AN: "The Sandbaggers" was a British TV series back in the late 1970's. The central character was spymaster Neil Burnside, played by Roy Marsden, better known to mystery fans as P.D. James' Adam Dalgleish. The Sandbaggers were a small team of carefully selected agents, working for Burnside who carried out dangerous or politically risky missions, such as assassinations, snatching defectors from under the nose of the secret police, etc. Most of Burnside's troubles however came from his bosses or other politicians and bureaucrats within the British government. In the end, the show was more about the bureaucratic infighting in the intelligence community and less about the secret missions themselves.
As if on cue, there was a knock at the door, and Charlotte appeared, a stack of colored folders cradled under her arm. After nearly two years, their morning routine was quite settled. Deftly depositing the folders in Darcy's inbox, she answered his two questions before he even got them out of his mouth. "Nothing that needs your immediate attention sir and everyone's in the hutch."
Glancing at the folders, the Director of Operations selected the folder color coded as "Immediate". Thirty minutes of reading later, he determined that there was nothing in the folder that was liable to blow up in his face before the day was over. In fact, several of the messages could easily have been sent as "Routine". Darcy initialed the routing slip in the proper place and tossed the folder into his outbox. It was useless, he decided, to send out another communiqué that emphasized proper signal classification. Some station chiefs abused the system, knowing that an "Immediate" signal would get prompt attention at headquarters.
Resisting the urge to refill his coffee cup, Darcy hunkered down to flip through the "Routine" messages. Most messages failed to catch his interest, until he reached the next to last form in the stack. He noted the name of the station chief in the sender's box and mentally recalled which station that person led. "Ottawa," he mused. The Ottawa chief was famous for sending "nothing to report" or other equally brief messages. Pulling the form from the folder Darcy noticed that this message went on for a page and a half. "Something's up" Darcy thought.
Three readings of the communication allowed the "D. Ops", as he was known in SIS slang to fully digest its meaning. There were rumors in Ottawa that Canadian counterintelligence had a "walk-in", someone who came in off the street offering information. There were no definite signs that the rumor was true or what information the person was offering. Darcy made a mental note of it, adding it to the list of subjects he would keep an eye on.
The first part of his morning schedule complete, he moved onto the second. Lifting the receiver on the internal telephone he dialed a number. Two rings later, the familiar voice of Sandbagger Two, Mary Bennet answered "Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe". Darcy grinned. The answer was a Sandbagger custom, defiantly maintained, despite long-standing opposition from the top brass on the sixth floor.
"Tell everybody to be in my office in about ten minutes Mary."
"Yes sir, ten minutes," replied Mary.
Darcy ventured into the outer office to refill his coffee cup. Charlotte was on the phone, no doubt clarifying some problem with his schedule. She seemed to sense his presence behind her, because she swiveled around in her chair as soon as she hung up the phone. "Don't forget your lunch appointment sir!" Darcy groaned. It was one of the "perks" that went with the office he held, a weekly lunch with the Permanent Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office.
The incumbent in that particular office had been a contemporary of Darcy's at Oxford, but their nodding acquaintance had ended when the two had competed for the hand of the same woman. She had chosen Darcy, whom Garth blamed for "stealing the love of his life." Grinning for a brief moment, he recalled that the woman had proven to be a shrew, not worth the slightest competition. "He should thank me." Darcy said quietly to himself, remembering that the future Foreign Office mandarin had never completely forgiven him.
Murmuring his thanks to Charlotte, Darcy spun on his heel and walked back to his own desk. He had no sooner settled back into his chair when he heard the outer door to the office and Mary Bennet's voice as she greeted Charlotte. The three Sandbaggers filed in one by one. As each sat down in the semi-circle of chairs that stood before his desk, Darcy briefly summarized the career of each.
To his left sat Frederick Wentworth, the senior Sandbagger, known in SIS slang as "Sandbagger One". Ex-navy, with dark hair and tanned features, he looked every bit the ex-naval officer that he was. The staff in the Ops Room, which took up much of the cellar, had given most Sandbaggers nicknames. Some of these nicknames commemorated a particular event. Others were simply an effort to sketch out the officer in one or two words. Wentworth's exploits had earned him "Fearless Freddie". In his younger days, he had been bold, almost to the point of recklessness. Experience had tempered that boldness, but he still drew many of the tough assignments.
On Darcy's right sat Sandbagger Two, Mary Bennet, who- leg cast not withstanding looked more like a librarian than the best female secret agent Darcy had ever known. While her hair was only slightly less dark than Wentworth's, her skin was fair, almost to the point of being pale. Unlike Wentworth, she had come to SIS from the Foreign Office, originally recruited into government service for her language abilities. It was these abilities, combined with her skills as an actress that made Mary Bennet an especially valuable commodity.
