One month before
“He is of more use to me alive,” Mortimer hissed, as number Four tracked Agent Braund’s progress across the outer perimeter through his rifle scope. Four said nothing, but Mortimer could feel his skepticism like a personal slight.
“Darling, someone needs to tell you,” Olga said later, over immaculately mixed gin and tonics. “This has gone beyond operational security. You’re obsessed with him.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Mortimer, shaken.
“It’s perfectly normal.” She put her hand on his knee. “Successful leaders of a certain age often find that they want to shake things up and seek out new challenges. Like Krabbe and his skiing. But you’re sabotaging yourself. You’re sabotaging us.”
He knew what she said was true. She had a mind like a laser scope, and saw more clearly than anyone he had ever met. He had seen the doubtful looks among his subordinates. He knew morale and discipline were down after Braund had breached their security and gotten away with barely a rip on his precisely-fitted suit. How he hated the man.
“I suppose there is something about the rivalry,” Mortimer said grudgingly. “Nobody else challenges me.”
“I used to challenge you,” Olga said. He stared at the carpet. “Let me kill him for you. You used to enjoy that.”
He tried not to flinch, but he did anyway, and he saw the flash of steel in her eyes.
“I think I’m depressed,” he sighed. “I’ll get over it. Skiing isn’t a bad idea.”
“I miss the man I married,” she said.
One day before
“James, this is madness.”
“He’ll keep the plans on his person, Simpson. Do you have a better idea?”
“James, listen, someone has to tell you. You’re getting too close to this man. You’re obsessed.”
“He’s an international arms-dealer and terrorist. I’m doing my job.”
“I’ve never seen you like this before. Have you thought it might be time to retire?”
“Retire? I got in and out of his base without a scratch on me! What was it the prime minister said? The greatest intelligence coup in three decades?”
“That was before she saw the surveillance footage of them watching you leave with guns trained on you. He let you go. James, sit down and listen to me. People are talking - listen, damn you! People are saying behind closed doors that he’s turned you. I know - I know - but right now what you’re suggesting makes absolutely no sense unless you know you can get close enough to talk to him without him killing you. It looks like a meet, do you understand what I’m saying?”
“I thought we had a good relationship, Simpson. I’m sorry to hear you say this.”
“Christ, James, we do. Just listen to what you’re saying, will you? I’m trying to stop you from committing professional suicide. If you take this plan to N, she’ll have to report it.”
“All right. Thanks for the advice.”
“James, don’t do anything stu–”
Four hours after
“You were right.” Mortimer’s lips were numb.
“Of course,” Olga said. “About what?”
“Him.” He forced himself to say the name. “James. Braund. I’m not – I’m not objective. When it comes to him.”
She looked at him for a long, cold minute.
“I see,” she said. Mortimer was afraid she really did. Then she turned, and switched off the oven.
“I’ve given twelve years of my life to your convenience, Mortimer,” she said. “I think that’s plenty, don’t you? You’re responsible for the children from now on, and you can keep the house. I’ll be taking the business. This is a courtesy notification; I suggest you don’t try to kill me, not that I think you have the stomach for it. We’ll negotiate a visitation arrangement when I feel less inclined to gut you.”
“All right,” Mortimer said dully.
She slapped him, hard, her eyes like knives. “How dare you,” she snapped. “How dare you roll over as if you didn’t even care. Show a little bloody respect.”
Mortimer tried to pull himself together, but everything was moving too fast; he had thought he knew himself, and his whole world had been shaken by that brief, wild moment of happiness when he had thought his heart would burst. Olga was behind ice, too slippery and cold to grasp.
“You can’t do this,” he croaked. “Two is loyal to me.” He hesitated. “Three is definitely loyal to me.”
“Three had an unfortunate accident on his way to work this morning,” she said. “At least a month with his legs in traction, two years of physio. Two, Four and Five have their own best interests at heart, and they know solid leadership when they see it. I’ll see you in court.”
