DUET: Chapter Seven, Part Five

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Confined to Barracks for the night, Ronni chooses to eat her standard rations alone, avoiding the rest of the Staff, because she’s never had to mourn for a colleague before.

The Service had lost two 00 agents in under twelve hours, one of whom she knows was Bond’s mentor. She cannot imagine what it must feel for him to still work under such circumstances, but as she sits with a soggy ham and cheese wholemeal roll he is somewhere in Eastern Europe, tracking down three missing American nuclear warheads. He’ll do his job with brilliance as always, plus the female undercover CIA operative sent to assist will ensure there’s someone to celebrate with at the end. That’s the job: pick someone, get them to help, then enjoy their company when you’re done.

Ronni thinks that maybe Bond’s notion of reward could use some redefinition.

‘We have cake at our impromptu wake. I thought you might like some.’

She’s not expecting Moneypenny at the door, but there the woman stands, slice of something chocolatey on the Civil Service china. Ronni knows that this iteration of M’s PA was more than friendly with the late 002, relationship on the boil just after Bond came back from Skyfall. This was not the moment to judge anyone on their lifestyle choices: Ronni was hardly an expert on long-term anything. Fairbanks and Flemmings were hugely popular men: it had been the latter who finally tipped her off to the concept of Voluntary Bereavement before its importance in this journey was grasped. Which meant, in effect, she’d known Moneypenny’s boyfriend before the woman herself.

Espionage really was a small world.

Eve moves to sit opposite, placing what feels like a peace offering on the bedside table, and Ronni waits for her to make the first move: no idea at all how to deal with someone else’s grief after an hour with Tanner’s.

‘Don’t tell me you’re not a chocolate cake fan?’

‘I am, I’m just not sure what to say other than thank you, and that could make for a pretty short conversation when we’re done.’

‘I am the one who should worry about having nothing to say. You’ve come a long way since February, and deserve far more respect than I gave you back then. I’m sorry, it’s been a terrible year and things just got a lot worse. You forget sometimes the bigger picture… because it’s easier’

‘As the new girl I have to earn things like trust and respect, and you hardly know me, and I just… it didn’t seem right to invite myself and try and be a part of your impromptu wake because, well… they’re not my friends. I met 002 once, a long time ago. He struck me as a really decent guy.’

Moneypenny stares, and Ronni wonders if she should have stayed silent, watching the woman struggle to stay composed and eventually succeeding.

‘He was looking forward to meeting you. He was pleased the Department was encouraging and supporting more women through the process.’

‘I think we need to stick together, even if we don’t all agree on what’s the best way to play the game.’

‘I feel I have misjudged you, I think. You are a lot more sensitive than I realised.’

‘Actually, I’m just bloody awful at making friends. I did it once -‘

The tears are a surprise: Ronni can’t stop them from falling down cheeks that are suddenly red and hot. This isn’t the past, simply relief, sudden understanding that any loss is enough to hurt if you care about the principle. Moneypenny hands a small packet of unused tissues to her, and she takes one before returning them. Then, remembering where this is, and who she’s talking to: there’s a question that needs to be asked.

‘This isn’t an assessment, is it?’

‘No. Not tonight. Everybody’s off the books now.’

Ronni understands the statement completely: Bond’s primary objective will be complete and he’s still alive. And yet Eve stares, something unsaid that creates concern despite obvious relief.

‘Thank you for the cake. Would you mind if I ate it alone?’

‘You and him are very much alike, more so than I realised. James has a great deal to thank you for.’

The comment from Milbank comes back to haunt Ronni as Moneypenny stands, still looking at her oddly, as if undecided whether or not this woman can yet be trusted. Only when she is at the door does Eve decide to make the point Ronni suspects she’d wanted to all along.

‘He changed his will, two days before the Gala. It was a surprise, he came up to see me personally. When he dies you’re the one he wants to take his ashes to Scotland and scatter them at Skyfall. I don’t think he’s truly trusted anyone since he lost Ms Lynd.’

Ronni can only sit in stunned silence as Moneypenny walks back to the Lab.

In five days it is as if nothing ever happened, except the fear that won’t leave Ronni alone. She’s due back undercover but not before Q Branch attends the joint funerals of the agents lost, with full military honours. There is the assumption she’ll need to be there herself until Q shakes his head, reminder that her job is to focus on the future instead. She’s set a series of small arms tests and pointless Mainframe tasks: Ronni knows he’s made work so there’s no discomfort at feeling left out of the equation.

There is also the understanding they know there’s not much else to be taught, that Ronni’s efforts in circumnavigating security and exposing American hypocrisy made the difference between Bond’s mission being a success or a failure, and for that alone it cannot be long before they set her last test. What that means however is only an echo, last time she saw 007 in the flesh, his warning and her sudden fear of failure now making hands inexplicably shake, unable to shoot the last four rounds in the final test of the Range sequence.

The Barracks is almost empty, skeleton staff because of the Funeral and she’s still conscious of the cameras above, until it’s apparent the monitoring has been turned off. Nobody is watching her fail to complete this clip in the time available…

‘This is unusual, you don’t normally stop until the magazine’s empty.’

Of course it’s Bond, a fucking performance every time he appears.

007 does mourning far simpler than Ronni expects: that jacket is a favourite too, but somehow today he looks uncomfortable, uncertain. Down goes the gun, off come the ear defenders: there’s no idea how to start this conversation. If she is to be judged on this role? Then she will fail and so be it.

‘I’m guessing Moneypenny told you about my will, even when I asked her not to?’

‘In fairness she’d had a pretty bad day.’

‘Yes, I can well imagine. In my limited defence I did try and explain, the night of the Gala-‘

‘But then you couldn’t find the words and decided to run away. That’s hardly an effective manner to make a point, now is it?’

‘It may come as a surprise to you, but I struggle sometimes with social interaction. Especially when I’m not in the Field.’

She wonders if a show of emotion is appropriate, whether irritation and defensiveness was expected: how she is even supposed to act as a grown-up with this man who’s a metaphor for the impossible?

‘I should have asked you first, and I’m sorry. I just wanted you to know that if it hadn’t have been for you and Felix, I would be dead now. The extra thirty minutes you gave me was the difference between me getting the job done and being the third coffin in that cortège. Thank you for saving my life.’

