Chapter 1 - April 30, 1953
James Bond slammed his hands down on the steering wheel of his 1939 Ford DeLuxe as it sputtered and died. Damn carburetor again, he knew. Shoulda cleaned it before he split, but he hadn’t wanted to hang around longer than necessary.
After the War, he’d landed in Washington DC - taking up Felix’s offer of a position as a liaison with the Navy. He’d tried going home first, of course, but there’d been precious little left for him there, and nothing worth fighting for.
Washington had been a welcome change. He was free to reinvent himself as he pleased, and he pleased to play the rake, the cad, the scoundrel.
All that changed when that damn McCarthy started spewing his vitriol all over the headlines. Nobody took it seriously at first - not til the first purges went through. James had stayed as long as he dared, but eventually he’d been tipped off that his name had come up on a list, and rather than be shipped off back to Britain, he’d resigned his position.
That was three days ago.
James had left home with nothing but his tool box and a shopping bag full of clothes and started driving. He’d had Chicago in mind, far away from the drama of Washington and the travesty of McCarthy but still big enough to get lost in if he needed to. And he’d heard good things about Old Town. Now he was fifty miles away from his goal and stranded in the middle of a cornfield. Wonderful.
He shoved open the door and climbed out. Under the hood, the engine mocked him, gleaming dully in the afternoon sun. James wiped a hand down his face as he stared accusingly at the air cleaner. He really ought to replace the damn thing, carburetor and all, but that cost money, something he didn’t have much of at the moment. He should have had a stash ready to go. He’d seen the writing on the wall, but had elected to ignore it, and now he was paying the price.
Wasn’t much to do now but find a garage and hope they’d let him camp in his backseat in their parking lot until he could get her fixed up. James stuck out his thumb and started walking backwards along the road and it wasn’t too long before a blue Freightliner rumbled to a stop beside him. He pulled open the door and a red-faced man in overalls and a plaid shirt rolled to the elbows grinned at him.
“Where ya headed?” His voice was as robust as his complexion, his expression open and friendly. Despite himself, James found he liked the man.
“Not far. Car broke down a few miles back, wondered if you could recommend a good shop, and a tow?”
The driver gave him a scrutinizing look, then nodded. “Best shop ’round here is M’s. They’ll get you fixed up. Hop in.”
“Thanks,” James said, and smiled. He settled into the passenger seat and leaned his elbow out the window, watching as more corn, a few trees and houses, and the occasional gas station rolled by.
“Where you from?” the driver asked, and James rolled his eyes. It was the first question he always got. The downside of ‘having an accent.’
“Born in Wales, raised in London, most recently a resident of the nation’s capital.”
“Haven’t found anywhere to settle just yet.” It was a half-truth. He’d have stayed in Washington if he could have, but obviously that wasn’t meant to be.
“Ah.” A small conspiratorial smile crept onto the driver’s face. “Don’t you worry. You will. Little sweetheart’ll trap you in her eyes, and you’ll never roam again.”
James snorted. If only it was that easy. He’d had a sweetheart, once. Long dark hair and piercing, intelligent eyes who matched him jibe for jibe when he’d tried to pull her at a dance. She’d been adamant that she’d never dance with a boy like him - sixteen and still coming into his voice - but she’d relented at last and they’d promised to marry when he came home after the war.
Six years in the Royal Navy changes a lot - and it changed her even more. She hadn’t waited, and when he arrived on the platform, duffel still slung over his shoulder and a ring in his pocket, it was to her and her freshly-minted husband Joseph Lynd.
He’d got back on the train, and never looked back. Booked passage to America to put as much distance between them as possible. Looked up Felix when he landed, and then got a job and a green card. It had been good. Until it wasn’t.
He supposed he should feel lucky he hadn’t been handed over to the police. He supposed he should be relieved that he hadn’t been beaten. He supposed he should be grateful that he wasn’t dead.
At the moment, though, he didn’t much feel like being any of those things.
“Don’t dismiss it,” the driver continued. “You never know when she’ll fall right into your lap, and you’ll be helpless to her charms.”
“If you say so,” James conceded. “Right now I’m just looking to get my car off the side of the road.”
“Oh, ’course. M’s is just up the road here.”
