DUET: Chapter Eight, Part Two

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The lift opens and Ronni stands, staring with immediate alertness down the Hotel corridor.

The door to her room is open.

Since the two 00’s deaths, she’d begun carrying the Walther in her handbag and to Hell with the consequences. The corridor is silent, often the case at this time of day: night staff will still be sleeping, day workers won’t be back until seven. She’s only here because she’s swapped shifts with Amy at the last minute so the younger woman could go to her boyfriend’s for the weekend. This is Ronni being accommodating, and she’d hoped for some sleep, because the stress was beginning to tell.

Every nerve is instantly on edge, enough adrenaline in her body to last a lifetime. Being as quiet as she knows is possible, the gun emerges from her bag as the field agent creeps into her room. Standing in the doorway, suddenly scared of herself, until a noise confirms movement inside. The shift of material. Whoever it was remained hidden around the corner, out of sight of the door. In her mind is the count before pinning herself against the wall, and again as she swings into the room, ready to fire…

‘You could have at least knocked first.’

Bond sits, in one of the chairs by her table, staring with familiar languor. Ronni closes her eyes and swears internally across five different languages. He’s wearing the same Tom Ford from the Lab, and still smells amazing. In a heartbeat, her comeback is a reflex.

‘I really hoped I’d have to shoot you.’

‘You could try that and see if you pass, but you won’t.’

‘Oh don’t tempt me, Bond.’

‘James.’

‘Don’t start.’

If she didn’t know already, there it was. He is her final test. Ronni tries to calm herself but it won’t happen, still too much adrenaline to deal with, and so she just stands, trying to work out what to do now. It would be easier if it were absolutely anybody else, even Q, who at this point is a complete and utter bastard. This is what Bond meant, that he had her back. She should have shot him in the Lab, straight through the crotch, on the day of the Funeral. That’s when she let her guard down.

‘I’m sorry, that was uncalled for, Sir… I’m just… I assumed that it wouldn’t end up this personal.’

‘What exactly were you expecting?’

‘I don’t know, but I’d accepted it wouldn’t be nearly as pleasant.’

‘I suppose I could take that as a compliment, but I’m sure you can do better.’

‘Were you asked to do this for any other women who’d got this far?’

Bond leans forward, arms on knees, regarding her in uniform before considering a response.

‘Q Division always pick someone they are confident will be an antagonist for the final assessment. It’s someone the applicant knows personally, because of the issues that will inevitably cause. Believe it or not, this is the first time I’ve been utilised for quite this outcome. I wouldn’t do it for anyone else.’

‘Oh right, so you made an exception for me, that’s comforting.’

‘You are making this whole thing confrontational, why?’

‘Because M said I’m supposed to perform to a required standard, and I’m not sure this is anything I’d ever want to be judged on, especially by you.’

He doesn’t respond to her directness, but won’t break eye contact either, so she knows whatever does end up happening that night isn’t going to be a stretch. He could well be lying, and she wouldn’t put that past him, but her mind appeared to want to give the benefit of the doubt, because of all the times that have come before. Every time you’ve circled each other the distance has closed. It should not be a surprise that you’d eventually collide.

It is high time you reconciled that at least some of this job is prostitution under another name.

‘What was the last thing that Q told you when you saw him?’

She wonders if there is CCTV in this room, not for the first time, that Q could be sitting in his office right now and taking notes. Part of her wouldn’t put it past the sneaky bugger either. I bet he’s the type that likes to watch.

‘Everybody has demons to face. Mine happen to smell amazing and have a weakness for designer three piece suits. Q’s known this fact since day one and has now used it against me in the most effective manner possible. This is my own fault, I know. I’m just too naive sometimes for my own good.’

Bond rises suddenly and Ronni is scared, genuinely afraid of what at some point has to be done with someone else, not him. It’s the reason there’s a contraceptive stick in her arm, even though there is discomfort at the possible side effects. That’s why four condoms are concealed in her handbag, even though the consequences of STD’s have never been a concern. When all is said and done, this is why she’s not enjoyed the thought of intimacy since it became apparent it was an essential part of the field equipment.

