Saturday, 17 November 2012
James tugged the reins, slowing his horse from a ground-covering canter to a fast walk. The horse was still young and only half-broken, part of a bloodline crossed with the horses his grandfather had been breeding at Skyfall Lodge forty years ago. The horse was sure-footed but a little too spirited, fighting his steady control the whole way. Now, the horse blew out its breath, ears flat, and sidestepped anxiously at the echoing thunder of shotguns.
Clay pigeons, James thought, looking off in the direction of the distant hills. It was Saturday. The village men would be out gambling and practicing. They were two and a half months into duck and geese season.
Two birds hung off James’ saddle, in fact, though he hadn’t shot them from horseback. The beast was too restless, even with bribes of treats offered after every shot fired. He’d tethered the horse to shoot on foot, thinking he’d give both geese to his housekeeper, Patricia, when he got back — one for her daughter’s family in the village, one for the household.
Two dogs loped into sight, rust-red hair gleaming in the midday sun that peeked through dark clouds. They were long-legged and rough-coated, with sleek bodies meant for pursuit and rugged, wise faces that spoke of their intelligence. They were from his hunting pack, usually meant to track and pursue deer, but he’d trained them to have soft mouths and patience. They did well enough to retrieve game, and they were steady, unlikely to spook even a skittish young mount.
He gave a tug on the reins and a sharp whistle. A nudge with his heels made the horse dance back, tossing its head before it broke into a bone-jarring trot. Another nudge, harder this time, pushed the horse into a canter, and James rose up in the saddle, shotgun shifting across his back. Home, hand over the geese, tend the horse. Maybe drive to the village for a pint.
It was twenty minutes mostly at a walk, cantering only when the young horse needed to run off excess energy, before Skyfall Lodge came into sight. The morning fog still clung to the lake at the lowest part of the property. Beyond the chapel, James saw a dark, stocky pony ridden by a slender figure, with three dogs nearby, driving sheep up towards the far hills. The farm truck was parked by the barn. Kincaid was already supervising the hands in loading empty feed barrels for transport back to the village.
Barking happily, the dogs raced ahead. James held the horse to a walk despite how it fought. Horses learned that stables meant food and lazy rest, and a horse that dragged its hooves for hours would suddenly find the energy to gallop once the stable was in sight.
The stable was the most modern building on the property, though it had been built of the same thick stone as the lodge and its old outbuildings. James had hired an engineering firm from Glasgow to draw up the plans when he’d moved here ten years ago, though he’d used local help for most of the actual construction. It was climate-controlled and built to withstand the brutal winters, with sturdy box-stalls. He had two stallions from the bloodline his grandfather had established, and he’d paid dearly for mares whose ancestors had been sold to villagers in years past.
He rode up to the stableyard and dismounted, keeping a hand on the reins until he took hold of the halter worn under the bridle. As he loosened the bridle, Kincaid walked over. The horse tossed its head, blowing out a breath in agitation.
“Easy,” James murmured, grinning at Kincaid. “How’s the morning?”
“Damned strange,” he said gruffly, surprising James. Nothing ‘strange’ happened here. Everything that happened within the boundaries of Skyfall was under James’ strict, almost obsessive control.
He concentrated on getting the bridle off without causing the horse to shy. “Something wrong with the sheep?”
“Only if your sheep are expecting company. You’ve got a visitor.”
“I don’t see visitors,” James reminded him with a prickle of irritation.
Kincaid looked at him with an uncharacteristic, even terrible sort of sympathy. “This one, you will.”
The house was ghastly.
Oh, it was nice enough for an antique from another time, but compared to everything in Q’s world, it could have been plucked right out of the Middle Ages. Dark wood wainscoting and white plaster covered the walls. The high, narrow windows might well have been expanded archery slits; they certainly looked made more for defence than for aesthetics. The ceiling was at least fifteen feet high, most of it cast in shadow despite the chandelier that filled the room with a very faint yellow glow. That was electric, unlike the fireplace, which was crackling to fight against the damp chill that filled the space.
Q’s bodyguard seemed grimly at home here, sprawled in an overstuffed leather armchair — not a recliner but an actual armchair, with a high back and squared armrests that had nothing at all to do with ergonomics. He ignored the cup of tea that had been slowly cooling on a side table for the last fifteen minutes.
“I knew you shouldn’t have had those bloody energy drinks to keep you up through the night,” Alec Trevelyan said, looking critically at Q. “Couldn’t you have just slept in the car?”
Q didn’t bother dignifying that with an answer. He didn’t mind driving — it was far preferable to flying, at least — but the thought of being unconscious in a moving vehicle was just... disturbing. For the tenth time in as many minutes, Q got up from his chair and did another circuit around the room, taking in everything which, distressingly, was low-tech. “Is there even internet here?” he asked Alec.
