When I hung the laundry out early in the morning, there was a fresh breeze blowing. 'Good drying weather,' I thought happily. Nice line-dried tablecloths. Sun-bleached white. Minimal ironing for tonight’s private party.
Then I glanced out as I handed the food out to Princess and her friends at lunch, and swallowed a curse. At least one white flappy thing in my herb garden, and what was still on the line looked like an attempt at a knotted rope. Not exactly what I wanted. Jill's would never be a classy establishment, but I did try to make private evening functions slightly less diner-like.
I was reattaching the last tablecloth to the line, using three times as many pegs as before and being deeply thankful that nothing had dragged through the mud, when a flicker of movement caught my eye. Had I missed one which was now blowing away? No, the line was full. And the movement hadn't been white or wind-related. I rather thought it had been human and surreptitious. My imagination promptly added male and up to no good.
Don't react. He doesn't know you've seen him. I breathed steadily, reminded myself there were four ISO Security agents well within screaming distance, and extended the pole to lift the line to its full height. With what I hoped was a casual glance around, I sauntered back inside. There definitely was someone there. Just round the corner, by the end window.
"What's wrong?" Princess asked as I closed the door.
So much for being casual. "Laundry blew off the line, but I think I rescued it in time. Can I show you something?"
"Sure." She followed me over to the serving-hatch, where I grabbed a bit of paper and scribbled 'there's someone out there.' Sure, he'd most likely run off if I announced loudly that I'd seen him, but I wanted him caught. Not back here at two in the morning when I was asleep and all alone.
"Tiny'll fix that for you," Princess responded without seeming at all concerned. She raised her voice. "Hey, guys, how's your woodworking?"
The moment the three of them looked round, her hands were moving. I'd seen this before from them. Casual conversation out loud, sign language in the background.
"My tools are in the van," Tiny said and headed for the front door. "Hey, Keyop! Come make yourself useful!"
Jason had headed towards us, stopping just by the back door.
"Yeah, we can fix this," he drawled. He was listening to something else entirely, something beyond my hearing.
He threw the door open, took two steps out, and returned dragging a young man heavier and taller than he was, dressed entirely in black. Princess taught me that particular wristlock. It's very useful for getting rid of undesirable customers.
"Get your hands off me!" this one snarled. "You have no right!"
"You're on my private property," I said.
"I'm looking for my dog."
"I didn't hear you calling for him."
He sneered at me. "Dog whistle."
Jason didn't let go, though his eyebrows went up. Of course, if I was right about who these four really were, they could probably hear a dog whistle just fine.
Keyop came in just then, displaying something. Small, black, wires dangling down.
"That your dog whistle? Looks more like a listening device to me. I think we'll see what else you're carrying."
The man tried to twist away, but rapidly stopped with a wince. It’s a good wristlock.
"Co-operate or you'll regret it."
He said nothing. He was staring at Princess. Swung round to the front door, where Tiny was. Dismissed me. Dismissed Keyop. Twisted right round, which must have hurt like hell if not dislocated his thumb, and met eyes with Jason.
"You?" Back to Princess. "But you're dead. Why would...unless...you're G-"
He hit the floor like a sack of coal. Jason was rubbing his knuckles. I hadn't seen him move.
None of them made a sound. Tiny and Keyop closed the doors, Princess hurried to help Jason, and I belatedly realised this wasn't something I wanted an audience for and flipped the sign on the front door to read 'Closed'.
The room remained silent as I rolled the blinds down. Creepily so, given the interaction in the centre of the floor. By the time I'd finished, the intruder sat slumped on a plain wooden chair, hands tied behind him, ankles tied together. His belongings were laid out on the table in front of him. Wallet, a few notes and coins, credit card, driver's licence, comb, keys, ring.
That ring. Chunky, gold, inset motif. A black snarling cat's head on a red background. I'd seen that symbol all too often on the news. NBC used it as their backdrop for reports of Spectran attacks.
A Spectran spy. In my diner. Fantastic.
I sat down, the world seeming cold and scary. What if I'd been here alone? What if he had friends who came looking for him? I'd have whimpered except for the oppressive silence.
