Six Inches
Michelle Perry

The corners of Bond's mouth turned down slightly. Short. Bond disliked short men, and this man was decidedly that. Bond was still some distance from the man, and he'd almost missed him in the throng. But the broad glass of clear liquid, with its yellow coil of lemon peel was the agreed upon signal, and no one else had a drink that was remotely similar. There could be no mistake. This small man was the contact. He was almost comically short, honestly. He couldn't have been over 5'5" (if that), making him a full six inches shorter than Bond. How ridiculous.

Bond shrugged off his natural distrust of short men - trying to force himself to discount the stereotypical bitterness he assumed resided with most of them. Spending a lifetime as the butt of jibes about height, femininity and weakness, and likely physically bullied from the time they entered school, certainly couldn't help but leave a mark. Bond recognized the irony, of course. He'd never participated in bullying a kid for his height, but his automatic assumptions about short men no doubt added to the hostile environment that produced these angry, embittered men who were too concerned with proving their manliness to be of any real use.

Stop. Be fair, he told himself. This was an American, after all, and the shortest man he trusted to date was also an American. But Felix Leiter had a good four inches on this fellow. Bond took a breath, wiped the frown from his face and assumed a look of pleasant interest. Then, he walked toward the contact.

Bond watched the man as he approached, appraising him. Aside from being short, he was a very well-built person. He was muscular - Bond could tell this from the way the tuxedo fell, and the way he held his body as he scanned the room. This was a man who had complete control of every part of his own frame - a sense of poise that was clear to Bond even though the man was only standing, leaning casually against the bar, which (Bond noted with amusement) was almost at mid-back on this man, where it would reach only to Bond's waist had he been standing beside it.

His hair was long, about collar length. Brown, but a deep, rich, brown of dark chocolate, free of hair creams and gels, well kempt, but falling in a sort of planned, yet casual manner that would please most women. As he scanned the room again (quite a watchful man), his profile turned toward Bond, revealing a handsome, masculine face with smooth skin, a large nose, but otherwise well-proportioned features. Heavy brows over hazel-colored eyes.

Those hazel eyes caught sight of Bond, and he turned to face him. The eyes pierced Bond's for a full second, then glanced down the rest of his body before turning to look at the rest of the room. But the man had spotted Bond, and Bond knew it. There had been the light of recognition in the eyes, in that quick flash - not of Bond's face, but of something else. Bond's mannerisms? His stride? His own self-possessed, controlled casualness? What signs did Bond emanate that would give him away to another member of a service like his own? Whatever they were, this man had caught them in an instant. He raised the martini to his lips for the first time and took a sip, before turning gracefully to face the bar to set the drink on its disposable paper coaster.

Bond closed the distance between them, and the man turned when Bond was within a couple of feet of him. "Good evening," Bond said.

The man gave him a business-like smile. "Good evening," he said, in a smooth, pleasant tenor. "You must be from Universal Export. Mr..."

"Bond," he answered. "James Bond."

"Ethan Hunt, Transcontinental Steel," he said, extending his hand. There was nothing diminutive about the warm, firm hand that took hold of Bond's and pumped once. "Would you like a drink?" Bond nodded, and Hunt waved a hand casually in the bartender's direction. The bartender came over quickly, and Hunt nodded toward Bond. "Something for my business associate," he said.

The bartender looked expectantly at Bond, who ordered vodka, double, with a slice of lemon peel. The drink was prepared with finesse, and set before him. The two men took sips of their respective alcohol (Bond's was excellent), and the smaller man glanced at him, before beginning his slow scan of the room again. "I haven't seen our associate yet," he said. "If he doesn't come within the next ten minutes, I thought we could look for him in the garden."

The other man's tone was definite, but the addition of the "I thought we could" seemed to invite Bond into the decision making. It was considerate, and more than Bond had received on many cases where he'd had to pander to a local authority, or an insecure head of section. Bond could easily have shifted the dynamic. He could have suggested giving it fifteen instead of ten minutes, thereby forcing Hunt either re-assert his own authority, or bend to Bond's. But Bond had no desire to create any unnecessary tension between them. He said, simply, "I see no reason why not," rolling with Hunt's plan without necessarily submitting to his authority. There was, of course, the unspoken, "but if I had seen a reason, we would do it my way".

"Any contact with our associate before?" Bond asked, slipping easily into the coded language. The "associate" was their target - a wealthy man, who'd made a lot of money smuggling drugs into the U.S. and the U.K. Their respective governments usually left this sort of thing to other departments, but MI6 had received reliable information, that the source of the drugs was a subversive group nestled deep within North Korea, secretly funded by the North Korean government. It was now considered an unofficial act of war, and Bond and this man had been sent to commit an unofficial act of retaliation.

"None," Hunt replied. "Although my firm's been bothered by a few of his people in the past.

