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Playing in the Dark (Glasgow Lads Book 4) by Avery Cockburn (1)

Chapter 2

1 September 2014

A perfect day to be set free, Evan Hollister thought as he neared the pedestrian bridge stretching across the River Clyde. The sun was climbing into a sky far too clear and blue to have ended up in Glasgow by anything but accident.

As always, Evan noticed every person he passed. Partly he was looking for subtle incongruities signifying bad intent: wearing a coat too large for their frame or too heavy for the weather (possibly concealing a bomb), strange bulges in pockets (knives or guns), or shoes costing twice as much as the rest of their clothes put together (probably stolen, not that it was his job to enforce the law).

Mostly he was looking for people who were familiar for the wrong reason—not because they worked in the area, but because they were following him. One couldn’t be too careful.

In the not-too-distant past, “careful” meant scanning his vehicle for signs of car bombs. These days it merely meant varying his morning commute to avoid a detectable pattern.

Today he’d taken ScotRail from Argyle Street to Exhibition Centre. It was his favorite route, so he rarely used it. But today he couldn’t resist, because of the fine weather and because the morning held the promise of life going back to what passed for normal.

As he stepped onto the bridge to cross the river, Evan thought about how his last day in the field had almost been his last day on earth. The beginning of that operation had shattered his life, and its ending had nearly shattered his mind.

But after spending July on mandatory mental-health leave, then August behind a desk assessing threats based on information fed to him through a screen, Evan couldn’t wait to go undercover again. Maybe that meant he was daft.

He didn’t feel daft. Most days, anyway.

Stepping off the bridge toward his building’s front entrance, Evan spied his colleague Adira Mansour approaching from the south. Adira was one of the top analysts at this MI5 regional office. Because the domestic-intelligence agency posted a mere thirty employees here in Glasgow, Evan knew Adira well, though they’d never worked together on an operation. Evan had so far served only in T Branch, which handled Irish terrorism, while Adira worked in G Branch, which handled terrorism from everywhere else.

“Good morning!” he sang out, holding the door open.

“You’re unnaturally cheerful for a Monday,” she grumbled, but then her eyes widened. “Is this your day of liberation?”

He grinned at her. “Aye, if the Powers That Be declare it. Is that a new hijab?”

“Perhaps.” She fingered the rose-and-copper-colored paisley fabric draped over her head and chest. “Does anything escape your notice, lad?”

“I hope not.”

On their way to the lift they passed the ground-floor canteen, bustling with the breakfast crowd. Evan saw a blue oval Yes Scotland sticker pasted to the glass beside a corner table. He smirked at the sheer cheek: Government buildings were forbidden territory for political merchandise, especially merchandise advocating a split from the government that funded the buildings.

When the lift doors opened upon MI5’s basement office, Evan and his colleague stopped short. Adira raised her fists as though she’d scored a goal. “At last!”

Evan followed her to queue up at the newly installed, space-age-looking security capsule. “Now we can join the twenty-first century.”

“More like the twentieth,” said an older man ahead of them in the queue. He gestured to the capsule with his ragged brown-paper lunch sack. “We’ve had these at Thames House for decades.”

Adira acknowledged him, then muttered under her breath. “Feel free to fuck off back to London, then.”

Evan suppressed a snicker. The daughter of Jordanian immigrants, Adira was over twice his age and a devout Muslim, but her Glaswegian ferocity rivaled that of any teenage hooligan.

As the sack-lunch man slouched into the capsule, Evan imagined how “Clyde House” would appear to someone from headquarters. Situated in several major UK cities, MI5’s regional offices had been opened and furnished in the late 2000s, just after austerity had been inflicted upon the nation. Most of the computers here were memory-starved, the desk chairs were ergonomically hostile, and Evan’s team of officers and analysts shared a single, perpetually jammed stapler.

But things were changing. As this month’s independence referendum hotted up, the UK government worried that Scottish nationalists might pose a security threat. Evan thought this an overreaction—there was no evidence that even hardcore “nats” sought to address their grievances through anything but the ballot box. But hey, whatever it took to get his office upgraded.

Evan handed over his jacket for the usual X-ray scan, then tapped his pass code into the terminal in front of the cylindrical security capsule. The capsule’s bulletproof laminated-glass door slid open with a whoosh.

