Someone was trying to assassinate the prime minister, and only Harry Pearce had the ability to stop them – if he could convince the authorities he wasn’t a crackpot. It didn’t help that his intel came from an unreliable source.
With only twenty-four hours to stop the attack, he had to figure out who was masterminding the plot and when they planned to strike. First, he had to get Ruth Evershed to pose as the prime minister. And then he'd give the enemy a new target – himself!
"I've found something." Ruth turned her monitor so Zaf and Jo could see what was on her screen: a picture of the prime minister, below which was the number 112263. She'd dug through all the likely places terrorists and potential assassins might post something, and found this in one of the more unlikely places.
The picture hadn't been somewhere a lot of people would have seen it, and the ones that did might not make the connection. But whoever posted it did so because they expected someone to, even if it was after the fact.
Zaf and Jo leaned over their desks to see the picture.
"The date of John F Kennedy's assassination," Ruth added, in case they hadn't made the connection. "L could be short for Lee."
"As in Lee Harvey Oswald?" Jo guessed. "Isn't he in prison? Or dead or something?"
Ruth shook her head. "I mean using his name as a shorthand for the assassination of a state leader." She wasn't sure where Lee Harvey Oswald was these days, but since he wasn't a threat to Britain, it didn't matter.
"That might help tell us how he's going to do it," Zaf said slowly. "Jo, is there a bookshop anywhere on the route?"
"I'll check." She turned back to her computer, hand on her mouse.
Ruth hoped there was one: it would make everything easier. But it was an anxious wait. She couldn't focus on anything and ended up watching Jo move her mouse and sometimes click it. Given that Zaf was doing the same thing, he must feel the same.
After two interminable minutes Jo relaxed her shoulders and peered over the top of her monitor at Zaf and Ruth. "A Waterstones next door to the venue."
"What's on the sixth floor?" Ruth asked.
After a glance at the monitor, Jo replied, "A café."
The three of them looked at each other.
Zaf spoke for all of them. "That's where he's going to do it."
Assembled in the briefing room, Ruth, Zaf and Jo explained their findings.
"So," Adam summarised, from his position opposite Ruth, "the Prime Minister goes to the British Theatre Awards dinner, arrives at the venue, and is shot by a sniper called L from the Waterstones café next door."
Zaf nodded. "That's the most likely scenario."
"Harry, do we have back up for this?" Adam asked the man on his left.
Harry put his hands flat on the table. "No. Not enough evidence."
"Not enough evidence?" Ruth thumbed through the file in front of her for the print out she'd made of the picture she'd found. "But we have a clear indication of a copycat killer and today's the 22nd November. It's the anniversary."
Harry turned to her. "All we have is unsubstantiated information from a contact Fiona is undercover with. Who doesn't even know the name of this person, only that he's boasted about assassinating the prime minister today."
He had a point, she supposed, but there weren't enough of them to make sure they stopped him. They needed back-up. But after all her searching the picture was all she'd found.
Given that she didn't have an answer for him it was just as well that Harry didn't wait for her reply before turning back to Adam. "We're on our own."
"And Fiona..." Adam prompted.
"Has to go on with her operation. We can't pull her out now. Jo, you'll carry on as planned tonight."
Jo nodded. Adam leaned back in his chair with a sigh.
"I know," Harry said, in a softer tone. "But we take it seriously. I'd rather have a live prime minister and Juliet saying 'I told you so' than the other way round."
Adam nodded and straightened up. Despite his disappointment he was all business again. "All right. We need a decoy car and the prime minister takes a different route to arrive round the back, later than planned. I'll sit in the café and catch our sniper before he can fire. Zaf, you drive the car."
"Now all we need is someone to be a decoy."
Adam was staring at her as he said it, and Ruth fidgeted. All eyes were on her, she realised. "You want me to the be the prime minister?"
"No." Harry smiled. "You'd have everything organised and the public would know something was up."
She ducked her head to hide her smile.
"We need someone to get out of the car at the awards venue," Adam explained. "And you're the only person we've got."
"I'm sure you can do it," Harry added.
Getting out of a car wasn't hard. Unless it was being targeted by a sniper. "You want me to get shot," she said to Harry.
"It won't come to that. Adam will catch him before he can shoot."
She avoided everyone's eyes and focussed on the screen which was showing a map of the route the decoy car would take, not at all sure she could be as certain as Harry was about her safety.
"I wouldn't ask if we had any other choice." Harry leaned closer and lowered his voice. "No one will hurt you, I'll make sure of it."
There was an unexpected fierceness in his tone, but it didn't make it any easier to believe him. What if they were wrong and L had chosen a different floor or a different place to shoot from? But at the same time, if she didn't do it, who would? If only Fiona were available - she was sure Fiona wouldn't have these qualms. But then she was used to putting her life in danger.
She took a deep breath. "All right, I'll do it."
Ruth looked around her as she got into the car. She didn't usually wear a trouser suit and the wig itched. And she was wearing a bulletproof vest under her blouse. She didn't feel like herself. Although as Malcolm handed her the wig he'd shown her the secret in it that he'd said would stop a bullet. All she had to do was to make sure she didn't get shot in the face or the back of the neck. Easy.
She hated having nothing to do except wait until they got there. With nothing to hold she instead worried at the edge of her jacket.
"Ready?" Zaf peered over his shoulder at her as he did his seatbelt up.
He smiled at her. "You'll be fine." And he set off anyway.
She took a couple of deep breaths to quell the panic. She'd feel better once she heard Adam had caught L. And it wasn't a long journey so he'd be searching for him by now.
In an attempt to stop herself from thinking about what was waiting for her at their destination she concentrated on the view outside. She'd never been in a car with tinted windows before and it easy to forget that people couldn't see in. So easy that she was jumpy every time anyone glanced in her direction, even if it was clear that it was because they wanted to cross the road.
