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They keep pressing east: Ronni tries to put everything back into proper order, but somewhere between Cremona and Novara where they finally stop it all gets disturbed and damaged. The desire is to head away from the civilised world completely: perfect planning until the following morning when Q wakes her with a problem: the laptop is overheating. Efforts to fix the dual external fans have been fruitless, and they’ll need humanity’s help if there’s to be any chance at repair. This will be the first time a need to directly interact with the world has arisen since their ‘demise’: Q is keen to ensure this thievery, as that’s what it will end up being, is well considered. He locates several possible targets between periods of laptop restarting, deciding on the one least likely to have any associations with Spectre, or indeed anybody else.

She wishes there was another way, but there is no other choice if her partner’s work is to continue unabated.

Marco Bulgari’s fortune is considerable, legitimate and inherited, plus the man is a virtual recluse after the death of both parents, introversion creating perhaps a soft target, were the man not quite so overt in his interests. His largely overrun mansion to the north of Novara is an hour on foot from where they currently sit, and Q will take his time whilst Ronni scouts on ahead. With only a days’ worth of fresh water they are limited in options again: needs now dictate direct intervention on several levels. Bulgari’s effectively holed up in the complex, food and supplies delivered to the gate, all part of a deliberate persona invented for his new obsession: internet celebrity. He plays the role of urban terrorist and fighter around his own home, linking videos to a You Tube channel that include small arms tests, hunting and bush craft. More than seventy thousand people watch his ‘lifestyle’ but as none of it is ever broadcast live, Q decides the risk of exposure is minimal. Ronni however remains unconvinced.

‘I don’t know, this all seems a little too convenient. Do people really create existences like this?’

‘Absolutely they do, 004, you need more time online to understand the future of entertainment. It’s why the SAS has its own You Tube channel: armed forces worldwide already grasp the significance of the platform for both intelligence gathering and recruitment.’

‘But what about anonymity? How on earth do you maintain your cover with the world watching?’

‘You’d be surprised how easy it is to hide in plain sight, and for how long. This virtual world remains the Wild West for espionage and everyone’s doing their part to keep the place as law-free as possible. In this case, Mr Bulgari’s entire alternate existence as ‘The Knight Stalker’ revolves around nobody knowing where he lives, which is of course a complete fallacy.’

‘You have any idea how I should approach this?’

‘Yet again, I advocate total honesty. This will work on multiple levels, considering Mr Bulgari enjoys playing first person shooters with a secret agent flavour.’

‘So you’re suggesting I tell him I’m a spy, sent for a night of passion before I drug him?’

‘Well, this way he’s at least not going to be surprised when he wakes up alone and robbed. He’ll probably even enjoy it. However on consideration I think I can probably do better than that, leave it with me and I’ll pave the way. Be ready to play it by ear.’

Ronni had entertained serious doubts around sections of the internet for a while, the fact that anyone would find this kind of stuff entertaining is frankly incomprehensible. As she walks to the house across fields full of ripening crops, the smells of summer in another country reminds of how much home is missed; preferring grime and grit, London in her face. Mostly it is time alone without music or distraction that isn’t needed, grasping life has become almost a parody of how the journey began. Pretending to be a damsel in distress, using sex to distract but never having to worry about ever being challenged, had been the way she’d survived for close to a decade as an Analyst. The point had never been reached before the designation, where someone would have wanted to sleep with her, always someone else’s problem.

There is nowhere left to hide. The thing feared most was all that was left to rely on. If James were here he’d probably relish the fact this walk ended up with a guaranteed night of passion, commitment free. All Ronni wanted was to shoot this guy and steal his stuff. Crucially however Bulgari was as much an innocent as the Museum janitor, or the field agents that Spectre had massacred in Venice. Walking up the long gravel drive in full view of multiple security cameras, Ronni has no idea how she’ll play it, right up to the moment where the door to the house opens and a man emerges in combat fatigues with a SIG strapped to his leg. He’s far more attractive in the flesh than his videos suggest, and seems totally unphased at her presence.

‘I’m impressed, I asked for something different and you’re certainly that.’

The American accent is a surprise, especially as the man’s Italian on camera is impeccable, and Ronni smiles, grateful at least a part of the game can be conducted in an easier language. Q had noted in passing this man’s interest in female escorts from Milan, and if that’s what she is being mistaken as? Then that’s the way forward. However, if he’s expecting her arrival, perhaps another woman might be on her way and now that would have to be considered moving forward. Play it by ear, that’s what Q had suggested: you’re an escort pretending to be a secret agent. This is a way to make it work.

‘Hopefully I’ll fulfil your requirements for the evening.’

‘Oh that’s good, you’re English, this just gets better and better.’

‘I can be whatever you want me to be. All you need to do is ask.’

‘Your name’s Veronica?’

So Q had the escort angle already covered. He’d clearly phoned ahead and covered her arse, and Ronni’s smile turns to a grin: her handler’s doing a better job of comprehension than this man will ever manage.

‘Indeed. What else did they tell you about me?’

‘That you walked here for authenticity, and would appreciate a shower as a result. Oh, and that you know how to fire the Walther and as a result I’d better watch my ass.’

‘I am not what I appear, Mr Bulgari.’

‘No, I bet you’re not. I’m not what you’re expecting either. Dinner’s already cooking, you’ll have plenty of time to get clean. Please, let me get you comfortable.’

The back of Ronni’s neck’s already prickling, discomfort to all of this that just feels wrong on so many levels. Already alert after the last time dinner with an American was on the table, she allows him to take her non-dominant hand, before leading her into the house.

The option to shoot him can then comfortably remain a last resort.

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Everything related to James Bond (007) belongs to Eon Productions and Danjaq LLC, except the bits in here that are mine and I made up. I get how this works.

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