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Just like in the pulp magazines

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Doctor Vipera - aka Elle Murphy of 89 Crosslet Vale, Greenwich, England - had a plan. It was immaculate, as her plans always were; she did not take kindly to being derailed. And by a dilettante in a rumpled tuxedo, at that. Fucking Double-Oh. Elle knew for a fact he practiced his seduction routines in the mirror.

She’d bugged his apartment years ago.

 

Her ex-husband had never managed that, had he? No, with him everything had to be a damned show. The uniformed henchmen, the genetically-engineered attack dogs (nocturnal vision, acidic saliva, increased stamina; retained the same unfortunate weakness for sedative-laced doggie biscuits), the cavernous underground bunker, the lasers. Why, you might think he was looking to be found.

They were supposed to rule the world together.

Not that she told him that. Oh, she’d seen what he wanted right away. The marriage. The children. The three bedroom in a good neighbourhood, the wife waiting for him at the door. Some ridiculous notion he had about proving his fitness for society in spite of his job. And that was the problem, wasn’t it? His attentions were alway divided. His heart just wasn’t in it.

She was forced to admit he wasn’t much of a supervillain. Technical brilliance but no real passion for the work.

Still, she played her part. Kept up the charade. Made gelatin desserts. Elle thought she might be able to influence him; wives did that, didn’t they? Some rot about great women behind great men. And then reveal herself, triumphantly, and they would take their rightful place as the force behind the world’s biggest crime syndicates. Alas, it was not to be.

The great Captain Calamity, felled by the only foe he could never defeat. Love.

Men never did follow through on their end of the bargain, did they? Pathetic creatures. She could almost feel bad for him.

But not quite.

 

Elle might have enacted an elaborate revenge against him if she didn’t have better things to do. Instead she threw out every tube of red lipstick and floral dress she had, and got down to business.

(Well. She did poison Double-Oh. But only once, and mildly.)

 

She reopened her labs. One had been running already - the psychotropic drugs; she couldn’t bear to let it go, and they made so much money since the advent of the hippies - but once the children were with Theodore she could return to work full time.

“It’s good to have you back,” Petra said as they toured the bio-weapons facility together. Elle noted that she had traded her glass eye for an eyepatch. She approved. It was much more striking.

That was another thing Theodore couldn’t grasp. It was so much better to form alliances that to uselessly compete with one another.

“I tried to kill your husband a couple of times,” said Petra. “I hope there are no hard feelings. It was not personal.”

“He’s my ex-husband,” said Elle. “Haven’t you heard? I left domestic bliss behind.”

“Perhaps I should have succeeded,” Petra mused. “It might have been a lovely welcome back present.”

“You’re a dear,” said Elle. “But some uranium will do.”

 

She took the children for weekends, picking them up on Friday evenings. Theodore had provided her with an apartment in the city as part of the terms of the divorce. Not that she needed anything from him; but there were principles to consider. She had worked on that sham of a marriage.

The proof was standing in front of her, gaping at the interior of their new temporary home.

“What?” Elle asked.

Her daughter blinked. “It’s so dark.”

Of course it was. She’d painted it a deep charcoal, with crimson accents. Living between spotless white walls had come near to driving her mad. There had been so much sunshine. Really, it was a relief to leave the house to Theodore and Double-Oh - or Sean, she supposed, now that he’d retired. They were enjoying glorious normalcy more than she ever could.

“Mummy likes dark,” said Elle. “Eric, do stop staring like a fish. Go put your things away.”

“What’s that?” he asked, pointing to the enormous safe installed into the living room wall.

Guns. “Grown-up toys. They aren’t for little boys so they must be locked up.”

Dora was eyeing the safe with unsettling interest. Hallelujah. The child might be hers in spirit as well as body, after all.

Elle tapped her on the shoulder. “Follow your brother. It’s bedtime soon.”

Dora groaned. “But I’m not tired!”

“None of that. Don’t you want some gingerbread and ice cream before bed? Then be a good girl and do as Mummy says.”

That got her moving. Elle checked her communicator while she was alone. That fucking Agent Forty-Nine was at it again. She had been spotted skulking around the perimeter of Elle’s Perth installation, which was doing such wonderful things with radio waves. Now their top scientist was missing.

Somehow the fact that Agent Forty-Nine was American made it all the more insulting. Something had to be done.

