I didn’t think much about the undercover op for the rest of the afternoon. We raced to Philip’s post-mortem and then, not much the wiser, back to Ealing Met for a round-up with Lane and Childs. Dobson had asked us not to discuss the operation with anyone outside the room until I was actually in place. Jo then set up a meeting with Hewson. It seemed the Wing Commander was wary of meeting in a public place so he again requested to visit Jo’s father, which meant a trip to St Albans tomorrow.
The day passed quickly and I could feel my energy levels dropping. Thank goodness tomorrow was Saturday, and I’d get the afternoon off if nothing urgent came up. By the time we had finished for the day, I was ready to go home. I looked at Jo. Her shirt was a lot less crisp, her sleeves were rolled up, yet she seemed as mentally sharp as ever. I slumped back in my chair, idly watching her get up and walk over to the water cooler. On her return she pushed her hair back from her face and perched against the table next to me. She radiated something I identified as anxiety, yet her calm stillness and immobile face said otherwise.
“I think I’ll be heading off in a minute”, I said, yawning.
“Yep, me too.”
“It’s Friday night, Jo. You’re young, free and single. Hope you’re going out to have fun!” I said, teasing.
“Ha, less of the young. And for your information, I don’t think Friday night has been anything special for me since I was a student! Nope, cat and TV, that’s about it.”
I had a sudden realisation that I didn’t want to lose her company just yet. We’d known each other less than three days, yet the case had both of us fully involved, and now I faced a tricky undercover role. She made me feel safe somehow, I know that sounds crazy, but well, there it was.
“Well, I don’t suppose I could entice you to mine for something to eat? We could discuss tomorrow’s meeting in more detail … if you’re not too tired,” I added, hopefully.
She hesitated. “I’m tempted, you’re nearer and there isn’t much to look forward to at home, if you’re sure it’s OK, not inconvenient for Ryan…” she paused.
I shook my head. “God no, he hasn’t stopped talking about you, he’ll love it. You might have to read him a bedtime story though”, I chuckled.
“Let me just make a call”.
I waited as she phoned someone called Jean who would take care of Missy’s evening meal. The instructions were quite detailed. I rolled my eyes.
“OK I’m clear. Shall I follow you?”
I got wearily to my feet and picked up my coat and briefcase.
“Just beep if I start weaving all over the road”, I said, as we waved goodnight to our colleagues and left the building.
Rebecca’s house was better organised than I would have thought, especially the kitchen, that I knew she had no particular interest in. I guessed that Stefan was the cook- being vegetarian, he would need to have more control over food preparation. Rebecca had stopped to collect Ryan from day care, where he went after school, and he seemed delighted to see me.
“Redmond, it’s your turn to read me a story”, he said, in a very grown up voice.
“OK Ryan, you’ve had your tea, and daddy will be here in a minute so he’ll give you your bath and after that Jo will help me put you to bed,” Rebecca said.
He turned his serious gaze on me and insisted, “Promise, Redmond!”
“I promise”, I said solemnly, and his little face broke into a smile. To my surprise, I was actually looking forward to it.
“You’ve done it now, fan for life” smiled Rebecca, parking Ryan on the sofa with some toys, and turning on the TV, which she switched to a kids’ channel.
“Let’s get dinner sorted. Steve did some cooking on his day off and put a load of meals in the freezer. All vegetarian or vegan, mind you, but …”
“I really don’t mind”, I said. I often ate vegetarian, especially at home.
“His aubergine lasagne is pretty good,” she said, pulling a container out. “Of course, he had to put cheese on top, even if everything else is vegan, or I wouldn’t eat it!”
I laughed. “I’m sure it’s delicious”.
She was right. It was very good. In the end the three of us demolished the lasagne with a big salad and some garlic bread that Rebecca found in the freezer. I accepted a single glass of Pinot Grigio, relaxing after reading a couple of chapters of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” to Ryan.
“He’s crazy about that Caterpillar,” laughed Stefan, popping the cap on a bottle of Stella Artois. “He gets everyone to read that to him over and over again”.
For a while we ate in silence, then Rebecca said “I suppose we’d better talk about this undercover assignment. How we can make it work.”
Stefan put his fork down and looked at Rebecca with serious eyes.
“You know I don’t like it”, he said. “Not just because it will upset Ryan’s routine, but because of the danger. I don’t want you to put yourself at risk. It’s not worth it.”
Rebecca sighed. While I was reading to Ryan, she had showered and changed into sweatpants and a long sleeved top. Now she sat back in her chair and pulled a leg up under herself. I admired her flexibility, something I had had to forfeit a while ago following my injury.
