WHEN HE HEARD THE FAINT, FRIENDLY TRILL, CONOR didn’t know what the hell it was; he didn’t recognize it. He’d only had the mobile phone for two weeks—the last man in the country to buy one, it seemed—and nobody had called, so it hadn’t rung.
On the second ring, he turned an inquisitive face to his friend and farm manager, Phillip Ryan. They were on the ground at the edge of the pasture, their legs hanging over the drainage ditch they had been digging at all morning. It was nearly noon and the August afternoon had grown warm but not too warm for the flask of tea they had just polished off before lighting up their cigarettes.
Phillip jerked his head at Conor’s jacket with a smirk of friendly derision. “It’s the mobile, you bleedin’ eejit.”
“Is that what it sounds like? I thought it was a cricket.” Frowning, Conor dove for the jacket and slapped at its pockets to locate the phone. It chirped out a fourth ring before he could answer it. “Is that you, Ma? What’s the matter, are you all right?”
He spoke in Irish, or Gaeilge, as it was called in the ever-shrinking corners of Ireland that still kept it in daily use. It was the language his mother preferred, and it had to be his mother calling, because she was the only one who knew the number. He’d purchased the phone for the peace of mind and freedom of movement it brought him. Since her diagnosis, he had become nervous about how often she was left home by herself.
“Fine, fine. Sorry to frighten you, love.” Brigid McBride’s voice was calm and light. “It’s only there’s a gentleman from London come to see you, and he’s so dressed to the nines I hadn’t the heart to send him down to that muddy ditch.”
A vague anxiety carved a deeper wrinkle in his brow. In his experience, unexpected visitors often carried unwelcome news. “From London? Who is he? What’s he want?”
“Well, he wants to see you, doesn’t he? I didn’t quiz the man, Conor.”
He smiled at his mother’s tone of mild reproach. “All right, then. Tell him I’m coming.”
He snapped the phone shut and tossed it onto his jacket with a dispirited oath.
“Everything OK?” Phillip asked.
“I doubt it. There’s a man in a suit come to see me. From London.”
His friend whistled in mock sympathy. “Can’t be good. Still, it could be worse. At least it’s not the Garda.”
“Ah, shut up, ya fecker.”
He tossed the end of his cigarette into the ditch with a resigned sigh and started for the house, following a path worn thin from regular traffic, both human and animal. On his left, a long rock wall divided the field into parcels, and on his right, the pasture rolled into the distance, bisected by the main road before continuing on to the rocky shoreline. The weather was fine, but he could see clouds coming together over the ocean. Rain was on the way within the next hour, he estimated.
Trotting down the stairs onto the backyard’s flagstone terrace, he saw his mother standing in the open doorway. She looked tiny and frail, dwarfed by the massive farmhouse that framed her. He had stopped asking her every day if she felt all right. He knew she lied, and it made them both uncomfortable. Instead, he had learned to read the lines on her face as a more honest answer to his unspoken question. Looking at her as he came through the back door into the kitchen, he felt the heaviness in his heart lighten a bit. It was a good day.
Wordlessly, Conor raised a questioning eyebrow at her. His mother shook her head and spread her arms, impatiently nudging him forward. He stepped through into the large living and dining room, still brightly lit from the sun that poured through the casement windows opposite the fireplace. A tall, silver-haired man stood at one window, a teacup cradled in his hand as he looked out at the green pastures and the distant ocean. He appeared to be lost in thought. Conor made his presence known with a discreet shuffle of feet before speaking.
“How are you, sir? I’m Conor McBride. I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.”
Without a hint of being startled, the figure gracefully turned to face him, a smile of welcome on his face. For a fleeting moment, Conor had an impression of role reversal, as if he were the one paying a visit.
“Conor. It’s very good of you to see me.” The man’s voice had a deep, rich timbre. The accent was quintessential public school English, and his attire—beautifully tailored suit; tasteful, striped tie; and gleaming cap-toed shoes—indicated a fastidious sense of style. “I’m taking you from your work I’m afraid.”
“You are indeed.” Conor smiled. “Don’t think I’m not grateful. Will you take another cup of tea?”
The offer was graciously declined. Conor invited him to take a seat next to the fireplace and sat down in the one across from it. He waited for the visitor to introduce himself. The visitor seemed in no hurry to do so.
“I had the opportunity of hearing you play last evening in Tralee,” he said, crossing his legs and looking as if they were already old friends. The unexpected opening startled Conor.
“I hope you enjoyed it?”