And that’s why 007’s the perfect choice; because Bond wields this weapon better than anyone else, and if anybody is going to teach you how, James is the one who should do it.

‘Will you trust me, Ronni?’

‘That’s never been an issue. You were never the problem in all of this.’

‘When was the last time you ate?’

The question is a surprise and Ronni struggles, because she can’t remember if there was anything in the kitchen that morning after coming on shift. Lunch had to be skipped to make it to the Barracks and meet M; after that, her appetite had pretty much evaporated anyway.

‘I honestly have no idea.’

‘If I told you this will be easier on a full stomach and with some alcohol, will you believe me?’

Ronni nods, too numb from the possibilities to argue.


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OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER:

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.

DUET: Chapter Eight, Part One

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EIGHT

Two days after returning to surveillance duties at the Hotel, a summons is sent for a meeting at the Barracks outside of schedule. When she arrives to find M waiting in the main Lab, Ronni knows they cannot postpone the inevitable any longer. She fights butterflies as uniforms are switched, waitress for operative, and decides this is the day she’ll wear trousers, because on most occasions that’s more comfortable, whatever the time of year. Arriving forty seconds early, Q nods his approval at the ensemble.

‘As you are more than aware, the last two weeks have been a difficult period for the 00 designation.’

Veronica stands, constant and implacable, eyes on M as he begins what sounds like a pre-rehearsed speech. She knows Bond’s behind her, glimpse reflected in terminal glass; did he come for the show or is 007 just passing?

‘Q tells me you are at the end of your formal assessment period. There is one more assignment to complete, and assuming that’s performed to the required standard we can expect to have you to the final stage of Active Consideration by the end of this week.’

Ronni exhales, significance of the comment only too obvious. She’s done everything that’s been asked, and more. The Service needs her out of the training ground and into the game, sooner rather than later. Special Agent Ashby is ready for anything they can throw at her.

‘If that is the case, this could well be the most important week of your entire life.’


007 knows the pep talk, given from this man’s predecessor. She’d chided him on arrogance, overt enthusiasm for destruction, pushed to temper desires with common sense and remember why he was doing the job. His M was from a different time, one he’d dearly like the chance to return to, but the past was just that, everybody forced to live in the moment. This present did have its advantages, he just needed to ensure full control of circumstances first.

‘You’ve performed in an exemplary fashion, often under considerable pressure, and I have no doubt this week will be no different. Special Agent Ashby, your Country requires your services, more now than it has ever done before. We have a battle that rages on our own doorstep, and threats so many and various our resources are stretched to breaking point. Your assistance will be a valuable addition to our national security. I have no doubt you will deliver what is expected of you as a result.’

The next three days are everything to her. This is where Ronni could stand or fall, and Bond knows that his actions will ultimately determine her fate. Part of him simply wants to pass the woman for service and have done with it but Q’s brief was persuasive and damning. For them both, at this moment, there needed to be an empathy beyond where they stood. Their friendship was now without question, but it wasn’t enough, not in this job. Their remit extended well beyond the conventional and into the dangerous, indistinct, where lines blurred and the only certainty was a mission goal. Ronni needed to be assessed in the one way she could never willingly agree to, and by the one person who knew more than anyone else in the department about the power of intimacy.

He too was about to be tested, perhaps more than her. Restraint, supplicancy and detachment until he could absolutely be certain she was in total control of him.

The potential of the final assignment to return him to Active Duty is enough to briefly render Bond breathless.


M extends his hand, which Ronni shakes, and then man is gone, leaving her feeling somewhat perturbed. Q sees the concern, and is about to question before being summarily pre-empted.

‘I think he could use some work on the speeches. He reminds me of Tanner, never quite that comfortable doing the motivational stuff the metrics tell him he needs to.’

‘I think both Q and I can agree, his predecessor was undoubtedly the better orator.’

Ronni smiles despite herself, turning to acknowledge 007 and noting his attire: if the Tom Ford is back, he isn’t here to work. He’s off on ‘official’ business again, and will hate every minute. This also means their time together could finally be coming to an end. After all, there’s only so much babysitting the Service will want him involved with.

‘You have an appointment at the Parliamentary reception?’

