Making a career out of Special Forces, Special Forces of any country, is a bit on the masochistic side. Getting through basic training, specialty schools, deployment, and then SAS training takes a special breed of man. The type who revels in proving he is better at his craft than anyone else and is willing to use those skills in the service of Queen and country. Deployment in regular units is chancy enough, what with a fair chunk of Islam having lost their minds gradually since the late 1940s and the Yanks forgetting how they helped with two World Wars. Or so it seems to those of us watching them flail about the last half century, give or take a few years. Deployment with Special Forces is even riskier. And there seems to be less and less care as to what six or eight rounds in the Sandbox does to a man’s mind.
Desert Storm went off better than some of the other Yank wars and interventions of the last five decades. The Iraqis were better at terrorizing helpless Kuwaitis or their own citizens than they were at fighting, with a few exceptions. I saw some action with SAS in both the lead up to the invasion of Kuwait and Iraq and the actual war itself. Not a lot, given how good the Iraqis were at running, but enough to appreciate what a hellhole the entire region was. When the war ended with Saddam Hussein still on the throne, I knew it would not bode well for anyone involved. The man was an egomaniacal megalomaniac who would never accept the box into which the Yanks tried to shove him.
So there I was in an American Army hospital at the old HMS Juffair naval base in Bahrain that the Americans took over after taking a round in the thigh on a mission so stupid I am still not sure what it was really about. It was third deployment to the Sandbox since before the Gulf War and my second wound in as many idiotic missions. My mates had dropped by earlier that morning to tell me I would be getting a medal for taking a shot meant for my lieutenant but I was still a more than a mite morose as I pondered if this was what I wanted to do until some idiot not long out of Sandhurst got me killed.
I was shocked out of my glum reverie by an Australian accent hailing me cheerfully, “Edgar! I heard you were about, mate.”
Looking up, I smiled wanly at Ambrose Devlin, an older, far more seasoned vet from Australia I met on a couple of joint operations in Southeast Asia when I was just an infantryman temporarily stationed at Diego Garcia. He looked as dangerous and competent as ever, even if he was smiling sympathetically down at me from the foot of my comfortable bed. He was dressed in a fine suit and had a large cannon under his arm. He was darkly tanned, showing he had been in the region for a few days at the very least.
“Captain? What are you doing here, sir?” I asked incredulously, struggling to sit up straighter.
He shook his head and walked around to help me. “Just Ambrose Devlin these days, Sergeant. I did my twenty and retired a lieutenant colonel. I am in private security now. For someone we both know, as a matter of fact,” he said with a chuckle as he sat in the chair next to my bed, his eyes twinkling. “Do you remember your lieutenant for that operation against the pirates in Sumatra? Lieutenant Spencer?”
I grimaced and nodded. “A greener officer I never saw,” I growled in memory. Lt. Spencer was someone important’s kid when I was in my first unit and we somehow were chosen for a raid on a pirate den with the Australian and Indonesian units tracking them. Spencer actually didn’t turn out too bad, mainly thanks to Sergeant Adderton.
Devlin chuckled again. “Well, his daddy died so he wound up having to resign his commission to take care of the family affairs,” he informed me a little more soberly. “Now he is a Foreign Office trouble shooter and I run his security. We are here to talk to some Russians. Yeltsin has his knickers in a twist over something and the PM and the Americans thought Lord Spencer would have better luck with him than someone from the U. S. State Department.”
It sounded like a boring, very well-paid bit of work. “If you ‘run’ his security, what is with the cannon?” I asked, nodding to the grip of a very large automatic sticking out of his jacket.
It was meant as a joke but his eyes turned very serious. “The Baron has his share of people who are less than fond of him,” he replied vaguely, and then he smiled with a hint of exasperation. “And he has a niece who is terminally paranoid. A little slip of a girl from back home that he adopted when his brother died. She thinks there is no such thing as too much security. After a few incidents, we have all decided to humor her. Especially since she is very fond of the words, ‘I told you so!’ The child has a doctoral degree in Constructive Paranoia MI6 would be proud of and she is only fifteen.”
“Interesting kid,” I responded with a grin. I winced as I tried to squirm into a more comfortable position.
“Let me let you get back to resting and healing,” Devlin said, rising. He gave me a long look and took out a card from his jacket pocket. “Look me up when you get healed up and back home. And definitely look me up if you decide to get out after this latest adventure of yours.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied, glancing at the card that had his name, telephone number, and a slightly altered Devlin crest on it. I looked up at him at him once more and nodded thanks for the offer he never explicitly made. “And thank you, sir.”
Less than a year later, I was done. I had enough of chasing crazy people who seem to have fried their brains by standing in the African and Middle Eastern sun for way too long. I spent a few months detoxing the violence and blood out of my system on the sofas of various friends around London before deciding I needed to do something with myself. I searched my meager belongings for Devlin’s card but couldn’t find it. Lieutenant Spencer’s family was fairly prominent and it wasn’t hard to find out where they lived in London. So I went and bought a decent enough suit and took myself off to Spencer’s London townhouse.