"My firm's had the same experience," Bond said.

There seemed nothing else to say that wouldn't drag them into the inane realm of "small talk", so Bond stopped speaking. The two men stood, side by side, gazing out at the milling crowd. The Aurora Hotel was an elite one, and the bar within, even more exclusive. Everyone was in elegant dress, and the room had a lofty, well-lit quality that simply wasn't part of the atmosphere of "regular" bars. Naturally, without prior discussion, the two men scanned their respective sides of the room, trusting one another to be thorough, rather than each watching the entire space. Bond watched the room carefully, but the minutes passed, and there was no sign of their target.

"Time's up," Hunt said softly, without looking at his watch.

"Garden?" Bond asked.

There was a barely perceptible nod, and the small man drained his glass and set it down on the table. He left a tip - large enough for the clientele of this place, but not exaggerated enough to cause undue notice, and stepped away from the bar without a glance at Bond. The British agent walked in step with him, wondering (peripherally) if he would have to adjust his stride so that the other man didn't have to trot to keep up. But Agent Hunt had a long, purposeful stride himself, and the two men kept pace with one another easily as they exited the bar.

When they stepped outside into the warm, breezy night, Hunt paused a moment, adjusted his immaculate black jacket, and shrugged his shoulders as if to loosen them. Bond stood still, relaxed, beside him, not grudging him the action. He had no idea how long Hunt had been waiting for him, standing still in that place. If he was anything like Bond, the inaction must have galled him. They began walking again, around the building, toward the opulent garden area that sprawled along one side of the hotel.

As they approached the ornate fencing that marked the start of the garden, Bond felt his hackles rise. There was danger here, close and unmistakable. Bond's companion had sensed it as well. They looked at one another, and Hunt gave him a slight nod. Bond pointed to the right side of the gate, and Hunt nodded again. Bond was almost surprised. He'd expected an abbreviated version of the "look, I'm in charge here, and I'll decide which way to go" dispute. But apparently, the lack of "jurisdictional" power play between them in the bar had not been a fluke.

Ethan moved silently to the right edge of the garden wall, while James made his way across the entrance to the left. Bond pulled out his gun. His "danger" instinct had never been wrong, once triggered. When he looked across the path, Hunt had his own weapon out as well. The American gave a nod, and together they stepped into the garden, guns raised, senses on the alert.

Bond stuck to the left wall, moving silently away from the main path through the garden, stepping through the manicured trees and patches of colorful flowers. The garden seemed to be deserted, which was unusual at this time of night. Before long, he understood why.

About thirty feet from him, Bond saw the tall, dark figure of a man silhouetted against the quaint street lights along the garden path. The man was not enjoying the beauty of the night garden - he stood with his eyes on the path, wearing an official looking uniform that wasn't quite right for the Aurora. Security guards didn't wear uniforms in a place like this. They wore the kind of pleasant, clean shirts and pressed trousers that would make rich people feel comfortable, and give the impression that they were really a formality - nothing unpleasant would ever happen in our hotel. Bond moved closer to the man, moving with infinite care and patience. No. Definitely not hotel security. The man had a gun, not a taser, and it was a large, semi-automatic handgun, hanging from a holster on his right hip.

Willing the man to keep his eyes on the main path, Bond crept stealthily behind him. His luck held - the man seemed bored and tired, and he had clearly been ordered only to watch the path, and make sure hotel guests stayed away. Bond vaulted for him, felling him with a powerful stroke of the butt of his pistol on the base of the man's skull. He struck to incapacitate, not to kill, and when he'd lowered the man go the ground by the back of his "official" leather belt, he checked the pulse and was satisfied to feel the slow rhythm. Bond took the gun from the inert man and slipped it into the waistband of his trousers. Then, he continued to move deeper into the garden.

Soon, Bond could hear the sound of voices coming from deep in the center of the garden. He heard what sounded like a woman crying, and a man speaking quickly. Bond began to move more swiftly toward the sounds, still watching his surroundings carefully, and moving silently through the scenery.

The sounds grew louder, and eventually, Bond could see the source. There was a small clearing (of sorts) surrounding a large, ornate fountain. In front of the giant, beautiful stone mermaid, pouring her interminable springs of water into the pool below he, stood a tall, slender man with a sharp face, light with a brilliant, gleeful smile. He was looking down at another man, who was on his knees on the circular stone path that surrounded the fountain. The kneeling man's hands were shaking, and he was looking beseechingly at the gleeful demon above him.

There were two men in dark suits, with guns drawn, standing on either side of the kneeling figure. And to one side of the tall man in charge, another two men stood near the fountain, each grasping the arms of the woman Bond had heard weeping. She was in her mid-forties, perhaps. She might have been beautiful, but her evening gown was wet and dripping, her honey blonde hair soaked and hung limp against her face, which was twisted into an expression of absolute terror.