“Cool,” he whispered as he stepped inside. There was a slight pause, during which, Evan had learned at headquarters, the capsule judged his weight and height to be sure it was him and that he was alone—and not, say, held at gunpoint. After a moment, the door behind him closed, then the door in front of him opened. Very cool.

He and Adira greeted their colleagues, grabbed coffees from the ancient machine, then sat at their desks in the open-plan main office. As always, the first task was to read the daily threat assessments before their team meetings. Monday’s briefs were massive, as terrorists didn’t take weekends off and neither did the information they produced. If there’d been an imminent threat, of course, normal working hours would go out the window, but MI5’s mission was to sniff out threats before they became imminent.

Evan doubted many folk had a more disquieting start to their mornings. The daily threat assessment painted a picture of a world bent on harming itself. It made it easy to forget that good people were actually a thing.

He was midway through a Europol report on vehicular-based terrorism when Kay Northam appeared out of nowhere, as she was wont to do.

“Good weekend?” his supervisor asked in an unusually bright voice for this time of day.

He jumped a bit, grateful he’d set down his coffee before Kay had popped up. It was best to hide how easily startled he could still be. “Erm, it was all right. Yours?”

“Mmm-hm.” She eyed him over her tea, contained in a cappuccino cup that dwarfed her hand, the nails of which looked freshly bitten despite a layer of clear varnish. “Did you win in football?”

“It was just a pre-season friendly, but aye, Warriors won.” He noticed a black expanding file tucked under her arm. “Is that a new operation?”

“Okay, fuck the small talk, then.” Kay set down her cup with a clonk, then pulled over a chair to sit beside Evan. “Thus far, your work in T Branch has focused on the Catholic part of Northern Irish sectarian violence. The time has come to switch sides, so to speak.”

Evan wasn’t surprised. It was no longer safe for him to go undercover in Glasgow’s rougher Irish Catholic pubs, where literal terrorists and murderers from Northern Ireland liked to meet funders and plan attacks. Their Protestant counterparts were equally ruthless, but they didn’t know Evan—not yet, at least.

Kay opened the expanding file. “Lately we’ve seen a troubling crossover between members of local Protestant associations—including relatively mainstream ones like the Orange Order—with extreme-right-wing groups, including this new one.”

He opened the report she handed him and snorted when he saw the XRW group’s name. “‘British Values Party’? Did they miss the bit where the government declared tolerance an official British value?”

“They did not, in fact, miss it.” Kay withdrew a pamphlet from the black file and opened it with a flourish. “Recruitment materials, distributed at rallies.”

The glossy blue brochure featured primitive clip art of Union flags and white-power fists. In their list of “British Values,” the BVP had replaced Democracy with Strength, and Tolerance of diversity with Pride in heritage.

“If you’re assigned to this operation,” Kay said, “you’ll work with SCD again. They specifically requested your involvement after the way you handled yourself on the last operation.”

Evan felt a glow of excitement. Collaborating with Police Scotland’s Specialist Crime Division had been a highlight of his two-plus years in the Service. He’d made several friends in SCD, all of whom had top-secret clearances, which meant he could (mostly) be himself with them.

A few had even helped with his combat-stress issues this summer. Though his police mates hadn’t been cleared to know what happened in Belfast, they understood the challenges following an on-the-job trauma. How some days it took everything not to smash one’s head against a wall to quash the memories.

Evan skimmed the police profile of the British Values Party. The BVP were headquartered down in Birmingham, but they had a regional coordinator of sorts in Scotland, a man called Jordan Lithgow. “I assume he’s my target?”

“Yes. You’re fluent in Norwegian, right?”

“I know the version they speak in Oslo—my gran was from near there, and I took classes growing up in Orkney. There are a lot of different dialects.”

“I don’t think the subtleties will matter to this lad. Like a lot of XRW types, Lithgow is fascinated with all things Norse.”

“The whole superior-Aryan-race thing?”

“That’s part of it. Anyway, we thought the thrill of meeting someone from the land of ice and snow would help him lower his guard. Also, it’ll make it less suspicious that no one in Glasgow knows you.”

