William Cooper is good at his job and proud of that fact. He is an artist.
(He won’t go so far as to call himself an ‘artist in blood’ because he’s not a serial killer.)
He got to the position he is in today by being the best there is at what he does. No-one in the agency can orchestrate a murder the way he can. No-one else is capable of creating a back story, or building a suicide, or laying a dead-end trail. At least – no-one is capable of doing it so believably.
He loves his job too, which is possibly a worrying sign, but William believes in what he does; believes that what he does every day is protecting his country, his family, and thus it is just and right.
Moses calls it dishonest on the occasions when they cross paths and William snorts into his beer.
“Laugh it up,” Moses will say, shaking his head. “One day you’ll know what I mean.”
William doesn’t expect that day will ever come, the business has changed since Moses’ time after all, but sometimes he finds himself storing things away; evidence, papers, recordings, dangerous things.
Just in case.
“Well tell him to share with his brother then.”
“He said that? Put him on, I’ll talk to him.”
“Why don’t you think it’s fair to share with your brother?”
“Come on, there’s plenty to – listen to me, okay, sharing is one of the most important things a person can do.”
“No, I don’t care that you think your brother will make everything ‘smelly’. Share with him.”
“That language will get you in trouble if you keep –”
“No, no, it’s fine, honey, I’ll speak to him when I get home.”
“In couple of days. Really this time.”
“I miss you too, sweetheart.”
William carefully smoothes the delicate piece of film along the grip the gun. He waits for a few moments, idly inspecting the art on the wall. There’s one that looks suspiciously like a long missing Picasso line drawing. Maybe he’ll make a note on the investigation, one more crime for Reynolds to be associated with.
His watch beeps and he pulls the film away, using an edge of it to push the gun under the couch. He tucks the film back into its case and shuffles around Reynolds’ body, avoiding the slowly pooling blood. He hums a snatch of a tune, something he’d heard on the radio on the way in, and lifts his case from the table.
He has one more piece of evidence to set, a hand print on the bathroom mirror, and then he’ll finally be done with this case. It had taken three long months to build the right death for Reynolds – one that would remove him from the arms trade but make sure he wouldn’t be replaced right away – and William was glad it was finally done. He missed his office at Langley, the field office was just unnerving.
In retrospect he should’ve expected it. The soft popping noise, the rush of air being separated by something very small and very thin, the brief pinprick scratch on his neck.
Instead he only has time to think: oh. Shit.
“You have pissed off some very powerful people, Mr Cooper,” the first words William hears when consciousness seeps back into his bones.
His tongue feels like felt in his mouth and his vision, when he opens his eyes, is blurry and indistinct. Colours move back and forth before him, one, maybe two, people pacing through his line of sight. His limbs feel weighted, nerves dead to his commands, and he suspects he’s in for a bad case of pins in needles when sensation returns.
He hates pins and needles.
“You were hard to find, too,” the voice continues, American, low and gravelled. “So I guess you’ve impressed some very powerful people too. Lot of folk running interference for you.”
“You could do him the courtesy of answering him when he speaks to you,” plumy English vowels, from William’s left.
“He didn’t ask a question,” William says, tongue still lethargic enough that it takes him longer than it should to get the sentence out.
“Fair point,” English says. “You should ask him a question, John.”
“I was about to, James, you’re ruining my flow here,” John says, on William’s right, close. If William could just get his hands free.
“Forgive me, but I thought you were in a hurry?” James says, his voice thick with unvoiced laughter.
“God give me strength,” William’s vision is clear enough to see John roll his eyes skyward. “Maybe you could do me a favour and take a walk?”
“I’d rather stay, but I take your meaning,” James spares a look for William, eyes sparkling with a hidden smile. “Play nice.”
“Brits, I swear,” John says when the door clicks shut.
“What do you want from me?” William asks, tongue finally beginning to obey him.
