Three weeks later
Save for a thin skein of mist that curled its way around the dome of the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute on the far side of the Grand Canal, it was a bright, crisp, clear morning in Venice. The kind of day, in fact, that Kate Henderson might have been enjoying in any other circumstances. Sometimes being away with your family was murder.
‘Why do you keep drumming your fingers on the table?’ Gus asked. ‘You hate it when people do that.’
Kate forced herself to stop. She smiled at Julie, who was sitting opposite. ‘Your mum’s a bit nervous,’ Julie said. ‘Under the circumstances, I think that’s understandable, don’t you?’
They lapsed back into silence and watched a gondolier paddle slowly past. The tables on the breakfast terrace were full of Chinese tourists, mostly glued to their phones. They didn’t seem to be eating much either.
Kate couldn’t resist returning to a study of her daughter’s plate. ‘Please eat up, love,’ she said. Fiona had ordered a poached egg, Kate had insisted on toast, but neither was going anywhere near her daughter’s stomach as yet.
‘Just eat it, for fuck’s sake,’ Gus said. Remnants of his hearty breakfast were visible across a wide arc of the once pristine tablecloth.
‘Gus, please!’ Kate admonished. ‘Don’t talk to your sister like that. And don’t swear.’
‘Like you don’t.’
‘Not long to go now,’ Julie said. ‘And then we’ll all be a lot happier.’
No one returned her cheerful smile. Normally, Julie’s tumbling auburn hair, startling green eyes and full-figured beauty were enough to keep Kate’s son mesmerized, but not that morning. ‘Does Dad have a new girlfriend?’ Gus asked his mother.
‘For God’s sake, Gus!’ Fiona glared at him, her piercing blue eyes radiating fury. She’d applied make-up for the first time in months and pulled her hair back into a neat bun, which served to highlight her increasingly gaunt cheeks. There was no question that her conflict with food was on the cusp of robbing her of her looks. She got up from the table and stormed off.
‘You haven’t eaten,’ Kate called after her. But Fiona was already halfway across the terrace. ‘We’re leaving in five minutes!’
‘Well, does he?’ Gus asked, once his sister had gone. In contrast to Fiona, his cheeks were becoming chubbier by the day and the pudding-bowl haircut he’d instructed her to carry out wasn’t helping matters.
‘Not so far as we know,’ Julie said.
Gus glanced at her, then returned his gaze to his mother. ‘But you said you can’t ever get back together with him, so why would it be a big deal?’
Neither Kate nor Julie answered that. What could you say? Gus pushed himself to his feet. ‘I’m going for a dump,’ he announced.
‘It’s just the way you tell ’em,’ Kate said, as he departed. ‘I hope time spent with my children is proving a useful contraceptive,’ she told Julie.
‘Don’t be so hard on yourselves. You’ve all got every reason to be tense.’ Julie absent-mindedly tucked into a second croissant. She ate as she drank, as she lived, really: with an easy nonchalance.
‘Have you got a cigarette?’ Kate asked.
‘I thought you said not in front of the children?’
‘Well, they’re not here, are they?’
Julie retrieved a packet of Winston’s from her bag and threw them across the table. Kate took one, lit it and waved at the waiter, who reluctantly changed course and swung towards her. ‘Yes,’ he said abruptly. The Venice Charm School had worked a treat. She ordered another coffee.
‘Because that will definitely help,’ Julie said.
Kate inhaled deeply and leant back to face the Grand Canal. A half-empty vaporetto glided past in the direction of the Rialto bridge. The mist had reached the dome of Santa Maria della Salute and was now curling up into a clear blue sky. ‘How are you feeling?’ Julie asked.
‘I’m not entirely sure. Nervous. Angry. Raw. Upset. Take your pick.’
‘Do you have any idea what he has been up to in Moscow?’ Kate shrugged. Since she had discovered that her hus- band had betrayed not just their marriage but his country, she’d had no direct contact with him. After his defection, all communication had been routed through a consular official at the British Embassy in Moscow. ‘Does he have a girlfriend?’
‘I should think so, knowing him.’
‘What will you say to him?’
‘Nothing. What is there to say?’
‘“You fucking bastard.”’ Julie smiled. ‘That would be a start.’
‘I said that already.’ Kate took another quick puff and stubbed out the rest of the cigarette. ‘Come on. We can’t put this off any longer.’
Kate went to brush her hair and touch up her face. She studied herself in the mirror, concluding she’d aged at least a decade in considerably less than a year. She sat on the bed, stared at the ornate ceiling and closed her eyes. This hotel had seen better days and she knew that feeling. The knot of tension in her stomach had been steadily tightening ever since she’d boarded the plane at Gatwick.
Fiona and Gus were on time for the brief stroll through to St Mark’s Square. And once they were there, Julie distracted them from the slowly marching hands of time on the clock tower by reading aloud from the guidebook. ‘Okay. This area by the water’s edge is known as the Molo and these columns were carried home from Tyre by the Doge Michieli in 1125.’ She turned the page. ‘In fact, he brought back three, but one fell into the sea as it was being unloaded here. Huh. How about that?’