Evan examined the surveillance photos. In one, taken at a rally, the young man with a shaved head and swirl of neck tattoos was scowling, his mouth twisted in rage. But in the other, taken in a park with his dog, Jordan wore an almost childlike grin. “So I’m to pose as a Norwegian guy to get close to Lithgow?”

“Yes. As friends.” Her earnest blue eyes met his to emphasize the last word. “There’s no evidence he’d be interested in more.”

Thank God. He paged through the report. “Why are MI5 involved? I thought the Service considered these right-wing nutters a threat to public order, not to national security.”

“Yes, normally we let police handle domestic extremists, because their activities haven’t crossed the threshold between hate crime and terrorism.”

Evan suddenly tasted his morning coffee at the back of his throat. “Until now, you mean.”

Kay’s forehead creased. She looked down at the file in her lap, gripping it along its open edge with both hands, as if by blocking its contents’ escape, she could keep them from becoming reality. “Evan, I’m not keen to send you undercover again so soon. But as I said, the police requested you. More importantly, I knew you’d want this assignment.”

“Why?” He attempted a slight joke to allay his unease. “Because I’m dying to use my gran’s Norwegian to take down en gjeng kjeltringer? That means ‘a bunch of bad guys,’ by the way.”

Kay didn’t laugh. “No, that’s not why.” She handed Evan the rest of the file. “Because the BVP want to attack same-sex weddings.”

* * *

7 February 2015

The most important skill in wedding planning, Ben Reid’s mum had taught him, was to act calm and confident even whilst inside, one was utterly shitting it.

Approaching the front door of the semi-posh Glasgow City Centre hotel, he inhaled deeply, then exhaled, a cloud of steam forming as his breath met the cold February air. Then he put on a smile he hoped was more disarming than deranged, ready to greet his brand-new clients.

They met him at the revolving door, yanking him out of the in-between space as though he was the one in need of rescue.

“Ben! Oh my God, Ben,” said the shorter of the two men, a stout ginger who looked closer to forty than fifty. “You are Ben, aye? Our emergency wedding planner?”

“I am.” He tried to shake their hands, to no avail, as they were clutching both his arms. “You’re Gary and Sean?”

“We are,” said the taller, dark-haired man who looked closer to fifty than forty. “That is, I’m Gary, he’s Sean. And we’re both pure grateful you exist.”

“Aw, thanks, loves. I’m pretty glad too.” He gestured to the lobby’s nearest seating area. “Shall we have a wee chat?”

Sean looked at his watch. “The ceremony’s to start in eighty-three minutes. We’ve not even put on our kilts.”

Ben had noticed. They were both clad, incongruously, in jeans and tuxedo jackets, probably intending to save the kilts as a surprise for the wedding ceremony.

“Please. Sit.” He took a comfy chair, and they both sank into the love seat across from him. Ironically, he felt calmer now in the face of their edgy nerves.

“I can’t believe this is happening.” Sean clutched a white two-ring binder to his chest like a teddy bear. “When Corinne phoned to say she’d broken her arm this afternoon—”

“A compound fracture, no less,” Gary said. “She was hanging bunting.”

“So she told me. Poor thing.” Ben pointed to the binder. “Are those her notes?”

“Oh!” Sean practically threw it into Ben’s lap. “You know, I pictured you being older.”

Ben heard the dubiousness in the groom’s voice. “I’ve been helping my mum plan weddings since I was thirteen.” When Sean failed to look assured, Ben added, “That was ten years ago.” Well, almost. “Sorry I couldn’t be here earlier.”

“Corinne said you were working another wedding this afternoon,” Gary said. “Please let us know what we can do to help you save us.”

Ben motioned to the coffee kiosk in the corner of the lobby. “I would kill for a green-tea latte and anything resembling real food.”

They leapt to their feet and dashed for the kiosk. Ben took another deep breath and opened the binder. He was in fact in need of protein and caffeine, but he mostly wanted them out of his face while he perused Corinne’s notes.

Her binder was hundreds of pages thick, which meant he’d never be able to read every detail before the wedding. But at least she used a similar system to his own. By the time Sean and Gary returned with his latte and sausage croissant roll (or “croll,” Ben’s new favorite word and food), he had a pretty good idea of the challenge before him.

“Good news,” he told them. “The hotel is handling most of the logistics, so my role will be to act as stage manager—see to it that everyone’s in the right place at the right time—and handle transitions so everything runs seamlessly.” Ben adjusted his glasses and gave them his biggest smile yet. “And so you can enjoy the best night of your lives.”