“It’s not what I want from you, Mr. Cooper, it’s what I want you to do,” John drags a chair away from a nearby table and straddles it in front of William. “You see – some nasty bastards hired me to look for you. Well, I say hired, I owed them something and they decided to collect.”
“Let me guess – they want my head,” William says, shifting his hands slightly behind him. There’s more give in the ropes holding him to his chair than he expected.
“More than your head, son,” John says, stifling a laugh. “And preferably in more pieces.”
“So why even bother to let me wake up?” William asks.
“Because they told me you were the best wet man in the business and I’ve seen your files,” John leans forward. “They’re right. It seems to me that taking you out without taking advantage of that is a bad plan.”
“You want me to kill someone for you?”
“Come on, son, we both know you do a lot more than that. I want you to make me a story – one that’s good enough to get this monkey off my back for good.”
“Just what exactly do you owe these people?”
“My life,” John drops the words with a sniff.
“What does the other guy have to do with this?” the rope burns against William’s wrist as he slips one had free.
“You tell me,” John shrugs. “He offered his help – apparently my employers aren’t the only one’s who have an interest in you.”
William is beginning to have suspicions about the Englishman as his second hand slips free from the rope. No professional would tie someone with his level of training so loosely. Not unless it was on purpose.
“If I do this, what do I get in return?” William asks, eyeing the shadow of someone lurking outside the door.
“I don’t kill you,” John says. “Which is a pretty good deal for a family man like yourself.”
Searing cold shoots down William’s spine.
“What did you say?” William strips emotion from his voice as best as he can.
“Hey, now, it’s not my fault it’s all over your records,” John raises his hands. “I can’t be held responsible for what my employers will do with that information.”
All of William’s training tells him that what he does next is the worst possible thing he can do. He does it anyway. He lunges forward of the chair, hands reaching not for John’s throat but for the seatback he’s leaning against. John starts but William has two seconds of momentum against him. He grabs the chair and jerks it upward as he lurches to his feet, catching John beneath the chin as he does so.
John’s head snaps back as he reels. Before he has time to recover William lands an awkward punch on his jaw, spinning him on the spot. John grunts as William follows his punch with a tackle carrying them both to the floor, winding John. The door snaps open as William pins John to the floor with his knees, pulling his fist back for a second punch.
William hears the odd puff of sound that accompanies a silenced bullet a bare moment before he registers the blood welling from the bullet wound in John’s forehead. He looks up to see James standing in the door way, blue eyes ice cold, silenced handgun pointed unerringly at the dead man.
“It’s about time,” James blinks and offers William a small smile. The edge remains in his eyes but is more indistinct, something just out of sight.
“Do you mind telling me what the hell is going on here?” William asks, pushing away from John.
“You might want to grab the gun from his waistband before we leave him,” James says, throwing a brief look over his shoulder. “John here made the regrettable decision to inform his employers that he had you before he made you an offer he was certain you wouldn’t refuse.”
William flips John’s body over, avoiding looking at the exit wound for too long, and tugs a heavy Glock from the man’s waistband. He checks the clip before cocking the gun, holding it loosely at his side as he stands.
“Let me guess – they’re tracking him,” William says, watching James carefully. James seems to notice the scrutiny and lowers his gun at last, nonchalantly tucking it into a shoulder-holster hidden by his jacket.
“Of course they are,” James says off-handedly. “They are, as he said, very powerful people.”
“You don’t work for them, then,” William steps over John.
“No,” James says, as if it should be obvious. Which it is, now that William can finally focus over the adrenaline rushing through his system. James’ gun is British Secret Service issue and his loose-limbed stance is a well crafted deception.
“Then, if it’s not too much trouble, I’m going to ask again: what the hell is going on here?” William’s fierce anger is waning into irritation and confusion.
“We have an…associate in common,” James says, flashing one of those tight smiles again. “She asked me to look into some people she heard were looking into you. Unfortunately John here is an excellent tracker, for all his lack of intelligence regarding the art of the double-cross, and was already close on your tail when I caught up to him.”
