Authors: Michael Walsh
Tags: #Mystery And Suspense Fiction, #Officials and employees, #Intelligence officers, #Fiction - Espionage, #American Mystery & Suspense Fiction, #United States., #Political, #Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945), #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #Prevention, #Cyberterrorism - Prevention, #National Security Agency, #General & Literary Fiction, #Suspense Fiction, #Terrorism, #Thriller
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
For JoAnn Cahill
Dressed entirely in black, Amanda Harrington stood silent as the chauffeur opened the Bentley’s rear passenger door, and involuntarily flinched as she got in.
Nothing on the seat. Nothing on the center console. No note, no gifts, no flowers, no champagne, no chocolate. Good.
She relaxed a little as the liveried driver closed the door. The drugs had worn off after about a month—he had given her a far stronger dose than the attending physicians at Cromwell Hospital had at first thought—and they said it was a miracle that she hadn’t died. It took another couple of months for her to be able to breathe without mechanical assistance, and still more time to regain the use of her limbs.
Then it was another few months at Bethlem Royal, where she underwent a battery of psychological tests and counseling, to make sure she was ready to take her place back in society, that the stress of reentry—and the possibility of encountering
—would not be too much for her still-fragile psyche to bear.
All of this was done in complete seclusion and secrecy. Of the events in France, the newspapers and the BBC had carried not a word; the British government had thrown the cloak of the Official Secrets Act around the whole episode, managed her affairs while she recovered, tended to her property in London as well as to a villa in Costa Rica that nobody even knew she owned. She didn’t know who had ordered that courtesy, or why, but at this point she was simply grateful to be allowed to return home. Even with the shock of her terrible loss still as fresh as it had been nine months ago.
London in the summer was a dicey proposition, but today was as warm and welcoming as it got. Still, she felt a little chill wash over her as the car pulled up in front of her home, 4 Kensington Park Gardens in Holland Park.
“Your residence, madam,” said the driver, opening the door and offering her an arm. Amanda accepted it gratefully.
The man—he was either Indian or Pakistani, which was far from unusual in London—gently but firmly helped her up the few steps to the front door of her home. “May I help you with your keys, madam?” he inquired.
“No, thank you, that’s quite all right,” she replied. Though she was still weak, she wanted to be able to do something for herself, and entering her own home under her own steam was a good place to start.
“You’re quite sure?” The man was very kind, and he had a pleasing twinkle in his eye, as if her infirmity was a secret that only the two of them shared.
“Yes, quite sure,” she said, trying to smile but failing. She put the key in the lock and turned it. It opened with the same satisfying
she was so used to, and for a brief moment all seemed right with the world. The door swung open, and the front hall lay before her.
As the driver fetched her luggage, Amanda stood in the doorway, breathing in the familiar smells. It seemed that she had been gone for ages, and that she had just left, on his order, bringing with her what he had called so vulgarly the “insurance policy…”
No—she didn’t want to think about that. Not yet. Not now. Maybe not ever.
The driver was standing behind her, her belongings in his hands. “Madam?” he prompted.
Amanda stood aside to let him pass, and he went into the hallway. “Set them down there, thank you,” she said.
She managed to muster a weak smile of confidence. “Yes, thank you. That will be all.”
They stood in the doorway for an awkward moment, and this time it was he who stepped aside to allow her entry. Then he moved past her, onto the top step, nodded, and turned to go.
“I’m terribly afraid I’ve completely forgotten my manners,” said Amanda suddenly, fumbling in her purse. But the driver waved her off without a word: he was not accepting gratuities today. “In that case,” said Amanda, “please tell me your name.”
“Achmed,” said the man, with a slight bow.
“Thank you, Achmed,” said Amanda. And then he was gone.
Inside the house, Amanda fixed the lock once more but made no further move to enter her home. Instead, she stood stock-still, as if listening for voices. But the only sound she could hear was that of her own shallow breathing.
