Read an Excerpt
Connor O'Brien's plane glided into Sydney on the first rays of dawn. The shadowy city materialised below, a mysterious patchwork of rooftops and dark sea, emerging from the mists of night. The comforts it promised were welcome, after the deserts he'd traversed over the last five years in the dubious name of Intelligence, but Connor expected no feeling of homecoming. To him Sydney was just another city. Its spires and skyscrapers felt no more connected to him than the mosques and minarets he'd left behind.
Once on the ground, he breezed through customs, courtesy of his diplomatic status. His honed blending-in skills spared him any undue attention. He was just another tall Australian in the Foreign Service.
The technicalities taken care of, he strolled across the International Terminal with his long easy stride, his single suitcase in tow, laptop case in his spare hand. From force of habit, with covert skill he scanned the groups of sleepy relatives waiting to embrace their loved ones. Wives and girlfriends beaming up at their men and weeping, children running into their fathers' arms. For him, no one. With his father gone now, he kept no personal connections. No lives at risk for knowing him. His precious anonymity was intact. Not a soul to know or care if Connor O'Brien lived or died, and that was how it had to be.
The glass exit doors opened before him and he walked out into the Australian summer dawn, safe and secure in his solitariness. The sky had lightened to a pale grey, washing out the street lamps to a wan hue. Even for the height of midsummer the morning was warm. The faintest whiff of eucalyptus wafted to him on the breeze like the scent of freedom.
Scanning for thetaxi rank, he felt an unaccustomed buzz.
He rubbed his bristly jaw and contemplated the potential amenities of a good hotel. Shower, breakfast, relax with the newspapers, shake off the jet lag
A uniformed chauffeur stepped forward from the open rear door of a limo parked in line with the exit. Respectfully he touched his cap. 'Your lift, sir.'
Connor stilled, every one of his nerves and trigger-sharp reflexes on instant alert.
A thin, querulous voice issued from inside the car. 'Come on, come on, O'Brien. Give Parkins your gear and let's get on the road.'
Connor knew that voice. With disbelief he peered into the dim interior. A small elderly man swam into focus, majestically ensconced in the plush upholstery.
Sir Frank Fraser. Wily old fox, legend of the Service and one of his father's old golfing cronies. But surely the ex-Chief had long since hung up his cloak and dagger and retired to live on the Fraser family fortune? As far as Connor knew, he was now a respectable pillar of the world of wealth and ease.
'Well, what are we waiting for?' The quavery voice held the autocrat's note of incredulity at not being instantly obeyed.
Curiosity outweighed Connor's chagrin at having his moment of freedom curtailed, so he handed his suitcase to the hovering Parkins and slid into the old guy's travelling suite.
At once his smooth, bronzed hand was seized in a wrinkled claw and shaken with vigour.
'Good to see you, O'Brien.' The ancient autocrat took in Connor's long limbs, his lean, athletic frame, with an admiring gaze. 'And, my God, you're the living image of your old man. Same colouring, Mick's buildeverything.'
Connor didn't try to deny it. Sure, like his father, he'd inherited the ink-black hair, dark eyes and olive skin of some tall, long ago Spaniard who'd washed up on the Irish coast from the storm-scattered Armada, but his father had been a family man, and there the resemblance had to end.
'And you've done well. What department has the embassy hired you for? Humanitarian Affairs, isn't it?'
'Something like that,' Connor allowed as the limo started and nosed into the road for the city. He smiled. 'Humanitarian Advisor to the First Secretary for Immigration.'
Sir Frank's aged face settled into thoughtful lines. 'Yes, yes, I can see why they need more lawyers. There'd be plenty of work involved there.'
A vision of the horror he'd had to deal with at the Australian Embassy in Baghdad swam into Connor's mind. Unable even to begin describing it, he merely shrugged acknowledgement, waiting for his father's old mate to spill what was on his mind.
Sir Frank sent him a glance that penetrated through to the back of his brain, and said with unnerving perspicacity, 'Isn't all that tragedy enough to keep you interested, without this other work you're doing? Your father always told me the law was your first and only love.'
Connor controlled every muscle not to react, though a little nerve jumped somewhere in his gut. 'Sir Frank, is there something behind this friendly chat? Something you need to tell me?'
Sir Frank drew a cigar from his breast pocket. 'Let's just say we have a friend of a friend in common.'
