Perhaps you’re after a break from the incessant VIRUS and other glum news and you’re looking for a bit of a European springtime getaway, one bursting with new season colour. Maybe you’re wanting a bit of romance, mystery, and thrilling adventure, the sort spies and the middle-aged Irish butlers they love seem to have, except flying is out of the question, you know, with borders being closed, social distancing, and no one but hoarders having toilet paper.
This is why reading is SO AWESOME. Reading transports you to other seasons, to other places, and gives you the opportunity to step into a seasoned romance full of suspense, mystery and spies, where toilet paper isn’t really an issue–unless it’s used as a weapon, which, in the case of True to Your Service, I can assure it is not. But other things are, and they are jungle green.
Allow me to transport you to London’s Regents Park in early May. And if you like London, maybe you’ll want to snag a copy of True to Your Service and travel on to beautiful gardens in Amsterdam and the countryside of the Netherlands. Or perhaps a sex shop in Amsterdam tickles your, uh, fancy and you’d enjoy reading about a seasoned butler and the equally seasoned spy who are very much in love, secretly married, and willing to risk life and fingers to keep that love–and each other–alive.
Get ready for mystery, thrills, true love, sex, spies, scrambled eggs, and bar full of monkeys!
A dog and a wife, two things one didn’t typically associate with a man in his profession. Married spies in fiction or on screen were few and far between—unless one counted tales of Russian sleeper agents living in plain sight. Married spies with smallish dogs best known for being the favourite companion to noblewomen in the Middle Ages were also an anomaly.
As the dog in the back seat nudged his snout between the headrests, Kitt glanced at the woman driving his car, and joy, unanticipated, vast joy enveloped him. He smiled. The last few months with Mae had been filled with moments of joy, joy that was as unexpected as having a wife and a dog, but with unexpected happiness also came an immeasurable sense of responsibility that stretched beyond his own self-preservation. It was a sober counterbalance to the giddiness of his joy and he frowned until his wife’s sniff of disdain brought another smile to his face.
He watched Mae give the Bentley’s ash veneer dashboard a once-over full of scorn. At the traffic lights, she looked at him in the passenger seat, picked a wad of fluff from the shoulder of his jacket, her mouth pursing, lips bunching like the white spring clouds over London. “Three months,” she said, hazel eyes crinkling at the corners.
Mae adjusted her grip on the steering wheel and accelerated through the intersection. “Three months is when the restlessness typically begins, when the inactivity of office-based work has burrowed beneath your skin, and it becomes evident, in subtle ways, that you believe the sedentariness of desk work is turning you soft in mind and body. I worked for you long enough to know the pattern. The occasional pulse in your jaw, the long sigh when you finish your scrambled eggs, the tension in your shoulders every time I turn onto the Outer Circle. You’ve been out of the field and in an office since mid-February. Three months is your limit.”
“Valentine’s Day to the first week of May is only two months and three weeks, and my mind turned to mush the day I confessed my feelings for you, which was nearly a year ago.”
“My, how time flies when you’re soft and in love.” She gave him a quick, sidelong look and blew a tendril of blonde hair from her eye.
His transition from field agent to station-based intelligence officer had happened a little earlier than he had planned. He had actually been reassigned to Section SOST—Special Operations Selection and Training—as a result of breaking protocol in an unauthorised, yet successful action, where he lost bits of two fingers, nearly died, and uncovered ties funding terrorism through the sale of stolen cultural artefacts and counterfeit luxury goods. Most intelligence officers departed the harshest field work at fifty-five, leaving the more hazardous postings to younger women and men. The Consortium viewed all intelligence officers as assets to be utilised, it was ‘once a field officer, always a field officer’, regardless of age. How very broadminded of them.
The selection and training of new intelligence recruits was a challenge, and not the sort of challenge that stirred more than a generic enthusiasm in him. He lacked the patience for instructing officers who had some experience, yet were basically still novices, like Eaton, his current field trainee. Bryce had suggested his making an application to become head of Section SOST—an attractive prospect if it hadn’t been for all the bloody paperwork Section Heads necessitated. At the moment, what he’d envisioned, and what Bryce had suggested, didn’t matter, seeing as his reassignment was temporary and held him in limbo at HRM’s—or more rightly, Llewelyn’s—pleasure. His transition had yet to move from cocoon to chrysalis.
