“Don't move. No no no no, don't move, this bit is especially delicate . . . fuck.”
Q throws the tweezers down and they bounce off along the table top. Then he leans down to glare meaningfully into the black eye that's gazing vacantly in his direction. “Do you want to lose your foot? Hmm? Because that's what'll happen. Shall we try this again?”
Clive feels like a small bean bag, dry, almost mealy, no weight to him at all. Q holds him as tightly as he dares, then grabs another pair of tweezers, his sharpest needle-nosed ones, before working the jewellers' loop more tightly into his eye socket.
“Stop wriggling. I mean it. Don't think I won't tape you to the table if I need to. And if you so much as consider the notion of shedding your tail on me . . . okay, sliding the scalpel in . . .”
The noose of half-shed skin around Clive's front right foot has tightened since it's dried out, tugging the foot inward until Clive's foot's turned upside down, and no amount of spritzing or tugging's helped him out of it so far. But the tweezers have loosened it enough now that he can start cutting, and one more move of Clive and his flaily little lizard limbs could end up with a severed Clive leg in his lap, which Q's fairly sure would mean he'd have to scream and throw Clive into the air, at which point Newton's law comes into play and things might get messy.
“Hang on, I think we're . . . I'm seeing progress . . . There! Who's the daddy, now? Eh? Yeah. You're impressed, I can tell.”
Even once he's back in his vivarium with a vitamin-dusted cricket and bits of freshly-shed skin to munch on, Clive doesn't move, nursing his curled, useless foot, standing instead on the end of his arm bone in a manner that turns Q's stomach.
“It'll get better now the blood's moving around. Bet you've got a killer case of pins and needles, though.”
He crouches down, his breath misting against the vivarium's glass very briefly before the warmth from Clive's lamp melts it away. “Hey. Come on, mate. You're in one piece, sort of.”
But Clive moves his head by a tiny fraction until he's defiantly not gazing vacantly in Q's direction any longer.
“Sulking won't help. He's not coming back, and giving me the cold shoulder's not going to change that.” He gets up, his knees cracking. “Fucking emo teen. Eat your skin, it's good for you.”
The kettle's boiled, but he's not thirsty, and there's nothing in the fridge that can tempt him after an hour spent plucking at flakes of dried lizard cast-offs. He's reached that level of tiredness, from too many days and too many hours at work, where he's numb, unaware he's forgotten to put his glasses back on until he looks in the bathroom mirror and tries to wipe the lack of focus off his reflection with his hand. So he brushes his teeth, and throws all his clothes over the back of the chair, and pulls on last night's pyjama pants because he always ends up kicking the duvet off in his sleep before waking at three freezing his arse off. Inevitably, these days, he only manages to get to sleep an hour or two before that.
Which is the reason for this. It's his ancient iPod mini, scratched apple green, much bastardised and tinkered-with. It's so old its fourth battery's shot, so it's taking up a permanent spot on his bedside socket strip, surge-protected as if anything short of a direct hit of lightning could damage it. The first few nights, he'd used it to stop himself listening out for a lock-pick in the front door's deadlock, or a window sliding open. The slither of leather against carpet that could be a soft footstep. So he'd crank up his iPod and then open his eyes and hold his breath at any change in the air, anything that told him another person could be standing in the room, recognisable in silhouette due to the ears and the breadth of the shoulders, looking down at him in bed. It hasn't happened, because it isn't going to.
The playlist's officially called 'Blah', and first came into being at school. Each song had once held so much meaning, railing against the null, moronic parasites that peopled his days and raging at every gorgeous bloke who failed to look his way. All of them, in other words. But now the playlist's been internally labelled 'James Bond is a Cunt', and that's how it'll remain. He clicks past Nirvana, Green Day and some Nine Inch Nails, deciding on L7's 'Shitlist' as the start of tonight's lullabies, because listening to over-played nineties alt-rock, being awake, and being angry about it is better than lying there like a total prick, horny and hopeful, waiting in the dark for someone who isn't coming back.
“Fifty? Gosh, that's a lot. I'm impressed you've found the time.”
His tech has the decency to look somewhat embarrassed. “Well, not fifty, maybe, but the tracking issue's not soft. I've been through it with a nit comb. We've got to go back to the hydraulic system.”
“It's not the hardware at fault.”
“I'll go through the code myself. Yes, I know,” Q holds up a hand to ward off the protests, “Nit comb and all that. I'm not saying you've missed anything, but I've got fresh eyes so it's worth a quick look before we go ruffling feathers down in Fabrication. Give Grant a hand with the mapping till I'm finished.”
“Righto, will do.”
“Q? You busy?”
“Little bit. One minute.” He takes the mountable mini-cannon, twiddling the deviant laser-targeting system until it comes loose in his hand. “Don't worry. We'll get this sorted, and everyone will be telling you how brilliant you are by the end of the week.”
“Cheers, boss. Cuppa? I'm heading that way.”
He hmms an affirmative, lifting his head to acknowledge the newcomer. “What now? You broke it, didn't you.”
“Only by the tiniest bit.”