“How long do we have?” William asks, touching the bridge of his nose.
“A little less than thirty minutes, I would say,” James says, checking his watch. “I tried to stop him but he just didn’t trust me. I can’t think why not.”
“That’s not long enough for a clean extraction,” William says.
“No. It’s not even long enough for a messy extraction,” James agrees. “We’ll have to do this the hard way.”
“Story of my life,” William says, burying a sudden desperate urge to laugh. “Do you have a car?”
“Stupid question, William,” James says with another smile. William realises in that moment that they’re not smiles of humour but something much, much darker.
“Is there anyone else in this building?” William asks, looking for any kind of nearby accelerant.
“There’s no-one for miles,” James says. “Our friend there liked the idea of the shack out in the woods a little too much.”
“Good, give me a hand,” William says, pulling cupboard doors open.
“I like the way you think, William,” James says, joining him.
“By the way,” James says as they drive away from the burning building. “I haven’t introduced myself. My name is B-”
“I know who you are,” William says, waving a hand. “And I have an idea who our mutual acquaintance is.”
“Would you like to visit her?” James asks, sliding his car around the dirt track’s curving corners.
“I’d like to see my family,” William says. They’d found his cell (and his case) tucked into the backseat of John’s car but the sim card was gone.
“They’re safe, I assure you,” James says. “You’d only –”
“- put them in more danger, I know,” William flexes his hands on his knees.
“I don’t know what you did to impress Victoria,” James says, shaking his head. “The team she pulled together to look after your family are the best your country has.”
“I bet,” William can see it. Moses and probably Boggs too. He really hopes Moses brought his girlfriend along or his kids are going to learn a lot of things he’s never wanted them to learn.
“Let’s just…go see Victoria, okay,” he relaxes his hands and breathes out. “I want to put this mess to bed.”
“Of course,” James nods, executing an entirely unnecessary handbrake turn. “She’ll probably have a way for you to speak to your family. For peace of mind. Hold on, will you.”
“Hold – what?” William asks as the car violently lurches off the track onto one that’s even narrower.
“We’ve got some company,” James says, sliding the car back and forth over the track.
“You know this isn’t the best off-road vehicle, right?” William grips the door as a bright spotlight suddenly appears on the dirt ahead of them.
“I wasn’t really expecting to be escaping quite so dramatically,” James says, spinning the wheel as they cut another tight corner. “This car is perfect high-speed chases on good roads.”
“Don’t do much work in the sticks, do you?” William asks, leaning forward in his seat to glimpse the helicopter shadowing them. Military grade.
“Mountain roads, ski chases, dogfights,” James lists. “Free-running, tanks, speedboats – all easier than negotiating one of your bloody backroads. You might need that M16 in a moment.”
“Where –” James jerks his head back and William turns his head to look into the back seat. He swears that M16 wasn’t there before.
“I have the feeling that someone –” they hear the sharp rattling sound of P90 over the protests of the car. “Ah, there they are.”
Headlights reflect in William’s face via the side mirror and he blinks.
“Be a good man and hold them off, will you?” James says. “Another five hundred yards should do it.”
“I’m not even going to ask,” William says, buzzing the window down and undoing his seatbelt. The car dings at him as he turns in his seat leaning just far enough out the window to aim the M16 back towards the SUV chasing them down.
“Best that way, it’d ruin the surprise,” James shouts over the gunfire. “Sharp turn.”
William stops firing long enough to grip the car door as the car veers violently around a corner. He dimly recognises the feeling of one of James’ hands on the waist of his pants, holding him steady.
I’ve put myself in the hands of a madman, he thinks. Then: no, I’ve put myself in the hands of the best agent in the world.
The car straightens out and Bond’s hand disappears. William takes careful aim, knowing better than the waste bullets the way the people chasing them are, and succeeds in blowing out the front tires of the SUV. It weaves back and forth for a moment before coming to a violent halt, hood first in a tree trunk and blocking the rest of the track.