All she can do is stand, anger and fear evaporating in his truth. They may be off the record, but can she trust Bond’s motives? Is Ronni finally being judged on her ability to stay dispassionate in the face of the most staggering of compliments? Could he be trying to derail her progress? As if to press the point, Bond closes the distance between them instantly, but won’t touch her. Instead mouth is to her ear, whisper that sounds utterly unlike the confident agent he normally plays.

‘I know exactly what’s going through your mind right now: not because I’m psychic, but because I understand this game so well I can play it in my sleep. You can’t be sure you believe me, that this might all be part of something to assess you, even with the cameras off and just the two of us here. You don’t ever live off the clock, everything is exposed, everybody’s business is yours and the other way around. Sometimes, briefly, there are moments when you get to be yourself. When you do, hold onto them for all they’re worth, because these are the most precious things you will ever own.’

Then he is hugging her, surprise enough to not realise what is happening, too long before she registers he is sobbing into her shoulder, and there is no idea of what to do. Finally hand goes to head, holding gently, before he shifts back to stare. These tears are real, achingly genuine grief. If the positions were reversed, this would be the moment he’d kiss but she won’t, can’t do it, because finally comes the knowledge this is James and not Bond who’s in her care: the person before 007. The boy who lost his parents in a climbing accident.

The 12 year old who never worked out how to say goodbye to the ones he loved.

Finally, blissfully the crying ceases as she wipes away joint tears. He needs a mother, not a lover, friends not girlfriends. This man has nobody to trust not to destroy him emotionally, and that’s just wrong.

This is the job you will do for him. That’s why he came here to find you.

This is the trust that will never be broken.

‘On reflection, I think I understand why you’d want me to have your ashes. You’d save my life in a breath. I’d know you’d be trusted to treat me with respect above everything else.’

‘Every time.’

‘I forgive you for not telling me. Just don’t do that again.’

‘You have my word. Which, believe it or not, actually counts for something.’

‘You say that now, but the next time you get distracted by a CIA agent-‘


His face alters, something indefinable again in features that look nothing like the poster boy and far more human and real. There’s remains of injuries he sustained, shrapnel to the left leg that will need attention, and he doesn’t need the verbal sparring, just to be held more, and so they do that without thinking. No overtures, simply the understanding that sometimes people wanted to be comforted when they’ve lost their family.

She has no idea how long they stay there, simply wrapped around each other, but it is her who finally breaks the embrace. Stepping back, joint demeanour returns, and Ronni realises there is something she needs to tell Bond.

‘I should thank you, because I’d not have made it this far otherwise. I grasp that from weeks of trying to hide what I was capable of, exploiting the one thing you’ve never had to work at.’

‘What makes you think I don’t have to work at it?’

‘Because this is your world, rules and rewards are never going to be the same as mine and although I may not like that, it’s the way to get things done.’

‘It won’t always be like this.’

‘For me it will, but if I can inspire one woman to take the journey as a result, then maybe they will have better luck. I know the only way I win this is being better at seduction than you are. And in that regard, I have undoubtedly a lot to learn, because I should have kissed you when I had the chance.’

‘I think you did exactly the right thing, because if you had you wouldn’t be the woman I know you are. When the time comes, I’m confident. You’ll know what to do.’

‘I thought we’d established you can’t read minds?’

‘True, but trust me when I tell you I’ve got your back.’

There are voices outside, rest of the Funeral party back from the Service and ready for the lavish spread that M himself has paid for. Ronni remembers the last four bullets and picks off the remaining targets one handed, no need for the defenders, all of them perfect 10’s, looking back to Bond who stares with incredulity. He couldn’t do that, but she can.

‘I know, nobody likes a show-off. But that’s what I have to become to be even considered as your equal.’

She’s cracked the persona, can bring practical skills, but the designation seems a lifetime away. Ronni hands Bond her gun and walks out of the Range, deciding that this time, despite the consequences, she’d run from him.

Eventually however, the truth will have to be faced regardless.

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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.

DUET: Chapter Seven, Part Four

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‘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.

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DUET: Chapter Seven, Part Three

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Something is different the moment she approaches the Barracks that morning: increased security, more people, many she doesn’t know, and Americans: lots of them. She has to wear ID tag plus a second photo laminate before she’s even allowed to enter the building: as she makes it to the Lab the permanently opened main doors are very deliberately closed. However, it doesn’t stop the sounds of raised voices seeping out. M is here, Tanner flanked by a sombre Moneypenny and at least one American Ronni recognises by association with Bond: Felix Leiter. There are a number of obvious senior types plus another blonde in the room, taller and leaner than 007 and even more striking. Their eyes meet, sending her walking away at speed.

Grace is waiting at her terminal, taking her back to the unfashionable, storage-centred end of the Barracks before quietly ushering her into a side room. Hastily filled with laptop and desk, this was obviously some kind of cupboard the day before. The ex-00 agent looks both stunning and fearsome in what Ronni would guess is Westwood: her instructions enough to strike fear into Ashby’s heart.

‘I need to be in a briefing ten minutes ago, so pay attention. Mainframe is ridiculously restricted, which for now means the surveillance is off the clock. After yesterday’s incident you’re on sick leave from the Hotel until we’re out of this shit-storm. I can’t tell you what’s going on, not yet, and you’re going to have to curb your curiosity and just work at what you’re given without asking everything I know your brain is screaming at you to know. 007 is back on the books, and we’ll keep an eye on him for you. Everything that matters right now is on this Laptop. With the exception of lunch and comfort breaks, don’t come out until you’re done.’

As the door closes behind her Ronni’s hands are shaking: Bond is back on the books. He’s not signed off by anyone, psych scores still well below acceptable and yet he’s now somewhere saving face? There is only one reasonable assumption if he’s on the Roster, and if that involves the Americans, this will be messy. Her first thought is to ignore Grace’s advice and leave her post, but with the seriousness of the situation all too apparent? She follows orders. Firing up the laptop, a single document sits, waiting for attention.

Special Agent Ashby,

Some days there is no time for rules or procedures. You are our single most powerful asset, and yet M has declared that you do not have sufficient security clearance to assist in this Operation and must therefore be excluded. I disagree, and I need you to prove this to the powers that be.

Find out everything you can, and then find me.


She sits for a moment and shakes her head, before getting up, pulling away the conduit from the side of the cupboard wall and looking to see what network cables are accessible, whilst locating the by now standard issue Cat 6 cable and multi-tool from inside her handbag. All that is required is Internet access, restriction from the Mainframe never the end of the world. With what the cupboard provides, that should take less than twenty minutes to establish.

