"Is your internet correspondence always so poetic?" Q greeted me the next morning with that same smug little smile. I pulled out the spare chair and sat down without being asked.
"So, what do you want me to do?"
He smiled triumphantly, and this time it seemed genuine. There was no hint of a smirk. "Would you like a drink before we begin? Perhaps some tea? I have some wonderful Earl Grey from this quaint little tea shop in Covenant garden."
I shook my head. "No." Then added quickly, "Thank you, but I'd rather just get briefed, or whatever it is you call it."
"Very well." He pulled out his desk chair and sat down. "There is a University in Switzerland. It's called the Eiger Institution."
"I've heard of that!" I blurted, "It's got a great a great reputation for software development and engineering."
"Indeed. But recently, in the last five years or so, they've slowly began to expand into medical engineering with a focus on Nano-medicine. That's medicine at a…"
"I know what Nano means."
"Of course. In the past we have sent students that excelled in the fields of computer science and engineering. We paid for them to attend the Eiger with the assurance that we would be the ones to benefit from their excellent programmes. However, we seem to have encountered a problem. A few of the student that we had given scholarships to have disappeared over the last few years. We had even planned to approach you when you were an undergraduate and offer to send you there, but that's when the disappearances started to occur and we thought it best not to risk it."
"Wait, so you've known about this for years and haven't done anything?"
"We couldn't. We had no proof that anything suspect was going on. For all we knew in those early stages those few could have just been an unreported skiing accident, or they'd run off with a romantic partner. Then when we realised that it wasn't any of those things, we couldn't risk letting them know we were onto them. What we are asking you to do, Anna, is to attend the Eiger for a few months to finish your doctorate. While you're there you'll report any suspicious activity to us. We'll pay for your accommodation and travel on top of what you've already been paid. This should involve the minimum effort, and therefore carries the minimum risk."
I took a long and deep breath, letting Q's words sink in. He watched me over the brim of his mug, waiting to see how I was going to react. "Why can't you use one of the students you've already got there?"
"Ah. Well, the students that we sponsor don't know that it's us. If it was public knowledge that the SIS wanted these particular individuals it would make them a target for other international agencies."
I connected the dots. "So you think that someone has found out that you've got a special interest in these students, and they're stealing them from under your nose?"
"That's the most likely explanation," he conceded with a nod.
"So, do I just walk in and ask them to give me a place? How's that going to work?"
"Oh, you've already got a place. You applied several months ago."
I narrowed my eyes, trying to repress a shudder. "Have you got any idea how uncomfortable that makes me feel? That you've been planning this out for me without my consent for months? I mean, what were you going to do if I had said no?"
"You would have had a family tragedy that required you to stay in the country." That hit too close to the bone. I felt a vicious sting and decided to change the subject rather than delve into the murky and seemingly bottomless pit of MI6's morals.
"Do I have to sign any forms? Attend a health and safety briefing?" The last bit made him chuckle a bit. It had a strangely pleasant effect on his oh-so-serious face.
"Nothing like that you'll be pleased to hear. However, in the unlikely event that something should go wrong, it does also mean that MI6 will wash their hands of you. That's the downside to not being an official operative."
"So that's it then? I just go home and pack? When's my flight?"
"We catch the Eurostar from St. Pancreas station. Next Saturday, just after noon. But first..."
"Wait, we? And, train?"
Q sighed in that irritable way that made me feel like a small child again. The annoyance prickled at my spine. "We; because I shall be accompanying you. It's a small operation, requiring small delicate surveillance equipment which I cannot manage from here. Train; because I don't fly."
Great. I was going to have the thesaurus for a travelling companion. "Who's going to do your job here?"
"I have a deputy that is more than qualified to handle things in my absence."
"And I suppose he's called R?"
"As a matter of fact she is. But before any of that, there's someone who would like to meet you. The head of MI6 no less. He's known as M."
"Are you going to give me a letter?"
He looked over at me and gave an almost imperceptible raise to his left eyebrow. "Now that would just be silly."
