Claire Beauchamp was SURE she was failing her test.
Her professor stood in front of her, impatiently tapping his foot as she continued frantically writing in her test booklet. The room was nearly empty, her friend Geillis and her other classmates having departed long ago. “Time’s up,” he reminded her again. She scribbled out the end of her last answer and reluctantly handed her booklet to her professor.
“I know I failed,” she lamented to her boyfriend Frank as they walked across campus later that day. Frank was an associate professor of history at Inverness College where Claire was taking graduate courses in botany. “I’m sure you didn’t fail. You’ve never failed at anything in your life,” he replied distractedly. As they walked, he looked for something in his bag.
“Well there’s a first time for everything. I just wasn’t prepared. I didn’t have time.”
“Claire, we’ve talked about this,” he said, exasperated. “Just quit the bank. It takes up way too much of your time considering you don’t want to be a banker for the rest of your life.” Claire couldn’t even count the number of times she had heard that argument in the two years she and Frank were dating. She was also getting increasingly annoyed by the fact that he couldn’t stop digging around in his bag. Finally, he stopped and put the bag on the ground, continuing to root around as if she wasn’t even there.
“What on earth is so important in there?” she asked, with no little hint of accusation in her tone.
And suddenly, she realized that he was holding a box. And he was on one knee.
“Claire,” he said, his voice barely penetrating her shock, “you know how long I waited for you. How I longed to be near you almost from the first time we met. These past two years with you have been like a dream. I want that dream to continue for the rest of our lives.” And he opened the box and now she really struggled to hear him over the buzzing in her ears. The sparkle of diamond, the sheen of gold. “Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp, will you marry me?”
As tears welled in her eyes, she couldn’t bear to be standing over him anymore, even though it probably wasn’t traditional. She knelt in front of him so they were eye to eye, so he could see the depth of feeling that poured out from hers. “Yes,” she said firmly. People around them on campus had stopped to look at the spectacle they created and some were even cheering. She barely noticed. She felt his arms around her, his whispers of love in her ear, and she felt peaceful and content. She felt safe. At the same time, she was afraid. So afraid. How could she marry him if he didn’t know the truth?
The next day, Claire walked into her office building with a distinct bounce in her step and a lightness in her heart. Geillis had fawned over the ring and they’d had a good cry together over how happy her parents would have been for her. Claire knew that Geillis hadn’t always been a huge fan of her relationship with Frank. She said theirs was not a great passion but a relationship of security and stability for Claire after a lifetime of wandering. But, she seemed willing to put her reservations aside at the prospect of helping Claire plan her wedding. As Claire boarded the executive elevator at Credit Guépard and chatted with Patrick, the guard on duty, she held her hands behind her back and quietly slipped the ring off her finger. She just wasn’t ready for the questions yet, felt like she wanted to hold her happiness to herself for a while longer before letting it interact with her work life. She got off the elevator, paused in the scanning room, and then waited as the secret door slowly swung open. This was the part of her life that no one outside this building knew, the part that she had to keep locked away from almost everyone she cared about in the world.
Joe suspected almost immediately that something was different about her. “What’s up?” he said to her after she had been standing at his desk barely a minute. “What? Nothing’s up,” she replied, a bit too quickly. “You’re glowing,” he said with a tease in his voice and a smirk on his face. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said as she rolled her eyes at him and turned to walk away. “Ok, LJ. Head for the briefing room- Randall wants to see us.” He turned to Malcolm Grant, whose desk was directly behind his. “Is she glowing?” “Aye, that she is,” he said loudly. Claire simply threw her arms in the air, shrugged her shoulders and kept walking.
Joe met her in the briefing room a few minutes later. Her boss, Jonathan Randall and their technology guru, Ned Gowan, were already there when she arrived. Randall explained that they would be going to a reception in Taiwan. They would be doing reconnaissance on the building as it was a front for Taiwanese intelligence. A scientist had been working with the Taiwanese on the development of a new type of battery, but he wanted to turn it over to the West. The scientist had never arrived at his scheduled meet, so no one had any idea if he had completed his work or even if he was still alive. Ned went over the tech they would be taking with them and Randall said they were leaving the following day.