Fifteen minutes later the Laptop’s using a hole she’s punched in the Home Office’s own Intranet to access the BBC News website: whatever this crisis is, the outside world is blissfully unaware of it’s nature. Ronni thinks fast: identify the blonde you made eye contact with, because he would be relevant to the flashpoint that started this in some way, or he wouldn’t be here. The blonde would certainly need to have some hefty clearances to even stand in the Lab with M, after all. She looks around Intranet connections, searching for a possible way to access the CCTV footage, then remembers the extra laptop at Reception being used to print the second photo laminate she was issued with on arrival.

She’d bet a weeks worth of tips at the Hotel it wouldn’t be security encrypted.

Ronni smiles as she accesses the portraits and names of every person who’s entered the building since 3.25am that morning, which is when Leiter had arrived with Charlie LaCroix in tow. Without the clout of the Mainframe it will be hard to build a definitive picture of this disconcertingly attractive man, but there were always ways and means. She knows the backdoors to Interpol by heart, but the biggest problem will be the American’s almost obsessive desire to keep everybody out of their business by any means necessary. With the world as her haystack, finding the needle that this all revolved around could be virtually impossible. She needs more than just a name.

Unless, of course, the Americans aren’t being as careful as she is on social media.

She searches for LaCroix everywhere: Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter and beyond as slowly but surely family members are connected to each other, building a picture of the man’s relationships. He’s the youngest of three boys, unmarried, and is not American but Canadian by birth. His parents still live in Dominion, close to the Alaskan border and it appears that up until a week ago that’s where Charlie was, because his father has posted a picture of the two of them on a fishing trip. Ronni stares at both and wonders what had transpired to take what she knows from the classification database is an extremely respected CIA agent from there to here in under a week. A quick scan of the US News shows nothing at national level that might be a precursor to an incident, and so Ronni narrows her search, and immediately strikes gold.

Over the previous seven days there are a glut of reports of demonstrations across the East and North of the US, where scheduled decommissioning of Air Force sites had led to clashes between activists and the military. One of them is close to the Alaskan border, and some rabbit holes bring Ronni to a website for the Anti Nuclear League of Northway. Clearly made by someone in their mid teens, the site is full of pictures of vehicles moving equipment across the border to Canada, conspiracy theories that the US is in fact building additional nuclear silos along the Alaskan border. Most importantly of all there are pictures: Ronni scans the pages of files before a face jumps out. This laptop has the picture augmentation software she would need already installed, because Q understood the tools required to join the dots of this puzzle. Within ten minutes Ronni places LaCroix at an Alaskan US Air Force base forty eight hours previously.

After that? There would need to be more intelligence than she currently possessed.

Ronni uses the bathroom and then craves coffee, but all she has access to at this end of the Barracks is the ancient vending machine. Approaching it she is surprised to see Leiter having trouble extracting his bottle of Coke. Without thinking there is a thump to the machine in the right place and the bottle falls. As their eyes meet, Felix’s face illuminates.

‘Special Agent Veronica Ashby, it is a pleasure to finally meet you.’

‘I’m pretty certain I shouldn’t be talking to you, Agent Leiter, so if you’ll excuse me I’ll get my water and be on my way.’

She acts the dedicated civil servant as reflex, making the default selection, and suddenly he’s closer than expected, not comfortable that this man would crush personal space, until it becomes apparent it’s under a pretext. The whisper is measured; it is clear he was waiting for Ronni all along.

‘I know what Q’s got you doing, I’m aware that our superiors are often idiots, and because we need all the help we can get right now and nobody else is sharing and caring I’m gonna give you a hand. Thanks for the Coke.’

As he walks away Ronni knows there’s a credit card slipped in her pocket, and can’t get back to the cupboard fast enough.

Turning the plastic from hand to hand, Ronni looks at her next clue and wonders what she’s been provided with. Perhaps an EMV reader is required to access the card’s inbuilt chip, or maybe it is the hologram that matters. The registered name doesn’t match anyone in the building yet the Visa number is valid, which would suggest this is legitimate currency. Something is wrong and she’s not seeing it, and so empties her handbag and starts searching for associations, attempting to prompt her brain into thinking laterally. At the bottom of her bag is one of Bond’s Universal Exports business cards: seemingly anonymous, calling the number went straight back to 007’s mobile, which in turn alerted London he was marking the location as significant. He’d given it as security when starting her undercover work, and she’d promptly forgotten all about it.

The credit card taunts, until the connection is made: the International Bank of the Americas doesn’t exist either. This payment method is a front, deception in modern form. The question is, what is it hiding and how does she access it? Would it really be as obvious as the Americans could make it?

Q’s pet project springs to mind, mired in development hell and smothered in red tape. They’d built a website, to reinforce the front that Universal Exports was genuine, which could be accessed in an emergency, allowing agents brief and unrestricted access to certain key sections of the Mainframe. Whitehall wouldn’t sanction it, especially after Silva had pretty much destroyed the Government’s security protocols overnight. But Q had maintained that the modern world demanded access to key data in an emergency, especially with the speed that information moved and evolved. He was only mimicking the lead of other intelligence gathering organisations, after all…

Firing up Google, Ronni is confident that the Americans were the start Q was attempting to follow.

The first hit blinks at her, logo plus brief details about the Private Banking organisation that ‘puts your funds in your control’, and Ronni is firing up her IP masker to ensure when they try and trace her as soon as the page is launched, there’s a chance for at least some exploration before being discovered. Hiding things in plain sight was the way forward, after all: she was evidence of that in spades. There is no idea how much access could be afforded, or even what she can do with this card: holding it in thumb and forefinger there is a moment of revelation that makes her laugh out loud at its brilliant simplicity. Under the warmth of her skin, the surface of the plastic is changing.

This card is heat sensitive.

Without a thought she lifts skirt and jams card above stockings and between thighs, gripping tightly while scrabbling for the tools she’ll now need to digest this revelation. Thirty seconds should be enough… As she retrieves the card, there is a smile that makes the fear for Bond’s safety temporarily allay. Here are the instructions needed to get more information than she’s betting Q himself will currently possess, because if Felix Leiter had to make sure this ended up in her hands and couldn’t admit it publicly? There is a great deal more at play than simply the free and frank exchange of information between nations.

