EX/WHI :: Part Six

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The bottles behind the cafe’s counter might look full of alcohol but it is immediately apparent they’re empty, and not even made of glass. What Chris finds fascinating is the illusion they create: same weight, even with obvious transparency, but constructed from something unbreakable, that bounces back every time he throws one at the floor. As he attempts to destroy an increasing number of items from hand to ground, Ami is investigating fridges and storage areas. Her conclusions are not comforting: apart from what they jointly bought on arrival, everything else is an elaborate copy.

An incredulous mind is slowly adjusting to their new reality, because that’s what it is. They’ve already established in the last hour by their watches (which still work) that they’re prisoners, there’s absolutely no way in or out of this facsimile, the toilets still function and there’s water they won’t yet drink. With nothing sharp or dangerous enough to make even a dent in what appears to be an impressive and quite bouncy outer wall, they instead investigate the bounds of confinement. Chris has done his best to brute force anything that might look like it could act as a weapon but after the incident with the table, nothing budges.

‘We could try and hurt ourselves and see what happens.’

Chris looks at Ami, who’s holding something in her hand that is obviously not part of the illusion, which is a surprise.

‘I really wish this was a gun or a bomb and not just lipstick, but it at least allows us to make notes. We need to work out what we know, so there’s a chance of answering questions that make no logical sense.’

Her lack of panic or incredulity has been amazingly impressive since regaining consciousness: without Bishop’s pragmatism, he’d have probably just sat and hugged his knees for a long time before wanting to work out answers, not allowing reality to seep into this nightmare. However, she needs to be running the problem, and is already writing a word them on the top of the long, dark wooden serving bar which, as it transpires, was his first thought about their abductors too.

‘I read an inordinate amount of science fiction as a kid. Tons of the stuff, watched all the TV shows. I know what this is, because that’s the only logical explanation for what just happened.’

‘I was big on Buck Rogers, did you get him in the UK?’

‘Yeah, and Wonder Woman, and that thing with the metal bad guys -’

‘Cylons. They at least looked like aliens. What makes you so sure that’s what this is?’


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DEFAULT :: Part Six

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The ENO’s production values are beyond impeccable: Ronni can’t help but get sucked into the moment as the opera presents it. Ironic that this should be ‘Così fan tutte’ on offer: Ferrando and Guglielmo expressing their certainty that Dorabella and Fiordiligi will remain faithful when they depart for war, confident their relationships are intact. It’s all well and good until Don Alfonso arrives and bets them their fiancées can be seduced, then the men are all indulgence and disguises before fooling the other’s lover they’re somebody else. On reflection Ronni understands why this might not be Bond’s first choice of evening entertainment, considering their line of work. The last time he was here had been at one of the many Royal Galas the 00 section were obliged to protect as part of the department’s long-term remit: whichever of the agents were in London would be attached to the normal Palace security services to augment the numbers.

That night she’d worn a tuxedo that was subsequently banned from use for official duties, despite being Whitehall sanctioned and manufactured. The kevlar underbust corset was worn not for protection, but because Ronni knew how much of a reaction it would provoke. It did nothing to keep anything safe but everything to arouse, a point that several senior figures were keen to point out meant the entire ensemble became counter-productive. In the end she’d been in the air and back to Turkey before 007 got the chance to release body from underwear’s seductive embrace, and part of her is sad that the last memory of them together was undoubtedly the most emotional and passionate of their trysts. Ronni loves making Bond out as the villain when it suits, but is aware that not having him to flirt with was the least of her concerns. There are more serious demons to consider, quite apart from understanding tonight is already a potential flashpoint.

Richmond appears entranced, but soon bores of the libretto: Ronni’s grasp of events is decent enough, but that’s not really required to understand the subtleties of plot. He becomes far more interested in watching her which, after a while, becomes distressingly uncomfortable. At the end of Scene Four, clearly deciding to try and attract attention he reaches out, right hand slipping around hers. Finally, past connects with present; issue at their handshake all too apparent. There is oddness on the second finger, space where a ring once was for some time and has now been removed. Image sparks recall on cue; opera suddenly irrelevant as instincts bring the real threat front and centre.

Golden octopus, striking yet insidious.

It had been a briefing the week after the Westminster Bridge ‘incident.’ Every 00 recalled, awkward introductions in the Barracks’ large briefing area. 003’s huge hands, 009’s appalling music tastes, both men now off the books for good. The sense only she and James had anything in common; the rest of these men were from a time unknown, ingrained with attitudes that only considered her as an associate and not equal. M’s speech about a threat more seductive than anything the Centre for National Security had presented. The scar on the Austrian man’s unsettling face, understanding that he’d got very close and personal in the attempt to destroy 007…

Pictures flash across a screen, random connections in a brain now aware of truth. The first time she’d seen Blofeld. His golden band, secret society kudos, second finger of the right hand. This man, trying to seduce, was the same as C. Whitehall are simply replacing one form of deception for another, you must uncover the reason. Training provides response, as a reflex. Fingers lace through his: let him believe you’re taken with the moment, remain occupied so you have time to think through options. Use seduction as a weapon.

To convince this imposter he’s succeeded body shifts closer, while a whirring mind grasps that whoever he is works for Spectre, sent to intercept Bond. What happens next depends on her charge: grateful the Walther’s in her clutch bag, impetus is now firmly back with Richmond.

