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Hall of Mirrors

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They were both ghosts the first time they met: she the nameless, rankless shadow she had been for years by that point, he an equally nameless phantom one of the Bonds had taken prisoner behind the Iron Curtain.

The sight of him was nothing spectacular at the time. They were desperate days then, when everything was on the line and Downing Street had absolutely no desire to know how they obtained their information. Propped up on a chair, shirtless, hands roped behind his back, he’d said nothing but the usual Russian cursewords peppered with Czech while the Bond had smacked him around a bit.

He was all cheekbones and blond hair, just a shade too long to be military – the perfect example of yet another Soviet spook, young and wiry and all too soon to be dead. His mirror image was tethered a few feet away, also Russian, also refusing to talk. She had checked her watch and considered just how long they might have before someone decided to shoot both of them and be done with it.

She also considered whether that someone might just be her.

The ghost had spat up blood at the Bond, but looked past him… and it wasn’t so much the blood on his teeth that persuaded her, but rather the fact he’d looked at her at all, that slight narrowing of his eyes in interest…

“Take him.” She gestured at the other man suddenly, her voice commanding and imperious. Not one of them, if they had been asked, could have said who she was. But they picked him up, chair and all, and left. After all, if the tiny woman in the corner had even thought about issuing orders, she had to have something to back it up. She'd spent years perfecting that tone of unquestionable authority.

The Bond dusted off his knuckles and straightened his bowtie. “I have somewhere to be.” Pleasant Welsh lilt, this one. It offset his brutish temperament nicely, if not quite the frustration in his tone.

“Then be there.” She stepped forward as he left, and looked the prisoner up and down. “So. Who will I be apologizing to tonight?”

He shrugged as best anyone could, tied up like that. “No need. Stupid of me to run into your man. But the Agency’s Prague station might be wondering where I am.”

CIA. Well, it’s not as if it hasn’t happened before. “We’ll call and confirm. Name?”

“Martin Newman.” The accent had changed completely – blandly American, with perhaps a hint of the south. Still, the Russians had plenty who could pass perfectly.

“Newman? An alias?”

He was remarkably composed for a man still tied to a chair. “More or less. My parents had it picked out for them at Ellis Island… But Martin’s original enough. You wouldn’t happen to have a name, would you?”

She wouldn’t.

She waited until her man got back from disturbing the Americans at their mid-afternoon coffee break, and then they cut him loose.

Above ground level, they let Martin wash up and found him a new shirt. He was remarkably good-natured about everything, for an American, and they arranged to fly him back to Berlin the next day.

But until then, it was 1am on a wintry Sunday in the heart of London, and he had nowhere to go. As a good spy, handpicked for her ability to think on her feet, she did the only thing she could possibly do in the circumstances.

She took him home.

***

Their profession is not one that is conducive to making friends. Secrecy is a way of life. People die and disappear on a weekly basis. She does not make attachments. She stays in the shadows, she does the work, and she lives on while others fade away. An M retires, a Bond is buried. She endures.

She has a nice home in the countryside: pastoral, peaceful. They upgrade the security on it every year, and every year she has men – and occasionally women – jumping over hedges and scaling drainpipes like the Milk Tray Man, attempting to uncover information or take her hostage.

Martin comes every year too, but he always simply knocks on the front door, bringing flowers and that irrepressible boyish smile. She always lets him in.

He had been such a child that first morning, she’d realised after the bloody interrogation and bruising lovemaking. In her shower, using up all the hot water, he was just another boy, blond and handsome and doomed. Fifteen years her junior – when on earth had people fifteen years younger than her even been allowed out after dark? Working for the Americans…

She’d put him on a plane and wondered when she’d see his name – if it even was his name – on the lists of Cold War casualties that passed her desk daily.

But he’d come back the next year in a suit, hair slicked back, the new chief of the CIA’s Prague station. They both knew all too well what had happened to the last one. They sat in on meetings together. She took him to the opera, which he did very well at pretending to like. He’d fucked her into the mattress and demanded to know her name.

Every year after that, he’d sent her flowers on her birthday. To M from M, the notes always said, and she didn’t always throw them away.

***

Martin gets older. She pretends she does not.

By the early nineties he looks as though he just might have grown into the seniority they gave him years ago. And she finally earns the position she should have had before his balls dropped. It only takes world peace and several heart attacks to install her as MI6’s first female M. Martin finds it hilarious.

He stops laughing around the time she finds she actually needs him for something more than the occasional companionship of a partner she doesn’t always need to lie to.

The Alec Trevelyan file is several inches thick, with more lines redacted than not. Martin reads it from cover to cover before asking the question that was obvious from the start: “Why are you showing me this?”

