It blacked out, for a moment, then a clip out of some interview began to play. The video was in black and white, crisply and tightly shot, its subject a young man shown seated from the waist up, against a pale gray background, grinning at the camera. He was probably in his mid twenties, dressed down in a black leather jacket over a pale t-shirt, loose over denim jeans, his hair long enough to feather slightly over his forehead, a hint of stubble over his chin. He was also, quite possibly, the most beautiful young man Harry had ever seen, and disturbingly… familiar, somehow.
As the young man laughed noiselessly at the camera, elegant serif type faded over the lower third of the screen: Gary Unwin, by Vanity Fair. Harry blinked, and studied the young man’s pretty face more closely, the crinkling around his eyes, the joyous curl to his mouth, the way he sat, relaxed yet alert, like a hunting hound, waiting to come to heel.
Seventeen years ago, Harry had known an Unwin. And like his son, Lee Unwin had been pretty, with exactly that same, joyous smile, exactly that poise, alert and open to the world. Harry had met this Unwin as well, God, what felt like a lifetime ago now, as he tried to reconcile the little boy whom he dimly remembered with this gorgeous young man.
“…So,” the interviewer’s voice came in off camera, as the type faded out, a woman, her tone playful, “What’s it like being named Vanity Fair’s Hottest Secretary of the Year?”
Gary laughed, and it was mischievous and boyish and endearing all at once. “Y’mean, what’s it like being objectified over a buncha’ other guys and ladies? Pretty good, actually!”
The interviewer giggled. “Glad to hear it. What it’s like working for Richmond Valentine?”
“Oh man,” Gary actually perked up, bright eyed, “He is the most amazing person I have ever met. Seriously. I’m not even saying this in the hope of a payrise.”
“Though a payrise is always good?” the interviewer teased.
“Well sure,” Gary grinned impishly. “But Mister Valentine? He grew up in America, before Selma, back when he had to attend segregated schools, y’know? Single mum childhood, growing up dirt poor… and look at where he is now. An internet billionaire, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist… it’s crazy. And he genuinely wants to save the world. Not gonna lie: I ain’t met nobody in the world like him. He’s an inspiration. A great man.”
“Can you tell us about some of the projects that Valentine Inc is working on?”
“You got to be more specific,” Gary laughed. “Hyperfast trains, cars that run on water… we even got a space program in the works. Oh! And we just completed the purchase of a great big part of the Amazon Rainforest. Gonna police it, keep it poacher-free. Did you know, Mister Valentine’s now singlehandedly responsible for saving the blue-tipped tree frog? Crazy, right?”
“Got to look out for the little guys too, y’know?” Gary held elegant fingers up, miming a small distance. “It’s only about yay-high. ‘Course, Valentine Inc’s very involved in conservation. We’ve even got a Sea Shepherd ship, donated it about a couple of years back. The Richmond Valentine. I’ve been on it. It’s badass.”
“And I know you’re trying to get it outa me, but we got a huge announcement in the works coming up, and I don’t wanna spoil it for everyone, ‘specially since we went to so much trouble to set up a big deal of a launch event. So you’re all just going to have’ta wait and see.”
The video cut briefly, as though part of the interview had been clipped, and the interviewer was asking, “I’ve heard that you prefer to be called ‘Eggsy’. How did that come about?”
“Ooh,” Gary - or Eggsy - tilted his head up at the camera, a gesture that Harry did remember from years before. And yes, now that Harry thought about it, the little boy he had met had introduced himself as ‘Eggsy’, a solemn child, with serious eyes. “It was a kiddie nickname me dad came up with. Before he left on a Marines mission and died in the line o’ duty. He used to say I was his ‘little egg’, and stuff.” Eggsy smiled self-deprecatingly. “Dumb nickname, I know. But it’s something I’ve got to remember him by, and it’s stuck.”
The scene cut subtly again, and the interviewer asked, “How did you meet Mister Valentine?”
“Huh,” Eggsy looked a little sheepish, “It’s all over the internet, innit? I mean, it got a full court press. Lotsa drama and everything.”