Two days after
James handed in his resignation letter in person the Monday after he and Mortimer – after they – after. He didn’t tell Mortimer he was going to do it; he didn’t want him to feel any sense of obligation.
N looked at him, looked at the letter, looked back at him.
“Well,” she said. “I can’t pretend I’m surprised.”
James rubbed his cufflink between his finger and thumb. It was a nervous habit he’d picked up in the last few months. “You suspected I was having doubts.”
“Others did; I didn’t,” she said. “I had wondered if you’d lost your taste for the job. If you were really cut out for it long-term.”
“I’m not,” he said.
Three days after
He showed up at the front entrance of the last of Mortimer’s bases, the one where Simpson had told him he still had loyal people (“because you’re my friend, James, and because I owe you, but this is the last favour I will ever do for you”). He rang the doorbell (it was underneath a spa - a genuine spa, with quite good health and dental coverage for its masseurs and acupuncture specialists, although it seemed understaffed today). Being straightforward seemed the best way to make a clean break.
He was ushered into a plush waiting area with invisible speakers playing whalesong, then into a white, soundproofed room where he was left alone with a complimentary espresso which he did not drink. At last a harried-looking woman led him to an elevator and swiped a key-card to send him down to the thirteenth basement level. Mortimer was waiting at the bottom, his eyes bright and fierce, his expression a mask. He took a sharp breath, about to say something.
“I resigned,” James blurted out.
“I left my wife,” said Mortimer. “Or rather, she left me.”
“Perhaps we could talk.” James’ voice wobbled only a little. “Somewhere more private?”
Mortimer nodded. James couldn’t read his face at all.
The office was spartan, all polished surfaces and concealed viewscreens, but the chairs were surprisingly comfortable.
Mortimer pressed his hands flat against the glass-topped desk. It was a gesture James had seen many times in grainy surveillance footage; he had thought it was intended to intimidate, but now he wondered if it were nerves.
“It’s ten a.m.”
“I lose track,” Mortimer said, “underground.”
The table was still between them, or James would have gone to him then, helpless against the lost look in his eyes.
“What are we doing?” he said instead.
“You wake up,” Mortimer said, “And you look at what you’ve accomplished, the path you’ve walked along, and you realize that you have been following your own feet for years and have not looked ahead. Because there is nothing there worth looking at.”
“Yes,” James said, stunned. “Yes, that, exactly.”
“I want to see you ahead of me.”
Ten days after
“She said she put her career aside for me.” Mortimer stared into his beer. He reached out and tangled their fingers together, apparently without realizing he was doing it. It had been like that from the beginning; James had never felt so intensely wanted. “I suppose she’s right.”
“What did she do, before?” James had always wondered. In the files, the wife had seemed to appear from nowhere.
“It was an office romance,” Mortimer said, with a twist to his mouth. “She was in enforcement.”
“Oh my God,” James said, transfixed. “She was The Claw. We thought she was – you know. Dead.”
“She was brilliant at her job,” Mortimer said. “But we were both brought up traditionally.”
“The wife at home with the kids, that kind of thing?”
“Yes. Do you,” he stared at their fingers. “Do you want to - what do you want to do about work?”
This morning, the children were at their mother's; they had got up late, and James had made omelettes and a fruit salad while Mortimer read to him from the Financial Times. Two weeks before, he had jumped out of a plane over a nameless island in the north Atlantic with only a parachute and a handgun. The fierce, terrified joy he should have felt then suffused him now, with the smell of browning butter and onions in the air, the stovetop gleaming.
“I want this,” he said. “Just this.”
Six months after
“Daddy -” Charlotte said, then stopped. James looked up sheepishly.
“Your dad’s asleep.” Mortimer was drooling a little on his thigh, and his left foot had gone completely numb. Happiness chuckled through him, an irrepressible spring. “Can I help?”
She hesitated. The children were still skittish around him; he didn’t blame them. So You’re Going To Be A Step-parent said that it was important to be patient and not to expect too much. It had been difficult at first. It had taken him a while to get their favourite pasta exactly right.