Bond rolls his eyes and gives the look which she knows means he’s already bored at the possibility.

‘I’ll make sure I offer him some tips. However, I know what I’d rather be doing.’

As he walks out of the room there is the slightest of touches, hand to arm: watching him leave, aware of Q not moving from his spot, observing closely. Ronni waits, but the young man says nothing.

‘So, what happens next, Q?’

‘You go back to work, and I return to trying to persuade Whitehall that we need better remote field access for agents than simply a mobile phone and luck.’

‘That’s it?’

‘You seem disappointed, Veronica, one assumes after Bond’s love of theatrics were you expecting something more dramatic?’

‘I was thinking there’d be more than this, I will admit.’

‘There are many demons to face in this world, Ronni. I for one am grateful that I don’t have to do that every day. It gives me a chance to relax and reflect on what I’ve learnt.’

‘I appreciate the sentiment, Q. I also realise that my expectations in this job are in a constant state of flux.’

‘Well, it may come as a surprise to you that 90% of all field work is unbelievably mundane. You don’t get nuclear warheads every week, despite what 007 might tell you. Go back to work, Special Agent Ashby and wait. Your assignment’s already in progress.’

Q turns and leaves the Lab, with nothing more to be said.


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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.

DUET : Chapter Five, Part Two

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‘You were right, 007, she turned you down.’

Sheppard looks confused and Bond suppresses a smile as Gregory closes the office door. 007 had been sceptical as to whether coming here would have the effect the facility’s director believed it would, as indeed had Gregory himself, but both had agreed that Ronni could yet again do with a shove. It had been a month, high time she was out of mourning. The older woman had obviously not yet grasped the significance of Gregory’s statement, and she sits opposite by the wood-burning fire, increasingly perplexed.

‘I’m sorry, where is Special Agent Ashby?’

Amelia Sheppard was used to getting what she wanted, and this would be the first time anyone had declined an invitation from her for some years. Bond grasps, because no-one ever turns her down, she’ll simply assume it’s personal to her and not understand the significance or subtlety of Gregory’s questioning. At least not without explanation. The irony that she’s completely misinterpreted the mindset of the only female agent she’s ever had through the Facility during her tenure is not lost on him either. So much for empathy.

‘I offered her the opportunity to meet 007 and she politely declined.’

Sheppard’s face is a picture, Bond decides, all mock indignation and amazement on his behalf, none of which is at all necessary. He’s not considered what she might think of him, and it is easy to see how she might view this very public visit. Perhaps something a little more low key was called for, that he and Gregory could arrange a less visible liaison…

‘Did she say why?’

Gregory pauses, and Bond quietly bets he’s considering not being entirely truthful with his Boss.

‘She believed that placing 007 and herself together was, in her own words, ‘asking for trouble.’

Bond has become very good at tuning people out when it suited him, and as Sheppard’s indignation turns to anger he sits politely, allowing Gregory to deal with the fallout. They won’t call Ronni back because she’s proved, at least in part, that they can’t manipulate this woman into a confrontation. He’ll wait until he’s alone with Gregory and suggest staying the night to pick his moment, because there will be one. She won’t sleep knowing what happened, stubbornness not to be used having the capacity to land her in trouble. He’s got enough of a handle on the woman by now, pouring over the assessments and metrics, understanding this is all about what she wants from the programme and not the other way around. They already own her soul.

It’s more now about how she chooses to spend her time in Purgatory.

He’s increasingly determined to meet this woman conscious, as close up as possible. He’ll be waiting, if only to see if he grasps what truly is at stake if she fails.


Ronni can’t sleep and is on her fourth circuit of the grounds, under cloudless skies for the first time since she arrived at Carnegie. The niggle remains: today was a wrong turn, perhaps she should just have been sociable and had done with the whole exercise. Mostly there’s irritation at being poked and prodded by people who don’t seem to understand what she will be regardless: the knowledge of dealing with her own frustration at an inability to move on is of secondary concern and will soon be forgotten. When the mileage is done everything hurts: now she sits in darkness in the Refectory, second bottle of water from the vending machine. One is never enough, yet they continue to ration. She found a way to break the machine as a matter of priority.