“Steve, I know how you feel, no, really I do, but you have to understand, this is my job. It’s what I do. You have no idea how often I did this kind of thing with Vice, or with the MIT. I’m a highly trained police officer, I know how to take care of myself. And there will be people on the base I can trust.”
“And me”, I put in quietly. “I’ll be in contact the whole time, ready to come in immediately if things kick off. We’ll have your back.”
Stefan cleared his plate and swallowed the last drops of his beer.
“I know you know what you’re doing, Bec, but I’ll still be anxious. You’ll be out of contact with home for ..what? A week? Ten days?”
“A week should do it,” I said. “And I’ll keep you informed every day. I’ll even come and read to Ryan if that would make him happy.”
Stefan got up and took his plate to the sink, rinsing it off and placing it in the dishwasher.
“OK, well, I’m sure he’ll take you up on that offer, Jo, and you’d be most welcome. Now if you two will excuse me, I have some computer work to do and I’m sure you have police business to discuss.”
When he had gone to his study, and we had cleared up, we took cups of tea into the living room and made ourselves comfortable.
“Would you really?” Rebecca asked.
“Come and read to Ryan?”
I laughed, “It’s not everyone’s kids I take to, but Ryan seems to have twisted me round his little finger.”
She grinned suddenly, a cheeky smile. “Yes, he does that to people. Hope you don’t mind.”
“Strangely, I don’t,” I replied, and we both laughed.
The meeting in St Albans was timed for 11 am, so I had a bit of lie-in. I heard Ryan chirping loudly to Steve, in Steve’s bedroom, when I went to the bathroom, and I was glad the boy had such a good father. It was as if he had picked up that Mummy needed her rest, and knew to go and wake Daddy instead on those mornings when I wasn’t rushing out of the door at the crack of dawn. We were exceptionally lucky that there was no tension between Steve and I, and that Michelle fitted into the picture without any questions from Ryan. He called her Michelle (unlike Auntie Kathy), and happily accepted to sleep over at her place once or twice a week. We had been doing this to make the transition to Steve moving in with her easier. Michelle had a more regular routine than either Steve or I, so she had been very helpful on those occasions when both of us had been unavailable. Steve flitted back and forth more often now, sometimes leaving me alone with Ryan, sometimes taking him with him. I had to admit that when he left, I would miss him, but he deserved a proper family life, with a woman who would love and care for him as a partner.
Another thing I appreciated about Steve- and I knew other people called him Stefan, but the nickname had just stuck from when he had been in the police himself and attached to my team on Vice- was that he had never assumed I would just go back to him because of Ryan. He had never pestered me for sex. I knew he had thought himself in love with me at one time, but he had got over it and moved on. Now we felt more like brother and sister. And that was fine. My body was giving me some strange signals these days- like the feeling I had had earlier in the day when Justin Delgado came on to me again. I had had no sexual relationships since Ryan came into my life. Oh, one very ill-judged one night stand with a cop in the MIT after my previous boss’ 53rd birthday party, at which she had openly flaunted her younger lover. Once she had taken early retirement, she’d let her hair down, and good for her. But at the time, I had felt I somehow needed to compete. Bad idea Bec. Well, that was over three years ago and just the memory of that night, and all those other nights I had wasted on useless guys, made me shudder. The only guy I had ever been genuinely, deeply in love with was a complete bastard, a Special Forces cop who had lied to me about being divorced, compromised one of my cases and even tried to have me killed when I discovered his corruption. To be honest, these days I felt a lot safer and more appreciated in the company of someone like Jo Redmond- someone who could understand my background and our shared experience of the police, but whose companionship put me under no pressure.
When I was getting ready to go out, I did a very unusual thing. Saturday was dress down day, which usually meant whichever jeans, sweater or shirt was close to hand, but today, remembering that I had to meet Jo’s father, I chose my clothes with more care. Black instead of blue jeans, my belt with the silver buckle, a soft burgundy shirt with chest pockets and a plain black zip front bomber jacket in a satiny material. I brushed my hair out and let it loose. Silver earrings, a touch of eyeliner, a swipe of lipstick- nothing too shouty, a squirt of Gucci Bamboo and I was done. As I went to pick up my car keys, Ryan came to the living room door.
“Mummy kiss”, he said, reaching out his arms. I picked him up and carried him into the room where Steve was reading the newspaper.
“Bye bye Ryan, Mummy’s going to work. I’ll be back soon”, and I kissed him.
“Mummy smell nice,” he said, rubbing his nose in my neck.
I handed Ryan to Steve, who sniffed as I bent towards him.
