It had been almost a month since Bond’s last mission. A month of firing ranges, trainee lessons, and seemingly endless paperwork. The world had reached an horrendously annoying level of calm, and Bond was bored. Dangerously bored.
So when he went sniffing around M’s office, looking for something to do, he was surprised to be handed a mission on the spot. M gave no details, other than to tell Bond to secure an SUV from Transport, dress casually, and pick up Q at 0600 the following morning, at home.
A local mission, then, unless he was driving Q to the airport or something equally mundane. Why assign a Double O — even a bored one — to chauffeur duty, though? Besides, Q didn’t fly. Something local, then. Hacking the uptight bastards in the Home Office, perhaps. Of course, that didn’t explain the ‘casual dress’ requirement.
Bond hadn’t come up with any answers by the following morning. For all he knew, Q needed help moving his bloody furniture. But at this point, anything was better than more paperwork, so Bond left early enough to avoid traffic, stopped for coffee, and then programmed Q’s address into the satnav.
Q’s house was a neat little semi-detached with a garage. Bond turned onto the drive and turned off the engine. He got out of the SUV and set the alarm out of habit. The SUV was an upgrade from the in-town saloons, though not a Q Branch special with offensive capabilities. He went to the recessed front door, knocked, and turned to look at a neglected, winter-bare garden buried under the night’s snowfall.
It took Q almost a full minute to answer. He was awake and alert, dressed more casually than Bond had ever seen him, in faded blue jeans, a thick jumper, and hiking boots. But what caught Bond’s attention was the blood — a smudge on Q’s lower lip, and a thick line welling up from where his right thumb was pressed to the side of his finger. Cold wind, thick with snow, blew at Bond’s back, drawing a shiver across his nape.
“Come in,” Q invited, paying more attention to his finger than Bond. “Give me two minutes to put a plaster on this.”
“Is everything all right?” Bond asked, watching a drop of blood form and slide over Q’s finger.
“Paper cut.” Q beckoned Bond inside and went down a narrow hallway beside a steep staircase leading up into darkness.
Bond closed and locked the front door before following Q into a small kitchen. Q was at the sink, running water over his finger. With his free hand, he rifled through a plastic first aid kit, scattering the contents across the counter. On the table, the remains of Q’s breakfast — eggs and toast — sat between an open laptop and an avalanche of old papers, blueprints, and mimeographs that had spilled from a file folder onto the floor. One of the old, crumbling blueprints was edged in blood.
Bond walked to stand beside Q. The blood was still dark, despite the running water. “Are you sure that’s just a paper cut?” He gently took the box of plasters from Q’s hand and opened it; he took one out, though he was tempted to suggest steri-strips or even a couple of stitches.
“Thanks. It’s that bloody old paper.” Q frowned down at his finger. “Site documents related to the mission. I’d suggest you look through them, but we don’t need you bleeding as well.” He turned off the water, and the cut immediately started bleeding again. “Shit.”
“May I see?”
“It’s a paper cut,” Q complained, holding out his wounded finger for Bond’s examination. Drops of blood fell in a steady rhythm. “Now the damned historical society will probably sue me for defacing their documents.”
“If they do, you have an entire department of assassins to call on for help,” Bond said, pinching Q’s finger to hold the cut closed. “How is it you spend all your time around explosives without a scratch, but one piece of paper and your finger looks like the wrong end of a bad 80s horror film?”
“It shouldn’t.” Q worked his way around Bond, forcing him to turn so he could keep hold of the finger. When they’d traded places, Q opened a drawer and started digging through batteries, wires, and assorted hand tools. “This should have stopped as soon as I applied pressure.”
“Do we need to take you to A&E? I’d hate for you to bleed to death in the car,” Bond teased, hiding his worry. “It is government property, after all.”
Q laughed quietly. “It wouldn’t be the first time Transport’s had to deal with blood on the upholstery, I’m certain. Aha.” He grinned and pulled a small plastic tube from the drawer. “Thought I had some left. Help me get the cap off?”
“That or I cauterise it with a bloody soldering iron, and then we will end up in A&E, and we can’t afford to delay the mission for that sort of time.” He held out the tube of glue.