Ronni knows how to get what is required when it matters.

The rest of her day had continued without even a mention of the incident with Gregory: they’d meet again in the morning, discussing whether the performance had fit the predicted metrics. It wasn’t as if they’d send her back home any time soon, there is nothing left anywhere on Earth to call her own. She was an orphan by choice, and at this moment this decision suited the situation just fine.

‘I hear that putting the two of us together is asking for trouble.’

Bond’s the genie in a bottle, appearance pure theatre: he’s been running too, sweat stains on chest and under arms and Ronni now understands what all the fuss is about up close. He is a poster boy, blonde hair, piercing blue eyes with just the right amount of rugged charm, but this is all a front. You don’t remain the longest serving active 00 with just a skincare routine and an expensive wardrobe. He’s a mask, and a damn good one. Sitting down opposite, both facts are abundantly apparent, even in the poorly lit dining area.

‘If Q Division dragged you all the way up here just for me, they wasted your time.’

‘I happened to be to be passing. The last time I visited-’

‘Both Service and car suffered some damage, Q alluded to customary thoroughness in doing the job properly.’

‘Q’s spoken about me?’

‘He warned about believing everything I heard, and using you as a role model. I think he has a point.’

‘That’s the real reason you turned down the meeting?’

‘I objected to being made to look like a model when that’s the last thing I ever signed up for. Yet here you are, doing just that. Doesn’t it bother you?’

‘Not when I use it to hide real intent. Sheppard clearly doesn’t understand you as well as she thought. Gregory’s far better informed. I know who I’d rather believe.’

Ronni can’t help but smile, despite herself. She could imagine the pair in collusion, trying to find a way to engineer a meeting, so that Bond could see her close up. This would be just another test, like all the others, and after ten miles in only just above freezing temperatures, adrenaline is already preparing for a confrontation

‘What the Director considers motivation is a long way from my definition. I don’t think the woman has ever fully understood me since I arrived.’

‘Give Sheppard more credit, it was far harder to gain Agent status in her youth. She worked with my predecessor in the 70’s, saved lives for her Country. History helps in understanding relevance.’

‘I have no doubt she was exemplary. It doesn’t mean I have to like her.’

‘Appreciation of service given would be appropriate.’

‘You came all this way to remind me to respect my elders, Bond?’

‘When you’re out-thinking the people who are supposed to be training you, it’s time to change the game plan. I’m simply here to give you another shove.’

‘They’re making you earn your pay by shadowing me?’

‘I am by nature curious. Your motivation is something I’ve taken an interest in, since you walked into MI6 and made everyone reassess their priorities.’

He leans back in the chair, using body language well. Non threatening, open, almost inviting. Gregory has told Ronni she should talk to more people: is this what he’d meant? Perhaps Bond really was also a method of subtle intimidation to boot: she’d never have expected such a big fish to swim past this part of the pond. She was nothing special, after all. At least not yet. She won’t answer him though, and wonders at the response as a result.

‘I doubt that M would ever have sanctioned your Bereavement if a lot of people weren’t absolutely sure you’d be capable of what was being asked. The department’s under stress right now, especially after what happened in Millbank. You’re a considerable investment many people can’t afford to have fail.’

‘You sound like my late father, he always considered the best lives in terms of equity.’

‘It isn’t just effort expended, what comes from the process matters more. In this case, you’re the best chance the Department’s had for a female 00 in 20 years.’

‘And what about Eve?’

‘You won’t stop asking until you get an answer, will you?’

‘I’m also curious by nature, 007. I think that must come with the territory.’

‘Eve failed the final assessment, to kill her second target. You’d do well not remind her of that when she’s in earshot.’

‘I was kind of hoping we could be friends, but I think maybe I’ve lost my chance to find anyone to share that opportunity with.’

‘I don’t think so. Friendship isn’t about just one person trusting another, it has to work both ways. You just need to find the right place to start.’

‘Is that an offer, Bond?’

‘I don’t think you’re struggling. Gregory however is concerned you’re still not grieving. I believe all you need is time.’