She turned right, into the parlor. If there was going to be anything, she hoped it would be here, right in the first room, to spare her any further suspense. But the room was as she had left it, the piano still in the corner, the books still on the shelves, even the decanters still on the sideboard. She felt like pouring herself a drink, but the doctors had warned her not to, not for a while anyway. Perhaps tomorrow. Or next week. Or never.
Again, she listened. Again, nothing.
Amanda returned to the hall and started up the steps. She left the luggage in the hallway. There was plenty of time to retrieve it, and besides she had closets full of clothing upstairs. It suddenly occurred to her to wonder how she had come to have any luggage at all, since she had brought almost nothing to France, but someone must have provided her with some of her things during her long hospital stay.
Maybe him. God, she hoped not.
She ascended the long flight of stairs up to the first floor.
Nothing but silence greeted her at the stop of the stairs. The guest rooms yawned tidy but empty. There wasn’t a speck of dust anywhere, nothing to betray her long absence.
She went up another flight of stairs, to her floor, her personal floor. The one that had been
The door to the child’s room was shut, and she decided not to enter it. Too many bad memories there. She sniffed the air: faintly, just faintly, she believed she could make out the smell of Indian food, one of their last meals together here.
She turned back to her bedroom. The bed was made, her things exactly where she had left them. Cautiously, she kicked off her shoes and scrunched her toes against the carpet. Then she lay down, across the bed, staring at the ceiling, glad she was home at last and yet wishing she were anywhere but here, feeling every inch a bereaved mother, every inch an orphan and every inch a widow.
How long she lay like that she could not tell, but eventually she was awakened by the soft tones of a mobile phone, ringing somewhere in the house. Somewhere nearby.
That was impossible. Her legendary battery of mobiles, BlackBerrys, and PDAs had been lost in France and not replaced. She lay there, not wishing to rise, hoping that the sound was merely an illusion, an after-effect of her ordeal, a side effect of her treatments.
The sound stopped. She breathed in. And then the ringing started again.
There must be a phone in the house she had forgotten about. One that she had left plugged in. One whose service somehow hadn’t been canceled.
No, it was impossible. But something was still ringing.
Amanda rose and moved toward the bedroom door. The sound grew louder.
She stepped into the hall: louder still. She prayed to a God she didn’t quite believe in that it was not coming from down the hall. From
room. But it was.
No. She had free will. She had free choice. She didn’t have to answer it.
The ring tone stopped, then started up again almost immediately. This time there was no denying it: somebody was calling her.
A crazy thought struck her. Maybe it was
. Her child. No matter what those doctors had tried to tell her, tried to beat out of her, tried to beat into her, no matter how much she understood rationally that the whole thing had been a delusion, deep down she didn’t believe them. She knew herself, knew her instincts, knew her inner voices.
She stopped, caught herself. No. Her lover was dead.
was gone. It was over.
And then the phone rang again and this time she knew she had no choice. She had to answer it. Had to go in
She opened the door. The room was just as she had left it nine months ago, a perfect dream room for a twelve-year-old girl, filled with fluffy pillows and stuffed animals. She could practically smell her presence, and if she squinted hard enough, could imagine that she saw the outlines of the girl’s body still visible in the bedclothes. Then the phone rang again.
Now she heard the melody clearly: Schubert’s
. She shuddered, moved in the direction of the sound, searching for it until she realized that it was staring right at her: on Emma’s bed, lying atop the stack of pillows like the princess atop the pea.
It was still ringing as she picked it up, if you could call what phones did these days ringing. “Hello?” she said in a voice that she hoped was strong. She flinched at the silence, dreading whatever was at the other end of the line. Waiting, waiting…
And then he spoke: “Compassionate leave is over. It’s time to get back to work.”
Amanda Harrington collapsed unconscious onto the floor.
Either a universe that is all order,
or else a farrago thrown together at random,
yet somehow forming a universe.
, Book IV