Should she go? Or should she...
Red. Orange and red. Green. Ruby swore under her breath and tapped her steering wheel, nearly catching the horn. You simply did not do that in British traffic. You waited, silently. Red. Orange and red. Green. Go on! What was the hold up now? A fender bender? An overheated engine? Red. Orange and red. Green. Oh, come on! Put it in gear and put your foot down. The car in front lurched forward one space and stopped. They were all going to be late for work. Red.
From her bag on the passenger seat came a muffled burbling. The ring tone was 'jabberwocky'. Unknown caller. She had no hands free device and it was illegal to talk on the phone when you were driving. Even if you were stuck in the ruddy traffic. The penalties were expensive and could lead to the loss of your driving licence. There had been too many fatal crashes because of yattering and/or texting on mobiles. It burbled again, the volume increasing with a sort of frantic desperation, then stopping suddenly, as if the caller had parked in the boot of the car in front. Who was it? The traffic moved forward, three whole spaces. Red. Orange and red. Green. Sit and fume.
Jabberwocky resurrected, burbled in the misty borogroves, lost its way and died. Three calls. Someone was a bit desperate. She opened the window, the freezing October air, laden with exhaust fumes, hesitated, then dived in. Leaning out, she peered up the road. Oh great! Flashing blue lights. And in the distance a siren went na-naaaa, na-naaaa, na-naaaa. Ambulance. Then another, this time with a deep-throated honk. Fire engine. Clamping her lips together to keep profanities from adding to the pollution, she closed the window and turned off the engine. Jabberwocky laughed at her. Again.
There was a large, black saloon car in front of her. One of the gas guzzlers that only the rich could afford. Rolls Royce? Bentley? Sitting in her beat up old Astra, she felt a satisfactory equality. There was nothing like a snarl-up to level motorists. There were two people in front, the driver and a passenger in the rear seat. She speculated that the driver was a chauffeur, his silhouette had a flat, uniform cap on. The person in the back was shifting around, he must have released his seat belt. His funeral. Jabberwocky started up again. She reached for her bag. Technically, she was parked, she hoped. Before she could find her phone, she was distracted by the passenger in front. He was holding up a sheet of paper with words scrawled on it.
ANSWER THE PHONE!!!!!
Her mobile was summoning again. Delving amongst tubes of make-up, tissues and sundry other detritus, she extracted it from under a ham sandwich.
'Hello?' The passenger in front put up his thumb.
'Good morning Ms Davies.' A soft voice, male. A touch of Belfast about it. What if he were going to offer her an assignment, should she chose to accept it? Silence.
'Hello?' Had she been cut off?
'Look out of your left window. There is a lady in a red jacket, she has a yellow scarf.'
'Where?' Ruby wound down the passenger window. A tubby elderly woman in a scarlet fleece with an outrageously orange scarf muffled over her face, waved. Her? Not Tom Cruise then. Nor a fashionista. The old biddy skipped over and gave a shark grin.
'Tanisha Peck.' The mobile and the old woman spoke together. Before Ruby could say anything, the Peck woman was sitting next to her and her mobile cut off. The car in front moved up to the head of the queue and turned left. A policeman was directing the traffic.
'Turn right here.' Tanisha Peck spoke in a soft brogue, from the Isles. She was fiddling with her own smartphone, sending a text. 'Whisht!' She banged the screen. 'Polymath.' She said, sharply, in an educated, university accent. Ruby half sighed, felt her shoulders tighten, strangled it and hiccupped. Then sneezed. 'That was well done.' Soft brogue again. 'Gus Wilkinson does pick some wonderful identifiers.'
Ruby made no reply. They were crawling along Mill Road, away from the accident in East Road, Victorian terrace houses on one side and a catholic mix of ethnic and specialist shops on the other. It was narrow, crowded and cyclists were playing kamikaze games between buses and cars. Polymath was a file that had landed in her secure inbox yesterday evening. It had taken half the night to open and when she was finally able to see the text, it was in Foreign. A weird language that made no sense. But then, anything from the Big Boss, Aonghas, aka Gus, Wilkinson, was likely to be weird.
'Weren't you head of M section?' When it had been full of clever misfits, who were given the unbreakable codes, the unintelligible intelligence, the Service's version of cold cases. Now the team had disbanded and disappeared. Ruby's section, Transcription, used their offices but were little more than clerks.
'I was.' She unwound the orange monstrosity and dropped it on the back seat. 'I had words with Gus about you when you got caught with the waccy baccy.' Ruby's heart thumped its way to her trainers. 'Och! It's not in the records.' Ruby was being examined by a pair of brown eyes as hard as buttons. 'The way you wriggled off the hook was ingenious. So he set a wee watch.' Ruby changed gear. The traffic was speeding up as they crossed the railway bridge.
'Where are we going?' Ruby demanded. 'I'll be late for work. I need to phone in.' She was on final warning for timekeeping. Losing this job was not in her game plan. It could be tedious, a typing pool cabbage but some of the reports she committed to storage were enough to turn an apple to a prune. If she proved her worth, then, maybe... Ruby became aware of button eyes boring a hole in her head.
