Ronni walks to work, street lights illuminating a dark and heavy day, another cold morning in prospect. The banks of the Thames are more crowded than she’s expecting, yet despite the weather there remains an undoubted optimism surrounding the people passed. For the first time since she’s begun this journey there is the desire to imagine herself already a 00: looking at faces, trying to work out what the other people do for a living: delivery driver, office worker, postman, City executive… how many of you are a spy?
She suppresses a smile: dressed like a secretary, or perhaps a simple office worker, but all of this is the most glorious of fronts. She is the Trojan Horse, secret hidden inside normality, challenge to the Old School hypocrisy, free spirit about to be caged and tamed for a job that she’d craved with almost obsessive need since the first time she understood what a spy really was. Walking across Westminster Bridge, as darkness shifts to dawn over a London skyline it would be impossible to grow tired of appreciating, Ronni is briefly at peace with herself for the first time in many, many years.
The only doubt comes when standing at the doors to Millbank, staring at what remains defiant and unbroken after Silva’s destructive rampage. The past calls, understanding that after this point she never comes back out the same: for a moment everything sways, shifting light before the sun finally breaks over her last day alive.
‘Don’t dwell on the past, Veronica. The future is always more desirable.’
She doesn’t expect Q in her head, but his parting words at lunch that fateful November Thursday slip back as a reminder. He knows you can be a 00.
Soon, so will everybody else.
Signing in at the front desk moments later Veronica spies Tanner, talking to an unknown woman. The older man smiles with an expression that strikes as odd, because he never does that to anyone, least of all her. In the journey through the tunnel of metal and explosive detectors her ex-Boss waits patiently on the other side: Ronni wonders what to say as explanation. The only reason she ever comes to this building is to meet him or her liaison, and that is always at their behest. If arriving here unannounced…
He will know I’m taking VB, and that’s why I’m here.
‘Good morning Ronni.’
‘It looks like it will indeed be just that, Sir.’
‘I think you can dispense with the title: new guy uses my surname, you can make your own choice.’
‘Well in that case William, I think I may need your help.’
He blushes at the use of full Christian name, that she’s subconsciously slipped into the mode used when on the back foot: using pretence to garner an answer instead of just asking outright.
‘The new guy lives where now, exactly?’
‘I think I can help you with that.’
The woman who Tanner was speaking to has appeared at his arm: stunning in a royal blue ensemble that Ronni’d never ever dare try to pull off, dark skin glowing even under the harsh strip lights of the building. She’d never seen this person before, which is odd, because someone this striking would be hard to miss especially in the white, male orientated world she was used to…
‘Good morning, I’m Eve, and I happen to work on the same floor as the new guy. If you’d like to follow me, I think he’ll arrive about the same time we do.’
Ronni does as she’s told, maintaining discreet distance, suddenly uncomfortable as the two of them walk away from the main bank of lifts and around a corner to a separate small alcove with two solid fire doors. She’d passed this place countless times on the way to the Ladies bathroom and thought nothing of it, and watches in amazement as Eve places her thumb on the end of one of the fire door’s metal opening struts. There is the faintest of clicks and the door swings open as the pair move into to a grey concrete room, in which sits a spacious single lift, already open and waiting.
Eve pulls a key from her pocket and opens a small panel on which she again has to place her thumb. There are only three buttons to press: this floor, up and down. Ronni decides to break the silence with a stab of deductive reasoning. If Q were designing a lift simply to do the job…
‘Up is the day job, down for extreme emergencies?’
‘You’re very perceptive, and yes there is a bunker which is only ever used in times of war. The problem is, of course, that conventional definitions just don’t seem to apply to much any more.’
‘I don’t think anyone expected the war on terror to hit this close to home.’
‘Did you ever meet the previous M?’
‘I’m sorry, I have no idea who you’re talking about.’
It’s a reflex now, and Eve blinks, slighted of tilts of the head. As Ronni has no idea of her status or clearance, the same rules always apply. Never talk about active assignments with anyone.
‘I know who you are, and why you’re here, and I find myself quietly amazed. That you would give up so much in a heartbeat, that you are so perfect a front and yet so complex a depth. Tell me, Ronni, has there ever been any doubt?’
The woman phases her, unsettling in both calm and poise, and Ronni has to think fast. To not know who this was, never meeting her at any point until now could mean one of two things: she was new, or this was someone very important indeed. The exchange with Tanner settles her mind: they knew each other well, which means this is a Field Agent she’s speaking to. In turn that demands that the response was not something that should leave anything open for discussion.
The appraisal is odd, strangely disconcerting before Eve turns back to the lift panel.
‘I’ve said we need more buttons, but Q maintains that less is more.’
The panel suddenly illuminates as the lift hums: Eve places her thumb on ‘up’, and uncomfortable seconds pass before the doors finally close. Ronni stands, listening to the clicks the lift makes as it rises, before the doors part to reveal an open plan office space that takes her breath away. Even at 7am the place hums, people at work at desks beneath huge glass terminals that act as monitors, technology sophisticated enough for Ronni to stop and stare in disbelief. Although only partially constructed, Q Division’s fingerprints are everywhere: looking across the space she locks gazes with the man himself, standing at a terminal in disarray, two other technicians quietly arguing at its open side.
The look he gives her is enough to make Veronica think she really has done the right thing.
