An unusual mission

I open my eyes to a buzzing sound next to my ear. “bastard fly,” I think, and swat at the thin air, hoping that somehow I’ve grown Mr. Miyagi-style fly-catching skills overnight. A likely scenario.

“Godfunking damnation” I groan, and come to several conclusions as I reach the end of that sentence. For one thing, something weird is going on with my vocabulary. I’m not a huge fan of swearing, but when I’m in pain, I wouldn’t usually hesitate to break out the top-shelf expletives. The second realisation is that what I assumed was a buzzing fly was, in fact, my iPhone vibrating. When I tried to swat it into the fourth circle of hell (the one especially reserved for flies that wake you up at night), I instead whacked my bedside table hard enough to send my phone flying to the ground, and my hand to hurt like a – yes – motherfucker.

“Are you okay, babe,” a groggy voice comes from behind me. It’s a voice that warms my chest and, without wanting to seem uncouth, my loins.

I flick the bedside light on, and watch my phone buzzing on the floor, its glass touch-screen cracked, reading ‘Unknown’. As a police officer, you get used to your phone ringing with unknown numbers – the whole of the Met blocks its outgoing numbers, so whenever someone calls you from their personal radios or a landline, it shows up with a hidden number.

I try to reach for my phone, but it has slid far enough away that I can’t touch it. With every ring, it vibrates another couple of fractions of an inch away from me. I really need to talk to my bastard landlord and get the warped floor – and oh so many other things about this flee-breeding-ground of an apartment – sorted. Or perhaps I should spend less of my money on gadgets, a little bit more on rent, and move to a more sensible pad, I consider, briefly, before discarding that ludicrous notion. In fact, the first thought that crossed my mind when I spotted that my iPhone screen was smashed, was’Hello iPhone 4S’ rather than any sort of displeasure about my trusty iPhone 3GS having met its demise.

One more stretch to try and reach the phone, and I crash out of bed, onto the floor, hitting the ground with my already hurting hand first. As soon as I reach my phone, it stops ringing. Of course.

I curse half-heartedly, and decide to go to the loo before curling back up in my bed with the delicious warm body I was sharing it with, when my landline starts ringing.

Of course, in my gadget-mania, I’ve replaced all my landline phones with wireless handsets. And, of course, because I am me, I haven’t returned the handset to its cradle. I follow the sound of the handset to the bathroom, where it is resting in my laundry basket, under several layers of dirty clothes.

“But of course,” I think. “Why wouldn’t my wireless handset be in the laundry basket”

“Delito speaking, what time is it?” I say.

“About 4am”, a voice says.

“I got home at 2am after an absolute bitch of a shift,” I whine, “please tell me that you’re calling to tell me I’ve won six million quid in the lottery, and to offer me six weeks off work.”

“Not quite, sir, but we do need you to come in as soon as you can.”, the voice says.

Finally the penny drops.

“Very fucking funny, Gerard-Gerard”, I say, finally recognising the voice at the other end of the line. “But please, go do one, I’ve got a lovely girl waiting for me in bed, and now that you’ve woken me up, I want to go do things to her that most vicars would disapprove of.”

“Mr Delito? I do not know who Gerard is, and I wish to apologise for depriving you of your carnal exploits, but I need you to get dressed. There’s a car waiting for you outside your house. You’ll have an opportunity to shower and have some breakfast later, but for now, please, shift your derrière into drive, and step on it.”

The man rang off, and only after he did, I realised he never gave me his name.

I stumbled over to the window, where the was indeed a car parked up. It was an old banger of a rust-heap excuse for a motor. A first-generation burgundy Ford Mondeo. If I were to choose a car that would be able to go anywhere without drawing attention, that’s exactly the car I would have chosen. A dark blue or silver one, perhaps.

Kim joined me at the window, hiding her naked body from the outside world by peeking around the edge of the curtains.

“What’s going on,” she said. “Why is there someone outside the house, and who was that on the phone?”

“I’m not sure. He didn’t say. Just wanted me to come outside.”

“At… What time is it?”

“4 am, apparently”

“Is this a prank?”

“Dunno,” I said, as I dropped the curtain back in front of the window. “If it is a joke, it’s a really weird one.”

I paused for just a second to contemplate whether I had pissed off any of the local gangs recently, and concluded that I had, but that whoever was loitering outside my house probably weren’t going to saunter off into the sunrise on their own accord.

“I’m going to have a quick chat with them,” I said.

“Sure,” she said. “if they’re kidnapping you, I’ll call 999 in the morning, because I’m going to bed now.”

“I’ll come join you in just a second.”

I dragged on a T-shirt, a hoodie and a pair of jeans, grabbed a can of Coke from the fridge, shoved my mobile in my pocket, and walked outside.

A man got out of the car, walking toward me, but stopping on the other side of the fence.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“My name is Alistair,” he said, “I’m with the security services.”

“Seriously? It’s four in the morning, I’m really not in the mood.”

“I completely understand”, he said, keeping a respectful distance from me, and not attempting to open the gate to the front yard. “Here”, he said, and tossed me his wallet.

I looked Alastair in the eyes; this had to be some sort of bizarre trick. I have been known to hold my warrant card against a window to let someone read it, but letting someone take the whole card and holder off me – let alone my whole personal wallet? Never.