“Alec was the best of us,” she tells him. “He died serving his country nine years ago. Yesterday, he died again.”

Martin leans back. He loves a good story. “One day you Brits have to share just how your agents get resurrected so easily. They tell me there’s been a James Bond around since the sixties.”

“He’s aged well.” Or not. She’s not entirely sure she likes the new one. “Trevelyan’s dead on paper. Almost dead in the hospital. I need you to take him.”

“Why not just kill him?” Martin snaps a finger against the file. “Says here he should be dead at least three times over. What do you put in the tea over here?”

“He was the best of us,” she finds herself repeating. “His parents… You know the types we like, Martin. Orphans. The broken and beaten relics of wars – global and domestic."

“Terribly bright boys with an untapped capacity for violence.” He can mimic her accent quite well, when he tries. “So. You feel sorry for him.”

“I feel we can use him. Stitch him back together, get what information we can about his activities for the past nine years, and then… I’ve heard what your people can do with memories. He was an excellent agent once. He can be that again. Just take away all of Alec’s pain. Make him someone new.”

Martin’s grown a lot in a few years, and it’s not just the suit and the receding hairline. He doesn’t smile as much as he used to. “They made me someone new too.”

“Would you prefer to be that little boy again? Playing in the rubble of Communist Czechoslovakia?”

She can see him consider it.

“We’ll take him,” he says. “But I can’t promise anything.”

***

The name of Alec Trevelyan is never uttered within her hearing for most of the next ten years. She’s too busy to even notice its absence.

Martin still sends flowers – beautiful, if intermittent – but he’s only rarely in England. When he does come, they go to dinner and carefully talk about nothing. On one of the mornings after, she goes through his wallet while he showers. No doubt he’d be disappointed if she didn’t.

There’s a photo there, one and only one, of a dark-haired young woman holding a beaming toddler on her lap.

“My godson,” Martin says, helpfully, towel tied around his waist. “Just turned six.”

She slips the photo back into its plastic sheath. “She’s a pretty girl.”

“If you saw her file you might not think so kindly…” Martin sits down on the edge of the bed by her feet and, she suspects, almost says more than might be wise. “We had a problem in Vienna, you know.”

“I know.”

“A twelve-year-old boy. Innocent as an angel. An actual choir boy. He could have killed all three of us.”

Three.

She wonders if he wants her to ask. She doesn’t.

***

Two years later, two days after what they will soon be calling 9/11, Martin stands in the chaos of her operational centre at MI6, seemingly oblivious to the ringing phones, constantly updating computer screens, and whirlwind of activity.

It’s clear from the look on his face that this isn’t simply a social call.

“He’s dead,” Martin says once she’s given him a shove into her office and closed the oak door firmly behind both of them. “Again.”

“Alec?”

“Paul.” There’s no hair to sweep back angrily from his forehead now, but he makes the motion regardless. “Car bomb, three weeks ago in Vienna. I’m sure you heard about it.”

She had, but that seems like a lifetime ago now. “Your people assured us it was a random attack. No wider significance. Just an American tourist.”

“And that alone didn’t make you suspicious?” Three weeks, and she can still see the tension in him, the anger. “Not just an American tourist. Paul Winstone. My best operative. He’s been like a son to me. I’m godfather to his son… And yes, ten years ago he used to be your best operative.”

Sorrow would be the most suitable emotion. She tries for caution instead. “You’re sure he’s dead?”

“It was a car bomb, M. Most of the steel was obliterated, let alone human flesh and bone. But what DNA we could find was his.”

“You know that means very little.”

“His son was there. I know Paul…”

“And I knew Alec. He had all of us convinced he was dead for almost a decade, Martin, and then he showed up with barely a scratch. Who do your people think were responsible?”

His weight shifts from foot to foot. “I told his wife Russian intel. The truth is…” He sighs and holds up a hand. “I don’t want you jumping to any conclusions.”

“I assure you, I rarely jump anywhere.”

“Paul’s been under investigation for the last year on corruption charges. I didn’t believe any of it for a second, but the evidence is there, and now of course he’s not around to defend himself. And no one’s interested in looking into it further unless it’s somehow related to Al Qaeda.”

“Is that why you’re here? To ask us to do what you can’t?”

“Isn’t that the entire reason why you gave him to us in the first place?” Martin must be pushing fifty these days, but he was still a child when she was doing things that, even today, are classified beyond his reach. That must be reason enough for the way he resorts to anger when she’d reach for the icy calmness in her heart.