“Yes?” a haughty female voice accented with a mix of Australian and Chelsea demanded, sounding a little winded, over the intercom at the town house’s gate after I pushed the button for the third time. “May I help you? My apologies. You interrupted me at something.”
Manners crept into the second question and I smiled up at the camera. “My name is Edgar Laetham, madam,” I replied politely. “I was hoping to find Ambrose Devlin here.”
There was a long pause before the gate started to open. “Come up to the house. Give me a minute to let you in,” she ordered warily.
I walked through the gate, up the steps, and stood before the somewhat imposing door to the Baron of Spencer’s lavish abode. And waited. For a while. I was beginning to think the woman on the intercom had forgotten about me when the door swung open on Twiggy’s daughter. Twiggy’s apologetic daughter. The girl stood under a meter and a half with a thin, muscled build hidden under an elegantly baggy and thin shirt and capris of white silk. Her sun-kissed, slightly sweaty auburn hair was pulled back into a loose pony tail and she had an impish face as she gestured me to enter, amusement dancing in her blue eyes.
“Edgar Laetham, you said?” she asked as she led me into the house. Her movements were graceful. And predatory. Her eyes seemed to see everything in their darting glances. I knew men, veterans of some of the most vicious firefights I had ever seen, who didn’t scare me as much as that little girl did at that moment. Those eyes had not only seen death but dealt it. And she couldn’t be much more than twelve or thirteen. When I nodded reluctantly, an eyebrow arched and her lips quirked into something that was probably a smile but made me shiver. “I really should have sent you away,” she told me with what sounded like an apologetic tone. “I am the only one home at the moment, aside from the cook and the maid.”
That stopped me on the threshold of a well-appointed sitting room. “Huh?” was my brilliant response.
That slip of a girl who was scaring the bloody hell out of me sat in one of the expensive arm chairs and imperiously waved me to another. “Most of the household is off to Scotland and the Spencer estate there, Ambrose included,” she told me, making me jump to my feet with confusion before her glare cut my knees from under me. “My name is Dame Alice Spencer-Killdare, Baron Spencer’s niece.”
I was gawking. I knew I was gawking but could not help it. This was the paranoid niece who made Ambrose Devlin walk around with a cannon? “Er, sorry to interrupt whatever it was you were doing, Miss Spencer. I’ll just leave you to it,” I blurted out, rising once more only to plop back into my seat again at her glaring gesture.
“It is Spencer-Killdare, Mr. Laetham,” she corrected with a mild rebuke. “And you may as well tell me why you are here. I have already cooled down, so I won’t be returning to my practice.”
“Er, that is I ... well,” I stumbled haltingly in the face of what looked like someone’s baby sister but who had to be twenty or twenty-five years old with a personality much older. I cleared my throat and tried again, knowing I was blushing. “Ambrose Devlin and I served together once or twice and he told me to look him up when I got home. Truth be told, Miss Spencer-Killdare, I could use a job.”
She looked at me with that piercing, predator’s gaze and nodded. “SAS,” she stated with mild approval. It wasn’t a question. This child took one look at me and simply decided I was SAS.
“How-who are you?” I blurted, gawking again.
A mysterious smile curved her lip. “You’ll do. Do you have a place in town?”
“Er, not of my own just yet,” I replied, the answer falling from my lips not of my own volition. For some reason I simply kept answering her and responding as if she were the one interviewing me for the job. As if she were not the scrawny child she appeared.
“How about a telephone number?”
“Um, sort of.”
She rose and walked with that predatory grace over to an end table and pulled a pad and pen out of the well-concealed drawer in the ebony wood masterpiece. “Do us a favor and write it down,” she ordered, handing me the writing implements. Then, with a cocked brow that seemed to me to indicate she understood fully why I did not have my own flat and how much she was unnerving me, she suggested I start looking for my own flat nearby. “You can wait to secure it, but Ambrose and Eoin do not like their people to be transients. And they prefer them to live close enough to get here in an emergency. So start thinking about settling into civilian life. Or something close to it.”
A month later, I found myself following this strange creature around London. I call her strange, but that might be a little more pejorative than is warranted. Maybe mysterious or disturbing would come closer. Creature, however, is spot on, for she did not behave like a normal teenager. First of all was her maturity. She was fifteen going on thirty. She had no discernible friends and only seemed to socialize with her own classmates because it was expected of her. Then there was her intelligence. She was in her final year at one of the oldest and most prominent private schools in Europe, maybe in the world. That made her two years older than almost everyone in her classes and she was tutoring more than one of her yearmates. And, of course, there was her almost freakish physique. That first encounter with her did not give me a proper appreciation of exactly how muscled that diminutive and model thin body was. My first day following her on her workout on the Spencer estate in Scotland rectified that. I knew men in their prime in elite units around the world who would have had trouble keeping up with that regime for more than a day or two and she seemed to be able to go at it once or twice daily.