“Again?” This time he's holding his hand out for a paper-thin flexible strip that's capable of wirelessly producing hi-res imaging, something they're hoping to use in surveillance, perhaps coating the inside of sunglasses to re-produce a translucent image from a distant camera. He scoops his hair out of his eyes and inspects it briefly before handing it back. “Is this the smallest we've got to?”
“Down to one-by-three before the casing started to crack and the preset res settings went on the fritz.”
“Instruct Fabrication to increase the plasticizer in the compound by two percent. I'll take a look at the res software when I can, but have another bash at it in the meantime.”
Q's concentrating on the mini-cannon, but becomes aware of a thread of amusement running around his office as he goes to plug it into his work station. The six different people in his office, Moneypenny included as she comes through the door, have stopped whatever they were doing long enough to throw protective arms over their heads as if waiting for an explosion, all watching him with the cable in his hand.
“Ha ha, very clever and, for the last time, it was supposed to have been a secure loop in the network. You're all demoted. You, too.”
“You're not close to being senior enough to demote me.” Moneypenny's coming over to his desk now, ID badge slapping against her hip with the motion of her walk. “Lunch? We've got twenty minutes before the meeting and I'm determined to get some actual, real-life food into you one of these days. You'll lose your girlish figure once and for all if you never remember to eat.”
“Meeting? What meeting? I can't, not possible.”
“Don't tell me you haven't been keeping an eye on your BSRs.”
Oops. Q knows he's been busy, but over an hour's gone past with him barely noticing, and the small 'message received' icon's blinking away completely ignored in the corner of his secondary monitor. “Sh– ugar. What's the meeting? Any chance it's optional?”
“Nope, it's urgent. M's sent me around personally to make sure all department heads attend. You were my last stop. Lunch? Sarnie and a goss?”
He should eat. He poked a second new hole in his belt yesterday, and he's feeling the cold all the time, his joints aching like a thumb pressing into a bruise. But work keeps his head full and that's far more important than his gut. “Tomorrow, I promise. Twenty minutes?”
Moneypenny's has already turned on a spike heel.
“Twenty minutes.” She flashes a wry smile at him back over her shoulder as she moves to open the door. “Real time. Not Q time.”
It's exactly like being called to the headmaster's office, every single time. Q nods apologetically to each of his colleagues in turn as he sidles around the situation room to his chair, although why he should be apologetic he doesn't know as he's actually on time for once. But everyone else looks like they've been there hours, so the effect's the same as if he'd been running late. Padstow's here from Mi5, Douglas from Defence, so whatever's going on must be complicated. Tanner looks worried, his cheeks unnaturally pink under a fresh shave, and M gives Q a polite smile that Q's sure he once saw a shark giving its lunch on a documentary.
“Thank you for joining us. Let's get on with it, shall we?”
Tanner brings forward a file on the whiteboard display at M's nod, and it's like someone's under the table, suddenly grabbing Q by the balls. It's Bond's file, his most recent ID photo staring out at Q in the darkened room, and now he can't breathe. Tanner waits for everyone to concentrate on the image but Q's frozen, unable to move his head or look away from Bond's picture as if he's an insect pinned to a museum's backboard. He's crucified by a pair of eyes staring out at him from a photograph. Fuck.
“We have a situation. Bond's status as an agent of SiS has been suspended, and his licence to kill has been revoked. We've got a rogue, gents. He dropped off the face of the earth two hours ago, approximately seventeen minutes before we moved to take him into custody to await charges over the murder of Marta Zajac.”
Tanner brings her photo up, and still Q can't look away. Not when he sees how beautiful she is, was, nor when the next photo's sickening, her dark blonde hair matted to her face and neck with blood so thick it looks black. “Our intelligence initially indicated that her death was at the hands of the Vincenzo family in retaliation for Andrezj Vincenzo's recent suicide, which our Mr. Bond happened to be in close proximity to. Now ABW's jumping up our collective arse because, apparently, they've got their hands on some cast-iron evidence that pins the Zajac killing firmly on 007.”
“But that's bollocks.”
Q realises he's spoken aloud when they all turn to look at him. M tilts his head and frowns at Q in surprise, as if Q's a puppy that's managed to do something equal parts impressive and unexpected, like shitting on command, maybe. “You have information that contradicts that of our Polish friends?”
“Well, no, but he's one of ours, isn't he?” His hands are shaking. Q feels a slow fury beginning to boil at the base of his gut. “What's the evidence?”
“Enough that we're surrendering 007 without a fight. With the Poles, at any rate. Can't say the same for Bond, whenever we manage to track him down.” Tanner looks like the ulcer's acting up again. Q remembers that he's heard that Tanner and Bond are friends, or were, or something. “We've got 006 leading up our team on this, and Jonty's got, what, an entire division on this one?”
Padstow inclines his head once in confirmation. “Until we're satisfied Bond's out of the country and someone else's problem, yes. This has all gone arse over fucking tit, hasn't it? How in hell's name did Bond find out we were coming for him?”
“Whoever clued him in, trust me, when we find them we'll string them up by their short and curlies then fly them from the nearest flagpole.”
