‘Are you sure this was the address, 004?’
She’d called, forgetting he was on a course, but the young man responded in less than ninety seconds. There’d been no argument either, despite the fact this was technically an evening off, or even the suggestion Ronni should go through protocol and contact Rachel instead. Q stands in the entrance of the Kensington address thirty minutes after she’d panicked with incredulity, staring at not simply an intact hallway but a completely empty flat as disquiet continues to scream in an unsettled mind. This was undoubtedly the place, or else the keys wouldn’t fit, yet there was no Richmond or sign of forced exit. There had been a distinct lack of traffic in the road when she’d left and driven round the corner, and Q’s Prius had been the only car since.
There’s nothing to suggest Christopher had even existed.
Changing in the front room as Q combs the hallway for evidence, gym gear from the car became preferable to evening dress, because once this stopped being pleasure there was no need for the costume. Plus, after her manhandling, compression leggings with shorts at least afforded a level of protection, albeit psychological. The t-shirt, ironically, is one of Bond’s: under circumstances not what she’d first choose, but there is no alternative.
‘Did he hurt you?’
Q’s appeared in the doorway, concern apparent.
‘No, as it happens it was quite the opposite for a while, right until it became obvious he’s having some trouble adjusting to his new role. I’m not 100% sure, but I’d place whoever that was quite high up the Spectre hierarchy. Is there blood on the floor?’
‘There was, but it’s been cleaned away with unexpected efficiency. I suspect this man wasn’t working alone. I can find nothing else of significance here.’
‘You check the bathroom, I’ll see if there’s a way out the back.’
The young man hands over a pair of latex gloves that are immediately used, aware that there is probably evidence here they’ll both want to keep uncontaminated if possible. Walking to the kitchen it is similarly deserted: Ronni wonders if her new quarry is going to be as theatrical with his methods as Bond. What is not anticipated is the discovery when the first eye level cupboard is opened. Staring, realisation of complicity is immediately apparent. If 004 didn’t know better, this had played almost too perfectly into the enemy’s hands. When calling her partner there is an effort not sound panicked, fairly certain the attempt fails.
‘Q? This was the house. This is a game we’re all now being made to play.’
The tone in 004’s voice is enough to set Q on alert, leaving his laptop in the bathroom to answer the call. His training day had pushed physically and yet he puts discomfort aside, knowing this turn of events mattered more than Ronni was as yet aware. Arriving in the kitchen, the older woman moves aside: inside the open oak cupboard is a single red rose, next to a glass of still sparkling champagne. However it is the business card placed against the flute’s shaft that makes Q’s blood run cold: Octopus, red ink on crisp, white card.
The Quartermaster’s restraint is admirable; Ronni draws Walther without thinking.
‘I’m behind you, go get your bag so we can package this evidence and get out of here.’
He doesn’t need a second prompt and works on instinct, professionalism swallowing not unexpected panic as it had over three weeks ago in the Lab. She stands silent as a sample of the alcohol is taken for testing, careful not to touch the glass which is emptied down the sink, bagging and tagging all the evidence along with rose and business card. Turning it over he stops dead, and Ronni is immediately on alert.
‘We need to ID the man who you met this evening as a matter of some urgency. I also need to call 007.’
He shows it to her, written in scarlet fountain pen; beautiful calligraphy regardless, the words make eyes widen as face goes pale. She mouths the two words: Swann Lake, as if not sure there could be a relevance, but knows the agent will already be half a dozen steps ahead.
‘I’ll drop you at the Lab and go see Bond myself. I have to do it eventually, and it may as well be now.’
He could stop 004, knowing so many things she shouldn’t, at least one provided via Rachel Frasier earlier in the day. However, preventing the agent going straight to the target will make it clear there’s something wrong, and if even a fragment of that compromises 007? 004 cannot provide him with connection, not yet. Q immediately hates himself, but saying nothing is easier, because then all that is required here is honesty and not deceit. Normally this wouldn’t ever be a concern in his position but today, undoubtedly, the people above have made a wrong call. It isn’t just a feeling either, conscience has screamed since the moment deception became apparent. That’s why Q’s here, without compunction: he needed to be on duty. This had to be his call, with Rachel on standby.
He cares more about Ronni than would be admitted to anyone, especially Bond.
Q has to be her backup when the truth emerges.
007 leans back in his favourite chair, staring at the photo of Spectre’s business card on Ronni’s phone, before looking up to regard her cautiously. This flat’s become distinctly less bachelor since Maddy’s arrival, curtains and a rug the most physical concessions that the space is occupied by two. However, gun remains worn and holstered, which is a surprise, especially knowing fiancée is not a fan of their casual use. This unscheduled arrival might have forewarned potential trouble, Bond dressing appropriately, or maybe Ronni should stop jumping to conclusions. Attention returns to the screen: 004 won’t break the silence, because it has to be him that begins the conversation, especially considering how the land was left on Sunday night.
‘So, you think this is a threat?’
‘I’m not sure what it is, but spelling Swann as it does I thought you ought to at least be aware.’
‘You’ve not spoken to M?’
‘I made the decision to come here myself. I’m a big girl 007, occasionally I get to do stuff without having to discuss it with the Boss first.’