After work that evening, Claire was relaxing on the couch in her flat while Frank was poring over a stack of books at the kitchen table preparing for his next lecture on the Jacobite rebellion. Claire looked over at him and felt a wave of tenderness wash over her. The two of them met when she was an undergraduate and she had refused to date him until she graduated. Even though they were in completely different departments, Claire never wanted anyone to think that she hadn’t earned the degree she worked so hard to achieve. Now all of that was behind them and they were preparing to start their life together. As if he had felt her eyes on him, he looked up and instantly comprehended what her look meant. He rose from the table and climbed over the back of the sofa, bringing his body flush with hers and pulling the pillow from under her head so she was flat beneath him. Their lips met and then he began trailing kisses slowly down her torso until he paused at her stomach, lifting her shirt so he could caress the skin beneath. “Just think,” he said with soft wonder. “Someday there’s going to be a baby in there.”
Claire froze. It wasn’t that she and Frank had never discussed children, it just had never felt so immediate before. It took her barely a moment, but she made her decision. She had to tell him the truth. There was no way she could marry this man without letting him see all of her. She pushed up quickly and took his hand as she came to her feet. As she led him to the bathroom, she cranked up the volume on the stereo that had been playing low in the background. She could never be sure she was safe from listening ears. When she reached the shower, she started to undress and quietly told him to do the same. He excitedly did as she bade him, thinking he knew exactly what was coming next. Claire stood under the water for a brief moment as he climbed in after her, letting it calm her. As he reached for her, she put a hand on his chest and stilled him.
“I work for MI-6,” she blurted out with no preamble. He laughed, as if she couldn’t possibly be serious. “I am an operations officer for MI-6.” She said it again, this time more forcefully. She had to show him that she was deadly serious. His face was confusion, pain, and as she tried to continue explaining, anger. She pleaded with him to let her explain, but he was past hearing her. He quickly climbed out of the shower, got dressed without even drying off first, and left. Even over the stereo and the shower, Claire could hear the sound of the door slamming behind him.
Before she left on her trip the next day, Claire knew she had to see Frank. She texted him and asked him to meet her at the battlefield at Culloden. She needed open space where they could talk without fear of being overheard. To her relief, he responded quickly and agreed to meet her after his morning class ended. They walked out onto the battlefield together, side by side but not touching, in total silence. Past the monuments of the fallen clans. No one else in sight. The air seemed alive with the eerie silence that was a permanent part of this place. He abruptly stopped walking and turned to face her. “Alright. Tell me.”
With a deep breath, Claire began. “I had just started university. I was studying on campus one day when a man approached me. He told me they were interested in talking to me about a job. He gave me his card and left. You know how lost I was when I first arrived here- I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere after having traveled around all my life with Uncle Lamb. So, I decided to call them. When I asked them why they wanted me, all they told me was that I fit a profile. Eventually, I asked if I could test for agent training. The test was easy and I advanced quickly. I was assigned to a covert branch of MI-6 called OB8- OB stands for Off-Book.”
“A covert branch?” he asked, unbelieving. He looked at her like she was a total stranger. She supposed she was, in a way, but it terrified her. “Frank, ever since my parents died, I’ve been hoping that I would be able to find a person who would help give my life meaning. I believe that person is you. I just happened to meet the agency first.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “I need to think. I need to walk for a while.”
Claire paused- she still had to tell him the most important thing. “Frank, you can’t tell anyone about this.” He nodded and waved his hand as if it was obvious. It wasn’t. “I’m serious, Frank. You cannot say a word about this to anyone.”
“I got it,” he told her. There was almost no emotion in his voice. She couldn’t get a sense of what he was thinking or feeling. She didn’t want to leave things unsettled with him, but she was also running out of time. “I have to leave for my trip,” she said. “I will call you when I get back.” They stood and looked at each other for a long minute. Finally, in a voice almost too low to hear, Frank said, “Be careful.” She nodded and then turned to head back to her car.