"Why do you want your lovely wife to suffer, Martin?" the tall man asked, in a deep, oily voice. "Doesn't it bother you to see her this way?"

"Please, sir, please," the man cried, his voice quavering. "I'll get it for you, but-"

"But you don't have what we agreed upon today, correct?"

The man looked wildly toward his wife, then back to the hard, smiling man. "Please-"

"And you will not give me the name of the man who you claim took the second half of my payment?"

"I don't know his name, he-" The tall man's smile widened, and he made a quick, chopping motion with his right hand, and the woman's sobbing got louder. "No, no, stop this please!"

"You have total control of that, Martin," the man said.

The two strong-men pulled the hapless woman backward, and shoved her down into the pool. They held her legs roughly against the side of the fountain, shoving her shoulders down and back until her head was submerged. She was no expert at being tortured. She wasted air, struggling frantically against her assailants. Naturally, the two men were more than a match for her, and they kept her down for about ten seconds before they brought her up, coughing and sobbing. The shoved her roughly forward, letting her hack out the water that had choked her without ever releasing her arms.

Their target smiled down at the stricken husband, and snapped his fingers to get the man's attention again. "The next time, I let them drown her," he said. "It's time you told me the truth, my friend."

Bond tuned out the tearful pleas from the man. He'd heard enough, and he'd seen enough. Whatever this man Martin had gotten himself into, it was obviously more than he'd expected when he began dealing with the thin man. He might not be an innocent, but his wife most certainly was.

Bond was completely covered by a large potted bush sprouting fragrant pink flowers. There was no way to signal Hunt without giving himself away. He would just have to trust that the other man would follow suit, and that they'd get out alive.

The men holding the wife were closest to Bond's side of the garden. He would start with them. He waited until the husband's voice raised in a sharp, desperate plea, and used the sound to cover the click as he took the safety off his gun. He waited for the tall man to swipe his hand down - waited for the men to begin dragging the screaming woman backward. When they had tipped her slightly back, and they were a little off balance themselves, Bond fired.

The man on the left fell back into the pool, dragging the woman with him. To Bond's distinct pleasure, he had heard what sounded like the echo of his own shot at almost the same second. One of the men standing sentry over the husband also fell. There was a fraction of a second, wherein the garden seemed to hold its breath. Then, all hell broke loose.

Bond rolled away from his position behind the pink bush and sprinted for the next cover, closer to the fountain. Once there, he reviewed the swift panorama he'd seen in the three seconds it took him to find new cover. The woman and the dead man had splashed into the pool. The second man at the fountain released the woman and reached for a gun. The tall man had drawn a gun, and the second man near the now-crouching husband had been turning, away from Bond to look in the direction where Hunt's shot had come from. In the distance, Hunt's small dark figure had darted low, toward the matching purple-flowered bush opposite Bond's.

The greatest danger to Bond was the man still near the fountain. Bond whipped his gun swiftly out on the right side of the bush (back toward the direction he'd come from), knowing the enemy would naturally assume he would keep going on, toward the fountain. He peered around the corner of the pot, and caught a glimpse of the man near the fountain. Shots were fired above the pot, and ceramic dust rained down on his head. Bond edged over in a different direction, peered up and fired swiftly, catching his target this time. There was still more fire from the far side of the garden - Bond's American cousin, making headway on his side.

Bond stood looked out again from behind the plant, and saw Hunt grappling with the second man who'd been guarding the husband. The husband was still crouched on the ground in a trembling huddle. He was in the way, and Bond could see disaster afoot if he didn't move. He searched quickly for their target, and saw him at the far side of the fountain, running away.

"He's getting away!" Bond shouted.

At that moment, disaster struck. Hunt tripped backward over the crouching man, who crouched in even deeper on himself. He hit the ground flat on his back, and his attacker took aim. Bond aimed at the man's head, but before he could fire, Hunt's legs kicked up swift and hard, knocking the locked arms of the gunman upward. The agent rolled backward with the momentum of his prostrate kick, and was on his feet in a split second. He bowled headlong into the exposed torso of the criminal, knocking the wind out of him. The two men tumbled to the ground, and Hunt prized the gun from the shocked criminal's hands, and knocked him squarely on the temple. The man was instantly unconscious. Bond looked with appreciation at the man. Hunt smiled at him, then jerked his head in the direction of the fleeing "associate".

They ran, hard. Bond marveled at the energy and strength of the other agent. Hunt ran with the speed of a bullet, and the fierce, indomitable drive of a freight train. Bond forced his focus away from his companion, and back toward the fleeing man. He'd made it about half way to the other end of the garden. He soon noticed they were gaining on him, and fired wildly back at them. Bond hardly concerned himself with the wild gunfire. Clearly, this man was used to giving orders, and having other hands do his work for him. If it had been otherwise, he would have taken cover behind one of the many potted plants, and ambushed them after they'd extricated themselves from the fight.

