Chapter Ten: I Never Left

It's hard to pack for missions. Sometimes Bond doesn't even bother; too often he abandons things, leaving them behind in hotel rooms he doesn't dare return to once the job is done, or destroys them during the course of said job. Of course, all jobs are different. Some of them require planning ahead, the assumption of an entirely new identity for a temporary period of time, and supplies to match.

Bond's never taken many of those jobs. Some people would say he's not a proper spy—more of a very specialised hitman who occasionally plays at detective or thief. He can't really disagree. He doesn't mind, either. He always finds them unnerving, the chameleons, the ones who change names and languages and histories at the drop of a hat. How do they know who they are? If they survive into retirement, when they must be one person for the duration, whom do they choose?

Staring into his wardrobe, Bond sizes up the situation. He knows he'll likely begin in China, if M keeps to the plan, but there's no way to tell if he'll stay there, or for how long. And he's got no allies, no help. He won't get off the plane in Chongqing Airport and get picked up by a fellow agent, and while he's got Chinese friends and contacts of his own, their influence is largely limited to Beijing and Shanghai. The question of funds is also up in the air. M will probably find a way to funnel money to him—that is, she'd damned well better—but it'll be more under-the-table than usual, there will be less, and he will have to be prudent with whatever he gets, however he gets it.

And what's he up against? He's got a name to work with: Tiago Rodriguez. But names can mean nothing. He and M know that, and if Rodriguez is half the genius she seems to think, he knows it too. M had described Rodriguez as a sort of charming sociopath, as if that's anything unusual in this line of work. He cared, she'd said, for almost no one.

Almost. There is the key. A single word can make all the difference. Bond swallows harshly. Rodriguez, if this is he (she seems so bloody certain), chose to play a truly sick trick on M, using Bond as his instrument. Bond's spent the last…God, the last five months in a rage about the whole business. It's time to look at it from a different perspective. How might they turn it around, make it work for them?

A ploy like that, after fifteen years' absence, reeks of obsession. It's no casual prank, not when it's perpetrated on the head of MI6. M herself had used the word 'love,' had applied it to the man she'd known long ago. Bond has zero interest in Rodriguez's ill-fated love for his section head, but he might as well find a use for the twisted thing it's grown into. It could be a weakness, a major one. In fact, so far as Bond knows right this second, it might be the only one. He hopes that whatever information M gives him tomorrow will include a complete dossier so he can ferret out some more.

In the end, he decides that travelling light is, as ever, preferable to the alternative, and so he packs only a small bag with a few things. A fresh passport, some money, and a gun, that's all he ever really needs. He intends to do this swiftly.

Bond turns off the lights and gets into bed. It's half-past one in the morning. He knows he needs his rest, now more than ever. This mission is dangerous, not just because he's damaged goods, but because it's more personal than it's ever been before. And come what may, he'd like to think he's learned from his past mistakes—at least enough to know that he can be as great a threat to himself as any enemy.

It is personal. He can't pretend it isn't. But he doesn't have to let it master him. For example, if he allows himself to think about M, and her kisses, and the look in her eyes, then he might fuck this up before it even starts, so he won't be allowing himself to do that.

He's got her love. He's got a mission. Those two elements alone have just improved his life by roughly one hundred percent. They are enough.

So he rests his hands on his stomach, feeling a faint ache in both shoulders. Looking up at the shadowed stain on his ceiling, the one left by a dead man, he analyses the situation as objectively as possible.

He's going into this wounded. He'll have no official support or protection. He knows next to nothing about what he'll face, save that he will almost certainly be outnumbered and outgunned.

Bond grins in the darkness.

It's as if Christmas is here early.

There's no use setting an alarm since he cannot plan his day, so the bleeping of his phone wakes him. She's texted him. 11.30 Vauxhall CPE.