Kitt sighed exactly the way he had when he had finished his scrambled eggs this morning. “I admit I’m a bit bored, a bit impatient. I’ll grow accustomed to it, as one does any change, but how do you think I’m soft?”
“Shall I start with this car?”
“You’ve never liked my car.”
“Yes, because it’s soft. For example,” she gave another disdainful sniff, “it has a heated steering wheel.”
“It’s designed to warm the hands of a man with a cold heart.”
“Your heart’s not as cold as you think it is.”
“And I’m not as soft as you think I am, but my hands are certainly like ice in winter.”
“You could wear gloves when driving in the cold.”
“The steering wheel is heated, so there’s no need for gloves.” A cool nose poked into the side of his neck again, this time, a little tongue licked his ear. Kitt pushed Felix’s snout away. The Italian greyhound strained against his harness and set his narrow, ginger head between the front seats again. Somewhat absently, Kitt scratched beneath the dog’s white chin.
Mae shook her head and continued her critique, eyes on the road as she passed York Bridge at the edge of Regent’s Park. “There’s also the matter of the wooden dash.”
“It looks pretty.”
“Yes. Your car is very pretty, very soft and pretty.”
“That little Sunbeam Alpine Julius Taittinger had in New Mexico, the one you said was the perfect car for me, had a walnut dash.”
“That car was hot pink.”
“Yet you said it was the car I ought to be driving instead of my Bentley.”
“Which, I’d like to point out, you haven’t driven in over a month.”
“One must keep up appearances, Mae. That aside, I think, in embracing my soft life, I’ve come to enjoy your chauffeuring me about.”
A loud ha burst from her mouth. “Did you learn nothing about how to lie when you were a young lad at spy school?”
“What should I have said?”
“Driving is difficult with my stubby fingerlings, Mae,” she said, voice low and plummy.
“Yes, I sound just like that. I am always amazed by your uncanny talent with mimicry.”
“And mockery.” Eyes on the road, she caught the wiggling of stunted fingers on Kitt’s left hand. He’d lost the tops of his fingers in a fight last year, and lived to tell the tale.
“Is there anything about this car you like?”
Her mouth pursed again. “It’s a nice colour.”
“It matches the green in your eyes,” Kitt said as Felix licked his ear. Mae laughed and the Bentley skirted Regents Park, along the Outer Circle.
The muscles in his shoulders began to bunch and Kitt forced himself to relax as Mae chuckled. “Oh, stop it,” he said, chuckling too. The mobile in his jacket buzzed. He pulled out the device. Morland, his superior’s chief assistant, had sent a message—Review relocated to Gray, 7:30.
Kitt tapped out a reply: Received. He shoved the phone back in his jacket pocket and gazed out the window, watching bright green spring leaves flutter in the breeze, scratching Felix under the chin as Mae turned off the Outer Circle onto Chester Road, the street lined by fresh, new green leaves, an explosion of tulips, and pink cherry blossoms. “There,” he said pointing to a parking space that had been vacated. “You can drop me there.”
She pulled into the spot not far from the Broad Walk and The Espresso Bar café, shut off the engine, and released her seatbelt. For a moment, she rummaged in the centre console’s cubbyhole and drew out the dog’s lead. “Not to sound like a wife, but when do you think you’ll be home tonight?”
“Not to sound like a husband, but after six.” Felix nuzzled into Kitt’s neck again. Gently, he pushed the eager-for-a-walk dog back and looked up at the parking signs, unlit streetlamps, and the open iron gate near the corner of the Broad Walk entrance. Yes, a wife and a dog, two things he never thought he’d want or have. “I like when you sound like a wife,” he said, his tone idiotically earnest, and not any way corny.
“That’s the benefit of being married to you rather than being your employee.”
“Yes, I no longer pay you and you still care.” He turned in his seat to face her. “Have you planned something for this evening?”
“Sean’s invited us for dinner. He has something he wants to show us.”
“Yes, you brother is quite trying—and judgemental.”
“You can’t blame him. His baby sister married a spy. He’s being protective.”
“No, no, he’s being judgemental.”
“It’s taken years for him to step outside his comfort zone and make a change. He’s worried about relapsing, slipping into old patterns of thoughts and behaviours. It’s a challenge to start again in a new place, away from the support system he had.”
