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The high-floor apartment was elegant and scrupulously clean, full of comfortable minimalist furniture and interesting art, with a spectacular view over the Thames at night. Love the new place, he added, and left the dossier on the coffee table.
As he put his hand on the knob he hesitated, instinct waking, and looked over: she was watching him from the bedroom door, in a long patterned-silk dressing gown with her arms folded across her chest. He quirked her his most charming smile. "Sorry, didn't mean to wake you."
"Rietzmann?" she said.
"No longer a problem," he said.
"Good." Her unamused gaze didn't waver.
He pointed at the door. "I'll see myself out, shall I?"
"Do. And Bond," M added, as he paused in the doorway to hear her out, "the next time you do something like this will be once too many."
She turned and vanished back into the bedroom. He was laughing softly to himself as he pulled the door shut behind him.
He'd seen three M's before this one come and go, while he'd been working his way up the ranks. Or down, he supposed, depending on your perspective. The first two, he'd still been in training, too low on the totem pole to know who they were officially, but he'd known anyway. Of course, everyone knew the old man with his seamed face and the dark brown scar like a sickle under the ear, who'd finally died a year after James had joined the service.
After him came the placeholder bureaucrat, cautious as a mouse and as imaginative; easy to recognize by the cold resentment he drew from the eyes of all the new instructors who suddenly took up work in the training facility: lean hard men who taught economy of words and movement by example, who gave no praise and brutal correction and spent their free time sparring against each other, dropping the few holds they kept barred with the students. James watched them for half a year before he climbed into the ring for the first time. He had to be carried out, but three weeks later he went back in, and no one was beating him best of three by the time the bureaucrat left, after a tenure of less than three years and one change of government.
It was more of a challenge picking out the successor, the thin-lipped accountant who wasn't, arriving daily at 9:00 am and leaving again at 5:00 pm on the dot, carrying his narrow black briefcase back and forth through the car park, anonymous in the midst of all the rest of the day's staff; it had taken James three months before he'd worked out that there was one more office worker in the security videos and the staff roster than there were matching desks in the building. He left an unsigned note on the accountant's windscreen saying promote me. The next morning there was a packet slid under the door of his flat with plane tickets to Budapest, and his first real assignment in the field.
This M had been a surprise. "Some bint out of the East German division," one of the others had muttered to him, as he went in for his first meeting; he'd expected the politically-correct choice of some front-office politician, someone whose main qualification was that she could look the part on camera or in front of an inquiry board, and on first glance she'd met expectations. He'd smiled at her just a little unprofessionally, gave her a little of what made women turn their heads to look after him. Only a little: he wanted double-oh status, but he wasn't hungry enough for the promotion to endure the purgatory of bedding his supervisor, if that wouldn't likely have backfired in any case.
"If you're trying to seduce me, you're doing a damned poor job of it," she said. "If you're trying to impress me, all the worse." Then she'd packed him off to Kyrgyzstan. After two dreary weeks sitting at a post watching nothing more exciting than some low level drug deals, he'd slipped the traces and gone skiing in the Tien Shan mountains. He went back to London and walked into her office with a portfolio of a dozen contacts he'd established in the smuggling rings that took the drugs back and forth into China. He perched on the edge of her desk and leaned over to hand it to her, with a smile as thoroughly unprofessional as he could manage.
"Better," was all she said. Six months later she'd handed him the dossier with his first two kills.
That had put the lasting stamp on their relationship, a scrabble for dominance as vicious as any sparring match he'd ever faced in the ring, and one he had no intention of losing. He crossed more lines than he needed to and took himself further out into the cold, all for the pleasure of seeing her forced to accept him back on his own terms when he came back successful. He needled and pushed and flirted his way through every contact to watch her eyes narrow and her lips draw tight, an acknowledgement that she needed him, that he was worth putting up with nearly anything, that he was restrained only by himself.
She had rarely resorted to ultimatums before, though, and only of the modest and specific variety when she did: walk out of my office now and you needn't come back ever, or bring him back alive unless you plan to spend the rest of your career at the academy.
