Thomas Kell woke up in a strange bed, in a strange house, in a city with which he was all too familiar. It was eleven o’clock on a August morning in the eighth month of his enforced retirement from the Secret Intelligence Service. He was a forty-two-year-old man, estranged from his forty-three-year-old wife, with a hangover comparable in range and intensity to the reproduction Jackson Pollock hanging on the wall of his temporary bedroom.
Where the hell was he? Kell had unreliable memories of a fortieth birthday party in Kensington, of a crowded cab to a bar in Dean Street, of a nightclub in the wilds of Hackney – after that, everything was a blank.
He pulled back the duvet. He saw that he had fallen asleep in his clothes. Toys and magazines were piled up in one corner of the room. He climbed to his feet, searched in vain for a glass of water and opened the curtains. His mouth was dry, his head tight as a compress as he adjusted to the light.
It was a grey morning, shiftless and damp. He appeared to be on the first floor of a semi-detached house of indeterminate location in a quiet residential street. A small pink bicycle was secured in the drive by a loop of black cable, thick as a python. A hundred metres away, a learner driver with Jackie’s School of Motoring had stalled midway through a three-point turn. Kell closed the curtains and listened for signs of life in the house. Slowly, like a half-remembered anecdote, fragments of the previous evening began to assemble in his mind. There had been trays of shots: absinthe and tequila. There had been dancing in a low-roofed basement. He had met a large group of Czech foreign students and talked at length about Mad Men and Don Draper. Kell was fairly sure that at a certain point he had shared a cab with an enormous man named Zoltan. Alcoholic blackouts had been a regular feature of his youth, but it had been many years since he had woken up with next to no recollection of a night’s events; twenty years in the secret world had taught him the advantage of being the last man standing.
Kell was looking around for his trousers when his mobile phone began to ring. The number had been withheld.
At first, through the fog of his hangover, Kell failed to recognize the voice. Then the familiar cadence came back to him.
Jimmy Marquand was a former colleague of Kell’s, now one of the high priests of SIS. His was the last hand Kell had shaken before taking his leave of Vauxhall Cross on a crisp December morning eight months earlier.
‘We have a problem.’
‘No small talk?’ Kell said. ‘Don’t want to know how life is treating me in the private sector?’
‘This is serious, Tom. I’ve walked half a mile to a phone box in Lambeth so the call won’t be scooped. I need your help.’
‘Personal or professional?’ Kell located his trousers beneath a blanket on the back of a chair.
‘We’ve lost the Chief.’
That stopped him. Kell reached out and put a hand against a wall in the bedroom. Suddenly he was as sober and clear-headed as a child.
‘Vanished. Five days ago. Nobody has any workable idea where the hell she’s gone or what’s happened to her.’
‘She?’ The anti-Rimington brigade within MI6 had long been allergic to the notion of a female Chief. It was almost beyond belief that the all-male inmates at Vauxhall Cross had finally allowed a woman to be appointed to the most prestigious position in British Intelligence. ‘When did that happen?’
‘There’s a lot you don’t know,’ Marquand replied. ‘A lot that’s changed. I can’t say any more if we’re talking like this.’
Then why are we talking at all? Kell thought. Do they want me to come back after everything that happened? Have Kabul and Yassin just been brushed under the carpet? ‘I’m not working for George Truscott,’ he said, saving Marquand the effort of asking the question. ‘I’m not coming back if Haynes still has his hands on the tiller.’
‘Just for this,’ Marquand replied.
It was almost the truth. Then Kell found himself saying: ‘I’m beginning to enjoy having nothing to do,’ which was an outright lie. There was a noise on the other end of the line that might have been the extinguishing of Marquand’s hopes.
‘Tom, it’s important. We need a re-tread, somebody who knows the ropes. You’re the only one we can trust.’
Who was ‘we’? The high priests? The same men who had turfed him out over Kabul? The same men who would happily have sacrificed him to the public inquiry currently assembling its tanks on the SIS lawn?
‘Trust?’ he replied, putting on a shoe.
‘Trust,’ said Marquand. It almost sounded as though he meant it.
Kell went to the window and looked outside, at the pink bicycle, at Jackie’s learner driver moving through the gears. What did the rest of his day hold? Aspirin and daytime TV. Hair-of-the-dog bloody Marys at the Greyhound Inn. He had spent eight months twiddling his thumbs; that was the truth of his new life in the ‘private sector’. Eight months watching black-and-white matinees on TCM and drinking his pay-off in the pub. Eight months struggling to salvage a marriage that would not be saved.
‘There must be somebody else who can do it,’ he said. He hoped that there was nobody else. He hoped that he was getting back in the game.
‘The new Chief isn’t just anybody,’ Marquand replied. ‘Amelia Levene made “C”. She was due to take over in six weeks.’ He had played his ace. Kell sat down on the bed, pitching slowly forwards. Throwing Amelia into the mix changed everything. ‘That’s why it has to be you, Tom. That’s why we need you to find her. You were the only person at the Office who really knew what made her tick.’ He sugared the pill, in case Kell was still wavering. ‘It’s what you’ve wanted, isn’t it? A second chance? Get this done and the file on Yassin will be closed. That’s coming from the highest levels. Find her and we can bring you in from the cold.’