CPE? Ah, Car Park E. Underground, secret, reserved for the higher-ups. The groundlings aren't meant to know it exists, and a code is required to get in. No CCTV. So she wants this close to home, no meeting in cocktail bars or anybody's flat, but she also wants to fly under the radar. He wonders if Tanner will be there, if she'll decide to trust him, too. Probably not; she will want to protect him, especially if he's first in line for her job.

Doesn't seem terribly likely, though. Tanner isn't M material. Gifted and conscientious though he is, he's a right hand, not a brain. Bond hopes he doesn't entertain ambitions of any kind.

It's just before ten o'clock. Bond's already packed, as well as put the shrapnel shards in a plastic bag. It'll take him forty-five minutes in normal traffic; he'll allow for fifty-five. He has a beautiful car that he rarely drives, and he won't drive it today either, since he doesn't know how long it would be hanging about Car Park E, drawing questions from people who shouldn't ask. He checks his bandage and sees that M's small cut has healed over. He showers, taking care that it doesn't open again, and dresses in his favourite suit. Even if his career's gone up in smoke and he's off on a hare-brained crusade, there's no reason to let his standards slip.

Right. It's time. Bond shoulders his pack, grabs the plastic bag, casts one final glance around his flat, and locks the door behind him. On his way to the ground floor he munches a nutrient bar and wishes he had time to stop for coffee, but it's probably better for his psyche if he doesn't make his way across London looking like a businessman who's drinking his morning Starbucks.

Besides, he's wide awake. And rather on edge. Last night's excitement has undergone the usual transformation into readiness, a cold awareness that danger awaits him and he must be prepared to meet it at any moment. He's missed it like mad.

As before, he hails a cab, and exits a couple of streets away from Vauxhall. He strolls to the west side of the building, where he finds an inconspicuous door that's all but hidden by a row of well-trimmed hedges. It's the only way to get into Car Park E without going through the building, and even here, he is required to input his personal code in order to open it. That means that anyone will have a record of his visit, if they care to look; but of course, all M has to do is say Oh, it's bloody Bond up to his tricks again with that exasperated note in her voice, and they'll all roll their eyes and go back to work.

He descends the stairs. It's 11.20 by the time he reaches the car park. Nobody's around. He notes, with some surprise, that the parking space reserved for M's Jaguar is empty. And by the time 11.28 rolls around, and the space remains empty, he is starting to become genuinely annoyed.

He's just about to call her when he hears the rumble of a car. He steps discreetly out of view, but it is the Jaguar, and he can see her clearly in the back seat, peering through her window with a faint frown on her face. As usual, the driver gets out to open the door for her—she is alone—and as usual, she beats him to it, exiting the car as if he's not there and looking about impatiently.

Bond steps into view. When she glances back his way, she gives a little twitch of surprise, and even closes her eyes in irritation. He smirks. At least the day's off to a good start.

"Wait here," M says to her driver, who nods respectfully and remains by the car as she approaches Bond. She's carrying a briefcase. "Bloody traffic, and then he had to miss a light. I'm off again to a meeting in a few minutes. Here are your tickets, your passport and documentation, and all the information I could gather on Rodriguez without attracting attention." She opens the briefcase and passes him a thick white envelope, and then a tablet computer, small enough to fit comfortably inside his bag. "I bought the tablet myself, in cash. It is unconnected to any data network. Make sure it stays that way. Destroy it before you touch down in China."

"Of course. What's the login?"

She tells him a series of randomised numbers, letters, and symbols, which he repeats both forwards and backwards three times before she is satisfied. Then she says, "Your flight leaves in six hours." Bond nods. That'll be more than enough time for him to memorise his cover and get started on Rodriguez. "I have one more thing for you." She reaches into the briefcase and pulls out a silver mobile phone. It's a clamshell, the sort he hasn't used in years, with no internet or data capability. "Use this to contact me, and me alone. I also have one that's solely dedicated to you. I've programmed the number into yours."

He nods again and slips it into his bag. Then he says, "One thing I should probably ask: when I find this man, what do I do with him?"

