Gladys sat down heavily into her chair.
"Fourteen canisters. Fucking christ." She whispered. It was bad enough the building had been detonated - she thanked her stars for loyal operatives. At least the fact that everyone had been killed before the explosion would be concealed. That was something.
As if the situation weren't bad enough, the Defense Minister had somehow gotten wind of her failure - which meant information was not contained either.
"If you don't have this mess sorted - and I mean fully sorted - in seventy-two hours, I'll expect your resignation." He'd hissed at her. Sanctimonious prig.
It sounded so pleasant, 'I'll expect your resignation', as though they were all just working jobs and she could quit and move to another one at any time. Gladys was not some bright-eyed innocent, fresh from the Academy. She knew damn well spies did not retire - they were retired.
She poured herself two fingers from the small crystal decanter on the white oak side table under the painting of the Queen, and returned to her seat.
She had no choice.
She knew she had no choice, but she was still reluctant. She took the red envelope from her desk, the one that only she could see, and traced her finger over the gold-embossed lettering on the front. TO THE CURRENT DIRECTOR
Her predecessor, bless his heart, had said three words to her as he'd handed her the keys to the office. "Envelope. Top Drawer." He'd been seventy-three at the time, forced to take mandatory retirement. He'd been retired a month later - choked on coconut while on holiday in Barbados.
She'd read the contents of the envelope before, of course. Several times. She'd then had the office swept for bugs and every other sort of technology Q branch knew about. They'd found nothing. The walls were foot-thick reinforced concrete beneath their facade. There were no secret passages, no hidden spaces, no possibility of eavesdropping. Everything written in the letter contained in the envelope was utterly impossible, and Gladys had ignored the thing for nearly a decade.
Now, she had no choice. She needed a miracle.
She cleared her throat and spoke very plainly, if a tad quietly. "I formally request a consultation."
Her own voice spoke back to her from everywhere and nowhere in the room. "P and P Consulting has registered your request. Your Consultant will be with you shortly. Please be advised you will be billed for every second of your Consultant's time."
Gladys felt a cold wave creep over her skin. It wasn't possible. It simply was not possible.
She lifted the glass tumbler from her desk top, but stopped to look at the liquid as it danced in the glass. She put the glass down again quickly before her tremble dropped it for her.
"Good Evening, Director. What would you ask of P and P Consulting?"
There was a woman in her office.
She had shoulder-length, lustrous chestnut hair in loose ringlets, held back from her face in a clip. She wore gold-rimmed sunglasses and a smart black business suit with a crimson blouse beneath. She was not three feet away. Gladys could reach out and touch her. One second she'd been alone, the next 'Good Evening'. Gladys clutched the arms of her chair. Why was it so hard to breathe?
The woman sighed, and without warning, Gladys felt fine again.
"That will be added to your Consultation fee, I'm afraid. The issue, Director?" The woman made a gesture with her hand and something shot up her sleeve.
The issue? Right.
"The factory that blew up this morning manufactured nerve agent and its counteragent for us - very very far off the books. In addition to the thirty-seven people killed, there were eight of our operatives killed - before the building was detonated. One of our operatives has been... quiet for the last week, and there was evidence at the scene that pointed to his operational style. Fourteen canisters of nerve agent are missing, as well as the suspected operative."
"Hm." The woman pursed her lips. "I'll need your 'quiet' operative's name. I can do without it of course, but it will be less expensive for you if you save me that time."
"Dunby. Edgar Dunby." Gladys knew very well she may have just signed the man's death warrant - if he weren't already dead. Better that than the alternative.
"You'll want him or his body, the nerve agent and its counter if available, and any sort of trail that leads backward from him. Was there anything else?" The woman stood calmly, spoke perfunctorily. She appeared a consumate professional - thorough, knowledgeable, and brief.
"That will do nicely, thank you. Anything further can be managed through regular channels." Gladys replied. She had no clue how one woman - one organization even - could get her anything close to that, but the proof was in the pudding, so to speak.
The woman was gone.
She didn't leave, she didn't flicker out like a projection, she was simply there and then not.
Gladys resolved then and there to take a long vacation and drink herself stupid at least once.
Harry kissed her cheek when she arrived back in her seat. "Please tell me that was something fun." His face said he was fed up with listening to German bureaucrats argue amongst themselves.
Hermione pinched his tricep. "As though spending time with your wife isn't?"
"Ow! Spending time with you isn't work, love. It's fun by definition." He winked at her.