Gary and Sean sagged back into the love seat as if they’d just lost all vertebrae. “Thank God,” they said in unison, then took each other’s hand without even looking down to find them, a move so automatic and natural it was clear they’d had years, possibly decades of practice. Ben felt a flash of wistfulness as he imagined finding someone he meshed with like that.

Then again, it was hard to truly mesh when one rarely hooked up with the same man twice. He’d need to work on that someday.

Ben led Sean and Gary to the two adjoining ballrooms where the ceremony and reception would take place. Luckily, he’d already done a million weddings at this hotel with his mum. How he would have loved to ask her advice on a night like this.

They quickly reviewed when and where the grooms and wedding party had to be to start the ceremony, then Ben gave them strict instructions not to worry or even think about anything but their own parts in the production.

“Mind,” he said, wanting to hug the anxiety from their faces, “you’ve put a lot of work and thought into this night. I know we just met and you’ve no reason to trust me with something so precious as your wedding, but for now, just pretend you do.”

They finally laughed, much harder than his joke deserved.

Ben put a hand on a shoulder of each groom and gave a squeeze. “Now go and kilt up before that photographer over there has a heart attack.”

Sean and Gary hurried off toward the guest elevators, and Ben went to greet the photographer and her assistant. He’d calculated he could afford ten minutes each with them, the florist, and the celebrant; followed by fifteen minutes each with the DJ and the hotel’s events manager, Richard—a dear friend of his mum’s—and still give himself ten minutes alone for a final review.

Ben knew that in Corinne’s absence, no one expected this evening to go off without a hitch. Still, it was a challenge he relished.

Soon the photographer had hustled upstairs to take pics of the grooms dressing, the florist had agreed to set up table arrangements herself for a small fee, the celebrant had been briefed on how the grooms would process from each side of the room and meet in the center, and the DJ had been reminded to loop the processional music at a very low volume during the ceremony because Sean got nervous in quiet rooms.

Bang on schedule, Ben found the events manager in the hallway outside the ballrooms, where the early arriving guests were already enjoying prenuptial cocktails. He walked up behind him and touched his elbow. “Richard, it’s good to—”

“Ah!” Richard spun to face him. “Oh, Ben, it’s you. Sorry.” He took the cinnamon-colored handkerchief from his breast pocket and dabbed at the sheen of perspiration near his receding hairline. “It’s been a-a stressful afternoon, what with—what with, you know…”

“Corinne’s injury?”

“Yes, that.” Richard peered over Ben’s head and nodded to someone behind him.

“I was hoping we could review the transition between the ceremony and—”

“Excuse me for a moment.” Richard brushed past Ben and walked up to a fortyish man with close-cropped dark hair who stood near the window overlooking the courtyard. The man wore the uniform of regular serving staff, someone who shouldn’t have the authority to beckon a manager.

Ben stepped over to the wall behind one of the small bars, away from the growing throng of chattering guests. He opened his binder and pretended to read from it, even as his ears strained to hear the conversation between Richard and this oddly officious server.

Unfortunately, only scattered bits were audible, and they only confused him further.

“…not meant to be here…”

“…blow his cover…”

“…look suspicious?”

“…limit exposure between him and Reid…”

Ben held his breath, positive he’d just heard his surname. Then again, it was a homonym of read, so it was an easy mistake to make.

When he couldn’t stand it anymore, Ben glanced over at the two men, trying to catch Richard’s eye.

They were both watching him. After a blink, he offered the events manager an expectant look. Just hoping to speak with you. Oh, and by the way, WHAT IS GOING ON?

Richard had a last hushed word with the “server,” then hurried over. “So sorry about that. Let’s go over the transition like you asked.”

Ben forced his focus back to the job in hand. Their review went quickly, but by the time it was over, Ben had to oversee the guests’ entrance to the ceremony space and thus had no time for a final review of Corinne’s notes, much less an inspection of the reception room. He cursed his own raging curiosity; his attempted eavesdropping had used up valuable minutes.