“Yes, she does,” he agreed, winking at me. He had bought the perfume in the Duty-Free on the way back from a business trip to the States.
“Just be good, you two,” I said, heading for the door.
I had no idea what Jo’s father would be like. I knew he was 84 and lived alone, her mother having died over 10 years before, and that he had a bungalow on a retirement complex in St Albans. I worried that he might be posh. That he might think me stupid, or vulgar with my Manc accent. Then I laughed to myself. Jo might sound posh with her cultivated southern voice, but there was nothing patronising about her. I was getting so used to her company that I realised I would miss it when I went undercover. Especially if I had to live apart from Ryan and Steve. Last night, I had felt so comfortable with her that I was sorry the evening had to come to an end. Perhaps it was nervousness about the mission. She had assured me over and again that Dobson would never knowingly put me in danger. That she had action man Delgado on speed dial, and that she would find a way to be in touch every day, and would make sure Ryan had his dose of hungry caterpillars in my absence. I was immensely grateful for this care and what was beginning to feel like friendship that transcended the bounds of collegiality.
“You’re making it seem as if I’m about to be parachuted into a war zone”, I had joked, to bring down some of the emotional tension that had arisen with talk of the undercover job. “It’s not like I haven’t done this stuff before, even if you haven’t.”
She had looked at me for a moment, her brown eyes masking something I couldn’t quite identify. “Oh, I have, believe me”, she had replied, getting up to leave, while I stored that knowledge for another time.
I had watched as she put her coat on, and made for the door. I had got up to let her out and as she turned and said goodnight, I suddenly reached over to kiss her on the cheek.
“Thank you,” I said, “It means a lot that you’ve got my back.” She had nodded, and, with a brief smile, she had gone.
I drove over to Hillingdon station where I had agreed to leave my car. We were going in Jo’s car, as if I were a friend or relative going to meet her father. When I arrived, she was there, sipping from a Caffe Nero cup. I locked my car and walked towards hers as she went to drop her cup in the waste bin. This morning she was wearing tight black skinny jeans, similar to mine and a striped green and black rugby shirt under a bottle green quilted body warmer. Green Converse completed the look. Her hair also had a mussed look with a hint of a curl, that I assumed was the result of hasty drying and no brushing, a far cry from the usual sleek helmet. It suited her very well.
“Looking sporty, I see”, I smiled.
“Whereas you look like you’re going for an audition.”
“Well, I am, in a way”, I smiled nervously.
‘Right. Andiamo,” she said, putting the car in gear and heading out.
I sensed that neither of us much wanted to talk. I was comfortable with her steady, warming presence, just being there was enough. She turned the radio on low, a selection of power ballads that afforded a useful backdrop to the bland scenery of the M25.
Air Commodore Arthur Redmond was, as Jo had described him, a sweet elderly gentleman. “Call me Arthur”, he said immediately on shaking hands. He was polite and kind, making us coffee and showing us his roses in the conservatory, when Wing Commander Hewson arrived. At this point, Arthur excused himself and Jo carried the coffee tray out to the garden. Luckily it wasn’t raining, although it wasn’t very warm, but Jo whispered “Dad’s paranoid about listening devices”. This struck me as rather over the top for someone who had been retired for over 20 years, but I went along. Hewson was blunt and to the point.
“I need Monday to get Andrea Crawford’s replacement cleared with HR. I’ll say we’ve got someone transferring from RAF Halton, personal reasons. We have strong links with Halton, so I can swing it at short notice. I’ve spoken to DCS Dobson, and she confirms that suitable housing can be found to fit the legend. If all goes to plan, you can start on Tuesday”.
I nodded. The sooner the better. In actual fact I was raring to go, but I had to keep the momentum. Two more days waiting was bad enough.
The rest of the meeting involved channels of communication, a job description, that sort of thing. Hewson was obviously efficient and made it clear that I would report to him alone on base.
“That’s all good, Wing Commander,” Jo put in, “but I will need to have an open channel to Rebecca. And I’m her backup as I’m nearest. Is there some way you can issue me with a pass, so that I can come in and out as if running errands?”
Hewson thought for a minute. I thought Jo was pushing her luck- if she couldn’t go undercover, what hope did she have of getting a pass that wouldn’t raise suspicions of police involvement? But Hewson seemed to think the request reasonable.
“You’d need some form of disguise, of course.”
“What about a motorcycle and leathers?” she asked, “as if I’m a dispatch rider.”
Hewson coolly looked her up and down. “I think that would suit very well”, he replied. “I’ll have a pass run up from one of our supply companies.”
My jaw nearly hit the floor. What on earth had Jo Redmond been involved in earlier in her career?