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He’s hidden by the pillar plus a bank of servers, but the desk has an unimpeded view of her for the first time: Bond knows there are worse ways to spend a morning as Ronni is cross examined by the department’s best psychological analyst. Elizabeth Sharpe can also see him if required but as yet has no reason to communicate. The transmitter in his ear allows complete access to the conversation across the room: he is beginning to enjoy his time as eavesdropper whilst here as Q’s expert on all things 00. M’s argument in a planning meeting the previous day was compelling: if this woman was aiming for the designation, they needed someone to vet her with an intimate knowledge of what that job entailed. Eve had been offered the opportunity but had politely declined.
Until something major came up Bond was off the books: this was infinitely preferable to being wheeled out as part of the new man’s PR push. There is carte blanche to ask what he wants, to see if buttons can be pushed now she’s walked in the front door of MI6 and declared the intention. Q and the department’s Psychologist have until 5pm to make the final decision: even if she has said yes, they can scupper this if they decide the woman’s unable to handle pressure, and he’s been brought here to cause trouble. He loves the role of provocateur, one he’ll always rise to if given the chance.
Gregory returns from M’s office to settle at his side, nodding briefly to Elizabeth who barely registers his presence but knows to be alert.
‘So, how are we doing?’ the older man asks, looking at the distinct lack of notes on Bond’s pad.
‘Veronica is steadfastly refusing to be drawn. She’s doing what’s asked, but that’s not the point. I assume the new guy’s not happy at being dragged up here at the crack of dawn?’
‘As M said, he only has himself to blame. You can see for yourself, tell this woman what to do and that’s how it works. She simply took him at his word.’
‘I don’t think the 00 designation should cover the ability to blindly follow orders, in fact I’d say the skill is to do the exact opposite and still end up with the same end result.’
‘Only in your case, 007. I should remind you that this department does not often use you as a benchmark.’
‘But in this case I’m here to make a point. Veronica was phased by Moneypenny’s swipe at her perfection, but it was only brief. We need something to make her squirm.’
‘Agreed, a push is what this now requires. Sharpe, go straight to the Personals after this one, please.’
Elizabeth automatically acknowledges the command, locating a folder to her left, effortlessly looking as if she is shuffling papers: instead pulling out a list Gregory has prepared to spice up the line of questioning. This is an uncompromising selection: the day of Ronni’s last period, whether she’s using contraception, and Bond sees his first opportunity to strike as Ashby’s discomfort becomes more pronounced.
‘Ask her when she last had sex.’
The senior psychologist stares disapprovingly but makes no objection, and Sharpe does as instructed.
‘This is relevant how, exactly?’ Ronni sounds perturbed and body language immediately changes, a fact both men pick up on immediately. Alert turns rapidly to defensive. Sharpe plays the role of apologetic messenger who’s hoping not to be shot to perfection.
‘I’m sorry, someone somewhere clearly thinks this is important.’
Bond can taste bitterness, discomfort across the room, because that’s what it is: he knows she doesn’t remember. There’s an attempt to deflect the question by telling Elizabeth about the family friend who tried to pick her up at her sister’s wedding a few weeks previously. February is a ridiculous month to be standing outside in pink chiffon, that maybe if her sister’s boyfriend could hold up his end of the birth control responsibilities he wouldn’t be forced into marrying a nice Catholic girl’s sister he’d got pregnant following a contraception misunderstanding. Bond begins to grasp just how much will be sacrificed to get what she wants, and understands Ronni’s not quite aware of the consequences for herself.
She’ll grasp that reality soon enough.
‘It takes two to tango,’ Gregory observes to no-one in particular, making notes as Ronni is pressed. A hand goes to her face, eyes closing; Bond can smell sweat and embarrassment, watches reconciliation to the inevitable as the only answer she has is presented. He needs to know if Veronica can hide everything if pushed, and all they have here is the truth.
‘You know, I have no idea, but it’s been well over a year. If you’re going to follow this up with when was the last time I masturbated, then that was about the same time, because if I am right that night was pretty woeful all round.’
There is also a little too much anger, Bond concludes, and he is briefly chastised for asking. Expecting an outright lie, he would have picked a date that didn’t make him look too desperate or that involved a woman who ultimately died. Death. The possibility of the moment hits with force, 007 scrabbling for a question to frame it within.
‘Ask her casually if she’s ever considered getting married. Make it sound like you’re going off your script.’
At this Gregory sits forward in his chair, nodding approval to Bond’s suggestion. Elizabeth changes the subject, moving the conversation to her own wedding, about how she’d met her boyfriend at college, and Bond knows exactly why Sharpe is always Q’s number one choice for this task. The shroud wraps itself silently around Ronni, back quietly straightening, that she could almost be relaxing when instead this is withdrawal. The woman vanishes inside, smile appearing genuine but ultimately false, as she nods along with Elizabeth’s story.
‘You’ve never been in love?’ the analyst pronounces, looking genuinely surprised at the woman opposite.
‘There’s really no time for those kind of sentiments in my part of the job.’
Ronni laughs and turns her head away looking out over the river, and Bond knows where she’s going; the place where the past can be handled on her terms and not disturbed. This is where nothing hurts any more, even though the pain is as fresh as it has always been. Gregory leans back, Bond registering a smile from the older man as he does.
‘M was right, 007, your peculiar insight is particularly useful. I’m impressed.’
‘Save it for if Ronni really is capable of everything you’re going to ask of her. Some days, even I can’t do it, as you’ve correctly pointed out.’
She’s better than he is, pain exquisitely masked and buried deeper, and 007 doesn’t want to be that person but knows he has to, because if she isn’t capable now they’ll break her when the next stage comes. Suddenly this woman needs to succeed, limits pushed until they snap, Bond briefly breathless at the speed of her transformation.
‘Ask her again, Sharpe. Push her.’
At Bond’s behest both men lean forward, waiting for an answer. Gregory nods his assent, firing up the dormant terminal to his left as Elizabeth picks her moment before pressing the point.
‘Surely there’s been someone that you’ve thought you might have a future with?’
The transformation is complete: Bond understands that this woman can deceive, without breaking stride. Nervous and uncertain has vanished, coated in a veneer of invulnerability, but there will be work to do. If challenged however, she is more than capable of lying with impunity.
‘No, there’s never been anyone special.’
Bond is convinced she’d deceive a polygraph, even from across the room, and watches as Gregory checks just that: the speech is already running through Q’s electronic equivalent, and the result is damning. 99% certainty answer is truthful. There’s not a hint of stress in her voice or entire body. That’s what the job demands, and she’s nailed it.
‘Carry on, Sharpe.’
Gregory takes out his earpiece and stands, expecting Bond to do the same. He remains, lost briefly in thoughts that are no-one else’s but his, before waving the department’s psychologist away.
I promised Q I’d stay to the end of this session, and I will.