It wasn’t as if Bond hadn’t glued wounds closed before. He took the glue, removed the cap, and then pinched the wound closed. It was bleeding a lot. “And what is the mission? I didn’t get any files — just keys to a secure SUV and your home address.”
“Ah. Yes, I tried to scan in that paperwork” — Q nodded at the spilled pages — “but three different scanners choked to death. I finally gave up. We need to find a new home for Q Branch. You’ve heard of Cedarbridge Asylum?”
“Vaguely,” Bond said, squeezing a drop of glue across the centre of the wound. He quickly pushed the glue across, covering the entire length, before he looked up sharply. “Wait. An old mental hospital as the new home for Q Branch?”
Q shrugged tensely. “Easily secured grounds, substantial buildings with equally substantial basements — it’s ideal.” He tentatively flexed his finger; the glue held. “Thank you.”
Bond capped the tube, careful not to get glue on his own fingers. “Why there?”
“I had a very short list of approved sites from which to choose. Cedarbridge Asylum is the best of the lot.”
“Better than your tunnels?” When Q turned away, Bond caught his wrist and said, “That needs a plaster over it.”
Q huffed but turned back, saying, “The tunnels are off the list. Historical preservation society.”
“That’s nonsense.” Bond picked up the plaster and ripped it open. “We can’t afford the disruption. In times of war, it’s best to use what we’ve got.”
“We aren’t currently at war.”
Bond smoothed the plaster over the cut and met Q’s eyes. “This is MI6, Q. We’re always at war.”
Cedarbridge Asylum, named for the idyllic river that once crossed the property, was one of the longest continually operated mental healthcare facilities in the country. The initial building, Cedarbridge House of the Poor, was opened in 1608, after the passage of the Poor Law Acts in 1598 and 1601. The original design was for the county’s poor to live and work at Cedarbridge, creating a self-sustaining farm.
Critically, the farm’s overseers were not physicians. They were paid a stipend for each resident, meant to contribute to medical care, food, clothing, and other expenses. Within twenty years, however, this stipend became the sole concern for the overseers. Overcrowding resulted in inhumane conditions for the residents, and the overseers began to take in even the most violent of the mentally ill. Instead of being rehabilitated, the violent residents were confined, sometimes for years at a time, and barely given sufficient food to survive.
Briefly, Cedarbridge House of the Poor became a mental asylum, where the resident physicians supplemented their income by permitting curious holiday-goers from the cities to see the inmates, who were kept in caged alcoves with no thought for privacy or rehabilitation.
The 1744 Vagrancy Act reverted part of Cedarbridge to its old function as a poor house and included funding to add to the original building. Now operating under the name Cedarbridge Lunatic Asylum and Home for Vagrant Persons, it became a dumping ground for the county’s unwanted, indigents, insane, and troubled.
In 1788, Cedarbridge constructed a richly decorated, luxurious facility for single lunatics, as they were called — individuals, most often from wealth or of noble birth, whose healthcare was subsidised by a rich family. Admission of these single lunatics was not regulated, and quickly Cedarbridge became a place of confinement for unwanted wives and daughters. By 1827, it was commonly known in the county that Cedarbridge’s generous open visitation policy for its single lunatic residents was nothing more than a thin cover for what had become a violent brothel catering to the most depraved patrons.
By the mid-1800s, Cedarbridge had returned to its original purpose as a poorhouse. It also acted as a long-term care facility for the sick and elderly who could no longer be housed in local hospitals.
After World War I, Cedarbridge was one of several hospitals that attempted to restart England’s tuberculosis research programme. Europe had lost many talented young scientists, and serious medical research investigations suffered. However, the programme was overshadowed by a lack of funding and ethical oversight combined with a wealth of ‘unwanted’ test subjects and a desperate desire to produce results at any cost.
In 1966, Cedarbridge’s tuberculosis research programme ended in disgrace, and the facility once again became a mental asylum. BBC investigative reporter Henry Chance broke the Cedarbridge story by smuggling a camera into the facility. The award-winning documentary, People in the Shadows, began what has now become known as the era of hospital scandals. In 1972, the establishment of the role of Health Service Commissioner promised a new start for mental healthcare in the UK. By 1979, Cedarbridge was closed, its administrators placed under investigation, and its remaining patients transferred to other facilities.
