Taking off from Fuerteventura at nine p.m., we soared upwards through a glorious sunset. The air outside the terminal had been so hot I'd nearly choked when I left the air-conditioned departures lounge. I was wearing a halter top and a little flippy skirt that showed the Spanish ground crew exactly what colour my bikini bottoms were.
When we landed at Stansted it was just after one in the morning. And it was cold.
"Jesus Christ," I gasped as the Stansted ramp boys got a view of my underwear, "don't they get summer here?"
"This is England," Angel said. "So of course not."
Between us, we knew pretty much everyone at the airport, the dispatchers and luggage loaders, the gate staff and baggage agents. By the time we'd got through saying hello to everyone, and by the time they'd all finished complimenting Angel on her perfect all over tan, and asking me if I'd perhaps been to another island--say, Greenland--it was nearly two in the morning. We grabbed our baggage and stumbled out into Arrivals.
Where a tall, handsome man with shiny hair and great teeth was waiting, holding a dozen long-stem red roses and looking right at us. I nudged Angel. She spied him, abandoned her case and rushed into his arms.
"Harvey! My God, I've missed you so much!"
This was true. Pretty much all she'd done was sit around going "I wonder what Harvey'll be doing now? I wonder if Harvey misses me? I wonder if he'll be at home when we get in?"
But Harvey, all-American wonder-boy, had gone one better and turned up. At two in the morning. With flowers.
I looked around. I checked my mobile. No Luke.
"Hey, Sophie," Harvey said, when he'd unsuckered himself from Angel. "Good trip?"
I smiled. Harvey really was just so lovely. "Great," I said.
"Did you stay in the shade all week?"
I scowled. "I have Celtic ancestry," I said. "I don't tan."
He grinned. "Well, it's bad for you, anyway."
I don't care. I still want to be brown.
"Do you need a ride home?" he asked, and I shook my head.
"Ted's in the car park. I'll speak to you tomorrow, Ange?"
She nodded and spied someone over on Baggage. "I'm just going to say hi to Aletta," she said, tugging Harvey after her, and he grabbed her suitcase and followed like the good boy he is.
I hefted my big case, which had seemed somehow lighter before I saw Harvey, and trudged to the lift, searching in my bag for my car keys. I get a staff parking place because my day job (or sometimes my night job) is being a passenger service agent at the airport, just like Angel. We check people in, board them at the gate and generally pander to their whims.
I need this day job because my other job is slightly unpredictable. I'm a spy. I work for a very small, very secretive government agency called SO17, along with my boss and three other agents. Luke is one of those agents. Only two people outside the British government know of our existence, and I've just waved goodbye to them. Angel's parents were agents, and Harvey is on secondment from the CIA.
I spied Ted waiting for me, stumbled up to him gratefully, feeling unbelievably cold, and had a small panic attack about where I'd left my car park pass. And then I saw it in the door bucket, and felt quite stupid.
I collapsed into him, running my hands over him appreciatively, and sighed. I was home. So long as I was with Ted, nothing bad could happen to me.
Well, apart from when Luke and I had that massive break up in the front seats. And that time someone got in the car and pressed a gun to my head. And there was the crash incident. But we survived, me and Ted, we're resilient.
I looked over Ted's big bonnet. He's a Land Rover Defender, my jolly green giant, big and solid and utterly cool, and I adore him. He's got me out of a lot of trouble, has Ted. I started him up, and he rumbled happily, glad to see me again. I put him in gear and pointed him homewards, and off we went, round the roundabouts, along the little back roads, nearly home by the time my mobile started ringing in my bag.
Luke, I thought, and picked it up. But the display read One, and I clicked onto the call gloomily. One is our boss--we have numbers according to seniority. Luke is Three. I'm Four. I'm not allowed to put anyone's real name in my phone directory, so I just entered them under their numbers.
"Hello?" I yawned.
"Sophie?" Her voice was clipped and cool. "You've landed. Good. Where are you?"
"On my way home." Yes, I know it's illegal to use a mobile when driving. Who's going to catch me at two in the morning?
"Can you call into the office? I have something for you."
Why did I get the feeling this "something" was not going to be of the present variety?
Our office was in the airport business park, a couple of hundred yards behind me, so I turned around in a lay-by and swung back on myself. There was a blue Saab parked outside. Karen Hanson's car. The boss was in.
I swiped myself in and went through to her little office. Our headquarters are really small--two offices and a secret lab. The offices are made up to look like ordinary, boring pre-fab offices everywhere, with hessian on the walls and dying potted plants scattered about. The lab is subterranean and accessed only with a swipe card pass, PIN code and voice recognition.
It's really, really cool.
Karen was waiting for me, looking her usual immaculate self even in the middle of the night. "Good trip?" she asked curtly.
"Yeah, great," I said. "Really relaxi--"
"Good," Karen said. "Now it's back to work."
"I haven't even got home yet!"
"This is not an issue. You are aware, are you not, Four, that Five is currently working in America, tracking a businessman with bad connections?"
Five was Macbeth, who started at SO17 the same time as me, and fast-tracked his way to Competent Agent in about half a day. I, on the other hand, still usually need someone to baby-sit me. "What kind of bad connections?"
"Mafiosi. His name is Don Shapiro--short for Donald, but not many people know that. He's actually British and we're trying to, shall we say, discourage him from coming home."
She looked up at me and I, feeling something was needed, nodded seriously.
"Where do I come in?"