“We're already watching all 007's known associates, airports, docks, the railways and major roads.” It should be a source of satisfaction to Q that Chambers is using his newly-secured tablet to immediately access an update from his team. But it isn't. It's horrible, and infuriating, an acidic burn building in Q's belly. “Nothing to report. Not sure how 007's evading recog so far, but he is. There's a few possibles, but they've all been contradictory or inaccurate.”
“Get 006 prepared. We've agreed he'll make a start in Krakow.”
It takes a few seconds for Q to realise that Tanner's addressing him, and a further two to figure out that they need a bullet with Bond's name on it and that it's his job to provide it. The creeping horror that's warring with anger starts his head buzzing, and he knows he's going to be unavoidably unprofessional before he opens his mouth. “So that's it? We're sending someone after Bond to use lethal force if necessary when we've not examined the evidence for ourselves? We're honestly going to condemn one of our own on someone else's word? Fantastic. Shall I spring for first class tickets, or start polishing the silver platter we're planning to hand Bond's head over to the Poles on?”
Now he's the puppy that shit on the antique rug, everyone looking at him aghast. Again M looks at him as if he's noticing Q's presence for the first time.
“If it were up to us, we'd hand 007 over to the Poles for a fair and legal trial, but he's rather taken that choice from us until we force it.” M's eyes are flinty, inviting no argument, but Q's too furious to start calming down, his fingers flexing themselves in and out of fists beneath the table. “Of course we trust in Bond's innocence, as much as we would any other one of our countrymen until judge and jury decide otherwise, but we have reason enough to believe that 007 is a danger to the public and that he needs to be contained. He was aware of the risks when he chose to run. Care to expand, Doctor?”
M raises his eyebrows at Schiller, the beardy psych Q knows by rumour all the intelligence agents avoid whenever possible.
“Custody's the best support for 007's current level of risk. He's been working through a long period of personal loss and possible addiction issues, and his decision to tackle this new matter of concern outside of agency support is merely one of many indicators that he's becoming increasingly isolated from the outside world –”
“'Matter of concern'? That's what we're calling being framed for murder? This is a fucking farce.”
Q grabs his tablet and phone, clutching them to his torso in an attempt to stop his hands from shaking as he stands up. Tanner's giving him the closest thing to an angry look he's seen Tanner manage, but M's not looking at him at all, instead simply looking blankly ahead at the table in a manner that's more intimidating than a simple glare could be. “I'm sure we'll manage to round off the meeting without Branch Q's further input, if you feel it's time to go get 006 set up.”
His legs are shaking, his hands clammy with a cold sweat that's sticking his shirt to his back. “Fine. Yes, of course. I hope you'll keep my concerns in mind.”
“We share them. Go on, get 006 on the road. I'll update you once we're done here.”
Tanner's tone is as sympathetic as it can be, although Q knows this can't be the end of his outburst and that he'll somehow be taken to task over it at a later date. Perhaps he'll even be fired. He can't find it in himself to care, because the hollow feeling in his chest simply has one name echoing through it. His steps falter and his knees feel like they're going to buckle as he leaves the room and thinks about how alone Bond is, one man against the might of two countries who are sending their best and most deadly after him. If Q needed any proof that he's a complete fucking ninny who's allowed himself to acquire a laughable, utterly redundant emotional attachment to possibly the least suitable candidate in existence, then this is it.
The mini-cannon's waiting for him on his desk. Q moves it aside, working on auto-pilot, his fingers messaging various members of his team with instructions for 006, who must be on his way to the airport already. Then Q grabs his coat from the hook by the door and puts it on, frowning at the zip and how his fingers are trembling, because it's getting cold outside and he'd hate to have to freeze on his way to hand over tickets, radio locator and the weapon that'll probably kill the man he's worried he might be falling in like with.
“Q? Got a minute?”
“Coding.” Fuck off.
Once Q got back into the office and found himself staring at the code for the mini-cannon for half an hour without a single digit of it entering his brain, the decision to go rogue himself, in his own manner, came fairly easily. Of course, he can sell this to himself as something Chambers' whole department will piss themselves with excitement over once it's done and tested, but Q doesn't waste time or effort trying to persuade himself that this is anything other than a. an extreme departure anything that he's supposed to be doing right now, and b. a transparent attempt to play heroics over someone who's unlikely to be in need of his rescue.
Information starts pouring in fast, the petabyte of processing power he's allocated struggling to cope with the amount of data it's receiving before he's halfway down the pack of bourbons or a third of the way into the data-mining algorithm he needs to complete the analysis process. It's a tweak of something a little less complex he created at university, but it's as fresh in his head as if he'd last been working on it yesterday, and Q finds that he's smiling to himself as he builds it neatly block by block.
Q starts, and wipes out twenty lines of highlighted code as his fingers twitch on the touch pad. “Oh, bugg– you startled me. Sir.”
M's doing that thing again. Shirtsleeves, a cup of tea, taking a stroll around the offices like he's a man of the people and interested in what his foot soldiers are up to. He's standing half a metre behind Q's shoulder, looking at the monitors one by one, and Q resists the urge to guiltily minimise his work. He's not doing anything actually wrong. He thinks. M nods at the primary monitor, raising his eyebrows in question.
