EX/WHI :: Part Twenty

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This should be an uncomfortable, strained evening meal, as had been the case every time Ami had discussed operations that had gone south. Except, of course, these were extraordinary circumstances. Both operatives remain alive and extremely well looked after; representatives of their planet, fact that was only now beginning to truly sink in. This wasn’t like anything that had ever taken place before, not even the most extreme of missions.

She’d been held captive once, in North Africa, and those seventy-two hours were some of the most frightening of her existence. Nothing that she’d been taught prepared for how she’d be treated, to escape without having been either raped or beaten was beyond lucky… but it pales in comparison compared to now. There is no benchmark with which any of this will ever be measured.

Dinner’s almost done: explaining Algeria to Chris is having more of an emotional effect than initially expected, enormity of their circumstances finally registering.

‘You okay, Ami?’

‘Yes, I remember how genuinely frightened I was for my life back then, that they could do anything and I’d have no means of either fighting back or defending myself. This situation is different, ever since you had the accident… if they wanted to hurt us or torture us, I honestly don’t think we’d be sitting here with a curry. The psychology is all wrong, you know?’

‘I know what you mean. It would be far more psychologically damning to let me finish our notes and then just make them vanish, but they haven’t. It’s almost as if we’re supposed to compare ideas, this is important for whatever happens next, because you and I know that if we both go to sleep they can just pick us up and dump us somewhere new, or shift this building somewhere else in the simulation…’

Dinner was beyond amazing: they’d spent several hours now with their notes as a backdrop, comparing experiences and discussing their captors at length. Ami knew they weren’t being watched either: if this is truly an experiment, even their observers would need to engage in some kind of rest and recouperation. It was a chance to relax without as much fear, even if both of them were as alert as they’d be mid-mission, probably more so.

Tomorrow however was the unknown that was suddenly very frightening indeed.

‘So Chris, honestly: what happens now?’

‘Your guess is as good as mine, probably better ‘coz you’ve been spoken to by these beings and I’ve just been used as a science experiment -’

‘That’s unfair, you’ve contributed…’

‘No, I was the moron who backed into the thing that any sane person would have steered well clear of because of all the things we’ve encountered thus far, it has been the only item that even looked the least bit threatening. I am very much Ape Man here, and it’s okay. I don’t take that as an insult. I’m the one who’s gotta pick my game up, and I will. You have my word.’

‘Without you here I would have crumbled after we were abducted. I needed someone to keep me focussed. You’ve provided nothing but respect, more than I’ve got from a male colleague in nearly two decades. I know you think you’re the liability, but you’re not and that is worth more to me than anything.’

Chris looks away, unable to meet her gaze: there’s a lot more to this man that just a CIA operative struggling with a desire to keep his job. Ami’s never held a long-term relationship for longer than two years: Chambers’ emotional issues are something there is empathy with than perhaps even he is aware. Professionalism is without question, but the longer their imprisonment goes on, the less it becomes about the procession of automatic, dispassionate responses.

This man has deep seated issues, has done for a long time. There’s no doubt he loves his soon to be ex wife, but couldn’t make it work. He was the bigger problem, the metrics said so. Issues under pressure, prone to panic and occasionally, when situations were very stressful, to explode with rage. He’s not been angry yet, but obsession with perceived ineptitude might send an unsettled brain there if the right stimulus gets presented…

His regard for her remains beyond impeccable, has only strengthened since this all began. With care, a hand is extended; sentiment repeated.

‘I trust you with my life, Chris, and you know this. Deep down, we’re matched for a reason you don’t want and I’m not even thinking about. This is not about breeding partners. This is survival. You and I don’t conform to type, and we won’t procreate for an audience. It isn’t going to happen.’


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DEFAULT :: Part Twenty

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The combined French and Monaco fire services are struggling to keep events under control as Ronni slips down the sharp incline that forms the southern side of the estate where the safe house is located: it had been an impressive piece of early 1930’s art deco but is close now to being a shattered shell, yet the blaze inside continues to rage apace. According to Q’s intelligence the tracker’s nearly half a mile away from the house, in an area that’s marked as ‘secondary storage.’ In reality that meant the obligatory underground bunker that would have been retreated to if the area came under aerial assault, marked by an unassumingly anonymous low brick building with two large wooden doors.

