James’s eyes didn’t leave the paper for at least five more minutes before his icy blue pupils turned to Gareth Mallory’s tightly pursed lips. To be given such a task wasn’t something the forty-year-old Londoner was accustomed to, yet it seemed very clear what the other man was looking for.
“And that’s only an extract, Mr Bond,” Mallory added, his fingers holding another handful of paper sheets in a way James would have described as ‘not so relaxed’. “Hopefully we managed to confiscate all of the copies of today’s Waltham Forest. But I do not believe this Q will leave us alone for a long time.” He had emphasised the pen-name with such disdain that James fought not to smirk. That was typically what Mallory was like, bossy, uptight and always terribly dramatic.
“And what is it that you want me to do?” James asked, the cigarette the other man had offered to him rolling between his thumb and forefinger.
In return Mallory gave him an imploring look, breaking James’s shell of neutrality for good and ever-so-slightly tugging the corner of his lips.
“You already know, Bond,” he replied, dropping the mister as he felt like James was wasting his time with his questions. If the agent sometimes deemed himself straightforward, Gareth Mallory was being straight to the point at its finest. “This little prig of Q is threatening Britain in a way I’m not entirely willing to admit.” He paused to take a drag of tobacco, puffing the smoke away with his usual cold and calculated grace. “With Germany waking up and those Soviet bastards, let me tell you, Bond, that we don’t need this.”
By we, Mallory meant that Bond and he had common interests, but James wasn’t so sure anymore. Time had went by and what he had first taken for commonly shared values and best interests were now being questioned by years of playing the King’s good dog or whatever that was. In the name of patriotism, James had done things he often thought about during his long sleepless nights – killing, kidnapping, stealing, wounding.
“We stopped three of their publications already, but this-“ His finger pointed at the paper in James’s hands, on which was written in bold characters Britain kills Maasai culture. “This is going overboard. M has been clear enough: more than ever, the King needs a united and strong Empire.”
James simply nodded, his eyes wandering again on the article. He wasn’t asked his opinion on the matter – did he even have an opinion on British colonies? Everyone seemed to have nowadays, but he didn’t. Yet the prose was convincing, the tone urgent and passionate; and he now understood why Mallory thought those articles were more important than any other anti-colonialist pamphlets that were printed every day.
“You want me to kill them?”
“I want you to get rid of them,” Mallory attempted to correct him even though the aloofness in his eyes were enough information.
“Do you have any more information?” James had learnt soon enough not to delay his agreement too long.
Another puff of smoke was blown out of Mallory’s mouth before the man angrily replied, “No. Not a clue. We searched for any other Q in universities’ papers. Nothing. We don’t even know if this is a group or a person, an initial or a randomly picked letter from the alphabet. The only thing that I can tell you is the man who wrote this had access to secret information and knows what he’s talking about. Chances are that he went to Africa, and stayed there for a long time. His understanding of their culture is deep and I bet he either hired an interpreter or learned local dialects himself.”
James had never been so far abroad, only finding himself in Egypt a couple of times, and his knowledge about Africa stopped at the picturesque childhood tales which were passed on, all about savages, lions and the savanna that James found equally ridiculous and fascinating.
“Our idea, Mr Bond,” Mallory added after finishing his cigarette, the mister appearing again now that he requested James’s full agreement again, “is for you to investigate on British soil, gather as much information as you can on which group might be likely to publish such content, who speaks whatever dialect those people speak and who’s been leaving Britain for Africa those last months. Then, if your inquiries aren’t successful, you’ll go to Kenya, to look for this Q man or this group and to get rid of them. By any means.”
After Bond nodded, Mallory seemed to relax in his seat and he lit another cigarette. “Perfect, Mr Bond. There’s a lecture tonight at the School of Oriental Studies, specifically dealing with the future of the British Empire. You’ll meet the crème of politically-dissident scholars. I want their name, just for the record.”
A knowing smile blossomed on James’s lips, after so many missions for the Secret Intelligent Service, he couldn’t pretend to be surprised by Mallory’s calculation anymore. There was something deeply sinister about obeying this man, but James had learnt over his teenage years that some dreadful things needed to be done in order to preserve his own best interests.
“Alright, 007, I expect this Q case to be ancient history very soon.”
