Alex walked out of the office and through a concrete car-park. It was filled with cars, their states of cleanliness and relative newness indicating the areas belonging to the various ranks in the office. By far the majority of the car-park was filled with cars at least five years old, usually unwashed but dusty rather than muddy, and they often had stuffed toys on the back windowsill, or a box of wet-wipes, or something else that suggested to the trained eye that the owner had children. Closest to the building were the most expensive cars, parked in the reserved bays. Here were the Jaguars and Aston Martins, large black or navy blue cars with just enough chrome trim to be ostentatious without drawing too much attention to themselves. I have more money than you, the cars proclaimed, but they had a sense about them that they were being watched and keying them, however casually, would not go unseen. There were small pockets of Range Rovers and SUVs, and they were all immaculately turned out as though they’d been freshly through a car-wash. They clustered together like schoolgirls wanting to talk about the others behind their backs. They annoyed Alex, but more because he didn’t know anyone who drove one. And finally, as he was leaving the car-park, there were the bike lockers and the motorcycle bays, pushed out on the edge where their owners doubtless enjoyed being. Alex had tried cycling once and decided that he simply wasn’t sanctimonious enough for it and had sold the bike to a neighbour who lived three doors down and had the weather-abraded skin of a cycling addict. He’d never seen the bike again, and hadn’t regretted it for a moment.
Outside the car-park was a quiet road that joined two suburban streets together. All around the area was mostly housing, with the occasional children’s playground and a small park. The office building here was nondescript, and deliberate so, and was where Spyte was headquartered, though no sign announced its presence. Spyte was the government’s latest solution to the problems of a failing civil service; they’d outsourced much of their intelligence gathering activity to people who did it better. GCHQ provided Spyte with a thick cable down which prodigious amounts of data gleaned from all over the world gushed, and Spyte brought together analysts and cryptographers and big-data manipulators to tame the flow and turn it into dossiers and catalogues and Power-Point presentation decks that could bore a politician into an agreeable stupor in under half an hour.
Spyte also provided a small capacity for actual agents, people trained in the cold-war arts of espionage, of shepherding foreign nationals with valuable information through customs points and across geographical boundaries in places where all you could see was the sky and the earth, one far above and one too far below. They handled wet tasks, where actual people were needed, sometimes to observe, sometimes to enable, and sometimes, very rarely, to disable or even kill. They were known as White Agents, for the Carte Blanche they were given to carry out their activities, on the understanding that if they were caught then they’d been acting alone and without authorisation. There was never any budget for rectifying mistakes or retrieving lost agents.
Alex walked down the street as though he was heading for the high road, where the two sandwich shops vied for the title of worst sandwich provider. Currently in the lead was Macmillans, who’d managed to make a sandwich with lettuce and mouse-droppings the last time Alex had dared to eat there, completely forgetting the salami that had been the point and the name of the food. As he neared the high road though, he turned off down a cul-de-sac, and then used a narrow little alley that appeared to dead-end to find a waist high wall that he vaulted agilely over. He landed, both feet, in a freshly dug flower bed in Beaconfield park, and trudged across a newly mown lawn to an ornate and uncomfortable cast-iron bench. As he sat down he looked ruefully at his shoes, which looked as though they’d been turfed themselves, and wondered how long it would take to get them clean that evening.
“Well, well, if it isn’t David Attenborough,” said a high-pitched, almost girlish little voice. A man with thick-lensed black plastic glasses and a paunch that spilled two inches over the waistband of his trousers sat down on the bench next to Alex. He looked a little like Jarvis Cocker might if he gained ten stone and drank his evening meal in the form of six pints of Real Ale. “Did you find anything fun in the undergrowth?”
“Only orchids,” said Alex, letting bitterness tinge his words a little. He stamped his feet one at a time on the ground, dislodging some lumps of mud and not enough of the grass. “I have some numbers for you.”
“Yes, yes,” said the man. They exchange code numbers, both affecting not to listen or care, and both mentally checking the numbers against the ones they’d been given on the phone call. Only when they were both happy that the exchange was correct did their conversation actually start.
“Rosa Lindenbaum,” said the fat man. “Her details are being emailed to you.”
“You want me to find her?”
“We know where she is, she’s dead,” said the fat man. “We want you to find out how she died. Not where she died, or when she died, but how. And if there was anyone there with her.”
“Won’t the Coroner tell you that?”
“He’s told us already, and we don’t believe it.”
Alex stood up. “Thanks,” he said. The fat man nodded, and pointed to the gate.
“There’s less mud that way,” he said.