“You looked happy with how things were going. Is this the mini-cannon?”
“Um, no. Not exactly.”
“So what am I looking at?”
“It's a new, uh . . .” Q knew before he ever got to SiS that he'd never make it as a spy, but the work itself makes him more sure of this every day. Plus he's so horrible at lying, so he doesn't try. “The meeting about 007 gave me an idea for a new manner of cross-referencing available information in order to assist with the location of missing individuals. It's a tool to give pointers, not an actual tracking method.”
“Uhm-hm. Right.” M slurps his tea, which Q knows from Moneypenny has six heaped sugars in it. Blugh. “Does it work?”
“It's not quite finished.”
“And when it is finished . . . ?”
Q blinks at M, thoroughly intimidated, although there's nothing he can put his finger on about M's current informal manner that should be making him feel like he's being stalked by something getting ready to take a bite.
“Tanner said 007's dropped off the face of the earth, and Chambers reported that he's managing to avoid facial recog. I thought that, in cases such as this, it would be useful to have a method of filtering through other information streams to provide us with likely locations that we're then able to investigate further. So, here,” He brings the data-mining stream up, indicating one part of it, “I'm sifting through passengers embarking on both flights and trains to central and eastern Europe that match Bond's height, age, ethnicity, and so forth. Beyond that, other factors come into play, the location of Zajac family members, known Vincenzo operations and accomplices, and ABW field offices, in this instance. We've had to complete this type of search manually up till now, and this will be more efficient. 006 is heading to Krakow, but there are so many variables involved that it's difficult to have any accurate idea of where 007's headed, if we've got no other intelligence. This will help us lift the fog somewhat.”
“Hm. Interesting.” M's smile is so chilly that Q feels his cock shrivel and try to creep up inside him. “Theoretically speaking, could an analyst use this to complete a search on Bond in order to track him down, in case that officer intended to provide a missing agent with in-the-field support?”
“. . . Yes?” It's as if they're trying to hold a conversation in a language Q's never spoken before, something in M's tone indicating that there's subtext involved Q should be aware of, but far too subtle for him to make any sense of.
“But it's not finished.”
“ . . . No.”
“That's a shame. I'm certain 006 would've been interested in its results. Keep at it, I'll want to have a look at the finished product.”
“Uh, yes, of course. Listen, sir, while you're here, I feel that perhaps I should apologise for my outburst during the meeting –”
“We all have our off days.” A fatherly hand lands on his shoulder and Q feels his spine straighten in discomfort, because M is absolutely not known as a touchy-feely sort. “It's difficult, when loved ones are missed.”
. . . What? Now Q's spine is now producing sub-zero shivers that run from the nape of his neck down to his balls and all the way down into his toes. He swears the air's grown thicker in his office, his face beginning to heat as his mind races ahead, trying to decide whether M has any idea about Q and Bond, or if Bond's said anything, or if Bond's been noticed entering Q's flat, which would be pretty piss poor on Bond's part considering he's a fucking covert operative –
“This can be a stressful environment, and I understand stress is something we all need to be more sensitive to these days. We must protect our more talented section heads from premature burn-out. You should take some time off, go visit your family. A few days, a week . . . whatever it takes.”
“Yes.” M's eyes don't flicker, twin boreholes drilled through solid ice. “Your missed loved ones.”
This is what the Twilight Zone must feel like. Is M saying . . . does M know . . . ? Q's too used to being the smartest person in the room. Being around M, either of them, has always made Q aware that he's only smart enough to understand he's not half as much of a clever dick as he'd like to be.
“Well, I must let you get on. Let Tanner know if you're planning on disappearing for awhile, but get this finished first, hmm?”
“Yes, sir. Thank you.”
He says it at M's retreating back, and is left staring into his empty office, replaying their conversation in his head and trying to figure out if there's any way he can possibly be wrong, and that M doesn't know he's been sleeping with the man they're currently hunting over murder charges.
“Enough's enough.” Moneypenny bursts into Q's office about eighteen hours later, wearing an eye-popping red skirt that manages to draw his attention away from his monitors for the first time all day. “Here.”
She holds out two triangular cardboard sandwich boxes, waggling them under his nose. “Ham salad or beef and mustard. Man cannot live by biscuit alone.”
She perches on his work top with her sandwich, then rolls her eyes and sighs, lifting one bum cheek when he fusses over the print-outs she's sitting on. “It's paper. I can't squash it.”
“I need access to that data.”
“You need to take a break.” She wrinkles her nose around a bite of sandwich, chewing thoughtfully before swallowing. “And a shower. You smell like you're composed solely of armpit.”
“I do not.” Q takes a sniff at himself, just in case, then a sniff of the sandwich. “It's this. Why are you trying to poison me? And you could be a little more subtle about it.”
“If I wanted to poison you, I'd put it in your tea. Only way to be sure.”
But she's lost his attention because another set's finished, the results refreshing themselves automatically. Q grabs the print-out and starts comparing the two sets, sandwich lying forgotten against the corner of his keyboard. “You'd better get your back-patting hand ready.”
“I am so fucking good at my job. Usually,” He adds as Moneypenny fake-coughs 'Silva!' into her sandwich beside him.