Ronni slips into darkness, before putting on the glasses Q had provided as extra field equipment. Impressively bright LED’s automatically illuminate the space yet fail to blind, and suddenly a sophisticated heads up display in front of her eyes springs into life. The micro-earpiece crackles briefly: Q’s voice then is so clear that he could almost be at her shoulder.

‘I have Rachel as my second pair of eyes with Emmanuel and Lizzy on backup. We are all with you, 004, so I guarantee we’ll not miss anything. Please however proceed with caution. We have no idea what we may find.’

‘Q, that is normally my default state in situations like this. Who’s more nervous here, you or me?’

‘I think I win this first round hands down, Veronica. Your attentiveness has been a pleasant surprise from that of your predecessors. This outlook will also give everybody time to think: proceed please at your discretion.’

Anonymous concrete surrounds, stretches downwards, temperature control provided by an intact internal electrical system that meant she could find lights if needed, but would prefer to stay in darkness and not draw attention to their presence. There’s a ramp that leads down to another set of solid steel doors that should be shut yet are wedged open, and Ronni stops herself, distracted by a bright patch of red on the ground.

‘Before you ask, it’s blood.’

The inevitable question is pre-empted, as Ronni leans down, trying to imagine who’s body it was from. Could this be Bond, dragged helplessly in here to die, or better Christian’s, as 007 smashed an already damaged face into the concrete? There is a trail too, drips that lead into the first large storage area, and they are followed as breadcrumbs until almost running into a wall. Looking up, there is a moment of shocked amazement when it becomes apparent not only was her presence anticipated, but had been clearly planned for.

Across the entire expanse of concrete wall is a word, spelt out using the same size of photograph: WHORE. Every image is of Ronni: from undercover work to her running in London, images leaving and entering the Barracks, and out at the Colosseum in November. It’s meant to scare, intimidate a lesser mind into believing life had been defiled and violated for months without permission, but she knew better. This was part of the job description, after all, and unavoidable in the modern world. Ronni begins to take pictures of each ‘letter’ with her phone camera, to allow the analysts to better understand what had been used as potential torture. In her ear there is movement, a second body to Q’s left, and then Rachel’s voice talking away from his microphone.

‘We need to ID when and where every one of these pictures was taken, and ensure the integrity of any of our devices that may have been used as access. I want to know as much as you can find out in the next hour. GO.’

It is reassuring to listen to Rachel already two steps ahead, so that Q can continue to handle the situation with dispassionate attention. There is second word, scrawled across the collage in chalk: PERSEVERANCE, clearly added after the main work was complete.

‘Whilst Emmanuel is checking the integrity of our surveillance systems Lizzy will be making notes on anything we see. I think this word was added afterwards, and is not part of the original intent. Please check for anything even remotely unusual, 004.’

‘Looking at where I know these were taken, none of this stuff’s really sensational, I’d be concerned if they had anything from internal CCTV like Whitehall.’

‘Indeed but I’d like to be sure. I’m also concerned in the dark you may find yourself easily disorientated.’

‘I am aware what happened to Theseus: although I may not have string, I’m making sure I remember the way back.’

There are indeed other words as she moves down the access tunnel, and Lizzy’s diligence will recall them all for later. Reaching a second room, it takes a moment for the smart glasses to adjust to the darkness, but as they do there is an audible gasp from Mayer: from the ceiling hangs a dummy, clearly made up to look like Flemmings, with large metal spikes hammered through both breasts and the crotch. Above hangs a banner, red paint, the word SLUT in badly drawn capital letters. Ronni laughs, despite herself, because this isn’t making her frightened. She feels sorry at the simplicity of the effort: was this the best Christian and Maddy could concoct?

‘I’ve never really understood this form of abuse, it’s hardly very well done.’

‘I feel that perhaps you and Christian may be at odds. He appears to have some issues with your professionalism.’

‘Well, can you blame him? We didn’t exactly hit it off, did we?’

