The Master Cat Redux

by Kuruma Ebi (車エビ)
illustrated by beili

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/259907.html)

illustrated by beili

For the longest time, Henry Lee had believed that nothing was worse than having to pursue a ruthless trained killer over rooftops while taking fire from irate gunmen. This, he now realised, was inaccurate. The greater ordeal was having to transcribe and translate a full radio transmission of said chase – as well as all fifteen hours of the subsequent interrogation.

They had given Henry a desk. A desk, an ergonomic chair, and a view of Grosvenor Square Garden that Henry frankly didn’t care for. He also had a computer with not two but three screens arranged at optimal angles to each other, the third of which served no apparent purpose apart from bathing Henry in the eerie glow of the CIA desktop wallpaper.

Will would have laughed himself to tears to see Henry penned in like this – sitting through recordings of some whippersnapper with college-level Mandarin floundering through Class B interrogations, spending his lunch hour making small talk in the cafeteria, or – God forbid – tending the potted plant by the window out of obligation. But Will wasn’t here. And, really, that was the root of Henry’s problems. Because if Will had stuck around, hadn’t let something as mundane as a bullet to the chest get the better of him, they would both still be on assignment in Shanghai.

It was counterproductive to dwell on these things, Henry knew, and yet he still persisted in doing so. Ten months had passed since Gina Perrault had called him into the London office and pronounced him unfit for the field. “Take a break,” was what Gina had said to him, just the slightest hint of compassion in her voice. And then Henry had seen the office she’d put him in and recognised her for the cold-hearted bastard she had always been.

Henry could hear his telephone ringing all the way down the corridor to his flat. He let it continue as he stepped inside, ignoring the persistent shrilling in favour of getting himself a drink. Finally, the ringing stopped, and Henry collapsed onto the sofa with a groan.

Will had always been Gina’s favourite. They had gotten along like a house on fire, in that things frequently exploded and no one within a ten-mile radius was safe. Will’s favourite, on the other hand, had always been Henry, something Will had never tired of telling him whenever they got drunk together. This was because Henry wrote excellent reports and never missed a shot. It probably also had something to do with the fact that Henry could do wicked things with his mouth, and – well.

Perhaps it was better not to think about it.

The phone was ringing again. Henry didn’t get up to answer it, staring pointedly out the window instead. It was the beginning of February and the days were meant to be getting warmer, but London was contrary like that. Outside, snow was falling thickly in the dark. Henry sat up on his elbows to get a better look, and froze.

There was a cat on Henry’s fire escape. It stood stock-still, just staring in at Henry from the other side of the window. The look it was giving Henry seemed strangely eloquent.

Henry got up, and set down his glass on the coffee table. The cat continued to gaze at Henry with reproachful green eyes. There were flakes of snow caught on its coat, which was black except for the white fur on its chest, belly, and feet. Henry watched it, transfixed. The phone had ceased to ring.

And then the cat meowed. As pointedly as cat could, so unimpressed that it was almost a yawn.

Before Henry knew it, he was walking over and opening the window. A gust of cold air hit him in the face, and the cat sauntered into Henry’s living room, shaking the snow off each foot before bounding up onto the nearest armchair.

“Fine then, don’t stand on ceremony,” Henry told the cat as it curled up on a cushion and rested its head on its paws. He immediately felt ridiculous, and picked up his glass to cover his embarrassment.

The phone began to ring again. The cat lifted its head at the sound, glancing about before turning to Henry.

“I’m not answering that,” said Henry.

The cat continued to stare at him.

“No,” said Henry, and when the cat cocked its head sideways, Henry mustered his most convincing argument. “This is my place, and you’re a cat, and –”

The cat had gotten up off the armchair in the meantime and was slinking towards the kitchen. And Henry was following it despite himself, until he found himself standing by the phone with the cat rubbing itself against his legs.

“Damn it.” Henry finished his drink and snatched up the phone. “Susan. Hello.”

“How did you know it was me?” asked Henry’s little sister in the same bright tones she used to employ whenever it seemed like they were going to pass an ice cream shop.

“Because there are only two people in the world who don’t know how to use an answering machine and the other one is Mother.”

The cat meowed again and hopped up onto the kitchen counter, bumping up against Henry’s arm.

illustrated by beili

Henry. Don’t be mad,” said Susan. “My good brother.” It was a joke they had shared as children. Henry had never found it as funny as everyone else had.

“Maybe you should try that on David instead,” said Henry. Because this sort of thing always worked on David, always, even when he had just had one of his huge fights with their father and was too furious to speak, burning with the injustice of it all. Henry had always taken pains to stay on the edges of his older brother’s storms. Susan, on the other hand, dived right in with her winning smiles and sweet words.

“You missed Seollal,” Susan told him. She didn’t sound upset but the accusation still hung there, unspoken. “You didn’t even call. Are you all right?”

It would perhaps be easier if Susan was actually angry, if everyone got all riled up like they used to before Father died. But all Susan wanted to know was whether Henry was all right. And even if Henry were at liberty to say anything about his work, he wouldn’t know where to begin.

“How’s Mother?” he asked instead. “How’s everyone?”

“We’re fine,” said Susan. “Henry, you’ve never forgotten to call.”

“I mixed up the dates for this year.”

“Bullshit, you could have googled it like everyone else does.”

Last year, Henry and a couple of other agents had gotten drinks and watched the Shanghai skyline set ablaze with fireworks for the eve of the Lunar New Year. Will had been absolutely hammered by that point, mumbling on about how they were all family now.

“Do you have that?” Will had asked, leaning heavily onto Henry while in the background Jo Harland had been laughing about something or other. “Shou sui. You stay up all night so you can bring your parents longevity…”

“And I guess you’re planning to do that, Agent Chen?” Henry had replied.

“Both my parents are dead,” Will had told Henry, with solemn clarity. “I’m going the fuck to sleep.”

And he had, quite soon after, mostly because of the large quantity of alcohol he had imbibed. Henry, on the other hand, had stayed awake so he could call his mother in New Jersey.

“She’s always loved you best,” Susan was saying to Henry. The cat had wandered off to paw at some documents Henry had left on the kitchen table. “I mean, obviously I was the most adorable, but you were her favourite. It’s just not fair that she doesn’t get to see you anymore.”

“I’ll call her.” It was never the same when they talked on the phone. Henry had discovered this years ago, when he had found that he had nothing to offer his mother but empty words and careful, Agency-sanctioned lies about what he was doing. I love you. I’m doing fine. Take care of your health. Henry felt the loneliest when his family was on the other end of the line.

“Well, don’t work too hard,” said Susan. “Issuing visas or whatever.”

Henry laughed, and murmured his goodbyes. When he hung up, the cat was on the kitchen counter again, peering up at Henry.

“Well,” said Henry. “I’m getting another drink.” He paused and looked at the cat. “Let’s see if we can find something for you to eat.”

He ended up opening a can of tuna and putting some water in a dish for the cat, before returning to the couch to resume his efforts at becoming drunk enough to fall asleep. He turned on the television just in time to see an eminent professor weigh in on what he thought was the future of espionage.

“Fuck that,” Henry murmured, switching channels and drinking until it was just endless reruns of Coronation Street. He drifted in and out, trying not to think about Will, or his mother, or David and his father. At some point the cat had climbed onto the sofa, settling onto Henry’s stomach with proprietary ease.

“I feel you’re getting a bit ahead of yourself,” Henry told the cat, but didn’t chase it off. “Maybe you’ll bring me good fortune. Maneki neko and everything.” Will’s Japanese had been the absolute worst. He hadn’t even made an effort at it. Henry had done all the legwork whenever they ended up in Tokyo. Henry was good at picking up languages; he’d only discovered that after Father died. Father used to yell at David exclusively in Korean, and David had always shouted back in English. “But David’s fine, you know. My older brother. He cleaned up after Father died. Then I left before anyone else could.”

Henry didn’t know what he was saying any longer. The cat purred, the sound vibrating in his chest. Fuck, he was drunk as hell.

“I met Will’s wife, after he died. That bastard cheated on her on every continent but she still loved him.”

That had been the second bombshell, really, because Will had never breathed a word about her. They all kept their families safe and in the dark. “I sat in her living room and watched her weep. Fuck.”

And perhaps it was the solid weight of the cat in his arms that did it, the steady heartbeat under its skin. Perhaps it was also the fact that Henry had never quite been able to articulate out loud the magnitude of Will’s betrayal before tonight. Because Henry realised, all of a sudden, that he was honest-to-god crying for the first time in eleven months. Since Will had died; since Henry had glanced politely away while a twelve-year-old boy who looked exactly like Will had buried his face in his mother’s lap and sobbed like a baby. The grief opened up in Henry, cavernous, and for once he didn’t resist it.

Henry awoke to a terrible draft coming in from an open window. At some point in the wee hours of the morning he must have stumbled into bed. He appeared to also have successfully removed his shoes and turned off the television, two feats he had no recollection of even attempting.

There had been a cat. And far too much alcohol, if his mounting headache was anything to go by.

Henry’s work phone began to buzz from where it was sitting on the bedside table. Henry rolled over and made a grab for it.

“Agent Lee.” It was Owens, Gina’s secretary.

Henry glanced at the clock and lied through his teeth. “I’m not going to be late.”

“That’s fine, Gina’s not coming in this morning,” said Owens, at which point Henry decided that he had always liked the man.

“That’s good news.” He suppressed a groan as he climbed out of bed and padded to the kitchen to hunt down some painkillers. “Is there something you need?” Henry asked as he considered the empty tuna can in the trash.

“As a matter of fact, there are some files that Gina wants,” Owens was saying. He sounded nervous, but then again Gina had that effect on people. “I’m not cleared to take them, but they do need to be in on time, so perhaps if you could give me some authorisation –”

“I’ll put them there myself as soon as I get in,” said Henry, because that was the kind of obliging office monkey he was now, delivering papers to Gina’s desk. “Don’t worry. I’ve got your back.”

The cat was nowhere to be found. Henry dressed as quickly as he could and bolted out of the flat.

There was a man on the ground floor of Henry’s building that Henry was certain he had never seen before. Perhaps he was a friend of one of those French students who lived two doors down from Henry. That would explain why he also seemed somehow familiar. The man was certainly dressed like one of them, with his cigarette pants and artfully oversized quilted jacket. He was tall, with a coltish energy about him and a shock of dark hair that seemed to stick out every which way. When Henry walked by he smiled, quick and sharp.

“All right?” asked the man, using what Henry considered the most frustrating of London greetings.

“Yes I am, thanks,” Henry replied, hurrying towards the door.

The man followed behind. Henry held the door open for him.

“Cheers, mate,” said the man, stepping through. There was something about the man’s voice when he spoke that sounded different from the usual patter Henry had grown accustomed to. The words came out softer, the consonants more deliberate, as if the man himself wasn’t quite convinced that actual people talked like that.

“Nice boots,” Henry told him, for lack of a better thing to say. “I’ve got a similar pair myself.”

“Do you now?” asked the man, before turning and walking away.

It was so very abrupt that Henry was suddenly reminded of the cat. Fuck. The cat. He would have to look for it when he got back. Perhaps he had opened that window and it had fallen out.

“Perhaps you hallucinated it,” Kapil suggested later, over a very nice lunch that Henry was going to have to pay for. Kapil Lamba, eighteen-year-old boy genius that he was, had taken all of five minutes to solve a North Korean encryption protocol earlier that morning, putting Henry forever in his debt.

