“I can’t believe you got us lost.”
“Well, I can’t believe that you not only stole a car, but you’re also completely unworried about the owner coming after us,” Tess grumbled under her breath as they pulled into a small car park of the small motel they’d found not too far from the highway to Strasbourg. Q merely shrugged, silently grateful that she’d opted to stay somewhere for the night so that they could also eat.
“Well, while we’re on the topic of stolen cars, I think you should know that James never forgave you for stealing his antique Aston Martin, he loved that thing more than anything else except me and his work,” Q said, bracing himself against the door as the car came to a jerky stop. He rolled his shoulders back before unbuckling himself; five hours of being cooped up in a car with an annoyed Double-O grated painfully on his nerves.
“Well, that’s too bad. I didn’t like it,” she said crisply before getting out of the car. “We had a long-anticipated farewell at the sea wall in Portugal.”
“I liked it,” Q muttered under his breath before pushing the door open and stepping out as well.
The twilight air felt refreshingly cool against his face, and he stretched to release the tension in his muscles. The motel was small, but had gleaming white paint and a tidy garden in front of the drive-through where another vehicle was parked. He reached for the satchel in the backseat, quietly hoping that Tess had either clean clothes or the motel had a washing machine inside, and then followed Tess towards the main entrance, noting her glancing around the car park a few times over.
Curiously, he looked around, scanning for any vehicles or people—there were one or two individuals in the car park—that could indicate MI6’s or James’s presences on the property; it was unnerving how both parties had been quiet since their flight from Paris. The man that had spooked Tess in the Paris hotel lobby hadn’t followed them; Tess had driven several circles around the city before taking a long route to the highway. Despite her mobile buzzing several times during the drive, Tess had stubbornly ignored the sound, instead focusing on the road. One hand remained close to the purse even now, fingers curled protectively over the opening as though to deter Q from reaching in and snatching the phone.
No matter, I waited in prison for about a month waiting for rescue or a sign. I can wait a little longer.
Tess arrived to the receptionist desk a few seconds before Q joined her. “Two rooms, please. Preferably across the hall from each other, if that works,” she said as Q leaned on the counter for support, his back to the receptionist as he calmly studied each person in the lobby: two staff; a mother fussing with an infant; and two men arguing in French over a newspaper article. No one threatening. He turned back around in time to hear Tess say, “Three nights, please. Thank you.”
“What about three nights?” he whispered as the woman behind the desk disappeared for a moment.
“That’s how long I told her we’re going to stay here. Obviously we’re not actually going to, but she doesn’t need to know that,” Tess muttered, fishing around in her bag for a few bills. “Thank you very much,” she said, smiling pleasantly as the woman returned with two keys and passed them over the counter.
“You’re welcome. Breakfast is served at nine, and if you need anything, you may come down here and ask,” the woman replied as Tess passed a key to Q without looking at him. “The rooms are just past this desk, and the lift is at the end of the hall.”
Q remained quiet as he followed Tess down the hall, trying to disguise the slight limp as he tried to work out yet another cramp. He nearly stumbled into Tess, who in turn bumped into the wall and startled the two men who had been arguing in the lobby. “Christ, are you all right?” Tess asked, shooting a glare at the two men, who immediately looked away.
“Just a little crick I’m trying to work out,” Q replied, rubbing his knee as they stopped in front of the lifts and Tess pressed the ‘Up’ button. “Looks like we’ll have to take care of dinner ourselves,” he remarked as they stepped onto the lifts.
“Let me shower first, I feel gross,” Tess said as she watched the numbers illuminate on the panel until they stopped on the top floor, hand drifting unconsciously down the rumpled blouse she’d had on since their flight from Paris. “And check under the bed for cockroaches before you get settled in, I’ll be able to speak to the receptionist on the way out about it if there are any.”
“And if there aren’t any, I’ll head out to the car and wait for you there,” Q said as they both left the lift, falling behind Tess as he checked the number on his room key. “Fifteen minutes?” he asked over his shoulder as he swiped the key through the reader.
