‘It appears, Sir, that the Americans have not been entirely honest in their declarations that only a single warhead has gone missing.’
Ronni sits quietly in Q’s office, watching as boss explains to their superior officer that the terrorist attack on an Army convoy in Alaska thirty six hours ago is not as isolated an incident as the Americans are admitting. M has commandeered the Barracks as temporary HQ, sitting as Q relays the information Ronni accessed from an unguarded terminal over the unsecured and unencrypted Internet, ahead of anybody else in the building. A Lockheed C-5 Galaxy is missing, intelligence pulled from the US Operations Mainframe using Felix’s emergency access thirty minutes before the Americans themselves officially admitted they had a situation to MI6. M’s face is grim, anger barely contained, and Ronni is very glad this isn’t her job to manage.
‘I owe you an apology, Special Agent Ashby. You are clearly far more trustworthy than a large section of my US brethren, and I shouldn’t have assumed anything less. Your industry is truly worthy of a 00 agent, and you are to be congratulated.’
‘Thank you, Sir.’
‘Can I ask you, how did you get the card?’
‘Agent Leiter passed it to me, Sir. If you are to judge the US contingent, I would ask you don’t include him in your condemnation. He strikes me as a genuinely decent human being, without any obvious agenda.’
‘Agreed, Leiter would be an asset to us, and is woefully underused by his employers. Your recommendation is noted Ashby, now if you’ll excuse me I need to arrange a conference call to Langley. Q will ensure you can return to normal duties while we clear up this mess on the American’s behalf.’
When they are out of the Office, Q takes Ronni to one side, but before he can speak there is a scream sending both suddenly searching for the source. In the main corridor chaos temporarily reigns: Ronni takes a moment to work out that at the centre of the throng is Moneypenny, who is being held upright by Tanner. She is beyond distraught, the Chief of Staff having trouble coping emotionally himself. In a second Ronni’s heart is in her mouth, Q out of the door at speed and left alone there is a moment of isolation that hits like a bullet, possible that she can guess what has just happened.
She almost runs back to living quarters assigned to her, musty warmth and familiarity at the back of the Barracks, to sit on a canvas cot and consider how she’d feel if Bond were dead. Her heart is empty and that’s wrong, because there is no data to support the assumption she’d just made. That is sloppy field work, and without evidence there’s nothing to confirm anything except the noise outside. There are too many voices to easily process, still no access to the Mainframe, so the best course of action is to just keep a distance and wait. Fatigue is sudden and damning, stress at her task completed on too much adrenaline and not enough coffee, and the world falls silent. Sleep is instant and deep, the next thing in her head normality broken by the hum of the vending machine as the ancient refrigeration unit kicks in. It’s been an hour, power nap leaving her surprisingly energised. With the benefit of rest she’s convinced Bond wasn’t the casualty: now the chaos has abated, it is time to find Q and then re-establish Mainframe access.
It is a surprise when walking from the room she finds Tanner standing, staring at the vending machine. Even more telling is that he’s been crying, red rimmed eyes stare almost pleadingly as she appears, grateful he’s no longer alone.
‘It swallowed my last quid and I just wanted a bottle of water.’
‘It’s okay, I can fix that.’
For the second time that day she uses Bond’s trick, and the selection falls, but Tanner doesn’t reach down to take it. Ronni does the job, handing him an open bottle, aware suddenly of a man struggling to cope with enormity clearly unexpected. He just keeps staring, trying to work out what happens next before drinking almost the entire bottle in one go.
‘I can provide you a second one free of charge if you need, 007 showed me how.’
The line is a plant, attempt to draw Tanner on what he knows: Ronni hates herself for the selfish nature of the thought almost as soon as it happens. Eventually the man’s training kicks in, forced resignation all too obvious.
‘You know without him this would be a lot worse than it is. Thanks to your brilliance and Bond’s brute force there’s a good chance everybody gets a happy ending. Well, almost everybody.’
Her mask is impeccable and heart immediately soars: Tanner’s demeanour tells a different story, the knowledge cannot be openly celebrated. He has lost someone clearly close: as the 00 handler, he’ll know them all intimately anyway. They may even be genuine friends, if the relationship he has with Bond is any indicator. She’d spoken to him about this only days before: initially wary of each other when put together, mostly because of the agent’s agenda at the time. Over the years both had developed what Bond had referred to as a ‘grudging appreciation’ of each other’s abilities, and the mutual respect when the two were in a room together was tenable. She wants to help as a result, because Ronni understands that one day, they’ll have this connection too.
‘Would you like to talk, Will?’
He stares at the offer, smile an unexpected and attractive surprise: Ronni knows she’s finally found the correct use of his name to work with.
‘Yes, I think I would.’
‘Well, my temporary office is down in Storage or you can come sit in my room, whichever you feel more comfortable with.’
‘It’s been a long time since a woman invited me back to her place. Promise you won’t tell my wife?’
Despite everything else, if Tanner can still do the banter, that means there’s hope for them both.