“Just for the record then.”
“For the record? Okay. I guess the facts are, I joined the Marines. Got the King’s Badge-“
“Ah,” Eggsy looked even more sheepish, scratching at the back of his head, “That’s a shiny badge they give to the um, best all-round recruit in the King’s Squad.”
“Sounds like a big deal.”
“Naw. I got lucky,” Eggsy said earnestly. “Um. So I got a bit of leave after I was done with recruit school, and went back home to see how me mum was doing. The long and short is, it was a surprise visit, and I walked in on me stepfather punching her in the face right in front of my baby sister. That’s all agreed in court, no dispute.”
“So I threw him out of a third floor window, which broke his legs and arms,” Eggsy added, and there was something hard in his eyes, for all that he was still smiling wryly. “And the police got rather tetchy about it, as did the Marines. Long story short, Mister Valentine saw my story on the news, and came personally to lock up to bail me out, arranged for lawyers for my case and everything, for free. Like I said, he’s a great man. I’ve been working for him ever since.”
“No intention of returning to the Marines?”
“Nah. I mean. I could see where they were coming from. I was a fully trained Marine. My stepdad was a civvie. I shouldn’t’a done it, using violence like that against a civvie. I was an angry kid back then, and a dumb one. Mister Valentine, he saved me from all that. Showed me the error of me ways.”
“Going from the Royal Marines into becoming a secretary - was that a rather abrupt transition?”
“Well,” Eggsy drawled, “On Wednesdays, sometimes I crawl through a minefield to make Mister Valentine’s morning cuppa decaf latte, just to keep me hand in, I guess.” As the interviewer laughed, Eggsy smiled again at the camera, and the scene faded to credits, then paused.
Harry sat back in his seat, closing his eyes briefly. “Is Arthur aware that I’ve already met the target before?”
“It’s why you were selected for this task.” Merlin’s voice was inflectionless. “You have a line in to Gary Unwin. Kingsman is aware of your association with Unwin’s father-”
“My association?” Harry interrupted flatly. “Lee Unwin died in the line of duty, as part of Kingsman.”
“Regardless,” Merlin said, now a little reproachfully, “Arthur is rather concerned about the increasing frequency of the kidnappings, and with Valentine being the only common link between them all…”
Harry exhaled, very slowly, his hands curling and uncurling over his thighs. Business, as always, was business, and a lifetime of working in Kingsman had long taught Harry how to compartmentalise sentiment. “What are my parameters?”
“As Valentine’s personal assistant, Unwin is privy to every detail of Valentine’s life. At present, Valentine is only one of a small pool of suspects. If he can be eliminated from the pool or confirmed as the main culprit, so much the better. Other than that, Arthur advises that you have discretion.”
Harry stared at the frozen credits on his laptop for a long, silent moment, then he nodded. “Very well. Forward me Gary Unwin’s file.”
Gazelle was standing at ease outside Valentine’s room, sharp as ever in a black blouse with a white collar and dress trousers, hands folded behind her back. She gave him a slight nod when Eggsy approached. “Mister Valentine is in a Mood.”
“Really? What happened?”
“PETA forwarded him a video about dairy production,” Gazelle said unemotionally. “Called the ‘Real Cost of Dairy’.”
“Uh.” Eggsy was briefly thrown. “Cows?”
“It seems,” Gazelle added neutrally, as though discussing the weather, “Cows have to be pregnant to make lots of milk. And the calves are removed from their mothers and become veal.”
“Baby cows!” came a muffled wail from behind the mahogany door to Valentine’s room.
“O-kay,” Eggsy said slowly, but a year of working for Valentine meant that he was no longer thrown by his boss’ occasional crazy mood swings. “Sounds pretty sad…?”
Valentine burst out from his room, red-eyed, dressed haphazardly in a yellow Mickey Mouse hat, a black sports jacket, and a pink vest, jeans and polka-dot Converse shoes. “It is sad!” he declared, scowling as he adjusted his spectacles, striding rapidly down the corridor, forcing Eggsy and Gazelle to jog to keep up. “Eggsy, I want you to get rid of all the dairy in the house and… and… what’s a substitute for dairy?”