“Now we just have to worry about the helicopter,” William says, drawing himself back into the car.
“Don’t worry about that,” James says. “That should be about five hundred yards.”
A bright flash lights the track as if on cue, James braking hard in the sudden illumination, and rocket smoke shoots up from the ground. There’s an almost deafening explosion over head and a secondary, orange, flare of light.
The helicopter falls to the ground to their right, crushing a stand of trees in the process. William sighs. The passenger door behind him opens, the car shifting as someone else joins them. William gets poked in the arm with part of what he’s sure is a small rocket launcher.
“Home, James,” another English accent. Female.
“Yes, marm,” James says, flashing William a real smile this time.
“We haven’t had the pleasure,” the woman extends a hand past the rocket launcher. “Victoria.”
“I know who you are,” William says, staring at the hand for a moment before shaking it.
“Of course you do, silly me,” Victoria says, settling back. “Do put your seatbelt on, won’t you? That infernal beeping will give me a headache.”
William fights down the desperate laughter again as he clips his seatbelt back into place. The beeping will give her headache.
The car bumps off the dirt track onto a sudden, welcome smoothness of road. William huffs out a breath.
“Don’t worry, Mr Cooper, it will all be over soon,” Victoria says.
“What will be over?” William says, voice suddenly too loud in the car. “For fuck’s sake, I still don’t know what’s going on.”
“James,” Victoria admonishes. “You were supposed to debrief him.”
“I haven’t really had the time, Victoria,” James says.
“Don’t try to tell me you can’t drive and talk at the same time, James,” Victoria says. “Your predecessors never had any problem with that.”
“I’m not them,” James says, an edge creeping into his voice.
“No, I keep forgetting,” Victoria is quiet for a moment. “Allow me, then.”
It goes like this: Dunning had had connections. The sort of connections that aren’t happy when their pet CIA handler is taken away from them. William’s name had been on the cover-up (not that the CIA thought of it as a cover-up, given that they had no idea what had really happened) and William had become the target of their fury.
“It’s your own fault, dear boy,” Victoria had said as they drove east. “You made it seem like we weren’t even there.”
Victoria had more connections, on both sides of international law, than the CIA could ever hope to cultivate. One of them got wind of a plot to take William down and she’d sprung into action.
“I had your name out there. Mostly for poor Marvin’s benefit – he doesn’t trust easily, as you know.”
James owed her more favours than he could count and was pressed into service, despite being the midst of a more important mission that William was disturbed to discover he knew nothing about.
“Bit above your pay grade, I’d say.”
William was well aware of what happened next, having been subjected to it in person, and was left only a little better informed.
“I can give you the information you need,” Victoria says, answering an unasked question at a gas station. “I’m sure James would be happy to help. But you must be the one to pull the trigger. It’s always best if we handle our own vengeance.”
“These people really would’ve attacked my family?” William asks, squinting against the harsh overhead lights.
“They wouldn’t have bothered to threaten you first,” Victoria says, looking every inch an ordinary person, casually leaning against the car. “You simply would’ve come home to find them gone, if you had escaped John.”
“Give what you have,” William says. “Get me near enough. I’ll take care of it.”
“These people don’t stop,” James says, returning to the car. “Remove one head, two more take its place.”
“Then I’ll have to make sure they’re…aware of what happens if they try again,” William says, pressing his palms against the roof of the car. “Just get me close.”
“Very well,” James opens his door. “Coming Victoria?”
“I have business to attend to elsewhere,” Victoria says, stepping away from the car. “This has all the information you need.”
She hands William a flash drive, no bigger than his thumb, then hands him a cell phone.
“Burner phone,” she says at his raised eyebrow. “One call, one number. I think you’ll pleased with the results. Send James back to me when you’re done with him – there’s one more thing I need him to do before he goes back to work.”