“So you’re suggesting that I, while drunk, consumed an entire can of tuna and drank water from a dish last night?”

Kapil shrugged. “I wouldn’t put it past you.”

“Oh, shut up and eat your salad.”

“If you don’t want your pet running away,” Kapil said, jabbing his fork towards Henry, “put a damn collar on it.”

“It’s not my pet.”

“You feed it, you keep it,” Kapil told Henry. When he caught sight of Henry’s look of chagrin, he added, “Look, I might have something for you, if the cat actually exists and you’re thinking of adopting it. So you can keep track.”

And this was how Henry ended up on the fire escape, trying and failing to coax the cat into putting on a quick release collar with a thousand dollar tracking chip embedded in it.

“Apparently it’s used on agents they think are prone to going off script,” said Henry. “Come on. In case you get lost.”

The cat fixed Henry with a stare of disgust. It didn’t run off, though, which was something.

“I’m just looking out for you, buddy.”

The cat growled.

“I have real cat food today,” Henry tried again. “I went to all the trouble of walking out to Tesco to buy some even though Kapil was convinced you’re a figment of my imagination. The least you could do is to cooperate.”

One of the French students had come out to the fire escape to smoke and was now trying not to giggle at Henry. “Mind your own business,” he told her in French, which only elicited further laughter.

“Nice accent,” called the girl, smiling solicitously around her cigarette, “but you should give up, come over for a drink. That cat is no-one’s cat.”

Henry was beginning to believe so, too. But before he could muster a response, the cat turned to glare at the girl, tail flicking high, and stalked straight into Henry’s flat.

“Thanks,” said Henry after a pause.

The girl shrugged. “I suppose it likes you.”

“In a manner of speaking,” Henry replied, climbing back inside and shutting the window before the cat changed its mind again.

He didn’t manage to get the collar on, in the end. The cat stayed anyway. It waited at the fire escape every evening for Henry to let it in and give it its dinner, and hung around for the express purpose of getting under Henry’s feet as he moved around the flat. Henry found himself becoming used to having a lapful of cat while he deciphered some transmission or other, to having it dart up onto his bed at night. And every morning the cat would leave through the bedroom window to do whatever cat things it had to do during the day.

In the meantime, the man Henry had met on the ground floor of his building was fast becoming a problem. For one thing, Henry was fairly certain the man was following him. This would have been a ludicrous conclusion coming from anyone apart from Henry – because no-one but Henry would have noticed in the first place. But Henry had spent the past decade of his life shadowing people and looking over his shoulder; he knew a tail when he saw one.

He didn’t have to wonder for long, because one Friday morning while Henry was on the bus to work, the man came right up to Henry and sat down next to him.

“Hello,” the man said quietly. “I’m sure you’ve noticed I’ve been following you for a while.”

illustrated by beili

“If you try anything, I will incapacitate you,” replied Henry in a low voice.

“I don’t doubt that,” said the man. Henry could feel his gaze as it flicked from Henry’s face to his hands, which lay perfectly relaxed on his lap. “I don’t doubt that at all. Would it be better if I told you my name?”

“I would rather you tell me who you’re working for.”

The man smiled. There was something fey in his green eyes and Henry found that he could not, for the life of him, look away.

“I imagine that must have been bothering you.”

“Less than you’d expect,” Henry replied.

Further up the bus, a child in a pram woke up and began to cry.

“Your first thought was probably MI6, because you’re CIA and that’s how people’s minds run.” The man was leaning in just a fraction now, close enough that Henry alone could hear every word. “But then you’re thinking that I don’t quite have that air about me, none of that studied ordinariness and poorly-hidden swagger of someone who’d been plucked straight out of Oxford or Cambridge in order to serve Queen and Country.”

“I hear the Secret Service does cast its net slightly wider these days,” Henry murmured.

“Oh yes, perhaps, but they’d still much rather hire someone like you,” said the man. “Nondescript at first glance but quite attractive on second look; charming enough to be able to take what he wants – and just broken enough not to care how many bodies he’s got to step over before he gets it.”

“And that’s it, that’s your assessment of me?” Henry asked. For some reason his pulse was thudding in his ears.

“Yes,” said the man, “and you still don’t know my name.”

“I now know you find me attractive.”

“Funny, I thought you’d be more concerned with that bit about the bodies,” the man replied, a smile creeping onto his face. “My name is Tom de Carabas. There is a man in your organisation that you need to keep an eye on.”

It was disconcerting, the certainty with which he said this. As if he had not even considered the possibility of Henry refusing.

“Given that I don’t know who you are and have no reason to trust you,” Henry told him, “I don’t think I’ll be ‘needing’ to do anything.”

For a moment de Carabas looked taken aback. And then his smile grew even wider than before. “Fair enough.”

“What?”

“I said, fair enough,” de Carabas repeated. “I’ll give you the name and you can decide what you mean to do with it.”

Before Henry could reply, de Carabas leaned over and deposited something in Henry’s pocket.

“You’ve got cat hair on your coat,” he said, picking a strand off of Henry’s lapel and flicking it to the floor. Without another word, he stood up and walked to the door of the bus, which opened for him with impeccable timing. In a moment he had vanished into the crowd of commuters jostling along Oxford Circus at morning rush hour.

Henry reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the slip of paper de Carabas had given him. Written in a precise, flowing script was a name. Andrew Owens.

“What did you say the name was again?” asked Kapil.

“De Carabas,” said Henry. “Tom de Carabas. Try that in as many databases as you have access to.”

“That would really be all of them,” Kapil replied.

“I can’t believe they’ve put all that information in the hands of someone who can’t even legally purchase alcohol when he’s stateside.”

“Maybe it’s better that I can’t drink,” said Kapil, spreading his hands wide. “Loose lips sink ships, that kind of thing – hey, where are you going?”

“To get you some lunch,” Henry replied, before shutting the door behind him.

But Henry didn’t go out to the Pret a Manger on Bond Street like he intended to. Instead, he found himself taking the hidden lift to the fourth floor, where Andrew Owens’ office was situated. It was ridiculous that he was doing this, but Henry trusted his instincts. Something about de Carabas had gotten to Henry, something about the way he talked, too fast and too familiar, like he’d been waiting for that moment and had delighted in it too much to stop. There was an honesty beneath all that circumlocution. And now that Owens was accompanying Gina to a working luncheon at the Japanese embassy, there was no better chance for Henry to go in and take a look around.

Owens’ office, like the man himself, was organised, neat, and tuned for maximum productivity. All his document binders and books were perfectly arranged in alphabetical order. There was a packet of surface-cleaning wipes next to the three phones on his desk, which had each been placed at optimal distance from Owens’ Scandinavian desktop mouse with the ergonomic wrist support. On the pinboard above his workspace was the sheet of good posture tips that had been circulated Embassy-wide last month, in addition to a dozen or so post-its and memos written in Russian, Arabic, and what Henry was pretty sure was the 1996 Interpol cipher that had fallen into disuse after no-one had bothered to learn it.

Not without some guilt, Henry began to search Owens’ office while listening to his phone messages. Most of them were for or from Gina, apart from the three or so from Owens’ mother, calling to say that she had gotten tickets to an opera gala. There was nothing out of the ordinary in Owens’ document cabinet, either, and his one locked drawer yielded nothing but a Glock 22 and a bottle of whiskey. The gun was standard issue and the whiskey half-finished; both were entirely understandable considering the man’s job.

Henry had shut the drawer and was just about to check Owens’ computer when there was a knock from outside. Henry had barely enough time to get round to the other side of the desk before Barbara from Requisitions entered, nudging the door open with one elbow as she balanced a stack of folders in her arms.

“Andrew, here are your –” Barbara began, and almost dropped the stack when Henry opened the door the rest of the way for her. “Oh. Agent Lee.”

“Barbara,” said Henry as charmingly as he could manage, even though it was common knowledge that Barbara was seldom impressed by such things. “How lovely to see you. I was just looking for some files…”

“These?” asked Barbara, holding out the stack.

“I’m sorry?”

“These are the files Owens requested on your behalf,” said Barbara. “The ones you gave authorisation for?”

“Right,” said Henry, taking the files from her even though he had no recollection whatsoever of ever asking for these files. “These were exactly what I was looking for.”

“Great. And, the five more coming in this afternoon – do you want them in your office instead?”

“That would be wonderful,” Henry replied. “Thanks, Barbara.”

He was too distracted by the label numbers on the files to properly notice the brilliant smile Barbara shot him over her shoulder as she walked away.

Every one of these files was above Owens’ clearance level. And only tangentially related to the matters Henry was handling, something that Henry quickly realised as he went through the documents in his own office. There were asset transmissions and encryption updates here, as well as reports from deep cover agents in South America. Henry couldn’t imagine any legitimate reason why Owens would request for this on Henry’s behalf.

And then there was the rest of Owens’ requisitions record to consider. Barbara had been happy to oblige after a quick phone call, and now Henry was looking at a list of hundreds of classified files that Owens had asked for and then returned over the past few months. About fifty of them had been under Henry’s name. A couple of hundred had been authorised by Gina Perrault. Hell, even Jo Harland had had five or six transmissions taken out under her name, and she was in Bulgaria, from what Henry last heard.

“Out with it, Agent Lee,” said Kapil, storming into Henry’s office. “Did you or did you not eat my lunch?”

“Kapil,” said Henry, “did Owens ever mention that his mother was visiting him in London?”

“Why would he?” Kapil replied, shrugging. “His mother’s dead; it’s on his file.”

“Then why does she have tickets for a fundraising gala at the Royal Opera House tonight?”

Kapil considered this for a moment. After a pause, he said, “Should I assume that you’re now going to need tickets to this gala as well?”

“Yes,” said Henry. “Can you get me in?”

“Only if you go out now and buy me a fucking sandwich,” Kapil snapped. “Dude, it’s three o’clock, what is wrong with you?”

“Do you see how weird it looks that you’re alone? Everyone else here is a couple or some shit.”

Perhaps the adrenaline of hacking into the Royal Opera House security system had gotten to Kapil, because he had not stopped talking since Henry had put on his earpiece.

“Have you sighted Owens yet?” asked Henry as he stood at the champagne bar, surreptitiously scanning the crowd.

“Not yet, but you look good, man,” Kapil replied. “You should have asked Barbara along. Swept her off her feet and everything.”

“You’re missing the point,” Henry told him.

“What point?” asked someone else.

It was de Carabas. He nodded in greeting before sidling up beside Henry at the bar. His hair was slightly less wild tonight but his deep-set eyes seemed even brighter. The dinner jacket he was wearing looked one size too large. “Lovely you came, by the way. I must say black tie really suits you.”

“Who the hell is this?” asked Kapil. “You brought a date?”

“Did you rob another man of that tux?” asked Henry, feeling slightly waspish as a result of Kapil’s constant chatter.

“He’s still standing naked in a dressing room, wondering who made off with his clothes,” de Carabas replied with a straight face.

Henry gave a short laugh. “Tell me how you knew,” he said. “About Owens.”

“There’s nothing to tell,” said de Carabas. “I watched, and I happened to see.”

“I’m quite sure the MI6 doesn’t have the time or the money to keep tabs on our secretaries.”

“Henry, he’s here,” Kapil interrupted. “He’s coming in through the door at your three o’clock.”

And then de Carabas was leaning into Henry’s space, one hand on Henry’s shoulder as he brought his face close to Henry’s; close enough for a peck on the cheek, close enough to whisper in his ear,

“What makes you think I was watching him?”