Before leaving Q’s house, Bond had looked over the old blueprints for long enough to conclude that they were all but useless. Over the centuries, buildings had been added, modified, and demolished, and there wasn’t nearly enough documentation in Q’s files to account for it all.
Instead, Bond allowed Q to take the first half of the drive in exchange for the use of Q’s tablet. Then they swapped at a petrol station where they’d topped up the tank and bought two cups of horrid coffee.
As Bond mulled over what he’d read, he became aware of a dull ache creeping into his hands. He took his eyes off the road long enough to see that his knuckles had gone white from how hard he was gripping the steering wheel.
In all his years of government work, he’d seen some of the worst depravities of man, but this sort of thing made him sick. Hospitals were meant to heal, not to victimise the ill. It wasn’t just one step too far. It was one step closer to Hell.
A sign caught his attention, a brief flash of dark green and dirty white print. Throwing a quick glance towards the satnav, Bond changed lanes, just as he saw a second sign that read Cedarbridge Hospital. The screen showed another twelve miles to go, but that was to the nearest village; it hadn’t recognised the exact address from Q’s files.
Q looked up from his mobile. “What’s wrong?”
“There was an old sign for Cedarbridge Hospital. Sounds like a good place to start.”
Q nodded and went back to frowning at his mobile. “Sorry, I should have mapped this out. Part of my job as Quartermaster.”
“It’s all right,” Bond replied absently, staring intently out the windshield. “I’m good at finding what’s not easily found.” He turned his head slightly to give Q a little wink.
“Then you’re in the wrong profession,” Q said absently. “Can I borrow your phone? I can’t reestablish a connection.”
As Bond handed over his mobile, he said, “Not really, when you think about it. I’m an assassin. Many of the people I come across are well aware their time is running out. I promise you, the hardest thing in this world is to find a dead man walking when he knows that I’m coming for him.”
Q looked up, startled. “I was thinking —” he began, before he looked down at Bond’s mobile. “Never mind.”
“What?” Bond asked. “What were you thinking?”
Q slouched down in his seat, determinedly stabbing his finger at the phone. “Tomb robber,” he finally conceded.
Bond burst out laughing. “Tomb robber? That’s definitely not what I was thinking. But god, can you imagine?”
“The mummy’s curse.” Q managed a little laugh. “Or those intricate traps, where a room slowly fills with sand and the only way out is to light the oil lamps in order to trigger the secret door.” He prodded Bond’s arm with the mobile, saying, “Here.”
“Everything all right?”
“No connection.” Q shook his head in frustration. “That’s an MI6 phone. Boosted antenna. You should have coverage everywhere in Great Britain.”
“Apparently not.” Bond dropped the phone into his pocket and slowed the SUV. The snow had started falling harder ever since they’d left the city. Now, it came down in thick swirls, and while he trusted his own driving, he didn’t trust the other idiots on the road. Not that there were many of those. Even the other tyre tracks here were dusted with fresh snow.
Q gave up on his mobile and tucked it into his parka. “You’re certain this is the right road?”
“Not at all,” Bond admitted absently, concentrating on staying on the road. Without mobile coverage, he’d need to use the SUV’s emergency beacon to summon help from MI6. “It looks like the right area, based on the photos.”
“You found photos?” Q leaned forward and turned the heater to full blast. Like Bond, he was dressed in casual, warm clothes, though he’d neglected to bring gloves. He shoved his hands into his pockets with a little shiver. “How did it look? The facility, I mean. There was something about a bat colony nesting there.”
“It looked unsafe,” Bond admitted warily. “I also found the history, dating back to when it opened in the 1600s. Saying it has a colourful history is... being kind. Do you really not know any more about this place than what you read in the file?”
Q shrugged. “The history isn’t significant, except that we can control any historical society here. The society in London has certainly interfered enough with our occupation of the tunnels.”
