Thomas Kell stood on the westbound platform at Bayswater station, one eye on a copy of the Evening Standard, the other on the man standing three meters to his left wearing faded denim jeans and a brown tweed jacket. Kell had seen him first on Praed Street, reflected in the window of a Chinese restaurant, then again twenty minutes later coming out of a branch of Starbucks on Queensway. Average height, average build, average features. Tapping his Oyster card on the reader at Bayswater, Kell had turned to find the man walking into the station a few paces behind him. He had ducked the eye contact, staring at his well-worn shoes. That was when Kell sensed he had a problem.
It was just after three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon in June. Kell counted eleven other people waiting on the platform, two of them standing directly behind him. Drawing on a long-forgotten piece of self-defense, he placed his right leg farther forward than his left, shifted his weight back on to his rear heel as the train clattered into the station—and waited for the shove in the back.
It never came. No crowding up, no crazed Chechen errand boy trying to push him onto the tracks as a favor to the SVR. Instead the District Line train deposited half a dozen passengers onto the platform and eased away. When Kell looked left, he saw that the man in the faded jeans had gone. The two men who had been standing behind him had also boarded the train. Kell allowed himself a half smile. His occasional outbreaks of paranoia were a kind of madness, a yearning for the old days; the corrupted sixth sense of a forty-six-year-old spy who knew that the game was over.
A second train, moments later. Kell stepped on board, took a fold-down seat, and reopened the Standard. Royal pregnancies. Property prices. Electoral conspiracies. He was just another traveler on the Tube, traceless and nondescript. Nobody knew who he was nor who he had ever been. On the fifth page, a photograph of an aid worker murdered by the maniacs of ISIS; on the seventh, more wretched news from Ukraine. It was of no consolation to Kell that in the twelve months he had spent as a private citizen following the murder of his girlfriend, Rachel Wallinger, the regions on which he had worked for the greater part of his adult life had further disintegrated into violence and criminality. Though Kell had deliberately avoided making contact with anyone in the Service, he had occasionally run into former colleagues in the supermarket or on the street, only to be treated to lengthy discourses on the “impossible task” facing MI6 in Russia, Syria, Yemen, and beyond.
“The best we can hope for is a kind of stasis, somehow to keep a lid on things,” a former colleague had told him when they bumped into one another at a Christmas party. “God knows it was easier in the age of the despots. There are some mornings, Tom, when I’m as nostalgic for Mubarak and Gaddafi as a Dunkirk Tommy for the white cliffs of Dover. At least Saddam gave us something to aim for.”
The train pulled into Notting Hill Gate. In the same conversation, the colleague had offered his “sincere condolences” over Rachel’s death and intimated to Kell how “devastated” the “entire Service” had been over the circumstances of her assassination in Istanbul. Kell had changed the subject.