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Steed entered One-Ten’s office, removing his bowler hat and closing the door behind him. One-Ten motioned to a chair opposite his desk.
“Have a seat, Steed.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Steed sat down, placing his hat in his lap and leaning his umbrella against his leg. He assumed an attitude of alert listening.
One-Ten regarded Steed gravely. “We have received intelligence that the opposition intend to disrupt the nuclear science conference to take place in Oxford next week. More than that, they seem to be planning a mass assassination that will target the most important minds currently working on both weapons and the peaceful applications of that technology both here and throughout the NATO alliance. They must be stopped before they are able to carry out this plan. This mission is complex and will require the skills of our best agents, and the nature of it is such that the Prime Minister has demanded that our office coordinate with MI6. So I’m assigning you to work with James Bond on this.”
With an immense effort at self-control, Steed managed to keep his jaw from dropping. Instead, he cleared his throat and shifted in his chair. Avoiding One-Ten’s eye, he said, “Ah. Well. To be honest, sir, I’m not really sure that coordinating with MI6 will be all that advantageous. Surely our Ministry can handle this completely in-house? Patterson has his ear pretty well to the ground on issues like this, and he’s a superb agent; couldn’t we get him instead of Bond?”
One-Ten frowned. “Whatever do you have against working with Bond? He’s probably the most efficient agent the country has ever had.”
“If you measure efficiency by the height to which the bodies are stacked, then yes, sir, I suppose he is.”
“Really, Steed,” said One-Ten, sitting back in his chair and tossing his pen onto the desk. “I can’t understand your attitude. You know how vital Bond’s work has been to the national security, and you’ve known him personally for a long time. I thought that you and he had been at school together, after all.”
Steed fingered the brim of his bowler and gave a snort of mirthless laughter. “You know very well that we were at school together, sir. So you also know very well how that ended. And why.”
“That was years ago. Decades, even. Surely time has changed — ”
“Time hasn’t changed Bond. He’s still the vicious bully he was at Eton. Only worse, because now he’s officially given both the means and permission to do his dirty work with the efficiency you so admire.”
Leaning forward, glaring at Steed, One-Ten clasped his hands and laid his forearms on his desk.
“I don’t care one jot what you think of Bond. You are assigned to work with him on this case, and work with him you shall. You shall put aside any petty personal differences for the duration of this assignment, and if I hear anything to the contrary I shall not hesitate to institute disciplinary action. Have I made myself clear?”
Steed glared back, then gave One-Ten a chilly smile.
“Perfectly. Sir. Is there anything else?”
“Yes.” One-Ten tossed a file folder towards Steed, who picked it up, opened it, and started riffling through the pages. “A copy of the case file,” said One-Ten. “It is not to leave this building under any circumstances. Read it, memorize it, then destroy it completely, including the file folder, in the usual manner. There will be a briefing in room Alpha-620 at nine o’clock tomorrow morning. Your presence is required. Be on time.”
Later that evening, after having safely seen the file folder and its contents thoroughly dissolved in a vat of hydrochloric acid, Steed stalked along the Embankment, not even noticing the soft spring wind that blew across the river as the last remains of the setting sun disappeared behind the skyline and the street lamps began to glow. The wind soughed in the new leaves on the trees and pushed the clouds together overhead as the temperature began to drop: winter wasn’t all that far behind and summer still to come. A solitary barge chugged forlornly upriver, apparently in no hurry to get wherever it was going.
Normally Steed would have taken all this in, would have enjoyed the walk along the river, which was one of his favorites. But today he had too many other things on his mind. He turned what he had learned from the case file over and over in his brain as he strode steadily on, hands behind his back, his umbrella swinging like a pendulum from his fingertips as he tried to see patterns, tried to see holes, tried to see where a wedge might be inserted or tourniquet applied and thus bring to nothing the assassins’ plot, but he couldn’t make the pieces fit together. There were too many variables, and not enough constants.
One thing was for sure, though. Bringing in Bond probably was a good idea. Steed hated having to admit that, but he was an honest man, and it was true. He sighed, turned around, and started heading back the way he came.
As he reached the foot of Westminster Bridge, he looked up at the statue of Boudicca, smiled, and tipped his hat to her. He began to hail a passing cab, thought better of it, then set off for home on foot. He needed the exercise anyway, and as much as he liked London’s cabbies he didn’t feel like making small talk with one tonight.
It was fully dark by the time Steed let himself into his flat, and a cold, light rain had begun to fall. He flipped on the hall light, hung up his bowler and umbrella on the hat stand, and headed into the kitchen to make himself a very well deserved and very much needed cup of coffee. As he ground the beans, he smiled, remembering the time Cathy had tried to make coffee with only one good arm, her other in a sling and healing from a gunshot wound. The grinder whirred to a halt. Steed paused, listening. The flat was so quiet. And no likelihood of anyone phoning or calling. There hadn’t been, not for a very, very long while.
It was at times like these that he missed Cathy so badly, it almost felt like a physical ache. Since her departure, they had written to each other occasionally, made the occasional phone call, but she always gently refused to discuss his cases, and then two months ago she had left Bermuda to go do something daring and anthropological in Outer Somewhere-or-Other (or was it Inner?), in a place with sporadic and unreliable postal service and no telephones at all. Steed desperately needed someone to bounce ideas off of, someone intelligent, someone from outside the Ministry, who wouldn’t have a Ministry employee’s biases or blinkers. More than that, he needed a friend. But since Cathy had gone, there wasn’t anyone at all, and he still felt her absence keenly. Not as often as he had done when she had first left, almost a year ago, but now, as on so many other occasions, he longed to be in the presence of that incisive mind again, lithe as a panther and twice as quick, and as for the rest of her….
Steed reluctantly admitted to himself that he was lonely.
The coffee finally ready, Steed poured himself a cup and wandered into the living room, where he stood staring out at the night-velveted city studded with the flickering jewels of street lamps and house lights and traffic lights. A sudden squall of rain lashed against the windows, bringing him out of his reverie. He tossed back the coffee in one swallow, berating himself for mooning about. He didn’t have the luxury of self-pity. There was too much to do, and if the information in that file were correct, much too little time to do it in. On top of which he’d have to deal with Bond, starting first thing tomorrow morning.
Maybe if he were lucky, he’d wake up and find that this was all a dream, that Cathy was still here and he wasn’t going to have to work with Bond, and that there were no diabolical master minds getting ready to assassinate anyone. And maybe, he thought, flying pink elephants will go traipsing past my window. He let out a sigh that was more than half a growl, put the coffee cup and saucer in the kitchen, and betook himself to bed. Tomorrow was going to be a long day. He might as well get as much rest as he could.