DUET : Chapter Two, Part Two

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Ronni can’t sleep any more, so sits and watches early morning over the Thames.

When she accepts VB in an hour’s time, this view will vanish too: that is probably the greatest loss she’ll suffer. Her flat, vista across the cheap end of Docklands and everything in it will be lost forever, entire life replaced at the Taxpayer’s expense. Every material comfort sacrificed, existence erased, accepting the change she knows in her heart will be instigated. Lists in her head have been written and ticked off, arguments debated until her brain screamed, knowing that every path led to the same truth, feelings remaining steadfastly unchanged.

For as long as she can remember, she’s wanted to be the person standing just beyond her grasp.

If that meant she had to give up everything, then so be it. Cross-legged on the lone sofa, hardly worn and seldom used, this is the moment to be grateful that there are no pictures in the flat, deliberate removal of every frame of reference for many years. She’d not owned a proper camera since University, only evidence she even existed to her family was in pictures of her sibling’s joy. Mum would ask where she was on business trips and so she’d use the phone to send landscapes from places visited, never anything to tie a particular location to the job. That was this lie, and her conscience remained comfortable with the truths it provided.

When Ronni left University and enlisted in the Air Force, it was under a pretence. The Intelligence Service had recruited her at the end of her second year: anonymous advert in the Telegraph’s jobs section followed by two days in a nondescript building in West London where codes were decrypted, mental agility tested before running on a treadmill until her legs stopped working. At the end, sitting in a small grey room with a woman who could easily have been her mother, the message was simple. Veronica Ashby had a chance to change the world for the better. It took a month to grasp that her Air Force placement was only part of a far more complicated story. Only when the two men arrived at her shared home with a briefcase full of legal waivers did reality register: she had fallen into a far more complicated world than even the Civil Service itself had outlined.

The joy at having found her calling however simply superseded everything else from that point forward.

After a year of training, fast track to RAF Officer status and beyond, Ronni accepted that looks were just as significant as brains in her selection process. Anonymous might work for some operatives, yes, but not her. No-one said as much outright either, but when asked to carry a small box to the American Embassy in the volatile days of post Soviet Moscow, it was because a smile and the accent would pass through security unhindered. It helped that she’d picked Russian and Mandarin to learn as secondary languages after French and Spanish, brilliant mind backed up by an implicit understanding of each task in hand. Communication was the key to everything, and doing it better than anyone else had never been a problem.

Her father’s insistence that the tongues of the largest races would always place you at a financial advantage was the only piece of advice ever taken seriously, but not because of Malcolm Ashby’s assertion. Dad gave up completely when it became clear that money was the last of her concerns, dressing and acting on her terms and no-one else’s. He’d issued an ultimatum when she announced to family of future intent: this was a wholly unsuitable job for a woman, and if she continued with this destructive path, there would be no financial assistance from the Ashby coffers ever again. There was no need for help then, never asked for at any point since. Ronni earns more money now than both of her sisters combined, a fact Mum would continue to press whenever possible.

Her father was a misogynist dinosaur, and that was never likely to change.

Ashby spent the decade after Fast Track running across the planet, hotspot to flashpoint, delivering equipment hidden in Diplomatic Bags, until the day when she was called to Millbank, to meet William Tanner, first genuine clash with a world that had up to then only existed in rumour and whispers. He’d looked more uncomfortable than her back then, and ever since there’d been a suffering to the man, as if he couldn’t quite reconcile the seriousness of the position, that at any moment it could be snatched away from an uncertain grasp. Ronni was genuinely pleased when the previous M had poached him, but disappointed his replacement didn’t share as much humanity. Tanner was a man who had consistently treated her with more respect than anyone else she’d met outside of Q Division, the only real place where femininity wasn’t considered a joke or a hindrance.

There is a craving for music to accompany this last trip from the flat, but Ronni knows that is just one of many luxuries that must be sacrificed in order for her soul to finally be saved. This is a religion, mantras and prayers, years of meditation and devotion to a goal that finally, blissfully is within her sight. She might be going straight to Hell for her troubles, penance more than willingly shouldered until the day she died. Working for your Country was all well and good: knowing you would die for it without a thought changed the outlook for everything.

If she needs to be at Millbank for 7am, then it is time to leave.

The cold hits hard as the front door shuts, dropping keys through the letterbox as instructed. The Orientation people can enter her flat without them, after all, but doing what she’s told is all part of this process, and that means a dance which can be performed whilst asleep if required. All that is needed now is resolve not to waver, courage to travel without changing her mind.

Those qualities are second nature, without thought. All that drives her now is the future.


Bond lies awake, staring at the ceiling.