Henry shivered. He couldn’t help it. He wanted to lean into de Carabas’ touch right then; to figure out what it was that de Carabas smelled of that made Henry think of warmth and clean sheets. To find out what de Carabas was like under those clothes that never fit.

“You’re clear,” said Kapil. “I told you you needed a second person for this.”

De Carabas had blocked Henry from view as Owens had gone by. The look on his face as he stepped back was entirely too smug.

“I need a drink,” said Henry.

Owens had arrived alone, but now he was helping an elegant middle-aged woman retrieve a programme that had fallen on the floor. The woman smiled, and thanked him graciously before turning away, but not before slipping something into her purse.

“I suppose that would be your cue,” said de Carabas.

Henry set his glass down on the counter. “Excuse me.”

Now, this was what Henry did well. He strolled through the crowd at a leisurely pace, trailing after the woman but fully aware of where Owens was standing as well. She was heading towards the exit, walking quickly and gesturing to her companion to follow her.

“She’s headed down the corridor to your left,” said Kapil, once she had vanished out the door.

As soon as Henry stepped down the corridor, however, he was intercepted by two men. “I’m afraid you won’t be going any further,” said the first one.

“Let me explain,” Henry began, and when the second man pulled out a gun Henry surged forward, grabbed his wrist, and disarmed him with a sharp twist. Before the second man could react, the first man had slammed Henry against the wall. With a grunt, Henry wrenched his right arm from the man’s grip and struck him neatly on the side of the head, disorienting the man long enough for Henry to get free and deliver another blow that knocked him out. In a trice the second man was on Henry, delivering a quick succession of punches to Henry’s head that he desperately tried to block even as he sank to the floor. And then Henry kicked out hard, his foot hitting the man’s leg with a sickening crack. The man crumpled to his knees.

Henry stood and picked up the man’s gun. “I forgot how much this hurts.”

“Fuck, man,” said Kapil. “They’re heading for a side door that opens out into Covent Garden – wait, where are you going?”

There was no way he was going to catch up with them unless he doubled back past the champagne bar. “I’m taking the front exit,” he told Kapil.

“What, from the second floor?” Kapil replied. “That’s a fucking balcony!”

“I know,” Henry gritted out, as he sprinted past confused operagoers still clutching their drinks and headed into the conservatory on the second floor of the portico. He managed to wrestle open one of the glass doors, ignoring the protests of one of the butlers behind him, and had soon swung himself over the balustrade. With some effort, and using the ledges as handholds, he managed to clamber down to the street outside.

The woman and her companion had just emerged from a side door like Kapil had predicted, but as Henry moved towards them, several shots rang out. One of them hit a bystander in the leg, and another just barely missed Henry’s arm.

“It’s Owens,” said Kapil, as Henry ducked behind a pillar. “The man can’t aim for shit.”

“Fuck. How many civilians have we got?”

“About a dozen, but they’re scattering,” said Kapil. “Hang on – okay, you’re clear.”

Henry stepped round the pillar and fired two shots at Owens. The first went right past his head and the second hit him in the thigh. As Owens cried out in shock, Henry darted across to him and managed to wrench the gun from his hand, releasing the magazine and tossing the gun aside.

The woman and her companion had vanished into the evening crowd.

“I can’t find our target, there are too many people,” said Kapil.

“What did you give her?’ Henry grabbed Owens by the collar. “Was it the files?”

Owens bared his teeth in a grin. “You’re a mess, Agent Lee, and you know it.”

“Who are you working for?” demanded Henry, even though what he really wanted to ask was why.

“It’s too late,” said Owens, as the sound of police sirens drew nearer. “They’ve gotten what they came for.”

“And would what they came for happen to be this?” asked de Carabas, striding out from round the corner. He stepped up to Henry and held out a USB flash drive.

“How did you get that?” asked Henry.

De Carabas shrugged. “You two provided a distraction. I simply picked her purse.”

Henry had not seen Gina this furious since the incident five years ago with Will and the Irish Embassy. Back then, Henry had only just started his posting to Beijing and had witnessed the fallout from the furthest corner of the cramped office in which they had temporarily set up shop. Perhaps the only person who had dared to speak to Gina that afternoon had been Jo Harland, but even Jo had beaten a hasty retreat after that.

When Gina was truly angry, she got quiet. She leaned back in her chair. She offered you her best Scotch and sometimes she’d even smile. And when you looked into her eyes you knew that the job you just fucked up was quite certainly going to be your last.

Today, Henry had been given the Scotch. Just a minute ago he’d been bestowed a smile. The only thing that was of comfort to him right now was the USB flash drive sitting on Gina’s desk. That, and the fact that Will had stayed on for five more years after Beijing.

“Langley wants me to hang you out to dry,” said Gina. “I must confess I’m quite inclined to. One civilian injury, at least a hundred eyewitnesses, and the British Foreign Secretary on the phone demanding to know why he hadn’t been asked for clearance. You’re not even supposed to be on the field, let alone their turf. And Kapil Lamba –”

“Don’t drag him into this –” Henry began.

“You dragged him into this,” Gina shot back. “He’s got no experience running support for field agents and you know that, and still you put yourself in danger with no backup. If there’s a rat in this organisation, Agent Lee, you come to me, just like Agent Chen should have in Shanghai.”

“If you’re still upset about losing Zhang Kun to the Chinese –”

“Damn it, Henry, you know it’s not about the intel,” Gina snapped, rising from her chair. “Yes, we lost a potential source. More importantly we lost an agent. There was a leak, Will knew about it, he didn’t tell either of us, and it cost him his life.”

Henry’s throat went dry. “You think Owens – you think this is related to Shanghai.”

“I know it’s related to Shanghai.” Gina snatched up the flash drive. “You thought this contained all the classified files Owens had requested over the past month. It doesn’t. He’s been passing those files out through another route. Saved in this drive is a collection of cryptographic keys belonging to a number of our Associate Deputy Directors and Chiefs of Staff. Used alone, each one is of very little value, but certain combinations result in various decryption keys for different areas of our secure system.”

“Decryption keys,” Henry repeated. “That was Zhang Kun’s area of specialisation. But he wasn’t cracking secure systems; all he was trying to do was solve an online currency algorithm.”

“Whoever is behind this isn’t just after discrete items of information,” said Gina. “They want everything, they want keys. And then maybe they sell whatever they find to the highest bidder. I want you to find out everything you can about this.”

“I take it you don’t want me to just do a Google search from my desk,” Henry said dryly.

Gina ignored Henry in favour of slapping a folder down in front of him. “Here’s what I have for you. In twenty-four hours I expect to have sweated Owens of enough information for us to plan our next step. Barbara will give you any tickets, credit cards, and spare passports you might need. And your weapons authorisation.”

Henry raised an eyebrow. “Weapons?”

“I’m putting you back out on the field, if that wasn’t clear enough,” Gina replied. “But that’s only because there are not many people I can trust right now. So don’t get cocky.”

“I never get cocky,” said Henry. That had been all Will. He picked up the folder and made a bee-line for the door before Gina could think to change her mind.

“Agent Lee, one more thing.”

Henry turned around. “Yes?”

“I won’t tell you not to make it personal because that would be a bullshit request,” said Gina. “If you find the rat you bring that person back so I can look them in the eye before I put them away forever.” She paused. “And if that rat tries to run, shoot them.”

Henry nodded. “With pleasure.”

Kapil was waiting for Henry at the hidden entrance of the fourth floor lift. “Hey, man.”

Henry sighed. “Look, Kapil, I’m sorry I got you involved.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Kapil replied. “Besides, I’ve got cred now because of you. Jenna from Policy Support just private messaged me to tell me that I was hot.”

“I’m not going to respond to that.”

“Fine,” said Kapil. “Actually I wanted to talk about your date from last night –”

“Not my date.”

“Whatever. When I got back, I finished the search on Tom de Carabas, tried to dig up everything I could find on him.”

“And?”

Kapil shook his head. “There’s nothing. No driver’s license, no phone numbers, no electric bills paid. So I thought, he’s off the grid, no problem. I ran the facial analytics programme – you know the one linked up with all the CCTV cameras in the city?”

“Yes, and I thought we were supposed to stop using that.”

“Officially, yes, but that’s not the point,” Kapil said. “The point is that he turns up on cameras during that period of time you said he was following you. Oxford Street, your neighbourhood, Victoria Station, Covent Garden last night… But other than that he pops up only once or twice every couple of months.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” said Henry. “This is London, you don’t just vanish of the cameras.”

“I know, they’re fucking everywhere, it’s great,” said Kapil. “For us, at least. So all of this was fucking weird, and I thought maybe I’d put in a call to a friend in MI6 and ask them what they had on this guy.”

“And?”

Kapil handed Henry an envelope. “They found this one thing.”

When Henry left the Embassy building that evening he didn’t head for the bus stop like he usually did. Instead he strolled out into Grosvenor Square and sat down on one of the park benches. He waited, as the grey evening sunlight turned to night and the steady stream of office commuters trickled to nothing. It grew cold. He put on his scarf and his gloves, and continued to wait.

And then, finally, the now-familiar figure of Tom de Carabas appeared at the far entrance of the park.

“What on earth are you doing?” demanded de Carabas, striding up to Henry.

“Waiting for you,” said Henry.

“Out here in the cold?”

Henry looked up. “Is that a problem?”

De Carabas must have heard the challenge in Henry’s voice, because he immediately sat himself down on the bench beside Henry. “Not in the slightest.”

“Good,” said Henry, standing up. “We can talk here.” He pulled out the envelope Kapil had given him earlier that day and tossed it to de Carabas. “Take a look at this.”

De Carabas opened the envelope and pulled a stack of paper. “It’s an MI6 dossier.”

“It’s the file on Alice Ann King, a foreign correspondent during the Cold War. On several occasions she assisted the Secret Service with intelligence gathering,” said Henry. “One of her associates was a man named Thomas de Carabas. He travelled with her for close to five years, and then in October of 1980 he was said to have died.”

When Henry looked down at de Carabas he was still staring intently at the paper. And when de Carabas glanced up Henry saw not anger or panic, but a peculiar sort of sadness in his face.

“That’s the only thing we’ve found,” said Henry. “Kapil tore through every database he had access to and that’s the only thing that came up – a dead man. And then there’s this.” Henry reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a photograph that had come with the MI6 file. “This photo of King.”

Henry had spent the better part of an hour just staring at this photograph of Alice King, taken at Fatahillah Square in Jakarta. In her arms was a cat. To be specific, it was cat that looked startlingly like Henry’s cat – from the shape of its ears to the markings on its fur, to the way it stared intelligently, almost haughtily, into the camera.

“Tom and I, January 1979,” said Henry. “That’s what’s written on the back. Tom.”

For a long moment neither of them spoke. De Carabas continued to look at the photo in his hand, and Henry waited heart in throat for an explanation to this madness.

“All right,” said de Carabas at length. “What’s your conclusion?”

“My conclusion?” Henry repeated, incredulous.

“Yes, you’ve sat here for close to two hours thinking about this, surely you’ve got theories of some sort.”

“Look, de Carabas –”

“Tom.”

“I’m the one asking the questions here,” said Henry. “Who are you? Or should I be asking a different question instead, something along the lines of: what are you?”