“Ah, the cloistered brotherhood of priests keeping each other’s secrets.”
“You do realise how absurd that is for you to say, don’t you?”
“I’m crushed by the irony.” He opened the door and paused. “I understand the complexities of combat exposure PTSD, symptoms relapsing, and the previous government’s inadequate support of veterans with mental health issues, but sometimes…”
“Sean is just a prick?”
“I was thinking misanthropic arse, but prick works well for Padre Sean Vincenzo.”
Mae chuckled and watched a white sedan pass. The dog strained forward between the seats, but the harness he was belted into kept him from getting in front and into anyone’s lap. Kitt glanced at the street lights and parking signs again. “Come here to the boot for a minute.” He got out of the Bentley and shut the door.
Mae checked that no traffic was coming and climbed out of the car too pretty for an ugly-handsome man like her husband. Felix scampered about in the car, barking at two passing young men playing with a football. Mae went to the rear where the boot sat open, Kitt leaned into the space where she’d put her handbag and he’d tossed his sports bag and a shabby, old leather satchel. Dark, ginger-blond head bent, he stood with his arms inside the grey-lined gap, head hidden by the boot’s lid. When he didn’t straighten, she said, “What is it, have you become so soft that bending over to fetch your bags has made you slip a disc?”
She moved nearer. “Oh, you have hurt your back. Poor diddums.”
“Would you prefer schnookums?”
“I would not.” He motioned with his chin. “Come closer. I want you to have a look at something.” The transit van behind them had its side door open, the driver unloading and stacking boxes onto an upright hand trolley on the footpath at the rear of the Bentley. Across the road, a mud-spattered Land Rover Defender, one that looked like it had come fresh from an expedition in the Amazon, had parked in the front of the bollards.
At his side, Mae bent forward, hands on the rim of the boot as she looked into it. “Yes, I see. You need a new car and a new satchel.”
“I’d no sooner replace either one of them than I would replace you. Now, look.” His eyes darted to the Land Rover and the bollards.
Felix let out a little half-whine of a bark. “What is it you want me to see? Felix is doing his little need-to-pee dance.”
Blue-grey eyes met hers and he turned slightly. “Did you notice the street lights and bollards on either side of the Broad Walk?”
She shifted to straighten and look, but his swift hand kept her in place. He smiled softly, his fingers brushing over the top of hers. “The lights are there. Trust me.
“And you’re telling me because…”
“There are digital video cameras hidden inside. CCTV cameras in the bollards across the footpath too, and the cameras see everything.”
“As one hopes they would.”
“One must keep up appearances and away from prying eyes, yet, like most husbands, I’d like to kiss my wife goodbye before I toddle off to work to deal with people and,” he winced, “paperwork, but the cameras can see everything, Mae.”
“You are ridiculously melodramatic,” she said.
“Perhaps.” He brushed the two normal-sized fingers of his left hand over his lips then touched them to the hand she’d rested on the inside rim of the boot.
She laughed and straightened, patting the dog’s tennis ball bulging the pocket of her sporty pale-blue jacket and pulled at the waistband of cropped, black leggings. She was dressed for a run with the dog. Kitt’s eyes travelled over her as she pushed back a strand of silver-shot blonde hair loosened from a ponytail. These days, she seldom wore her old uniform of navy-blue shirt dress and apron, and, unless working on a renovation project, her hair was rarely in a French braid. Kitt looked down at her hot pink joggers. He smiled, chuckling. “I miss your Doc Marten Mary-Janes—and your apron. You don’t wear your apron anymore.”
“I’ll be sure to have it on when you get home.” She took his satchel and an umbrella with a curved handle from inside the boot. “Here,” she said, thrusting out the black, quintessentially British-looking object.
“It’s not raining,” he said, casting an eye at the blue sky.
She thrust the brolly closer. “Keeping up appearances?”
“Ah. Yes. The cameras.” He took the old briefcase and umbrella.
“I know. You think about my apron and it addles your brain, makes you so sloppy you forget about cameras that see everything.”
“You’re a nuisance and I love you.” He stepped away from the back of the car and their curtailed moment of marital normalcy. The transit van driver came back and shut the rear door, a small group of Lycra-clad men on bicycles hummed by, a woman wheeled along a baby in a pram.
