N'buli got the news about Stevie as his transport was landing at Sydney Airport, and he had to sit down and take a deep breath. He didn’t know what to do.
LOVE had not lost an agent since 1977, and for it to be Stevie. Valentina’s youngest son, who she was convinced was gay, even though he had a steady string of girlfriends. Everybody liked Stevie. He had joined the organisation back in 1969, when the Age of Aquarius nearly turned into the Age of Cthulu, and had been on hundreds of missions over the years.
To die like this – bleeding out in the front seat of a shitty rental car after a simple observational mission went terribly wrong – it was all so sudden and confusing.
A car was waiting for him at the airport, and he was soon heading for Sydney Hospital. N'buli had been summoned to the local LOVE headquarters, hidden inside impossible rooms within the Sydney Harbour Bridge, but he told his driver he needed to see his friends first.
The LOVE ward, hidden between the Sydney Hospital cafeteria and the city morgue, was almost filled to capacity. There wasn’t a huge amount of demand for the medical services from active Agents, so each facility was welcome to treat any overflow the local authorities might have.
He strode through a ward filled with kids getting their tonsils out, teenagers with broken legs, middle-aged working class women with bad backs and old men dying with dignity. The intensive care area was sealed off, but he just glared at a nurse who tried to stop him and pushed past, looking for Doctor Bob.
Soon after he had joined LOVE as its Chief Medical Officer, the incredibly short Doctor Bob – who also had on a pair of glasses slightly too big for his face and was permanently unshaven - had told N'buli his whole life story. Doctor Robert Bobertson channelled all the shame and taunts that came with the stupidest name in the world, his short stature and his sheer goofiness into his business as a doctor.
'And brother, business is good,' he had said with a grin when he told N'buli. Now he just looked grim.
He shook N'buli’s hand and ushered him into a semi-private area in the corner of the ward. 'I’m so sorry about Stevie, N'buli.'
'It’s okay. We’ll deal with it.'
'My staff were told he was fine, so we focused on Dave. The bullet that hit Dave glanced off his skull and hit Stevie in the leg, ripping through the femoral artery. If we’d known, we might have been able to stem the blood, but he didn’t say anything, and just bled out quietly.'
N'buli didn’t want to think about that. He nodded towards a room down the hall. 'How is Dave?'
'He’s fine. Like I said, the bullet bounced off his thick skull, but it still tore up a lot of his head, and he lost a lot of blood. He won’t be going anywhere for a while, but once we’ve got him stabilised, we’re going to fly him back to the London facility. Dave likes London, and London likes Dave.'
'Okay, okay. And Stevie?'
'He’s in the mortuary. I’m sorry, N'buli. This is the first agent I’ve ever lost. It makes me feel a bit ill.'
N'buli slapped Doctor Bob on the back. 'It’ll be okay. It’ll all work out. It always does.'
As he left the intensive care ward, N'buli wished his words did not feel so hollow inside his head.
He got lost trying to find the morgue and ended up in the hospice. He asked an elderly gentlemen with a brain tumour the size of a grapefruit for directions and a little perspective.
When N'buli finally found the morgue, Val was already there in the corridor outside, talking to some young woman in a smart suit who spoke in an Irish accent that seemed somehow familiar.
'Are you okay?' she asked Val and N'buli remembered her. She was the Agent who had come calling in the cinema, before the Luxor mission. He hung back around the corner of the corridor.
'Back in the bad days,' said Val in a weary tone, 'we were burying our loved ones every day. Hunger, disease, the metal in the air. It took somebody from us all.'
'I can’t even imagine how you dealt with it,' said the pretty young Agent. 'The strength you’d need to get through that.'
'It never goes away. It’s always there at times like this. And it’s always so hard.'
N'buli peeked around the corner and saw the Agent step forward and hug Val without another word.
Val saw him out of the corner of her eye. 'Stop spying and get over here, you idiot.'
He sheepishly walked around the corner and down the corridor as the Agent took a step back. He got his own hug in, taking a few seconds longer.
They broke apart and N'buli saw the smallest tear in the corner of Val’s eye, before she quickly wiped it away. 'I managed to talk them out of doing an autopsy. We all know what happened.'
'Please don’t say anything, N'buli. I need to talk and do things now, or I won’t be able to do anything. I’m flying back to Mother Russia tomorrow and the family will bury Stevie in those spaces above the orange orchard at our place by the Black Sea. Then we will all get very, very drunk in memory of Stevie. I should be out of action for three days.'
She took N'buli’s hand and stared into his eyes. 'Find out who did this to my son, N'buli. Swear that you’ll find him.'
He nodded. 'I swear.'
She nodded back at him and let go of his hands, and then turned and opened the door into the mortuary.
'Do you want me to….?' asked N'buli, but she shook her head and N'buli got the message. He had work to do.
He was left alone in the corridor with the attractive young agent, who looked even more beautiful when she smiled at him.
'Are you hungry?' she asked. 'The cafeteria here is surprisingly good.'
N'buli knew he had work to do, but he couldn’t do it on an empty stomach. He smiled back. 'I’m starving.'