Oh, Jesus. I hate being bait. Luke is always making me do this. Just because I'm blonde and have big boobs, I'm always the decoy. We never seem to investigate women. Or gay men. I would so love to see Luke making a fool of himself the way I usually do.
"The case is in Five's hands, but I presume you know the drill by now?"
I nodded disconsolately and she handed me a file. "I suggest you familiarise yourself with this."
She gave me a penetrating look. "Do you have a more pressing appointment?"
Yes, with my bed. I was knackered.
"No," I sighed, and took the file out to the outer office, kicked off my sandals and flumped down in the desk chair to read.
Don Shapiro was of Italian-American descent. He had been brought up in the UK. His wife and his son were British. Well, actually, she was his ex-wife. They'd been divorced for ten years and the kid only saw his father in the school holidays. He went to boarding school in Scotland.
Mr. Shapiro was officially in the import/export business. I say officially, because I once had to shadow a banker who turned out to be trying to rule the world. People are never what they seem.
I can personally vouch for that.
I read the file through about four times, but I hardly absorbed any information. My brain was broken. Words were swimming. By the time Karen breezed through the office, on her way home, the sky was getting light and my eyelids were getting very heavy.
"Shouldn't you be on your way?" she said, and I blinked.
"Yes. Tired. Very tired."
"Not home," she said. "To the airport."
I stared in horror.
Karen flipped to the last page of the report. There was an airline ticket tucked in there. British Airways, Heathrow to JFK. In two hours.
"Best get a move on," she said briskly. "Don't want to miss the flight."
Wouldn't that be a tragedy?
I'd like to say that my job is all about glamour. Fast cars, slinky dresses, lethal cocktails... But in reality here I was, trundling down the M11 in the skinny hours of the morning, wiping sleep from my eyes and shivering in the cold. Ted's heater had never been particularly efficient, and since I crashed him a couple of months ago, keeping warm has meant wearing a jumper. Or a boyfriend.
And right now I was a bit short on both.
I was halfway round the M25, trying to remember how to get to the hell that is Heathrow airport and suspecting I'd gone the wrong way, when my phone started bleeping and buzzing in my lap. I jumped, nearly swerved into the middle lane and managed to get the hands-free extension in before I answered with a very sleepy, "Hello?"
"Where the hell are you?"
I blinked tiredly at the road signs and started the overcomplicated procedure of changing lanes. Well, it's complicated for me, anyway. I'm not terribly bright.
"Hello, Luke," I said.
"Where are you?"
"On my way to the airport."
There was a pause. "You'd better not mean Fuerteventura airport."
"Of course not."
"I mean Heathrow airport."
Another pause. "Why are you on your way to Heathrow?" Luke asked wearily.
"Because that's where my flight's going from."
"What? From? Sophie, you're not making any sense."
"I'm going to New York."
This time the pause was longer. Then the man I'm sleeping with asked me, "Are you on drugs?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Why are you going to New York?"
"Karen sent me."
"Something wrong with Macbeth?"
"Apparently Don Shapiro isn't partial to fifteen stone black men."
"She's sending you out there as bait?" Luke asked incredulously, and I scowled at the Mondeo in front.
"That's the impression I got."
Luke was silent a bit. Then he said, "How long will you be?"
"I don't know." I hoped not long. I wanted to see the Big Apple, but something told me I'd not have much time for sightseeing. I'd been bait before, and it had never ended well. "Not long. Probably Macbeth just wants to get Shapiro out of the way so he can scope out his hotel room." I yawned and nearly missed my exit. "Shit!"
"Four Weddings moment."
"Tell me you didn't just reverse into the traffic?"
"Do you want me to? I think Ted could take it."
There was a longer silence. I could imagine a lot of expressions on Luke's face, none of them very complimentary.
"I'll let you concentrate on your driving," he said eventually. "Call me when you get there?"
"I will," I said, touched.
"Just so I know you're not in Johannesburg or something."
I wrinkled my nose, less touched.
"I'll speak to you later."
When I first met Luke Sharpe, he gave me a false name and pretended to be Italian. It wasn't really his fault--he was undercover at the airport. He was sexy Luca from Roma, and everyone fancied him.
And then I found out who he really was, he washed out the dark hair dye and took away the coloured contact lenses and there he was, my blue-eyed boy, sexy as hell, the image of the man I'd always wanted.
Five days later we had sex in the rubble of an abandoned building site. It probably wasn't the best way to start our relationship, but there was a nice quality of drama to it. We bounced around for a while (no, not like that. Well, okay, yes, a lot like that), trying to figure out how we felt about each other, if we felt anything at all. I think a large percentage of what I feel for Luke is pure lust. The jury's still out on what he sees in me.
I don't mean that masochistically. There are days when I look in the mirror and think, damn, I'm hot. And there are days when I look in the mirror and it breaks. Luke must have caught me on a good day the first time he saw me, because the main SO17 hypothesis is that he hired me because he wanted to shag me. That's really the only explanation anyone can think of. I'm a rotten spy. I make mistakes, I forget things, I'm quite terrified of my gun--
Dammit, my gun! It was still at home. I was going to New York and I didn't have a gun. That's like going to church without a hat, isn't it?
I picked up my phone again as I navigated the complex route Karen had told me would take me to the staff car park, and called Macbeth. The line wasn't good, and I could only hear about half of what he said, but I told him my ETA and asked, somewhat hopefully, if he had a gun I could borrow.
He laughed. "Darlin'," he said, "I got plenty."
I ended the call hoping he'd been talking about what I'd been talking about.