“Ehhh, more like twenty. Try to stay out of trouble before then,” she said before unlocking her own door and walking inside. Q waited until her back was turned before flipping her off and slipping into his own before she could catch him.
He closed his door with a loud click before leaning against it, slowly sinking to his knees as his eyes fluttered close and the last twenty-four hours caught up; he’d been lined up for execution this time yesterday with no hope of rescue. Now, he was calculating the best way to slip back underneath the umbrella of James’s protection with the murder of an ally and an angered intelligence agency on his back. Not to mention the angered mother he traveled with.
She has James’s number. I need that, but she can’t know that.
Q calmed himself through several deep breaths, aware that if he was extremely careful, he could break free soon. Standing up, he grasped the satchel straps and carried it to the bed, leaving it there as he crossed over to the large windows that overlooked the small town. It was nestled against the side of several rolling hills, and if Q squinted, he could make out a white splotch of a far-off chateau near the summit. Overall, the town and the surrounding area seemed quiet and idyll, beneficial to those wishing to keep a low profile since the town government—or any ruling criminal groups—would not be expecting trouble or interlopers.
Stepping back after a few moments, he closed the curtains before heading over to the bed and pulling out his laptop. He checked the computer’s condition before placing it back into its case and stuffing it between mattresses. He gathered his mobile and left the room a moment later, the door making a soft click behind him as he shut the door.
He nodded once to the receptionist, scanning around the lobby once for any potential risks before heading out to the car. The car park was devoid of people this time, but he spotted the Aston Martin parked the farthest from the lobby entrance. Gently rubbing his wrist, he opened the passenger door and opened the glove box, glancing over the contents for anything useful: a few Euro coins, a pair of sunglasses, a few old receipts, and the car registration. He reached for the registration, an idea coming to him as he turned the slip of paper over in his hand, noting the registration and license plate numbers. We need to disappear, and they’ll use the car first to track us.He made a note of the registry, and then slipped the registration back into the glove box right as he heard Tess returning. “That was a quick shower,” he remarked as she walked around the vehicle to the driver’s seat.
“Yeah, well, I forgot to pack soap. Who the hell forgets soap?” she grumbled as she slid into the driver’s seat and started the car, closing her door with a loud clank. “Bloody place doesn’t have any either, but we have to be careful since I only have Euro available, got it exchanged while in Paris,” she explained as she turned the car on and pulled it out of the car park. Q raised a hand to deflect a few water droplets from her hair, but scowled when she narrowed her eyes at him.
“To be fair, we were in a rush when leaving both London and Paris,” Q pointed out calmly as he leaned back in his seat. “All I have is in the bag in the hotel room.”
“But you restocked. With a phone, laptop, and a bloody car,” she said, glancing to make sure the road was clear before pulling out. “I still don’t understand how you pulled that off without the owner noticing-”
“Well a ‘phone, a laptop, and a bloody car’ is hardly going to help me now, isn’t it?” Q pointed out as he pulled himself straighter in the seat. “I barely have clothes as it is, much less soap. Besides, we have to hide said car now, but I already have a shaky idea for it. Food first, though; contrary to popular belief, I do need to eat.”
“Especially since you were usually skin and bones before MI6 got to you. Bond ever feed you?” Tess asked, glancing at him.
“He fussed to the point where I locked him out of his own system so he had to pay attention to me in order to get access back, that’s when I convinced him to stop worrying. I’ve always had a faster metabolism,” Q said, scanning a few cars they passed on the street, all while wishing he’d stolen something less conspicuous. He knew he should have erased himself from the Parisian street cameras before fleeing the city, but the owner would have strong-armed the police into helping by now. Too little, too late, hindsight is always twenty-twenty.
Like how he should have investigated more deeply into rumors of MI6 presences in Sorrento.
Running a tired hand through his hair, Q got out of the car and followed Tess into a small diner that she’d parked near, which was still mostly empty despite the late hour. Tess nudged him towards an empty table close to the emergency exit near the back of the restaurant before leaning down to whisper, “Anything you want in particular?”