“I’m not talking about some bloody historical society, Q. I’m talking about what actually happened inside those walls.” Bond shook his head and slowed even more, glad to have even fading tyre tracks to follow. Winter-bare trees clawed at either side of the road. Thick limbs hung dangerously low overhead, obscuring what little light came through the stormclouds. “This isn’t the sort of asylum where you send dear, sweet granny because she’s gone fuzzy. This is right out of a horror film — one that leaves you unsettled because there’s something real about it.”
Q shot Bond a shocked look. “You can’t —” he said, though he cut off when the SUV bounced suddenly. The road under the tyres went rough. Wary of potholes, Bond slowed the SUV to a crawl. Q grabbed the handhold on the door and leaned forward as much as the seatbelt would allow. “Did we miss a turnoff?”
“No. No turnoffs, no signs,” Bond said, staring through the windscreen. The wipers were distracting, smearing moisture over the glass, and the headlights reflected off the snow in a blinding glare.
“Bond...” Q shook his head.
Bond pressed the brake as hard as he dared, realising only then what was missing. “Tyre tracks.”
Q twisted, looking back over his shoulder through the rear window. “The road doesn’t even feel tarmacked.”
“It’s tarmacked — just not recently,” Bond said confidently as he started driving again. “Too much traction for dirt or gravel.”
“Are you certain this is the road?” Q asked quietly.
“No. But we haven’t passed any turnoffs, and the sign said this was the Cedarbridge exit.” Bond shrugged, thinking the other cars must have turned around, though he couldn’t recall passing any other drivers in either direction. Perhaps the tyre tracks there and back had been made before he’d exited the dual carriageway.
Already, Q was certain Cedarbridge was a horrid site, and they hadn’t even arrived yet. Bad road that couldn’t be improved without being noticed; obscure location that would definitely attract attention with any significant amount of traffic; not even 3G coverage, much less anything more advanced.
Cedarbridge Asylum was actually the worst candidate on a list of sites that were all horrible. Q had come up with logical reasons to eliminate them all, but he knew he had to make a show of giving at least one site a chance. Only then would he be able to challenge Mallory and present a lovely, long list of reasons why Q Branch should remain in the tunnels, and to hell with the historical society.
Q had chosen Cedarbridge not because he wanted to visit a decrepit, abandoned mental asylum but because he didn’t need to. His original plan had been to take a drive out into the country, have brunch somewhere near the asylum, and be back in London by midday. In his imagination, he’d pictured less hostile weather. He’d even considered going for an early afternoon jog in the park.
He hadn’t planned to actually go to the site. And he definitely hadn’t planned on having to drag a bored, off-mission Double O along with him.
But he could make this work. Bond had already shown distaste for the site. With a little luck, Bond might be willing to do paperwork in the form of a site survey. Or maybe he’d just give Mallory his feedback in person. Loudly. The thought made Q grin.
Fifteen or twenty minutes went by in tense silence, punctuated only by the rapid beat of the wipers trying valiantly to fight off the accumulating snow, before Bond said, “Finally. It’s up ahead, on the left.”
Q looked up too late to see the sign. “Well, the isolation will be useful,” he said thoughtfully. “One access road, easy to control.”
The turn led to a short, winding road that ended abruptly. Without warning, Bond slammed on the brakes, throwing Q against his seatbelt. A double-gate barred their path, black iron rods stark against the snow that filled the air. A chain stretched between the iron bars, pulled taut; the gates were slightly open, one inwards, one out. To either side, Q saw a high, crumbling brick wall.
“I suppose this is it,” he ventured, though he couldn’t see a sign or any hint of buildings beyond the gates. All he could see were snow and trees.
“Looks like,” Bond muttered with a tight grimace. He put the SUV in neutral and put on the handbrake. The temperature plummeted as he opened his door, and Q huddled into his parka, shivering. Bond slammed his door, momentarily disappearing from sight before he stepped over to the black gate.
An irrational fear hit Q as he pictured Bond ducking under the chain and disappearing into the trees. Q fumbled to unlatch his seatbelt with cold hands. But instead of stepping through the gates, Bond turned back to face the SUV and beckoned.