Alec gave him the sort of neutral look that meant he was being professional rather than honest. “There’s no Silva here, Quartermaster,” he countered flatly. “What would you rather have? Internet for the last twenty minutes of your life, or the rest of your life, once I get this bastard?”
Q stared at him, not entirely certain the answer to that question was as easy as Alec assumed it was. “You have guns. I have networks,” he said just as flatly. Though Q was as proficient with weapons as most field agents, his preferred weapons were his computer and access; without them, he felt as naked as Alec felt without his sidearm.
“And if I had to, I’d give up my guns —” Alec cut off and looked away, taking a deep breath. “You’ll be safe here.” It was something he’d said a dozen times or more during the interminable drive through the night. The sun had set on them in London, and when it rose, they were literally in the middle of nowhere, Scotland, surrounded by mountains and moors and sheep, for god’s sake.
“Tell me again why we’re here,” Q demanded, sitting back down. “What’s wrong with blending in with the masses in Berlin?”
“What do I do for a living?” Alec countered. He picked up his tea, glared into the cup, and set it back down again. Instead, he leaned forward to get a biscuit from the coffee table in the centre of the room. His rumpled jacket gaped open, showing the gun holstered at his side.
Q sighed and got back up again. Alec was right, of course, but the point was valid. Q wasn’t being petulant; he felt naked. There was someone terribly vicious coming after him, and the powers that be had stripped him of every tool he could use to effectively defend himself. “What am I going to do here?” he asked quietly, more to himself than Alec.
“Survive,” Alec said quietly, as a noise, like a door banging open, echoed through the draughty house.
The parlour was in the front corner of the house, off the unwelcoming foyer. One wall of the parlour, built at an odd angle, was an open, squared arch that led down two steps into the sort of great hall that was better suited for nobility. No, not quite nobility; more like some primitive tribal chieftain with a pack of hounds and bearded, axe-wielding barbarians. The room was empty, with a polished wood floor in front of a hearth large enough to roast an entire deer. The two chandeliers were dark, and Q could only barely see another archway on the far side of the room.
After a moment, he heard distorted voices: the housekeeper, he guessed, speaking with a man. Then, more footsteps in the foyer.
Alec got up from his seat just as someone stepped into view. The man barely glanced Q’s way before his gaze fell on Alec. Something flickered in his expression, too complex and swiftly hidden for Q to read it.
“Alec,” he said quietly.
Alec took a hesitant step forward and then paused. After a moment, he crossed to the other man more confidently. “Hello, James,” he said just as quietly.
So this was supposed to be the one man who Alec Trevelyan trusted to keep Q safe. He was a couple of inches shorter than Alec, with short-cropped blond hair and a hint of stubble at his jaw. His eyes were narrowed with suspicion. The poor lighting could do nothing to diminish the brilliant blue colour, though; in direct sunlight, they’d be striking. He wore mud-splattered blue jeans, heavy work boots, and a dark brown cable-knit jumper. In one hand, he carried a shotgun. He had a military bearing that made Q look twice at Alec; they could have been brothers.
Now, he set the shotgun down, leaning it against the archway. Then he pulled Alec into his arms, into a tight embrace, muttering something too soft for Q to hear. Alec’s response was in Russian, soft and swift.
Then James let go to study Alec’s face. Q couldn’t see Alec’s reaction, but there was no twitch of surprise when James leaned back in, giving him a brief, heartfelt kiss.
Apparently not brothers. Q watched carefully, trying to interpret the subtle nuances of their body language and interactions. They were more than just acquaintances, but how much more Q couldn’t quite tell.
It was really too bad that circumstances were what they were. Any other time, any other place, Q would have made a game of figuring out just where on the Kinsey scale James was, and just how much fun he liked to have. But Q was too distracted with the stress of the last week and the impending desert of zero access to do anything but frown.
When they separated, Alec’s hand remained on James’ shoulder. “I need you,” he said, and turned to look at Q.
Having one assassin look his way was disconcerting; two was overwhelming, despite his own military background. He had no doubt that they were both killers, regarding Q like two predators debating an early morning snack. “Explain,” James said, not looking away from Q.
“He’s being hunted.” They glanced at each other with eerie synchronicity. Alec continued, “I need you to keep him safe.”
“While you go after the hunter,” James countered.
“He’s MI6. The new Quartermaster,” Alec explained, violating at least four security regs that Q could think of.
James shot Q a sceptical look. “He’s the Quartermaster?” he asked, turning back to Alec.
“Brave new world,” Alec muttered, turning to lead James over to Q. “James, meet our Quartermaster. We call him Q. Q, Commander James Bond, SBS, retired.”