William nods. Victoria squeezes his hands and smiles at him briefly before backing away. William climbs into the car and looks in the side mirror as the door shuts. Victoria is already gone. He shakes his head.
“She was forever doing that to me when I was in training,” James says as they pull out of the gas station. “Cunning woman.”
“Do you know where to take me?” William asks, turning the cell over in his hands.
“Yes,” James nods. “Do you want me to –”
“I work better alone,” William says, pre-empting the question.
“He’s what? Who got him to do that?”
“Put him on, yeah, put him on the phone.”
“Yeah – yeah I know, Uncle Marvin is cool. Just – don’t believe everything he says, okay?”
“Uncle Frank did what? How did he even know that – okay. Okay.”
“No, I don’t know if you’ll get to see them again.”
“He did what? Listen, I’m glad you’re sharing with your brother. Please, get your mother.”
“God, just, tell Moses that I don’t want my kids playing with guns, okay?”
“No, I know, they’ll probably do eventually. I just don’t –”
“Well, of course I can’t think of anyone better to show –”
“Fine. Okay. Fine. Just – don’t let it get out of hand.”
“Maybe a couple of days. You’ll be safe, I promise.”
“I love you too, honey. See you soon.”
It takes a few hours pouring over Victoria’s information at an internet café for William to find the perfect angle of attack. It takes another two hours with his case to create everything he needs.
It takes him two minutes to break into Albertson’s illicit love nest. Seven to write the perfect suicide note, too perfect to be real, another two to make certain all the hidden cues aren’t too hidden.
Albertson is dead with thirty seconds of entering the apartment. William takes a few minutes to botch the clean up job, leaving just enough evidence to prove the scene is staged. He arranges Albertson face down on the bed, removes enough clothing to create the impression of something improper, and settles the gun beside him.
The gun is pre-prepared with the just barely there fingerprints of one of the names in Victoria’s information, drawn from the CIA database. Those in turn covered by the fingerprints made by forcing Albertson’s dead fingers around the grip.
The final clue is made by forcing the door slightly. Not enough that the LEO’s that’ll pick this up will notice, but enough that the other investigators that come along will.
William makes sure any evidence of himself is removed before he shuts the door on the new story he’s just written. He allows himself a smile and makes his way out of the building.
James is waiting for him on the opposite side of the street. William shakes his head when he sees him.
“I thought I told you I didn’t need you?” William asks, letting James take his case and slip it into the backseat.
“Thought I’d make sure you weren’t interrupted,” James nods towards the hulking man sheltering in the doorway of the brothel next to the apartment building. “I don’t think he even noticed you were there.”
“That’s because, as the team they send in to investigate will discover, there was something strange in his drink tonight,” William says, sliding into the car.
“I really do like the way you think, William,” James says as he joins him. “Such a shame you’re American.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” William snorts as James pulls away from the curb.
“You’d make am excellent Englishman,” James says with a shrug. “Just the right sort of deceptive thinking we appreciate.”
“Take me back to my family, James,” William says, suppressing laughter he suspects will only encourage James.
“Anything you say, William,” James says, patting his leg briefly. “You might want to get some sleep. You look terrible.”
William can’t stop the laughter this time, burying his face in his hands in an effort to muffle it.
“Fuck you, Bond,” he says between his fingers. “Take me home.”
William Cooper is good at his job. There was a time that he didn’t know precisely how good he was. Then he faked a faked suicide that implicated another person entirely.
He is an artist with death and the causes of death and his country needs him to be best artist he can possibly be.
Knowing that there’s a handful of extremely dangerous retirees looking after his family allows him to do that.
Knowing that there’s a British agent out there who likes the way he thinks lets him know he’s more a CIA wet man with a creative gift.
Knowing that his kids will never behave more than two days in a row, unless their Uncle Frank or Uncle Marvin tells them to, grounds him.
William Cooper is the best there is at what he does.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.