“Did you find our missing friend?”
“I've narrowed down likely locations, and Krakow's nowhere near the top of the list. Neither is Warsaw, and 006 was heading there next.”
“Okay.” Q notes that Eve's climbed down off the worktop, has come to stand behind him and, until she speaks, he'd honestly thought she was only here to bug him into eating. “You need to listen to me and pay attention to everything that I'm not saying.”
“Oh, God, not you too. I'm rubbish at Charades. Just tell me.”
Her hands are on his shoulders as she reads over one of them, her breath teasing the hair on the side of his neck. “As directly as I'm able to be – M told you to take a holiday, and has asked that I remind you. I've heard that Gdansk is lovely in the winter.”
“. . . Is it?”
She turns him around to look at her, her eyes warm, tilting up at the corners where she's smiling very slightly, her fingers smoothing down his tie. “Yes. The old town's beautiful with a dusting of snow. You should go. Right now.”
“But I need to go over –”
She grabs his hand where he'd half-turned to indicate the new data, and she gives it a squeeze, her eyes widening slightly in emphasis. “It can wait, you look exhausted. You must take a break. Immediately. I've heard that Gdansk has some lovely revitalising spas.”
“Gdansk?” Q seems to recall that there's something in his contract about providing occasional field support when the need arises, but he's fairly sure that support doesn't extend to persons who have had their agency licences revoked. “You're sending me to Gdansk for a 'rest'?”
Moneypenny gives him a firm nod, then moves to stand in front of his work station as she begins to methodically close out each and every process involved in the new formula. “Gdansk. Send us a postcard when you've got a sec, won't you?”
Q gets the cab driver to drop him off at one of them, the one closest to the Vincenzo family's offices, although he can't see 007 staying in a small, dull room like the one he's checked into. He stashes as much of the tech he's brought with him in the room's one tiny safe, hiding the rest in the curtain tops, which are dusty enough to reassure him they're unlikely to be checked any time soon. A small camera to record any intrusions into his room is clipped to the bedside lampshade, hidden within its folds. The bed's too firm but inviting after almost two full days' non-stop work in the office, then the bother of a flight, customs, the cab driver who Q suspects spoke better English than he let on. Q's so tired his heart's slightly arrhythmic, but the drive to find Bond and . . . well, do something, he's not yet sure what, is too strong for Q to consider a nap for more than a fleeting moment.
“Right. What now?”
The frisky November wind's threatening to whisk the map out of his hands and, momentarily, Q thinks about letting it happen. He's not intelligence, nor is he the slightest bit capable of covert anything, but the paper map's an effort to look like a lost tourist so he clings on to it and starts walking towards the seafront, even though there's a bloody great port directly in the way. Maybe he'll be able to persuade anyone suspicious that he was looking for a beach.
“Fucking tits, stupid sodding thing.” He pulls the map down from where it's wrapped itself around his face, then looks back and forth along the streets so he can familiarise himself with the layout. “Where are you? I warn you, I've saved up some particularly harsh words if I manage to figure out where the hell you are any time soon . . .”
The Vincenzos are down this way, a fifteen minute walk, but what Q's been privately calling his 'Where's Bondy' program pointed him towards an intersection between them and the local ABW offices, which anyone outside of Polish central government aren't strictly supposed to know about. Not that he suspects that the Polish equivalent of Mi6 is corrupt or engaged in murderous activities with one of Europe's largest crime syndications, but he's seen enough during his time in SiS to understand that intelligence agencies tend to treat international law as little more than inconvenient, ignorable guidelines. They'll have information that they're not supposed to have, including intel on the Zajac killing that they're not shared with the UK.
007's likely to be sniffing around there and at the Vincenzos, and he's probably working or worked his way up to a shag with Marta's ex sister-in-law, who only lives up the road, not far from a small cluster of Zajac cousins, all of them port workers. All of them probably in the pocket of the Vincenzos. It's too knotty and intricately bound, and Q's head starts to hurt as the clouds draw in and he starts to walk. The wind's freezing, a north-easterly coming straight off Siberia, so Q stashes his map and zips his coat to his chin, the tips of his ears starting to burn with cold.
Once he's made his way to the intersection, which is composed of warehouses that look built for disappearing people into for good, Q can't find any local hotels, B&Bs, or anything similar. Nowhere for Bond to stay, if he's been sleeping at all. Only a quick google on his phone of the text on a peeling, yellowed notice in a window of one of the few private residences tucked away here and there gives Q a phone number for possible lodgings, and only now it's ringing does Q remember that he's in Poland, that he doesn't speak a single word of Polish, that he didn't bring a phrasebook with him because he'd usually use his phone, and that he can't use his phone to look up phrases to do with lodging or possibly locating foreign spies because he's actually using it as a phone for the first time in ages.
“Dzien?” It's a man's voice, terse like Q's interrupting him.
“Oh, hullo, yes, I don't suppose you speak English? At all?”
“No, English English.” Because gibberish is going to help. “I'm British English. Not American, but it doesn't really make a difference . . . Do you speak any?”
“Eh, tylko troche. L'il bit. What you like?”