Taking a deep breath, James stepped out from under Alec’s touch and extended a hand. “Q.”
Q took his hand warily, getting the distinct impression that James was bracing himself. “Mr Bond.”
He nodded politely to Q, released his hand, and turned back to Alec. “You want —”
“Yes.” Alec’s mouth twitched. “So does M.”
James huffed, eyes going hard. “She’s still alive.”
“If you were Death —”
James barked out an entirely inappropriate laugh. “Right.” He looked Q over again and asked, “How long?”
“It started in Macau, though I doubt he’ll go back there.” Alec looked over at Q, apparently expecting him to have kept up with the gaps in the rapid-fire conversation — not to mention disclosing confidential intelligence regarding an active mission that involved not just the UK but a half-dozen of her closest allies.
Q narrowed his gaze at the pair of them, his irritation resurfacing. “If I were able to assist in the efforts to track Silva down, I’d say days. But given that there isn’t a single secure network within several kilometres of here, and that task has been handed to my second-in-command, I really couldn’t say.”
Instead of taking offence, James seemed amused. “And you want me to keep him.”
“You’ll have to give him back eventually,” Alec said, grinning.
James huffed again and turned to face Alec. “You were careful?”
Alec stared at him.
James shrugged. “Right, then. Did you let him pack anything, or did you pick him up by the scruff and drag him up here?”
Alec shot Q a guilty look. “I wouldn’t call it dragging. Would you call it dragging? And no scruff at all.”
“I call it ‘only by M’s good graces do you still have your arms intact’, actually,” Q said with a dark glare. “And I have nothing, and no internet with which to improve my situation. I don’t suppose you have coffee?”
James raised a brow. “You fed him sugar.”
“He fed himself sugar,” Alec corrected. “And shots of pure caffeine. He probably glows in the dark by now.”
Alec nodded. “I’ll find my way to Paris and fly from there. Just keep him safe until I get back — and shoot anyone who’s not me who comes for him.”
“Paris.” James looked at him, no longer smiling. “You’re compromised?”
“For the last three months. I’m going to need to disappear to do this right.”
“Do you need anything? Weapons?”
Alec grinned. “Got something I can bring to Paris?”
“Of course,” James said with a laugh, the sound soft and dangerous. He turned to Q and added, “I’ll send in my housekeeper, Patricia. You can give her your size, and she can go to the village to get you clothes.”
Q hummed in response, but turned away from James to continue his pacing. This entire situation was completely unacceptable, and Q wasn’t going to waste time trying to argue or barter with someone who was very obviously just like Alec. He needed a plan, and the faster he could come up with something — while Alec was still around to have his phone, keys, or other useful objects quickly stolen, if needed — the better.
The two of them disappeared, and Q heard them speaking in affectionate tones, punctuated by laughter. He glared into the hallway after them before he went back to studying the room, but no immediate solution presented itself. The room had electricity, which in itself was apparently a major accomplishment. There wasn’t even an old-style telephone line, much less an Ethernet port or wireless extender mounted on the high ceiling.
Patricia turned out to be the woman who’d shown them into the parlour and served tea and biscuits. She was well into her fifties, with dark hair shot with grey pulled back into a bun at her nape. Though she was apparently a servant, instead of the sort of dress Q might have expected, she was wearing loose blue jeans, boots, and a knitted jumper, just as James had been.
“I understand you’ll be staying with us?” she asked, giving him a warm smile.
“Yes. Please, call me Q,” he said with the friendliest smile he could muster, offering her his hand. There would be no point in winning over James, but people like her? It was always beneficial to have the truly useful people on one’s side. “You must be Patricia.”
“I’m sorry. Q, you said?” she asked curiously as she shook his hand. Her fingers were callused and strong.
“A nickname that’s stuck. Mercifully much nicer than my birth name,” he replied.
With an indulgent smile, she said, “Q, then.” She stepped back and looked him over. “Shouldn’t be a problem at all. You look just about the same size as my Rose. I shouldn’t be more than a couple of hours. Would you like to have a little lie-down? I can get your room set up before I go into town.”
Charmed despite himself, Q smiled. “I’d actually love to know where your kitchen is. I could really use a cup of coffee,” he said, hoping to learn a bit of the house to broaden potential escape opportunities. And there was absolutely no way he was going to be able sleep in a place like this — there was no need to trouble her.
She hesitated. “We might have a bit in one of the cupboards, but it’s most likely gone stale,” she said apologetically. “I can pick some up when I go to get your clothes, though.” She paused as the sound of two voices laughing echoed out through the hallway, and her smile softened a bit. “For now, how about a nice cup of tea?”