Thirty minutes later, the door of the cupboard closes as Ronni emerges, laptop under arm. She is aware of all three female ex-operatives watching closely as she walks down the main corridor, confidence infectious. From start to finish in three hours.

That wasn’t bad, even by normal standards.

Veronica knows why the Barracks is full of Americans, and the better than decent chance they’ve been lying to the British since their arrival.

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DUET: Chapter Seven, Part Two

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WARNING: This passage contains adult and sexual situations.

That night, Ronni dreams she’s on the back of the Bonneville: it’s not Scott driving but Bond, waking her suddenly in a sweat.

Lying in the dark she remembers Redgrave’s warmth, breathless intimacy between them, only time she’d ever felt special or truly wanted. That’s never going to happen again, and certainly not with somebody she works with.

Aware from conversations with the trio of ex-Field Agents that all of them had succumbed over time, Grace to at least two 007’s, she finds herself wondering in the dark how these men manage to charm as they do. Is it simply a notion of power? Does the job generate excessive sexuality making a designation attractive to anyone and everyone? The latter might have some mileage: considering how the Barracks had reacted to her the previous lunchtime suggested that this would be a way forward.

The problem is that Ronni still can’t reconcile the appearance of power and control with what her body would then be forced to do. She wonders if perhaps this is because it’s been so long since she actually had sex: it might be an idea to start trying to change that and see if this was the problem. After all, she only kept her shooting skills at peak with daily practice. However, on reflection, this really shouldn’t be necessary. Other 00 designations however might think differently.

It’s 3.25am and there’s no point trying to get back to sleep: maybe it is wiser to prepare for the first day of mission work proper and have done with it. She dresses in the dark and sits on the edge of her bed, going over personal details, cover story she has to be capable of recounting as well as her own life history to ensure the undercover position is secure. Make-up is completed, longer skirt with a slit the better choice, and she’s out of the door as the sun comes up, walking ten minutes from this Hotel to the one that now employs her, bastion of British gentility that will be base of operations for the foreseeable future.

She is introduced at the early staff meeting as Julie Fisher and uses nerves as an excuse but can’t be completely hopeless at convincing because by 9.30 she’s on first name terms with everyone in the kitchen. Sam, Emilio and Marco invite her to share the remains of the morning’s leftovers; progress is made when by lunchtime she’s being asked for a drink after shift. Sam’s interest in her is immediate and intoxicating: whip thin, tattoos everywhere, he is the perfect example of the kind of man Ronni never normally crossed paths with yet found incredibly attractive. She allows herself to flirt, and is amazed when, at the end of the evening, he kisses the inside of her wrist with a delicacy that sets every nerve on fire.

Moving into staff accommodation the following week, Emilio carries her bags out of the service lift. There is brief paranoia that cases could open and the Walther could spill out, but that’s probably healthy. He’s married, kid on the way, and is perennially helpful: Ronni decides to use him as her point man. Trusted with a lot of information as his brother works on the Reception desk, this is an easy choice. It’s not hard to get the man to open up either, relationship with a heavily pregnant wife difficult because of the extra hours he’s working. Ronni is grateful for the lessons learnt, to manipulate without it being obvious: people simply end up wanting to confide what needs to be known. She ID’s a woman at breakfast at the end of her first week who the Metropolitan Police pick up the same day before lunch, wanted for multiple counts of passport fraud, and finally there is a glimmer of hope, to begin to start making a difference with the training.

Two days later, a flashpoint comes in the loading area behind the kitchens: she discovers Sam in an alcove, forcing one of the Chinese maids to fellate him, clearly under considerable duress. When he pulls a knife the training takes over and he’s unconscious before there’s a chance for resistance. The woman isn’t interested in pressing charges, already illegally working three jobs, but Emilio has Sam’s room cleared in under an hour as the police take him into custody. It transpires that the man’s part of a gang the Met has been targeting for drug distribution, and so Ronni’s again congratulated: knowing Sam’s employers will not be best pleased, she is conscious of being on guard.

Walking back to the Barracks the next afternoon, Ronni instinctively knows she is being followed. The Walther is in her room because she doesn’t want to use it, aware that all these weeks worth of hard work could be for nothing: in training there’d never been more than two guys at once and because the three shadowing aren’t going to expect resistance, that’s already an advantage. When there’s a hand on her mouth before being bundled down an alley she decides on minimal struggle, reminder that not fighting is sometimes the best way to gain an advantage. Their tattoos confirm the suspicion: Sam’s ‘friends’ have arrived to exact their version of revenge for her actions.

Only when two assailants are restraining her and the other begins to unzip his jeans comes the concession in Ronni’s mind that sex is pretty much what motivates everything, and that’s not how to operate if there’s ever an opportunity to avoid it. None of her attackers remain conscious long enough to register anything, anger at these men’s notion of punishment enough to ensure nobody comes up once she has them on the ground. When the Police vehicle arrives thirty seconds after the last one’s head has been slammed into the alleyway wall, Ronni realises her back had been covered all along.

Returned to Barracks, Frasier is the Medic on call who sits and stitches the wound on her neck: two of the three were carrying knives and Ronni hadn’t even noticed. There were Tetanus shots to have and a police report to be filed, but Q insisted she did one and not concern herself with the other. Apparently he had the whole incident on CCTV anyway. Maybe Ronni should worry every waking moment was under surveillance, but not today.

She drinks tea from Q’s mug as concession he cares, thinking about Sam’s lips on the inside of her wrist, when 007 does the genie trick in a tuxedo that’s impressive even by his standards.

‘I hear you beat up some more bad guys. That’s four now?’

‘I’m not keeping count, but clearly you are. Let me guess, you were just passing?’

‘The English National Opera is just over there, so as a matter of fact I was.’

‘Ah yes, tonight is the Royal Gala. You taking someone from the Department?’

‘I asked Moneypenny, she declined my invitation. Apparently it’s finals night for some reality TV show.’

‘She can’t record it?’

‘I think I know by now when I’m being intentionally friend-zoned, Ashby. Don’t rub it in.’

Despite herself she laughs at him, because suddenly here’s the field agent who needs cheering up, that this was ironic considering Bond’s normally the boy all the good girls want. Except here he is again, at her door, standing close enough to allow appreciation of the hint of Issey Miyaki. This isn’t his usual scent, but her favourite and suddenly Ronni feels the power in the room shift into her hands.