“Just a sandwich,” Q said moving around to sit down at the indicated table, the disposable mobile from Paris still clutched in his hand. He noted the three people near the entrance—two men and a woman all wearing construction outfits—and then tilted himself to better see the three people in addition to the car park, where the Aston Martin painfully stood out against other vehicles; it was too clean. Mud was easy to make—a little water, a little dirt—and splattering it over the undercarriage and the bottom of the doors would take a few minutes. Q added the task to his slowly growing list, tapping a reminder out on his mobile as an unsent text message.
“All right, our orders are in, but they’ll call our number when it’s ready,” Tess said, sliding into the booth across the table from him. She frowned when she saw his pinched expression, and then said, “Did you just see someone or something?”
Relax, you’re making me jumpy too. “No, nothing’s wrong, I just needed my laptop about five minutes ago,” he said, folding his hands on the table.
“You are not hacking MI6, I will happily break your hands myself before I let you do that,” Tess growled, stiffening at the prospect.
Q rolled his eyes. “No, I was going to hack the French police to throw them off our tail,” he said, leaning back in his chair. “That way, Interpol can’t be alerted, and then can’t coordinate with MI6,” he added, careful to keep his voice down. “And while your dedication to MI6 is to be admired, I don’t think M would take it into account when she finds out that you and not Alec killed those two agents,” he said, frowning as the thought occurred to him.
Tess sniffed. “He was wanted long before you came along,” she said, squaring her shoulders as she leaned back to rest a knee over the other. “And M knows it was me who killed those agents, their comms were on the entire time I shot them and got you out of there. She was hoping for a last minute confession.”
“And would have executed me otherwise?” Q asked, raising an eyebrow.
Tess shrugged. “Can’t have you warning Bond now, can we? You had your chances for mercy, Alex, and refused every single one of them,” she said, glancing out at the car park. “What was worse…or at least what I thought was worse…was that you were willing to die for him even if he hadn’t remained faithful. He doesn’t deserve something like that, not after everything he’s done.”
Q shrugged. “He never treated me badly, even when I was still his prisoner. Freedom and protection were the only things I could give him before my death given the circumstances,” he said, looking down at the tablecloth for a moment, biting back the urge to ask about James’s latest messages, if Tess’s recent texts were truly from him. He shook his head and said, “But enough of that. I will not hack MI6 for the time being, does that make you feel better?”
“Not really,” Tess replied, scowling slightly.
“Too bad. There’s another pain in my arse that I’ll have to deal with soon, anyway, so I would greatly appreciate it if you could relax for once,” Q said, tapping out another reminder to attempt ruining Silva enough to make it clear how annoyed he was with the other man at the moment. I can’t wait to get back to my home environment, he thought, nearly jumping in his seat when someone shouted ‘Order forty-five!’ in the background.
“And that’s us. I’ll be right back, I can’t wait to hear about your fantastic plan for the car. Hopefully it doesn’t involve stealing something else that could link back to us,” Tess muttered as she stood up.
“Then allow me to dash your hopes by saying ‘yes, we’re actually going to steal something else’,” Q said, offering an innocent smile as Tess started to leave, shrugging with both shoulders when she flipped him off.
He opened the text messages again, thumb hovering over the keys as he debated of what to say if he had to leave a message for James. He was torn between warning him about a potential leak within the organization—someone would have told MI6 about the villa in Sorrento when only four people really knew about it—or sending a private note, letting him know that Q was free and trying to return home. He only put it away, still undecided about his message to James, when Tess arrived with their plates and set one down in front of him before she sat down with her own.
“So, you mentioned you had a plan to hide the car from authorities looking for us,” Tess remarked as she began eating her own dinner. “What is this fantastical plan that I may or may not already know about?”
“If you knew about it, you would have gotten away with stealing James’s car,” Q remarked dryly as he picked at the sandwich. “It works as an excellent getaway vehicle, as we’ve already figured out. The problem is that it’s still registered in Système d'Immatriculation des Véhicules under its current owner. So we have to fix the registrations, including the license plates, and then rework the registrations online.”
Tess stared at him. “We’re about to steal another car, aren’t we?”