Lovely, Q thought with disappointment. Patricia wasn’t just a servant, apparently — she actually had an emotional connection to James. That certainly made things more difficult. “It’s fine,” he said reassuringly. “Perhaps a lie-down is in order after all.”
Two days. He just needed two days to be left alone with a computer and a fast internet connection, and he’d have Silva. He just needed to create a window of opportunity to scout out the house’s resources, and having no one paying attention to him while he ‘napped’ would be useful. Alec had brought him here for a reason. Perhaps this Commander James Bond, SBS, was covert ops and had a hidden secure comms room. A few official safehouses did.
Happy to help him settle in, Patricia escorted him out into the foyer and down two steps. Alec and James were in a room off to the right. A quick glimpse showed glass-fronted cabinets, a truly horrifying number of taxidermied animals, and guns, like the most unsecure armoury Q had ever before seen.
Patricia took the stairs with care, apologising for being slow with a somewhat rambling story about a bad hip and an accident to do with sheep. Q half-listened, paying more attention to his surroundings than to Patricia.
The stairs let out to a U-shaped hallway. “The master suite,” she said, pointing at a door to the left. She turned to the right instead and said, “Here’s the nursery — furniture storage now, I’m afraid. And your bathroom.” She opened the next door down the hall, showing a bathroom that hadn’t been remodelled for at least fifty years, though it had once apparently been luxurious, with a claw-foot bathtub big enough to drown Q twice over. “And this will be your room,” she finished, opening the next door.
Instead of a bedroom, it was a sitting room with an antique wood desk pushed under the window, two armchairs by yet another fireplace, and a small wardrobe. An empty bookshelf was pushed into the corner.
She led him through the sitting room to a bedroom dominated by a high canopied bed, stripped down to a single dust cover. “I’ll be just a moment. There should be some necessities in the bathroom cupboard,” she told him as she pushed open a heavy wood chest under the window. Inside, he saw pillows and bed linens.
“Can I help?” he asked, glancing around the room. As far as places to be held captive, at least this one was the nicer sort of primitive. If Q were so inclined, he could probably hide here in these two rooms without needing to leave for much more than food and bathroom use.
He half-expected her to refuse — after all, he was a guest — but she smiled and said, “That’d be lovely. If you could get the dust cover, please?”
Together, they had the bed made to almost military neatness in short order. Despite the freezing cold, Patricia insisted on opening the windows for fresh air before she knelt down to light the fire that was already laid in the hearth. “I’ll have my husband or some of the lads bring up some more firewood for you,” she said, bracing her hand on the stone hearth to stand. Q quickly went to help her up, and she smiled at him. “Thank you,” she said, patting his hand.
Whatever vague thoughts Q had about snatching her mobile — he hadn’t seen one, but everyone had one — disappeared in the wake of an odd rush of affection. “You’re welcome,” he said, hiding his uncertainty. “Thank you for setting up my room and fetching clothes. I don’t suppose I’m able to add to the list, am I?” he asked hopefully.
“Oh, of course,” she said brightly. She led him back to the study, where she opened the desk’s top drawer. Inside was an old notepad, the blue lines faded, the yellow pages cracking at the edges. She patted her jeans and found a biro in the back pocket, next to a much smaller notepad, the spiral binding flattened. She gave it a quick test scribble and then handed it to him. “Write down whatever you need.”
He hesitated and looked up at her. “Don’t go out of your way,” he insisted first. Then he started writing — just the essentials, things he wouldn’t be able to sleep or be comfortable here without. Several small tools, a spool of wire, a surge protector, a notebook, coffee... It didn’t seem like much, but as long as Q had something to do with his hands, his mind could be tamed. He handed the list over to Patricia, then dug in his pocket for his wallet, which, fortunately, he always carried.
She took the list but refused his offer of money, scolding, “You’re a guest of the household. Put that away. Have a look in the wardrobe. There should be a dressing gown, so you can be comfortable, and there are towels on the shelf in the bathroom. I’ll be back in time for tea. Mr Bond likes dinner at six prompt, but a cold lunch is whenever you’d like. Please do help yourself.”
“Thank you,” Q said warmly as she turned to leave. Privately, he had no intention of eating any time soon, but he appreciated the offer all the same. Whether James actually had internet turned on or not, he might have the wiring for it. That could be useful. Or perhaps he had internet that he didn’t share — tied to a specific computer somewhere in this giant building. Q needed to scout and see if he could find any wires. And if there weren’t any, perhaps there would be another useful connection, such as satellite television. If worse came to worst, Q could even make use of a telephone line.
Determined to find something useful, Q slipped out of the room. This far out in the middle of nowhere, the most likely connection to the outside world was satellite internet. First stop: the attic.