Victoria poured Elizabeth a cup of tea. She overfilled it, spilling a bit as she handed it off to her friend.
“Damn,” she swore under her breath, reaching for a towel, “I’ve become so accustomed to 0sc4r pouring tea perfectly. I’ll should make a point of pouring my own tea more often.”
Beth gave a half smile and nodded as she helped Vic clean the spill.
“Alright,” Vic yawned as she took her seat behind her desk, “What’s this about, Beth?”
Beth took a breath and steeled her nerves. Best to lay it bare from the start, “I’ve been informing on you for the last six months.”
She watched Vic’s face during the long pause that followed. Victoria was practically famous for her neutral expression, but the signs were there if you knew what you were looking for. The fleeting stiffness of her jaw, the flash of hurt behind her eyes.
Beth had known this would hurt her, but she had dared to hope Vic already knew, and had just been playing along for Beth’s sake. That she would slap her on the shoulder, they’d have a laugh, and Beth would feel so much better.
Vic hadn’t known, there was no pat on the shoulder, and Beth felt so much worse.
“To whom?” Vic asked in a voice that was neutral but sharp.
“I don’t know,” Beth tried to keep her own voice as neutral as Vic’s.
“You don’t know?” Vic nodded dispassionately.
“I was approached by someone claiming ‘a concerned patron’. I wasn’t in a position to question it, Vic,” Elizabeth implored.
“I see,” Vic paused, taking a long sip of tea, “And how much did you give this mystery person?”
“Not everything,” Beth insisted, “I gave them what they asked for, but I always tried to leave out anything they didn’t request specifically, or I delayed till it didn’t matter. Of course, I couldn’t always get around that.”
There was another pause. And then Vic asked, “Do they have our current position and course?”
“No, certainly not,” Beth answered.
“Did you give them Quirke?” Vic pressed.
“No, I wouldn’t,” Beth set her tea aside, she didn’t think she could drink it, “That’s why I came to you.”
“Very well,” Vic took another sip of tea. She leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs, for all the world looking like a woman who hadn’t just been told her best friend had betrayed her. “Why don’t you start at the beginning, Lieutenant Colonel,” Beth noted the pointed use of her rank rather than her name, “What do they have on you?”
Beth took another breath before launching into the story.
“Do you remember last year, when I was stationed in Gibraltar? There is an officer’s ball there in July for the anniversary of the end of the War in the Straits. Last year’s was huge (“twenty years” and all that), and I was there of course. I was commanding the 5th Reconnaissance Wing there at the time. The ball was held at this hotel overlooking the water, it was a beautiful place.
“I was enjoying myself, talking to the other officers, having some fun with the enlisted personnel who’d managed to merit an invitation or just snuck in, when I was approached by a young couple. A junior officer from 1st Fleet with a beautiful woman on his arm. They invited me to join them at their table, and of course I accepted. He looked dashing and she looked gorgeous, how could I say no? We talked for a bit, then the young man asked me to dance. While on the dance floor, we made our intentions abundantly clear. I also inquired about the lady he was escorting, and he explained that she had expressed a similar interest.
“So I danced with the young man some more, danced with her, and soon dancing was becoming kissing, but they didn’t want to kiss or anything more than dance in the ballroom, and so we withdrew to a hotel room the young man had acquired for the evening. Maybe somewhere along the way they explained to me that they were not actually a couple, but if they did I didn’t hear it or just wasn’t listening. I had other things on my mind.
“We must have gotten carried away, stayed in the room too long I guess, because the woman’s husband came looking for us. He had a hotel manager open the door while the three of us were still…entwined, you see. The husband begins screaming at his wife, and the young officer who was apparently his batman. She was weeping, and the batman wasn’t far from tears himself, so I tried to handle it. I tell the husband to get out, and I don’t let him past me when he tries to grab his wife’s arm and pull her out of the bed, and he attempts to pull rank on me. He was, as it happens, some Vice-Admiral in 1st Fleet, and he orders me to get out of his way. There’s already a small crowd of confused and curious guests assembling in the hall, which makes him even crosser, and so he loudly shouts that he’s demanding satisfaction from the batman. The batman, poor boy, is terrified and sobbing at this point. He’s no more than 19 years old if he’s a day, and too young to lose his life in a duel. So I stand in the Vice-Admiral’s face (which made him very uncomfortable I think, I was still naked) and accept the challenge on the young man’s behalf.
“Maybe I should have stayed out of it, I don’t know, but within a quarter-hour, we’re on the beach, being handed pistols.
“I swear to you, Vic, I only shot to wound him, but he’d been drinking, and so had I. We both stumbled when we turned, and when it was done, He’d missed me and I’d put a hole through his eye. He wife was screaming, the batman was just staring in disbelief, and before I knew what was happening a pair of RMP men have me by the arms.”
“The husband was apparently very well liked, and very politically connected. I ended up in lock-up for two days before they sorted it out. It was a duel, so I was free to go, but the Vice-Admiral’s friends brought up my demerits with 3rd Fleet’s Command, and demanded I be dishonorably discharged from the Airborne Division.”
Vic raised an eyebrow, “3rd Fleet would never–”
“They did,” Beth growled, “They threw me to the wolves. All orders signed and witnessed, I was about to be discharged. I know because they showed me the paperwork. Some man, average looking bloke who sounded like he might have been from the North, black hair and a tailored suit. He claimed to be with Military Intelligence, but I was never quite sure. He brought all the orders to show me, even brought my Commanding Officer to verify that the papers were legitimate. The fellow explains in detail how the Vice-Admiral’s friends have every intention of having me blacklisted professionally. They meant to see to it I never flew again. I couldn’t let that happen, Vic. He tells me that the British Army has put me out to starve, but that his ‘patron’ could protect me. That he had enough pull with the right people to make the whole thing go away, but in return, I might be called upon to serve as their eyes and ears. ‘Just what you see and hear,’ he would say, ‘The occasional document. You need not do anything else.’
“So I said yes. They made the orders disappear, everyone involved pretended like it didn’t happen. I was relieved of my command in Gibraltar, but not discharged, just transferred to London, officially on leave. A few months later, you contacted me about this Italian mission, and a few months after that, my ‘patron’ contacted me with instructions to tell him what your plan in Italy entailed.”
Vic took a moment ensure she maintain her composure before asking, “And you gave it to them?”
Beth looked away, out the window at the clouds drifting lazily past. She looked back to Vic, “I wanted to keep flying. I don’t know what else to say.”
There was another pause, longer than the previous, before Victoria Winthrop opened her line to the bridge comms. “Ms. Burrows?”
A young man with a Argentinian accent responded, “Ms. Burrows had to step out, Ma’am, this is Vazquez. How can I assist you?”
“Tell Mr. Lal: I require an armed escort for Ms. Jackson. She’s to be confined to quarters.”
“Yes, Ma’am,” Vazquez replied before Vic closed the line.
Beth opened her mouth to speak, but Vic held up a hand to silence her.
They waited in silence until a knock on the door announced the arrival of Elizabeth’s escort.
Again Beth tried to say something, “Victoria, I–”
“To your quarters, Lieutenant Colonel,” Vic snapped.
“Vic, it was–”
“Get. Out.” she hissed.
When Beth was gone, Vic turned her chair to face the window, looking at her reflection, the clouds beyond, then back to the reflection. She put a hand to her temple, trying to message the fury and pain away.
It wasn’t working.