‘It’s a good thing for you that Q’s got your back.’

‘They were all unconscious before the Police arrived. I had it covered. What, you’re going to warn me now that undercover work is dangerous?’

Waiting for the comeback he’s frozen, staring in a manner that isn’t so much odd as surprising. His hand goes to her head, tracing scar that remains, injury sustained in the last bout of sparring that he had finally conceded had been on truly equal terms. The touch is so light, delicacy that makes her shiver at the care, understanding why body should never control your actions.

‘Everything’s dangerous, especially you.’

‘Should I take that as a compliment?’

‘Absolutely you should. You’re the most competent and accomplished field agent I’ve ever had the privilege to work with.’

‘You know, that’s the sort of opening that could be construed as an overture to something else.’

‘From anybody else, but absolutely not from me. You deserve far more respect than that.’

Now the room’s oppressive, and Ronni’s aware of a tension created that Bond is fighting to control. I know what you want: this is how it would have begun for Moneypenny and all those other women. A moment of conflict, diffused with first hand, then mouth… watching him handsomely torn, unable to cross the line. She could let him in, would be the easiest thing in the World, but then everything she stood for would be shattered, destroyed by a moment of weakness he’s fighting to contain and she has totally under control.

Well, that’s almost true.

‘I don’t know anyone else with your strength, and it frightens me.’

‘No it doesn’t. This isn’t fear. I just don’t understand why you choose to treat me differently. What’s the problem?’

‘What you want, what I could provide… it’s not my job to. You have to ask.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Trust me, it won’t be long now. Then you may end up hating everything you stand for.’

He almost runs from the room, leaving Ronni alone and empty, wondering what horrors Q has yet to make her face.

She stands hours later in the hotel room’s shower, pushing face to tile, trying to leech some of the heat from her body, but failing. Today she realised that with all the training in the world, there was a part of Veronica Ashby that wasn’t ready for the 00 designation. She could use sexuality as a weapon, and there would come a point where this was the only option, possibly to save her own life, but not now. Bond can switch gears without a thought, slip effortlessly between personas. She however, has a lot to learn. In the end she’d rather kill someone than sleep with them, and ultimately that would be bad for business.

It takes forever to get comfortable in bed, desire refusing to leave but finally sleep takes her. It is impossible to escape his influence, however hard she tries.

Bond has worked his way inside her body despite the belief he could be resisted.

She’s back in the Barracks, before the interview, and 007 is inches from her face, staring at her mouth, rendering body incapable. Suddenly his hand is on her hip, stuff of the dress being pulled up, fingers travelling down under g-string and over pubis, thumb beginning to stimulate an already swollen clitoris. The wave washes up her back, shudder of pleasure as lower body ignites, trying so hard not to break eye contact as legs begin to shake. Ronnie’s hand suddenly moves to his face and pulls them together, kissing so hard that mouth hurts…

The alarm won’t go away, insistent beeping, and Ronni can’t separate anything accurately, missing clock and instead sweeping phone off the cabinet to her right. Eventually the alarm is silenced and she lies, feeling the knot of unreleased pressure below the waist, sexuality demanding attention in a way she can’t remember for a long time… until her brain is conscious enough to grasp the problem.

It doesn’t have to be Bond: he really is a metaphor, simply the nearest convenient truth.

She’s forgotten how to enjoy herself: on this journey losing an understanding of how that equated to her own body. Crucially, Ronni’s not controlled by the same forces a male agent would be to begin with, pure biology their weakness and her overriding strength. Up until now there has been a concession, there is no need to assert power: concerned only with her task, with little thought for personal reward. That’s what sex ends up being in this game: a way to define control, means to an end, which you may as well enjoy along the way. Bond can do his job and indulge in fringe benefits without either derailing the task in hand. Ronni however has ignored one to the benefit of the other, but would need the ability trained just as much as her surveillance or small arms skills.

Looking at the clock she doesn’t have time to deal with her arousal or this revelation, already late, and has to be at the Lab in an hour. At some point she should take a trip into Soho on a pretence and do something constructive about the female frustration. If Ronni were to believe Q’s assertions the night before she really wasn’t under permanent surveillance, so finding a shop to buy a suitable item would be far easier than attempting to order anything to help her over the Internet.

Lying in the rapidly lightening room, the revelation hits of planning to purchase sex toys for field practice on government time. At least if caught doing it, she can claim it as a legitimate expense.

Ronni doesn’t stop laughing for quite some time.

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DUET: Chapter Seven, Part One

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This was not what Ronni had in mind when Q had warned her to prepare to go undercover.

The ‘uniform’ currently being fitted isn’t restrictive, but the black cotton skirt is at least two inches shorter than she’d normally wear, and there is far too much cleavage on show. She tries not to be irritated as the two middle-aged seamstresses fiddle with the waitress outfit as if she was a mannequin, but there is no way this will ever be acceptable attire, even though at the back of her mind there is perfect comprehension at the look being aimed for.

‘We are using your assets to their best advantage, Veronica. Please try not to fidget.’

It has been a week since the incident in the Sparring Ring: much had changed in the Barracks. Ronni knows she’s earned respect from everyone, even the most hardened of senior techs. Bond hasn’t mentioned their confrontation since, often wondering if she should bring it up, before remembering the golden rule. No discussing current assignments with anyone, not even senior officers. He’s either the best actor she’s ever met, or the incident is behind them. If anything, the defiance has bought them closer: he’ll greet her in the morning and at least nod when she leaves for the night. Ronni made him laugh unprompted earlier that day, but now there’s relief he’s not in the room.

‘Well, that’s an interesting look for you.’

God, how do you do this Bond?

‘Can you read minds, 007?’

‘If I could Ashby, I’d be earning my wage anywhere but here. I heard you were being fitted for your undercover work. When someone told me stockings and heels were involved I thought I’d see what you considered appropriate.’

‘You arrived to make me feel uncomfortable?’

‘You don’t need me to do that, you’ll manage perfectly well on your own. That skirt could be shorter still and you could throw in a garter, because it’ll give the guys somewhere to tuck your tips other than cleavage.’