Many of the Sandbagger's missions into hostile territory required them to travel using forged passports and other false identities. But Mary Bennet did them one better. In the words of one impressed station chief, who had once stood next to her for an hour and not recognized her, she became the person the mission required her to portray (hence her nickname of "The Chameleon"). But these skills had been missing from the repertoire for the last several months. A broken ankle during her annual parachute requalification had sidelined Mary Bennet.
This had made the presence of the third person in the room necessary. She sat before Darcy who felt that her bright eyes were burning two holes in his chest. Elizabeth Bennet made for an interesting bookend to her cousin Mary. In most traits they were the exact opposites. Only two similarities really stood out, hair color and intellect. But even here, the similarities were not exact, with Elizabeth's luxuriant curls and "degree from the school of life" not quite matching Mary's rather mousy hair and encyclopedic mind.
Sandbagger Four, as she was temporarily designated, had no nickname yet. Her tenure had been brief, less than four months and she had displayed no special talent or idiosyncrasy to be remembered for posterity. Her missions had so far been the customary ones for a novice, such as retrieving documents from long-term agents. Her abilities had quietly impressed Darcy, who was considering allowing her to take some of the more perilous tasks that might otherwise have gone to her cousin.
To Darcy however, Sandbagger Four did have one outstanding quality, a pair of the most beautiful and penetrating eyes he had ever seen. Any nickname that did not include them would be a crime. Angrily shaking his head as if to force such thoughts from his mind, Darcy nodded to Wentworth, indicating that he could begin.
The morning briefing itself was somewhat routine, as none of the parties had any pressing business that needed attention. The three agents sketched out their schedules and passed along any other information they thought the D. Ops would need. In turn, Darcy mentioned several matters, including the message from Ottawa. Both Sandbaggers One and Two were clearly interested, but without further data, the conversation on the matter quickly faded. After 20 minutes and a cup of coffee, they broke up, the women leaving quickly while Wentworth lingered for a moment. Darcy could guess what he wanted to speak about, but he let Wentworth broach the subject.
"There any word on when we can expect Jim Benwick back?"
Benwick was Sandbagger Three and he had spent the last four weeks baby-sitting a station chief in West Africa. The country had only just begun to recover from a protracted civil war and John Elton the station chief, who had barely escaped with his life, had been somewhat reluctant to go back. The deputy chief, Catherine de Bourgh, over Darcy's strenuous objections had chosen to send a Sandbagger to assist Elton. Two weeks later, SIS's most experienced "number two"; an officer qualified for his own station but waiting for one to become available had also been sent to Elton's aid.
Darcy fully understood Wentworth's annoyance with the situation. With Sandbagger Two laid up and Sandbagger Three holding a station chief's hand, he hadn't had a weekend off in a month. But without a new argument to sway the deputy chief, renewing the battle would be pointless. Sadly he told Wentworth that his previous appraisal of the situation was still valid.
With a frown and a shake of his head, Sandbagger One turned to leave. Darcy stood for a moment, looking at the door that Wentworth had just closed. Then with a sigh, he sat down and resumed his study of the papers Charlotte had stacked in his inbox. The vast majority of them were the boring but nevertheless required documents that made up the daily administrative life of a SIS senior officer.
After a quick perusal of a lengthy file on environmentalists in the Amazon basin that had absolutely no operational interest to him, Darcy slapped the file back on his desk and picked up his pen to initial in the proper block. A long comment from the deputy chief caught his eye. A smirk briefly crossed his lips as he read it. She would be interested in something like this. With a snort he initialed the file and pitched it in the outbox.
The remainder of the morning proceeded along similar lines. Charlotte had been careful to place the items she thought would most interest him at the top of the pile. He had passed through them relatively quickly and was now deep into the routine informational files and background briefings that were the bane of his existence. Thankfully, his intercom rang just as his eyes were beginning to cloud over and Charlotte's cheerful voice reminded him of his lunch appointment.
Glad for the interruption, he took a moment to clear off his desk, placing the unread folders back into his inbox. He could not avoid reading them, only delay doing so until later. Pulling his overcoat from its hook, he walked towards the door to the outer office. Pausing for a moment to reconfirm the meeting place with David Garth, he walked out the office door and headed for the elevators.