I opened the wallet, and took a look inside. A few twenties, a ten, couple of fivers. His driving licence was in there, and I am a mental note of his birthday before redirecting my attention at the card in the ID flap of the wallet. It was an unassuming card, with a hologram and an inscription along the lines of ‘in her majesty’s service’. It all looked rather impressive, but then what do I know; it’s not as if I deal with the security services that often, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to tell a real ID card from a fake one. I looked up, and Alastair was still standing there, about four feet away from my fence.

“So what do you need me for?” I asked, tapping his wallet against the palm of my hand.

“Do you know a Michelle Lewis?”

“Name doesn’t name a bell. Did I arrest her at some point?” I asked, doubting the possibility of that being the case. Names do blur into a multisyllabic mess after a while, but you end up writing down the name of someone you’ve arrested so often that they stick with you.

“Nothing like that.” Alastair said. “Perhaps you knew her as Michaela Lewis? Or maybe even Michaela Berg-Andersen?”

I was suddenly transported a decade into the past. Michaela Berg-Andersen was definitely a name I knew.

“I might do, what’s going on?”

“How do you know her?”

“Ha,” I said. Distant memories were washing to the forefront of my mind with surprising clarity and greater force than I had thought possible. “That’s a long story, but the short version is that she was in a creative writing class with me when I was in Uni. We hit it off, and we went on to go out for a few months, until she got bored of me, I think, and I never really heard from her again. Lewis, eh? Did she get married?”

“Not quite, but she did change her name.” Alastair said, with a grim expression carved into his hitherto unexpressive face. “She took a job with GCHQ, and we believe she may have been compromised. She may even be in danger. We think this one goes a long way back – all the way back to when you were dating her.”

Alastair paused.

“My friend, seriously,” I started, “I don’t know how you found me, but is is obviously a pisstake. It’s half past stupid in the morning, and I’m going back to bed.” I tossed Alastair’s wallet back to him. He caught it elegantly, without ever taking his eyes off mine.

“All we need you to do is to ‘accidentally’ meet her, and talk to her about old times. It won’t take more than a day at the most, and you might potentially save her life.” Alastair said.

I was thinking back at Michaela in university. She was too clever by half, studying Arabic, linguistics, and was doing lots of modules that seemed to be completely unrelated to her studies – the creative writing course where I had met her, of course, but she was also doing something with computers, mathematics, and a whole load of other things. Our brief fling had been short but intense, and I have absolutely no doubts in my mind that she could very well have ended herself in trouble at…

“What is GCHQ exactly?” I asked.

“I must be frank with you,” Alastair said, “I am not exactly sure what she is working on at the Government Communications Headquarters, but I know she is fluent in Arabic. I’m sure you are aware of some of her other interests, and you’ll be able to connect the dots. Suffice to say she is important enough to the Doughnut to send me out here, and we need your help.”

“Give me one sec.” I said, and fished out my iPhone. Despite the broken screen, I was able to tap put a message without slicing my hand open.

I re-read my text to Kim, shrugged, and pressed send: ‘Hey babe, going with a spook to help an old friend. Not as insane as it sounds. I’ll be back within 12h. He is Alastair Longbottom, DOB 230767.’

I waited until the message had sent.

“Ok, what now?”, I said, once I was sure it had gone to Kim’s phone.

“Get in the car, we’re going to Cheltenham”, he said.

I walked out through my gate, towards the car. A man got out, and opened the rear door for me. He was wearing a bulky, black hooded sweatshirt, and his face looked as if it had been mauled by a wolf at some point in the past decade.

“Hi there, I’m Tommy,” he said with a smile that would have made children squeak in fear, due to the scarring on his face. His eyes seemed friendly enough, however. “Welcome.”

“Thanks,” I said, before turning to Alistair again.

“What do you need me to do?” I asked.

“Every Thursday, Michaela goes to a particular pub quiz.”

I started laughing.

“What’s funny?”, he said.

“Nothing, it’s just that she would never miss that damn pub quiz. Hell, half the time she wouldn’t even enter; she’d just sit on one of the tables in the pub, mumbling all the correct answers. I’ve never seen anyone who knew so much about so many things.” I said, thinking back at how Michelle had started an enormously out-of-proportion argument with a pub quiz host, about an answer that turned out to be a mistake by the host, for a quiz she wasn’t even officially participating in. I had to smile at the thought.

“Well, if you’ve seen her in action, you know how good she is.” Alastair said “One of her colleagues thinks that she is using the quiz to communicate with someone – possibly the quiz master – but we can’t figure it out. For tonight’s quiz, she has cancelled another appointment so she can attend. We think she may be leaking some sort of information. We need you there at the quiz night.”

“Jeeze. Seriously, there have to be easier ways for sending coded messages than by pub quiz?”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? However, the GCHQ guys are kept under pretty close watch, and it may be that she’s just trying to be extra careful.”

“Who would she be leaking information to?”

“Truth be told, we aren’t even sure that she is leaking information. I’ve just been asked to look into it, and when we were doing some digging around in her background, we found you; you’re security cleared, and signed the Official Secrets Act. Also, your sergeants speak warmly of you. So we decided to give you a shot.”