They know what they're doing, I told myself. They certainly seemed to. Keyop was examining the items on the table, one at a time, in great detail. Princess had her eyes glued to something in her cupped hands, occasionally glancing up to see what Keyop was doing. Jason leant against the table next to Keyop, apparently relaxed. The gun fitted his right hand as if it was part of him. And Tiny stood alongside and just behind the prisoner, feet apart, knees flexed, elbows bent. Ready for action. He'd make a great bouncer.
Keyop rejected the ring. The coins. The wallet. And then his eyebrows went up as he examined the comb. A quick burst of that sign language, and Tiny nodded and put his hand out for it. A twist, the splintering of overstressed plastic, and what Tiny tipped back onto the table was a handful of comb fragments and circuit boards. Keyop grinned, touched two pieces together, and there was a flash, a puff of black smoke, and a smell of scorched electronics.
Keyop's thumb went up. Princess's thumb went up. And the prisoner stirred.
"You," he spat out, glaring at Jason. "I should have guessed it would be you. Jason Alouita, commander of G-Force. Along with his charming friends, Kate Harmon and Tony Harper." He snorted. "You still haven't a clue, have you?"
"Nah," said Jason. "I still think shorting transmitters out means they don't work so well." He pointed to the gently smoking pile of circuitry on the table. "Your masters aren't hearing any of this. Sorry."
He sounded entirely unrepentant.
"Jason?" said Tiny. "Who...?"
"You don't remember the charming Todd Hamill? Got himself thrown off the ISO selection camp a few years back?"
"Really not. How's the wrist, by the way, Todd?"
Their prisoner spat out something unprintable.
"Todd?" said Princess. She sounded close to tears. "But why? You were clever. You were a great pilot. Why would you work for Spectra? You're human. Why wouldn't you work for us?"
"You know what? I tried. Your friend Anderson made real sure I failed. I'm unsuitable to join ISO in any capacity. Or any other branch of this country's military." He twisted round in the chair, eyes bitter and haunted. "I work for the one military organisation which offered me a chance. And I'll tell you something for free. I'm not the only one."
"No," said Jason, scorn in his voice. "And we treat them all the same."
He raised his left wrist to his mouth. I'd seen him - the Condor - do that on TV, but never in person. "G-1 here. Code thirty-two, my location. One package, giftwrapped and ready to go."
"I'll tell my lawyer who you are. I'll shout it in court. I'll --"
Jason laughed out loud. "You still don't get it, do you? You're not going to have a lawyer or a trial. You'll spend the rest of your life in an underground cell. It may be very short."
"I'll tell --"
"You're never going to see anyone who doesn't already know exactly who we are. Ever again."
It was matter-of-fact, calm, and utterly chilling. And it struck home. Todd went the colour of my tablecloths, and glanced around wildly.
"Tony! You're not going to stand by and watch this happen to a fellow American?"
"Yeah," said Tiny. "I am."
"But I --"
"You tried to turn us over to Spectra. Go to hell."
"Don't even say it," Princess said the moment his eyes met hers. She turned her back on him and walked away. She looked to be close to tears...but then I could see her face. Todd couldn't. Her body language held nothing except confidence and certainty.
"Jason?" His voice shook.
"No," said Jason, "not playing this game. "You'll be dealing with ISO security." He handed his gun to Keyop with a flourish. "If he moves, argues, or makes a pain of himself, shoot him. My authority. I'll be outside." And he beckoned to me to follow him.
If I looked stupid, it was too bad. I've seen the movies. I walked right round the perimeter of the room rather than go anywhere near Todd. I'd half-expected to be the target of his next plea, but he said nothing. I guessed he didn’t think he’d get any sympathy from a stranger. It hadn't escaped me that Keyop was the only one of the four who he didn't appear to know. Keyop might still be underage, but if he really was the Swallow, he must have shot people before. Scary thought.
Jason closed the front door behind us and pointed me at one of the outdoor benches popular in better weather.
"Any of that a surprise to you?" he asked, sitting down opposite me.
I had no idea what the right answer was. "No," I answered honestly.
"I didn't think so. I still have to report your involvement in this as a breach of our personal security. You'll be interviewed by some deeply unpleasant people. I'm sorry about that."
"It's not. It's bloody unfair. I mean, you've known since when? Since Mark disappeared? Since I was sick?"
"Since Mark smashed his leg."
He raised his eyebrows. "That long? Makes my point. You can be trusted."