Perhaps he had been pushing the boundaries more than usual lately. Seven years at the double-oh level now, and he was on the wrong side of all the odds, kills stacking up in his file like poker chips. In Rietzmann's dark hotel room, the job done, he'd jerked his gun back up at a deadly stranger with a spatter of blood on his cheek like a flower and his eyes flat and empty as a poured-out bowl, and pulled the trigger on shattering glass before he even realized that he was looking in the mirror. Perhaps he'd even wanted one of those little tugs on the leash, to remind him there was one, even if only by his own sufferance. But now she'd thrown him a gauntlet direct, and he could no more back down than he could fly.
He caught the next plane to Rio. The first night he slept on the beach; the rest of the week he slept in the seaside villa of the beautiful dark-eyed Selina, until her husband unexpectedly returned home and he had to drop out the window at 2 in the morning. He stopped in at the first club he found still open, smoky and full of tall, muscled men in black leather and tight jeans. Alexandro bought him a drink at the bar and took him back to a penthouse with a spectacular harbor view from the king-size bed where they wrestled pleasurably for position; at dawn James wrapped it up and took him, and spent that second week enjoying the spoils of victory.
He spotted the operative sent to find him instead of the other way around, and left a chiding note in the man's hotel room on his way to the airport. He sauntered into M's office tanned bronze and came around to the far side of her desk. "Did you miss me so badly, then?" he asked, heavy-lidded, his voice rough with two weeks of sex and sea-air.
She had been reading a file. She took off her glasses and set them on the desk and looked up at him. "Tell me something, 007. What sort of job do you think they hired female agents for in the service when I joined? Or did you think I was a secretary?"
"Why, M, should you kiss and tell like this?" he said, delighted, already taking off forty pounds and an equal measure of years to put her in an elaborate evening gown on the arm of some Eastern-bloc politician; it was as good as an invitation to cross any number of fresh lines. She had good cheekbones, if her face was a little round: he could envision her something of a charming gamine, he thought, with a slim neck and good breasts; too short to ever have had much in the way of legs, though. He leaned over her, offensively close, and murmured, "I'm sure you were irresistible."
She met his mocking gaze, very calm, her own eyes clear, and from one moment to the next, something changed. He couldn't have named it, beyond a collection of gestures: one eyebrow rising in a narrow elegant arch, a tilt to the corner of her mouth, her chin lifting towards him a little; inconsequential details that meant nothing, changed nothing, but the air between them went suddenly electric, as easily as though she had thrown a switch. He was leaning towards her before he realized it.
He clenched every muscle to halt his movement, a tremendous effort; she was smiling, faintly, and he wanted to close that space on a level beneath conscious thought. She left him pierced on the hook a straining, drawn-taut moment. Then she looked away and the spell abruptly broke; he was off the desk and two feet away, breathing hard.
She picked up her glasses and put them back on. Taking up the file again, she said, without looking up, "Now go away, 007. I'm busy."
He woke in the middle of the night sweating and erect, the sheets tangled close around his body, plastered to his thighs. He didn't remember what he'd been dreaming about.
There were seventy-eight targets listed in her file: diplomats and government officials, generals and bishops, businessmen and kings. There was a marked lack of detail, little more than dates and brief notes: successfully acquired plans for GTB missile, contained situation in Shanghai, diverted funds to Argentina. There were six kills, all of them labeled attributed to natural causes. Another five marked killed in retribution.
For all his well-justified reputation, he had never had to work very hard at seduction; all he asked from a woman was to enjoy her and be enjoyed in return. Any woman who didn't want to accept that offer—temporary coy refusal aside—was a woman he didn't want anyway. Harder to imagine men betraying country, principle, self-interest, just for sex; to die for a woman they had to realize, at some point, was their enemy. Men like these, wealthy and powerful, a parade of beautiful women theirs for the taking.
He practiced in hotel bars, on women traveling for business: older ones in crisp suits, tired and annoyed, in no mood for fun and games, with wedding bands and briefcases and something to lose. He put himself at a table in rumpled and oversized clothing and his jaw two days unshaven, allowed himself one held glance only, and counted coup for every one who came over and offered to buy him a drink. He worked it on supermodels and actresses in the London clubs, women who had bodyguards to keep men away and stayed in the VIP sections high above the floor. He could have arranged to get in easily enough; instead he lured them out to him from across the room, and to make it more difficult he took points off if he caught anyone he didn't intend to.