“So am I being recruited to be a spy?”, I said.

“Good god, no!”, Alastair exclaimed immediately, with a horrified look on his face. “I mean… No. I have nothing to do with recruitment. Unless you are interested? I could put in a good word for you?”

I looked at Alastair for a few long seconds, as the car burbled along. As I noticed the burbling, I looked at the instrument panel of the car, I saw a few details I hadn’t noticed before, and the petrolhead in me went into overdrive. ST emblem on an x-reg Ford Mondeo; v6 engine by the sound of things; noticeable turbo lag.

Leaning forward, I talked to the driver “Tommy, is this an ST200 with a turbocharger?”

Tommy glanced over his shoulder very briefly. “Well spotted, sir,” he said. “It certainly is. The ST200 is about two hundred break horsepower stock, but this one has a twin turbo on it, along with a better suspension, and various other toys.”

“Twin turbo? Holy hell, that’s got to be about 300 horses, then.” I mused. “What about the other toys? Caltrops and oil slicks? All very Super Mario Cart!” I laughed.

“Actually, it’s a variable number of ponies under the hood; normally I’m running her on low boost, but I can up it from a button down here”, he said, pointing at an unmarked knob on the panel that usually holds the radio. “As for other toys, sadly I don’t have caltrops, but I do have sidewinder rockets built in behind the headlamps”

“Seriously?” I gawped, looking at his instrument panel, wondering which button might propel low-flying rockets along the M4 motorway, where we were currently bombing along at somewhat illegal speeds. “Holy hell. Hardly sounds road legal.” I said. As I glanced up, I caught his grinning eyes in the rear-view mirror.

Both Tommy and Alistair started laughing at the same time.

“Obviously not”, Tommy said. “All I have are two-tones and well-concealed blue strobes, much like you’ve got on your Q-cars in the Met.”

“Oh.” I said, and sank back into my chair, closing my eyes, feeling utterly gullible. “I’m very tired, and it doesn’t happen very often that I get abducted by MI6, so you’ll have to forgive me the naïveté.”

“Actually, we’re Section 5”, Alastair said. “But since you’re tired, I’ll let the grave insult slide. Just this once.”

I opened my eyes, and started on an apology, but the twinkle in Alastair’s eyes told me I had been had yet again.

When the car pulled to a halt outside a small, unmarked building, I jerked awake.

“Where are we,” I said.

“At a motorway services”, Alastair said.

“Great , I’m bursting for a wee”, I replied.

I looked around, but couldn’t see any restaurants or fuel pumps. Or, indeed, anything I’ve grown accustomed to at a motorway services. My door opened, and Tommy pointed to a blue metal door in the non-descript brick building. I could smell petrol. And I could hear traffic rushing by on the other side of a group of trees.

“You know those weird buildings you see at the entrance and exits of motorway services?” Alastair said from behind me. I turned around and nodded. “Some of them are ours.” he said, before walking around me and opened the door to the small building, not much larger than a high-voltage power substation. I had to bow my head to avoid smacking it into the low door frame when I entered.

As my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness, I saw a steep fight of stairs going down, with two doors at the bottom.

“Right”, Alastair said, so that’s the door I tried. It was locked.

“Try again”, he said, as a faint clicking sound came from the door. This time, it swung open; it was a surprisingly heavy door, I noticed, but failed to examine it closer as I stepped into an impossibly large, well-lit room.

“Holy… What is this place”, I exclaimed.

“When they started building the current-generation motorway service stations in the 70s and 80s. we saw out chances to build a whole load of new facilities without anybody noticing. They’re not secret per sé, but not a lot of people outside the grid know about them.” he pointed toward a stained-glass room on the right of the building. “We’ll do your briefing there, and afterward, you’ll get a chance to get a shower, if you like.”

In the briefing room, I was met by two people in their mid-20s, both in lab coats.

“Hey, Matt”, the fair-haired, tall woman said. She looked like one of those girls who does too much yoga: skinny as a twig, but I bet she could break me in half without really trying.

“This will all come as a bit of a shock to your system, but we’re here to help you with all of that, and to bring you up to speed. The room you are in now is known as Eden, and this is Adam”, she said, as her colleague held his hand out to shake mine. “I am Eve”.

“Are those…”, was the only part of my inquiry as to whether those where their real names that I was able to utter before Eve interrupted me.

“Don’t be stupid, Matt; we have a lot to do, and no time for irrelevant questions”.

That would be a ‘no’, then, I thought, and wondered if anyone would ever believed this story, if I were ever in a position to tell it.

Adam produced a couple of sheets of paper. “This,” he said, “is tonight’s questions for the pub quiz.”

“How did you…”, I started, but interrupted myself this time. “Okay, okay, stupid question. Can we please just crack on?”

“In the corner there is a computer with the Internet on it.” Adam said “We need you to do two things for each question: first of all, you need to research the question and find the answer. More importantly, however, we need you to come up with a plausible story for how you know each answer. We can’t help you with that; each story has to fit in with your life in one way or another”

“So, if the question is ‘what is the most abundant gas in the air we breathe’, I need to answer ‘nitrogen’ and have a story like ‘I went SCUBA diving in Egypt last summer, and had to learn it as part of the SSI certification for Open Water Diver?’

