Something is different the moment she approaches the Barracks that morning: increased security, more people, many she doesn’t know, and Americans: lots of them. She has to wear ID tag plus a second photo laminate before she’s even allowed to enter the building: as she makes it to the Lab the permanently opened main doors are very deliberately closed. However, it doesn’t stop the sounds of raised voices seeping out. M is here, Tanner flanked by a sombre Moneypenny and at least one American Ronni recognises by association with Bond: Felix Leiter. There are a number of obvious senior types plus another blonde in the room, taller and leaner than 007 and even more striking. Their eyes meet, sending her walking away at speed.
Grace is waiting at her terminal, taking her back to the unfashionable, storage-centred end of the Barracks before quietly ushering her into a side room. Hastily filled with laptop and desk, this was obviously some kind of cupboard the day before. The ex-00 agent looks both stunning and fearsome in what Ronni would guess is Westwood: her instructions enough to strike fear into Ashby’s heart.
‘I need to be in a briefing ten minutes ago, so pay attention. Mainframe is ridiculously restricted, which for now means the surveillance is off the clock. After yesterday’s incident you’re on sick leave from the Hotel until we’re out of this shit-storm. I can’t tell you what’s going on, not yet, and you’re going to have to curb your curiosity and just work at what you’re given without asking everything I know your brain is screaming at you to know. 007 is back on the books, and we’ll keep an eye on him for you. Everything that matters right now is on this Laptop. With the exception of lunch and comfort breaks, don’t come out until you’re done.’
As the door closes behind her Ronni’s hands are shaking: Bond is back on the books. He’s not signed off by anyone, psych scores still well below acceptable and yet he’s now somewhere saving face? There is only one reasonable assumption if he’s on the Roster, and if that involves the Americans, this will be messy. Her first thought is to ignore Grace’s advice and leave her post, but with the seriousness of the situation all too apparent? She follows orders. Firing up the laptop, a single document sits, waiting for attention.
Special Agent Ashby,
Some days there is no time for rules or procedures. You are our single most powerful asset, and yet M has declared that you do not have sufficient security clearance to assist in this Operation and must therefore be excluded. I disagree, and I need you to prove this to the powers that be.
Find out everything you can, and then find me.
She sits for a moment and shakes her head, before getting up, pulling away the conduit from the side of the cupboard wall and looking to see what network cables are accessible, whilst locating the by now standard issue Cat 6 cable and multi-tool from inside her handbag. All that is required is Internet access, restriction from the Mainframe never the end of the world. With what the cupboard provides, that should take less than twenty minutes to establish.
Fifteen minutes later the Laptop’s using a hole she’s punched in the Home Office’s own Intranet to access the BBC News website: whatever this crisis is, the outside world is blissfully unaware of it’s nature. Ronni thinks fast: identify the blonde you made eye contact with, because he would be relevant to the flashpoint that started this in some way, or he wouldn’t be here. The blonde would certainly need to have some hefty clearances to even stand in the Lab with M, after all. She looks around Intranet connections, searching for a possible way to access the CCTV footage, then remembers the extra laptop at Reception being used to print the second photo laminate she was issued with on arrival.
She’d bet a weeks worth of tips at the Hotel it wouldn’t be security encrypted.
Ronni smiles as she accesses the portraits and names of every person who’s entered the building since 3.25am that morning, which is when Leiter had arrived with Charlie LaCroix in tow. Without the clout of the Mainframe it will be hard to build a definitive picture of this disconcertingly attractive man, but there were always ways and means. She knows the backdoors to Interpol by heart, but the biggest problem will be the American’s almost obsessive desire to keep everybody out of their business by any means necessary. With the world as her haystack, finding the needle that this all revolved around could be virtually impossible. She needs more than just a name.
Unless, of course, the Americans aren’t being as careful as she is on social media.
She searches for LaCroix everywhere: Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and beyond as slowly but surely family members are connected to each other, building a picture of the man’s relationships. He’s the youngest of three boys, unmarried, and is not American but Canadian by birth. His parents still live in Dominion, close to the Alaskan border and it appears that up until a week ago that’s where Charlie was, because his father has posted a picture of the two of them on a fishing trip. Ronni stares at both and wonders what had transpired to take what she knows from the classification database is an extremely respected CIA agent from there to here in under a week. A quick scan of the US News shows nothing at national level that might be a precursor to an incident, and so Ronni narrows her search, and immediately strikes gold.