M stood up from his desk and adjusted his suit before offering out his hand to shake. He had a very strong nose, and eyes that I couldn't quite read. If he was a character in a story, he could as easily be the villain as the hero. As he spoke, even his accent was hard to place.
"Miss Winterman, it's a pleasure. I can't tell you how pleased we are to have you on board. I take it that Q has fully briefed you on the situation?"
Q had told me while we were waiting in the office, in front M's stunningly beautiful secretary, that 'it would be best' if I called him Sir.
"Good. Well, Anna, from what I hear from our Quartermaster, you'll make a valuable addition to our team. Consider your brief residence in Switzerland as an extended period of interview, with the certainty of a job once it's over. Unless that is," he added with a small smile, "you end up dead."
I was about sixty per cent sure that it was meant as a joke, but the arrangement of M's facial features made it seem almost equally likely to be a warning. There was also the added factor that if I did die in a freak accident, like slipping on a patch of ice and breaking my neck, they probably wouldn't bat an eyelid.
The intercom on M's desk buzzed and his secretary spoke. "Sorry to interrupt Sir, but I have Mark on line 1."
M leaned forward, pressing the response button. "Thank you Moneypenny." He looked up at Q and I, and smiled again in that same slightly disarming way. "You must excuse me. It's my better half. A very serious case of man flu the only remedy for which I'm told is a dose of sympathy every few hours, apparently." He picked up the phone, then, held the receiver to his chest. "Miss Winterman, Q, good luck."
Lucy lay on the bed beside my suitcase, watching me pack.
"How long did you say you'd be away for?" she asked in a voice that was tipped with concern. I deliberately didn't look at her for fear that I would become upset. My emotions were all over the place between excitement and trepidation.
"A few months. I think it's a flexible placement. At the very latest it'll be the summer."
"This is going to sound really bad but… what about this place? Like… your rent?"
I placed a pile of folded t-shirts into the case. "Don't worry about all that. They knew that I would probably have accommodation back here that I was contracted to, so they're going to pay for my accommodation here and over there."
"Wow. That's nice of them." Lucy seemed a little relieved at not having to suddenly double her rent.
"They just want to take credit when I publish my thesis," I laughed, partly enjoying making this up as I went along. Maybe I was cut out for this secret agent thing after all. Lucy rolled off the bed and disappeared. A moment later, she reappeared, clutching a stuffed toy rabbit.
"Frankie's never been to Switzerland," she said hiding her face behind its synthetic fur. Then she set the toy into a gap in my case between two piles of clothes. "He's kept me safe for twenty years, I'm sure he can look after you too." I looked at her to see her big blue doe eyes were slightly wet.
"Oh, God," I said throwing my arms around her, "Don't be so silly. You're acting like I'm going away forever."
"I know but, we've lived together for two years. The longest we've been apart was the time I was a counsellor at Camp America for six weeks!"
"Just think," I laughed, releasing her, "With me gone you can have really noisy sex anywhere in the house."
She laughed and brushed the moisture away from under her eyes. Then, looking up at me through a clump of eyelashes she said, "I might just do that."
We lasted about two beats, then dissolved into helpless giggles.
I caught the train back to Devon to see Mum and Michael before I left for Switzerland. She was waiting for me in the car park, waving a little handmade Swiss flag of paper taped to a kebab skewer.
"It was the best I could do at short notice," she laughed, eveloping me in a hug.
We drove straight to see Michael. When we pulled up into the car parking space I got out first, leaving mum to get the new set of pyjamas from the boot of the car. The nurse at the font desk looked up at me and smiled warmly.
"Anna! Michael will be so pleased to see you. Is your mother here too?"
"Yeah, she's just getting stuff from the car. Where is he?"
"He's watching TV with some of the others."
I walked the familiar hall to the end, into the large, warm, comfortable lounge. There was a large TV on the wall, with a semi-circle of mismatched armchairs and two-seaters facing it. I spotted Michael, his eyes watching the screen intently. A nurse that was seated beside him looked up at me.