I caught Adam and Eve exchange a glance and a brief nod.

“Precisely,” Eve said.

“Did you go Scuba diving last summer?” Adam asked.

“Yeah. I didn’t like it much though, I’m too scared of sharks.” I replied.

They ran through a few of the guidelines for making up successful, believable excuses. Don’t volunteer too much information, don’t be too specific, and weave it into conversation where possible. A lot of my job as a police officer depends on being able to tell who is lying, so moving the proverbial shoe to the other foot didn’t seem like too much of a stretch.

When I had researched the 65 questions – ten questions in each of five rounds, plus another fifteen ‘general knowledge’ bonus questions – it turned out that was pretty sure about half the answers, had an idea for another twenty or so, and didn’t have the faintest foggiest idea for the rest of them. Researching and making up stories took the best part of an hour, after which Adam and Eve drilled me in both the questions and my background anecdotes. They picked holes in a lot of my explanations; even, to my frustration, to a few of the ones that weren’t stories at all, but that they said didn’t sound believable enough.

Finally, several hours later, they were happy.

“It’s nearly noon, and the quiz starts at eight.” Eve said. “You’ve done very well; get some rest, and some breakfast. We’ll brief you at about six-thirty.”

When Eve said the magic B-word, I swear I fell a little bit in love with her.

I must have fallen asleep on the sofa in the corner of the room for a brief moment, but I woke up to the smell of bacon, and realised I hadn’t eaten since the Kebab one of the skippers had brought to my post at a cordon at last night’s fatal traffic collision. I opened my eyes, and immediately closed them against the sharp light that was flickering.

“I hope you’re not a vegetarian”, a voice I recognised said. “or rather: I hope you are, because that bacon and those sausages look mighty tasty”.

There was a simple metal fold-up table against the wall of the room, and Alastair was sitting on one of the two black chairs next to the table.

“You’re out of luck”, I said, and yawned. I spotted my clothes, folded neatly in a pile by the foot-end of my bed. I don’t even remember getting undressed to sleep. Weird. My boxers were on the top of the pile. Confused, I glanced under the blanket that was covering me, but I was still wearing the same boxers I had been when I had left the house that morning. I decided not to ask any more dumb questions, took my kecks off, and quickly got dressed in front of Alistair.

“I could have left the room to let you get dressed , you know.” he said.

“You shy?” I fired back.

“No”

“Me neither. Showering with your colleagues before and sometimes after every shift, and with my football teammates after practice and games cures you of that.”

“Good.” Alastair said, and picked up the radio on the table.

“Delito’s ready for you” he said into the radio, but nobody replied, which made me uneasy; no reply, in my world, means that nobody heard you.

As I tucked into my breakfast – weird, at 6pm – Adam and Eve joined us in the room. They spoke briefly among themselves, before they decided that Alastair was going to do the briefing.

“Right, so we are going to lend you a car; it’s the same make and model as your own, and it has your plates as well”, he said, “but this one doesn’t have that annoying rattle when you go above 90 mph.”

“How did you…”

“Just a joke”, Alastair roared, “but it was a fair guess; most cars rattle at that speed. To be fair, the one we got you probably does, too. Anyway, you’re going to that pub quiz by yourself, because you have a Met specialist driving course that lasts over several days.”

The boys had done their homework; there are several specialist driving schools that aren’t too far away from Cheltenham.

“Your specific course will be for DPG defensive driving”, Alastair said. It’s a course I would have absolutely no use for in my current job, but if I ever were to transfer to the Diplomatic Protection Group, it would be very high up on my list.

“It starts at 8am tomorrow morning,” Alastair continued, “and I presume you are excited about attending”, he said. I nodded. “Good. To kill an evening, you are tagging along to a pub quiz across the road from hotel, and you will eat at the pub, and drink whatever you normally drink. You will ‘randomly’ run into Michaela. She’s an attractive girl, so make sure you do a double take or two, that should make her notice you, but wait for her to approach you. Don’t worry – she will recognise you. If for any reason she doesn’t contact you when the quizmaster starts soliciting for quiz participants, ‘recognise’ her, and join her at her table. Make sure you’re on the same team for old times sake”

“What if she refuses?”

“Walk away. If she shuns you or pretends not to remember you even after you tell her your name, just go sit by your old table, and play the quiz if you like, or get out of there. Up to you.”

“Should I try to…”

“Try nothing. If she doesn’t want to deal with you for any reason, that’s fine, just get out of her way. She’ll probably be suspicious about you being there”

“Ok. Won’t she be suspicious anyway?”

“Probably, but we picked you for a reason. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that you would be at that pub just then, but that’s why it’s important that you get there before she does – otherwise, she’ll be even more on her guard.”

“Should I flirt with her?”

“Would you normally?”

I laughed. “You say she’s still hot?”

“I would say so, yes”

“Then ‘yes'”, I said, smiled, and shrugged. “Can’t teach an old dog new ways of treating hot women.”

“Be yourself as much as possible”, Alastair said. “That’s definitely the best approach.”