Over the previous seven days there are a glut of reports of demonstrations across the East and North of the US, where scheduled decommissioning of Air Force sites had led to clashes between activists and the military. One of them is close to the Alaskan border, and some rabbit holes bring Ronni to a website for the Anti Nuclear League of Northway. Clearly made by someone in their mid teens, the site is full of pictures of vehicles moving equipment across the border to Canada, conspiracy theories that the US is in fact building additional nuclear silos along the Alaskan border. Most importantly of all there are pictures: Ronni scans the pages of files before a face jumps out. This laptop has the picture augmentation software she would need already installed, because Q understood the tools required to join the dots of this puzzle. Within ten minutes Ronni places LaCroix at an Alaskan US Air Force base forty eight hours previously.
After that? There would need to be more intelligence than she currently possessed.
Ronni uses the bathroom and then craves coffee, but all she has access to at this end of the Barracks is the ancient vending machine. Approaching it she is surprised to see Leiter having trouble extracting his bottle of Coke. Without thinking there is a thump to the machine in the right place and the bottle falls. As their eyes meet, Felix’s face illuminates.
‘Special Agent Veronica Ashby, it is a pleasure to finally meet you.’
‘I’m pretty certain I shouldn’t be talking to you, Agent Leiter, so if you’ll excuse me I’ll get my water and be on my way.’
She acts the dedicated civil servant as reflex, making the default selection, and suddenly he’s closer than expected, not comfortable that this man would crush personal space, until it becomes apparent it’s under a pretext. The whisper is measured; it is clear he was waiting for Ronni all along.
‘I know what Q’s got you doing, I’m aware that our superiors are often idiots, and because we need all the help we can get right now and nobody else is sharing and caring I’m gonna give you a hand. Thanks for the Coke.’
As he walks away Ronni knows there’s a credit card slipped in her pocket, and can’t get back to the cupboard fast enough.
Turning the plastic from hand to hand, Ronni looks at her next clue and wonders what she’s been provided with. Perhaps an EMV reader is required to access the card’s inbuilt chip, or maybe it is the hologram that matters. The registered name doesn’t match anyone in the building yet the Visa number is valid, which would suggest this is legitimate currency. Something is wrong and she’s not seeing it, and so empties her handbag and starts searching for associations, attempting to prompt her brain into thinking laterally. At the bottom of her bag is one of Bond’s Universal Exports business cards: seemingly anonymous, calling the number went straight back to 007’s mobile, which in turn alerted London he was marking the location as significant. He’d given it as security when starting her undercover work, and she’d promptly forgotten all about it.
The credit card taunts, until the connection is made: the International Bank of the Americas doesn’t exist either. This payment method is a front, deception in modern form. The question is, what is it hiding and how does she access it? Would it really be as obvious as the Americans could make it?
Q’s pet project springs to mind, mired in development hell and smothered in red tape. They’d built a website, to reinforce the front that Universal Exports was genuine, which could be accessed in an emergency, allowing agents brief and unrestricted access to certain key sections of the Mainframe. Whitehall wouldn’t sanction it, especially after Silva had pretty much destroyed the Government’s security protocols overnight. But Q had maintained that the modern world demanded access to key data in an emergency, especially with the speed that information moved and evolved. He was only mimicking the lead of other intelligence gathering organisations, after all…
Firing up Google, Ronni is confident that the Americans were the start Q was attempting to follow.
The first hit blinks at her, logo plus brief details about the Private Banking organisation that ‘puts your funds in your control’, and Ronni is firing up her IP masker to ensure when they try and trace her as soon as the page is launched, there’s a chance for at least some exploration before being discovered. Hiding things in plain sight was the way forward, after all: she was evidence of that in spades. There is no idea how much access could be afforded, or even what she can do with this card: holding it in thumb and forefinger there is a moment of revelation that makes her laugh out loud at its brilliant simplicity. Under the warmth of her skin, the surface of the plastic is changing.
This card is heat sensitive.
Without a thought she lifts skirt and jams card above stockings and between thighs, gripping tightly while scrabbling for the tools she’ll now need to digest this revelation. Thirty seconds should be enough… As she retrieves the card, there is a smile that makes the fear for Bond’s safety temporarily allay. Here are the instructions needed to get more information than she’s betting Q himself will currently possess, because if Felix Leiter had to make sure this ended up in her hands and couldn’t admit it publicly? There is a great deal more at play than simply the free and frank exchange of information between nations.
Thirty minutes later, the door of the cupboard closes as Ronni emerges, laptop under arm. She is aware of all three female ex-operatives watching closely as she walks down the main corridor, confidence infectious. From start to finish in three hours.
That wasn’t bad, even by normal standards.
Veronica knows why the Barracks is full of Americans, and the better than decent chance they’ve been lying to the British since their arrival.