looked businesslike and yet friendly with her rich, dark hair in a ponytail with a blue ribbon tied around it. Brown contact lenses disguised the brightness of her blue eyes.
When she focused on Julian May, she saw a slender man with short, light-blond hair that she guessed was dyed. He wore a tie, but it was pulled loose and he’d undone the top button. A small, unassuming gold cross hung on a chain at the open neck of his white shirt. His skin was unusually pale, and he blinked repeatedly as he met her gaze.
“Are your contact lenses dry?” Though she didn’t need corrective lenses, Scarlett regularly wore colored contacts to achieve a look she was going for and knew they sometimes hurt.
“What makes you think I’m wearing contacts?” he asked abruptly.
“Sorry,” she said at once. Why had that offended him? Lots of people wore contacts. It seemed an odd thing to get upset about. She grabbed her water, opened the bottle, then poured half the contents into a glass. “I was just making conversation.”
“No. I’m sorry,” he said quickly. “I do wear contacts, and you’re right, they do make my eyes dry. But why did you ask?”
“You’re blinking rather a lot. Sorry, I shouldn’t have mentioned it. I’m Scarlett Whitfield. I’m the chief’s temporary secretary. I normally work at Fort Monckton, you know, down in Portsmouth.”
“Julian May.” He offered his hand, and they shook, both a little sheepish. “I write.”
He’s looking directly at me now. Things are improving.
seemed an odd thing to say, and it made her laugh. Julian chuckled for a moment, making his cheeks redden visibly, bringing out the whiteness of his skin still further.
Scarlett glanced over at the loudmouthed men and saw them shaking their heads as they watched her.
Following her gaze, Julian said, “This place is full of men who are full of themselves. I tend to steer clear of them.”
“It’s the same at Fort Monckton. Did you go there?” Scarlett already knew far more about Julian May than he would ever know about her, but she wanted him to open up.
“No. I was always going to work in an office of some sort. My training all took place at London locations.”
“Yes, me too,” she said, smiling. That wasn’t true, but it was part of her cover. “I always wanted to work in intelligence but on the sidelines.”
Scarlett had been trained in reading body language, and she had an aptitude for it. One look at Julian’s posture and she guessed he was gay. Heterosexual men straightened up to make themselves look taller and bigger when they were trying to get the attention of an attractive woman, but Julian, though tall already, made no effort to adopt a more commanding pose. He was distracted by his work, which he would not be if he were feeling good about himself for getting the attention of the girl other men were clearly interested in. He pushed his soup bowl away and picked up the other half of his sandwich.
“You’ll do well here. You won’t be short of dinner and drinks invitations from that lot.” He gestured briefly over his shoulder with his thumb.
“I’m really not interested in that lot
,” she said. “They’re not my type, and I won’t be accepting any invitations from them.”
“Oh!” Julian looked at her with renewed interest. “What is your sort, just out of curiosity?”
“I like brains as well as brawn, but if I have to choose, I’ll take brains every time.” As she spoke, she knew it was true, so what had attracted her to Owen, whose brain was atrophied at best? He hadn’t read a book in the entire time they’d lived together. And he hated work. He’d given up his job as a mini cab driver a week after they’d moved in together.
“What are you thinking about?” Julian asked, his gaze trained on her face, eyes narrowed, blinking rapidly.
“Sorry, I was distracted for a moment.” She smiled and said, “I hope you don’t think I’m too forward, but would you mind lunching with me while I’m here, just to keep the hounds at bay?” She glanced sideways, indicating the men whom she knew were still watching her.
“I’d be happy to,” he said. “While we’re on the subject, would you come to my parents’ home with me on Sunday for dinner?”
Taken aback but heartened by the unexpected invitation, Scarlett said, “We’ve only exchanged a couple of words, and you’re already inviting me home to meet your parents. Do you plan to propose the following week?”
They both burst out laughing, causing the men at the other tables to look over at them and mutter to each other, which made Julian and Scarlett laugh even longer. When they gathered themselves, Julian spoke first. “No. I don’t want to marry you. I just need a date and I see you’re not wearing a ring of any kind on your wedding finger, so I thought you might be amenable. To be honest, I’m rather desperate.”
“Thanks a bunch,” Scarlett said, feigning offense. “Why do you need a date so desperately?”
“That did sound awful, didn’t it? Sorry,” Julian apologized.
“It’s okay.” She reached out to pat his hand.
“It’s just…there’ll be important people there, and it would mean a lot to my parents if I walked in with a lady on my arm, especially one who looks like you. They’d be ecstatic. I don’t normally do this sort of thing, but, I don’t know… You seem nice.”
This was going better than Scarlett anticipated. Still, if she let him think she wasn’t offended by his comments, he might get suspicious. “Do you still live with them?”
“No, I have my own flat. Do you? Still live with your parents, I mean.”
“No. I live alone—and yes, I’ll come.”