'Actually, your employment was terminated midnight last night.' The University accent was back. Clipped. Impersonal. 'You are still bound by the Official Secrets Act and have been arrested by an agent from HQ.' Ruby held her tongue. She did not feel 'arrested'. What was going on? 'Head for Addenbrooke's Hospital.' Tanisha Peck produced a pass for the staff car park.
Addenbrooke's is a huge, university teaching hospital, expanding all the time, with odd, abandoned offices. Some in the underground tunnels built to transfer patients and goods across the site, protected from the outside world. A ten minute trot brought the two of them to the door of Cryology Lab 1. Ex-Section Head Peck dug out a key to unlock it.
Ruby scanned the lab as fluorescent tubes flickered into life. A jumble of scientific leftovers was still scattered across a couple of benches. In a corner, a cardboard box was overflowing with thick files. Next to it, an office chair waited for an occupant to start work at a non-existant desk. It was a good place to hide a body. Ruby tried to relax.
A phone mounted on the wall jangled. Ruby's nerves followed suit She sucked in air and held it, letting it out slowly as Tanisha Peck picked up the receiver to speak in a soft language. Gaelic? It did nothing to slow her heartbeat or make her palms less sweaty. Then it was stabbed in her direction. Gripping it with white knuckles, she lifted it to her ear.
'Uhh.' She swallowed. 'Yes?'
'Polymath.' It had to be Gus Wilkinson. 'Don't bother with the hiccup sneeze routine. I have a proposition for you.' The first, and only, time she had met him, he had said that. It had led to a too loud nightclub, a dealer's arrest, followed by her own. A bit of quick thinking and she was away with an unofficial caution. Then back to the safe boredom of Transcription.
'This time, I want to know what it is.' Where was this anger coming from? She had been played like the newbie that she was. Now she had lost another job and was being propositioned? A play on words at a time like this? Her snort made a strangled gurgle.
'Quite so.' In the silence coming down the line, she heard a crackling noise as if he were unwrapping a sweet. His next words were spoken around it. 'How would you like to be rich?'
'Do I have to sell my soul?' There were limits.
'Only hire it out. One operation. You walk away rich.' Ruby shook her head.
'And if it goes wrong?'
'From my end, plausible deniability. For you...'
'Anything from jail to being dead?' Obviously. His reply of: 'More or less.' did not change her feelings. 'It sounds interesting.' Her mouth was saying the wrong things. 'I'll give it a shot.' Her only answer was a click as Gus dropped his receiver into something cradle. 'He hung up.' She turned to Tanisha Peck, who was swinging idly in the office chair.
'Probably ran out of coins for the box.' It had not occurred to Ruby that Gus had been using a pay phone. 'Not to worry. I have the briefing up here.' She tapped her head. 'And it's a right doozy.' Was that an American twang now? She wondered if Tanisha Peck's reputation as a total nutcase was not unfounded. It was whispered that she could change personalities on a whim and could be as kind as an old granny or as cruel as a psychopath. A suitable Head of Department for the Misfit Section.
There was no other chair, so Ruby perched on a lab bench, looking down on a mop of fluffy white hair. The owner returned her stare with her hungry shark's grin. As if a cloud passed across the sun, her face remoulded itself, the wrinkles downturned, etched.
'It all hinges on how honest you are.' University Peck spoke. 'Will you stay bought?' Ruby shrugged. There was always a better price, a higher bid, something you could not, would not refuse. Pragmatically, what price to stop pain? How much was freedom? The value of treachery? The cost of betrayal? Life?
Outside the lab, chattering voices grew and faded.
'Polymath?' Ruby prompted.
'And therein lies the core of our wee pickle.' The Shark Granny showed her teeth. 'I have a brother.' Pause. 'Willi.' She pronounced it 'Villy.' Ruby waited, hoping that her face was still. 'He is a smuggler.' That Willi Peck! No wonder she had been sidelined into M section. She knew too much to be sacked, too much of a security risk to be trusted. 'It is the small packages of high value he deals in. Gemstones, artefacts, secrets.' She was master of the dramatic pause. 'And people.'
Ruby raised an eyebrow. Did Peck change personalities to confuse? But where did 'polymath' come into this? A polymath was a person whose knowledge and skills spanned a whole range of subjects. An across the board genius. The sort of person that would be high value to smuggle.
'Now, we come to the nubbin of the matter. I am going to let you escape and you will be picked up by an operative of Willi's organization. From then on, you will be working for him.' Those eyes had nothing warm, or human, about them. 'For a considerable sum of money.'
'Are you recruiting me?' It was unbelievable. The ex-head of a Service section and the Big Boss. Crooks?
'Indeed.' Not the expected answer. 'Willi has a wee job for you. Now, you read about the bombing in Leiden?'
'When Professor van der Groot was killed?'
'Abducted.' Ruby had not expected that. 'And not by Willi. We have to get van der Groot back, he's vital to, erm, a certain project. Willi was supposed to take him to,' she paused, listening, 'Paris. We need to be moving.' There were more voices, male, loud, in the corridor. 'Whisht! Come along now, hin.'
Ruby still perched on the lab bench. Her rear end was going numb. It was crunch time. Stay here and face an uncertain future, possibly a short journey to the hospital's morgue? Follow this lunatic, retired Section Head into an insane world of crime? Or escape and live as a fugitive, eyes never closing?
She slid off the bench, balancing on the balls of her feet, and took her first steps into a new life.