The corners of de Carabas’ mouth quirked, like he’d wanted to smile for a moment there but had then decided against it. “Do you know, Henry, I think in your mind you’ve already worked this out,” he said. “The only thing that remains is for you to stop rejecting the most obvious conclusion.”

“That you are the same Thomas de Carabas who accompanied Alice Ann King to Jakarta in the seventies –”

“And the reason why there’s barely anything else about me,” said de Carabas, holding up the photograph, “is because I am also this cat.”

“Fuck off,” said Henry, and when de Carabas fixed him with the same opaque stare he was more used to seeing from his cat, he added, “That’s not possible.”

“Then explain how I know this,” de Carabas replied. “You always sleep on the left side of the bed with a gun on your bedside table, and when you talk in your sleep it’s never in English. You told your sister you were going to call your mother, but twice you hung up before she could answer. You have scars on your right knee, your left shoulder, and on your lower back. There is a crescent-shaped birthmark on your right hip, and two days ago I left scratches on your arms because you tried to make me take a bath while Panorama was on.”

Henry’s mouth had gone dry. He was distantly aware of the way his heart was thudding in his chest. “You could have just been watching my flat,” he managed to say.

“Could I, though?” asked de Carabas. “Every two days you sweep the entire place for bugs because you don’t trust the doors and windows in these old London houses. You of all people would know if someone’s been inside your flat.”

If this, somehow, were true, it would mean that de Carabas had been watching Henry since that snowy night almost a month ago. De Carabas had been in Henry’s flat; in his bed and in his arms.

“Why?” Henry asked. “If everything you’re saying is true. Why are you doing this? What do you get out of it?”

De Carabas smiled again. Perhaps the shadows had something to do with it, but Henry could not recall ever seeing such a smile on his face before. There was weariness in that smile; a distant quality that spoke of decades – maybe even centuries – of loneliness and loss.

“It seemed like the thing to do at the time,” said de Carabas, just the barest hint of uncertainty in his voice, and Henry immediately thought back to that night. He’d been such a mess, and the cat – the cat had made things just the slightest bit more bearable.

“How long have you –”

“Five human lifetimes,” de Carabas said, before Henry could finish his sentence.

It was too much. Henry sat down heavily on the park bench. “Fuck.” He rubbed a hand over his face, willing for this to not be happening. “So tell me,” said Henry in resignation, “how do you… I don’t know, change?”

“All I need is a pair of boots,” de Carabas replied. He gestured towards his own. “These are yours, actually.”

Throughout this conversation there was still a large part of Henry that remained entirely incredulous, because however convincing de Carabas seemed, this was still a ludicrous idea.

All of this changed when de Carabas bent down to unlace the boots he had stolen from Henry. One moment he was toeing them off, and the next moment there was nothing left of the man but his clothes, which crumpled to the ground. And from that pile of clothes emerged a cat, the same cat from that photograph of Alice Ann King – Henry’s cat.

Except that it wasn’t Henry’s cat but Tom de Carabas, a man who was wholly untrustworthy and worryingly adept at setting Henry’s heart racing.

“Fine,” said Henry, trying his best to hide the tremor in his voice. “Fuck, this is insane.”

The cat – de Carabas – meowed.

“You can change back now.”

There it was. That stare again. It was twice as effective when de Carabas was actually a cat.

“No really, I believe you, now change back,” said Henry.

The cat ignored Henry and began to clean itself.

It was a testament to how well de Carabas had come to know Henry that he was now stubbornly refusing to go back to human form. Because while Henry would have been perfectly happy to have left de Carabas the man standing in Grosvenor Park, de Carabas the cat was a whole different story. What if he couldn’t change back? It could get too cold, and Henry’s place was way too far away on foot.

“Fuck it,” said Henry, bending down to pick de Carabas up.

“But you’re not sleeping in my bed ever again.” After a pause, he grabbed his boots as well. The cat purred happily in his arms, but Henry simply ignored it as he stalked towards the park exit.

There were two girls waiting for a bus when Henry arrived at the bus stop. “That’s adorable,” said one of them, which only made de Carabas mewl more infuriatingly and rub his face against Henry’s chest.

“What’s his name?” asked the other girl.

“Tom,” Henry replied. And then just for the hell of it, he continued, “He seems cute now, but really he’s a lying scam artist who talks too much.”

For that, Henry got himself two phone numbers and a vicious scratch under his chin.

illustrated by beili

In Henry’s dream he was back at Columbia, drinking cheap beer from a plastic cup at 1020 on Amsterdam Avenue, where in senior year a man in casual clothes far too nice for a student dive bar had sidled up to Henry and asked how keen he was on serving his country. Except now the man was Will, with that wicked schoolboy smile and a drink in his hand. I lied, man, I’m sorry, Will was saying, but he didn’t look sorry, just amused.

And then de Carabas was there, leaning against the pool table with a cigarette in his hand, and Henry was pushing his way through the crush of people, trying to get to de Carabas even though Will was still sitting in one of the booths – Will, there was a leak and he didn’t tell Henry, didn’t breathe a word – and de Carabas’ eyes were so green and his skin so hot under Henry’s palms, and when he kissed Henry Will started banging at the table with his fist, and the bartender was hitting the bell, and –

Henry awoke to the sound of someone ringing the doorbell repeatedly.

It was still dark. Automatically, Henry reached for his gun before stumbling out of bed. He padded out into the living room and checked the feed from the camera he’d placed in the corridor.

“Kapil,” he said, when he answered the door. “Why.”

“Gina,” Kapil replied and it was an explanation all by itself.

Henry waved him in and shut the door.

“Owens talked,” said Kapil. “We’ve got our lead, and – holy fuck.”

Henry turned, and saw de Carabas wandering sleepily out of the bathroom. He was naked except for his boots and a pair of boxer shorts Henry was quite certain were his.

“I’ll explain later,” Henry told Kapil, whose mouth had fallen open in surprise. “And it’s not what you think it is.”

“So which one is it, Istanbul or San Marino?” asked de Carabas the moment he set eyes on Kapil. “The city where Owens’ contact is based.”

“Istanbul, and how the fuck did you know that?” Kapil demanded.

“Yes, how?” asked Henry, trying to ignore the miles of skin on display, or how wonderfully rumpled de Carabas looked.

“By process of elimination,” de Carabas replied, “I sat at his window and listened to his telephone conversations.”

“I will definitely explain later,” Henry told Kapil, who was still boggling at de Carabas. “When’s the next flight to Istanbul?”

“It leaves from Heathrow in two hours, that’s why I’m here,” said Kapil. “We’ll rendezvous with Agent Harland when she comes in the day after tomorrow. Owens’ contact was a man named Berker who used to be with the Turkish National Intelligence. He quit, and now we think he’s some sort of a middleman for an organisation called UERCO.”

“Weren’t they responsible for putting the names of five undercover MI6 agents on the bidding market last year?” asked Henry, while he scrambled to get dressed.

“If we find Berker we might be able to get to the organisation,” said de Carabas.

“I’m sorry but there is no ‘we’ in this situation,” Henry began. “What are you –”

De Carabas had gone to the window and retrieved a Sainsbury’s plastic bag from the fire escape, emptying out a sweater, a pair of trousers and a t-shirt. “These aren’t yours, by the way,” he told Henry, calmly putting on the trousers. “I took them from your neighbours.” He reached for the t-shirt and tugged it over his head. “And I am coming with you, because you need me.”

“No, you’re not,” said Henry, the same time Kapil asked, “Do you just steal the clothes as you go along?”

“Yes, and yes,” de Carabas replied. “Think, Henry. You’re following an organisation that has a finger in every pie, an organisation which has successfully infiltrated not only the CIA but just about every other agency in the world, I’m willing to bet.” He picked up the sweater and pulled it on; it was more than a size too big. “Does it not make sense to ally yourself with someone who cannot be traced, who doesn’t come up on a single database, and who can go into places and listen to conversations you couldn’t even dream of getting close to?”

And perhaps it did make sense for Henry to do so, except for one thing. “You forget that I don’t trust you,” said Henry.

“That’s a pity, because you should,” de Carabas replied, his eyes not breaking gaze with Henry’s.

It was Henry who looked away first. “I have to go,” he said. “Besides, I can’t get you another ticket.”

“I can,” said Kapil. “And I will,” he added, before Henry could say anything. “He did put you on Owens’ trail in the first place. And he got the flash drive.”

Henry looked from Kapil to de Carabas and wondered how this terrible alliance could have ever come about.

“I like him,” Kapil continued, and Henry was taken aback by the unexpected steel in his voice. “And also no one gets under your skin quite as well as he does.”

There was a certain routine that Henry had when preparing to go on an assignment. He read the file first, of course, and any relevant dossiers that came with it. If there was still time he studied maps, committing large chunks of the city to memory. And if he was travelling to a place where they did not speak one of the seven languages that Henry was fluent in, he tried to pick up as much of the local language as he could. Will used to tease Henry for doing all this. Henry, in turn, liked to point out how many times he had saved Will’s ass because he’d simply been prepared.

This time, however, there was little chance of Henry getting anything done on the flight to Istanbul. Not with de Carabas fast asleep beside him, curled up in that horrendous sweater Henry was certain he’d seen an old lady in the building wearing once before. De Carabas looked so unguarded in those moments, twitching just a little every now and then, one hand half curled against the side of his face as if to block the light from his eyes.

But when Henry found it in himself to stop his mind from wandering to how de Carabas had looked in Henry’s boots and Henry’s boxers, the only other thing he could think about was that night in Shanghai. Contacting Zhang Kun, the talented young mathematician they had been trying to court, and then realising that everything was going wrong. It had been the first time Henry had ever felt like he wasn’t in control of the situation.

You’re a mess, Owens had said, and Henry couldn’t afford for him to be right.

De Carabas shifted in his sleep, murmuring something about bootlegging whiskey to Boston. For a long moment Henry found himself caught up in de Carabas’ face, the slight downward turn of his lips; the curve of his jaw in relation to the line of his neck.

Then de Carabas cracked an eye open. “Is anything the matter?”

Henry couldn’t look away fast enough.

“I see the CIA really pulled out all the stops here,” de Carabas remarked, looking around the van. “This is very impressive.”

The van in question was a clunker that looked about twenty years too old to be on the road. Inside, it boasted state-of-the-art surveillance technology from what seemed like the early eighties.

“This isn’t going to work,” said Kapil, sweeping a bunch of dusty radio transmitters off the cluttered bench-top to make space for his laptop. Outside, another busload of tourists was being emptied out into the parking lot and herded in the direction of the Grand Bazaar.

Kapil called up a map on his computer screen. “There’s an old CIA safe-house not far from here which might have a better satellite I can hook up to.”

“Do you need me to go in?” asked Henry. Officially, they weren’t exactly supposed to be in Istanbul, which was why they were in the van in the first place. But if Kapil needed to piggyback on someone else’s tech in order for them to find Berker, they might as well use the Agency’s.

“If you could,” said Kapil, tossing Henry a USB key and an extra, ancient radio. “Hey Tom, do you want one?”

“I think I shall be fine,” de Carabas replied, before they stepped out of the van into the chilly afternoon.

“Don’t run off on me,” Henry told him.

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

The cats were everywhere in Istanbul. They trailed after de Carabas, rubbing against his legs whenever they got a chance to, while others peered down at him from the ledges of buildings and winding flights of stairs.

“They seem to like you,” Henry remarked, as they proceeded towards the safe house location.

illustrated by beili

“Some of these cats are old,” said de Carabas, “but I am older.”