“I enjoyed it immeasurably.” The large hazel eyes widened for emphasis. “I have rarely heard Locatelli’s capriccios played so confidently or so well. It was an extraordinary display of virtuosity.”
“I must admit I was quite astonished. Do you play often with that ensemble?”
“No. No, they’re just over from Dublin for a few nights. I’d played with them before, and the manager rang last month to ask me to be in the program.” Conor twitched a self-deprecating grin. “Most nights you’re more likely to find me fiddling for the crowd down at the pub here.”
“Certainly a far cry from the National Symphony Orchestra, isn’t it?” The elegant stranger inclined his head in sympathetic appraisal. “What a waste. I didn’t fully comprehend it until I heard you last night. Not your fault, of course, but what a criminal, bloody waste.”
Offered in a silky undertone, the observation struck with precision, like a concealed switchblade sliding between his ribs. It left Conor speechless. The voice across from him continued in a low murmur. “How bitter that must have been to lose your seat in the first violins, not to mention your growing career as a soloist. To trade hard-won success and recognition for this . . . pastoral obscurity on the edge of the sea, all because someone had to do penance for your brother’s crimes.”
Conor’s face had already lost its polite smile and most of its color. At this last remark, he came up out of the chair, rigid with anger. “I half expected something like this,” he said coldly. “Who the hell are you?”
The mysterious visitor seemed content with the reaction he’d provoked. He too rose, produced a card from an inside pocket of his suit, and presented it. “I beg your pardon,” he said, smiling an apology. “Small talk is not my strength. My name is Frank Emmons Murdoch. I am an agent with the British Secret Intelligence Service, more commonly known as MI6.”
Made of thick stock, with letters embossed in a tasteful font, the card was an appropriate match for its owner and equally inscrutable. No address or phone number. No contact details whatsoever. Conor examined it with a frown.
“MI6. Are you a spy, then?”
“Certainly not. I’d hardly be doling out business cards if I were, would I?”
“It’s not much of a business card. Don’t you have a badge or a warrant card, or something?”
The question prompted an indulgent smile. “And how would you authenticate it if I produced one? Have you ever seen an MI6 warrant card?”
“No, I suppose not.”
Conor continued glaring down at the card. The anxiety he’d felt earlier settled into an undefined dread. He turned his attention back to the extraordinary specimen in front of him. His speech, demeanor, and appearance were like those of a character pulled from an Edwardian drama. Conor had his own clichéd assumptions about the British upper class, but even he found it hard to believe their ranks could produce such a comprehensive stereotype. Was the man a genuine anachronism or was it an act?
“So?” he prompted, irritably. “I expect you’ve not come all the way from London to chat about my short-lived musical career. Let’s have it.”
Frank sighed, his mouth twisting sardonically. “It’s your brother, as I believe you’ve surmised. Thomas has made rather a bad mess for himself, I’m afraid, and he’s going to need your help. The matter is urgent, and your assistance will be required almost immediately. For an extended stretch of time, I’m afraid.” Frank took the card from Conor’s hand and began writing on the back of it. “You’ll need to be in London one week from today. The afternoon flight from Kerry to Stanstead is already booked, and so is your room at the Lanesborough Hotel. Quite nice, you’ll like it. Meet me in the hotel bar at six o’clock.”
“Hang on a minute,” Conor sputtered in slow-witted confusion. “What do you know about Thomas? Where is he, and what kind of mess—”
“All excellent questions, but I haven’t the time to go into them just now.”
Frank handed the card back. He reached for his briefcase, appearing to consider his errand complete.
“That’s it? You’re off your nut.” Conor stared at Frank incredulously. “I can’t just go flying off to—”
“Yes, quite.” Frank gave a perfunctory nod. “A good many arrangements to make, no doubt. I’d best leave you to it. Until next Thursday, then.”
His mother had, of course, been listening from the hallway. She stepped forward to see the visitor to the door while Conor stood, nailed in place, in the middle of the living room. He saw Frank’s patronizing smile falter as he turned to her, his lips straightening to a sober line of deference.
Anyone with a shred of intelligence needed only a glance at the fathomless gaze of Brigid McBride to recognize it as something unusual. It radiated a powerful, undefined force that seemed too big for such a small frame. Some looked and felt a twinge of uneasy fear and others a sense of wonder. Conor saw that Frank fell into the latter category. So far, it was the sole point in his favor.
“A pleasure to meet you, Mrs. McBride.” The velvety voice sounded quite different without its flippant jocularity. “A pleasure to meet you both.”