Sleep patterns are permanently shot but at least this time he made it to bed, beginning to grasp that when Q suggested he find something to do away from espionage to aid relaxation, the boy had a point. The laptop’s faint glow on the desk across the hallway still illuminates the room, where he’d been mindlessly losing himself down Internet rabbit-holes before completely detaching from reality. That’s how he functioned: pressure and release, inextricable then inertia and it wasn’t healthy. James resented the extra time with Gregory in the previous week until it was apparent that the most senior Psychologist the Department had wasn’t trying to make a point with anything, he just reflected back what 007 had become.

Sleep refuses to co-operate because he’s never tired when not in the Field.

The mobile suddenly chirps into life on the bedroom dresser; single, uncomplicated tone, and Bond is immediately grateful. Unexpected communication would mean not only diversion but excitement. There was only one person who ever sent him texts, and if he’d got one, time to not be in bed.

The message brings a smile to his face for the first time in several days:

VB arriving early, be ready to meet at work.

Adrenaline hits with a surprise that turns smile to grin: she’s moving before the deadline. Moneypenny will be up, called in well before normal start time, inconveniencing her and Mallory plus disrupting both schedules. William Tanner too will be forced to extricate himself from twin six year old girls and demanding wife before being urged into Millbank because the girl taking Voluntary Bereavement decided everybody gets to understand just how serious she is. Q is already there, calling the team into action, having placed Ronni on 24 hour surveillance since she she asked to die so flagrantly in her post-assessment debriefing.

M may have doubted Ronni’s sincerity, but the more Bond has learnt about the woman, the greater his desire has become to understand the motivation. He’d spent time the previous evening researching sisters, Facebook stalking and Old Girls Network websites providing a surprising amount of detail on the younger siblings but nothing on the eldest. Veronica had done a staggeringly good job of ceasing to exist virtually anywhere: the only photo he could find online is of her looking uncomfortable at the back of a shot from a History trip to the Great Battlefields in Belgium when she was 16, virtually unrecognisable from the woman he’s now shadowing.

Bond knows just how difficult this is to achieve in the Digital Age, and he’s impressed despite the desire to dismiss the perfection presented. Everything that has been asked of Veronica has been achieved, with room to spare, and still nobody takes the woman seriously, because that isn’t what matters. It is a disparity that has nothing to do with ability, or indeed perception. It is a fear of what she represents to some, a dismissal of this role being either acceptable or possible to the same standard he is judged on. Normally, Bond would not think about principles because that’s how he’s remained alive for so long, but now he is unsettled by circumstance. Vesper was as strong as she is, confident and unfazed by what he was. She gave her life to save him, confident Veronica would do nothing less. This isn’t Q drawing parallels any more either. There are demons he is yet fully to address and defeat, and needs to exorcise if there is any desire to remain sane.

007 can shower for his Country, clean and prepared in less time than it would take most people to get to the bathroom. The suit chosen is one of his favourites, waistcoat a considered concession to his own desires, hangover from immediate predecessor. He stops and stares in the mirror: allowed to remain lightly bearded since coming off duty, the look works well. However, it’s not part of the uniform, and if he’s going to do the job Q requires, it will have to go. There isn’t time now, because his target will be on her way and he needs to be in the office before she is.

The laptop seductively blinks from his modest office and Bond goes to flip up the screen, Q conveniently sending secure satellite footage of Ronni’s journey via Company Intranet. He’s less than five minutes walk from Millbank at this flat, ultimate perk of the senior 00 agent, desirable piece of London property that’s worth six figures simply by location. He’d been surprised MI6 had given it back to him after they sold it to a senior civil servant following his ‘death’ at Moneypenny’s hands. Skyfall had meant a change to many things, not simply how the organisation worked in the public eye. The first 007 had lived here in the 50’s, and it was to remain a part of his ‘uniform’ just as the Aston Martin had become, even though by his own admission Bond preferred travelling around London by motorbike.

Ronni is on the Embankment, walking towards Big Ben: Tanner’s coming out of the Tube at Westminster and Eve is already on the Bridge, Millbank directly ahead. Bond needs no further prompting, has keys and phone in his hand as the Laptop shuts down, is outside the flat on instinct, before he shivers and notices the cold. He’d not normally bother in London but something stops him, returning to locate the coat worn for PR appearances. Pulling out her business card from the inside pocket, carried for years and now battered and dog-eared, Bond stares saddened before putting it on the hallway table. Vesper’s name is faded: he never challenged her after the first night it was presented on the train to Montenegro, whether his lover really had hated parents for what they’d called her. The past, as Gregory had told him the day before, is not what should control our actions.

That is our task, not history’s.

He puts chronology away where it belongs, leaving the past to address the future.


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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.