“And they respect that?”

De Carabas laughed, and the large calico that was currently stalking along beside Henry gave a gurgling meow of amusement. “Respect? That’s got very little to do with anything, I’m afraid. I am but a curiosity to them, too old and too human.”

Five human lifetimes, Henry remembered de Carabas saying. How must it feel, to be cut adrift from so much?

De Carabas must have sensed what Henry was thinking, because he said, “On the whole I find it much easier to simply forget the minutiae of what happened in each life.” His tone was light and matter-of-fact, but Henry didn’t miss the way de Carabas turned away when he said this, preferring to look at the cats than face Henry. “And as for loss, it’s always been better to take refuge in my original, animal form. The sharp point of grief tends to become somewhat duller, I feel.”

They fell silent after that. Henry, not knowing what to say in response, concentrated instead on navigating the narrow, sloping streets.

“There,” said Henry, when they came across the entrance to a smaller alleyway that opened into another cluster of older buildings. “We’re here.” He began to head towards the door of the red-brick building to the left.

“Wait,” de Carabas said, as he crouched down to stroke an elegant black cat that had been lingering in the alleyway. “Is there meant to be someone inside the safe house?”

Henry shook his head. “According to Kapil’s file, it hasn’t been used since last June.” He paused. “Why do you ask?”

“It’s curious,” de Carabas told Henry, “but my friend here says that five men went into that building this morning and have been waiting there ever since.”

“Are you sure?” asked Henry.

The friend in question swished its tail and slinked off, affronted. De Carabas shrugged. “I don’t see a reason for her to lie.”

“Well,” said Henry. “If there are hostiles in that building they’ve definitely seen us.”

“And what do you propose we do now?”

Henry glanced at the surrounding buildings, and then up at the black cat, which was now glaring at them from a second-storey ledge. “There’s always the roof.”

They went round to the other side, where a spiral fire escape led them up onto the topmost floor of another building in the same row as the safe house. From there, it was simply a matter of climbing up onto the roof and heading over to the end of the row. Henry was not surprised to see that de Carabas was even better at this than Henry was; he hoisted himself up each adjoining roof with ease, and made no sound even as he padded across the sloping tiles.

There was a small window on the top floor of the safe house that overlooked its neighbour’s roof. Henry forced it open without much fanfare.

“Very nice,” murmured de Carabas.

Together they slipped inside. The room appeared to be a storage area for the safe house equipment, its walls lined with dozens of empty shelves. The office was on one of the lower floors, and was probably also occupied. Quietly they treaded across the dusty floorboards towards the door, where Henry paused to hand de Carabas the USB key.

“In case I get held up,” he said quietly.

De Carabas nodded. Henry opened the door, and they proceeded down the winding staircase. True enough, there was a man in the room below, sitting by the window with his feet up and a gun across his lap. He looked up the moment Henry appeared in the doorway, but he was already too late. Before he could even aim, Henry was already jerking the gun from his grip and kneeing him neatly in the solar plexus. The man went down. Henry barely had time to breathe before two more came running up the staircase.

In a trice he was on the first man, wrestling the semi-automatic from his arms while dodging fire from the second man. A shot rang out from behind Henry, and the second man fell to the ground. It was de Carabas, holding the gun that had fallen on the floor earlier. In the moment it took for Henry to register this, the man he was tussling slammed Henry against the wall, dislodging Henry’s grip and giving the man the chance to pin Henry’s arms. Henry head-butted the man in the face.

“If you’d just hold still for a moment,” de Carabas began.

Henry dodged a right hook from the man and delivered a swift kick to his gut. “Hold still?” he repeated, taking the man by the front of his shirt and flinging him down the staircase.

“Well, now that he’s sorted we can –”

They were interrupted by gunfire from the stairwell. Henry seized the semi-automatic rifle and returned it as they proceeded down the stairs, entering the second-floor office. Just as they ducked inside for cover, a fourth man sprang out from a corner and grabbed de Carabas in a headlock, pressing a gun to his temple.

“Put down your weapon,” the man said to Henry. Before Henry could react, however, de Carabas had toed off his boots, leaving the man with an armful of clothes. The man turned his gun on Henry, but Henry pulled the trigger first. The man crumpled to the ground.

Henry crouched down and reached into the pocket of de Carabas’ trousers, retrieving the USB key before heading over to the nearest computer and plugging it in. The screen went blue, and Kapil’s access programme got to work.

Another round of shots rang out and de Carabas, who was nearer to the door and very much still a cat, had to leap away to avoid getting hit. Henry bent to pick him up. “If you’d just hold still for a moment.”

De Carabas meowed, entirely unamused. Still, he didn’t struggle out of Henry’s grip as Henry held him against his chest, moving cautiously along the wall towards the door. And then Henry heard another shot, and the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs. Henry waited. The person reached the landing, and Henry had a gun to their head the moment they stepped into the room.

Except that it wasn’t one of the men.

“Agent Lee, are you going to lower that gun or what?” demanded Jo Harland.

“What I really don’t get is why you were holding that cat,” said Jo, as she gestured to the bartender for another beer.

Kapil had gotten access to the safe house satellite, but it was still going to take him at least a couple of hours to triangulate Berker’s location. Instead of catching some rest, Henry and Jo had elected to do the next best thing – grab a few drinks.

Henry waved her off. “I was removing him from the line of fire, give me a break.”

“Although it was quite a sight – Agent Henry Lee, with a gun in one hand and a cat in the other.”

Jo had always been quick to laugh; now was no exception. Henry’d used to dread it in the gym back when he’d just been starting out, because that was always a prelude to Jo’s challenging some recruit to spar with her. This recruit had normally ended up being Henry. She might have been a head shorter than him but it was impossible to get out of one of her chokeholds. And then in Beijing she’d taken him under her wing, which had been occasionally painful but mostly just pretty damn great. “I didn’t know Perrault put you back in the field, little brother,” said Jo. “After the fuckup in Shanghai. And Will.”

Henry shrugged. “Desperate times,” he said. “You seem to be doing all right, Section Chief and everything.”

“All right?” Jo scoffed. “Let’s face it – until today, we were both in cold storage and you know it. Perrault’s only got us running around now because we’re the original team that took the hit the last time around.”

“Well, if you put it that way…”

“How else would I put it?”

“Someone seems bitter,” said Henry, nudging Jo gently. “Is your promotion not agreeing with you?”

“Maybe,” said Jo. “The higher up I get, the closer I am to all the bullshit. And you know how I feel about bullshit.” She paused, drank a little bit more. “I heard you went to see Will’s family.”

“Yeah, I did,” Henry replied.

“Sounds rough. I don’t blame him for not telling any of us.”

“I do,” said Henry, feeling angry all of a sudden. “Because then I wouldn’t have gone and fucked him, would I?”

“Hey,” said Jo. “We all have our secrets.” She clapped Henry on the back. “Look, I’ll buy you another drink and you can forget about that shit, okay? Why don’t you check on Lamba, see how he’s doing?”

“I just did,” Henry told her, but he pulled his phone out again anyway to see if Kapil had sent him any new messages. There were none. He wondered if de Carabas was all right – he had squirmed out of Henry’s arms shortly before they had arrived at the van, slinking off somewhere to be joined by a posse of street cats. “You have excellent timing, by the way,” he told Jo, as she slid a beer over to him. “How did you figure out we were going to be at the safe house?”

Jo smirked. “I have my ways.”

“Fine, don’t tell me,” said Henry, drinking his beer instead.

It was at that moment that de Carabas appeared.

“Who’s this?” asked Jo.

“Jo, this is Tom,” said Henry. “He’s… a friend.”

“Don’t mind me,” de Carabas told Henry, swiping Henry’s beer from the counter with a proprietary smile.

“That’s mine,” said Henry, even though he was more concerned by how de Carabas looked like he had just run a mile. “Is something wrong?”

“Not at all,” said de Carabas, even though he still seemed slightly breathless. His hair was wilder than usual and he was standing just a tad too close to Henry, but his gaze was entirely fixed on Jo. “Tom de Carabas,” he told her. “Lovely to make your acquaintance.” He didn’t hold out his hand.

“I just bought an old friend that drink, think you could give it back?” asked Jo, clearly sizing de Carabas up herself.

“Oh, sorry about that,” said de Carabas, moving to put the bottle back down and toppling it instead. Liquid began to spill across the counter, and Henry rose from his seat.

“What the fuck are you playing at?” Jo demanded.

“Jo, it’s just a drink, I can get another –” Henry began to say, but was interrupted by his phone ringing. It was Kapil.

“Dude,” he said, the moment Henry answered. “Berker doesn’t exist.”

And Henry didn’t get to hear what Kapil was about to say next, because in that moment Jo had pulled out a gun and was now aiming it at Henry’s head.

“I was going to do this quietly but I guess your friend here has left me with no choice,” said Jo.

“By quietly you meant by poisoning him?” asked de Carabas, who also had his gun out and now had it trained on Jo. “Drop your gun.”

Jo smirked. “Didn’t need it anyway,” she said, tossing it aside. Before de Carabas could do anything else she had lunged towards him and twisted the gun from his hands, kneeing him twice in the stomach before shoving him to the ground. Henry caught Jo’s arm before she could land a right hook on de Carabas, only for her to get Henry in the gut with her left fist. Henry stumbled backwards against the bar.

“It wasn’t really poison,” said Jo, pulling out a knife. “Just something to knock you out with. Because it’s so much more trouble doing this while you’re awake.”

Henry’s mind had gone blank; he was still reeling from the shock of Jo’s pulling a gun on him. Thankfully, his reflexes kicked in. As Jo flew towards him with the knife, he deflected the blow with a drinks tray that had been lying on the bar. It got him close enough to grab the back of Jo’s neck with one hand and her wrist with the other, but when he tried to jerk the knife out her hand she merely laughed and slammed his head down against the bar with her other hand. For a moment Henry blacked out, and when he came to Jo was being yanked backwards by de Carabas, who immediately earned himself an elbow in the face. It was just enough time for Henry to seize Jo’s knife hand and plunge the blade into her thigh.

“Fuck you,” said Jo, wrenching the knife out and slashing at Henry, who barely blocked it with his arm.

“Why?” Henry demanded, as blood dripped down the cut in his forearm. He was dimly aware of people evacuating the bar, of de Carabas trying to get back on his feet.

“It’s nothing personal,” Jo replied. “I just work for someone else now. It’s been that way for a while.”

There was a leak, Gina had said. “In Shanghai?” asked Henry. “That was you?”

This time, when Jo came at Henry again, Henry was entirely prepared. He dodged her blade, caught her off balance, and threw her in one clean movement. Jo landed heavily on the ground. Henry reached for the gun that de Carabas had dropped earlier, and had it pressed to Jo’s temple before she could even move.

“Shanghai,” Henry repeated, wrenching the knife from Jo’s hand and flinging it into a corner. “Were you the leak?”

“You’ve gotten good, little brother,” said Jo, giving Henry a grin that now seemed as false as it was familiar. And this – this was as bad as Will dying, in a way. Because from now on, everything Henry treasured about his time with Will and Jo would also be further evidence of how deep and poisonous this betrayal had been.

“Don’t you dare,” Henry spat, “don’t you dare ever call me that again.”

Jo responded by stabbing Henry in the arm with a smaller knife. That moment of shock was all she needed to shove Henry off her, land a vicious kick to his stomach, and run. Henry tried to push himself off the ground, gasping, and reached for his gun, but it was too late. Jo Harland had disappeared off into the night.