Connor's ears pricked up. This was agency speak for contact. So why the old lion and not some field operative? He was considering the possibilities when Sir Frank came in with a low hit.
'Heard about your losing your wife and child. That was tough. There's too many of these planes going down. How long ago was it now?'
Connor gripped his case while the dust and ashes settled back in his soul. The force of it could still catch him off guard, even now. 'Nearly six years. But'
The elderly voice softened a notch. 'Must be time you tried again, lad. A man needs a woman, kids to come home to. It's time you stopped all this adventuring and settled down. Take up the threads again. This sort of work in Baghdad ' He shook his head. 'A man burns out fast. Two or three years should be the limit, and you're well past it. I hear you've taken some very close shaves. They tell me you're goodthe very bestbut a man only stays on top of the game for so long.' He slid Connor a glance. 'The man you replaced ended up with a knife through his gullet.'
Connor gazed at him with a mixture of incredulity and sardonic amusement. 'Thanks.'
But the old guy was in earnest. As his enthusiasm heated up his gnarled hands gesticulated with increasing fervour. 'I wouldn't be doing my duty to Mick if I didn't say this, young fella. You're dicing with death.'
'You should know,' Connor fired back. 'You diced with it yourself long enough.'
'That's right, I did, and I've learned what's important. No one ever wins this game.' He grasped Connor's arm. 'Look, I could pull a few strings for you. Your dad's left you a wealthy man. You could set up your own firm. There's always a call for good lawyers in this country.' He thumped his creaky old knee with his thumb. 'Plenty of injustice right here. A big handsome lad like you won't take long to find another lovely girl.'
The permafrost that passed for Connor's heart since the real thing had been broken and scattered over a Syrian mountainside registered nothing. He knew what he'd lost and would never have again. He made his way now without attachments. Banter, the occasional dalliance with a pretty woman, were sufficient to keep the shadows at bay.
'Civilian life offers its challenges, too,' Sir Frank persisted. 'And its excitements.' He waved his unlit cigar. 'What are you now thirty? Thirty-five?'
'Thirty-four.' In spite of his discipline Connor felt his abdominal muscles clench. He understood well enough what the old guy was alluding to. To perform in Intelligence an officer needed to be as clinical and objective towards his contacts as a machine. Perhaps, for some, cracks could develop over time and emotion begin to leak in, but he had no need to be concerned. He was still as balanced and dispassionate in his work as ever. He'd quit soon enough if he had a reason. In fact, he needed the constant threat of death to realise he was alive.
'Sir Frank,' he said in his deep, quiet voice, 'your concern is appreciated, but unnecessary. If there's something you need to tell me, spit it out. Otherwise your driver can drop me right here.'
Sir Frank looked approvingly at him. 'A straightshooter, just like Mick. Exactly like him.' He shook his head and sighed. 'If only Elliott could straighten himself out.'
Ah. At last. The crunch.
Connor stared broodingly out at the familiar streets, riffling back through the dusty mental files of family connections. 'Isn't Elliott your son?'
'Now that's what I wanted to talk to you about. A situation has arisen.'
As far as he knew, Elliott Fraser was one of those wealthy, fifty-ish CEOs in the private sector. 'He's involved in something?'
The old man looked gloomy. 'You might say something. A woman.'
Connor drew an austere breath. 'Look, I think you may have been misinformed, Sir Frank. I'm here on leave.' His tone was cool, but it was necessary to let the old guy feel the steel edge of his refusal. 'I haven't been flown halfway around the world to sort out your son's love-life.'
Sir Frank's indignant weedy frame flared up like a firecracker. 'That's exactly what you have been flown here for, mister,' he retorted with spirit. 'Who do you think got you your leave?' He gestured vehemently with his cigar, pointing it in Connor's face. 'No need to get cocky with me, fella, just because I knew you when you had your milk teeth. That's the very reason I've chosen you.'
Before Connor could respond, Sir Frank leaned forward and pinned him with an urgent, beady gaze. 'It won't interrupt your break much, Connor. It'll take you a week, a fortnight at most, then you can enjoy the rest of your three months. Who knows? You might decide to stay longer. Anyway, I know you'll do your best to help me out. For the love of Mick.'