He didn't make it easy afterwards, either. He took them all, rich women and beautiful ones, to small ugly rooms with narrow beds, where he barely spoke with them, so he couldn't rely on charm and had to work out what they wanted without help. It was strange coming to it as work rather than pleasure, and going away alert, alive, with the satisfaction of a job well done instead of drowsy satiation.
After the first month he began to catch a glimpse of the necessary state, a certainty in his own skin like the limitless confidence he carried into a fight, beyond the arrogance that came naturally to him and on into something almost workmanlike: a simple practical belief that he could satisfy any imaginable desire better than any other man alive, and the trick of conveying as much, with nothing more than a look, and that if a woman didn't try him when she had the chance, she would regret it all her life.
He'd been at it three months when he was called in for a fresh assignment, something complicated, an assassination in Venezuela that had to look like the work of a German arms dealer. He shaved twice, with and against the grain, filed his nails short and smooth, and chose his clothes carefully: a suit perfectly cut to run just a little snug around the biceps and the thighs, crisp white shirt with French cuffs and unobtrusive links, the tie a shade of blue that brought out his eyes.
In the car park he closed his eyes and drew three slow, precise breaths before he got out of the car. Three women got onto the lift on the canteen floor, talking animatedly; they were silent by the next floor up. "Your stop?" he said, smiling at them with impersonal charm when the lift reached their floor, and they jumped and went out.
M's assistant, a young man, stuttered a little when James walked into the outer office, and showed him in without asking first. She was standing at the side of the desk, talking on the phone: a plain soft grey suit, simple jewelry, her short cap of pale hair neat rather than stylish, her computer open on the desk. She waved him in without interrupting.
He took the armchair opposite the desk and watched her finish the call, his fingers loosely curled around the carved ends of the chair's wooden arms, his legs spread a little and planted. She was speaking crisp French to someone in Marseilles who was trying to run a mobile phone trace past third-generation encryption. That meant Prather had lost his target, James mentally filled in: he liked to keep tabs on the other double-ohs and their assignments, not a little bit of competition involved.
"Prather should never have made double-oh," he said, when she hung up.
He rather expected her to tell him to mind his own business; instead she gave him a sharp look and said, "Why not?"
He'd meant it seriously enough: he'd always known Prather was a second stringer, but he'd never pinned down a reason into words. "He can't go off the map," James said finally. "He'll follow a straight plan even if something more important's gone sideways."
She leaned back against the desk and raised an eyebrow. "His service record is a damn sight cleaner than yours, you know."
"Proving my point," he said, and stood up fluidly. "And you know it," he added softly, "or I'd be in Marseilles, and he'd be—here." He braced one hand against the desk and gave her a double-barrelled smile, letting that perfect certainty take root in him.
She shut her eyes a moment, and he pressed the advantage and leaned in to murmur into her ear, "Admit it, M, you do like me best."
She laughed, and it ran like liquid fire into his veins. "Do I?" she said, turning to him, her mouth curving and her eyes alight, and in a single devastating look told him that of all the women in the world, she was the most utterly desirable; that she could fulfill hungers he didn't know he had, and if he didn't want her, he was a fool. But more than that—more than any of that, her look said she wanted him, with perfect frankness and no shame at all; that she was already imagining what she would do with him, how she would—
He was kissing her, savagely, furious; because in a moment she would put her hand on him and push him away, and he hated her for it already, because even knowing, he couldn't stop himself. Her mouth tasted faintly of mint and coffee, and the silk of her suit was crumpling under his hands. She touched his shoulder, and in one desperate final gambit, he went to his knees before her and looked up, gave her back the very hunger she'd created and said hoarsely, "Let me. Let me."
He slid his hands onto her thighs, up beneath the hem of her flared silk skirt, offering himself up, and she shuddered. "Get on with it, then," she said, unsteadily, and put her hands on his head while he thrust her skirt up and out of the way. He tore the stockings and got his mouth on her skin, kissing her thighs while he pulled the little folding blade out of the heel of his shoe and sliced away the silk underwear.
He brought her off, only knowing he'd done it by the clench of her muscles under his hands, and it only made him more wild; he was up and laying her back over the wide desk, and she helped him open his belt, her hand gripping his neck tightly while he took her. "Dear boy," she said, almost tender, after he came, the one saving grace that her own voice wobbled.