As it was, the two agents easily dodged his attempts at fire, dashing away from one another to make themselves a smaller target. Within moments, they were on top of the man. Their orders were direct and simple. The man was to be killed, and his end of the chain destroyed. The thin man turned once more and raised his gun. Good. Bond didn't relish the thought of shooting a man in the back, even if he had just threatened to drown an innocent woman. The moment their target took aim, two shots rang out. The tall, slender body jerked back, the head practically snapping with the force of the two bullets. He crashed to the ground.

Bond and Hunt walked up to the man, and stared down at him. There were two angry red holes in his forehead, and a grotesque pool had begun to spread underneath his head. Ethan knelt beside the body, rifled through its pockets, and pulled out the gold pocket watch they had been told to look for. He slipped it into his own pocket, then stood and turned away from the body.

The two men walked silently, quickly back to the center of the garden. Ethan made for the still-crouching man, and James looked for the woman. He found her still in the fountain, on her knees, with her head tucked under the stone rim of the pool. The two dead men were on either side of her, bodies floating grotesquely, one man's hand still touching her arm.

Bond came up beside her, and put a hand on her shoulder. She cringed and shrank away from him. "No, please," she whispered. "Please-"

"I'm not going to hurt you," Bond said, injecting kindness into his voice. He was impatient to leave, before someone chose to investigate the gunshots that must been heard outside the garden walls. But he couldn't leave the woman in the water, in shock, with the corpses beside her. "Come on, miss," he said, lifting her up like a child. "Come on, get up, get out of the water. You want to see Martin, don't you?"

That seemed to help. She rallied, and Bond was able to help her stand. He held her hips, and lifted her out of the water. She steadied herself, putting her hands on his shoulders, and Bond set her on her feet on the stone path. She looked up at him with wide, glistening eyes. "Thank you."

Bond nodded, and helped her walk toward where her husband now sat up, looking nervously at Agent Hunt's pistol. Hunt gestured toward Bond and the woman, and Martin turned toward them. He tried to stand, but before he could make it, the woman threw herself at him, clutching him tightly. Martin stayed on his knees, and held her close, apologizing tearfully. "Anna, Anna, I'm so sorry." Hunt moved closer to Bond, and the man looked up, his eyes nervous again. "Who... who are you? Why did you help us?"

"We're nobody," Bond said sharply. "You've never seen our faces, do you understand?"

"Yes," Martin said quickly. Anna clutched him even more tightly, cringing away from Bond's voice. "Th-thank you," Martin said softly.

"You're welcome," Hunt said. "Martin." The voice was commanding. Martin looked into his eyes. "Pick a different hobby."

Martin let out a hollow laugh, but there was no glint of humor in Hunt's eyes. Martin's smile faltered, and he nodded seriously, pressing his wife even closer to him. Bond knew that whatever it was that had connected Martin with their target drugs, rare coins, whatever the get rich quick scheme might have been, Martin was completely cured of its influence.

Ethan looked at James, then turned away. Leaving through the main entrance to the garden was out of the question Bond could hear voices approaching from that direction. The two of them ran back past the thin man, back to the far end of the garden. James took a running jump, and gripped the upper rails of the ornate, wrought iron gates blocking off the back of the property. Ethan jumped up after him, catching the gate at a lower point than Bond, but climbing up with the ease and grace of a dancer. Bond and his companion moved quickly up the fence, then pulled themselves over. Bond climbed down a few feet, but before he was ready to drop, he saw Hunt drop down to the ground, about a ten foot drop at least. Bond let go with eight feet to spare.

Ethan extended a hand to James as he got up, as if to give support if needed. Bond nodded his thanks for the gesture, and they walked briskly away from the garden, breaking into a run once they'd gone a decent distance from the garden. They stopped at last, about a mile from the hotel. Bond and Hunt panted, not from exhaustion, but from the exhilaration of a job successfully completed. They smiled at each other like a couple of boys who'd just stolen peaches from the trees from the yard of an angry neighbor.

"Thanks for the help," Ethan said.

"Thank you," James said. "We'll get a copy of that from your department?" he asked, gesturing toward the pocket where Ethan had tucked the dead man's watch.

"Absolutely," Ethan answered. He glanced back toward the hotel, then smiled at Bond. "Buy you a drink? We can go to some place..."

"Real?" Bond finished.

Hunt laughed. "Yeah."

"Sounds great." Hunt smiled and struck off down the street, with his decisive stride the one that told Bond he was accustomed to command. Bond walked beside him, and as they "talked shop" about innocuous topics (like their favorite gun holsters, and all-weather gear), Bond reflected that he would definitely have to reevaluate his opinion of short men.


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