No one was listening to her. Kate glanced at her watch, as if it were a more reliable mark of time than the clock above them. She returned to surveying the groups of tourists across the square.
‘Relax, Kate,’ Julie whispered.
Kate didn’t answer. She felt foolish for agreeing to meet here now. Venice was a hostile intelligence service’s dream location. ‘Why would they try anything?’ Julie said, reading her mind. ‘Stuart would never let them.’
Kate tore her eyes away from the survey of the square and glanced at her watch one more time. ‘All right.’ She looked at Julie. ‘Just give me ten minutes, okay?’
‘Yes, as we agreed.’
‘What are you going to say to him?’ Fiona asked. Her voice was softer now.
‘I don’t know, love.’
‘It would help if you told us.’ She glanced at her brother, who looked uncomfortable in a way he usually reserved for encounters with members of the opposite sex.
‘I’m just going to talk about the arrangements for this visit and how we might work things in the future. If there’s some- where you’d be able to stay with him and so on.’
‘Are you going to talk to him about what happened?’
‘I don’t think so. I’m not sure how that would serve any of us.’ She rubbed her daughter’s shoulder affectionately, but got no response.
Kate set off across St Mark’s Square, weaving her way through the shoals of slow-moving tourists, then turning into Ala Napoleonica. Once she was out of view of Julie and the children, she paused by a shop and pretended to browse the jewellery display in the window as she glanced back the way she had come.
Nothing was amiss. Perhaps Julie was right. Why would anyone be watching her?
Kate walked on and paid her entry fee for the Correr Museum further down the street. She went into the cool, quiet interior and browsed through the costume section, with its fine collection of ancient fashions and silk banners.
She swung around. Stuart was dressed in black jeans and a blue T-shirt, with a stylish leather jacket and trainers. He had shorter hair and designer stubble. He’d lost some weight, half a stone, perhaps more. He looked much more like the funny, irreverent young man she’d fallen so heavily in love with all those years before.
The one she’d known instantly she wanted to build a life with.
‘You look well,’ he said.
‘I don’t.’ The sense of contentment she’d convinced herself she’d embraced appeared to have deserted her. She felt like a teenager again, giddy, uncertain, embarrassed.
‘Where are the kids?’
‘They’re with Julie. They’ll be here in a minute. I thought it was best to have a few minutes together first, just to . . . discuss practical things.’ But even as she said it, she knew that wasn’t true. Did it show?
‘Of course. How are they?’
‘They were all right for the first few months, but things have got a lot more complicated since then. You’ll . . . see. Gus is taciturn, even by his standards, and Fi has got very weird around her food.’ She felt on surer ground discussing their children.
‘Is she seeing a therapist?’
‘They both are. She’s perilously close to anorexia, but we’re monitoring it closely.’
Stuart nodded. It had always been so easy to talk to him. And it was, strangely, still. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m fine.’ She looked up at him and suddenly, through her disorientation, anger burst through. What did he expect her to say? That after seventeen years of marriage, more than twenty together, she had felt cleaved in two by his departure? ‘I’m fucking fantastic, Stuart. What do you think?’
‘And stop saying that.’
‘What else would you like me to say?’
Kate bit her lip. She breathed out slowly, her head spinning, her stomach churning. It was like their first evening together, but without the giddy sense of possibility. ‘How’s life in Moscow?’
‘Not much fun. I get a paltry pension for my betrayal, which is hard to live on. I’m trying to find work, but they have little interest in helping. They treat me as if I’m a vaguely infectious disease.’ He smiled bitterly. ‘Which perhaps I am. The British Embassy does a good job of killing off my chances with any company that checks in with them, so I’m a bit screwed, to be honest. But no more than I deserve.’
‘Do you get a flat?’
‘Yes. And a car. But both are pretty decrepit.’
They were silent for a moment. Kate stared at the floor, which seemed the safest place to look. ‘I just wanted to dis- cuss how things are going to work with the children in the future,’ she said. ‘I’m sure we’d both agree that their interests are paramount.’
‘I don’t know what you were thinking, but—’
‘I’ll fall in with whatever you want to do. I’m sitting in Moscow, doing nothing. So . . .’ he shrugged ‘. . . this will be all I’m living for. And they don’t seem to care what I do or where I go.’
‘Of course they care. They’ll be watching.’
‘I doubt it. I think my days of usefulness, or at least relevance, are at an end. The only issue is cash. I don’t have much spare money, so I don’t know how frequently I’ll be able to travel around Europe.’
‘You’re surely not expecting me to—’
‘I’m not expecting anything, Kate. I deserve everything that’s coming to me.’
Tears crept from the corners of Kate’s eyes and rolled down her cheeks. She wiped them abruptly away. ‘My love
. . .’ Stuart stepped forward. Kate raised her hand and took a pace back. ‘You know I’d do anything for a shot at redemption, right?’