"Damn you," he said, panting. She was stroking his head gently, and he liked it.
She laughed and reached over to press the intercom. "Villiers, clear the rest of my day, please," she said into it, quite normally, and then she took him over to the couch and showed him that she hadn't been lying at all.
"I will admit that it's something of an unfair advantage, being post-menopausal," she said, pressing her hair neat in the mirror. "I might even feel guilty if you hadn't asked for it quite so insistently."
"Christ," he muttered, shoving his shirt back into his trousers.
She sat down behind her desk, her suit only a little disordered, and looked up at him over her clasped hands. "James," she said, and he expected something necessary and usual: this can't ever happen again or I don't usually fuck my subordinates, but instead she said, "you're the best agent that I have."
He raised his eyebrows, lightly, and tried to sound amused more than surprised or, God help him, pleased; he wasn't going to become a damned lapdog, ready to wag his tail or lick her hand for petting and scraps of praise. "Surely there's a 'but' in there somewhere."
"But you're loyal to an idea of yourself instead of to the service," she said.
"You think I'm going to go rogue?"
She waved that away with an impatient shake of her head. "The point is, you can torture a criminal to death and still tell yourself you're a hero. But when you're on your knees sucking the cock of a mass-murdering dictator with the blood of half a dozen innocents on your hands, the only way to come out of it whole is if you're part of something larger than yourself."
"Speaking from experience," he said nastily, gone cold.
But she only looked at him unshaken. "Yes." After a moment, she added, "I don't cherry-pick the most violent and dangerous assignments for you just because you're the best. I do it because their directness gives you a shot at surviving with your sense of yourself intact. But this work won't let you preserve it, not forever, no matter how good you are. And when it's gone, I don't know what you'll have left."
He was still involuntarily relaxed, his body unwound and loose from the sex. Her words hit like a narrow, very sharp knife, slid right between the ribs: less pain than the recognition of a wound in the vitals, loaded with death and inevitability. All the pieces of himself he'd had stripped away, the things he didn't think about: Rietzmann on his knees sobbing and broken; his little girl lying in a limp heap on the floor where she'd run out into the exchange of fire; mechanically blowing Rietzmann's brains out over her dead body.
"If you want my resignation," James said, in that dark, warm, blood-stained hotel room, the heavy weight of the silenced gun dangling from his hand.
"Don't be stupid," M said sharply, and pulled him back into her bright-lit office, full of clean straight lines and pale colors, cream and grey. "I want you to stop fucking around. I don't care in the least if you go running off to Brazil for a month, am I a damned time-card puncher? What I mind is that you're doing it to make the point that you're a loose cannon. You aren't, but if you insist on believing you are, then it's very nearly as bad." Her voice gentled. "For the service and for you."
He'd put back on his clothes, his jacket, but he felt more naked than he'd been on the couch beneath her, thighs and back straining, nothing but sweat covering his skin. "Perhaps you're wrong. Perhaps I really am."
"Then you're fit only to be used until you break," she said, coolly brutal. "And if that's so, I will use you. You needn't fear being thrown out. I've done far worse things than help a man to his own destruction."
"In that case, what difference does it make? You can't suppose I'm likely to last much longer."
"Not all double-ohs die in the field," M said. "Some of us even get promoted. But you can't do my job without a real commitment to the service."
"Lucky I haven't your job, then," he said, flippantly, and stared when she just looked back at him. Then he gave a short bark of laughter. "You're hardly serious."
"I do plan to retire eventually," she said dryly.
"And if I've been a good boy, perhaps I'll get to be a letter instead of a number?" he said mockingly, but against his will the idea was already settling itself into the back of his head, something to move towards that wasn't a grave.
And she saw it, damn her; saw it and smiled. "If you play your cards right." She picked up a dossier lying on the side of her desk under a paperweight, placed strategically so it hadn't got knocked off, earlier. She held it out to him. "So stop being an ass."
He was unable to keep his mouth from curving, even at his own expense. "Yes, ma'am." He crossed the room and reached over the desk to take the dossier, pausing with it held mid-air between them. "M, did you arrange all this on purpose?"
She tilted her head, serene. "What do you think, Bond?"
"I think you're a damned dangerous woman," he said, and leaned over to kiss her one last time.