“Soy tastes like ass.”
“Almond milk?” Eggsy hazarded. “We were in Melbourne a coupl’a months back, lotsa their cafes were doing this almond milk deal, was pretty good. Kinda hipster, though.”
“Right. Buy over that almond milk company and move them here.”
“All right, boss.” Eggsy made a note on his tablet, sent a quick email to the in-house lawyers, then patched a call through to his mum. One year in, Michelle Unwin had taken to being housekeeper of Valentine’s estates with a vengeance, and had gone from running only the kitchen to running every detail of the sprawling grounds, including the maintenance. “Hey mum. The boss isn’t into milk anymore. ETA breakfast in five minutes.”
“What about cheese?” Michelle asked, by now as unflappable about Richmond Valentine’s moods as her son was.
“What about butter and cheese and stuff?” Eggsy asked his boss.
“None of that too.” Valentine hesitated. “Do they make almond milk butter?”
“I gotta ask.”
“Well, make sure they do,” Valentine flapped a hand. “And throw all that shit out. I don’t want no baby cow pain and suffering in my house.”
Eggsy patched back. “No more dairy products.”
“Right.” There was only a faint sigh, and his mum signed off.
At breakfast, there was toast, poached eggs, free range bacon, sauteed mushrooms and fruit chutney, black coffee and orange juice for the boss, the same for Eggsy, and oats with water for Gazelle, because she was not human. It had been a year, and Eggsy still stared suspiciously at Gazelle as she tucked in, and over the antique dining table, she smiled sweetly over at Eggsy as she popped a spoonful of gross into her mouth.
Valentine had prodded suspiciously through his breakfast, had to be reassured that the eggs and bacon came from his own farm, and ate, furiously checking his email on his phone. “Maybe we should buy up some dairy cows,” he told Eggsy. “Let them roam free like the bison did.”
“They’re… kind of not bison,” Eggsy said briskly. “Besides, where exactly are they supposed to roam free? They might even end up being an invasive species. Also. You eat beef. Unless you wanna go all vegan like the Sea Shepherd guys?”
Valentine looked briefly tortured, but as Eggsy thought, the boss’ obsessive love of Big Macs won over, and he sighed gustily. “Nevermind. Send PETA back a message, say I’ll like to be patched in on what they’re doing about dairy cows.”
“PETA are a bunch of crazy people,” Eggsy noted, having never particularly liked PETA after learning about their track record with adoptions, but Valentine flapped his hand at him.
“I know, I know. But if we got to fight against dairy, maybe we need all the friends we can get. OK. What do I have to do today?”
“Factory visit at ten,” Eggsy checked his tablet, “Via skype. Then you’re going to be meeting the British PM at twelve-thirty over at Number 10 for lunch. You got an investor conference back at the head office at two-thirty. Then you got a session with your personal trainer at four. After that, you’re attending the Oxfam charity gala at six.”
“So I’m gonna be real bored all day, is what you’re saying.” Valentine solemnly speared one of the poached eggs, and stared sadly at his plate as the yolk seeped everywhere, because sometimes the boss was melodramatic like that.
“That’s exactly right, sir,” Eggsy said, with a fair approximation of Gazelle’s wooden stare. “All in a day’s work of saving the world.”
“Speaking of saving the world,” Valentine perked up. “I saw your interview yesterday. Brought a tear to my eye. Brought a tear to Gazelle’s eye, too.”
“That’s right,” Gazelle said unemotionally. “Very moving. I was in pieces.”
“Oh that.” Eggsy pulled a face. “Bloody Vanity Fair. Was fun though. Like doing some kinda screen test, y’know? And hey,” Eggsy added, with a cheeky grin, “We always knew that I was gonna win that poll.”
“If Pope Benedict’s secretary had been in the running, you would have lost,” Gazelle said, and chewed on another mouthful of oats. Eggsy glowered at her over the table for a moment, then looked back at his tablet as he got a notification.
