“Let’s get this over with,” Gareth Mallory said to his driver, resigning himself to yet another meeting at Whitehall.
The door opened and Q got in.
Mallory stared at him. The driver stared at Q in the rearview mirror. The boffin primly clicked the seatbelt into place and put his messenger bag on the floorboard by his feet.
“That door was locked,” the driver said.
“Was it?” asked Q, vaguely. “Morning. I hope you don’t mind that I’m coming with you today.”
“Are you invited?” asked Mallory. It was hard enough to get the boffin to attend department head meetings, after all. He didn’t just go about volunteering to spend hours in the presence of politicians with skewed ideas about the way the intelligence service works.
“I am not invited. I am gatecrashing.” His smile was hard and grim.
Mallory knew enough to not ask questions. He’d seen that look before, and it usually meant trouble was on the way and Q was preparing to handle it with a scorched earth strategy.
“Let’s go, or we’ll be late,” Mallory said to the driver.
Once they were moving, Q was quiet. For Mallory, the meeting was an annoyance, but Q seemed to be preparing to beard a lion in his den.
There was something fundamentally unsettling about Q. It wasn’t anything one could put a finger on, exactly. The Quartermaster was was perfectly polite and generally quite amiable. He had a waiflike appearance that made the secretarial pool gooey-eyed, his minions revered him with a mix of fear and awe, and the Double-Ohs adored the ground he walked on because he always brought them home, alive or dead. Mallory knew he had cats and a mortgage and laughed awkwardly at his own jokes. Aside from workaholic tendencies, he seemed enviably well-adjusted.
Nevertheless, there was something in those sharp green eyes that seemed to cut directly to the soul, past all the bullshit and self-delusions and lies people tell. He had a gift for stillness that spoke to the hindbrain, even as he smiled at you and commented off-handedly that a storm was coming. He was always right.
Mallory never really got the phrase “wolf in sheep’s clothing” until he started watching and getting to know the Quartermaster. Q deliberately made himself innocuous, but there was still something about him that made Mallory think of something large and scary, with fangs and claws that could rip a soul to pieces if it felt so inclined. He was a good match for James Bond, who was the opposite. Bond wore his deadliness like a suit of armor. The knight and the dragon.
God help them if Q ever went wrong, Mallory thought, followed by: God would probably walk away and leave them all to their fates should Q and Bond decide to go rogue together.
Q was, in a word, terrifying. And Mallory did love inflicting him on politicians.
With Q’s help, M—the ghost of the previous M—had warned him about merging MI5 and MI6. Back then, the merger was little more than a rumor, but now the rumors had solidified to an actual plan. They wanted to get rid of the Double-Oh division, reorganize Q-Branch, and had ideas about surveillance that seemed to be drawn directly from an even more nightmarish version of 1984.
Mallory threw every advantage, political strategy, and argument he had to keep the agencies separate and to keep the Double-Ohs, but it was a game he was slowly lowing. At every turn, he seemed to be countered by Max Denbigh, who inexplicably always seemed to have friends in higher places and with deeper pockets.
“Mallory,” said the man in question, as soon as they were in the boardroom. “Always good to see you.”
Mallory shook hands and resisted the impulse to wipe his hand on his trousers afterward.
“And you brought your Quartermaster, too.” Denbigh’s face arranged itself into an expression of delight that didn’t fit quite right. “I’ve heard such magical things about you,” he said.
“Enchanted,” Q said in soft tones that were decidedly not enchanted. It was the politest snub Q had in his arsenal.
Mallory felt the temperature of the room go icy, but a cold sweat started at the back of his neck and between his shoulder blades. The air seemed to shimmer a little, which made absolutely no sense in Mallory’s ordered little world. He had the sickening thought that he was looking at mirror images. Visually, the willowy Quartermaster in his blue plaid suit and the shorter Denbigh in his tailored Westwood were dissimilar in style and taste. But Mallory felt like the core of them was the same and had the sickening thought: were there two of them?
He took Q’s unique abilities for granted as something rare and a boon that only MI6 had, even if only Bond and Mallory knew about it. Sometimes he convinced himself that what he knew about Q was just a fever dream brought on by stress and bad prawns.
But it wasn’t, and if what Mallory suspected was true, they were in some deep shit.
The boardroom filled around them as Q and Denbigh regarded each other unblinking with bladed smiles, two cobras rearing from their wicker baskets with hoods flared and swaying to a tune only they heard and really didn’t like.
The two men locked eyes and shook hands, gritting their teeth all the while.
“It was good of you to come,” Denbigh told Q. “I’ve been just dying to meet you.”
“I’m sure,” Q said. “I thought it was time to put a face to a name, as well.”
Denbigh grinned with too many teeth. “Well, now that we have seen each other, said the unicorn, if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.”
Q leaned in with his own sharklike grin and lowered his voice. “Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
Denbigh reared back in affected surprise. “Just so,” he said, softly. “I expect nothing less.”
Mallory had a hard time concentrating on the meeting. He was too busy feeling like the spacious boardroom with its view of London was cramped with the combined presence of Q and Denbigh. The two men took up chairs exactly opposite of each other, faces arranged in masks. Q’s supposed pleasantness ended at his eyes, which were almost preternaturally emerald green and predatory. When he looked directly at someone, they never held his gaze. For his part, Denbigh’s smile was stilted, and his own eyes were so black Mallory barely saw any white around the irises.
The other attendees fidgeted, snappish and unable to settle down completely to the business at hand, no matter how Denbigh cajoled and tried to pull them together.
The meeting was about the new building under construction that they were supposed to move into after the merger. The whole meeting was supposed to go for three hours but it wrapped up in half the time. Practically nothing was accomplished.
“Do come back sometime, Q,” Denbigh said as he walked them out.
“Oh, we will meet again, I’m sure of it,” Q said. It sounded like a threat and a promise.
They walked back to the car in silence. When they were inside, Q pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at his nose. He tipped his head back. When he pulled the handkerchief away to look at it, Mallory saw bright red. Q put it back to his nose and sighed.
His nose stopped bleeding halfway back to Headquarters, but he still looked pale.
“You made a powerful enemy today, Q,” Mallory said.
“We were already enemies. Now we’ve just shook on it and made it official.”
“Was that wise?”
“It was inevitable. At least this was on my terms. I don’t want that creature or any of his minions anywhere near my Branch. What they’re proposing is nothing short of an Orwellian hellscape, and even I have my limits.”
“Might not be able to stop him.”
“Watch me,” Q said.
Mallory huffed a laugh. “Bond is a bad influence,” he said.
“He certainly likes to think so,” said Q.
Later, Mallory was not surprised to hear that Q ordered his entire branch to the underground digs beneath the Thames, as far away from prying eyes as he could get. It should have infuriated him, that Q would arbitrarily decide to relocate his branch and multiple departments without permission, but instead Mallory just got a sinking feeling that he was looking at a strategic chess move on a larger playing board than just MI6 and Mallory’s authority.