"And if someone thinks different?" I had to ask. He'd casually said Todd would be locked away forever, or worse. He wasn't at all worried that Todd knew the real names of half of G-Force. That had to mean Todd really was never getting out.
"I guarantee that I will not let anything happen to you." He sat forward, piercing grey eyes meeting mine. "It's not like we won't notice if you disappear."
It was probably meant to be reassuring. I found it terrifying. I didn't want it to be noticed if I disappeared. I wanted not to disappear.
With a squeal of tyres, an unmarked black van skidded into the parking area at the front of the bar. Six young men in ISO grey uniforms piled out. I recognised all of them as occasional customers.
The one with most stripes on his sleeve glanced at me, at Jason, back to me, and wavered.
"You called a code thirty-two?" he said.
"Inside." Jason pointed to the door. "He's known to ISO."
"Extent of the breach?"
"I'll come discuss it with Grant myself. Don't worry about that."
The young man nodded briskly and waved his team through the front door, and I belatedly realised what his problem was. Here he was, on duty, responding to an official call from a high-ranking officer who he doubtless wanted to impress...and since I was standing there, he couldn't even call him 'sir'.
G-1. Jason had said it right in front of me. The young man who I discussed migraine triggers with. I'd suspected. But knowing for sure was something else.
Two of the security officers came out with Todd. He didn't struggle. I wouldn't have, either, not with a gun held to the back of my head. Tiny followed them, chatting with the officer who'd spoken with Jason. Those two headed for a motorbike parked under a tree, well away from the other vehicles. Jason wouldn't park on that side, not after a flock of blackbirds snacked on my blackcurrants and then sat in the branches above his car while they digested. The others had laughed at him...and stopped parking there too.
"Princess and Keyop will stay here for now," Jason said. "If and when they have to leave, they'll be replaced with a security team. A discreet one."
I must have frowned or something, because he continued. "Normally they have to pay to sit and drink coffee here. There may be competition to be on it. One more thing..."
He handed me a metal pendant on a chain, flipping it open. It contained a small red button.
"Hit that and the cavalry will show up. If the cavalry is G-Force, then you don't know what our names are. Regardless of who's around. Never, ever use our names if you see us in uniform. Sooner or later you'll do it in front of someone who shouldn't know."
"I understand," I said.
"Good. I don't think it's ever going to happen." He pointed to Todd's bike, which one of the security team was now wheeling up a ramp into the back of the van. "That's a single seater. He came alone. And he was always an arrogant little sod who knew best. He won't have told anyone else where he was going in case he had to share his success."
"You knew him?"
I didn't expect an answer, not from Jason, but he grimaced. "From way back. He wound me up once too often and I broke his wrist for him. I know Princess feels sorry for him, but don't bother. He was a jerk. He'd never have made it through any military's basic training, blacklist or not."
The rear door slammed shut on the van. "All done here," called the officer in charge. I could practically see him swallow the 'sir'.
"I'll see you back at ISO," Jason called back. "Tiny, if you want a ride, come now."
He looked over his shoulder at me as he headed for his car. "I just love paperwork."
My bar was all back how it should be when I went back in. No interrogation chairs. No little piles of smoking evidence. Keyop, without grumbling for once, was scrubbing the table they'd used. Neat bleach. I'd have done the same. Princess, bless her, was making tea.
"I'm sorry you got mixed up in this," she said, handing me a mug. Camomile, from the smell.
"Don't be. It's not your fault."
"Except that he was almost certainly looking for us. He just didn't know." She shuddered. "You'd think I'd be used to people trying to kill me. Spectrans do it all the time. It's just...Todd was someone I knew."
"Jason told me."
"He also told you we'd keep you safe, I hope."
"Yes." I still caught myself glancing round the room, checking for movement outside the windows. Only the tablecloths, flapping on the line.
Princess must have followed my gaze. "Come on," she said. "It's going to rain. I'll help you get them in."
We folded tablecloths, and I found myself thinking about ordinary things again. Tonight's menu, for a private party which would involve a couple of dozen ISO security officers, probably including a couple of the men who'd taken Todd away. The weather forecast, colder, wetter and windier than average for the time of year. Normal things. Human things. Things which would go on. And I'd see them going on. Todd...wouldn't.