“What do I want? I'm standing at, uh,” Q mangles the street name spectacularly, taking a few tries to get all the consonants in the correct order. “There's a notice in a window about lodging?”
“I say that yes, good. I know this place.”
“Do you have any rooms available? Short-term, just a few days.”
“I'm sorry, I don't speak –”
“I say, why you need it for?”
“To sleep in. It's lodging rooms? Kitchen, bathroom . . . ?”
“Oh, I see, yes. Do you, uh, rent many rooms to English businessmen? Recently?” Subtle. Q smacks his forehead and rolls his eyes at himself, earning himself an odd look from a woman in very tight jeans and a puffa jacket passing him by on the pavement.
“I will meet you here tomorrow, ten clock. Yes?”
“Is not much past four in the afternoon, actually.”
“Is late. Tomorrow, I will be here. You pay in euro.”
“Nie. euro, two hundred, one week. In advance.”
Thank God the Poles have got tea right. It's strong, so well stewed that Q can feel the tannins coating his teeth. He should probably be in a bar now the sun's gone down as he's unlikely to pick up much if any information in a tiny cafe that's empty other than him. But the call of the familiar was too strong, and he's on his third cup already.
007 would probably start in a bar, as there's a distinct lack of anything resembling a casino or five-star resort around here. The cafe owner speaks as much English as Q does Polish, and between them all they manage to do is practise their mime skills and get a bowl of spicy tomato soup and some bread into Q's stomach. Then he gives up for the night, deciding that an evening tucked up in bed working on his laptop's more likely to get results than any more fumbling attempts at interrogating locals.
He stands at the window after a shower, one towel draped over his shoulders and another around his waist as he watches a few snowflakes flurry outside his room, immediately disappearing into the night. Bond's here. Q's sure of it. It's not simply faith in his programming skills, although that'd be reason enough. It's more that the tug towards Bond is stronger now he's in the same city, his physical body bound up in the pull of Bond's gravitational field. The closer Q gets, the harder he's drawn, and he's sure as he looks out at the blinking lights of the industrial quarter that Bond's near, that he's alive and on the job.
“Where are you? I don't know how to do this.” He rests the back of his hand and his knuckles against the window's glass, feeling how cold it is even with the double glazing, his reflection staring back at him out of the darkness with black, pupil-less eyes. “I don't know how to find you. Where do I look?”
It doesn't make any difference how exhausted he is, or how comfortable he can manage to get in bed, pyjamas twisted around him from where he keeps shifting position, flipping his pillow to get to the cool side as the hotel room's too stuffy and the windows don't open. He can't sleep, and he knows he's waiting again like he was at home, to hear a footstep outside his door, or the door handle opening, a creak of a floorboard as Bond sneaks into his room and into his bed, shedding clothes as he goes. But Bond never comes because nobody knows Q's here, not officially, and Q finally drifts off around three, hugging the only spare pillow to his chest and cursing himself for forgetting to bring the old, crappy iPod and its 'James Bond is a Cunt' playlist with him.
“Seems a bit steep.” Q examines the key on its incongruous Las Vegas poker chip keyring, and it's for a regular barrel lock, nothing fancy.
“Is security key.”
“No, it isn't.”
“Yes. One hundred.” Q's new landlord folds his arms across his chest, drawing himself up to the full two inches in height he's got over Q. “You lose, all locks need replace.”
“Rubbish. I'll pick you up a copy for a few zloty if I remember.”
“Nie, is security coded.”
“Honestly, Marek, it isn't. It's a bloody Yale.”
“One hundred. You sign.”
“Daylight robbery, that's what this is.” Q signs again next to what he's trusting is the replacement key clause on the barely-legible photocopy of a Polish renter's agreement, then hands the pen and the copy back to Marek, who folds it up and tucks it inside the sports vest he's wearing under a Nike hoodie. “Don't you want to charge me in advance for the air I'm going to be breathing?”
Marek grins, his teeth yellow with nicotine, but Q's prick throbs at the smile anyway, because Marek looks exactly like all the eastern European boys Q's ever watched in porn, gaunt cheeks and hollow-eyed, pale skin with a grey pallor, and a wide, rubbery mouth that looks like it knows its way around a blowie. “Is good sea air. You have the good business, and I will be here at Friday.”
“But you'll bring the copy of the rental agreement over with you tomorrow? I need the receipt.”
“Yes, I will do this.”
“It's important you remember. Put it under the door if I'm not here.”
“I will do this. Why you not trusting me?”
Marek's definitely flirting, the smile getting wider, his shoulder butting up against Q's as Q turns him and starts to push him towards the door, but God only knows what Marek would charge for a shag if he's happy to crowbar hundreds out of unsuspecting foreigners for a five-quid key.
“I'm mistrustful by nature. It's a personal failing of mine.” A quick shove, and Marek's out of the apartment door. “Thank you, and don't forget my receipt.”
“Tomorrow. You have number if you need . . .” Marek's smile turns intimate as he licks his bottom lip. “Anything.”
“I won't. 'Bye.”