‘I think if Dr Gregory wants to know what’s wrong with me, he could ask a simple question, and I might surprise him with the answer. I understand you never stop grieving when losing someone you love, that’s carried with you until the last breath. The trick is how you deal with it on the journey.’



Bond doesn’t want to like her, but he does.

He’s tried not to draw the parallels but Q pushed, red-flagging everything not yet dealt with in a non-existent personal life, because his approach to trauma is flawed and this is sound. You don’t pretend it never happened, press a button, everything returning to the way it was. You use anger and grief, loss as fuel. Propelling life forward, keeping memories of those you’ve loved alive. It maintains sanity and grants vital strength.

Veronica is a model example of how he should be dealing with loss and never has, and that’s why they’re here: he can’t remember ever being impressed by someone who understood what it was like to deliberately give your life for an ideal you desired.

‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger?’

Ronni considers his response, dishevelled and clearly exhausted: dark circles rim jade eyes, bruises and scratches on neck and arms from combat training. This beauty is unmistakeable, but that isn’t what compels: she is moved by a need he could easily damage if selfishness motivates at such a delicate point in development. What has already been sacrificed makes him shudder: there are days he still yearns for love lost. She had walked away from a perfect life, however fractured Q might convince him it was in truth.

Her motivation was far more seductive than first grasped, and Q’s warning rings constant in his head: ‘Don’t screw this up for her, 007. She has to succeed, and not simply for the reasons you might think.’ When she finally speaks, Bond grasps what it was the young man meant.

‘Or in your case, what tries to kill you. I hope my life as a 00 could be as charmed as yours.’

‘I don’t know, being dead for a while wasn’t nearly as liberating as I expected, even if the fringe benefits were considerable.’

‘I don’t think you’ll ever truly walk away from your number until they drag you from it screaming.’

‘And you know that how, exactly?’

‘Because I expect them to have to kill me before I stop doing this.’

Something happens to her at that moment, shift that Bond can register as body language adjusts, moving shoulders upwards. Ronni allows herself to believe for the first time since this engineered confrontation that she was more than capable of bettering him. James knows she’d fit the designation just as stylishly, but she’ll have to fight every step of the way, far harder than he would ever have had to, because this wasn’t her world, and would remain his for a very, very long time. Eventually, history might consider her a game changer. If she could make it to the end.

When she made it to the end, and they had to forcibly separate her from the number.

Bond’s job is done, and he should leave. However, there is a desire to share: not because of a need to impress. There is no-one to talk shop with, and there ought to be. He misses a pooled understanding of what this life entails, wants her to learn that and everything else because she’s truly is the best fit for the 00 designation the Department has seen for as long as anyone in living memory could recall.

For that fact alone, he craves friendship more than anything else.


There is silence, deliberately loaded and suddenly charged. Ronni waits, expecting this to be the moment where Bond either leaves or suggests they go shower together. When he does neither, her surprise is genuine.

‘If I told you the truth, would you believe me, or would you think this was all still part of the assessment?’

She watches him falter, mask slipping, and Ronni suddenly can’t breathe. Bond’s shift into genuine honesty is almost worryingly apparent, freedom from fear or desire. This isn’t what was expected, no overtures to what she’d been told to watch for. He’s almost scared: child-like demeanour desperate for connection, and the calm she holds shifts balance of control into her hands without a word.

‘Depends on what you’re prepared to share with me.’

‘You’re better than me, at so much of this. Your range scores are beyond remarkable. Being the best there is, that’s how this game works and you’ve already grasped the truths, ahead of the curve. You know you can do this, all that needs to happen is to convince everybody else.’

‘Including you?’

‘No. I don’t need convincing, that’s not why they bought me here. I’m supposed to try and make you fail.’

‘So you are a metaphor for my inability to believe in myself?’

‘Being a metaphor is a waste of time. Life is far more interesting when you just live it. That’s why I can’t ever walk away.’

Bond’s comment resonates, understanding of principles grasped; all that is needed now is practice. Ronni stands, leaning across the table that divides them: hand placed to his face. She needs to check he is actually solid and human: just them, alone and exposed in the semi darkness. He doesn’t break eye contact the entire time, allows deliberate destruction of the personal space between them because that’s what’s required to establish a trust. Ronni isn’t afraid of anything, not right now. She’ll never, ever be afraid of him.