On the plane to Taiwan, Claire sat next to Joe catching up on her studying for her favorite class about the medicinal uses of plants and herbs. Joe looked over at her and said, “You know Randall doesn’t like it. The fact that you’re still in school.”
“I know,” Claire sighed. “He would rather none of us have a life on the outside. It doesn’t matter though- I’m not giving it up.” She looked over at her work partner, a man she regularly trusted with her life. Might as well come straight out with it. “Joe, how long have you and Gail been married?”
Joe looked up as he searched his mind for the answer. “Ten years,” he said slowly. “No, eleven.” He shook his head as if he couldn’t believe it had been that long. Joe was an expat, an American by birth. He had come to Scotland as an exchange student when he was in university. He met Gail and it was love at first sight. He transferred schools, they got married shortly after and he never looked back. He had even officially changed his citizenship, which was how he was able to enter the service of Her Majesty’s government. Claire looked at him with interest. “And in all that time, you never . . .” She let the thought trail off, but he caught her meaning.
“Gail is married to an investment banker who loves his job,” he said firmly. “But don’t you feel like you’re lying to her?” Claire asked. “I’m protecting her from the truth,” he said simply. “After all, if there’s a rule you don’t break, that’s the rule you don’t break.” Claire hesitated before responding, “It must just get easier I suppose.” Joe gave her a long, searching look, but said nothing. They fell back into silence.
The mission was a success- although it was much “cleaner” than many of their missions. No fighting, no shooting. Just gathering intelligence. Claire had seen the lab, taken pictures (Ned’s 3D camera hidden in her lipstick was genius), and even seen the device itself. But since they were given strict instructions not to take anything, there it stayed. There was one tense moment when she thought her cover was blown. But she improvised being lost looking for the bathroom and managed to get away unscathed. It was, Claire knew, the most important thing she took with her every time she went out in the field- her mind. Her ability to think quickly and adapt to changing circumstances had kept her alive more times than she could count. She said goodbye to Joe at the gate and climbed in the taxi to head for home. When she turned on her phone, she had a message from Frank. Her stomach churned. But she couldn’t help her quick smile when she heard his voice- he was definitely drinking when he called her.
“Claire, I keep thinking about you. Out there. Doing God knows what. And I keep asking myself if I can live with it. With not knowing. With imagining all the things that could be happening and not being able to do a damn thing about it. And the answer I keep coming back to is YES.”
And she knew. As much as her rational mind tried to fight against it, she knew they were listening. She frantically gave the cab driver Frank’s address instead of her own and told him to hurry as she tried to listen to the rest of his message over the abnormally loud pounding of her heart.
“We are going to have to talk about the thing about kids though, because I do want kids . . .”
How much longer? How many more blocks? Was there a chance he hadn’t gone home? “Please don’t be home,” she pleaded silently.
“After all, one can’t be a spy forever. At a certain point, one has to be able to say that they used to be a spy, right?”
OH GOD. They knew. Claire was trying to hold herself together as the cab pulled up to the curb outside of Frank’s building. She shoved her fare at the driver, grabbed her bags and ran for the door, the phone still at her ear.
“I love you, Claire. I miss you. Come home.”
She turned the key. Chaos. The place had been tossed. Furniture overturned. Pictures broken. They wanted it to look like a robbery. She walked through the living room and past the kitchen- no sign of him. Maybe he really wasn’t home. Maybe they hadn’t found him. Maybe he was hiding somewhere. Past the bedroom. No Frank. Around the corner and into the bathroom. All she saw was his face and the blood. She knelt next to the bathtub as her eyes flooded with tears and her mouth opened and closed uselessly. As soon as she touched him, she knew he was gone. He was cold. So cold. He had been shot several times at close range. His face was still his beloved face, but his eyes were forever closed to her. Dimly she heard a horrific sound, almost inhuman. It was a shriek and a cry and a scream and a moan all in one and it went on and on and she wondered where it was coming from and if it would ever stop. At some point she realized it was coming from her.