"Lucky you're so smooth, Potter. You live to love another day. What's been happening here?" She smirked at his glib recovery.
"Ugh." Harry rolled his eyes. "Nothing. The whole place is warded up tight. Not a gnat could enter without my knowledge, but so far nothing."
"You warded the -"
"The basement, yes. The sub-basements, the sewers. Every possible entry." He grinned at her.
"Smartarse. It's a bloody good job I love that smug grin of yours. You know very well you'd check if our positions were reversed."
"Of course. I even think there's something in the handbook about double-checking with your partner, but I might be mistaken." Harry's grin never wavered.
"Handbook? We have a handbook now? Since when?" She raised her eyebrows at her husband.
Harry smiled and his eyes danced with restrained mirth. "I... may have codified our operating practices into a reference manual..."
Hermione's smile fell, and she beckoned him closer with a finger.
Harry leaned over to hear what she had to say, but instead of words she bit his neck and growled quietly at him. "That is one of the hottest things you have ever said to me." She whispered. "When we get home..." She left her threat open between them.
Harry suppressed a shiver at the feral glint in her eyes, and looked forward to the end of the work day.
"Damn." He said as his expression fell into a puddle of irritated disappointment, and he kissed her quickly. "Takes you to turn something I looked forward to into something annoying and in the way." He winked at her. "Sub-basement two. Take the North stairs and I'll meet you in the middle?"
She nodded back to him, and he Disapparated silently. She followed suit, and appeared in the North stairwell. Down two flights, and she ran into a security checkpoint at the entrance to sub-basement two. Guards patrolled with large automatic rifles drawn, Doberman Pinschers on short leashes at their sides. A halo of security cameras dotted the walls near the ceiling, with overlapping fields of view. It was a tight chokepoint, by muggle standards. She walked through the killing corridor, careful to avoid touching anyone, and entered the data center beyond.
Harry was already in the room. He leaned on a desk next to a data miner and looked her way while he pointed his index finger down at the man's head. She nodded to him, then adjusted the settings on her glasses. Into focus, within the shell of the man who typed at the computer, appeared a shape that they both knew too well. Mundungus.
She shot her wand into her hand and cast Notice-me-Not on Fletcher, followed by Apparation and Portkey wards, then a privacy shell around the three of them. Harry held his breath and indicated she should do the same, then took a small plastic bottle from his suit jacket and spritzed the air in front of Fletcher's face. After a ten count, Harry dropped his Disillusionment and smiled at Mundungus.
Hermione connected to the BND network and revoked his security clearance.
"Nice night for a theft, hey Fletch?" Harry smiled at him.
"Bugger!" Fletcher jumped physically in his chair as he became aware of Harry's presence. Then he looked around nervously. He saw that nobody else in the room paid them any attention, and relaxed just a hair. His upper lip began to bead with sweat.
"Polyjuice, Fletch? Where did you get polyjuice? Tsk tsk, Naughty. You know that's a controlled substance." Harry frowned at the man.
Fletcher flashed Harry a grin. "Not in Amsterda-" He clamped both hands over his mouth. "Bugger!"
"Aw, you've been travelling! It's nice to know you're getting out and meeting new friends, Fletch. I worry you sit in one place for years and years." Harry's smile had an ironic bite to it.
"You - ah - Din't bring the missus, did ya?" Fletcher's eyes darted around the room like spastic rabbits.
"Relax, Fletch. She might be here, she might be with a customer. We do have a Consultancy to run, you know." Harry's joviality dropped and he looked piercingly at Mundungus. "Those were first editions, Fletch. I did warn you."
"Could we keep dis just between us blokes then? Fer old times' sake? Pretty please?"
Harry cocked his head to the side as he thought about it. "Business before personal favors, Fletch. Hand over all your wands, all your info, all your backups, then I'll consider your request. It might help your case if you came along quietly, as well."
Mundungus nodded eagerly as his eyes raced around the room again. He pulled three wands from his person, a small stack of unlabelled CDs, the broken head of a porcelain doll, an empty, rolled up tube of toothpaste, and a small toy black cab with chipped paint and a missing wheel.
"Impressive collection." Harry noted. "Rome, Paris, Geneva." Harry sighed. "I do love the alps in summer."
Hermione smiled at that too, while she remembered how the sun glistened off the sweat on his back as he chopped wood for their tiny cabin in the mountains.