His words were final and James knew better than to discuss them. After all, his reputation within the SIS of being a rather free-willed agent was not to be demonstrated anymore, as he regularly triggered M’s and Mallory’s ire along with a questionable amount of paperwork. With a smirk and a handshake, James left Mallory’s office and found himself in the familiar Great London’s streets.
The lecture at the School of Oriental Studies proved to be of little to no help at all, old scholars succeeding each other, contradicting each other depending on their political leaning and social background. None of them seemed to demonstrate a vigour or a faith strong enough to actually lead to any sort of action, James realised, quite disappointed. They all feared another Indian rebellion and 007 could barely hear about Africa throughout the whole two hours that the lecture lasted.
When he went out, he purposely leaned against the brick wall of the building, smoking a cigarette as he looked at the dozens of men walking out of the lecture hall. His trained ears listened to every one of them, pretending to be mesmerised by some birds pecking dry bread in Vandon Street. In the small black notebook which he always carried around, Bond had scrupulously written down their names during their intervention on the rostrum, and he now waited for anything.
As his first cigarette died between his fingers, James caught sight of a younger man he had not noticed during the lecture. Black-haired, thin, almost fragile-looking, spectacles. The sun setting didn’t come handy as James was trying to discreetly observe the man. His young age contrasted with those of the other scholars and the peaceful air on his face conveyed the impression that the other attendants’ fights had no repercussion on his mood. He was walking alone, calmly, sure of himself, but when he stepped under the light of a lamppost, James immediately spotted the shadow of a tan on the young man’s face.
Not very believable in this English early spring, James heard himself chuckle sarcastically in his head.
Their eyes met, and when he saw the intrigued and cautious look in the pale pupils of the young man, James knew he had to follow him in one way or another. Tossing the cigarette away, he let his eyes wander along the figure walking past him until he gauged the young man was far enough for him to invoked his double-agent’s skills. That wasn’t such a worry for him, almost a second nature, waiting in dark alleys, his breath short and quiet, invisible.
He followed him past Vandon Street and when he forked down Caxton Street, his walking indifferent to the other man a dozen of yards behind; then all the way down Buckingham Gate, the crowd there both helping James in his tailing and making it extremely more tedious as the young man’s clothes were nothing unusual, just a grey coat thrown on his slim frame and a common brownish hat distracting James’s attention. In fact, the young man was very common in himself, exception made of his tan James deemed quite dodgy. He would have suspected vacations on the Côte d’Azur or Spain, if only the tan wasn’t so intense, nor the young fellow so poorly dressed. James believed he had seen a badly patched-up hole in his coat and the leather of his briefcase was worn out in the corners.
Buckingham Gate then became Greencoat Row and James tried to shorten the distance the crowd had put between them. He had no idea of how he would approach the young man or if such a thing was needed for the moment. Gathering information, Mallory had said back in his office. He was gathering information by simply getting accustomed to this individual’s whereabouts.
The double-0 witnessed the exact moment at which the mysterious man realised he was being followed, his step quickening all of a sudden, as his grip tightened on his briefcase. James cursed under his breath as Francis Street stretched itself endlessly ahead of them.
Despite all of his training and his many years as a secret agent, James had to admit that this young man was cleverer than he had first thought, keeping his walking straight and hazardous at the same time, sliding between passers-by like a snake, not creating any disturbance in the constant flow of people. Fast and smooth.
He lost him in front of Westminster Cathedral, as he ran into a woman whose husband immediately defended, loud and bothersome, earning James the judgemental glares of other evening walkers. He would usually not give a damn, but this punctual deviation in his plans cost him his only lead.
James found himself in the middle of Soho, swallowed by a crowd of theatre-goers, without even knowing how his feet had led him there.
In between missions, the 00-agent always preferred the tranquil inactivity of the small flat he rented above a tailor shop in a rather fancy building of Chelsea. Not that he took pride in the appearance of his home, he had simply realised that the old man working on the ground floor was not one of those who asked questions. Even when an exhausted James came back in the middle of the night, the closed buttons of his suit hardly concealing obvious blood stains.
Hence Soho was the polar opposite of the place he wanted to be at the moment, his flat. Public houses weren’t something he particularly enjoyed, nor parlour houses, yet he found himself stepping inside a pub which looked rather agitated.
It was too late in the night to report his half-failed mission to Mallory, he told himself in an attempt of justifying his walking to the counter and his ordering of a pint.