“Henry,” someone was saying, while Henry clutched at his arm and slumped down onto the floor again. “Henry, can you get up?” There was a hand on his back now, and another one on his good shoulder, supporting him.

Henry closed his eyes for what seemed like an eternity, just leaning into de Carabas’ touch, trying to make sense of what had just happened. And then, with a groan, he pushed himself to sit upright.

“I’m fine.” He looked at de Carabas, taking in the bruise blooming on his cheek and the concern in his eyes. “Thanks,” Henry told him, even though it hurt to move or to even think. There was blood running down Henry’s face from the gash on his forehead, and his arm felt like it was on fire, and Jo Harland had tried to kill him. And yet here was de Carabas, who could have walked away at any point and yet had somehow stuck around to snatch away spiked drinks and tell Henry when people were trying to take him out. “You really had my back.”

“I’ve saved your life twice now,” said de Carabas, and even like this, even bruised and grimy and wrecked, he was luminous. “Perhaps it would be in your best interests to trust me.”

“That seems reasonable,” Henry replied. And then he leaned in and kissed de Carabas, because they were alive and because he very much wanted to.

De Carabas made a little sound of surprise, and then he was surging up on his knees and dragging his hand up to rest on Henry’s cheek as he kissed Henry back. De Carabas kissed like he had waited lifetimes for this. It was as easy as it was inexorable, this gravitation towards each other, de Carabas licking Henry’s lips apart and Henry gasping into his mouth, and Henry found himself baffled at why they hadn’t done this earlier.

And then Henry’s phone rang. Henry groaned, deep in his chest, and pulled away from de Carabas.

“It’s Gina,” said Henry, glancing down at the screen and back up at de Carabas, who looked caught between lust and annoyance, his lips still slightly parted. “I need to answer this, need to check on Kapil –” he tried to get on his feet but stumbled, barely catching himself with his good arm.

“Where do you expect to go in this condition?” asked de Carabas, and when he moved to help Henry up Henry could not stop himself from kissing de Carabas again, hard and urgent, the phone still ringing the entire time.

“Fuck, fuck,” said Henry, breathless as they broke apart. He forced himself unsteadily onto his feet and answered his phone.

“I’ve got two assets on standby,” said Gina. “Please tell me you’ve got a way to track Harland down.”

“I, uh –” Henry began, glancing over at de Carabas and trying not to think about how badly he wanted to kiss him again.

De Carabas seemed to sense this, because his expression was infuriatingly smug as he leaned in close to Henry and whispered in his ear, all promise and heat: “Later.”

“Is everything all right, Agent Lee?” Gina was asking, while outside the bar, Kapil had pulled up in the van and was now running in.

“Yes,” Henry replied with some effort, trying his best not to reach over and grab de Carabas as he stepped away. He wasn’t sure if it was the loss of blood or de Carabas that was making him light-headed. “In a manner of speaking.”

“Fuck, dude, you need to get to a hospital,” Kapil exclaimed.

Later, after Gina had been given everything they had on Jo Harland and Kapil had brought Henry to a hospital to be stitched up, de Carabas appeared in Henry’s hotel room.

He came in through the window. This, by now, was par for the course.

“You could have knocked on the door,” said Henry, who was lying on the bed propped up by far too many pillows, courtesy of Kapil.

“I could have,” de Carabas agreed. Then he crossed the room and climbed onto the bed, boots and all, and the point became moot.

“That’s filthy,” said Henry.

“You’ll live,” replied de Carabas. He looked over at Henry while crouched on his hands and knees, and Henry was suddenly very aware of what it might feel like to be stalked as prey. “I hear you’ve been told not to move around too much.”

“Lies,” Henry murmured, “now get over here –”

De Carabas was on top of Henry before he could even finish his sentence, and when he kissed Henry this time it was deliberate but no less desperate, slow and careful like Henry was something to be savoured. Henry already had one hand on the back of de Carabas’ neck, fingers threading through his hair, but when he tried to raise his bandaged arm de Carabas caught his wrist gently. “No,” he said against Henry’s lips. “Stay still.”

illustrated by beili

“I can –”

“I like the look on your face when you want me and you don’t know what to do with yourself,” said de Carabas, his hands tangling in Henry’s shirt as he pressed his lips against Henry’s temple, as he bent to whisper in Henry’s ear. “Because you always need to know what’s coming next, don’t you? You always need to be doing something.”

“You know what I need to be doing now,” he said, reaching over to unbutton de Carabas’ shirt one-handed.

“You see,” said de Carabas, grabbing Henry’s hand, “this is what I’ve been thinking about – you, at a loss because I’m taking you apart,” he paused, the tip of his tongue just darting out to wet his lips for just a second, “I’m taking you apart and all you can do is imagine the things you’d like to do to me when you get the chance.” De Carabas’ smile was so wicked in that moment, so knowing, that all Henry could do was nod mutely, throat dry and pulse racing.

De Carabas divested himself of his shirt without Henry’s help, pulling it off without bothering with rest of the buttons and exposing the smooth planes of his chest and stomach; that hint of hip as he shifted his weight and those ill-fitting trousers of his slid down just a fraction. Fuck, Henry wanted so badly to touch him then, to roll over so de Carabas was below him, squirming under Henry’s weight as Henry palmed his cock through his clothes. But it was de Carabas who was rucking up Henry’s shirt and tonguing Henry’s dick through the fabric of his boxer shorts; who was making Henry squirm as he drew his fingers around the elastic waistband and waited there instead of tugging it down like Henry wanted him to.

“I swear if you don’t hurry up I’m going to –”

“What?” asked de Carabas, his lips moving against the outline of Henry’s cock, causing him to shudder. “No, go on,” said de Carabas, looking up at Henry. “I’m curious to know.”

Before Henry could reply, de Carabas had freed Henry’s erection and taken him into his mouth.

“Fuck,” Henry gasped, his hand flying to rest in de Carabas’ hair. It was beyond good, the wet heat of de Carabas’ mouth and his clever tongue. Henry could do nothing but arch up into it, to let de Carabas draw these sounds out of him, to give in like de Carabas wanted him to.

And when Henry was almost there, his hands fisted in the sheets and his hips juddering under de Carabas’ palms, de Carabas pulled away and sat up.

“Fuck, Tom,” Henry began. De Carabas leaned over him and they kissed, tongues sliding together, while de Carabas took forever fumbling with the fly of his trousers.

“Button fly, seriously?”

“It’s not as if I have a choice,” de Carabas replied. He managed to get the top button open and then rolled off of Henry so he could shimmy out of the trousers without bothering with the rest, yanking them off of his boots somewhat viciously. And then there he was, naked and flushed and hard for Henry, wearing only that ridiculous pair of boots. As Henry tried to sit up and reach over de Carabas pushed him gently back down on the pillows.

“Do you know,” said de Carabas, as he removed a packet of lube from the pockets of his discarded trousers. “I thought about this when I put on your boxer shorts.”

“Of course you did,” Henry muttered, disgruntled at not being able to run both his hands over de Carabas’ skin, at being forced to lie back and look. When they got back, when Henry got better, he was going to have de Carabas everywhere in the house. Bent over that armchair he had commandeered, for example, or – oh.

Henry’s train of thought was interrupted by the sight of de Carabas preparing himself. De Carabas looked over, eyes half lidded, and smiled to see the expression on Henry’s face. “Stay still,” he warned, except it came out more like a moan than anything else. Henry watched hungrily as de Carabas fucked himself on his fingers; drank in the gorgeous column of de Carabas’ neck as he threw his head back in pleasure. And it took everything of Henry just to stay there and not cross the short distance between them so he could drag his lips over all that glorious skin and to replace de Carabas’ fingers with his own.

“Tom,” Henry finally said, and he was surprised at how broken he sounded. “Tom, please.”

“I thought you’d never ask,” de Carabas replied.

And perhaps this was what de Carabas wanted Henry to feel – so terribly, wondrously out of control as de Carabas moved over Henry, his boots just brushing against Henry’s thighs as he sank down onto Henry’s cock. It was exquisite, this feeling of being inside him, hearing every shaking breath de Carabas took. De Carabas had one arm braced against the pillows and the other just resting carefully, so carefully, on Henry’s good shoulder, and as he began to ride Henry he leaned down and pressed his lips against the corner of Henry’s mouth, so tentative it made Henry gasp and turn towards him. Surely, deliberately, de Carabas took Henry apart; came apart himself. And Henry let him – he clung, and he breathed, and he let him.

“You must really be annoying them,” said de Carabas much later, when Henry was half asleep.

It took Henry a second to form a reply, which he mumbled into de Carabas’ shoulder. “Who?”

De Carabas laughed, and Henry could feel the vibrations against his skin. “This organisation you’ve been chasing,” he said. “Why else would Jo Harland risk blowing her cover just to get rid of you?”

“I’ll be fine,” Henry said, lips barely moving. Shortly after that, he dropped off to sleep.

It was still dark when Henry awoke alone in the bed. He sat up, and saw de Carabas sitting by the window, wrapped in a blanket.

With some effort, he climbed off the bed and went over to join de Carabas, who didn’t glance up as Henry sat down beside him. For a long moment they stayed that way, watching the city dream. There was a stillness about de Carabas as he sat there that fascinated Henry, that made it easy to reconcile man with cat, all five feet and eight inches of him.

Then de Carabas gave a languid yawn, head tilted back, eyes scrunched shut.

“You even yawn like a cat,” Henry observed, with a little smile.

“I am a cat,” de Carabas replied. “Years ago I gave up one of my lives for the power of speech; another, to take human form, but I am still a cat.”

“And these lives of yours are counted in human lifetimes?” asked Henry.

“Long life was the gift that came with my humanity,” said de Carabas. “But I’m afraid I can’t always bring myself to view it as such. I am in my sixth now.” He ducked his head down to rest his chin on his knees. “It is also my last.”

Oh. That was unexpected, Henry thought. But – “If you gave up two lives, don’t you have one more?” asked Henry. “Or is the whole nine lives thing just a saying?”

“You’re quite right,” de Carabas said. There was a distant look on his face as he continued, “No, the third one I gave up during the Great War, to the son of my adopted family. I followed him into the Royal Navy, where he almost died.”

“Almost.”

De Carabas smiled. “I don’t regret that at all, even though I had to go away after that,” he said. “They were the last family I adopted.”

And maybe Henry did know something about adoptive families, because he had been cut off from his own the moment he had left for DC. The Agency had given him a new one, and Henry had trusted those bonds implicitly. Right up until about eight hours ago, Jo Harland had been family the same way that Will was. Except Jo had sold them out and Will was gone because of that, and perhaps Henry had been the worst fool for believing that years of working together and having each other’s backs counted for anything.

“It doesn’t get easier, losing things,” said de Carabas, almost as if he knew where Henry’s thoughts had gone to. “On the other hand, I get the luxury of finding new ones.” When he turned to look at Henry there was something sweetly hesitant on his face, so unexpected that Henry instantly knew to hoard this memory.

“Since meeting me you’ve been shot at, held hostage, and beaten up,” said Henry. “I don’t know if you would consider that a luxury.”

“I was compelled to stay,” de Carabas said, a smile playing on his lips. “I couldn’t have left you to your own devices.”

“You were the one who coerced me into taking you in, and then followed me to work and stole my neighbours’ clothes.”

“If I recall correctly, you tried to put a collar on me barely a day after we first met.”