‘That’s never going to happen, Stuart, and I’ll stop bringing the children to see you if you go down that road.’ She was surprised at how definitive that sounded.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said again.
The pain in him cut her like a knife. ‘I need to go,’ she said. ‘I’ll be in touch about how you see the children.’ She turned away.
‘Why did you come, love?’ he asked. She faced him. ‘What do you mean?’
‘You could have sent the children up here on their own or with Julie. So why did you come?’
‘I . . . I don’t know.’
‘Did you want to see my pain, to see if it looked anything like yours?’
‘Well, if you hoped to see a ruined man, I trust you weren’t disappointed.’
‘This is perhaps going to come across more harshly than I really mean it to – since I’m still too confused to know what I think about anything – but I would say that it’s that kind of self-absorption and, indeed, self-pity that got you into this mess in the first place.’
She turned away and walked out. Julie and the children were waiting just outside the entrance. ‘He looks well,’ Kate said to Fiona and Gus. ‘You go on up.’
Kate watched them disappear inside. Despite herself, the tears began to roll down her cheeks again. Without a word, Julie linked arms and led her friend slowly back towards St Mark’s Square. They walked past the Doge’s Palace and sat by the water’s edge. Julie waited while Kate composed her- self. ‘So,’ she said eventually. ‘How was he?’
‘Let’s not talk about it.’
It was a glorious spring day now, the lagoon busy with the morning traffic. They watched a glistening white cruise liner heave into view. It seemed vast, a giant from another world entering a Toytown harbour. ‘You want me to fetch you an ice cream?’ Julie asked.
‘Getting even fatter is the last thing I need.’
‘Somehow that seems to be the least of your worries.’ ‘Perhaps you could explain one day how you eat so much and stay so trim.’
‘I don’t think about it.’
‘That can’t be true.’
‘It is.’ Julie was watching a shifty-looking man standing by the waterfront. He was theoretically selling leather brace- lets. ‘Perhaps we should just lie in the sun and smoke something medicinal.’
Given their employer’s strictures in relation to illegal drugs – and the questions on the subject in routine positive vetting – there were many things Kate could have said to this, but she’d decided long ago that Julie’s weekend pen- chant for dope and possibly more had better remain off- limits. She was the most loyal friend and colleague you could wish for. ‘Could you at least pretend that you under- stand the rules of our employment?’
‘You think anyone cares?’
‘It would do you good.’ Julie waited. ‘All right, so what do you want to do?’
Julie stood. ‘Come on. That isn’t your style. It’s a beautiful day. Let’s go for a walk.’
Kate had agreed that Stuart would have Fiona and Gus for three hours, so she and Julie had plenty of time to fill. They headed for the Rialto bridge, then the Ponte degli Scalzi by the station and then to the Campo Santa Margher- ita, finally coming back across the Ponte dell’Accademia. ‘You sure as hell do like to walk,’ Julie observed, once they had returned to the tourist hordes in St Mark’s Square. They had intended to catch a boat across to San Giorgio Maggiore, but they were out of time and patience and opted to go for a drink in Harry’s Bar instead, which was a mistake. ‘It would have been cheaper to be mugged,’ she concluded.
Stuart had agreed he would WhatsApp Kate with a place to meet in the vicinity of St Mark’s, but at two o’clock she still hadn’t heard from him. She sent him a message, but there was no reply. ‘What’s he playing at?’
‘Did you definitely say two?’ ‘Definitely.’
They left the bar and went to wait in the square. Two fifteen came and went and then the clock tower crept past the half-hour. Kate messaged again: We can’t do this if you won’t keep to your word.
At two forty-five Kate started to worry in earnest. ‘Do you think we should call the office?’ she asked Julie. Kate’s bosses at MI6 in Vauxhall had concluded a meeting between a traitor and his children was not a matter for them to worry themselves with but had agreed to allow Julie to accompany her superior ‘just in case’.
‘Not yet. Give him another fifteen minutes before we start to panic.’
They watched the clock in silence, but a few minutes later, Kate’s phone buzzed. So sorry, didn’t see the time. Just finishing pizza. Could we meet in the Chiesa San Giuliano – a couple of minutes from St Mark’s?
All right, she shot back.
It was a short walk to the church and Kate asked Julie to wait outside. The interior was chilly and her breath hung in the air as she glanced around at the church’s baroque splendour. She could see no sign of Stuart or the children, so she walked up to the front of the nave and looked up at the giant oil painting of the Crucifixion on the wall beside her, a brooding, even foreboding window to a different, more spiritual age. She turned back to face the entrance. ‘Stuart?’ As she started to retrace her steps, she swung around to confront a shadow shifting in the corner of her eye. A man in a dark raincoat was pointing a Browning at her stomach.
From Double Agent by Tom Bradby. Used with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press. Copyright © 2020 by Tom Bradby.