"Michael, look who's here," she said, pointing in my direction.
My brother looked up and his face broke into a lopsided grin. He threw his hands up in the air and waved them about. He gave an excited two syllable grunt, about the closest thing to Anna that he could manage. An elderly woman that I'd never seen before at the other end of the room threw up her frail arms and gave a whoop of delight to rival Michaels. I laughed, amused that I'd caused such a fuss. The nurse got up and let me take the seat on the couch beside him. He wrapped his arms around me from the side, put his head on my shoulder and continued watching TV.
Michael was my older brother, about a month away from his twenty seventh birthday. The accident had happened about three years ago. He'd been out drinking with friends to celebrate, something important I guess, and had been stupid enough to get into the driving seat after. If there was any silver lining to be had, is that the only other casualty had been the tree he'd tried to embrace at high speed. There were broken bones, and broken branches, but the worst had been the knock to his head. He'd been in a coma for six weeks, and when he finally emerged, he seemed almost himself and we thought that he was going to be one of those medical miracles that get their own documentary on reality TV. That was until the strokes started. An inoperable haemorrhage on his brain was causing them, and we were told that he'd continue to have the strokes, and probably would die within a few months. With me at University, Mum couldn't cope with all of Michaels needs on her own and had to put him into a specialist home. Despite his odds, he was still here. Every six months or so he would have another of his strokes, we'd prepare ourselves for the worst, only to have him bounce back.
Mum came in a few minutes later and sat on the arm of the couch to the other side of him and we watched one of the generic afternoon quiz shows. When it was finished Michael let go of me and stood up shakily. With hands that were bent oddly due to uncooperative muscles, he led both Mum and I over to a wall of paintings. Some looked like children's paintings while others from the more competent patients actually were quite good. Without letting go of my hand, he gestured to a piece of paper that was just blobs and strokes of paint on a white page. He began to issue a string of differently pitched grunts. While he was explaining his artistic inspiration, I looked up into his face and wondered what it was like to be him. Was the Michael that I had grown up with still in there, imprisoned inside a body that no longer obeyed him? Or was he just a grown up with the mind of an infant? Either way, he was just a body and a brain made up of a lot of broken circuits.
We couldn't stay more than an hour and a half. The residential home was very supportive, but the patients needed to stay in a strict routine otherwise some would get very confused, anxious and some even destructive. About half a mile down the road, I turned to ask mum a question. However I stopped when I saw the fresh tracks of tears running down her face. I turned back to look out the window and we continued our journey in silence.
Did it make me a bad person that I'd stopped crying after each visit? Was it normal to get used to something like this? I wasn't sure. I did sometimes wish that the next stroke would be his last. At least then we'd finally get some closure and grieve properly. It crossed my mind that I should turn down the Switzerland thing. What if something went wrong? How would mum possibly be able to cope with losing her husband and both her children? I shook the thought from my head. Q had practically promised there'd be no danger. I was just a pair of eyes to let them know where to send the big guns. Besides, the money was too much of an incentive.
When mum and I were washing the dishes after dinner, I decided to tell her part of the story.
"You know I'm getting paid to go to the Eiger University?"
"Yes, you mentioned it on the phone," she mused, rubbing suds into a plate.
"Well, there's… more than I need, and I know how much you want to have more time to spend with Michael, and I want to help."
The plate clattered to the bottom of the sink as it slipped out of mum's hand. "Oh, sweetheart," she cried, turning to face me, "You don't have to worry about me. You keep your money for all your student loans."
I wasn't about to give up that easily. "Mum. Please. I want you to take a holiday, even if it's only for a week. And I'll pay for it."
She smiled weakly, then, threw her hands around me, dripping soapy water all down the back of my t-shirt. "Thank you."
We watched Moulin Rouge that night and polished off a bottle of red wine between us. The alcohol made me sleepy, which was for the best. The knowledge that in just two days I'd be in Switzerland was making me as excited as a child on Christmas Eve.