‘There are two lifts: this one is for employees only, and there’s the ‘official’ one for dignitaries that’s a lot less technology and far more old school. We’re still remodelling after the explosion as you can see, but work is progressing well enough. For a while we were in Whitehall but the PM wasn’t happy with the potential security issues, so we’re moving ourselves back here in stages.’
Eve travels through the space with clear familiarity while Ronni follows behind, trying really hard to not get distracted but briefly obsessing on the notion of this floor’s position in the scheme of things. She’d bet you couldn’t travel here conventionally, and needs to confirm the theory.
‘This floor isn’t accessible except using those two lifts, correct? So you can lock everything up in plain sight?’
‘There are three floors this could be, if truth be told. I’m informed that’s just the right amount of smoke and mirrors one can present between the truth and the illusion, for people to stop considering the possibility they’re being deceived.’
‘You even sound like Q when you quote him. What do you think of all this?’
Aware of growing tension between her and a woman Ronni thinks she’d like to know better, there is the desire to proffer an olive branch, even if that action might be unnecessary. Eve stops and stares again, no softening in her demeanour.
‘I decided to stop thinking for a while, just to toe the company line. I’m still not sure what I feel about a lot of things, if I’m honest. You’re really not what I expected. Maybe you are just too perfect.’
The phrase hits hard, between breastbone and stomach, and Ronni scrabbles to maintain composure. This woman knows her very well indeed, and is clearly part of Orientation, and that means the rules change again. This time there will be no response, simply silence, and the understanding that Eve was not to be trifled with. This was a woman who was defensive and combative, and as a result should be kept at distance.
Finally she turns, heading towards an area of bare concrete and scaffolding, beyond which is a wall, completely out of place against the high tech veneer behind them, solid wood panelling stretching from one side of the building to the other. Ronni understands as she catches up about the move from Whitehall being partially cosmetic. There are no thumbprint scanners, just a large brass handle, and as the door they approach opens Eve almost walks straight into M, face full of thunder, dressed for winter morning with both coat and hat.
‘Dear God, Moneypenny, what is so bloody important that you call me over from the House of Lords this -‘
Most of the anger drains from M’s face when he sees Ronni behind her, to be replaced by what she’s pretty certain is surprise. Of all the people who know me: Q, Tanner, even the woman who I’ll now bet used to be a Field Agent but is now your PA, you’re the only one who thought I’d walk away.
‘Agent Ashby. What an unexpected pleasure!’
Veronica smiles, understanding the significance of the compliment.
‘Good Morning, Sir. If you want to berate anyone it should be me and not Moneypenny, I’m the one who’s responsible for bringing you here.’
M continues to stare, a genuine smile forming, and Ronni knows it is now or never.
‘You said I needed to inform you personally if I wished to be considered for Voluntary Bereavement. I wanted to confirm my interest to proceed well before the deadline.’
Eve has vanished, and suddenly it is just the two of them: M ushers her into the reception outside his office, which is anything but state of the art: she is stepping back in time to the 1940’s. As the door closes behind them the noise of the office vanishes, and all Ronni can hear is the quiet clicking of a grandfather clock to her left. Fear grips her heart, but she steadfastly ignores it.
No turning back, not now.
‘So, to make sure we are absolutely clear, you wish to move forward to the next stage of Active Designation?’
A camera above them is recording this exchange, probably several. Somewhere in that room behind her Q will be hearing this too: knowing this time she was serious,understanding exactly what the Country was asking of her. The last time she tried, they knew she wasn’t ready and didn’t push, and that is exactly what has happened.
‘Yes, sir. I’d like to be considered as soon as possible.’
M is taking off his coat as Eve reappears, who takes it without a word, confirming Ronni’s suspicion. Why would a field agent take demotion to a desk job? There’s no time for anything other than polite silence, however, as M is suddenly all business.
‘Moneypenny, we’ll need the legal people up here, assuming of course any of them are actually in the building at 7.15.’
‘I am sure that I can find someone with sufficient seniority to process the paperwork. I’ve also ensured the rest of the Orientation team have been alerted that the timetable’s been shifted forward. I think a bit of surprise is good for everyone once in a while.’
The first chance she gets, Ronni is determined to find out as much about Eve as possible. First however, is the more pressing issue of getting these people to accept that she’s still worthy, and that will mean making her feel as uncomfortable as M’s PA managed with a single sentence. Moneypenny was good, flawless in her execution, and clearly used to dealing with awkward agents. Now she is professionalism personified, talking to a blonde woman summoned from Q’s playground who is then brought over for introduction.
‘Ronni, this is Elizabeth Sharpe, she’s going to take you before we get the last of the legal waivers signed to go over some details we’re missing on your Personnel folder. Don’t worry about having to be at Horseguards this morning, they’ll be told you’ve had a change of plans and you’ll be packing for Heathrow a little early. Have you done as instructed and have your bags ready?’
There are two suitcases in the hallway of my flat with passport and iPod on top. I locked the door and walked away, just as you requested I’d have to. There are no personal items on me at all right now: jewellery, pictures, even my handbag is at home. I followed every instruction to the letter. It never actually occurred to me that when I said yes, that would be it.
No, you did not make the wrong choice. This life is done.
‘Exactly as instructed.’
Eve’s smile is a lie, everything is the enemy and from now on, she trusts nobody with anything. Ronni’s on the back foot, and it’s how she works best.
Whatever the department wants to throw at her from now on, she’s ready for them.