It was when I joined the Spencer household in Scotland with Dame Alice that I was also shocked to learn the depth of her abilities in armed and unarmed combat. And that I was welcomed to spar with her. I had a couple of spans on her in height and probably at least seven or eight stones in weight and she merely grinned impishly, her eyes flashing with a strange mixture of pity and challenge, at me when Ambrose suggested it. It was a look I remember seeing on Captain Devlin’s face when he would allow someone just enough rope with which to hang themselves.
Of course I learned the hard way why the pity was there. In my defense, Alice Spencer-Killdare was a rail-thin, not even meter and a half tall, forty kilo, fifteen year old girl. And she used my body to test the softness of the mats in the gymnasium. Thoroughly. The British government spent a lot of time and money training me how to kill people. I was also a practitioner of savate. Someone, probably multiple someones, had spent even more time than the gentlemen at Hereford had on me turning that girl into a lethal piece of bait.
Oddly enough, I found I got more lethal the more I let her beat up on me. I guess it was purely a defensive adaptation on my brain’s part. It probably objected to the barrage of pain messages it receive whenever I was daft enough to let her toss me about the salle.
And I grew strangely fond of my little mistress of pain.
Not that guarding Dame Alice Spencer-Killdare was easy. She did have legitimate enemies I was warned about. I got a fairly detailed brief on what she did to earn her knighthood that came with a warning that the assumption of IRA terrorists to explain the kidnapping of William and the ladies was never confirmed. Then there was the group of Scottish Nationalists that attacked the Spencer estate in southern Scotland not long after Belfast. That group was mostly wiped out but security on the estate was increased dramatically and was now full-time, even when there were only caretakers there. There were some other incidents that were hinted at but the gist of the briefing on my charge was that she did have real security concerns. Concerns that even caused the very safe and heavily guarded Hanoverian Academy to add more security. While I was not permitted to accompany her to classes, I was allowed to monitor her from the security office and to patrol the halls outside of her classes. Discretely. That meant I was not permitted to be visibly armed in the halls.
Alice was not fond of having a bodyguard; believing, probably correctly, that she could handle most threats that she encountered. What she could not do, however, was carry weapons legally. I was warned to not be surprised if there was trouble and she does produce a knife or some other such weapon. She also possessed a few firearms illegally, I was told, but that she normally only kept them at the townhouse or the estate in Scotland. She was already on the Lord Chancellor’s radar as being more dangerous than she looks and more than willing to carry and use illegal weapons. My job description sounded more like back-up or support than the typical bodyguard job would entail. I was to follow her lead and watch her back for threats she might miss and generally use my judgment if I was in doubt as to what to do.
In addition to being reluctantly social, Dame Alice was also just as militantly paranoid as Devlin suggested. She tried to vary her comings and goings, even to and from school and did not keep a schedule outside of school other than afternoon workouts. She attended what social events she was required to attend, the Opening Session of Parliament and the Queen’s Birthday, for example, but tended to prefer to stay in to study or read. Or, at least that was what I was told when given the majority of evenings off. I would find out much later that she participated in “extracurricular” activities many evenings. Activities for which she wanted no help or company.
I would get hints, here and there, about that sort of thing over my first six months with her. She would stare hard at someone she would see on the street and then look around, as if fixing her position and that person’s face in her memory for later review. She would also meet people she claimed were monks but who acted like anything but members of a religious order. She was Catholic, so I guess they could do things a bit different than the Low Church of England I was used to. I had my doubts, however. And the monks were not the only unusual people with whom she associated. She knew an arms dealer or two, someone I was sure was a forger, and more than one person I could not place but knew was not someone she should be acquainted with, never mind knew well enough to have a comradely relationship with.
Dame Alice Spencer-Killdare was also known fairly well in certain political and academic circles. What social functions she did attend, due to Lord Spencer’s title and political affiliations and her own knighthood and favor with the Conservative Party and the Queen, were often spent in deep political, economic, and historical debates with adults who viewed her as a peer rather than the undergrown teenager she was. I learned more about geopolitics and international economics in one evening shadowing her at a Conservative Party soiree than in a decade in Her Majesty’s Army.
Those six months should have warned me all was not what it seemed with Miss Spencer-Killdare. And I suppose the enlightening event probably should not have come as a complete surprise. Alas, it did.
It was a muggy, rainy late summer day. The sky had opened up that morning and by noon people were muttering about needing to start building an ark. The humidity made everyone a little sluggish and the temperature was hitting the low thirties °C as what was Hurricane Clive for the Caribbean and North America came ashore in the Isles with a deluge. The noon day sky was nearly black and the winds drove the rain almost horizontal. The few out and about did not bother with umbrellas as the wind would quickly claim them.
That was a Saturday, so I had assumed Dame Alice would stay inside like most sane Londoners who did not need to be out and about. My assumption did what assumptions often do.
Which is how I found myself accompanying Alice on a trip around London on errands, the first of which was a visit to her arms dealer friend in Harrow on the Hill. She met him in The Castle, strangely quiet due to the weather for Saturday at noon, and talked over lunch. She had me sit at the bar and after they finished eating, she shook his hand and passed him an envelope before collecting me and heading to the next stop.