Ah, here it was. The old boys' friendship card. All those mornings out on the green. Boozy afternoon sessions in the clubhouse. Connor knew it for what it wasemotional blackmail, and impossible to reject. He closed his eyes for an instant, then resigned himself.
'All right, all right. Go on, then. Shoot.'
'That's better.' Sir Frank sat back, satisfaction momentarily deepening the cracks and crevices in his crocodile-skin face. 'Now, this is strictly between us. Elliott's being considered for a top job with the ministry. Very hush-hush. He can't afford any scandal. Not a whiff.' He held up a wizened hand. 'No, it's serious. Marla is in America on business for her firm. If she comes back and finds out he's been playing away from home ' He shuddered. 'Marla can be very forceful. I have a strong instinct about this, Connor, and my instincts are rarely wrong. The chances are that this little popsy he's got himself entangled with is a plant. The timing is suspicious. But even if she isn't ' He closed his wrinkled eyelids in deprecation. 'Do you see now why I've chosen you? I don't want the agency involved. This is my family I can't risk some stranger.' He moved closer to Connor and lowered his voice. 'You'll be on your own entirely. It has to be strictly between you and me.' He waggled an admonitory finger. 'No logging into the agency's tech services.'
Connor shook his head in bemusement. 'But surely all you have to do is whisper in Elliott's ear?'
'You try doing that with Elliott. He thinks he's keeping her under wraps.'
Connor concealed his amusement. The old guy was clearly loath to reveal to his son that he was keeping tabs on him.
Sir Frank clutched at his wrist. 'Connor, for all his sins, Elliott's my son. And then there's my grandson.' His rheumy old eyes filled up with tears. 'He's four years old.'
Connor noticed a tremor in the frail, liver-spotted hand grasping his sleeve and felt the faintest twinge in his chest. 'Right,' he said, exhaling a long breath. Old people and children had always been his Achilles' heel. He might as well grit his teeth, agree to the task and get it over with. He straightened his wide shoulders, and, needing to rein in the excess of emotion lapping the walls of the limo, injected some professional briskness into his voice. 'Do you have anything on the woman?'
Sir Frank conquered his tears with amazing swiftness and switched into business mode. Reaching into an alcove set in the door, he produced a file. 'Her name's Sophy something. Woodford no Woodruff. Works in the Alexandra.'
'Where's that?' Connor said, flipping the single page. The information was sparse. A few dates and times. Meetings with Elliott in coffee shops. A bar. An indistinct CCTV still of a slim, dark-haired woman. Her face wasn't quite in focus, but the camera had managed to catch something of the delicacy of an oval face, the lustre of longish, wavy dark hair. Employed as a speech pathologist in a paediatric clinic. A good, conservative cover. Like his own.
'You know Macquarie Street?'
'Who doesn't?' As the avenue in which both the Botanical Gardens and the Opera House resided, Macquarie Street was one of the finest boulevards in Sydney. It had long been the preserve of the high-fliers of the medical profession.
'Some rooms have been vacated for you there. Your law practice will be a perfect cover.' The old tycoon added slyly, 'If you did decide to stay, there'd be nothing to stop you hanging up your shingle there for real.'
The location was just around the corner from some of the wealthiest bastions of the legal profession. Connor supposed he could get away with setting up as a lawyer in doctors' territory. Just how dangerous did the old guy expect the assignment to be? He felt some misgivings at the amorphous nature of it. Sir Frank's reputation as a cunning operator was well earned.
He studied the clever old face. 'What exactly do you want from me?'
'Find out about her. Her background, connections, everything. She's almost certainly working for a foreign state. Pillow talk.' He shook his head in disgust. 'You'd think Elliott would have enough savvy to ' He broke off, ruminating on his son's naiveté with compressed lips. 'Anyway, ifif-you find she's just a little gold-digger looking for a lamb to fleece, pay her off.'
Connor winced. From what he'd heard of Elliott Fraser, his lamblike qualities were highly doubtful. On the surface, though, it seemed a tame little assignment. Nothing like strolling to an evening rendezvous to meet a contact dressed in high explosives. Hardly in the same universe as drinking coffee with a smiling man who was preparing to slice open his throat.
'A good-looking lad like you won't have any trouble getting close to the woman.'
Connor flashed him a wry glance. He didn't do close. He was just about to set him straight on that issue when the limo turned into a tree-lined avenue, and he recognised the graceful colonial architecture of Macquarie Street.