Q shut off the engine, grabbed the keys, and got out, shivering. He shoved his bare hands into his pockets. “I should’ve brought gloves,” he said as he walked carefully over the snow to where Bond was waiting. He held out the keys for him. “Need help with the gates?”
“That gate won’t be moving,” Bond said, nodding to the right. He took the keys from Q, placing them in his own jacket pocket.
Q had to walk a few paces to see why. The gate was hinged to open inwards, not out, as it had been — with great force, apparently. The hinges were bent; the lowest bolts pulled partially out of the brick. It must have happened some time ago, because everything was crusted with corrosion that took on a dark, almost bloody hue in the shadows and damp from the snow. Tetanus jab or not, Q had no desire to touch it. With only one undamaged gate, there was no chance of getting the SUV through.
He didn’t want to leave the SUV behind, but he saw no alternative. “We’ll have to go ahead on foot. I don’t recall any of the documents having a combination to the lock.”
“There’s no lock,” Bond said grimly.
Q looked at the chain, crossing the snow quickly as he searched for a lock, but didn’t find one. The steel links were dark and stuck through with leaves and twigs, but there was no hint of rust or corrosion. Not until he was right in front of the chain, stretched between the gates just above a cross-bar at chest-level, did he see a thick line across one of the links.
“This was welded,” he said, lifting one hand to touch. His finger was still a good two centimetres away when he felt a shock jolt up into his arm, making the cut throb. He swore and jerked his hand back, fingers twitching hard enough that the glue pulled at his skin.
“Are you all right?” Bond asked.
“Just a shock.” Q resisted the urge to rub at his stinging finger and instead shoved his hands into his pockets again.
Bond nodded, though his worried frown didn’t ease. “I think we’re walking from here. This gate’s not going anywhere. And don’t you dare tell me to ‘put my back into it’.”
Q burst out laughing at the memory, the sound bouncing off the thick trees all around. “The train didn’t run you over, did it?” he pointed out. He went back towards the SUV, adding over his shoulder, “Just because I see to your kit doesn’t mean I don’t know how to motivate you. I’m entirely willing to give you a kick in the arse when necessary, Bond.”
“Oh, I’m well aware. But be warned, Quartermaster” — Bond smiled devilishly at Q — “I’ve been known to retaliate.”
The door hid Q’s grin. He leaned into the SUV and retrieved his rucksack. Instead of packing his laptop, he used the bag to hold his tablet and a couple of bottles of water. Without knowing if the electricity was on, he’d also packed a torch — probably a wise decision.
As Bond opened his own door, Q smiled across at him and said, “You’re welcome to try.”
The driveway was lost under two inches of snow. Bond could only distinguish it from the surrounding earth by the rough space between trees that had encroached, roots breaking the tarmac into jagged chunks. Barely two metres separated the trunks — not enough for the SUV, even if the gates had opened properly. As he walked away from the gate, he told himself he glanced back to make sure Q was all right on the slippery ground — that it had nothing to do with a last look back at safety before going on a mission.
Almost immediately, the drive curved sharply to the left. After another twenty paces, the gate was out of sight. Bond’s steps slowed, and Q caught up with him to walk silently at his side. Just enough light filtered through the trees and snow that Bond didn’t need his torch. He glanced at Q and saw he’d removed his glasses, probably to keep them from getting spotted with snow.
“How well can you see without those things?” he asked. He’d never seen Q without his glasses on and just assumed he was completely blind without them.
“I need them primarily for long distance — especially driving at night. Too much time working with computers,” Q commented, glancing down as they reached a small incline. His steps slowed, but his foot skidded on a slick patch.
Bond caught him by the elbow. “Careful. There’s ice under the snow.”
“I’m perfectly aware of that,” Q snapped and shot Bond a glare. He tugged free from Bond’s grasp and righted himself. “I won’t fall.”
“All right. Sorry,” Bond responded soothingly, taken aback by Q’s response.
Q nodded, taking one hand out of his coat pocket long enough to shift his rucksack onto both shoulders. The rustle of padded nylon straps on the waterproof shell was loud in the too-quiet forest.
They’d gone around another full S-curve, perhaps a hundred metres, before Q finally broke the silence. “You don’t need to coddle me, Bond. I’ve never been interested in spending hours in the gym, but I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself. More importantly, I know my limitations.”