But once the ceremony began, he found himself lost in the moment, swept up in Gary and Sean’s long-awaited dream come true. The way they looked at each other, the way their families and friends beamed at them, dabbing tears even as they laughed at Sean dropping Gary’s ring, then Gary dropping Sean’s in solidarity, made all Ben’s stress worth it. This was his life’s calling, no matter his uni degree or his mum’s opinions.

Ben was fighting back his own tears when someone tapped his elbow. He turned to see Corinne’s daughter Hannah. Fluttering a hand over his heart in relief, he beckoned her out into the hallway. “How’s your mother?” he whispered.

“Still in surgery. My sister’s with her. Mum asked me to come and assist you, said it’d help her heal or some pish like that.”

“Sounds like something mine would say. Thank you.” He hugged her awkwardly, the binder between them. “Could you watch over the ceremony while I check the reception room?”

“Sure.” She took the ceremony run sheet from him. “Talking of your mum, was she helping with the wedding you did this afternoon?”

“No, that was all me. Mum doesn’t—” He stopped himself. “She doesn’t have time, as her services are pure booked up for the next two years. Couldn’t fit this massive first crop of same-sex weddings into her schedule.”

Hannah frowned. “You know people are talking, right?”

“Which people? About what?”

“In the industry, about your mum. They say she doesn’t approve of gay marriage and that’s why you’ve started your own business.”

Ben’s heart started to pound. If word got out his mother was avoiding same-sex couples as clients, then her business—and therefore her life—could be ruined.

“Mum’s a bit old-fashioned,” Ben told Hannah, “but I’m working on her. She’ll come round soon.”

Hannah nodded, but the tilt of her head as she turned toward the ceremony hall showed she wasn’t convinced.

Cursing his big mouth—he should have simply denied the rumors—Ben hurried over to the reception ballroom. He’d deal with his mother later. Right now he needed to make sure the table arrangement wasn’t a complete shambles.

Entering the room, he spied a server striding away from him toward the door at the opposite end. This puzzled Ben, as only half the tables were laid. What could be so important as to leave the job unfinished?

“Excuse me!” His voice echoed against the empty ballroom’s high ceiling.

The man froze, reaching for the door handle. After a pause, he turned around. “Sorry?”

“I was wondering if you’d do me a favor, if you’ve got a wee minute?”

The man looked at the door, then walked toward him.

Ben moved to meet him halfway. “Usually I do this myself, but I’m a last-minute substitute, so I’ve got a million things to see to.”

The man came closer, enough for Ben to see he was tall, mid-twenties, with a well-trimmed sandy-gold beard that matched his slicked-back hair and the metal rims of his eyeglasses. “Heh?” he asked.

“These place settings.” Feeling unusually shy in the presence of hotness, Ben went to the nearest laid table. “I like to be sure all the cutlery are straight and their bottoms are lined up properly.” He demonstrated, nudging a knife half an inch farther from the edge of the table to align with the spoon beside it. “I know, it’s a bit Carson-from-Downton-Abbey, but if you’d just humor my strange compulsion, I’d be pure grateful.”

“It’s not strange at all,” the server said, in an accent Ben couldn’t place. He adjusted the cutlery on the table beside him. “There. How’s that?”

Ben came closer to examine the results. “Absolutely perfect,” he said, though it was only ninety percent perfect at best. He looked up at the man. “Do you think you could—”

Hold on. He knew this guy from somewhere important, though maybe only his fantasies. Or maybe Ben’s own eyeglass prescription needed an update.

The server raised a brow. “Do I think I could what?”

Ben blinked. “S-sorry, I’ve been rude, not introducing myself. I’m Ben, the wedding planner.”

“Hi, Ben.” The man jutted a thumb at his own chest. “Gunnar.”

“Gunnar.” Hmm, perhaps they hadn’t met before. Based on the name and accent, this man was clearly Scandinavian not just in looks but in national origin. Ben didn’t know any men from—

All at once it hit him, and he saw what lay under the disguise.

The blond hair had been darkened, the waves smoothed into oblivion by styling product. Facial hair hid the chin dimple that was deep enough to swim in. And that Norwegian accent was a less musical version of the sweet Orcadian lilt that had taken up permanent residence in Ben’s memory.

But Gunnar’s spectacles couldn’t hide those ice-blue eyes and their faint tragic glow.

Here was the man Ben had thought about every day—and especially every night—for nearly six weeks.