Not far in the distance, James could see a giant green-and-white billboard painted with the words ‘M’s International Drive and Dine Cafe and Garage on Highway 6 - 2 Miles Ahead, Then Left.’
“Couldn’t hardly miss that, could you?” James said drily.
It was the driver’s turn to snort, but his was of amusement instead of derision. “Not even if you were blind.”
Five minutes passed, and the driver made the left, turning at the junction of 6 and 20, and on the left a mile farther, gleaming like an Airstream, was a diner with a green-and-white awning over the door with ‘M’s International Cafe’ in foot-high neon script across the front of the building. Two cars were parked in front of the diner, which boded well for four o’clock on a Thursday. To the left, a concrete block three-stall garage sat behind a set of six Sinclair gas pumps. As the truck rumbled to a stop, a kid with short brown hair dressed in a Sinclair green shirt and brown trousers sprinted out of the garage office up to the driver’s door. James guessed his age to be maybe fourteen, and he had the rangy, awkward gait of a boy who hadn’t quite gotten used to the length of his limbs.
“Hiya, Pete! What can we do you for?” he chirped up through the open window.
“Just dropping off a passenger, Jack,” the driver replied kindly. “Found him up the road a pace, says his car broke down.”
“Oh, tough luck.” The kid pulled himself onto the side of the truck and stuck his head through the driver’s window and grinned broadly at James. “Hiya!”
James couldn’t help but return the smile. “Hello.”
“Well, this is your stop, sonny, so hop on out. I’ve gotta finish my run to Gary and make it back to Liza for supper, and it’ll be a near thing.” He turned to Jack. “See you next week!” James smirked at the driver’s calling him ‘sonny’ - he hadn’t looked young in nearly a decade - but bit back the ‘thanks, gramps’ that threatened to pass his lips. He’d been in the States long enough to realize that friendly ribbing didn’t always translate well.
“Lucky you ran into Pete,” Jack said conversationally as James walked with him across the gravel lot.
“‘Cause M’s is the best garage in town!” Jack said a bit too brightly. “Everybody says so. Well, everybody that matters, anyway.”
“Oh,” James said. What else could he say?
“I’ll take you to Q. He’s the real mechanic around here, I just pump the gas, really. And wash the windshields. But he’s teaching me. I’d like to have my own shop someday.”
“I hope you can.” James envied the boy his enthusiasm.
Gravel crunched behind them, and James turned to see a Studebaker Commander pull in at a pump. Jack gave him an apologetic smile.
“Q’ll be in bay three, working on the Chevy. I’ve gotta take care of the customer!” He dashed off towards the car, and James was left to find Q - whatever kind of name that was - himself.
James kept the relief from his face as best he could. Jack was fine, but James was hardly in the mood for idle conversation. Come to think of it, he was rarely in the mood for idle conversation, and there was something about Jack that made him even less inclined. It probably had something to do with his mile-a-minute delivery and bright-eyed naivete. Oh well.
James poked his head into the third overhead door from the office and there was a cherry red Chevy Bel Air up on the lift, but no sign of any human.
“Hello?” James called tentatively.
A head poked out from behind a 1932 Ford three-window that had been very obviously customized. The sun glinted off the sea-blue paint, and the man that emerged from behind her ran a cloth over her hood as he passed, then tucked it into his pocket.
He was thin and pale, but not scrawny, with heavy-framed spectacles, and dark hair that looked like he’d stuck it into a vat of grease - which he somehow pulled off to excellent effect. He also looked to be eighteen at the absolute oldest, but there was something in the slope of his shoulders, they way his arms and chest filled the white t-shirt he wore, and the angle of his jaw that belied his apparent youth. He wore faded Levis, and had a pack of cigarettes folded into his sleeve. He pulled the pack out as he walked up, deftly pulling a single cigarette from the pack with his lips then folding it back into his sleeve in a ritual that took less than three steps to complete. It was impressive, and the corner of James’ mouth quirked up slightly.
“Can I help you?” the man said in a voice matched to his frame - musical in a way James rarely heard in the States. He wondered if it was from some kind of vocal lessons or if he’d just naturally been born with it.
“I’m looking for Q,” James said. He looked a bit longingly at the cigarette between the man’s full lips, but wasn’t rude enough to ask for a smoke.