There is a moment of something in Bond’s features, look Ronnie tries and fails to assess, even after such prolonged exposure to him. The mask instead slips effortlessly back into place and he’s gone, back to the Lab, leaving the realisation the man’s right. If the focus of this disguise, because that’s what it is, is to help her attract the interest of certain patrons at the Hotel then Bond, as usual, knows what would work. Stockings, but perhaps not with a shorter skirt… a split to let her leg and garter be accessed…

‘I think you could take this in a little bit, actually.’

Q smiles, silent acceptance, then briefest of nods in agreement as Ronni decides against the flats she’d initially planned to wear, instead picking a pair of more substantive heels. She’s also quietly reconsidering her choice of interview wear as the seamstresses wander away with the ‘finished’ outfit, even though employment at the Hotel would be secured regardless of performance. Like everything else in this exercise, it had already been planned down to the smallest detail. To play the part well, she could do a lot worse than get into character immediately.

Her ‘interview’ was set for 14.00 hours, taxi ride from outside the Barracks: working as normal until an hour before, aware of Bond in her periphery for most of the morning. The confidence she’d gained since giving Q a chance to take out Kendrick was growing, quietly nurtured with fertile self-worth. Now was the time to see if she was able to create reaction with herself as a different kind of weapon. The request for an outfit change arrives without a word, delivered by Q himself with what was assumed to be an approving nod to her station.

Alone in the communal changing rooms, preparing quietly after lunch, she waits until Bond returns from the small arms range, jacket off and rolled sleeves, strolling unaware past the open door. The emerald green jersey dress did everything right for her body, comfortably clingy across breast and waist with heels that meant she’d be eye to eye with 007 should he challenge her, even if it meant dealing with sore feet by day’s end. She’d consciously left mobile phone by her workstation, which meant an extended ‘catwalk’ in and out of the lab to retrieve it.

She’s not expecting her own arousal but it happens, lower body aware of what brain is suggesting, and it’s a shock that almost derails the plan. Closing eyes, there is a moment of panic, legs unsteady, until training kicks in. Normally she’d be swallowing fear but now it’s different, subtle redefinition of the playing field. Like it or not she understands finally that every waking moment really is a test, until the day they tell her she earned the number.

There is no focus except the desk, only interest her mobile: once secured she turns and walks out of the side office, aware that Rachel is standing just outside the doorway. Once she’d learned that all the flirting in the world by Bond wouldn’t make this ex-Field Operative the slightest bit interested, that she’d come out in an attempt to promote more agents of both sexes to embrace their gender identities, this woman’s opinion had become indispensable. She leans on her cane, eyes smiling appreciatively.

‘I see you’ve grasped the lesson that sex sells, Ashby, especially when it comes to distraction. Your dress certainly works for me.’

‘I’m getting there. I doubt I’ll ever be really comfortable in this version of the uniform, or with compliments from either sex.’

‘A wise mindset to be in, you’re far less likely to be deceived as a result.’

‘How did you cope with this part of the training?’

‘It’s not about dressing for what you think other people find attractive a lot of the time, its what makes you feel more sexual. Of course, there are disguises like the waitress outfit where there comes a measure of compromise. Always defer in that case to the people you’re attempting to deceive.’

‘You must have spent a lot of time pretending to be someone else.’

‘Indeed, and that’s why I encourage everyone to be honest with their outlooks whenever possible. I really hope your undercover work bears fruit. I for one am looking forward to doing some actual work for a change.’

At this Ronni can’t help but smile: after all, there’s a lot of people here on any given day who have little or nothing to do unless an emergency appears. If she could spice that up? So much better for everyone else.

Rachel turns and walks away, and Ronni is ready to leave. She is almost to the Barracks entrance when 007 launches his effort to derail her.

‘Special Agent Ashby.’

She has to wait, listening to the slow, measured gait as he walks up the corridor. He hasn’t pulled rank on her once the entire time she’s been here. Now he approaches, relaxed yet impeccable, different jacket and tie to the combination he’d been wearing that morning; yet there is disquiet in the demeanour. This isn’t the Bond she expected. He can’t keep eye contact, eyes to breasts and then back, finally fixating on her mouth almost in desperation, aware he has no power at all over her.

She won’t be phased by anyone, especially him.

Close enough now to taste expensive cologne, to note a shave is in order there’s no response, and yet he moves closer still. Fingers slowly brush her hand, desperately trying anything to break resolve. It won’t work. She’s immune to this. The stand-off isn’t uncomfortable, but it’s not pleasant either, as Ronni’s body subconsciously responds to his proximity. Leaning across, mouth to ear: words carefully placed, shooting straight into her brain.

‘You don’t need it, especially from me, but I will wish you good luck. Because I can.’

‘Thank you, Sir.’

She uses the word with emphasis, acknowledgement that if he’s going to invoke rank, then she will too. Only when he pulls away does something shift between them both, moment of history briefly illuminated. Bond looks an awful lot like Scott right now, Ronni grasps with a sudden stab of amazement, jacket remarkably similar to one he owned… and he knows it. 007 is gone, sudden purpose in gait before vanishing back into the main Lab. He had altered his hairstyle, gel when normally there’d be none, highlighting a parallel she’d buried, tried to forget. Knowing she’d pushed, he reacted in kind. The agent had tried to use his physical similarity to Redgrave as a means to derail confidence, and had come close to succeeding.

Only when she’s in the Taxi outside does Ronni admit to herself that the past retains an ability to destroy everything completely.

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DUET: Chapter Six, Part Five

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After lunch, the schedule is again scrubbed: Ronni is told to report back to the Sparring Ring.

She assumes it is punishment for arrogance, that Q will reinforce who’s in charge and that stepping out of line isn’t part of the training. Waiting quietly in the musky darkness of what used to be the Stables, Ronni stares at the one way glass opposite and wonders who’s decided to come and watch her being destroyed again, that this is beyond ridiculous. She needs to be in the field and not in a ring: triumphs are pointless fripperies with no value unless things change. The only point worth making has nothing to do with who’s stronger, and this is a game that won’t be played any more regardless of consequence.

Genuine anger rises for the first time in weeks, and Ronni does nothing to curb it.

As Bond appears and heads towards the ring there is a refusal to make eye contact, no means for him to engage in anything. Body language is neutral, remembering the previous day, allowing no power to be taken by any means. He had confided in her that this was something pretty much every female agent had been put through since the mid 1960’s. Bond would be presented as a benchmark, and they would have to prove their worth.

As the buzzer sounds to start the bout, Ronni simply stands and waits.