“So, I’m on her quiz team… Then what?”, I asked

“Okay, we believe she is trying to communicate by giving wrong answers to quiz questions. We have the whole pub covered in audio and CCTV, but what we need you to do, is to argue with her about he answers that she is trying to answer wrong. Most importantly, we’re hoping to catch her glancing at whomever she is giving information to.”

“Should I give in and go with her answers then?”

“Up to you, it’s sort of irrelevant what she answers, as long as we get some good intel. Try not to annoy her too much, however; it may be a good idea to back down if you think she…”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it.” I interrupted. “If she looks like she wants to slap me and stomp out of there.”

“I’m sure it won’t come to that.”

I looked at Alastair. “If this is the Michaela I know, then that’s exactly what would happen. In fact, it happened at once already, about a decade ago. She may have mellowed out a little though.”

We went through the rest of the briefing, which was utterly pointless and somewhat of a waste of time, and finally, it was time to put our mission into action.

As I was climbing into my… I mean… The car that looked exactly like mine, down to the small dent I put in the rear bumper when I backed into a low wall at a Texaco garage many years ago, Alastair waved as if he wanted to say something.

“Matt”, he said, “whatever happens in that pub, don’t go waving y warrant card around, will you? We don’t need the additional attention.”

I closed the car door and rolled down the window. Seemingly their only mistake with the car: mine was a gray import from Ireland that came with A/C and manual windows. This model was air-conditioner free but had electric windows, so I grabbed in thin air a couple of times looking for the window-turny-thing (does that even have a name?), before looking down and finding a button instead of the already-nomenclaturely-confused turnyknobleverthing.

“You’ve never been a police officer have you?” I asked Alastair.

“Not as such.”

“Well, rest assured that I make a point of keeping my Queen’s Warrant in my wallet as much as I can when I’m not on duty. Without my radio or any of my personal protection kit, I’m just another member of the public. Contrary to popular belief, that credit-card-sized piece of plastic doesn’t make me knife-proof or a Jackie-Chan style ninja.”

“That,” Alastair said, as he pointed at me, “Is exactly what I wanted to hear. I’m glad we found you for this mission.” he said. Try as I might, I couldn’t help but feel a small swell of pride.

“Cheers, guv”, I said, and grabbed at thin air once more, before muttering inaudibly under my breath and using that new-fangled technology to make my window electri-magically rise.

I arrived at the pub a little before 19:10, parked up outside the pub, before cursing, changing my mind, and parking up outside the hotel instead. I checked in, left my car keys in the hotel room, and walked into the pub at exactly half past.

The pub was quite full already, but I couldn’t see Michaela anywhere. I ordered a fish and chips, and was delighted to find mushy peas on the menu as well. The food arrived suspiciously quickly, but I decided not to dwell on whether or not it had been microwaved instead of cooked properly, and wolfed down most of the food over the next seven minutes.

Every time the pub door opened, I glanced up, expecting Michaela to show up, but I was disappointed every time. At one point, a girl who looked a little like her walked in, but she looked me straight in the face without the faintest glimmer of recognition, so I figured it couldn’t be her.

I spent the next ten minutes agonising over whether I should go and introduce myself to her anyway, just in case I was wrong, and I was just a about to get up when Michaela – unmistakably Michaela – walked into the pub.

My table was about half-way across the room, and I was seated at an angle from the door, but she clocked me immediately, and walked straight over.

“Excuse me,” she said. “I know this is impossible, but… You’re Matthew, right?”

I blinked at her. Well, this was most definitely her. Aside from my mother – and then, only when I’ve done something naughty – she is the only person in the whole world who calls me Matthew; even my passport says ‘Matt’.

“I… am?” I said. Michaela was even more beautiful than I remembered – or perhaps being thirty-something just became her better than being twenty-something – and somehow the way she had asked me whether I was Matthew made me doubt it myself. Was I, indeed… Matthew?

“I am.” I concluded, interrupting my ludicrous internal monologue.

“Michaela!” I said.

“Actually, I go by Michelle these days”, she said. “Rolls off the tongue easier, wouldn’t you say?”

“But… Yeah, I suppose it does. But I liked Michaela. What on earth brings you here?”

“I come here every week, I should ask you the same”

“I’m here for a driving course” I said.

“Finally taking your licence, then?” she asked. I remembered: when we knew each other, she had her licence, and a beaten-up old Escort. Me? Not so much.

“Sort of,” I laughed. “I have a few licences these days, I just figured I’d get another one.”

“Awesome. So,” she said, leaning her elbows on the back of the chair across from me. Her blouse fell forward, and I caught a glimpse of a bright red, lacy bra. “May I join you?”

“You may,” I said, tearing my eyes away from the bright red of her undergarment, to the icy blue of her eyes, “If I may buy you a drink”.

“Ha, I win on both counts”, she laughed, “but he first one’s on me. You still drinking Stella?”

I shuddered at the thought. “You cut me deep, woman,” I said with a smile. “I’ve grown some class since university. Whatever local ale they have on tap, please.”

“Class? Who are you, and what have you done to Matthew?”

I laughed nervously.

“Well, I’m going to have some red wine.” she said. “Are you classy enough to join me for a bottle?”

“Go on, then.”

“Preferences?”

“Something old world?”