Ronni will allow this notion of control, but only on her terms.


Stopping the Jaguar outside his Kensington address, Ronni commits the location to memory. Richmond’s hand remains, light pressure on leg that is a reminder power is precariously placed. Her focus remains on action: passenger door opens, walk around the front of the vehicle to the driver’s side. He’d been an impeccable gentlemen thus far, but had become increasingly jittery and nervous as the evening continued. She’s wondering if this changes now they’re on home ground: squatting on the pavement, demeanour immediately relaxes.

‘Welcome to my modest location whilst I’m in London. It’s not much, but it’s home.’

‘This has been an extremely interesting evening but I’m not sure it would be wise -‘

‘No, you don’t 004. You’re coming inside with me.’

The designation had never been mentioned, not once, and to know he is aware of it means the entire nature of this relationship changes. A determined hand takes right wrist with enough force that Ronni is aware the man could break her, and without thought the training kicks in. Neutralising is an option, but acquiescence is preferable: there might be something to be learned about motivation, allowing the belief he’s in charge. Almost pulling her out of the car and to the door of the flat, this could be also an attempt to dominate sexually, and if that were the case? Maybe this time she just let things travel to a certain point in their course. Ronni’s confident that she can disable if required, without the need for the Walther. There might be a gun inside, of course, but even then that’s not an issue.

Let the man play and pretend he’s in charge, at least for now.

As soon as they make it inside the sparsely-decorated hallway Richmond has her pushed against the wall; lean, toned body pinning and restricting. He’s either ridiculously well endowed or there’s a weapon shoved down his dress trousers, and Ronni is suddenly detaching from the moment to discover the truth. Her hand confirms equipment is long, wide and very hard and it’s difficult to separate herself from what’s being presented. You don’t expect the bad guys to be like this, they’re all supposed to be inadequate with tiny pricks and suddenly he’s kissing her with desire that temporarily blocks out reasoning. He is supremely good at it, lifting body with ease, pinning and arousing against the now closed front door as past and present disconcertingly overlap. She’s in Bond’s flat, having returned from the first assignment in Egypt. He stripped her against the wood, too desperate to make it to the bedroom, kissing every part of a willing body until he’d fixated on clitoris, pulling to the edge of orgasm before she begged to be filled. Then he’d disrobed with an efficiency that defied belief and, still in work shirt, lifted her before entering with a single, decisive stroke that made entire body shudder.

Richmond suddenly lets go, letting her fall to the ground. He’s standing back, confusion and guilt all too obvious. Ronni’s about to ask what’s going on, as hand reaches into his pocket and pulls out a battered, silver ring. The octopus is obvious, but Richmond shoves it in her face to make sure the connection is made.

‘I didn’t want it, but Number One insisted. I was named, the pressure was obvious. It’s all part of the plan, do you still not see HOW DID YOU NOT NOTICE THIS?’

The ring is hurled down the corridor with a sudden anger that puts Ronni on alert. This guy really is unstable and should be neutralised.

‘When did you work it out? At what point did 004 grasp my stupidity? It was when we shook hands, wasn’t it, you went to the bathroom and you led me on all fucking evening so you could get me to fuck you first, JUST LIKE HE WOULD. No, that’s now how this goes down. You don’t get your gratification.’

He holds up his hand, finger waved in front of her face with an immediate self consuming anger.

‘I should have known you’d see through this disguise, Flemmings, that you’d grasp I was sent to eliminate Bond and instead I got you. I think, on reflection, he’d kiss better than you do. I’ve found you a complete disappointment from start to finish.’

The man’s bouncing through emotional stages with breathtaking speed, but control is undoubtedly present. He’s also clearly attempting to upset or provoke a reaction: neither will be forthcoming from her as brain effectively shuts down.

‘In fact, I wonder what Bond actually sees in you. You’re no match for his fiancée, that’s for damn sure, and yet there is this clear misguided attachment. I’m betting you’re all sweat and need, no dominance, just acceptance. You’ll simply allow him what he wants and go along for the ride. Such a shame, you could be so much more were you not stuck inside his ego.’

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

‘Your license to kill’s never been used since you dispatched Louis Kendrick. Removing him from the frame made sure we knew who you were, that you’d become a person of interest in short order. And yet you came here without a weapon. What does that say about you, 004?’

She stares at Richmond for a moment before punching to the face, as hard as possible, propelling him back into the closed hallway door at speed. He’s clearly not expecting this response and as head hits the floor there is blood plus a moment of disorientation before the man passes out. The temptation to go back to her car and stick a bullet in his head briefly is overwhelming before Ronni steps over the now unconscious body. Retrieving first house keys from jacket pocket, they’re used to pick up the Spectre ring, wrapped in her skirt to not contaminate evidence. After that, she’s leaving and locking the door, choosing not to look back. If she came back to kill him, consequences could be considerable, especially with no indicator as to who he really is. The blood on her hand will provide DNA: now he’s out cold there’s not only time to regroup, but to radio in for in reinforcements before he recovers.

Her first call arriving at the Jaguar is on instinct.


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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 Two, Part Three

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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.

‘Never.’

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.


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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.