“That just sounds bad, taken out of context,” Henry replied. “You were a cat. I was afraid you’d get lost.”

“The very idea!” de Carabas exclaimed. His tone was indignant but his eyes were bright with amusement.

“Well, you came back,” said Henry.

“I did. And you opened your window.”

“I did.”

It was perhaps the closest to a confession either of them would ever come to. It worked just fine for Henry. Words were tricky and clumsy and Henry didn’t trust them. What he trusted was this: the careful sharing of a secret, the unguarded way in which de Carabas kicked off his boots and slinked out of the blanket into Henry’s arms.

And then, of course, everything went wrong. For a start, the moment they arrived in London Gina had given Henry a direct order to go straight to the hospital instead of reporting to her. This lost Henry half a day and he knew that by the time he got out, Gina would have put two more agents on the case.

“I thought I told you to shoot her,” Gina said to Henry when he walked through the door. She was angry, but her anger was not directed at Henry.

“I don’t have an excuse,” said Henry.

“No, you don’t,” said Gina. “Take a seat.”

Henry sat down. “What’s the progress on tracking Harland?”

“We’ve found her. Just twenty minutes ago, in fact.”

“Good,” said Henry, but Gina remained silent. There was that hard look in her eyes now, the one she always got when she was about to tell Henry something particularly bad.

“What’s the catch?” asked Henry.

“Henry, you’re going to have to sit out the rest of this.”

Henry felt his blood run cold.

“No,” he began to say. “Really, I’m fine. Bruised, but –”

“That’s not the issue here,” said Gina sharply. “The issue is that you’ve been compromised.”

“Compromised?” Henry snapped, rising from his seat. “Gina, I have been compromised for a very long time now and I’ve still managed to do my damn job every single time. I let Jo Harland run, yes, but I swear –”

“Sit down and answer this question, Agent.” Gina slapped a photograph onto the table and slid it across to Henry. “Who is this?”

Henry looked down at the photograph, and realised that a part of him had known that this would have to happen at some point. It was a CCTV snapshot of de Carabas at Heathrow, perhaps moments after Henry had been whisked away for his medical. De Carabas appeared to have gotten his hands on a mobile phone, and was frowning as he spoke to the person on the other end of the line.

“He was my source on Owens,” Henry replied truthfully. “And if it wasn’t for him in Istanbul I’d most certainly be dead, but that’s not the point –”

“Why wasn’t I told?”

“I didn’t find it necessary,” Henry replied. “About Harland –”

“And you trust this man?” asked Gina.

“What?”

“I’m asking,” said Gina, “if you trust this man.”

“As I told you. If it wasn’t for him I’d be dead.”

Gina shook her head. “Henry, we have reason to believe that your source is in league with Jo Harland.”

“That’s not possible,” said Henry.

“Then explain this to me,” said Gina. “We intercepted the tail end of that phone conversation. He was talking to Jo Harland, and this is what we heard.” She pressed play on the recording device on her desk.

There was a bit of noise, and then Henry heard a voice that was unmistakably de Carabas’. “Miss Harland, you’d be happy to hear that I have got exactly what you’ve been looking for. Now, I’d like to talk terms.”

The recording ended, and Henry shook his head. “There’s some sort of mistake. Gina, listen to me –”

“It’s out of my hands, Henry,” Gina said. “Langley’s stepped in; they’re running this case directly and even I’ve got limited access. You’re going to have to sit this one out.” Then Gina looked at Henry and said, “I’m sorry, Agent Lee,” and Henry knew for certain that Gina wasn’t lying.

“You’ve never apologised to me before.”

“I’ve never needed to,” Gina replied. Henry wasn’t sure if she had been apologising for Will, or Jo Harland, or the fact that Henry would no longer have the chance to take Jo Harland down himself. “Go home and get some rest. That’s an order.”

Numbly, Henry stood and left the room. He felt ill all of a sudden, like there was something stuck in his throat. It wasn’t possible that de Carabas, too, had played him. It didn’t add up. What sense would there be for someone like de Carabas to align himself with any organisation? More importantly, Henry wanted to believe that that honesty that de Carabas had shown him, time and again, had not merely been a convincing performance.

He didn’t know how he managed to exit the building and flag down a cab, but he clearly must have, because at some point he was standing on the pavement outside his building, fishing for his keys.

“The door, it is not locked.”

Henry turned and saw that it was the French girl who had been smoking on the fire escape all those weeks ago. She bent down, her cigarette dangling from her lips, and removed the wallet she’d been using to hold the door slightly ajar.

“Thanks.” Henry pushed the door open.

“How’s your cat?” asked the girl.

“He’s no-one’s cat,” Henry replied.

The girl smiled. Henry stepped past her and headed up the stairs to his flat. At this very moment, de Carabas was probably meeting with Harland to give her what she’d been looking for. Perhaps it was the cryptographic keys, but it made no sense for de Carabas to have stolen them back for Henry, that night at the Opera House. Gina was wrong, Henry was certain of this. But they had taken him off the case and he had no idea where de Carabas was at the moment.

Henry stepped into his flat and was just about to take off his coat when he noticed something. It wouldn’t have crossed his mind if not for the conversation he and de Carabas had had the night earlier, but the collar that Henry had tried to put on de Carabas was missing from the television bench.

He was fairly sure it had been there before. After de Carabas had refused to wear it, Henry had left it on the bench to remind himself to bring it back to Kapil. It was possible that Kapil had picked it up the night they left to Istanbul, but it was highly unlikely given the general de Carabas-related confusion that had been going on. Henry checked the kitchen and his bedroom. It was definitely gone.

He pulled out his phone and dialled Kapil’s number.

“Dude, I heard you got benched,” said Kapil by way of greeting. “That sucks, I’m sorry.”

“Never mind that,” Henry told him. “Remember that tracking device you embedded in a collar for me?”

“…Yes?”

“Could you do a quick scan to see where it is now?”

“Sure,” said Kapil. “Lost your cat?”

“Just hurry,” said Henry hoping madly that something would turn up, that this meant something.

“That’s weird,” Kapil said, “I’ve got a signal coming from Bern.”

Relief bloomed in Henry’s chest.

“Why the fuck is your cat in Bern?” Kapil was still saying. “You think a Swiss dude stole it or something?”

“Keep tracking that location,” said Henry. “I’m catching the next flight there.”

When running an operation with other players involved, Will’s favourite trick had been to piggyback on someone else’s communications. It used to drive Henry up the wall, having to sit in a van for hours on end listening to comms chatter from the Hong Kong police or Japanese intelligence instead of performing their own stakeout. But all that experience of messing about trying to latch on to the right channel was now paying off. Henry had made quick work of tapping into the current operation, and was now riding a tram while listening in on Agents Moreau and Wu as they gave an update to the Bern field office.

Kapil, in the meantime, had transferred the tracking information to Henry’s phone. Based on the collar’s signal and what Moreau was saying, Jo Harland and de Carabas had entered a network of tunnels under the Old City approximately twenty minutes ago. A capture or kill order had been issued for the both of them. From the number of assets that had been deployed, Henry was fairly certain the emphasis was more on kill than on capture.

“Remember,” the field office head was saying, “this needs to be clean, because we’re all fucked if things get blown up in a UNESCO Heritage Site. What’s the status on the exits?”

“We’ve covered all but one,” said Wu. “The asset from Hanover is en route and will be in position in seven minutes.”

“Not good enough,” said the field office head. “Which exit is this?”

“The bridge entrance by Nydeggkirche,” Moreau answered, “but one of our assets does have it in sight –”

This was enough information for Henry to make his move. The tram came to a stop and Henry stepped off, weaving easily into the crowd of tourists wandering along the wide walkways. He pulled a baseball cap off a souvenir stand and tugged it on, before swiping someone’s unattended camera off a café table and slinging it around his neck. It wasn’t much a disguise, but Henry was counting on that fact that during the next seven minutes, the asset covering for Hanover would be dividing his or her attention between two different spots.

As quickly as he could without looking suspicious, Henry made his way down the steps leading below the bridge and turned into a small alleyway. Where the edge of the church compound met the foundation of the bridge was a smallish door half-obscured by surrounding shrubbery. The lock was so old and rusted that it took Henry only a few moments to get it open. He shoved twice at the door, and it swung open.

The air was dense and cool inside, and Henry had to pause for a moment to adjust to the darkness. He proceeded along the tunnel, pausing to check the tracking signal and get his bearings at each turning he reached, using the faint glow of his screen to light his path. These tunnels had never been open to the public for safety reasons. Whoever the organisation was involved with must truly have some clout, to have enabled their continued use of these tunnels by. A thin strip of lighting had begun at some point in the passageway, casting light onto the cluster of cables snaking in from another entrance and winding its way along the ground.

There was a crackle in Henry’s earpiece. “Hanover reporting,” said the asset. “Area is clear.”

“Clear,” said Agent Moreau.

As Henry made the next turn he saw a figure standing guard by the wall. He was disarming the man before the man even had a chance to react, knocking him out. Henry winced as his bad shoulder started to hurt again. There was no time. He continued down the passageway.

He was close now. Just before the next turning, Henry heard the sound of voices. He paused by the wall, his heart pounding in his chest. It was Jo Harland.

“What I don’t get is whose side you’re on,” Jo was saying. “You’ve been a pain in the ass this whole time and now you say you’ve got the codes? I want to know what your deal is.”

“As I said before,” de Carabas replied, “I’m on nobody’s side but my own.” His voice sounded tight but his tone was still as measured as usual. “I’m sure you understand what that’s like, Miss Harland.”

“Don’t act like you know anything about me,” said Jo.

“I wouldn’t presume to,” de Carabas said. “I merely want to assure you that my allegiances are most definitely not with your former Agency. The decryption keys are yours, if you grant me my requests.”

“Let’s hear them, then.”

“Henry Lee. I want him unharmed.”

Henry’s breath caught in his throat.

Jo laughed. “I can’t promise that if he keeps trying to stop us.”

“He won’t,” said de Carabas. “I’ll make sure of that.”

“You’re going to have a hard time, he’s a stubborn bastard,” said Jo. “But fine. If he stays away, we won’t go after him. Anything else?”

“Safe passage,” de Carabas said. “I would very much like to leave this place alive.”

“Of course,” Jo replied. “Is that all?”

“Yes,” said de Carabas, with such resolution. Henry wanted to rush round the corner, to get de Carabas out of there because Jo Harland was not to be trusted, because of the utter foolishness of trying to negotiate for Henry’s safety when all it had resulted in was both of them down in these tunnels and the decryption keys falling into Harland’s hands.

Another asset was speaking in Henry’s earpiece. “Geneva to base.”

“Go ahead,” replied Wu.

“Four individuals have just gone in from the Münsterplatz entrance. They are not our targets.”

“Noted,” said Moreau. “Keep an eye out.”

“So we have a deal?” asked Jo.

“We have a deal,” de Carabas replied. “Here are the codes.”

“Thank you,” said Jo. “But before you leave, my colleagues are going to have to test this.”

There was the sound of de Carabas leaning back in his chair. “Of course. I’ll wait.”

They must have been fairly close to the Münsterplatz entrance because Henry heard Jo’s associates entering the room just a few moments after. One of them was speaking rapidly in French as they began to gain access to the CIA central system.