Q firmly shuts the door in Marek's grinning face, then leans back against it, surveying his new room. The sight's pretty grim. It hasn't been decorated since the eighties, and is a symphony of grey and red stripe, the armchairs covered in dusty blue with a green and orange diagonal check. The laminate on the shelves is peeling, and they're so dust covered that the tracks of some unidentified insect, cockroach, Q thinks, from the width and rate of the tracks, are scored through it like a miniature snowplough's been through. The bed itself, though, is comfy enough, if sagging, and the sheets look clean enough. The floor creaks under Q's feet as he looks out of the smeary window over the kitchen unit's sink, in what just about qualifies as a kitchen if he draws a thin polyester curtain in a dingy brown across on its track, separating it from the rest of the bedroom.
“The glamour of international espionage.” He runs the hot tap, pleased to see that steaming water appears after only a minute or two of freezing cold. “Yep. Totally worth leaving the private sector for. Who needs conference centres with heated pools and a choice of internationally-themed dining options, anyway?”
It takes him the rest of the morning to transfer from his Holiday Inn and set up here. There's no safe, but the building's quiet enough that he decides he can risk replacing the lock with the digital one he brought with him, although the door frame's made of some softwood similar to balsa, and a swift kick from a five year old's probably enough to take the door off its hinges. But the location can't be much improved. He can see the front door of the Vincenzo shipping headquarters from the living area window, and he leans out, attaching a tiny camera to the brickwork around the window with some malleable putty.
Another camera outside the kitchen sink window watches along the length of the street leading to the ABW offices that he's not supposed to know about, and Q shrugs out of his coat to pull a chair into the hallway so he's also able to place cameras to record what's going on in this building. From the postage slots next to the front door, there's five other studios in the house, and the place has been kept warm enough that at least one other one has to be in use. He keeps his mind on the job at hand, refusing to let it stray into thoughts of who might be behind the other doors, or if Bond's walked down this street, or looked up into these windows, or walked down the hallway and past the flat's entrance.
“Let's have a look, then. Shit. Buggering snow.”
It takes leaning out of the living area window at a more precarious angle to lodge the camera in a more guarded position beneath the eaves, as the snow's coming down more thickly now and keeps coating the camera lens. Two tries later, and Q's bringing the Vincenzo HQ into focus, setting the camera to record on any visible activity, which will probably mean he'll get several days' worth of footage of swirling snowflakes by the end of the week. The interior cameras are a simple enough job, and the kitchen street cam only takes one reposition to keep it snow-free enough to display a lone figure walking down the length of the street, too far away for Q to make out any distinguishing features, only the width of the shoulders making the gender of the figure apparent.
But he knows, instantly. The small pan of water on one of the two electric rings in the kitchen area starts to bubble, waiting for Q to turn it off and pour it into the waiting mug, the Earl Grey a Twinings bag he's brought from home. It's ignored, the figure on the monitor of Q's laptop hunched into a black docker's jacket against the cold, head covered with a hat, which has ear flaps that cover half the man's jaw as he comes more into view. The lower half of his face is further obscured by a woollen scarf, the peak of the hat tugged low over eyes that, even at this distance, Q knows will echo the colour of the frost curling at the bottom of the flat's windows. Nobody else in the world walks like that, with such solid purpose and concentrated dynamism. Nobody else has the power to stop Q's heart from a good eight hundred metres away.
Q laughs, surprising himself in the silence of the flat, which helps him to notice the pan of water before it boils dry. He turns it off, the mug ignored as he bends closer to the monitor, hardly able to believe it's been this easy. A little over twenty four hours in town, and Bond's stalking down the road towards him as if they'd arranged to meet here.
“'Afternoon, 007. Fancy meeting you here.” He clicks and drags the area around Bond to bring him up on the monitor in higher magnification. “Murder, you say? Blimey, I had no idea. I'm here for the balmy fucking climate, because this is totally where someone picks to visit when they haven't had a holiday abroad in, oh, ever.”
His heart's hammering against his chest, his breathing so shallow and rapid that Q wishes he still smoked so he could sit and suck one down with shaky fingers and get himself under control before Bond's much closer. He should watch Bond for awhile, get an idea of what he's up to and what his plans are in case he runs soon as he sees Q, but Q doesn't dare losing him, not when Bond's so kindly placed himself right into Q's hands.
“Down boy. Stop that. He's not actually in our hands, so you can just quit . . . oh, God, for once in your life, don't be such a twat. Please, keep it together. You can do this.”
Maybe the cold will help deal with his bonk-on. Q zips up his coat, pulling his hat on enough to hopefully disguise himself long enough that he can speak to Bond before Bond legs it, or shoots him, or whatever else is likely to happen on confronting a professional killer who's on the run for murder. His shoes are slippery in the snow once he gets outside, his breath clouding, and he feels like a complete wanky amateur rather than a professional spymaster as he tucks himself around the corner, poking just the top of his head and his nose around the warehouse to watch Bond's progress down the street towards him.
He's close enough now that Q can see how pink the tip of Bond's nose is from the cold, his upper lip stubbled and his bloodshot, red-rimmed eyes underlined with purple shadows. He looks old and exhausted, and Q's pounding heart cramps because he's not some callous arsehole who'd wish misery on anyone just because they'd fucked then dumped him at the same sodding time. A bit of misery, perhaps. Not this much.
