The Fool's Mate
Sarah is on the track of the network that supplies nuclear know-how and equipment to some of the world's most dangerous customers. Or is that networks? Which are real and which are fake? In Beijing, very few things are what they seem.
Sarah and Chris stalk on, following the Thames Path through Battersea Park. The mudflats exposed by low tide twitch with crabs and freshly exposed organic matter ripening in the summer morning. The golden buddha of the Peace Pagoda gleams, spreading rosy-hued serenity through the park.
‘You need to get lost now,’ Sarah repeats through clenched teeth.
‘I’ll follow behind.’
‘No. If I get a whiff of you so will they.’
‘Michael told me to stick to you.’
‘And Michael told me to follow my instincts.’
‘Did he really? That doesn’t sound like him.’
‘Perhaps he doesn’t trust your instincts?’
‘Don’t flatter yourself, Michael has far more confidence in me than in you.'
‘Michael can smell your raw ambition,’ she says. ‘Even through that aftershave.
He knows you’re after his job. I’m less of a threat.’
‘You are aware of how this works?’ Chris labours the words. ‘This unit is nothing
without Michael. He built it. He is it. I doubt anyone in HQ even knows who I am, let alone you.’
‘So if Mr Chen tries to take me out-’
‘You’re on your own. That’s why you need me.’ He gives his most winning smile,
one eyebrow slightly lowered, pale blue eyes narrowed, dimples artfully folded into cheeks.
‘But it must have crossed your mind?’ Sarah senses her own moment to dig at
Chris’s tender core. ‘Michael’s getting old for this game. One of us is going to have to take over eventually.’
‘I think you should keep your mind on staying alive today. So, again, what do you
need to secure from this meeting?’
‘Detail on who he is buying for, especially anything that might link to the North
Koreans, access to other interested buyers and a follow-up meeting.’
‘Who he’s buying for is absolutely crucial-’
‘Yes, that’s why I said it first. We’ve been through this a thousand times.’
‘You can’t be too prepared.’
‘But you can be sprung by turning up with a minder. Go and enjoy some quiet
contemplation in the church.’
‘Michael told me not to leave you. And besides-’
His words are cut by a silver helicopter coming in to land at the London helipad;
the downdraft from its rotors sending seagulls skudding towards dry land and waves of noise pummelling the eardrums. Sarah walks past the helipad, heading for the gleaming cylinder of the five-star hotel just beyond the entrance.
‘Aren’t you going straight in?’ Chris asks.
‘Just want to use the bathroom first, here hold this a moment.’ She presses her
phone into Chris’s hand, distracting him with a kiss on the cheek before slipping through the revolving doors of the hotel. She whispers to the doorman on her way across the lobby towards the riverside bar.
Chris tries to follow but the doorman blocks his entrance.
Sarah lingers just close enough to enjoy the exchange.
‘I’m sorry, Sir, the lady asked that we don’t let you in.’ The doorman folds his
arms across his chest, his jutting bottom lip revealing a row of crooked teeth.
‘I think you must be mistaken.’ Chris tries to edge past.
‘No mistake.’ The doorman’s face is neutral and polite, but there’s a keenness in
his eyes that shows stomach for a fight. ‘She said you were hassling her, Sir.’
Sarah skips on, leaving an exasperated Chris staring in disbelief at her phone back
in his palm. She knows she’ll pay for that later with Michael, but it’s worth it for the look on his face.
Through the bar and out the side exit that leads straight into the helicopter terminal. She checks her watch. Two minutes early, as planned. Walking into the bland reception area she feels visible. What is her place amongst the square armchairs, the jazzy red cushions, the boxes proffering neatly folded tissues? How would a dangerous uranium fixer behave? Would she sit, in no hurry, always available? Or would she stand, foot tapping, unused to being made to wait?
Another scan of the room reveals Mr Chen’s interpreter standing by the reception
desk - as on every previous occasion that Sarah has seen her in Sierra Leone, hovering at the edges of diplomatic functions, she seems to materialise from nowhere. Her clothes are elegant, discreet, her hair twisted in a wisp-free knot at her neck; only her coral lipstick catches the eye, fresh as a ripe persimmon. She greets Sarah with a deferential nod. ‘Please, Mr Chen is expecting you.’