“Not quite. It has to be similar to the Aston Martin in size and color, I’m not hopeful enough to find an exact duplicate. This is where ‘stealing something else that could be linked to us’ comes in,” he explained. “We take a second car, switch license plates, and get me both registrations. I’ll then go online and change those registrations so it looks like you always owned the Aston Martin while the Aston’s owner owned the duplicate. Then I’ll print the new ones, after which you return the new one to the second car. The driver of the second car will contest that with the Aston’s owner, causing a tie-up that will buy us a little more time to get to Strasbourg and ditch the Aston Martin.” Taking a few bites of his sandwich, he said, “We should probably get the map of the area while we’re at it…”
“And then promptly leave for Strasbourg?” Tess asked, worry creasing her brow.
Q shook his head. “Running always makes you look guilty, I feel like we’re pushing it enough with leaving tomorrow morning instead of staying for the full three nights you requested,” he said, careful to keep his voice down.
“So one of us gets the map, the other switches the plates and grabs the registrations,” Tess said, glancing at the other three patrons as they stood up to leave, chairs scraping against the floor. “Are you sure about physically removing the registration from the car? We’d have to put the modified one back in the morning.”
“Right before we leave, so it’s not an issue. No one ever looks for their registration information unless they’re pulled over for some reason. The license plates are the first to be used when identifying and tracking vehicles, which is why if we’re going to do it, we have to do it soon,” Q said before taking a few more bites. “We’re already risking our freedom as it is, waiting this long.” He tilted his head at her before he asked, “Which one do you want to do?”
“I’ll deal with the fucking license plates, you go shopping,” she said, stifling a sigh as she pulled her purse strap over her head and shoved it across the table at Q, nearly knocking his sandwich onto him. “And get some bloody soap while you’re at it, and anything else you might think is useful to have in Strasbourg.”
“Do you really want me to use your credit card?” Q asked doubtfully, mentally grimacing at the reminder; he hadn’t thought of money up until that point other than what he could nick online through someone’s Swiss account or an unprotected bank account.
“It’s registered under a pseudonym, not even Will knows about it,” she said before shoving the last of her food into her mouth. “Can you manage walking?”
Q scowled as he balled up his dirty napkin and threw it at her.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Tess said, standing up and brushing crumbs off her front. “Meet you at the hotel by nightfall at the latest.”
The ‘don’t make me hunt you down’ went unsaid, but was well understood.
“I’ll be in my room, hacking into Système d'Immatriculation des Véhicules by the time you get back. It can’t take that long to get groceries,” Q said gesturing to his sandwich. “Don’t wait on my account, it’s probably better that we’re seen apart anyway.”
Tess nodded and then left, disposing of her rubbish on the way out.
Q forced himself to wait despite the mounting excitement in his gut. He ate the last few mouthfuls at a controlled pace—I’ll be quick with the mobile, nothing fancy, I can do it—before chasing down the last of his sandwich with water. Then he gathered everything, slinging the purse strap over his own thin shoulder before tossing his own rubbish and heading out the door, lingering in the threshold for a moment as Tess pulled out of the car park and left, heading farther into the town.
Q headed around the corner of the restaurant before checking for any witnesses, especially if Tess was about to double back with a reminder or last minute item. Then he knelt and undid the clasps, sifting through the contents and using the dying sunlight to get a better look at the contents. He made a face when he found keys, a makeup case, a wallet—with a false ID, he suspected—and a small packet of gum.
But no mobile.
Q sighed, his shoulders slumping forward and head bowing in silent frustration as he leaned back on his heels and silently cursed Tess and her ancestors to hell and back. Then he shook his head and stood up, gathering the purse and placing the strap over his head again. He’d spotted a little convenience store on the way in, it would do for now. And if he was lucky, the cashier or someone inside would know a good way to get back to the hotel that didn’t involve more walking. He still had to get through to James; Tess may have crossed lines in M’s book by murdering her own fellow agents, but Q wouldn’t put it pass M to allow sacrifices to gain Q’s trust.
Easier to divide and conquer than to attack an united front.