A group of men, already quite drunk, was singing bawdy songs in a corner of the pub, and to avoid any more disturbance, James took his beer to the opposite side, sitting at a table and trying to drown his bitterness in his drink. He had felt so close to an actual lead that being outran by whom seemed to be a scrawny four-eyes had left its print in his self-esteem. He had no clue how to find this mysterious young man again, for now that his number one suspect had perceived his presence and the potential threat it meant, there was no way that he would show up again at any lecture.
In his defence, the youth seemed pretty smart and attentive to his surrounding - which confirmed James’s doubts, but also worried him about the tedious turn the mission had taken. He cursed himself several times, before closing his eyes and enjoying another mouthful of beer. Perhaps it was time for him to retire, no matter what Mallory would say.
Suddenly a laughter he would recognise among thousands pierced through the cacophony of the songs and, on alert, James scanned the crowd, his eyes falling on a table on the other side of the pub, surrounded by men and women standing, laughing loud and blocking James’s view. Yet there was no doubt.
In a swift motion, James stood up and made his way to the origin of the sound, his entrails clenching as he couldn’t believe what he thought was happening. Through his agitated mind, flashes of a silent shroud of snow spreading for as far as the eye can see, the wind freezing him to the bone, his revolver tightly secured in his fist, militiamen running after him. After them.
He elbowed his way through the small group of people surrounding the table and suddenly came face to face with a man he knew he too much.
Alec Trevelyan was in a middle of a sentence, his peculiar accent curling around his each syllable with the seductive turn which had made James fall for him more than once. His head was tilted to the side, his words whispered in an ear which belonged to a woman of easy virtue, Bond had no doubt about it. Alec stopped when James faced him, his mouth first slightly opening before it curved into a devilish smirk.
“What sort of dive do you patronise, James?”
The double-0 remained speechless, as if he was facing a ghost. Alec, his blond hair, his burnt cheek and his witted remarks. Alec, his friend and comrade. 006, the fallen angel.
“What the hell are you doing here?” James snarled, almost too aggressively. The women around him distanced themselves ever so slightly when they perceived the heated tone of the intruder with the icy glare.
“I asked first,” Alec replied, his self-contented smile still playing on his lips as he brought his cigarette to his mouth.
Oh, James knew this expression all too well, yet it never ceased to make his blood boil in his veins. His fists clenched tightly, but he didn’t have the time to reply, for Alec gestured at the women surrounding him and stood up.
“Ladies,” he bid farewell before silently and too calmly leading James to another spot of the pub, this time opting for a place where they could hardly be heard.
“Not the reunion I had in mind,” Alec taunted in a sigh, his drink swirling in his glass.
“Did you even think of a reunion?” James snapped. “For God’s sake, Alec, it’s been ten years!”
In spite of everything, James saw Alec’s temporary failure at keeping his annoying face, a hint of sadness flashing in his eyes. Gone, a second later.
“Don’t be bitter, I didn’t exactly plan my lay-off, James.”
A second of silence left the two men eager for more, eager to revive the old ties between them. Alec looked around, exposing his perfectly sharp jawline as his burn mark caught the light. Then, his green eyes turned back to the other man, his dangerously seductive and wolfish smile back on his lips.
“I know you, James. You wouldn’t wander in Soho without a good reason. So now tell me, what fish are you trying to catch, James?”
His name seemed to be endlessly uttered by Alec in the most vicious way, reminding James how close they once used to be.
“A Soviet spy,” the double-0 lied, the corners of his mouth slightly curling upward as he challenged the other man with his icy blue gaze. “And you?”
Alec chuckled, understanding very much what was happening. “Enjoying a snow-less March, James, nothing more,” he replied slowly, his timber dubious enough to convey as many layers of meaning as James could imagine.
“Nice of you to pay a visit.”
Alec took a sip of his gin, visibly reflecting. His eyes met James’s and his expression softened to a mere harmless smirk. “Bury the hatchet, James,” he pleaded in a tone that was nowhere near convincing. “There were times during which we used our energy in something completely else.”
Bond would have liked to say that today Alec left him cold, but there was something incredibly attractive in those green eyes, a pale light, a sense of brokenness that echoed James’s own. Alec captured the shift in the other man’s armour of anger and the triumphant grin that followed almost drove James to smash his fist right onto the same eyes that made his heart melt.