'Jane Smith? Really?'
She shrugged. 'My parents didn’t have much of an imagination. They just named me ‘Baby’ for six months, until the authorities told them I had to have a name.'
Jane Smith, Agent of LOVE, had been right about the cafeteria food. N'buli had grabbed a sandwich which somehow managed to have all his favourite fillings in the world – including chicken, goat and beetroot – and the chocolate milkshake he had ordered was the best he’d ever had in Australia.
She had ordered a light salad and picked away at it while she talked. 'I mean, if anything, it’s proof that those really early years do have an effect on you, because I never felt comfortable inside my own name, and found it easy to slip into a new identity. That’s how I got started in LOVE, working undercover for British police for three years to bring down the Sons of Michael Collins group in Ireland before they even got their hands on any guns.'
'Uh-huh,' said N'buli, stuffing another mouthful of sandwich into his mouth.
'So after I got done with that, LOVE contacted me and put me on the fast-track Agent programme. At the moment it means I’m running a lot of messages and putting together logistics for the serious ops, but in another year I could have my own team and Oh my God, I’m boring the crap out of the most important Agent in LOVE.'
'Huh?' said N'buli, looking up from his sandwich. He swallowed his latest bite before answering. 'No, you’re not. Keep talking, I’m just really, really hungry.'
'No, I’m an idiot. You were the one who took down Sir Sirius Law on the roof of the Paris Opera House, you were there when the crack into Shakespeare’s Inferno opened up under Sunset Boulevard in the fifties. You pushed the Things In The Walls back into their own dimension when they broke through.'
That triggered memories, and while Agent Smith was almost breathless with awe about his adventures, N'buli remembered them with a faint, sick feeling of terror. He remembered hearing the Things In The Walls for months, scrapping and scrabbling in impossible spaces wherever he went, and the final coming of their Master – vast, echoing and increasingly loud footsteps coming from behind the refrigerator of his apartment in Dunedin.
She saw something in his expression and reached across the table, grabbing his hand. 'Come on.'
Before he knew what was happening, she had dragged him behind the counter of the cafeteria while the café’s sole staff member was talking on the phone and into a large larder. She shut the door, pushed him up against the muesli and kissed him passionately.
N'buli was used to this – it had happened more often than he would like over the past century – but there was still a part of him which was just a little boy from an African plateau, who felt really, really embarrassed.
She reached for his belt and he grabbed her hand.
'Call me N'buli.'
'Agent MacGregor, please….'
'I’m sorry,' he said, gently pushing her away. 'I’m working.'
She actually looked genuinely offended for a moment, before covering it up with a mask of politeness.
'No, I’m sorry,' she said, reaching inside her jacket pocket. 'I really am.'
N'buli knew she had a pistol even before she pulled it out, and was already moving. He lunged to his left, pushed off a shelf of canned foods with his foot and dodged her first shot. She was quick, but N'buli was quicker, and he ducked inside her arm and slapped the pistol out of her palm.
Agent Smith went for his throat with such vindictiveness that N'buli had to stagger back. The larder was only a couple of metres wide, and neither of them could get in any shots. She almost had his jugular in her teeth, until he got a knee in-between them. Straightening his leg, he shoved her roughly out of the larder, crashing through the door into a main kitchen.
The café worker was about to do a pile of dishes, took one look at the situation, and ran like hell.
It was a reasonably sized kitchen, with all sorts of sharp and pointy objects lying around. Agent Smith grabbed two of the largest knives she could find, while N'buli settled for a small hand towel and a large frying pan.
It was no contest. Smith got in a couple of good shots and opened up a reasonably nasty cut above his left eye, but she didn’t have N'buli’s experience. He used the frying pan to slap away one of the knives and tangled up her other arm when she tried to stab him in the stomach.
N'buli swept her legs out from underneath her and she fell hard against one of the kitchen’s ovens, and N'buli then somehow got her suit jacket trapped in its door.
She tried to get free, but the oven door was stuck fast and she couldn’t get any leverage. She struggled some more, until finally giving up.
'Damn,' she said with a sigh. 'I thought I’d do better than that.'
'Don’t knock yourself out. I’m the ‘most important Agent in LOVE’, remember? I’ve been fighting for my life since World War One. I got some skills.'
He kicked away her fallen knives and wiped the sweat off his brow with the hand towel. 'I thought LOVE Agents weren’t supposed to carry guns.'
'Shows what you know, N'buli. There are things going on they don’t tell you about.'
N'buli laughed, but moved a step closer. 'I know everything.'
'You don’t know about HATE.'
N'buli did know about HATE, but thought that bitter little experiment had ended a long time ago. He leaned in close. 'Tell me what you know about that.'
'I’m the girl from HATE, and I came out before I was ready.' She kicked out, flipped over and was somehow out of her jacket. She flashed a bit of leg at N'buli, which delayed him long enough to get in a solid uppercut on his jaw, followed by a swift knee between his legs.
N'buli went down hard, and took a moment to feel good enough to try standing again. Smith was gone.
'Damn,' he said as he turned on a tap to wash his face. 'Getting old.'