She deadpans the joke and knows Q will smile, that this is all that is required from the moment to reassure there’s no concern for her mental well-being. This room however should be full of arms and equipment but is empty, as Spectre has clearly stripped the place clean.

‘My greater concern past the amateur theatrics, Q -‘

‘Indeed. Our guests have been extremely thorough. Lizzy, I’ll need someone on the inventory for this location so we have an idea of what Spectre have liberated on their departure. Ronni, there’s a room to your left, access code Delta One. Can you check it for me please?’

Doing as instructed, recalling the code choice from her first briefing after taking the number, the area is empty apart from a pile of clothes. Suddenly conscious of her audience, Ronni briefly hesitates before reaching down and smelling the underarm of the shirt, dark spots on the surface she knows are blood. Bond’s blood, shirt he changed out of. There’s no need to rescue him, because unsurprisingly he did that for himself.

‘What was provisioned in here, Q?’

‘BMW S 1000 XR motorcycle, survival equipment and the clothes I assume Bond changed into?’

‘In the end, yet again, he saved himself. Can’t say I’m at all surprised.’

The relief is genuine reassurance since the first time her feet touched European soil, that knowing Bond’s already in theatre takes a surprising amount of pressure off her shoulders. Now, however, a whole slew of new questions suddenly rise to challenge: most notably, what lies beyond the main storage area.

‘Lock was operated about an hour ago, I can now check satellite footage to confirm it was him regardless. The DB10’s tracker’s still registering, 004, lets see if we can recover some stolen property while we’re here.’

‘No. This is where I stop.’

Ronni knows she’s done, suddenly unwilling to continue the objective, every nerve unsurprisingly on alert, and it takes a moment to work out why. Only now does brain register words read as she’d descended into the bunker, needing confirmation of what is suddenly compelling her to disobey a direct order. Explanation added after the fact, familiar handwriting. The letter he sent, telling her the wedding was off, reminder that these circumstances changed the game plan. Turning suddenly, consciousness connects with location to provide an answer. In chalk, on the wall of the small room are scrawled three words: TODAY WE ESCAPE.

‘Care to explain, 004?’

The first thing truly bonded over was music, back when 007 had liberated her iPod during training. This band would always come up somewhere in conversation, and so Ronni felt obliged to buy the albums and, despite herself, began to appreciate a new back catalogue. He knew every lyric by heart, because James was the bigger nerd, and that suited his persona just perfectly when all was said and done. They’d agreed the last night they’d slept together: codewords were easy to decrypt if you knew someone’s history. Lyrics were far more esoteric and mysterious. If they were ever compromised, needing to communicate on an intensely private level, she’d use The Divine Comedy, and he’d always pick Radiohead.

‘Private joke, 007 knew only I’d understand. He knew it would be me here, and planned ahead. I think this is where we use the drone, and I get ready to run if required.’

‘No, you will exit first, I can control the unit perfectly well from ground level. If Bond is telling you to go no further, I am the last person to ignore such sound advice.’

Once back outside the bunker, Ronni retrieves the tiny remote controlled device from her four wheel drive, effectively a camera with sensors and propellers, watching as Q takes the reins from Central London via her scrambled connection. He flies the unit up and away, back into darkness, with a skill that should not be a surprise. The heads up display on her glasses register as the tiny device zips back to their last point of interest, before ascending to just below ceiling level. Another ultra bright LED bank activates and shines down as the unit moves slowly forward, before an alarm sounds, then another, with the sickening realisation Bond knew full well the theatrics had only one aim, to draw her to an untimely demise. Ronni unconsciously begins to back away from the entrance, aware that the unit’s picked up multiple hazards, but that’s the least of their concerns.

As she runs, as fast as possible away from the bunker, there are shouts from up at the house as the fire crews also scatter, leaving the building to burn. Q has raised the alarm for them via the French authorities, video from beneath her feet revealing the ultimate, damning truth. Inside the final storage area sits the DB10, still immaculate, surrounded by enough explosive compound to blow a hole in the mountainside that would make the safe house’s destruction appear like lighting a match.


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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 Seven, Part Three

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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.

Q

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.


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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.
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