Only of herself.

‘That’s the whole point, isn’t it?’

She doesn’t look back, leaving words hanging and him alone, walking away as a different person. There is confidence inside that she knew existed but couldn’t utilise; until now, and only then does it register he’s not just here to shadow progress.

Bond’s been sent to make her stronger.


007 sits in the dark, long after Ronni has left, and knows he can’t go back to Active Duty.

Not just yet.


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OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER:

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.

DUET : Chapter Five, Part One

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FIVE
 

Before, she’d heard of Carnegie House only as rumour.

Ronni has run around it countless times now, concluding that God had a really bad day when he created Scotland in the Spring. Hell would undoubtedly be more welcoming: at the highest point of this building there is no sign of major town or city for miles in any direction, only hills and the possibility of mountains, were they not permanently covered by cloud. It’s bitterly cold and all there’s been is rain for the last forever, as she’s become totally immune to everything that the place can throw at her. Gun drills, assault courses, countless psych tests, more legal waivers and release documents: nothing phases any more, and all she wants to do is finish this last lap because it means being warm again. The cold hurts, in a way that she’d forgotten, ache that sits in the fillings of teeth and the marrow of bones.

Tears only fall as she runs, still mixing with the rain, undoubtedly the best means to hide fragility from ever watchful employers.

Part of her mind cannot keep from reminding what a dreadful mistake’s been made, whenever anyone else laughs or talks. There’s probably two dozen people here, of various nationalities, but everyone is steadfastly avoided, a deliberate move on Ronni’s part. When she does eat in the small public refectory and not in her room it is away and alone, out of the way, and this continued behaviour is causing some concern for Dr Gregory. He keeps pushing for socialising, but she’ll counter that in this job the last thing you want to do is fraternise with other secret agents. You look for people who don’t know who you are, because then you’re not ever going to be forced to talk shop. Gregory is yet to push her over her reticence, but Ronni knows that it’s only a matter of time.

Q’s advice still sits in her mind: reminder to be herself, to let everything else find a level around that constant.

There’s a car coming, Ronni registers, moving slowly up the gravel track. This is unusual: normally there’s the Post van, or an anonymous Supply Transit from wherever counts as civilisation this far into nowhere, but no-one visits by car. You get flown, it transpires, helipad at the back of the facility by the shooting ranges the preferred method of moving anyone in or out. Ronni shifts to one side but keeps running, catching a glimpse of silver paint as the car rumbles past, consciously taking the path away from the main building and down to the large wooded area that covers the eastern part of the estate. It sounds old, she notes almost absent-mindedly, jogging quietly under the canopy of trees, particular cadence that reminds of Scott’s bike, and suddenly there is a compulsion to stop and look back up to the front of the house.

Even if she didn’t recognise the model, that registration number is committed to memory.

BMT 216A

The car is an antique, and an expensive one at that. It’s also a very public hangover from a past Ronni knows the Service embraces only for a very select few. In this case, for one man. MI6’s poster boy, if such a thing weren’t a massive contradiction in terms. It was inevitable that at some point their paths would cross, because he’s doing the job she’s always wanted. That shouldn’t have happened for quite some time.

Making sure she’s out of sight, hidden by the trees but with a view of the front of the house, Ronni needs to know there is no mistake in this assumption. Director Sheppard appears, looking even more impeccable than normal in tweed and pearls, immaculate hair protected under a large golf umbrella held by one of the facility’s support staff, and there’s absolutely no doubt who steps out of the car in dark blue Tom Ford.

Ladies and Gentlemen, 007 has entered the building.


‘You can stop any time you like, you know.’

Marcus has been standing behind her for at least the last ten minutes, and this is her fifth target dummy, bullets all beautifully concentrated in exactly the right spots. There is no doubt this bit of the job can be completed in her sleep, but this isn’t the field, and that’s not a living breathing person. At some point there has to be an understanding that Ronni’s not quite sure she’s adequately grasped, where training stops and instinct begins. It is apparent where both sit, but getting them to exist simultaneously…

‘I can’t get warm here, I’m permanently freezing. This is a great way way of forgetting that I’m in hell.’