“It’s my maths homework,” she muttered. “I’ll ask him tomorrow.”
“Is it due tomorrow? Why don’t you let me have a look? I used to be all right at maths.”
“Okay,” she said doubtfully.
He gestured at Mortimer’s sleeping form. “I’m a bit stuck here. Bring it over?”
He looked over the page she handed him. He raised his eyebrows. “These look very hard. Your dad says you’re very good at maths.”
“I got a prize last term,” she said. She perched on the table beside the sofa.
“He’s very proud.” He hoped to God he was doing this right. “Now, let’s have a look at this.”
“It won’t come out right,” she said. “It says to give the answer to two decimal places but I’m not getting any.”
“Oh, there it is. You have to subtract the four and then divide. Because of where the brackets are.”
“Ohhhh,” she said on an exhale. Her little face set in fierce pleasure. “Thanks James.”
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Let me know if you have any more trouble.”
She took the page back and seemed poised to dash back into her room, then she paused and looked down at her father with a strange expression.
“Isn’t he heavy?”
“I can’t feel my foot, to be honest,” he said. She giggled.
She hesitated again.
“You can ask me anything,” he said softly. “If there’s anything that’s confusing you.”
“Why did you move in with us?” she asked.
“Um.” He swallowed. “Because I love your dad. I want to be with him all the time. And he asked me.”
“But now you have to live with me and Daniel too,” she said. “Why didn’t you and dad go somewhere else?”
“He’d miss you,” he said, deciding that practical arrangements were not really what she was asking about. “He wants to live with you. And… I don’t know you very well, but you seem very nice.”
“Do you want to see my drawings?” she asked, with a note of skepticism.
“Yes please,” he said. She trotted off. She didn’t come back; after ten minutes, he assumed she had gotten distracted with something else, or had returned to her maths homework.
“Mortimer,” he whispered. He stroked his cheek, just below his eye plate. “I think I parented. Just a little.”
“You did very well, darling,” Mortimer murmured, pressing a kiss softly to his knee.
One year later
“Um. Olga. I’m terribly sorry to bother you.”
“Braund. Is something wrong?”
“No, no. Everything’s fine. But, um. I wondered if – Daniel wants to make a particular kind of biscuit for his last day of school, but I don’t know what – he says they’re grandma’s biscuits? Is there a recipe somewhere?”
“Oh. He means pepper cookies. The recipe is in the pink binder.”
“Do you have any thoughts on the new Beretta line?”
“The handgun is sticky on the recoil initially because of the new trigger mechanism. Needs a few hundred rounds for a smooth action. It’s worth it to wear them in on the range - I think in the long term they’ve eliminated the problem with the reload.”
“Hm,” she said. “Well. Is Daniel there?”
“He’s in the other room, I’ll pass him over,” he said.
As he walked down the hall, phone cradled under his ear, she broke the silence crackling between them.
“Perhaps you and Mortimer would join Shen and I for cocktails next week.”
James said carefully, “You know MI6 are still watching me, of course.” It was a touchy subject. Mortimer’s new laser manufacturing business was strictly legitimate, but Olga was one of his principal clients: his first, in fact, a gesture of support that had floored Mortimer at the time. James purposely did not know the extent of Olga’s current empire, and whether the nature of the business had changed since her takeover. He left all that in Mortimer’s hands.
“Strictly a social call. No business.” She paused. “I haven’t eaten those biscuits in years. Mortimer never liked them.”
“I’ll bring some for you.”
“How are you enjoying being a corporate wife?” she said, only a slight edge in her voice.
“I love it, to be honest,” he said mildly.
“Good for you. I never did.”
“You were very good at it. Perhaps you can give me some tips. That reception you threw for the president of Toshiba in 2012 was spectacular. Even his heart attack seemed choreographed.”
She laughed. “Don’t be silly, of course it was. I can get you the recipe for those olive twists, if you like. Sans digitalis.”
“That would be lovely. Here’s Daniel,” James said, and smiled.