She smiled, and seemed to skip to the bar. I sat back in my chair as a waitress collected the last shreds of my dinner and my empty glass. It was remarkable how easily Michaela and I had fallen back into our old pattern. I put my arms behind my head and tipped my chair back a little, looking up into the ceiling. I could see only two tiny dome cameras – the type they usually use in supermarkets – but no other signs of surveillance. Seems as of MI5 were good at their surveiling.

Michaela returned with a bottle of Australian red wine, smiling at me defiantly. I knew that if I had said I preferred new-world tipple, she would have returned with a French or Italian bottle of alcoholic grapejuice. I smiled back – she hadn’t changed in the slightest.

“So, how have the last few years treated you, Matthew”, she said. “I can’t see a ring, but you look like you’ve been punched in the face a few times since the last time I saw you”.

“Haha, yeah, never did get hitched”, I said. “And the scars are from bar fights, would you believe it”

She looked at me for a long time, frozen mid-motion with a wine-glass in one hand, the bottle of red in the other.

“But that isn’t the whole story, right? Please tell me that you were fighting to the death for the honour of a fair maiden, at least.” Her eyes stayed locked on mine, as if she was trying to read my mind – exactly like she did the very first time we had met.

“As you say,” I admitted, “But that is a story best shared over a glass of wine.”

I dropped my eyes down to her hands, and she followed my eyes down, before she started laughing. She finally poured a couple of glasses of wine, and handed me one of them.

“Up yer bum”, she said.

“May your hangovers be as mild as your parties are wild”, I echoed the very first toast we had ever shared.

The quizmaster came around to sign people up to the quiz. When he arrived at our table, Michaela feigned complete surprise. She grinned widely at me, as if to challenge me. “For old times sake?”

“Why the devil not”

“Two, please,” she said, and produced a £10 note out of nowhere.

We caught up while we waited for the quiz to get started. She said she worked as a translator for the government, but as soon as I admitted to being Job, I couldn’t get another question in edgeways; she had never spoken to a police before, she said, and had a hundred and a half questions for me about what it was like.

If she had any reservations about talking with me – or if she was trying to find out whether I was there to spy on her – she hid it well; conversation was easy, and flowed quickly from subject to subject as the wine made it’s way from the bottle, via our glasses, into our faces. Before the quiz was even ready to start, the bottle was gone, and I shuffled to the bar to get another bottle.

If I actually had to show up at a driving school for high-speed advanced driving training at dawn the next day, the second bottle would have been an unprofessional – not to mention illegal and dangerous – move, but I decided to let myself be swept along with the moment.

“Translation pays pretty well, does it?” I remarked drily as I sat down at the table with another bottle of what we had already been drinking. I had to ask the bartender twice whether he had punched the right price into the cash register, and to find out whether he might have charged me for two – or even three – bottles by accident. To my surprise, the bar had a very extensive wine list, and whilst our bottle wasn’t remotely the most expensive bottle on the menu, it did cost well over a hundred quid.

“I thought you said your taste had gotten better”, she said,as she took a sip of the wine, keeping her eyes on mine.

“It has, but I don’t think I’ve ever ventured into triple digits on wine in a pub before”, I said.

She leaned forward, and beckoned me closer with a finger. “I do work as a translator, but I the work I do is mostly on intercepted wires and emails from Arabic-speaking countries,” she said, conspiratorially.

“What, like Iraq?” I asked

“Like that, yes.”

“Should you be telling me that?”

She laughed. “I already told you I was a translator and that I worked for the government. You know my languages, and if you were to put translator jobs in Cheltenham into Google, I’m pretty sure you’d get a pretty good picture.”

“So, are you, like, a spy?”, I said, and immediately regretted it. Michaela didn’t really react, however, and just studied my face for a moment. Perhaps a moment too long.

“Given that I never leave my little windowless office, I wouldn’t really be much of a spy, would I?”

“True”, I said, eager to change to subject. Luckily, the shrill shriek of the apparently mandatory pre-pubquiz feedback through the microphone and PA system interrupted our conversation, and had Michaela scrambling for our answer sheets.

The geography questions were laughably simple, and seemed to focus on unlikely capital cities (Brasilia, not Rio, is the capital of Brazil; and Canberra, not Sydney, is the capital of Australia – that sort of thing). We aced the round – and by ‘we’, I mean that I knew all the answers (of course…), but Michaela had already penned the answers down on the answers sheet before I was able to say anything.

For the next round, there were a series of questions about anatomy; this time Michaela allowed me to answer some of the questions, but again, we completely aced the round. The following two rounds – one on sports and one on Current Affairs – went by similarly. I the current affairs round, we had a brief disagreement; not on the answer itself, but on how to transliterate the name of someone with an Arab name, who had recently been arrested in Afghanistan. We settled the matter by letting Michaela write down the name in Arabic only. It was quite obvious that was going to cause an argument with the quiz master later in the evening, but Michaela argued that we ought to get bonus points rather than being docked. I doubted the quiz master would see it the same way, but it was rather undeniable that we would definitely be the only people who would have given the answer 100% correct. I just hoped that the MI5 CCTV cameras would have a clear view of the answers sheet, in case the Arabic contained any messages.