If Henry went in now, he would have the element of surprise, but he knew too little about how many other guards there were to be certain if he could deal with them and Jo Harland at the same time. Not without the risk of de Carabas getting caught in the crossfire. Up to this point he had assumed that he would always choose to take out Jo Harland in such a situation – right now, however, all he wanted was to get de Carabas out of danger.

There was only one option left for Henry, and it would cost him. He hit the button on his radio and spoke to the channel. “This is Agent Lee to base. All assets need to move in.”

“Henry, what the hell–” Moreau began.

“Moreau, I don’t have time to explain,” Henry hissed. “They’re breaching our systems and all assets need to intercept.”

There was a pause, and then Wu spoke. “Base to all assets, you heard Agent Lee.”

“We’re in,” said one of Jo’s associates. “The codes work.”

“Naturally,” said de Carabas.

And then there was the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked. “Thanks,” said Jo. “But you must understand that this is much bigger than you and me.”

There was a pause. “That is unfortunate,” de Carabas said.

“Yeah, it is,” Jo replied. “But we’ve got nothing on you and it’s making some people nervous.”

“All right.” De Carabas was still negotiating. “How about another deal?”

Before Jo could answer, Henry rounded the corner and burst into the room, shooting one man at the entrance and another who was bent over a laptop. Jo fired a shot directly at de Carabas, but he had kicked off his boots just a second earlier and vanished into a pile of clothing. Another woman at the far end of the room shot at Henry, but missed him by a few inches. Henry fired back and got her in the shoulder. And then Jo was on Henry, slamming him face first onto the ground and twisting the gun out of his hand. Before Henry could fight back, the last associate had a gun pointed directly to Henry’s head.

“Why, little brother,” said Jo. Her knee dug painfully into Henry’s back. “Come back for more?”

“We need to go,” the other man said, pressing the gun harder against Henry’s skull. “Shall I kill him?”

“I did promise not to,” said Jo. And then she shot Henry in the leg.

It didn’t register at first; it felt like something had just punched through the back of his thigh. Blood was seeping out. Something – a cat, Tom – had launched itself at the associate pressing a gun to Henry’s head, and Jo was shouting about getting that thing off. Then Henry tried to move his leg, and found himself in agony.

It was at that moment that the first asset entered, firing a clean shot at the man, who collapsed onto Henry. Jo was up immediately, firing back at the asset and turning to run. There was chaos around them as the woman that Henry had shot in the shoulder opened fire on the asset, giving Jo enough time to escape down another exit. Almost by reflex, Henry was shoving the dead man off of himself, trying to scramble to his feet, to catch Jo before she got away again. Another part of his mind was screaming at him to find de Carabas. Henry pushed himself up with a gasp and saw de Carabas collapsed on the ground in cat form, unconscious.

Two more of Jo’s guards ran in, but Henry shot one of them before he could fire at Henry. With a wretched groan he scrambled to his feet and tackled the second guard into the wall. The guard kneed Henry sharply in the stomach, getting Henry right where he was already hurt and dislodging his grip. Henry stumbled backwards, catching his fall on the table. As the guard came towards him, Henry tried to raise his arms to block the next blow, but felt his wounded leg give out under him. The guard’s fist caught him in the side of his face, and Henry fell to the ground. But just as the guard was about to pick up his partner’s gun, a shot rang out. The guard swayed for a moment, and then collapsed.

“You’re going to have a lot of explaining to do, Henry,” said Moreau, stepping past the guard’s body and helping Henry to sit up. Together they moved Henry towards the side of the room, so that he could lean against a wall.

“Go,” Henry told Moreau. “Give me a gun and I’ll be fine.”

Wu and the field office head were still barking orders in Henry’s ear as Jo escaped through the Old City with two assets in pursuit.

Moreau frowned, but he handed Henry the guard’s gun. “Thanks, Henry.”

“Shut the fuck up and go.”

Moreau turned and headed off down the tunnel. In the corner, de Carabas raised his head.

“Why did you?” asked Henry, as de Carabas slunk over. He ran his fingers over the cat’s fur, trying not to slip unconscious even as his vision dipped in and out of darkness. The pain in his leg was now excruciating. He pressed a hand to the wound to try to slow the bleeding.

De Carabas mewled urgently, rubbing against Henry’s side.

His phone rang. Dazedly, he pulled it out of his pocket and answered it. “Kapil?”

“Henry, we’ve got your location and a team is going to get you out of there,” said Kapil. “But while that’s happening, listen to this. There was a breach in our system using the decryption keys.”

“Yes,” said Henry, “I know.”

“No, dude, listen. Those keys they used were developed by us down in tech, we put a virus in it to give us access to any system that tried to use them,” Kapil told Henry. “They weren’t fully tested because the drive I had them on was misplaced, but they fucking work.”

“Wait – what do you mean?”

Kapil continued to speak, but at points Henry could not catch what he was saying over the roaring in his ears. “About eight minutes ago we got a ping from an originating host computer, located where you are right now. And then after that, other locations started doing that too. We mapped out all these addresses and we’ve got points lighting up all over the world like a Christmas tree.”

Henry leaned his head back against the wall. “What the fuck are you saying?”

“I’m saying that yes, they got into our system,” said Kapil. “But now we know where they all are.”

“Fuck,” said Henry, glancing down at de Carabas, who was casting worried looks at Henry’s wound. “Get Gina. You tell Gina about this.”

“Henry you need to hang in there,” Kapil was saying.

“You knew?” Henry asked de Carabas. “You knew about the tampered keys?”

De Carabas began to move towards the boots but Henry reached out to stop him. “Don’t change back,” he tried to say. “They’ll kill you.” But he was slipping away, and this time when his eyes slid shut he couldn’t find it in himself to open them again.

illustrated by beili

“I liked you better when you just followed orders.”

This was the first thing Gina Perrault said to Henry when he came to at the hospital. Perhaps it was the drugs, but Henry could swear she looked just the tiniest bit worried.

“Didn’t know you liked me at all,” Henry rasped. He earned himself a thin-lipped smile.

“We got Harland,” said Gina.

Captured or killed, Henry wanted to ask, but then he realised that he didn’t want to know.

“De Carabas?” he said instead.

“Neither hide nor hair,” Gina replied. “But he’s off our lists for now. We’re still trying to figure out how he got his hands on our decryption keys.”

Henry nodded, and shut his eyes.

“Get some rest, Henry,” said Gina. “And when you’re ready we’ll have you back on the field.”

“No more translation?” Henry murmured, his lips curving into a smile.

Gina huffed a laugh. “I gave your office to Lamba. At least he’ll water the damn plants.”

When Henry opened his eyes again Gina was gone, and two nurses were conferring with each other in German. Die Katze ist weg, Henry was able to make out. The cat is away. Had there been a cat at the window, the other nurse was asking. Oh, every day it was there.

And Henry wanted to sit up, to ask them to open the window, but there were warm hands on his shoulders pushing him back down because he wasn’t supposed to move just yet.

Perhaps he had dreamed Gina. He thought that his brother had come to visit, too, but when he tried to speak to David it was Will’s voice that replied; in too-fast Cantonese that Henry couldn’t quite catch. Slow down, Henry told him, but Will just smiled and stroked his hands over Henry’s face. And what Henry wanted more than anything, through that haze of medication, was for them to get the window open, because how else was de Carabas going to come in; it was cold outside, and –

“You need to understand that they have regulations here,” said de Carabas, his voice thick with amusement. “They can’t exactly risk letting in a draught.”

Henry opened his eyes. De Carabas was sitting in a chair with his elbows resting on the side of Henry’s bed, head titled to one side as he stared at Henry. His hair was even wilder than Henry remembered; his eyes even brighter.

“All day long, they tell me, you’re begging for them to open the windows. In German, French, English…” De Carabas leaned in and pressed a careful kiss to the corner of Henry’s mouth.

“Tom.”

“I suppose it’s safe to assume you missed me,” de Carabas murmured.

And Henry didn’t reply, because he was too preoccupied with kissing de Carabas properly.

Epilogue

The Lunar New Year had been over for quite a while when Henry finally called his mother. He asked her the usual questions about how she was getting on, and tried to avoid mentioning the fact that he had quite recently been stabbed in the arm and shot in the leg. It would be a whole different matter to have to explain the slight limp the next time they met in person, but Henry planned to cross that bridge when he came to it.

And when they ran out of things to talk about, he mentioned that he had a cat.

“I love cats,” said his mother, her voice brightening. “It was such a pity your father was allergic to them.”

“I know,” Henry replied. Then he glanced over at de Carabas, who was lying on Henry’s bed scrutinising a map of Guangzhou in nothing but his boots, and immediately felt rather guilty.

“Yes,” said Henry’s mother. “So is your brother. But now that all of you are out of the house I can get as many cats as I want.”

“You do that. David can just meet us at an IHOP when he comes to visit, and sleep in his car.”

Henry’s mother laughed for a very long time at this. “Oh, my son. There are tears in my eyes.”

“It’s really not that funny, Mother,” Henry told her, even though he wasn’t sure if those tears were entirely of laughter.

“Come back soon, Hyun-woo.”

“I will,” Henry told her, really meaning it this time.

“Didn’t you want to tell her about your promotion?” asked de Carabas, after Henry had hung up. “Section Chief is nothing to sneeze at.”

“You know they only gave me the position after they realised I couldn’t run as fast as before,” Henry replied. He glanced over at the veritable mountain of files waiting for him on his desk, certain that Gina was somehow still having the last laugh.

“Oh, don’t be modest,” said de Carabas. “You must acknowledge that you are rather good at barking down radio comms and scaring the living daylights out of young whippersnappers.”

“And doing my actual job,” said Henry.

“Oh, in that respect you’re rather average,” de Carabas told Henry. When he saw Henry’s indignant expression he laughed. “I can, however, think of a number of things that you’re quite exceptional at, if you’d be so kind as to come over here and demonstrate.”

“I have no intention of doing anything of the sort,” said Henry, still affronted. “Especially not on top of a map that I will most definitely need to be returning to the Agency.”

“Liar,” said de Carabas, sitting up on his elbows and shooting Henry a crooked smile.

“Thief.” Henry pointed at the map. “You’re not even supposed to be looking at that.”

“Cat,” de Carabas shot back with a little shrug, by way of explanation. “And if you don’t come over right now I’m taking off my boots and going to sleep.”

Henry crossed the room and climbed onto the bed. “Your boots are filthy.”

“It’s curious how you keep saying that,” said de Carabas, reaching over to unbutton Henry’s shirt, “when I happen to have it on good authority that you like them very, very much.”

illustrated by beili

Author’s Notes

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2 thoughts on “The Master Cat Redux

  1. The line “All day long, they tell me, you’re begging for them to open the windows. In German, French, English…” really brings a tear to my eye. So sweet!

  2. This is amazing–and both the writing and art is so incredibly gorgeous. I loved how you spooled out Henry’s character and history–I found him so interesting and as for Tom, well I also fell in love with him. Everything about this story was fascinating and I couldn’t stop reading–the action and interactions so vivid that I felt like I was there.

    And the twists were great as well! You perfectly captured that sense of urgency and surprise, it was just fun to read. But, best of all, the chemistry between Tom and Henry was off the charts fantastic. I want to reach a million more stories of them having adventures together!

    Seriously, this was amazing.

    • Thank you for your very kind comment! Writing this was really great fun (as was collaborating with the talentes beili and seeing her gorgeous art), so I’m very happy to hear that you enjoyed it. Thank you for reading and for taking the time leave such a lovely and detailed comment. 🙂

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