VIII. In the Present: Adrift

„I'm just saying," Howard repeated, for what seemed the tenth time since he retrieved Peggy from the water, „the sub will be here."

„Unless its instruments got fried the second or third time that heatwave device was used", Bond commented, which wasn't helping. What was it about Brits, Howard reflected, that made them such natural pessimists?

Now granted, Bond had come in useful when they'd still been dodging bullets. Howard wasn't bad with a motorboat, but he had no experience in a firefight, whereas Bond seemed to know exactly where the blind spots were, so Howard hadn't regretted risking life and limb to let him climb on board after the agent had been pushed from the yacht. After a few shouted instructions, he'd simply allowed the other man to take the wheel so save time. Then the shooting had stopped, an eerie silence had fallen among the goons above them, as they'd heard snatches from the conversation between Whitney and Peggy.

Bond somehow had guessed what Peggy was about to do a few seconds before she did and moved the motorboat further away from the yacht. After the explosion, Howard spent some helllish minutes imagining he'd lost his best friend until he spotted Peggy swimming away from the sinking ship, a black silhouette dividing the burning waters. Now they were currently trying their best to get away on a boat that turned out to have taken a few more bullet holes than were safe. He'd have to find a way to make his boats bullet proof from now on.

„Stark instrumentation doesn't fry," Howard protested in reply to Bond's observation.

„The one on the helicopter did."

Annoyingly, this was true. „Presumably because it was directly targetted. Which wouldn't have been true for the sub. Besides, everything on this boat is still working, isn't it?"

„Not the radio", Peggy said in another proof of the English tendency to make an emergency worse by depressing observations.

„Because it was hit by a random bullet", Howard returned. „Not because of some heatwave. Seriously, would it kill you two to have some confidence in our survival courtesy of the equipped-by-me cavalry coming to the rescue?"

Neither of them replied. Secretly, Howard admitted to some concern of his own in this regard, but then he told himself that he'd perfected the long distance electronic tracking monitor, if only because Jarvis needed to be able to retrieve both Howard and his cars even after drunken nights in Las Vegas when Howard was supposed to be in Los Angeles.

The silence was getting uncomfortable. Not least because he knew Peggy was worried about Sousa and the delightful Rose Roberts. Unfortunately, he couldn't offer any assurances on that front. Joey and he had been more than close as boys, and Howard was reasonably sure even today, Joseph Manfredi wouldn't harm him unless his own life was at stake. Anyone else, though, especially if he thought it would get him back into Whitney Frost's good graces? Absolutely.

„I've got life belts", Howard said. „If this little beauty sinks before the sub arrives. Which it will. Arrive, that is."

Bond pointed in the direction of the burning wreck of a yacht that was still sinking. „They've got life belts, too. And I bet any surviving crew member is more than willing to kill us, if we all end up together in the water."

„We'll all end up together anyway," Peggy snapped. For the first time since they'd met the man, Bond looked honestly surprised, as Peggy continued: „If the submarine arrives, I intend to retrieve any survivors and bring them in. There is such a thing as a code to uphold, Mr. Bond. I'd have thought you'd have sworn to it, too."

He regarded her thoughtfully. Or maybe that was his let's have sex look; Howard knew how he himself would have felt if this had been his first encounter with Peggy Carter. Then again, not everyone shared his penchant for regarding dressing downs by attractive woman as turn-ons.

„Things have changed since you left the service," Bond said at last. „Given the nature of our enemies, they had to."

„They changed before I left", she retorted, and Howard knew she was thinking of Michael, her brother, and the truth which she'd only understood to its full extent after they'd found Jack Thompson lying in his blood with an empty file on M. Carter.

As memories went, this wasn't one he wanted Peggy to dwell on, any more than the prospect of drowning. So Howard said: „Speaking of things to uphold. You're both aware there's a tried and true method to delay hypothermia, aren't you? One definitely available to three such fine specimens of humanity such as ourselves. Just in case we need to wait a while longer."

„Don't be disgusting, Howard," Peggy said, but she smiled, and he knew he'd succesfully distracted her from the abyss of the past. For his part, Bond actually looked vaguely amused as well. Which was a good look on him, Howard had to admit.

„Your file didn't say you played both teams, Stark," Bond said wryly. „Are you sure you'd be up to the challenge?"

„I contain multitudes," Howard returned modestly while Peggy snorted, then stilled. Howard felt it, the nearly subaudible hum beneath him even before she pointed.

The submarine had arrived. It took a while to rise enough from the waters so that its hatch could be safely opened. As Howard had expected, the first person whose face he saw, waiting for them, was Edwin Jarvis.

What he hadn't expected was the figure of his former instructor in the art of navigating a submarine standing behind Jarvis, with a gun in his hand pointing at Jarvis' back.

„I'm afraid the Stark-1 has been commandeered on the high seas, Sir," Jarvis said.

IX. In the Present: Finale

On the one hand, Bond was reasonably sure that Carter and Stark would hire him now, whether or not Stark's earlier offer had been meant seriously, so that infiltration of their organization would be easy. On the other he was depressingly certain that it would be a waste of time. No SMERSH tools would ever have acted like Carter did, destroying the weapon and its engineer rather than claim it and use it. Never mind the insistence on saving surviving goons who'd been busy shooting at them only a short while ago. As for Stark, while he wouldn't exclude the possibility of the man being an unwitting tool for someone, he doubted it would be for the Russians. He remembered the grim execution Le Chiffre had faced for what were, by comparison, minor indiscretions.