"Bring him in," she says promptly. "Get in touch with me when you've apprehended him, and I'll arrange for you to have some sort of discreet local help in getting him to a secure location. That'll all depend on where you find him, of course."

"Of course." Naturally she'd prefer live prey. "Not that I want to be a pessimist, mind you, but if worse comes to worst…"

She inhales through her nose and shakes her head. "I may not be able to help you, Bond. Don't count on—"

"I know that," he says impatiently. "I was just going to ask, if it's all I can manage to do, how much of a pain in the arse will it be if I kill him?"

Her breath catches, and for a moment, last night's look flares in her eyes—equal parts affection and longing. It takes his breath away, and he wishes it hadn't happened, because he needs a nobler reason to survive than this.

"Do what you have to do," she says, clearing her throat, "and do your utmost."

"Always," he replies. Her cheeks are actually pink. Bond glances towards her driver, who is looking at his watch. "I think our chaperone is waiting on you."

"Our—!" She stops, and growls, "Goodbye, Bond. Happy hunting." Then she turns to go.

"One more thing," he says. She pauses and glances over her shoulder, a cautious look on her face. "Just tell me already, before I go, who the devil is our new quartermaster?"

She raises her eyebrows. Then she bites her bottom lip right before her mouth widens into a genuine, mischievous smile he has never seen before. He loses his breath again. She chuckles, and says, "I might as well tell you. You'll never guess."

But then, before she can continue, a booming roar drowns her out. It comes from above. A tremor rattles the walls, and small chunks of plaster and concrete fall from the ceiling, raining to the floor in dusty clouds.

Bond's grabbed M by the waist before the noise even fades, and is rushing her towards the stairway that leads up to the street. Something up above has just blown sky-high. It must be fairly elevated not to have disturbed the underground car park much (the top floors, the main office?).

There might have been a gas leak, it could just as easily be a bomb, and it could happen again any moment. They've got to get out of here. He hears a cry of "Ma'am!" coming from M's driver, and turns to see him scurrying after them, wide-eyed.

"Come on!" Bond shouts at him. "Move!"

"What the hell was that?" M gasps.

"Just move. Just move," he says, hustling her along even as a uniformed security officer rushes out from behind a corner, nearly knocking them down. He's saying into a transceiver, "Fuck's sake, what was that? Yeah, I'm in the secure park right now—excuse me, sir, ma'am, I need you both to—"

"Get the hell out of the," Bond says, and that's when he feels the needle stab painfully into the back of his neck.

He snarls, lets go of M, whirls, and throws his right fist as hard as he can at her driver. The driver, a trained combatant in his own right, drops the syringe and ducks backwards. He dodges the first blow, but Bond lands the second one on his temple. The problem is, it's with his left fist, so it's not a killing blow, or even a knockout one. The driver staggers backwards, and behind him, Bond hears M cry out.

He doesn't dare look away from his opponent. Wild with rage, he draws his gun and aims, steadying it with both hands, but that doesn't help. All of a sudden, he's seeing double and his head is swimming. He stumbles. Oh fuck, what was in that syringe, it's hitting him for six within seconds—

The driver lashes out and strikes him hard across the face. Bond spins around like a drunk, the Walther falling from his tingling hands. He sees M, who stands pressed against the wall while the security guard trains a gun on her. She's fading in and out of focus, but for a moment he can see, quite clearly, her look of horror and despair.

Bond collapses to his knees. "…wants them both alive," he dimly hears the security guard say. "Said especially…" Bond sways. He can't lift his arms—he can't keep his eyes open— "…his regards to you, ma'am..."

M closes her own eyes. That's the last thing Bond sees as his body finishes its collapse, going boneless and helpless. And the last thing he thinks, before the world turns black, is that he and M really hadn't needed to go to all that trouble.

Tiago Rodriguez has come to them.


James Bond will return in the final "Faith and Doubt" story: Resurrection.