Bond stopped, waiting as Q took a couple more steps before he turned to look back. When their eyes met, Bond said, “I’ve never been in the field with you, for any reason. You know your limitations, but I don’t.”
Q took a deep breath, meeting Bond’s eyes steadily. After a few silent seconds, he nodded. “All right. I apologise. If there’s something I think you need to know, I’ll inform you.” His lips twitched up in a very faint smile as he added, “You’re welcome to do the same, though there’s probably no need. I’ve read every file the government has on you.”
Bond let out a short laugh and started to walk again. A more comfortable silence settled between them. Admittedly, he’d been looking at Q in much the same way he’d regarded Q’s predecessor. Major Boothroyd had been a genius, yes, but in the field, he’d been... marginally useful at best, and a liability at worst. He had no sense of self-preservation.
This Q seemed far less reckless, which was really all that mattered. As long as he wouldn’t rush headlong into danger, Bond could stop looking at him as an asset to be protected and instead focus on the danger —
That thought brought him up short. What danger? They were going into an old building that presented the usual hazards — uncertain floors, asbestos, broken glass — but it wasn’t a booby trapped criminal headquarters or a gang’s meth lab. In the photos he’d reviewed, there hadn’t been any sign of graffiti at all, in fact.
He looked around at the snowy trees, wishing that the cloud cover would break enough to admit even a little more daylight. That had to be it. The stormy darkness was contributing to the unease brought on by an overactive imagination and too little sleep.
The trees to either side of the path grew ever closer together, until Q’s shoulder bumped into Bond’s. Bond slowed, scuffing a boot through the snow. It was only an inch deep, but that seemed excessive, even with the narrow break in the tree branches above the path. It had only started snowing some time during the night. There were patches of bare earth between the trees to either side, giving the forest a mottled, sickly appearance. So why was the snow on the path so thick?
It reminded him of the road, clear of tyre tracks. He shivered and told himself it was just the cold.
Just as Bond uncovered a thin layer of broken pavement over wet earth, Q said, “Well. That’s...”
Bond looked up again and saw that Q had walked a few more paces ahead. Chastising himself for not paying attention, he caught up and stopped beside Q. He followed Q’s gaze until he froze, arrested by the sight of the building that had seemingly come out of nowhere.
Dark, wet brick stretched up towards the overcast sky, broken by dull white window frames. The surviving glass showed an interior that was just as black as the open and shattered panes. Trees had long since overtaken any landscaping or paths surrounding the building. Winter-bare branches scraped at the brick walls, and roots dug at the foundation.
Perhaps the narrow double doors at the top of the cement stairs had once been welcoming; now, they hung almost completely closed, a broken chain dangling from one handle as though in warning, reminding Bond of a prison cell door just waiting to be locked behind anyone who entered.
“You’ve got to be joking. This is a potential site for Q Branch?” Bond wondered, refusing to take his eyes off the front doors. “Whose bloody idea was it to include this on the list?”
Q gave a long-suffering sigh. “No idea. I was presented with fifteen sites. This is the only one that wasn’t entirely unsuitable.” He shot Bond an unhappy look, adding, “The tunnels weren’t on the list.”
“If the outside is any indication, the tunnels might be the only possible choice.”
Q shot him a startled look before turning quickly away as though guilty. He was hiding something — Bond was certain of it.
Without looking back at Bond, Q said, “There’s supposedly a basement. I suspect all the buildings have basements with connecting tunnels. They might do.”
“We’ll need to make note of any weak floors we come across before heading down there, then,” Bond noted as he followed Q. “Weak floors mean crumbling ceilings.”
“Wouldn’t you rather find out from underneath, rather than falling through?” Q asked with a wry grin as he reached for the door with the chain around the handle. Bond’s first instinct was to stop him — they had no idea what was beyond that door. He almost grabbed for Q’s hand, but Q jerked back the instant his fingers brushed the metal. He flexed his fingers and gave his hand a little shake before saying, “Shocked again.” He tugged his cuff down over his hand, pulled the door open, and stepped into the darkness.