Tweed was dining with a beautiful and very frightened woman. As he cut into his Dover sole he glanced across their table. Her thick blonde hair fell to her bare shoulders. Only her slim arms were exposed by her expensive close-fitting purple dress. Tweed, picking up his glass of wine, held it without drinking.
'You strike me as a lady in need of protection,' he probed. 'Something – somebody – is disturbing you. I gathered from Bob Newman you wanted to meet me to seek advice.'
'As Deputy Director of the SIS – and once a top detective at Old Scotland Yard – your advice is why we are here. I am very worried about the attentions of a very powerful man.'
'I don't feel I can reveal that yet. I could be wrong.'
'Which gets us nowhere.'
Tweed glanced round Mungano's, the most fashionable restaurant in London, checking on the other diners. The place was almost full; it was an octagon-shaped room overlooking the Thames. Tweed had asked for a quiet table, and they were seated in a corner away from the babble of voices, the clinking of glasses.
Mungano's, named after the proprietor, had only been open for five months, and already you had to be known to secure a table, or book one weeks in advance. Waiters were in the majority, but Mungano had recently brought in waitresses, smartly clad in evening dress. No uniforms.
'I have to think it over,' Viola explained. 'I do hope you don't think I'm wasting your time.'
'Hardly, when I have the pleasure of dining with such a very attractive woman.'
Tweed smiled, raised his glass to hers, studied her as they drank. In her early forties, Viola had an almost perfectly shaped bone structure. Below her blonde eyebrows were large blue eyes, a Roman nose, sensuous lips, a chin which expressed character. Her voice was soft and appealing. Tweed recalled how this meeting had come about that morning, in his office at SIS headquarters on the first floor of an old building in Park Crescent.
'Got a favour to ask you,' Bob Newman, a key member of his SIS team, had suggested the moment Tweed settled behind his desk.
'It had better be worthwhile,' Tweed said abruptly.
'Someone I know slightly may have information about the Cabal. She's a beauty, Viola Vander-Browne. You may have heard of her.'
'She's very well educated. Roedean and all that. But not one of your society types who can't talk about anything but fashion and the latest boyfriend.'
The Cabal. The two words summed up the greatest crisis Tweed had ever faced in his career. Three men, all junior ministers, the driving force behind a new plan to merge the SIS, MIS, the police and the coastguards into one security force – to be known as State Security.
The very words sent shivers down Tweed's spine. He had already expressed his unreserved opposition to the idea. It was a giant step towards turning Britain into a police state.
'How does this Viola Vander-Browne come into the picture?' he demanded.
'I gather she knows one of the Cabal. No idea which one. She wants to talk to you. I couldn't get a word out of her – she insists on seeing the top man. You.'
'I'm not sure this is a good idea,' Tweed responded.
'She's an acquaintance of mine…' Newman began.
'His new word for a girlfriend,' teased Paula Grey, who was seated in a corner behind her word-processor. Paula was Tweed's top assistant and a forceful member of the SIS team. An attractive brunette with dark glossy hair which fell to her shoulders, she was the closest of anyone to Tweed, who admired her brilliance.
Newman, almost six feet tall, with a strong face which appealed to women, was in his early forties. Dark haired, he smiled a lot, and he responded to Paula's remark with a gentle punch to her shoulder. She reacted instantly with a clenched fist which hammered hard into his.
'As I was saying,' Newman went on, addressing Tweed, 'Viola has a flat in Fox Street off Covent Garden. She's well off, with a legacy left her when her parents were killed in a car crash. But sometimes she likes to add to her income.' He paused.
'How?' demanded Tweed.
'Don't get the wrong impression, but occasionally she'll have a wealthy man in her flat for the night. She's so good at the feminine arts she charges her visitor twenty thousand pounds. I gather they're happy to pay.'
'I see,' Paula remarked, 'she's a high-class call girl.'
'She isn't!' Newman snapped, turning on Paula. 'You really are very Victorian.'
'You know I'm not,' Paula snapped back. 'I adapt to the circumstances. I could throw this word-processor at you.'
'That's enough, both of you,' Tweed barked. 'Any more data on Viola, Bob? You suspect one of her men friends belongs to the Cabal? Is that it?'
'I'm not sure. But she does want to see you to tell you something. I knew you'd think it was a good idea. I've booked a discreet table for the two of you at Mungano's, your new favourite restaurant.'
'Without consulting me. All right, you had to act on the spur of the moment. What time this evening?'
'Seven o'clock. She likes to get to bed early. I only got the table when I mentioned your name to Mungano himself.'
'All right,' Tweed agreed brusquely.
He had no idea he had committed himself to one of the most horrific episodes of his life.
Newman's data passed through Tweed's mind as he studied Viola over dessert. He became aware she was studying him. She saw a man with horn-rimmed glasses resting on the bridge of a strong nose, blue eyes she felt could see inside her, a firm mouth half-smiling and a determined jaw. He exuded shrewdness and physical vitality. She thought he was beginning to like her.
'Do you know many people – people who count and have power?' he asked.
'If you're talking about celebrities, as they're stupidly called these days, no. I avoid them like the plague. They are nobodies puffed up by the media. The people I know and mix with are intelligent.'
'Any people of power I might know?' he persisted.
A waitress carrying a tray appeared at their table, placed a glass in front of Tweed, another in front of Viola. 'Yours is a margarita,' she told Tweed, 'and Madame's is champagne. Compliments of the management.'
Then she was gone. Tweed had a glimpse of a tall slim woman in a black dress, black hair coiffed close to her head like a dark helmet. He looked at his drink, then at Viola.
'The last time I drank a margarita a thug tried to shove me out of my window in Lubeck on the Baltic. It opened on to an inner courtyard. It ended up with my throwing the thug out three storeys down on to solid stone.'
He sipped at the drink slowly, absorbing no more than a fifth of it. Something odd about the taste. Viola reached over with a finger, the nail well trimmed and varnished with a delicate pink. She removed a small amount of the salt round the rim, tasted it.
'Salt!' she remarked with surprise.
'It's part of a proper margarita. Ever tasted one? It's very strong unless you're used to drinking.'
'I would have asked for a sip but I'm driving back to my flat.' She glanced at her watch. 'If you don't mind I'd better get moving. I do hope you're not annoyed that I haven't said much but I feel I'd better think it over. I could be wrong.'
'Wrong about what is frightening you?'
'I'm OK. I'm always nervous when I'm having dinner with someone new for the first time…'