‘For what it’s worth, I’d ask for you to cover my back if this does end up being the afterlife and not another badly paid civil service placement.’

‘Oh, I bet it’s not that bad.’

‘You’re the one with the potential to make more money than just about everyone in the building, including Supervisor Sheppard, and I’m betting you’ll be the one with least use for it.’

She’s never actually spoken to the Range Supervisor at length before, apart from pleasantries or asking for ordinance: she’s staring at him now, knowing that he must have a family to go home to, maybe children to kiss and play with. The loss makes her ache, body tensing and mouth going dry, inevitable consequence of sacrifice. There are no tears because she’s perfected the art of hiding from strangers after a month of practice, but the stab in her chest is suddenly more painful than ever. Veronica has begun to think that this is penance, that this guilt will remain as fresh for the rest of her natural life. Perhaps she should simply embrace the fact as Dr Gregory has suggested.

‘So, does this place ever get warm at all?’

‘Needless to say, Spring is pretty much the same here as every other season, it just rains a wee bit more than Summer.’

Marcus takes the gun from hands that Ronni registers are shaking, not simply from cold and understands that her unscheduled trip, running away from what she saw at the front of the house, is being brought to conclusion. She doesn’t want to be in the main building because of what it contained.

Not what, Ronni. Who.

‘Do I get into trouble for exceeding my Range allowance?’

Marcus knows where she should be. Everyone who deals with Ronni is under strict instructions and a very tight leash from Sheppard, but people have begun to cut her a break, which is why she’s been sneaking in here under the guise of practice when what’s been craved is to not be under scrutiny. If Bond is here, they’ll have him under a pretext. Perhaps she shouldn’t assume it was her… but come on. Everything is a test, from here until they give you the 00 designation. Which they will, and that means the best there is came to laugh at the new girl.

No, you don’t get to belittle me.

‘You’ll be in more trouble if you’re not ready for your Orientation on time. Go.’

Ronni trudges back to the house, entering through the back door and drags herself up to a room she now detests, peeling off wet clothing without a thought. Standing in the shower under scalding water she wonders how her pregnant sister is doing, that perhaps considering them all dead as Gregory had suggested was the way forward. Leaving her family aside and moving on was all part of the job: understanding that by killing herself she had been reinvented anew, rising from the ashes of her old existence. She didn’t feel like a Phoenix: mind was flat, fear simply wouldn’t fade despite Gregory’s assertions that eventually it would, that it took a long time for a Bereavement victim to recover.

Only now came the understanding why everyone referred to her as a victim.

She emerges from the shower to find an outfit hanging on the back of the room’s stripped wooden door: materials that feel thick and substantive under calloused fingers. Knee length skirt, heavy blouse and fitted jacket, all in muted greens, clothing she knows that wouldn’t have looked out of place in her mother’s wardrobe if she had access to it. However, it is the Mary Janes that make her smile, despite herself. They are identical to a pair she almost lived in before this began, down to the delicate fabric bows on each heel. The grip of normality takes hold, just for a moment, and steadies as she bends down to pick one up and stare at it.

There is a small bag of make-up too, foundation and powder, enough to give the impression of effort that she knows is being suggested she takes. Whatever is about to happen there is a requirement to make effort to attend, and so she does. Bond’s presence continues to irk, this is a change to schedule that never happens at Carnegie. Thirty minutes later and mood has shifted from irritated to combative: as if on cue there is a knock. Gregory stands at the door, demeanour very much approving.

‘Well, I think I can say you passed that part of the assessment fairly conclusively. I had wondered if you’d grasp the significance of throwing a spanner in the works after a month of working to the programme.’

‘A potential 00 has to be ready for anything, adaptive at a moment’s notice. I did read the Manual.’

‘Yes, but there is a world of difference between the intake of knowledge and the application of its understanding, Ashby. Shall we go downstairs?’