When it comes to crunch time, Q ends up bouncing off Bond like a pinball because Bond's keeping his head down, chin tucked into his scarf as he pushes past Q at the corner with a murmur in Polish. But just as Q turns and begins to stutter out,
“Um, 007? Don't shoot me.” Bond's already halted in his tracks, his heavy truckers' boots coming to a stop as he looks back at Q in disbelief. “And don't run away.”
“I'm not going to shoot you, why would I run away from you, of all people,” Bond lowers his voice to a hiss after a quick look around them both, face set in a frown of disbelief as he steps towards Q. “And what in the name of almighty hell are you doing here?”
Immediately Q feels the indignation rise, and he can't stop it. Not even when there's far more important things to talk about. “You might run away from me or shoot me. I am the head of bloody Branch bloody Q, thank you very much.”
“I'll shoot you if it'll make you happier.” Bond's tired, bagged eyes keep blinking at him, as if he's not sure whether Q's here or if he's really a hallucination. He reaches up to tug the scarf off from over his mouth, then looks around the empty, snow-fogged street before grabbing Q's arms with both hands, his fingers digging in through Q's thick coat. “Where are the rest of them? 006? How many has he got with him?”
“There's nobody. Just me.”
“I can't believe that.”
“You're going to have to, because it's the truth.”
Bond shakes his head, and Q notices how dry and chapped his lips are, the greying stubble surrounding them, and how the lines in Bond's face look carved deeper than before. “They'll have followed you out here. How long since you found me?”
“Five minutes. Honestly, I'm here alone, unofficially, and you're hurting my arms.”
“No. Dammit. I was getting closer.”
But Bond lets go of his arms, and Q steps back, seeing Bond for what feels like the first time again. He remembers watching footage of an old lion in a cage on Blue Peter once after school. It had been scarred and mistrustful after a life spent in the circus, pacing back and forth before the cage door opened and allowed its escape into a new home in a safari park somewhere. But it hadn't run. It had pressed itself against the cage bars and roared at anyone coming too near, even though it could've ripped the face off anyone it wanted to. Eventually two blokes with pointed poles jabbed the lion through the cage bars to make the idiot thing make a run for it, out into the woods, bleeding from its sides. Now Bond pins himself back against the warehouse, looking each way up and down the street, waiting for 006 and his team to come take him down, and Q wishes he hadn't seen the fear in Bond's eyes because it shakes him all the way down to his toes.
“Come on. I've got somewhere near, and there's no point standing around outside freezing our balls off. I'll make us a tea.”
A shadow of Bond's smirk appears in the corners of his mouth, and he looks at Q for a second before resuming his watch on the street. “I'd rather have a scotch.”
“I think the phrase you're looking for is 'Yes, please, that sounds lovely.'”
Once they're in the flat, Q closing the door behind them and locking it before pulling the cord to turn on the three-bar heater, it's marginally warmer now they're out of the wind that kept creeping its way up Q's trouser legs. Q goes to start the pan of water boiling again, but Bond catches him by the elbow, holding Q next to him as he takes a look around the flat, which seems greyer and grimier now the sun's going down.
“Well, this is cosy.”
“Sorry. I know it's not up to your usual standard.” His comeback's not got as much spite to it as it usually would. Q knows exactly why Bond tends to live a five star lifestyle and, if today was likely his last day on earth, too, he'd also choose to spend it somewhere as nice as possible.
“It'll do, if only as a place to sit while you explain what exactly you're doing out here, other than risking getting yourself killed.”
Q opens his mouth as a few different retorts suggest themselves to him, mostly involving pointing out the door to 007 and suggesting he's welcome to leave, which would be a bad idea considering Q's come all this way to find him, but then he finds himself bodily pulled into a tight hug, Bond's arms bulky and strong in the docker's jacket as he tugs Q into his chest and buries his cold, stubbly face into Q's neck. So Q's voice is muffled by scarf and jacket collar as he answers,
“Isn't it obvious? I've come to rescue you.”
“Long way to come to get shot, you stupid sod.”
'Is that your idea of a thank you?' is what Q might've said in return, but a wind-chapped mouth covers his, Bond's short beard scratchy and rough as Q goes rigid for all of the split second it takes for his body to take over and join in with the kiss. For one brief, perfect moment, Bond's tongue is moving against his and they're sharing breath again and their noses are crushed against each other's as they both move in to make things deeper . . . but Bond's pulling away, his face as lined with regret as it is with age and exhaustion.
“I'm sorry to do this again –”
“No, it's fine.” Q wipes his mouth with the heel of his hand and steps away from all Bond's heat and bulk. “I'll get the tea on, and then we'll talk about how neither of us is going to get arrested or killed in the near future.”
“You and your bloody tea.”
There's a ghost of a smile on Bond's face as Q looks back over to him where Bond's still leaning against the wall by the door as if it's the only thing holding him up, chapped lips damp with Q's spit. “Yes, tea. And, once you've reassured me that you're not a murderer and that this is all some terrible mistake, I might even crack open the biscuits.”