“You must be joking.”
“Why, because I’m not wearing coveralls?” The challenge was clear in his well-modulated tenor.
“No, because you’re still in nappies,” James said instinctively and winced.
But instead of getting bent out of shape, Q simply smirked.
“Should I go and fetch your rocking chair? Gonna chase me off the lawn?” Q’s eyes sparked with mischief.
“Youth is overrated,” James said, deadpan.
“Only because you’ve lost it,” Q returned.
“Not lost. Traded. So you can be allowed to be a jumped-up little shit.”
There was a subtle shift in Q’s expression. He never quite lost the attitude, but his posture straightened and his eyes grew serious.
“I’ll have you know that not only am I ten years older than Jack out there,” he pointed to the gas pumps, “I’m also the best mechanic in the county, possibly in the whole Region.”
James lifted an eyebrow, impressed with his confidence.
“Bond,” he said, “James Bond.” He stuck out his hand. Q grasped it in his, and James noticed the blunt fingertips edged in black grease.
“All right, James Bond.” Q rolled his eyes. “Now that we have that out of the way, what can I help you with?”
“Car broke down up on 20. Was hoping I could have it towed here so I could fix her up.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it.”
James huffed a laugh, but really, he looked less like a mechanic than Q. His close-cropped military-style haircut under a gray fedora and his gray flannel suit didn’t exactly scream ‘grease monkey’ to anyone. But he could, hopefully, prove it.
He meandered over to the Bel Air and peered up into the chassis. It took a bit of looking, but he finally figured out what was wrong, and then turned to Q, hands shoved casually into his pockets.
“Radiator support is going bad. You can either replace it or reinforce it, but make sure your weld is quality, otherwise they’ll be back here in three months with the same problem.”
Q gave him a considering look, then must have decided something, because he nodded and smiled.
“Go on over to the Cafe. Tell M I’ve gone to pick up your car. Have a cuppa coffee,” James never could be grateful enough for Americans’ love of coffee over tea, “and I’ll be back in a jiffy. Whaddya drive?”
“A ’39 Ford, cherry red. You can’t miss it.”
Q whistled. “Neither can the cops, I bet.”
James let the smirk slide all the way into his lips. “I’ve been known to talk my way out of a ticket or two.”
Q chuckled. “Bet you could talk your way out of a lot of things.”
James felt a little trickle of something like recognition slide down his spine. Q’s eyes locked to his, hazel green behind the lenses. It lasted half a beat too long, and then James tore his eyes away and shoved the moment out of his mind.
He cleared his throat and dipped his head.
“Well, thanks for the tow.” He touched the brim of his hat and beat a hasty retreat. It wasn’t until he was halfway across the parking lot that he realized Q had never asked where he was from. It was the standard question he received from everyone he met, but Q hadn’t asked. He mulled it over, turning the peculiarity around and around in his head til he felt dizzy with it, and decided that perhaps Q was trying to be a different kind of polite.
James pulled open the door to the cafe and the smell of cooking food and hot coffee enveloped him. He pulled off his hat and hung it on a hook. An older woman with graying hair pulled up in a bun and wearing a smart green uniform dress poured coffee for a couple of men at the counter. A family was gathered around a table to his right, each with a plate in front of them, and James’ stomach growled when he saw the shepherd’s pie half-finished in front of the father. To his left, a set of four teens, probably close to Jack’s age, all sipping from one soda glass in the corner booth. James walked to the counter and slipped onto a stool, playing idly with the mug set on a napkin in front of him.
“Order up!” came a tenor cry from the kitchen.
The woman turned and pulled a plate down from the service window behind her, and slid it into place in front of one of the other men at the counter. The plate was overflowing with spaghetti and meatballs and James’ stomach growled again. When he caught a whiff of the sauce, his mouth began to water.
“Thanks, M.” Ah, so this was the famous M of “M’s International Cafe.”
“Hmm.” Her tone of disapproval and the firm line of her mouth told James instantly that he should probably not deal with her lightly.
“Aw, don’t be that way. I said I’d have it for ya Tuesday!”
“Oh yes, Wimpy, I’ve heard that one before.”
“Ain’t I always paid you back, though?”