There is muted laughter as Ronni follows her psychologist down the large expanse of stairway, from what she knows is Sheppard’s office, depressing acceptance that all this effort is designed to display her as the latest attempt to get a woman into active 00 service. The Facility Director’s speech from the first day of Ronni’s tenure rattles around her brain: ‘There is a simple reason why there are no female 00 Agents currently in service, and it has absolutely nothing to do with this being the remains of an Old Boys Club. If you want to change the game, you’re going to have to sacrifice everything that you are to do so.’

Ronni wishes she’d asked more about the three women that she now knows trained here before, confident Eve was one. It was the two who failed she’s more interested in learning about, but there is no access here to any Mainframe, laptop simply for training exercises. None of those agents would have taken kindly to being made to dress up either: Ronni knows that’s a lead in she can use if needed. Because she is damned if that’s going to happen now: if Sheppard wanted sacrifice, and a clear statement of intent, that’s what was going to happen.

First up however, she’s going ask Gregory for the truth and see what that gives.

If she doesn’t have to play a game, maybe this is progress.

‘Where are we going?’

Gregory stops on the stairs and turns, eyes as always immediately locked on hers, unwavering focus from a man who seems almost ageless.

‘Excuse me?’

‘I’m sorry: where are we going, Sir?’

‘You know, in the month you’ve been here I think that’s the first time you’ve actually asked me anything, Special Agent Ashby.’

She’s breathing hard, sweat forming at the small of her back, finally warm enough for the environment. Veronica wonders if pushing the point of their destination is required but Gregory is doing what he is paid to do, give the answers in his time and without any other concern.

‘I am reminded of our last one-to-one session, where you told me that there will come opportunities where I will be given a chance to use my own discretion as to the suitability of particular assessments for my needs. I feel perhaps this may be one of those occasions.’

‘But we have a very special visitor, Ashby, and Director Sheppard is giving everyone in the Facility the opportunity to meet him. I thought that considering who he is you might benefit from that experience.’

Ronni works the sentence in her mind: everything has been a test with Gregory, from the moment they first locked horns, and she guesses this is absolutely no different. Opportunity means that whatever this is may not be compulsory, at least not yet…

‘If I were to respectfully decline the Director’s invitation would it negatively impact my success in this Assessment?’

At this Gregory tries to suppress a smile but largely fails, and deep inside an indignation flares that Ronni’s not experienced for some time. You’d better not mock me. Gregory has done this more and more of late, pushing for an emotional reaction, attempting to exploit a weakness. It is never going to happen, because I am better than that, and you know it.

‘Why on Earth would you not want to meet 007?’

‘I would have been happy to do so having not been asked to dress in the manner that the Director felt was appropriate to meet her guest. I’m being judged as much on how I look as how I’ll perform. Add to that the belief that I’m sure 007 has no real desire to meet me. Being wheeled up here to lend his support to a project that up to now has pretty much been an unmitigated failure is I’m sure the last thing he’d rather be doing. I don’t think as a result this is a meeting that is suitable for either of us.’

This is nothing about anyone else and everything to do with you. This is nothing to do with bolstering, all that’s needed is time. They’re pushing to see how you’ll react to being held up beside a legend. You don’t show them you care, because this isn’t about how good he is. It is about how ready you are.

‘With respect therefore, Sir, I feel I should decline Director Sheppard’s offer: perhaps another agent would benefit from the meeting. The confidence boost on my part is unnecessary, I assure you. Plus, given Bond’s reputation with the opposite sex, I’d argue putting the two of us in the same place is just asking for trouble.’

She doesn’t break eye contact with the man, not for a second, knowing they have crossed an important threshold. Everything has been completed without question since arrival, not once has she pushed back. This however smacks of something that makes her feel uncomfortable, and knowing Bond’s modus operandi Ronni decides that drawing the most basic of conclusions won’t be unacceptable: Sheppard didn’t ask him here to paint me as an equal, she wants me to aspire to be like him, and that’s absolutely the last thing I will ever want to do.

Gregory stands, staring at her for a long time, before coming to a decision.

‘Yes, on reflection I can think of several people who would gain a lot more from this kind of experience than you would. I’m sorry to have dragged you away from scheduled Orientation, Special Agent Ashby, you may get changed and return to the gymnasium.’

As Gregory walks away, Ronni can’t help but wonder if she passed or failed the test she was given.


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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.