Carter shrugged his coat a little tighter as he stepped out into the early morning rain on the thronged street. He hated London, especially first thing in the morning. So many people intent on getting from A to B, without a care for those around them. No concept of civility, coupled with a lack of understanding of personal space. This was a city that had to put up signs telling you which side of the escalator to stand on, so the people in a rush could bustle past you. That told you everything you needed to know about London.
At least he didn't have far to go.
Turning away from the station doors he forded the road and headed on through the crowd, like a salmon forcing its way upriver. Grey, sullen faces looked over him as they passed, faces recognising another human but not stopping to comprehend any further. Ambulatory business suits and overcoats devoid of personality marched ever onward under a canopy of umbrellas like a cohort of Roman legionnaires protecting themselves from a hail of cold, wet arrows. Carter threaded himself through the office-bound meat grinder, down the pavement and around the corner, off the main drag and emerging into suddenly quiet breathing space.
No longer shielded by the throng's umbrellas, Carter realised just how bad the rain was. England famously saw every type of rain that fell on God's Earth, sometimes in the same day. Today's deluge was not so much heavy as persistent- like a falling mist that glinted in street-lights and soaked through even the most waterproof coat in short order.
He jogged down Westminster Bridge Road, moving from bus shelter to shop overhang in a vain attempt to minimise the soaking he was inevitably receiving. Why did he ever come back to England?
The building up ahead was at least easy to recognise. The top three floors were red brick, decorated with columns and arches and pocked with dark windows like an oversized tombstone on the street. Its base was a slate-grey plinth two storeys high, dominated by the huge iron door left ajar seemingly just for him. He jogged through, coming to a halt a few steps out of the rain.
The foyer area had variously been a ticket hall and a car park, and it showed. There were a couple of workmen halfway up ladders, arc welders flashing blue-white like industrial-strength sparklers and casting crisp shadows onto polished brick walls. The periods of gloom between flashes were warmed by sputtering gas-lights mounted against the walls, framing the doorway to what was apparently once a ticket office. In the courtyard beyond, a white Ford Transit sat, incongruous against the olde-world charm of the station building. Carter called over to one of the workmen. "'Scuse me mate, looking for the site manager?"
"Upstairs, chap." The workman came down from his ladder, walking over to Carter by way of a large mug of steaming tea acquired from a workbench. "Lass said she were expecting someone. I'd go on up." The man gestured through the doorway into the ticket office with grubby, soot-stained fingers.
"Thanks." Carter smiled enough to put the man at ease and headed in the direction he'd been pointed, transferring from oil-stained concrete to age-worn threadbare carpet. He pulled his coat off, slinging it over one arm and instantly regretting it as he felt his shirtsleeve dampen. Bloody weather. Resigned, he headed upstairs.
Upstairs, there was a reception room. A large desk dominated the area, optimistically an antique but likely merely old. Behind it sat a young woman, slight, dark-haired and bespectacled, reading a newspaper. She put it down and stood as Carter reached the top of the stairs.
"Welcome to the London Necropolis Corporation. May I take your coat?"
"Thanks," Carter gratefully handed the overcoat to the woman, who hung it on a coatstand behind her. "My name's Claydon Carter, I had an appointment with-"
"With Miss Douglas, correct?" Her voice was a mix of regional accents- Carter picked out Lowland Scots and Kerry Irish amongst others. She offered her hand to him, returning his firm shake with a demure one. "Freya Douglas. A pleasure."
"All mine, I assure you. It's not a nice day out there." The old English fallback- always start with the weather.
"Please, take a seat. Would you like a drink?"
"I'd love a cup of tea, if I may." Her accent was infectious, Carter noticed- he'd had to check himself from appropriating part of it.
"Milk and sugar?"
Freya left the room through a door at the rear, and Carter heard the sound of a kettle boiling. The door to his left opened, issuing forth an older gentleman with short salt-and-pepper hair and a figure giving itself over to good living. Carter stood, offering his hand. "Claydon Carter. Good morning."
"Mister Carter," The man smiled genially, returning the handshake. "Daniel Mitchell. I trust you've already met Freya?"
"He has," she replied, stepping back into the room with a tray of three mugs. "Please, Mister Carter, have a seat, let's not stand on ceremony."
Carter returned to his seat as the unlikely couple moved to the other side of the desk. So far, as interviews went, this was pretty haphazard.
"So," Douglas began, "We understand you recently liquidated the assets of your private security company that had been running for six years?"
"That's right. In the current market the overheads of the company didn't make continuing a viable option."
"And before that you worked for...?"
"The Foreign Office. Mostly in Security." The familiar lie.
"I see, the Foreign Office." Douglas looked down at the paperwork on the desk in front of her. "We spoke with your superior at the Foreign Office, who provided us with a strong recommendation for you."
A shiver ran down Carter's spine. This could be bad. "My superior?"
"Correct. If we're to dispense with government euphemisms, you worked for the Secret Intelligence Service for seven years, primarily in the Balkans and Eastern Europe?"
For a moment Carter's resistance training came to mind. He forced down the urge to reply with a serial number. "Yes."
"You're uncomfortable talking about your service?" Mitchell spoke up, his eyes not rising from the document he was reading.
"I'm not normally allowed to talk about it."
"Ah. Our organisation is not bound to the usual conventions of the Official Secrets Act." Douglas gave a cryptic hint of a smile. "Indeed, we largely do not operate within the confines of national or international law."
Carter moved to stand. "I'm sorry, but-"
"You left the Service because of your grandfather, is that correct?" Mitchell again.
"Yes. I wanted to be with him at the end. He was pretty much the only real family I had."
"He was a good man. Ruthless, perhaps, but very good at his job."
"He never mentioned you."
"He wouldn't." Douglas picked up. "Our organisation does not have much in the way of names, hierarchies, or structures. We exist primarily as a geopolitical form of bomb disposal. Every day, somewhere in the world, there's a crisis that has the chance of burning humanity from the face of the planet. You've seen some of them, and I'm sure you've seen the power of a single, well-supported individual in the right place, at the right time, with the right skills. That's where we come in."
"We have a network of officers around the globe," Mitchell continued, "Each on retainer to be ready if we need to call on their services, often at very short notice. We have our own intelligence support and a large pool of resources. Our mandate is simply to detect threats against the survival of humanity as a whole, irrespective of religion, ideology or nationality, and to neutralise them swiftly and quietly."
"If the world knew how close it came to disaster, and how regularly," Douglas went on, "There would be chaos. We keep that from happening, in a way that governmental agencies constrained by rhetoric and bureaucracy cannot. We can be in the right place at the right time to do the right thing, and we would like to offer you the opportunity to assist us."
Carter thought for a moment. "Okay. Assuming you've convinced me, what would I be required to do?"
"We would pay you a retainer salary of fifteen hundred pounds a month, after tax, to cover your living expenses. For this, all we ask is that you are ready to answer the phone we provide you with, should it ever ring. And for whatever service we require you to provide should that happen, you will also be remunerated."
"Moreover," Douglas added, "We promise to show you some of the secrets of the world that even someone of your background may be unaware of. There's a lot more to this world and to the events that happen in it than most people ever know, and we offer you the opportunity to see the truth behind the headlines and behind even the intelligence dossiers. We can show you the real world you live in."
"So," Mitchell concluded, "Do you have any further questions?"
"Just one," Carter replied. "What's my new phone number?"