“Tobia,” the headmaster looked up at the schoolgirl standing in front of his desk. Her school blazer sported a wolf’s head and the grey pleated skirt brushed the top of knees. She looked like an ordinary fourteen, almost fifteen, year old school girl from an expensive private school. Someone had decided that her dark brown hair should be pulled tightly into an unflattering wreath around her head, and her expression was pale and tight. “As you’ve been told, you’ll be staying with us for most of the summer holidays this year. Your father intends to collect you for a few weeks just prior to school resuming but you’ll be with us until mid-January.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Tobia quietly. “My mother was quite clear that I wouldn’t be seeing her this year.”
“Unfortunate,” commented the headmaster drily.
“I believe she didn’t care for being shot, even in simulation or role play,” added Tobia.
“Many people don’t,” agreed the headmaster. “It always feels so personal. If it happens and you survive, it helps not to take it that way. Most people find It easier to decide an appropriate reaction if they can maintain a little distance.”
“At the moment my mother finds it appropriate to keep me at a safe distance,” replied Tobia. “So, what will staying at school for most of the holidays involve, sir?”
He looked at her over non-existent glasses. “It has been decided that you will join Mr Monk on his Greece trip with the final year Savernake boys. No doubt you will find it both culturally enriching and a distraction from your familial issues. Mr Monk is expecting you so you can be brought up to speed on travel documentation and such.”
Tobia clarified, “As soon as I leave here, sir?”
“Definitely,” he confirmed. “Now, that is all I have for you at the moment, but under the circumstances I’m sure we will speak again before you leave for Greece. Please close my door behind you, thank you, Tobia.”
Tobia went straight to Mr Monk’s office and knocked on the door. It was still within the school day so he was using his office next to the staff room rather than the one in Savernake House. She was quite glad that she didn‘t have to run a gauntlet of Savernake students to get to this meeting; a substantial number of them were still being unpleasant about the House Cup incident.
“Come in!” The voice from the other side of the door wasn’t unpleasant, and when she opened the door the man she could see seated behind the desk didn’t look dangerous. “Ah, Tobia. I’ve been expecting you. Please, close the door and take a seat.” His face was relaxed enough today that there were smiles showing around his eyes, and you could almost believe that he was a nice person.
Tobia obeyed the teacher’s instructions, sitting neatly in the chair directly in front of him.
Mr Monk spoke crisply but not coldly. “The headmaster has told you that you are coming on the tour I’m taking to Greece after school ends, but he hasn’t told you that this is an operational trip, using cover identities. Your role will be to carry out a task that the rest of us will be unable to perform due to scheduling issues, and to teach my soon-to-be former students both that they don’t get to pick who they work with and that not everyone they work with will be like them.”
“Will they listen to me, sir?” Tobia couldn’t see any final year Savernake boys paying attention to her in any constructive way.
“You just need to exist, and I’ll beat them up with a clue-by-four if they need it.” He grinned and suddenly the pleasant face topped with ruddy, sandy hair was feral. “As a group they need to realise that they’ve not been living in the ‘real’ world while they’ve been here.”
“As opposed to how I’ve been living, sir?” Tobia knew that was close to the line but she said it anyway.
The feral face disappeared and the smooth, expressionless mask of a face in its place was somehow scarier. “It would be best for everyone if we did not discuss my personal views on certain arrangements within this institution and the influence certain external persons have on their ongoing administration. On this trip we will be travelling as a group from the Varney Manor Experimental School. I will be a history teacher called James Yardley. You will be travelling as Antonia Rizdon – I prefer for first cover identities to have the person’s real given name to make things easier, but Tobia is just too uncommon. I will take you from here to get your travel documentation completed, and, please, can you do something more attractive with your hair?”
“No-one can grab it if it’s like this,” replied Tobia quietly.
“Antonia won’t have that problem,” Mr Monk assured her quietly.
She didn’t. A little over a month later Tonia Rizdon, her brown hair pulled back in a loose ponytail and wearing a promotional tee shirt for the Greek metal band Ο λοιμός, was sitting in an art museum in Thessaloniki doing an Art assignment. Mr Yardley and the boys were spending the day on a peninsula of monasteries where women weren’t allowed, and so Tonia had been left behind with instructions to get her homework done.
In reality, while Mr Monk and the boys were making one contact somewhere on the peninsula or the ferry servicing it, Tobia was waiting for an information drop. Visual codes had been set for Tobia’s contact, hence the tee shirt. She was expecting someone with roses on their hat.
She wasn’t expecting a flash mob with bouzouki, baglamas, guitars and dancing. Most of the sudden arrivals danced with each other or played instruments, but before she realised what was going on Tobia found herself lifted to her feet and spinning around the bench where she’d been sitting in the embrace of a man in a stylish felt hat. When she felt his hand slide into the back pocket of her jeans she gasped in surprise, at which he whispered in her ear, “It’s alright, pretty one. If you were older I’d probably try to get to go to dinner with me, but….” Then he let her go and, backing away for a moment, doffed the hat with the spray of small red roses in its band to her. He turned as he put the hat back on, and walked away as the flash mob began to disburse.
In her back pocket Tobia could feel the lump of a flash drive that she hadn’t had before.
Note: Ο λοιμός means Pestilence in Greek and is not meant to refer to any existing musical group, troop, or company.