“Tuesday,” she said, and a shiver ran down James’ back. There was steel in her voice, and a strength that came from the very pit of her soul. This was not a woman to be trifled with, but she was also fair, accommodating even. Rare indeed, these days.
“Cross my heart,” Wimpy said, and the sincerity in his voice couldn’t be feigned.
She nodded, refilled his coffee, and then set her eyes on James.
James considered himself a pretty shrewd customer and a good judge of people. He’d had to be, it was part of the job - aside from the wining and dining, he had to assess ‘moral character.’ But there was something in M’s eyes that he’d rarely seen before: cold but not cruel, iron hard but also strangely inviting. Like she could easily draw your darkest secrets from you, but also be able to keep them.
Secrets, no matter what flavor, were a dangerous commodity, a lesson burned into him ceaselessly by the headlines in the papers, the urgent broadcasts on the radio, the Sunday morning television news. His own secrets churned suddenly in his stomach: stolen moments in men’s rooms, desperate to slake a desire he hadn’t known existed until he’d been stationed in the Andaman Sea. Well, he could pretend to blame Ronson for a lot of things, but that probably wasn’t one of them. He’d quite frankly thought it was just a stand-in. No girls, little shore leave, plenty of down time. He’d lived in Washington for only a few months when he’d been approached, in exactly the same way Ronson had done, and he’d realized it wasn’t just a lack of girls that caused his heart to race at the thought of another man.
“What’ll it be?”
James was snapped back to his stool by M’s voice. He blinked stupidly at her for a moment until her words sank in, and then nodded. “Just a cup of coffee, please.”
“Well, flip your mug, then,” she demanded, and the corner of James’ mouth quirked upwards in spite of himself.
“Yes, ma’am.” The response was automatic, slipping out without James’ conscious thought. She commandeered that kind of respect innately, and James was happy to give it to her. Her eyes softened infinitesimally.
He flipped the mug, and M poured the coffee. “You’re the guy that got off Pete’s truck, then.” It wasn’t a question.
“Got a name?”
She merely nodded, amusement dancing in her eyes, and he felt a bit of understanding pass between them. Not so much that he was going to spill his life story, but the kind of understanding that comes with knowing about people, about how people are and how they could be if given half a chance.
They knew each other in this small moment, and James was only mildly surprised when she asked, “Are you sticking around for a bit?”
“I ought to move on,” James admitted. “But I’ll have to fix my car first. Shouldn’t take more than a day.”
“You? You’re not going to have Q do it?” She seemed genuinely surprised, and James sighed. He’d have to explain again about his rash decision to drive halfway across the country with ten dollars to his name.
“No, ma’am. Not that I think he couldn’t, but—” He looked down at the counter and ran a finger around the edge of his mug. “I can’t pay for the work,” he finally admitted.
“Then you’ll work for the work.”
James’ head shot up at that.
“I can’t have every Tom, Dick and Harry just waltzing in here using Q’s workshop as their own. Wouldn’t do. But you work here at the cafe while he’s fixing your car, we’ll call it square.”
No questions about his past, or why he was out of money, or where he’d come from, or why he was travelling. No questions at all, in fact. Just an offer of assistance.
“Absolutely, ma’am,” James said, standing.
M nodded, all brusque efficiency. “Good. You’ll start by sweeping the floors.” She waved a hand at him, motioning him to sit. “Finish your coffee. I’ll find you after. And here,” she held out a pack of cigarettes. “You could probably use one after the day you’ve had. This one’s on the house, but don’t expect that kind of generosity to continue.”
“No, ma’am. Thank you, ma’am.” James sat back down.
“And stop this ma’am business. I’m M - just M - and that’s all I’ll answer to.”
“I understand,” James replied, and meant it. M nodded and whisked herself away, back into the kitchen.
An M and a Q - what was next, a W working the grill? An F bussing tables? It was a bit bizarre, but he found he rather enjoyed the small mystery of it. He smiled to himself as he lifted his mug and took a sip of his coffee - it was excellent, brewed strong and fresh - then opened the pack of cigarettes and pulled one out. He fished in his breast pocket for his lighter, and took a long, satisfying drag, the flavor of tobacco and coffee mingling in the back of his throat familiar and relaxing.
Well, the whole lot of them could call themselves what they liked. James had been given a fair deal, and that was all he cared.