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.
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.
‘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.