‘He may not thank you for that. What was on at the ENO this evening?’
‘Cose Fan Tutte.’
‘If I’d known, I’d have suggested we work as a team.’
‘I’d have declined, because with you marrying on Saturday-‘
‘- and this now being Tuesday… I know. I’m sorry about Sunday night. I was drunk, and I should know better.’
‘Yes, you should, considering tonight’s liaison was meant to be your target and not mine. M will be waiting at the Barracks when I get back, I’m going to suggest that they double your external security.’
‘Will that include you in my detail?’
‘Under the circumstances I would consider my placement here as inappropriate.’
‘As the senior active 00 in the field -‘
‘I should be doing that and not looking after you, 007. Not only are you more than capable of taking care of yourself -‘
‘But if I’m going to retire -‘
‘It’s a moot point. Madeline becomes your main focus, and you reciprocate for her. That’s the way it should be. That’s what it means when you fall in love and get married.’
Impressed at her own neutrality, the loss of fringe benefits might hurt right now, but will pass in time. If Ronni never found anyone else like Bond, she’d live, it would not bring her world to a stuttering halt, because grief was something already coped with daily. However, 007 had never had to learn the lesson of abstinence, because nobody had ever forced him to go hungry. Not until now.
His quite obvious disinterest in developments remains unsettling, something tickling the fringes of disquiet as had happened earlier that evening with Richmond. Now there’s the choice to stand, gaze constant, assessing as he did in the days before her designation had been earned. They’re still not truly equal, pay disparity notwithstanding. He continues to hold all the cards, always will until Ronni’s the only one with a full time job in espionage.
‘I’m not married yet, 004. It is still only Tuesday.’
‘You’re not getting cold feet, are you 007?’
‘I have to make it to Saturday alive.’
Ronni thinks perhaps it’s a joke, that Bond’s trying to inject levity into a discussion that’s already loaded, but there’s tension is his body, alert at the comment. Why on earth would Bond joke about fearing for his life, unless he already knows that’s an issue? She’d not yet told him the real reason for the 2am visit, but it shouldn’t be a stretch that it was either one of two things: business or pleasure. Now the latter was off the cards, what did Bond already know?
‘This isn’t a lame attempt to try and get me to personally protect you, is it?’
‘You shouldn’t be here with me. Us working together tonight would have been fatal.’
Now it is unmistakeable, conversation led and directed, body language and tone so unlike what would normally be present that the disconnect becomes inescapably obvious. Yet when their eyes meet, need flares so bright that Ronni can’t breathe, reflecting back from him unintentionally or otherwise. His fiancée is asleep in the next room, yet he’s here, clearly unable to join her. She didn’t get Bond out of bed at close to 2am and finally grasps why.
007 knows he’s a target, and was waiting for Richmond.
The man moves far too close for comfort, gravity unavoidable. Left thumb is at her throat, brushing the necklace she forgot to remove, fixated at the point it connects with skin. Then the same hand brushes arm, down to slip around willing fingers and there is no desire to stop the caress, tracing with a gentleness that mustn’t stop, can’t be separated from a mind’s cries of disbelief. Don’t ever marry, I’m your mistress in a heartbeat, happily destroying your sanctity, this sacred bond yet I need you gone, taken so my heart’s pain might yet heal. Mouth moves to ear, lips touching sensitive skin, breathing straight into her brain.
It is the longest second to process his coded message, means by which 00 agents could communicate when compromised. Placed this close for a reason, 004 remembers why, as her free hand goes to his face. Third week of training in Basic Survival Ops: there will come a time where it is necessary to use deception in order to communicate covertly. An embrace is a perfect means by which an agent can pass messages to a colleague without it appearing obvious or staged. Intimacy is your best weapon, Special Agent Ashby: never be afraid to grasp its possibilities.
Ronni devours a willing mouth with passion unhampered, no care that he’s betrothed to another. That would never be the prize, because no desire for family or happy endings ever existed. This job remains both of those and more, which has never really been understood by this man since they began their liaisons. His job is her destination, standing in her space defiantly refusing to give up the prize. If this were the last time they kissed? She’ll make him ache at her loss, realise the mistake made by picking the easy target and not the considered one. Sometimes it wasn’t just about the mission goal, after all. Occasionally, there needed to be a cerebration he’d never learnt and seldom assessed. If the man just stopped reacting and measured the consequences?
She was the best thing that had ever happened to him and he’d just fucked that up too.
Bond is unexpectedly breathless when she stops, raw emotion all too obvious. Mobile phone is liberated from his hand before Ronni’s turning, walking away without another word, not looking back at what has become an extremely significant mission and no longer a failed relationship. Maybe that gun isn’t to protect the woman next door if Bond’s using that particular code word to communicate, whole new slew of issues to be considered and balanced. There’s something in her pocket too, slip of paper passed as they kissed, and brain’s already overloading with possibilities. She’s grateful having changed into mission gear, chance to travel on foot from his flat to the Barracks, leaving her Jaguar safely out of danger. Running will allow some vital time to push the desire from a body that now screams at her to be satisfied. Only then will the signal from her phone be sent that will alert Q, Moneypenny and M in that order.
Whether Ronni likes it or not, it is now her move.