Still, orders were orders, and Bond hadn't yet made up his mind when his contact showed up in Stark's submarine with a gun at his hand.

„I don't believe this," Stark said. „Et tu, Phil? Don't tell me. Does my pension plan suck this much?"

Considering Philip Stanley had been the one providing MI6 with most of the intel indicating that Stark and Carter were likely Russian doubles, this was a somewhat enlightening turn of events. Not least because he hadn't been aware that 24-D-6, as Stanley's official designation went, had apparantly already been a close employee, as opposed to the part time minor freelancer the briefing had claimed. What, then, had been the point of Bond's mission? Unless…

„A businessman like yourself should be aware there's always someone ready to outbid you", Philip Stanley said politely.

Which excluded her Majesty's government, Bond thought, furious with himself. After Vesper's death, he'd vowed never to be taken in again. „So SMERSH got to you", he said tonelessly.

„Who the hell is SMERSH?" Stark asked, and Carter murmured: „Short for Smert Shpionam, meaning ‚Death to Spies'. One paygrade below Leviathan."

Before Bond could ask who Leviathan was supposed to be, Stanley replied: „SMERSH? Don't be ridiculous, 007. As if I'd go to the Russkies. No, the US private sector is where the money is at. I'm working for Roxxon Oil. Now, where is it? And where is she?"

Roxxon. The name did ring a bell, and a moment later, it came to Bond. The corperation had been named in his files as Stark Industries´ major competition, not least because of their complete takeover of Isodyne, the cutting edge company owned by…the late Calvin Chadwick and his widow, Whitney Frost.

„I take it you're referring to Whitney Frost and her heatwave device", Carter said at the same time as Bond came to this conclusion.

„Both property of Roxxon Oil", Phil Stanley confirmed cheerfully. „The contract she'd originally signed with Isodyne regarding all her inventions was crystal clear on that. But if you've left her on that wreckage, fine. As long as you hand over Roxxon's property."

„Unfortunately, Carter just blew it up", Bond said with a certain relish. Stanley looked outraged, a look that quickly turned into pain as Stark's butler, who'd until then had held his hands up, lowered them and made a quick move with his right wrist while turning around. Bond thought he saw some electric sparks, which reminded him of how he himself had been taken out.

„I couldn't risk using the electric shocker within the submarine as long as we were below water", the butler explained. „Miss Carter, I apologize for any inconvenience our delayed arrival might have caused."

Not thirty hours later, Bond found himself summarizing events up to this point to M during his debriefing. M looked sceptical, but made a comment to the effect that they'd have to add industrial espionage to the risk factors now.

„I don't think Stark will hire any outsiders again in the near future, Sir", Bond said. „Certainly not me, after 24-D-6 has blown my cover. But for what it's worth, I stand by my assessment regarding Carter. She's not a double."

He forbore to point out that if any organization had proven itself to be infiltrated, it had, yet again, turned out to be MI6, not whatever little spy club Carter had started running with Stark's help. This humiliating fact had to be painfully obvious to M. Bond doubted that the infiltrator being paid by US industrialists rather than Russian thugs made it any better. Well, at least the polar ice caps weren't in danger of melting any time soon.

„And Frost?" M asked. „Was she among the survivors from the yacht?"

„Her body wasn't found", Bond replied, which was true as far as it went, but neither a yes nor a no. Still, he cared to be precise in this case. Declaring someone dead whose death he had neither caused nor personally witnessed was just begging for an unpleasant resurrection surprise later. He didn't want to jinx it. As far as he was concerned, Whitney Frost truly was better off dead.

„And you're sure you have nothing do add, 007? Regarding Carter and Stark?"

Bond kept his face blank.

„Once Stanley had been incapacitated, Stark used the submarine's radio communication, and it turned out both of the agents Carter had send to run surveillance on Frost's gangster ally were in fact alive, well and at liberty, if a little worse for wear. Which appears to be true of Joseph Manfredi as well. I'm told someone named Agent Roberts put him into the hospital."

M's interest in the fates of US crime lords appeared to be limited. „Nothing else? After all, you could have reported back here at least eight hours earlier."

Bond thought of Stark's mansion with its many treats. He'd never allow himself to be swayed by US money the way Stanley had been. But that didn't mean he couldn't enjoy a break now and then.

„Jet lag, sir. It affects the best of us."

M snorted, and dismissed him. When Moneypenny spotted Bond leaving M's office, she called to him. „Did you really meet Peggy Carter?" she asked after they'd exchanged their usual banter. „She's the reason why I enlisted. She'd saved my life during the war when I was still at school."

Being M's secretary had ensured Moneypenny kept up a jaundiced attitude towards the various agents coming and going; hero worship wasn't her style, so Bond was surprised at the wide-eyed, awed look, school girl crush or not. He confirmed having met Carter.

„Did she tell you?"

„Mostly, she told me off. Are you referring to anything in particular, Penny?"

Moneypenny's eyes sparkled. „That she was the first, James. The first Double O. You're following in her footsteps."

Recalling Carter's very shapely calves, Bond ruefully acknowledged there were worse shoes to fill.