Harry looked into her eyes, then down at Fletcher and back to her. A handoff then. Probably while he went to collect their fee. Fair enough, she owed Fletcher. She nodded.
"Come on then Fletch, you know the drill." Harry stood up straight and put his hand on Mundungus's shoulder, then Disillusioned himself again instead of Disapparating. He smiled and winked at her. She grinned back at him.
Fletcher looked around in surprise as a huge grin slowly spread itself over his face like a tobacco stain. He took one quick, furtive glance around the room, and began to hastily walk toward the door - directly toward her.
She dropped her own Disillusionment.
Fletcher's eyes went wild at the edges when he saw her face, and he backpedaled so quickly he slipped onto his behind and sat there as he stared up at her in abject terror. "Ohbuggerohbuggerohbugger."
She bored her eyes into his. "First. Editions." She growled at him. She shot both her wands into her hands.
Fletcher just closed his eyes and cringed.
She looked at Harry and winked at him as she sent a stunner at Mundungus. His head bounced on the concrete floor.
"You're so hot when you're angry." Harry appeared again in the visible spectrum.
"You were already getting ravaged when we get home, but I appreciate the sentiment." She kissed him as he levitated Mundungus's unconscious form.
"Let's go then, what's next? I want to get it over with and get home." His vivid green eyes told her how much he desired her, and that lit the fire in her belly.
"A trifle for National Domestic. Rogue operative, secret biologicals lab, missing nerve agent. Nothing big."
"Good. We're taking the next week off then. I think it's time we had another conversation about... additional Potters."
The fire in her belly flared and consumed every inch of her. She stepped into him and grabbed his lapels while she searched his eyes. "You mean it?" She breathed.
He nodded. "I do."
Excitement bubbled up through her like sunshine champagne, and a small squeal of joy escaped before she could reign it in. "Get this dung to the BND and collect our fee, I'm going to go take care of National Domestic right now."
Harry grinned at her and cupped her behind in his hand. "I know you're excited love, but be careful, I do need you, you know."
"And I need you, my beautiful man." She kissed him again, and then cancelled the Apparation and Portkey wards. "Merlin help anyone in my way today."
Gladys stepped out of her loo and nearly tripped over an unconscious man. There were five unconscious men on her floor - correction: four unconscious men, one dead man. One of them had a bullethole in his head, caked with dried blood. A small pyramid of steel canisters lay stacked on the floor next to her desk.
Fourteen of them, she counted with a giddy smile.
She sat at her computer and ran searches for their identities - the dead man she knew, he was Edgar Dunby. While she searched for the identities of the others, she received an email from P&P Consulting.
She opened the email, and gasped out loud at the information within. The identities of all five men on her floor - all operatives within Special Branch. Video and audio of the Defense Minister himself as he gave them orders to secure her nerve agent facility. Video of those five agents as they slaughtered the civilian workers inside and framed the evidence to point toward Dunby. Most disturbingly of all, emails from both Military Branch and Special Branch directors to the Defense Minister - orders for him to get rid of her.
It was about her, personally.
Gladys ground her teeth. Thirty-seven innocent people dead because a handful of fat old men felt threatened by her. Eight more highly trained people murdered for doing their jobs.
She read the rest of the email - more evidence to use against those out to get her, as well as an invoice for her 'Consultation'. Her eyes widened as she looked at the numbers, but then she looked at the men on her floor, the canisters, and the clock above the door. It hadn't been two hours.
She pressed a button on her phone.
"Yes Director?" Kensington's voice came through the speaker.
"I have five packages in need of securing in my office, please. Quickly. Quietly."
"Calling the Cleaning Ladies now, ma'am."
"Excellent, thank you Kensington."
She quickly made several copies of everything contained within the email, and secured most of them on CDs for storage in various safe places. Then she authorized payment of the invoice.
She jumped as her voice sounded again from everywhere and nowhere in the room. "Your payment has been received. Thank you for choosing P and P Consulting. Unfortunately, effective immediately, P and P Consulting will be unavailable for consultation until further notice. P and P Consulting regrets any inconvenience this may cause. Have a lovely day."
"Thank you, you as well." Gladys replied. She hoped it wasn't a recording, she'd feel a bit daft if it was. She systematically packed up her essentials and transferred her access from her office desktop to her secure laptop. It was time to disappear for a while. Officially it would be a holiday, but really it would be a working holiday.
She paused to look back at the mess on the floor in her office with a grin.
Best million pounds she'd ever spent.