As the evening went on, I discovered that Michaela was the same delectable cocktail of headstrong, saucy, and deep-dark-humoured as she had always been, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel the echoes of what had gone on between us all those years ago. The pub evening was fun, care-free, and all around lovely.

“Okay, we’ve now reached our half-way point”, said the quizmaster. “and I will read out the answers and the scores for all of the teams.

He read out the answers for the first few rounds, and paused at the question we had answered in Arabic.

“Does anyone here read Arabic”, he said. Michaela’s hand shot up in triumph, but so did two others. One of them was sitting two tables away from us, the other was propping up the bar. “I should have known, we’re close enough to the doughnut”, he said.

I looked closer at the two people who had confessed to reading Arabic, as the quizmaster went around to them with our answer sheet. The lady at the table simply nodded; “that’s right” she said. The man at the bar looked familiar; I had a funny feeling I had seen him at the service station earlier in the day. Of course, I realised. I wasn’t going to be the only person from this operation in the pub.

“Do you know him?” Michaela asked when she saw me staring.

“No,” I said, perhaps a little bit too quickly. “I was just interested to see how many people speak an obscure language in a random pub”.

“It isn’t that random – it’s the best pub for miles, and it’s not far from an apartment complex where GCHQ put up their guests and temporary workers.”

“Do you know them?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s Nina”, she said, pointing with her wine glass to the table. “I don’t know who he is, but I’ve seen him around campus, so I’m guessing he works with me as well.”

The quizmaster got back on the PA system after another round of squeaking. You’d have thought he would have figured about how feedback worked by now, but apparently that wasn’t the case. “Team Cunning Linguists answered the question in Arabic, but I will accept any answer that is vaguely correct – it seems to me we have at least half a dozen spellings here”

“Don’t we deserve a bonus point?” Michaela called out.

“Nope, sorry. How’s this: if you tie with another team, you’ll get an extra half point as a tie breaker?” he said with a sigh. I got the impression that he had had these arguments with Michaela in the past, too.

The music round started, with a pretty cool twist: for each question, the quizmaster played a short clip of a song, which we’d have to use to identify the song or band, and then a follow-up question. The first question was kicked off by Whitney Houston crooning that she would always love us, with the question ‘who wrote and performed the song originally’. To my surprise, it was the first question of the evening that Michaela didn’t know.

“I thought it was Whitney who did it first? In the Bodyguard?” she pondered.

“Nope,” I said triumphantly. “It was first recorded in the 1970s, by Dolly Parton!”

“You’ve got to be joking!” she said, leaping forward, with her elbows leaning on the table, looking at me intently with a face painted in equal shades of confusion and incredulity.

“Nope, definitely true.”

Michaela sat back in her chair, peering at me over her wine glass. “I didn’t take you for a country fan, Matthew”, she said, mockingly.

“I’m not,” I said. “But I went to a rather embarrassing stag do once. I thought we were going to Vegas, but it turned out we went to Tennessee to go see Graceland and be steeped in Americana for a long week-end. Graceland was a bit dreary, but we went to Dollywood as well, and it was every bit as camp as it sounded. Perfect for a stag do”, I laughed, and tried my very best not to check whether she was buying my story.

“Hah,” she said, looking at me, before downing the rest of her glass of wine. I steeled myself for an argument, but she simply shrugged and penned down Dolly Parton in her neat handwriting.

The next song that blasted through the pub was Hit me With your Best Shot by Pat Benatar, with the follow-up question “What was the singer’s real name”.

Michelle eyed me, wondering if I knew the answer.

“I know this”, I said, “but I can’t think what it is…”

“I think she had a Polish name, didn’t she?” she asked.

“Yeah, that does ring a bell. Something like Andrewevski, wasn’t it?”

A dark shadow fell over Michaela’s face for the briefest of moments. She wrote down ‘Patricia Awaryjne’, and turned the sheet to me.

“No that’s not it”, I said. “Definitely something that sounds like Andrew”.

“I don’t know”, she said, “If you don’t know for sure, I think we should go with Awaryjne”.

This is the point where I should start arguing, I realised, but at the same time, I couldn’t for the life of me remember exactly how Pat Benatar’s real last name was actually spelled. Shit.

“How do you use the ‘ski’ suffix in polish? I’m nearly sure her name is the Polish version of ‘Andrewson'”, I started, and made a mental note to put ‘awarynje’ into Google Translate. There was something flickering in Michaela’s eyes, but I couldn’t quite tell what.

I was about to launch into a more fierce argument, when I spotted a movement behind Michaela. The man who had spoken Arabic was putting on his coat. As his eyes met mine, he made a throat-slashing movement with his hand; the signal we had agreed would mean to abort my mission and play dumb.

“Actually…”, I said, “What you’ve written down there looks right after all”

A smile flashed across Michaela’s face. Grateful? Relieved? I couldn’t really tell, and before I had time to dwell on it any further, the opening chord to the Beatles’ Hard Days Night rang through the PA system. The follow-up question ‘what is the name of the chord that opens this song’ caused a lot of laughter from the guitarists in the crowd (myself included), and looks of utter confusion from everyone else. The combination of the wall of sound and the laughter shattered the ice between me and Michaela, and the rest of the evening was a cavalcade of lovely.

