Stone Barrington woke earlier than he should have and was, for a moment, disoriented. Sunlight was streaming through a two-inch gap in the drawn curtains of the room, and he never slept with curtains drawn. Except in England.
He sat up in bed. He was, indeed, in England, in the house called Windward Hall that he had owned for some years. He had landed in the early evening in the Strategic Services Gulfstream 600, on which he had caught a ride from Teterboro, New Jersey. The company jet was in England or Europe on almost a weekly basis, and the private runway on his land was long enough to accommodate it for landing and takeoff. It was a convenient way to commute between his New York residence and his house in England.
He looked at the bedside clock: a little after six AM. He fell back onto his pillow, tried for another hour of sleep, and failed. He had come alone to England, so there were no opportunities of an erotic nature to keep him occupied until the kitchen was open for business — and he was hungry. He got out of bed, flung open the curtains in the room, and then got back into bed with yesterday’s crossword puzzle, which he had not finished.
He regretted not inviting a companion on this trip, but his mind turned to the beautiful woman whose country house was just across the Beaulieu River from his. At that moment, his cell phone rang. “Hello?”
“Good morning,” she said with a husky voice. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”
“Good morning, Felicity. I wish you were here to wake me properly.”
“I’m nearly there, darling,” she replied, chuckling, “just across the river.”
“Then come and have breakfast with me.”
“I’d like to have you for breakfast, but I have to be in London at nine-thirty for an important meeting at the Foreign Office.” Felicity was the director of MI-6, the British foreign intelligence service, which came under the purview of the foreign minister.
“What a pity,” Stone said.
“Not to worry. I’ll be down tomorrow afternoon for the weekend. Why don’t you host a dinner party?”
“Well, I didn’t bring any guests with me, so I guess it will just have to be the two of us.”
“Tell you what,” she said. “I will assemble the guests for a table of, say, eight?”
“What a good idea. You’re better acquainted with the locals than I.”
“Consider it done. I’ll bring the place cards with me, so don’t bother about that. Shall we say seven for eight?” In British parlance, this meant dinner at eight, and show up at seven, if you’d like a drink first.
“Perfect. I’ll get the cook to work on a menu and I’ll unearth some good bottles from the cellar.”
“I will look forward to it,” she said.
“And bring your toothbrush. We’ll make a weekend of it.”
“What a good idea!” She made a kissing noise and hung up.
Stone went back to his crossword, a happier man.
The following evening, in his Royal Yacht Squadron mess kit — essentially, a tuxedo with a short, naval-style jacket and the appropriate insignia — Stone inspected the beautifully set table in the small dining room, then went to the library, where drinks would be served. It was about three minutes past seven when he heard the doorbell, and a couple of minutes later, Dame Felicity Devonshire entered the library, followed by three couples. One he recognized as Felicity’s boss, the foreign minister, Sir Oswald Towne, and his wife, Lady Towne; another was a younger man in a proper naval mess kit, sporting quite a lot of braid, and his apparent wife; the third couple looked familiar.
“Stone,” Felicity said, “of course you know Sir Oswald and Lady Towne — Ozzie and Deirdre.” They all shook hands. “And this is Admiral Sir Timothy Barnes, and Lady Barnes, Tim and Kate.” More handshaking. “Tim is the First Sea Lord,” Felicity added. Hands were shaken.
Stone knew that that post was the Royal Navy equivalent of the American chief of naval operations.
“And,” Felicity said, “I don’t know if you’ve met the newly elected commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron, Derek Drummond, and his wife, Hildy.” Drummond was also dressed in a Squadron mess kit, which should have been a clue.
“Congratulations on your election,” Stone said, shaking their hands.
“Thank you, Stone. It’s good to see an American member here,” the commodore replied.
“It’s good to be here,” Stone said.
Geoffrey, the butler, served champagne and cocktails, and there was chat among the guests and their hosts.
“Do you have a place in the neighborhood?” Stone asked Tim Barnes.
“No, I had to come down from London for the launching of a new submarine. Ozzie and Deirdre were staying with Felicity, and she asked us to join them, so my barge brought us from Portsmouth to her dock on the Beaulieu.
“What does an admiral’s barge consist of these days?” Stone asked.
“A very comfortable Nelson motorboat of forty feet. It’s suitable for a weekend place.”
Felicity joined them. “Tim has also just come from a visit to our Station Two, in the Scottish Highlands. He was kind enough to give me a lift back in a naval aircraft.”
“Why does MI-6 have a station so far north?” Stone asked.
“Station Two is our training facility for new recruits to the service,” she said. “I drove up there last week for my own inspection, but I was called back to London and had to leave my car there and fly back.”
“Is this the Aston Martin DB11?”
“It is, and I miss it already.”
“How will you get it back from Scotland?”
“A good question. Would you like to drive it back?”
“That’s a very tempting thought,” Stone said. “I’ve never driven that car.”
The foreign minister joined them in time to hear that exchange. “You look like a fit fellow,” he said to Stone. “You might enjoy a taste of the training up there.”
“Good idea,” Tim said. “The place is run by an old chum of mine, a colonel in the Royal Marines. I’d be happy to give him a call and tell him not to be too hard on you.”
“Is this a sort of boot camp, then?” Stone asked, intrigued.
“The first two weeks are very much a boot camp,” Tim replied. “Lots of hikes and runs, weapons training, hand-to-hand fighting, that sort of thing. The next two months are all the secret stuff: codes, tradecraft, communications. All the James Bond stuff.”
“They’re in the first week of training now,” Felicity said. “You could join them for the second week, then drive the car back.” She turned to the FM. “Stone is a consultant to our colleagues at Langley, so he’s a family member, in a way. He’s also been of help to us on occasion.”
“Then I don’t see why he shouldn’t have a bit of fun at our expense,” the FM said. “Send me an authorization to sign — and, of course, a release for his signature, absolving us from any liability for serious injury or an early death.”
“You make it sound like such fun,” Stone said, “but...”
“Nonsense,” the FM chortled, clapping him on the back. “It’s all decided and authorized.”
They were called in to dinner, and Stone put the thought of a Highlands vacation out of his mind. He noticed that Felicity had left the table to use her phone for a few minutes, but that often happened.
She returned to the table. “Good news,” she said. “We’re flying some equipment and a few people up to Station Two tomorrow, and the aircraft will pick you up at your airstrip at seven o’clock tomorrow morning.”
Stone choked on his wine.
“I envy you the experience,” the FM said. “Just the sort of romp I’d have enjoyed in my youth.”
“I’m not all that young,” Stone said, and everyone laughed heartily.