Mae closed the boot and took Felix from the car. He’d pressed his nose and paws all over the rear-side windows, leaving damp smears all over the glass she’d polish clean later. She clipped on his lead, handed it to Kitt, and took his battered briefcase.
Umbrella in one hand, dog’s leash in the other, Kitt walked around boxes and the hand trolley. Mae fell into step alongside him on the footpath, Felix sniffing, stopping to pee, prancing along and sniffing again. At the mouth of the Broad Walk, just near The Espresso Bar café, Felix peed on a black bollard and Kitt exhaled in annoyance at the unexpected sight of his colleagues. Three men rose from a table at the café and began to approach. By the time the dog had moved on to the next bollard to continue his business, Bryce had joined them, the others a few steps behind.
“Morning, Kitty,” Bryce said brightly. He looked at Mae and peeing Felix.
Kitt wore no expression. “What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been reassigned from Shaw. I haven’t been informed to whom as of yet, but I can guess. I see you brought your entourage.”
“Ah, and you’ve brought Morland and Llewelyn.”
“They followed me here. Good morning, Mrs Valentine.” Bryce gave her a wink before Division Chief Brigadier Roger Llewelyn, and a stout bald man with a round, immobile face arrived to stand beside them. “Morland,” Bryce said, “this is Mrs Valentine, Kitty’s butler, and his dog, Felix. Morland is the administrative equivalent of you, Mrs Valentine.”
“Ah-huh-huh,” the Brigadier cleared his throat. “A very good morning to you, Mrs Valentine,” Llewelyn said, his tone rousingly cheerful.
“Good morning, Brigadier.” Mae said, her tone pleasantly professional, “Sergeant Bryce, Mr Morland.”
Llewelyn looked like an older version of an actor many saw as a contender to play the ‘new James Bond’. He had a rich, melodious voice and he watched Felix trot about on his lead, saying, “This is your dog, Major?”
Felix sniffed at his trouser leg.
Llewelyn chortled. “Hm. Not quite what I was expecting when Bryce said you had a sighthound. Now then, shall we carry on, gentlemen?”
Kitt handed Mae the lead and umbrella, and took his satchel. “Thank you, Valentine. If you get the chance today, Valentine, he needs his nails clipped.” He turned away to face his superior, ignoring the stout man beside him.
“Excuse me, sir,” Mae said.
Three sets of eyes shifted back to her. “There was a Chelsea bun left from breakfast,” she said. “I put it in your satchel. Have a pleasant day at work.” She watched Kitt’s hard face change from ugly to handsome as he flashed her a smile. She left the four men and took Felix across the inner circle and into Queen Mary’s Garden.
It was a lovely spring morning with a soft chill in the air. Green buds and tulips in full bloom showed their vibrant shades against the bright grass. After half an hour’s run through verdant, dew-dappled beauty and cascading cherry blossom petals, the dog grew tired and Mae turned about. There were things to tend to at home, errands to run.
She passed by The Espresso Bar café and a strapping man wearing black sunglasses and a grey pork-pie hat too big for his head. He fumbled with a tourist map and muttered in Spanish to his mate in orange sunglasses. His bulky body reminded her of a man she’d come across in Sicily, an Asian man who had been all muscle and no neck. When she reached the car, she wiped the dampness from the dog’s paws, shortened the lead of the travel harness, and secured him in the back seat. The Transit van remained in the parking spot behind the Bentley. Cyclists took advantage of the space to cross the street and head into the park. Mae got in the driver’s seat and shut the door. Felix settled down onto the rear seat and sighed.
She started the engine and looked out the windscreen. Up ahead, a small tipper lorry loaded with garden mulch turned onto Chester Road. More bicycles whizzed by alongside cars, cutting in front of the Bentley. On the other side of the road, the man in the orange sunglasses and his mate, the big man in the pork-pie hat asked two women waiting to cross for directions, showing them the map. The blonde in an expensive suit pointed to something, the thin brunette nodded and unbuttoned the front of an ice-blue jacket. Parents rolled along with prams on the footpath. A blur of man and bicycle flew past the dirty Land Rover still parked across the street.
Mae twisted slightly, and reached for the seatbelt. She pulled the metal buckle forward, across her shoulder, and the world exploded in a white-flashing thunderclap.