The pub quiz was crawling to an end, and we were sipping the last of our second bottle of wine. The quizmaster came back on, and started rattling through the rest of the answers (it was ‘Andrzejewski’, but only one team got that answer right. I didn’t comment, and Michaela pretended not to hear the correct answer). Once the correct answers were it of the way, the quizmaster moved on to the team names and their scores, each to polite but distinctly unenthusiastic applause. Finally, he reached the top three, and he still hadn’t called out our team name yet.

“In third place, the Fallopian Swim Team”, he announced, holding up a mildly obscene EP single. “They also win this vinyl copy of the Vengaboys’ hit record ‘Going to Ibiza'”, the rest of his announcement was drowned in laughter; presumably, the Swim Team had won the record for tonight’s best team name.

“And now… The winners. For the very first time in the Cock and Dike’s pub quiz, we have two first places.”

Michaela immediately tensed up and was about to launch a protest, but I reached over and grabbed her hand to keep her quiet. She sat back down on her chair, an took my hand in both of hers, with a little smile.

“With 65 points, the Cunning Linguists and the James Dean Driving School are tied in first place.” the quizmaster had to pause until the roar from somewhere at the rear of the pub died down.

“However, the Linguists did get a half-point tiebreaker for their answer in Arabic. So; I’m going to split the prize in half, but the Cunning Linguists will get the bragging rights for this quiz!” he concluded, before bringing us a gift certificate for £37 to spend in the pub. I took it from the quizmaster, and handed it over to Michaela.

“You probably come here more often than I do” I said.

“Yes” she said, and stared at the voucher for a few seconds.

“Or we could spend it on breakfast together tomorrow” she said, with a sly wink and a non-committal shrug. “Your hotel is only just across the road, isn’t it?”

I panicked. Yes, my hotel was just across the road, but I didn’t have any bags, no toiletries, and I most certainly wasn’t in the mood to have to get up early and get in a car the next morning to keep my cover story intact. Also; I had a job to do, and sleeping with Michaela seemed as if it might be just a little bit beyond the job description. My mind was racing, but I couldn’t think of a single good excuse for stopping the inevitable disaster.

We left the pub and started walking towards my hotel when someone called after us.

“Hey, Michelle! Do you want a lift?” the voice said. We both turned around; it was Nina, Michaela’s coworker, the woman who had checked our answer in the pub.

Michaela looked over at me, then back at Nina.

“Maybe you should…” I said, and suddenly remembered the warm body I had left in my bed what seemed like an eternity ago. “It would have been lovely, but I have someone waiting for me back at home”.

She looked back at me. Without a word, she kissed me on the lips; her breath smelled faintly of red wine. As she turned back to Nina, she waved, and ran back to her, leaving a faint trail of her perfume behind. I caught a waft of it as she greeted her friend. It didn’t fade until they both got in the car – a sleek little Mazda 3 – and sped off into the distance.

A honk from a car horn finally broke me out of my daydream, and I realised I was still standing in the middle of the road. I apologised with a little wave to the driver, and half-stumbled back to my hotel. I fished my smashed iPhone put of my pocket and meant to use Google Translate, but stumbled face-first into my pillow instead. I don’t drink much these days, and a whole bottle of red was enough to make me very sleepy indeed…

Dun! Dun dun dun! Dun dun dun! Dun dun duuuuuun! I woke, as per usual, to my alarm playing the admittedly bad written representation of Eye of the Tiger. That particular alarm tone had started as a prank played on one of my colleagues (we set the alarm on my phone to go off just after he would have gotten into an ambulance after being clocked in the face by a boxer during an arrest, and I never bothered to change the alarm tone back). I laid there, eyes closed, waiting for my cruel red-wine-induced hang-over to make itself known. Some times, it takes a little while, so I figured if I didn’t move, I might be able to enjoy another couple of painless minutes before Captain Alcohol exacted its well-deserved revenge.

I laid still in my bed for several minutes, but… I actually felt pretty good, I realised. A little bit hungry, maybe. I opened one eye, as if testing the waters. I opened the other, too, and as the world ever-so-slowly drifted into focus, saw a familiar lamp-shade on the ceiling.

“What the…” I said out loud, realising I was in my own bed. Then I lowered my voice, rolling over to the other side of the bed; Kim wasn’t there.

I was confused. Kim? Why would Kim have been in my bed in the first place? I turned back to the other side of my bed, where my iPhone 3GS was merrily chirping out the opening bars to Eye of the Tiger for the sixth time. On my night-stand. With a perfectly intact screen.

“You have got to be joking me”, I mumbled to nobody in particular. “The first time in months that anything actually interesting happens to me, and it turns out to be a sodding dream?”

And yet – the dream had seemed so realistic. Especially, I realised, the part where I had gotten used to having Kim in my bed.

As I pulled my motorcycle leathers on in anticipation of the short ride to the police station, I resolved to at least try and do something about my crush on my colleague.

… And maybe find out how you apply for a job at MI5.

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9 responses to “An unusual mission

    • the clue was “Awaryjne” – heck he even says to use google translate! I did that at that point and realized I was it was the “Dallas episode”

  1. You should write a book. I know it’s been done by loads of people in the job, but I really do like your writing style, it’s very engaging.

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