The passage of nearly twenty years had done little to change the views of either Darcy or his lunch companion. In their Oxford days, Darcy's favorite charge had been that Garth tended to see the world through rose-colored glasses. His time in the Foreign Office had not completely erased that outlook from the Permanent Under Secretary. Darcy on the other hand, had served in the waning years of the Cold War and had been trained and nurtured by veterans of that conflict, a combination that had only served to harden his existing views and if anything, strengthen them.
Yet for all the political and personal enmity, the two got along fairly well professionally. It was almost as though they had arrived at the mutual, unspoken declaration for a truce. Darcy frowned for a moment, unused to seeing Garth in purely black and white. No, he mused; the Foreign Office official was most definitely a denizen of that gray area that lay somewhere in between. Alternately a key ally in getting permission to mount a politically tricky operation and a persistent thorn when advancing proposals that SIS wouldn't go near voluntarily
The luncheon in the VIP dining room of the Foreign Office went smoothly, with neither partaker unduly annoying the other. Garth was pleased to hear Darcy's views on the current state of SIS operations, keen as always to avoid any potential political minefields. Darcy on his part had listened carefully for indications of the latest outlandish schemes to emanate from the Foreign Office--the ones that would either be spectacular successes or spectacular failures. Garth was quite fond of these, Darcy believed, due no doubt to the fact that he could either take a considerable portion of the credit or manage to avoid taking his share of the blame.
A few minutes in the office of the deputy chief fulfilled the D. Ops' standing order to keep her informed of the conversations from his luncheon. Some weeks, with nothing "hot" on their plates, the lunch meeting was little more than a formality. With no major operations in the works and no "bright ideas" from the Foreign Office as many in SIS headquarters labeled them, there was nothing to report.
Darcy took a moment to mention the Ottawa station report. Something that he could not quite place his finger on bothered him about it. "Lady" Catherine as the Ops Room wits had labeled her, did not share Darcy's concerns, but she was willing to spend a few minutes discussing them. In her days as a station chief, Catherine de Bourgh had always been near the top of the list kept by the Sandbaggers of officers believed to be anti-Sandbagger. But she'd also been one of the best station heads of the last generation, serving as the head of no less than three prestigious European stations. Despite their differences, which bordered on the legendary, Darcy valued and respected her opinions.
Seated back at his desk, Darcy spent the remainder of the afternoon slogging through his paperwork. Thankfully, the pile had not grown much larger in his absence. When the number of files remaining had dropped down to no more than three or four, he leaned back, removed his reading glasses, and rubbed his eyes. The glasses were something new, a reminder, along with the gray hairs that appeared in every larger numbers that at 43, middle age was now a fact of life.
Replacing his eyewear, Darcy looked for a moment at the two pictures on his desk. To his right was his younger sister Georgiana, sitting before her Christmas tree with her family. Its counterpart was a picture of his ex-wife, Caroline. Resting his elbows on the arms of his chair, Darcy rested his chin on his hands and looked at the left-hand picture.
Even after their divorce five years previously, he was still unsure of how he felt about her. It wasn't regret per se, but it wasn't indifference either. There were times when he did feel genuine remorse for his treatment of her. Frederick Wentworth had been right on one count. There was room for only one woman in his life, and her name was the Secret Intelligence Service. Darcy knew he'd married her for all the wrong reasons. So he wouldn't be lonely on those occasional nights when he wasn't working late in the hutch. To have a homecoming to look forward to as he shivered in some third world hellhole, hoping the job wasn't a trap.
Every effort that had been made to save their marriage had been initiated by her. In the end, so had the decision to end it. She'd wanted nothing from him in the end, other than her freedom.
If Caroline had walked away calmly, his former sister-in-law Jane Bingley had taken just the opposite approach. Her husband was Darcy's lifelong friend, but Jane hadn't let that, or the fact that she and Caroline had never really gotten along lessen her reaction to their divorce. Arriving home one night to see Darcy and her husband Charles watching football, she had brusquely informed her husband that "That Man" as she now called him was no longer welcome in her house.
Darcy was spared further contemplation on his personal life by the shrill ring of the secure internal phone. Grasping the receiver, he barked "D. Ops." The calm voice of Aaron Hicks, the duty watch officer stated "Glad I caught you still in your office sir. Flash top secret signal from Princess Royal. They're asking for immediate lift." Darcy cursed silently. His plans for a quiet week could be forgotten. The ultimate in politically tricky operations had just come to the front burner. Thanking Hicks he rang off.
Lifting the receiver again, Darcy told the Sandbaggers to hurry down to the Ops Room. Another quick call appraised the deputy chief of the situation, with a promised update in an hour. Snatching up a handful of relevant files and his coffee mug, he hurried out of the office and waited impatiently by the elevators. I've got a bad feeling about this one he mused.