Bond makes no move; she watches the glass instead, staring at the male techs she knows will be noting the fact that there’s no fighting when there should be. Suddenly the shift comes, Bond moves but Ronni is faster. Effortlessly feigning, she’s on the ground and taking a mouthful of dirt before removing Bond’s legs from under him with an anger that consumes everything in a moment. As he lands next to her, hand is balled into a fist: she punches to his groin as hard as possible.

His cry is worse than anything heard in weeks of training, echoing around the ancient brick walls, briefly enough to silence her disquiet. Counting to ten, only when the buzzer sounds to record the win does she walk away without the need to register anything else. The pain in her knuckles forces a smile: it could have been far worse. He was wearing an abdominal guard.

Ronni’s grin turns to laughter as she understands Bond knew what was coming.

‘I still find it hard to believe it took over fifty years for anyone to punch a 007 in the balls.’

Q leans back, staring at Veronica, still in the sweats worn for the sparring match, and allows himself a moment of satisfaction; he had been right the first time they met. She was the one who’d tear down the walls and finally open the doors not simply for more women, but for diversity to finally become a real and palpable part of the Intelligence Service’s 21st Century arsenal. Ronni grasped the only way to win was to rip up the rules and start again, ironically just as the first 007 had done in the 50’s. For this alone, Q is proud of what Special Agent Ashby would now come to represent.

‘I’m staggered this was classified as formal assessment just for female agents to begin with, Q. I mean, really? Everybody failed because nobody had the balls?’

‘There have been various people who have held my designation before me. The man who had the job for the longest was, quite frankly, a remarkable and brilliant individual. I only met him once, in his last days, and it was a morning I don’t think I will ever forget. His sense of humour was both wicked and precise, and this was his in-joke that over the years became the ultimate in Old School hypocrisy. No woman would ever treat a man like that, because no man would ever hit a woman.’

‘Nobody ever tried?’

‘Grace came close. Rachel shot 007’s predecessor in a fit of pique once: to be honest I don’t blame her, under the circumstances I’d have probably done the same. Bond gets under people’s skins in different ways: the notion of male superiority is something I know many people have real issue with. Needless to say, Veronica, I don’t think you’ll have any trouble with anyone in this building again. You most definitely wear the trousers now.’

He watches the woman relax, concession to the compliment, and knows that this step of training is done. They can’t teach her anything else, what she needs to learn now will come with the unpredictability of the outside world.

She’s not taken two steps outside Q’s office when Ronni’s almost lifted off her feet and pushed into the Barracks wall. Hard brick hits back of head and it is a second to reorientate, to have Bond inches from her face, responding with a burst of adrenaline from upper body that pushes him halfway across the corridor. He’s not expecting her anger, this much is obvious, and it takes a second to regroup.

‘You could have at least given me a chance!’

‘I’m sorry, you’re telling me I have to allow you to save face before I beat you?’

‘You could have considered your game plan a little better.’

‘Screw that and screw you, if you’re expecting me to help you maintain your dignity you’re a bloody coward.’

‘And you’re a fucking bitch.’

She’d expected a more sporting response, never having heard 007 swear before. The smile this produces can’t be hidden, and so she doesn’t as Bond’s face flares. He is genuinely aggrieved and the pleasure that creates is something of a surprise. However the training kicks in and it is tempered, aware of conscience pricking her reaction: something important has changed between them. However this isn’t about being right, it is the moment to win a war of words with one of the best wielders of banter in the Secret Service.

‘You find my discomfort funny?”

‘No, I find it amusing you had to wear protection.’

‘As it happens I’m not a big fan of pain.’

‘For the record, I’m not a great fan of being used as entertainment. I’m sure we’ll both cope.’

‘You’re not even going to apologise?’

‘You lost! I beat you by exactly fulfilling the requirements of the assessment. You’re asking me to apologise because I won?’

Every pair of eyes is on them, entire Barracks standing to watch the confrontation. Again Ronni waits, unwavering, refusing to give a millimetre of ground to her superior officer, staring with intent she cannot adequately gauge. It seems like forever, but finally 007 turns and walks away, still clearly in some pain. If she’d managed to do that much damage even with a support in place? Upper body strength was better than she thought.

There’s no time for games any more, and Ronni’s had enough training. If Q didn’t already know, it was time to stop pretending she could make a difference and actually let her do so in the field.

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DUET: Chapter Six, Part Four

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Despite the concussion, she is up the following morning at dawn, in the Barracks before any of the senior staff surface. Naomi is waiting at her desk, steaming latte and fresh croissant already provided, and Ronni wants to hug the woman for her thoughtfulness, and so does.

‘I must admit I was concerned for a while, that maybe they’d finally break you. I only managed a session in hand-to-hand, but a great deal has changed since my day.’

‘It was my own fault in the end. You live and learn.’

‘You know we’re all looking out for you, how much this means for everybody, and I can’t help but think that maybe that’s pressure you don’t really need. I don’t think we should be pinning our hopes on you like the Department is.’

‘In the end, I’m not doing this for anyone else other than myself. I’m still determined to get to the end, whatever else might get thrown at me. I think… having such inspiring role models here to encourage me is definitely helping. I know it sounds trite, but you women are a reminder to me that people have done this and made a difference.’

Naomi’s eyes sparkle, slight shift in body language that means the compliment has hit the target.

‘I think it’s us that ought to be inspired by you. None of us took VB. We’re all casualties of war, in our own ways.’

‘You’ve seen my file, you can read between the lines. I’d far rather be you.’

‘The other field agent’s assignment is always easier. Yes, I know that feeling. We have fresh surveillance for you from yesterday, I’ve uploaded it to your terminal. Good luck this morning.’

The woman walks away as her superior appears, engrossed on his tablet, giving neither of them more attention than is necessary. Ronni takes a bite of pastry and begins her assessment of the new material, pleased with what Naomi has found. Today is a chance to show progress in surveillance analysis: no more dummy targets to consider, only living, breathing killers. This one makes her feel distinctly uncomfortable, and the new information will be useful to prove a point. She’s still working an hour later when Bond and Q appear, deep in conversation.

She could try and lip read: it’s a decent certainty the discussion is about her and there’s enough of a headache with the responsibility of the data and its consequences without overloading herself further. They’d spent three days between them reducing her to mush, no doubt that whatever’s coming next will have a similar effect; however this time she’s not going to just soak the pressure.