"Can we have the radio on?" Did the car even have a radio?
"Any station in particular?" He reached over to switch it on. It was tuned to Radio 4 playing the news, which she didn't want to hear right now.
"Radio 3. It will help me relax." Of course it was Danse Macabre playing. She sighed, but if that was the luck she was getting it wasn't worth him trying another channel.
Zaf glanced at her in the rear view mirror. "Any plans for the weekend?"
It was not a normal place to have this - or any - conversation. But it would take her mind off why she was in this car. "There's a university reunion I was thinking of going to, but I don't know."
"Why not? Do you hate everyone there?"
She smiled. "No." It was hard to keep in touch with people when she couldn't talk about her work and therefore had nothing to offer in terms of news. A reunion would therefore be a good chance to catch-up with people she'd lost touch with ."But I'd have to spend the whole time lying about what I do and I don't know if I can."
"Find a boring lie to to tell and they won't ask any follow-up questions."
That's what they all did when talking about their job with their friends and family. But a reunion was different. There had been a few people she'd been competitive with and she was sure they were doing something they'd think was better than her lie. "I don't want them to think I have a boring job."
Zaf grinned in the rear view mirror. "So you want to boast that you work for MI-5?"
She blushed at being caught out. "Something like that." What was the point in getting the job you'd dreamed of if you couldn't tell anyone?
"Adam, anything?" Harry's voice came over the comms. It was reassuring, knowing he'd be waiting for her when they arrived at the venue.
"I don't see him," Adam replied. In the background she could hear people talking and laughing. Ordinary people drinking coffee and eating cake with no idea the prime minister was about to be assassinated. "But if he's been planning this for a while he could be staff. I'm going to check."
It was a worry that Adam hadn't found him. But Ruth was confident he could talk his way into anywhere. However, they were only round the corner from the venue. What if Adam didn't find L on time? She wanted to tell him to hurry up, but distracting him wouldn't help.
There was still no word when Zaf pulled up a minute later. The venue was set back from the road and there was a long walk from the car to the entrance.
"Stay there," Zaf said, as he got out.
It was an armoured car; Ruth had no intention of going anywhere until she had to. There were people around, who had no idea they could be in danger. It was possible L could be a mass shooter and the assassination story was a cover. But they hadn't been able to clear the area completely without letting him know they were onto him and therefore losing the opportunity to catch him.
She jumped as Zaf opened the door. Harry stood behind him. "Adam?" he asked over the comm.
"Still looking," Adam replied, out of breath. He must be searching the whole shop.
"We can't wait," Harry said.
"Perhaps I'm still preparing my speech," Ruth said desperately. Anything to stay in the car, despite the lack of papers or pens in there.
Harry smiled at her. "Zaf, go and help Adam."
Zaf ran off to Waterstones. Ruth hoped L wouldn't notice and get too suspicious, allowing Adam and Zaf to could catch him. Or alternatively she hoped he would get suspicious and pack up his rifle and not shoot anyone.
Harry stepped closer and held out a hand. "Come on, Prime Minister."
Ruth smiled nervously and took his hand. As she stepped out he manoeuvred himself between her and the bookshop. But if the assassin was on the sixth floor that wouldn't make any difference.
She wanted to tell him about the wig, that he wouldn't need to worry, but her throat had closed up and she couldn't speak.
They'd only taken a step from the car when Harry cried out and fell against the door. She caught him as she heard Adam in her ear.
"I've got him. Ruth, are you all right?"
"I'm fine. But Harry's shot," she said desperately. Although she couldn't see any blood.
"I'm fine." He found his feet again and took more of his weight, but still kept hold of her. "I'm wearing a bulletproof vest."
She let out a sigh of relief, but didn't let go.
Ruth spent her time getting changed, wanting to appear calm in front of everyone else on the grid. She'd kept it together on the way back, then ended up having a crying fit in the toilets. Fortunately it was late and there was no one else in there. She'd checked before breaking down.
Walking back to her desk, head held high, she spotted Adam and Zaf in Harry's office. After dumping her clothes and wig she joined them.
"A home-grown looney," Harry was saying, with his usual lack of political correctness, as she entered.
Zaf nodded. "Wouldn't stop talking about Lee Harvey Oswald."
Adam glanced over at her with a questioning expression and she smiled. Everything was fine. She was fine.
"He's confessed?" she asked.
"We couldn't shut him up." Adam gave a small smile. Perhaps because that had made his job easier and he was free to check on Fiona. "Convinced he's going to be famous for shooting the prime minister. I almost didn't have the heart to tell him he missed and hit Harry instead."
She smiled, although it was tinged with a bit of leftover panic. It could have been her. Or Harry could have been hit somewhere unprotected. But she'd already gone through all these what-ifs in the toilets. Harry's office wasn't the place to do it again.
When Adam and Zaf left she stayed and stepped closer to Harry's desk. "Harry, why were you wearing a bulletproof vest?"
He leaned back in his chair. "It was a dangerous place to be with a sniper waiting for someone getting out of a car." He spoke about it as if it was an everyday problem. But it wasn't. Not for her.
Given the position he'd stood in, coupled with the fact that he'd been wearing a bulletproof vest, it suggested he intended to get shot. Not that she could prove it and she was sure he'd lie if she asked him.
"Was there something else?" he asked and she realised she'd been staring at him.
"No," she lied, and left. She knew he wasn't going to give her any other answer. And he knew she wasn't going to make him. That was how things worked between them. Had always worked. Maybe always would work.
Notes: The British Theatre awards dinner is an event Jim Hacker is invited to in Yes, Prime Minister.