“The Swedish PM wants to tee up a meeting this week. He’s gonna bring Princess Tilde, ‘cos she’s interested and all in the Grand Plan.”
“Sure. Slot him in somewhere this week.”
“Also,” Eggsy added, as another email popped in, “Professor Arnold wants to introduce you to his super geeky professor friends sometime.”
“Aww,” Valentine smiled. “I love Professor Arnold. Whenever. Make that happen tomorrow.”
Eggsy emailed back the PM and Professor Arnold as he finished breakfast, kissed his mum on the cheek as she bustled in to clear up, and slotted Arnold in for tomorrow afternoon as he got an reply. He sent a confirmation via V-Cloud Calendar, wished Professor Arnold a good day, and tagged along behind Valentine as he headed up to his home office.
“How’s our patch of the Amazon going?” Valentine asked, as he settled in at his desk, which was a giant touchscreen, supported on a minimalist titanium frame. Eggsy had his own desk, close to the door, which was somewhat more prosaic, though with the tablet he didn’t actually need a computer: instead he simply plugged his tablet into a keyboard and slotted it into a holding frame. Gazelle settled down at the couch opposite Eggsy’s desk, alert and still, eyes flicking between the window and the door.
“Great. Poaching’s gone down in the area in general, even.”
“Some word of your fun weekend out with Gazelle must’ve got around.”
Eggsy looked over to Gazelle, who lifted a shoulder in a light shrug. “I still won.”
“‘Cos you cheated,” Eggsy shot back. “Nobody likes a kill-stealer, just saying.”
“Nobody likes a camper either,” Gazelle retorted. “‘Just saying’.”
“Whatever it is,” Valentine cut in hastily, “Good work team. Could be a regular teambuilding thing that we do, hey? What’s the place in the world with the worst poaching?”
Eggsy did a quick Google search. “Vietnam. ‘Cos of rhinos and tigers.”
“There you go. How’d you two feel about a ‘Nam weekend out?”
“If nobody is a kill-stealer, sure.”
“If Eggsy’s only allowed to use handguns,” Gazelle said evenly, “And he's not allowed to cry if he loses. Again.”
“Not that it really matters,” Eggsy allowed hastily, “I mean, once we roll out your big idea.”
“You’re meant to say it like this, Eggsy.” Valentine sat back in his chair. “The Big Idea.”
“Sure, boss.” Eggsy got an email from the Swedish PM, and scheduled him in for a meeting in a week.
“Any update on that punk-ass guy in a suit that Gazelle offed?” Valentine asked, as he checked through his own email.
“Nope. Though he was wearing some pretty cool gear,” Eggsy brought up the report from Valentine’s techs. “Bulletproof suit. Cufflink tasers. Grenade lighter.”
“What? That’s some serious James Bond shit!” Valentine blinked.
“We’ve referenced his prints through my contact at Interpol and some of our friends in MI6 and the CIA. He’s not from any of those.”
“Cufflink tasers? I want me some of those. Get the techs to cough it up.” Valentine hesitated. “Nah. Get them to reverse engineer it onto my favourite cufflinks.”
“You don’t have cufflinks,” Eggsy said dryly. “Sir.”
“Well then it’s about time I got me some. Fancy shirt and all. See to it, OK?”
Eggsy sent V-Tech a note. “Almost time for your Skype call, boss. You ready?”
“Yeah. Bring it.”
Walking over to Valentine’s desk, Eggsy brought up Skype, and put through the call. “Going live in three. Two. Now.”
Valentine leaned forward, beaming as the foreman of their factory in China beamed back. “Hey man. How’s things?”
“Production is right on schedule, Mister Valentine.”
Behind the foreman, Eggsy could see a vast factory of machines and bustling techs, all stamping out the little chips that were key to the Great Plan. He made a note of it, and smiled to himself as he started to take the minutes, all while watching the foreman show them around the factory floor, weaving around the intricate machinery that were producing all the component parts of Valentine’s grand vision. Parts that would someday, soon, save the world.
It was great being one of the good guys.