If they want to push, she’ll push back. She has an ace in her pocket to play.

Eventually her teachers appear by the terminal. Bond’s in what probably passes as vintage matching everything in pale grey: Ronni wishes to look a tenth as good in anything she possessed. Q makes her wait, clearly gauging patience, before finally nodding to her his assent.

‘I think we are both ready after our regulation Service breakfast. So then, Special Agent Ashby, you have permission to impress us.’

Ronni needs no further prompting to proceed. The screen above her springs to life, details filling in above her head as accompaniment to the commentary.

‘Louis Marco Kendrick, born September 1960. Illegitimate son of a noted US Ambassador, educated in a series of private boarding schools across the United States. Instigated an affair with his nanny when he was 15: she was 33, and when the woman threatened to blackmail the family she promptly vanished, turning up dead six months later face down in the Hudson River. He was convicted of her murder and spent the next decade of his life bouncing between Juvenile Hall and East Coast Penitentiaries.’

She feels awkward in green skirt and cream blouse, focus on 007 to whom most of this should be news. Bond in turn watches her, bruise on his cheek the only visible acknowledgement to recent events. She’s had to do hair differently this morning to avoid a dressing high on her forehead, and the change is acceptable, so he’ll be staring in an attempt to phase. Ronni’s having none of it: if he wants a reaction it is time to move away from the physical. There won’t need to be much to push for a response, if he feels as bad as she does.

‘He was one of six men involved in the Hudson Jailbreak in 1980 and quietly vanished from public life. The next time he appeared was four years later, in the Soviet Union, where he was linked to the procurement of under-age girls to work in a number of brothels in Moscow.’

‘Clearly his love affair with older women was over.’

Ronni is irritated by Bond’s provocation but holds her tongue, continuing the story of a boy who became a drug dealer, gun-runner but in the end would always return to women. Tens, hundreds of innocent victims whom he exploited, degraded and murdered for pleasure at every possible opportunity.

‘We believe he’s running over a dozen brothels across Europe, using them as fronts to traffic both young women and men to the highest bidders: you’ll be pleased to know, 007 that since we began surveillance of him last week his choice of female escort has very much reverted to his boyhood tastes.’

The feed Ronni gained from Naomi’s team is accessed: illuminated on the screen in front of them, the footage shows Kendrick sitting on the veranda of his East London riverside apartment with a woman who covers every base of voluptuous with flesh to spare, seated on a bench that looks as if it’s about to give under her weight. She’s wearing virtually nothing either, and Ronni just can’t look as a result.

‘This certainly gives you something to hold onto.’

‘Is that really necessary?’

‘If it irritates you, then absolutely it’s necessary, Special Agent Ashby. Bond is here to be a provocateur. Your job is not to rise to that, head injury or not. Your personal feelings on this man’s actions are not a subject for the briefing either, unless I specifically ask for them. Which I haven’t.’

‘I’m sorry Q, some days the urge overtakes my obvious good sense and judgement.’

‘If it wasn’t Bond who made the comment, would it bother you?’

‘No, I’d just swallow it and keep my disgust and disappointment to myself.’

007 stays silent, waiting for the moment. He understands only too well what Ronni will be feeling: irritation, annoyance and disgust that a man like Kendrick can be allowed to live on their front door, with a Visa that Whitehall sanctioned. Sometimes left and right hands seemed to belong to completely different people, not simply in this Department. They’d spoken about injustice whilst being treated by the Facility Doctor the previous afternoon, except she’d not named Kendrick directly as the focus of her ire. He’d gone and done some digging as a result, subsequently pushing Q before they began this exercise to check some work she’d been doing on the quiet, using the Department’s software suite for threat assessment.

He hopes for an opportunity to force her hand, because if he can, it will be glorious.

‘So if that is the case, why do you feel the need-‘

‘Because, with respect, Q, this banter is a waste of valuable time. What we should be concentrating on is gathering sufficient evidence to pin down the centres of this guy’s trafficking operation and shutting them down. Not in the lab, but right now across Europe. I am aware of due process, but this man’s flagrancy needs to be stopped in its tracks. Whatever any of us may think, these women and men are victims, and we have an obligation to help those that can’t help themselves. If all else fails, you should give me free rein to put a bullet through his frontal lobe where he sits.’

Assassinating Kendrick in his flat had already been discussed at senior level by several people and dismissed because of the total impracticality of his location. 007 knows full well Ronni’s picked up something the modelling analysts missed. This time, the last thing he wants is to upstage her moment. All he has to do is doubt the assertion, and then stand back.

‘It can’t be done.’

‘Yes it can’.

‘He picked this location for an extremely good reason, there’s nowhere to be targeted.’

Ronni’s eyes narrow, utter confidence in the statement, and Bond knows the look. It is given with the belief of a 00 agent who’s about to suggest the impossible to get the job done.

‘Not by you, certainly. Absolutely by me.’

‘Bond is correct, Veronica. Kendrick picked this spot knowing we were unable to eliminate him even if we wanted to. There’s no decent vantage for a sniper at that level.’

‘Then you both need better intelligence, gentlemen, because I found a spot where you can.’

Ronni’s rifle scores, with small arms close behind are the one part of her training that has never wavered, even when placed under extremely trying circumstances. This was her particular skill, in the same way Bond would know when to make a jump or turn a vehicle, she gets the shot. Q’s indignation is obvious: if he’s missed this, there needs to be evidence to support it.

‘Show me!’

Ronni fires up the 3D model viewer, scenario that places Kendrick’s apartment in a position where, it does appear there is no obvious place for a sniper. Then she draws the lines, sights back to the edge of a large abandoned warehouse, on the corner of which is a precarious outcropping: tower used to haul foodstuffs up and down the side of the building. Q’s mouth actually opens and closes in disbelief before he can find a response.

‘How did the simulations miss this?’

‘Because you’d have to be insane to consider the shot to begin with.’

For the first time in a while he regrets the comment as it leaves him, until Bond senses Ronni’s regard with a smile that does things to both brain and body he’s temporarily unable to ignore.

‘Why, thank you 007, that’s the nicest thing you’ve said about me all week.’

Bond is beyond impressed, entire set-up planned pretty much alone, able to back up research in the way she’d be expected to as an active agent. He’s not surprised either, in fact is beginning to expect nothing less. Ronni should be rewarded for both persistence and foresight as a result.

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