Elle got out a bottle of wine and was pouring herself a glass when Dora came back into the kitchen. She had changed into her pyjamas.

“Can I try some?” she asked.

“Certainly not.”

Dora’s eyes narrowed. “Daddy let me try his martini.”

Elle stared. An unrepentant lie, right to her face. She felt an echo of maternal pride.

“Clever girl,” she said. “That was very well done. But no, he didn’t.”

 

She had trouble sleeping that night. For a while she watched the feed she’d had installed in Sean and Theodore's bedroom, but they were only fooling around and it was boring as hell. She always hoped to catch them in a fight but she never did.

When she did drift off she dreamt of a girl in a miniskirt, wandering through her research facility in Perth. It was as empty as though it had never been used, except for Dr. Gunnarson, whom she found huddled under a desk. She lifted him into her arms and carried him bridal style from the room.

 

Double-Oh was working in the yard when she dropped the children off. He was relaxed and pleasantly disheveled; at times like this Elle could almost understand what Theodore saw in him. She called him over after Dora and Eric got out.

He approached her slowly, with a stiff smile. He was a bit wary around her since the whole poisoning business. Not that he could pin anything on her.

“Sean,” she said, sweetly, “is my daughter correct when she tells me that you’ve been giving her alcohol?”

He reared back, eyes going wide. “No! I’d never -”

“Darling,” she said, and put a hand on his arm. “I’m only kidding.”

“Oh,” he said, and looked down at her hand on his arm. At her long nails. “Ha. Haha.”

Theodore came around the back of the house. He was carrying a hose and wearing gardening gloves.

“Elle,” he said, carefully, and leaned into the window. “What’s going on?”

“Just enjoying a little joke,” she said, and squeezed Sean’s arm. “Aren’t we?”

“Oh yes,” he said. “Yes. Of course.”

Theodore put a comforting hand on Sean’s back. They were appalling. “Why don’t you go help the kids get tea ready?”

He watched Sean go into the house - trying not to break into a jog, Elle noticed - and then turned back to her. They shared a long silence. It reminded her of being married.

“How are you?” he asked. “Really?”

He looked so relaxed, she thought. She had never seen him like that. He looked happy. An ember of dull jealously lit up in her chest. Not for Sean, no. It was a broader problem than that, not so easy to pin down. Maybe she resented that she had never really known him. Or that he had never known her.

“Me? I’m brilliant,” she said. “I’ve just started a new job.”

 

She watched the surveillance tapes from Perth later that night. The footage was grainy and distorted, but it was clear enough for Elle’s purposes. Agent Forty-Nine both was and wasn’t what she had been expecting. She invaded Doctor Vipera’s property while wearing a bouffant hairdo and a catsuit.

The agent carefully moved between cameras, snipping the wires. All but the one that caught her, hidden inside a column. She turned towards it, looking back over her shoulder and giving Elle a tantalizing glimpse of her profile. Even with the terrible quality her bone structure was notable, and her dark skin gleamed.

That catsuit was very tight.

On the screen, Agent Forty-Nine lifted her hand and waved.

Elle realized two things: that she was clutching her drink more tightly than was strictly necessary and that her left eyelid was twitching. She forced herself to stop both.

 

Agent Forty-Nine was born Naima Temple in Boise, Idaho. Her childhood and family were both nondescript. No siblings, parents deceased - father of a heart attack, mother of cancer. Orphaned six months before she turned twenty-one. Attended secretarial school while staying with an aunt who taught kindergarten. Dropped off the map completely a year later and turned up in England, making Elle’s life hell.

She blew up two of Elle’s best facilities that fall. In the ruins she left a note (inflammable paper; marvelous invention). XOXOX it read, and was sealed with a lipstick kiss.

 

“That’s how it starts,” Theodore told her one night over drinks, after she’d had enough to loosen her tongue. He had found her out during an incident with NATO (“As though you’re the only one who can have a secret,” she had snarled at him while tear gas canisters exploded around them) and proved to be a much more useful ally than a husband. He was - well, he was almost a friend.

Strange. She’d never had a friend before.

Did that warrant sending Sean flowers? She would make sure they were non-toxic, if so.

“Not for me,” she declared, and turned up her nose. She would put the incident out of her mind; she had a brilliant career ahead of her and no pesky little American would distract her from it.

(At night she dreamt about the taste of lipstick.)