Still, his regular appearances in her bedroom since the 80s give him some sway over her. She’ll have to guard herself against that, too. “Bond’s busy with this North Korean business. And even if he weren’t… If Alec’s not dead, I have absolutely no confidence in any of our abilities to find him unless he wants to be found.”

For a moment, she just watches Martin breathe, studies the knot in his tie.

“Paul’s dead, either way. I lied to his wife to keep her happy. She’ll never let me see my godson again. My entire family...” He brings himself up short, kisses her cheek lightly, and smiles with everything but his eyes. “Look after yourself, M.”

“Martin.”

He pauses with his hand on the doorknob.

“Did you kill him?”

The second’s hesitation is everything she expects, but it still unnerves her. “We all kill our children in this business, don’t we?”

That streaked blood on his teeth, vivid red in a dark room, comes back to her now.

***

Martin retires from the Company a year later, apparently to spend his time writing books and living in a gorgeous Berlin house that’s a little too high above his pay grade for her liking. Yet… There’s enough in his past that’s even obscure to her security clearances, and if the eternally-paranoid CIA don’t care where he gets his money, why should she?

His first novel, Cloak of Innocence, makes the bestseller lists in New York and London. She reads with interest a Sunday Times interview, in which he is charming and insightful, and evasive concerning everything that might possibly matter.

The book is dedicated “To M”. He explains to the newspapers that this refers to his young godson, Michael. But she wonders, and hates herself for wondering.

He comes to England more regularly as an author than he ever had as a spy. Book signings. Lectures. Meetings with publishers. Research. The first time he appears on her doorstep, she seriously considers sending him away. The entire world knows his former profession now. But he’s a writer, not a movie star. There are no paparazzi following him around or speculating about his lovelife.

“You should get married,” she tells him over toast and orange juice.

“I’m a little old for that.”

He’s not too old to have his knuckles rapped by the newspaper. “I’m serious. It would be good for you. Find a girl. Have some children.”

“Oh, some? How many’s that? And you’re one to talk.”

For most of the people she meets, “ending up like her” would be a startling achievement. For Martin, though, who has already survived and retired and escaped, living out the rest of his life alone might not be quite the triumph.

“Call that girl. Alec’s wife. See the boy. If they’re the only family you’ve got, you’d better keep them.”

“I prefer to keep them alive.” Martin unfurls the newspaper. “They’re happy. Healthy. Normal. They don’t miss me. And I won’t say there aren’t a few people who would still want to do great harm to all of us.”

“So you advertise your whereabouts on every book you sell?”

He smiles. “I also advertise that I’m a sadistic, womanizing killing machine. So we’ll see how that works out.”

***

They both go on living.

Life in the intelligence community has never been simple, but now it is fiercely political, bound up with more red tape and alleged “inter-agency cooperation” than ever before. There are rumours of a Europe-wide conspiracy involving former agents, but the facts are impossible to pin down and the CIA is more reticent than ever. The only benefit of any of it is that no one else seems remotely interested in taking on her job.

The new Bond is quiet and morose and blond. He reminds her a little of Martin, twenty years ago, and she silently makes it her mission to get him to smile more often.

Martin’s books are taking up more space on her shelves. Like most of his fans, she reads partly for entertainment, and mostly to try and discern truth from fiction. The third book, Hall of Mirrors, features a small but steely Englishwoman who rescues the heroic Dirk Casey from a perilous interrogation. Fiction, indeed.

She can never quite be sure if he’s happy, but then she can never be quite sure about herself either. All she knows is the thrill of each mission, even when watching from afar, and her usually desperate struggle to keep this Bond alive.

Bond breaks into her home once. He’s not the first, but he’s the first in a long, long time. She wonders what he could have discovered about Martin – pictures in an album, notes in a drawer. Perhaps she shouldn’t care.

What she does find herself caring about is the warmth of Martin’s body on cold English nights, the feel of his mouth on hers, her name on his lips. She thinks of him alone in his Berlin mansion and contemplates the wording of her resignation.

In the summer of 2011, he knocks at her door before dawn. There are no flowers this time.

It’s been ten years. She should know before she even lets him open his mouth. But still, after so long, it’s a romantic gesture she thinks of before the danger that’s surrounded them all their lives, it’s long-banished ideas of marriage before all the broken young men they’ve sent to their deaths.

It’s a long-dead Paul Winstone before the Alec Trevelyan who simply refuses to do anything but live.

“I just came from Dubrovnik,” Martin says. “He’s alive. He’s got my godson. I need your help.”

She thinks of Alec, of more Bonds than she’d like to remember. She thinks of Martin, his false name and bloody smile. She thinks of the types we like.

She thinks I love you.

She thinks liar.

It’s the last time she ever sees him alive.