Chapter 3Authors Note:All Britisims and Brit spelling are come by naturally - because, I am, for my sins, a Brit...
The meeting with M lasted an hour, during which Bond vacillated between making the occasional pertinent (and sometimes impertinent) comment and half switching off, alert enough to be aware of what was going on but not really giving the discussion his full attention. The rest of his focus was divided between contemplating the various ways he could track down his newest interest's location in order to introduce himself, and the details of his next mission. As distracted as he was, the end of the meeting took him slightly by surprise and he was a heartbeat behind Tanner and the other section heads in heading for the door of M's office when M's clipped tone stopped him in his tracks.
"007. A word."
Ignoring the curious glances from the departing section chiefs he turned on his heel to face her. She nodded to the chair in front of her desk and curious, he crossed the office to take it, deliberately leaning back and stretching his legs out (the very picture of casual unconcern) as he waited for her to continue.
There was silence in the office for a moment as M fixed him with her fierce, blue eyed stare. As usual at these meetings there was that very small part of Bond that felt like a school boy being pulled up in front of the headmaster. Not that he would ever allow M to have the slightest indication that that was how he felt. That would be tantamount to a capitulation in the constant battle of wills between the head of the Service and her most obstreperous 00 agent.
"Tanner mentioned that you showed some interest in our newest group of Fast track recruits this morning. In fact, he mentioned you seemed particularly interested in one recruit in particular."
Bond stared back, outwardly impassive, although inwardly rolling his eyes. Bloody Tanner - always telling tales out of school.
"And? You've never objected when I have introduced myself to new recruits before."
M's lips thinned and her eyes narrowed as she regarded him. He leaned back in his chair and gave her a bland blue eyed stare back.
"That's because I have always been of the opinion that it is best for the junior members of the Service to be inoculated against you and the other 00's at the earliest possible moment. A small dose when they are still new usually reaps dividends and prevents any…difficulties later on."
"So," he shrugged. "I don't see what the problem is," he shifted in his chair to get up and her voice cracked out like a whip. "Sit down, Bond."
Nonplussed, he stilled in his seat. For a moment she regarded him and then sighed to herself. Reaching into a desk drawer she pulled out a standard issue personnel file and flicked it open.
"If Tanner hadn't mentioned which of our new recruits you seemed to have fixed your interest on, I wouldn’t be having this discussion with you. Who you choose to jump in and out of bed with is of supreme indifference to me unless it affects the operational efficiency of this Service and its agents. And usually, despite your best attempts, your extra curricular exploits only briefly affect the morale of a few individual agents before you move on. And as this is well known amongst the Service, those agents you do manage to bruise in your headlong rampage through the ranks are usually suitably supported by the ranks of those who have experienced your.....tactics....before." Her tone was faintly censorious and despite his studied insouciance, Bond found himself bristling internally.
It was clear that M would rather be discussing anything else other than a thinly veiled analogy for her senior 00's sex life and for Bond it was just as excruciating an experience. It was like he imagined discussing sexual positions would be like with an elderly female relative. And it was never particularly pleasant to be compared to a disease against which early exposure led to immunity. He wasn't that bad. Or at least he didn't think so…
"However, this is an atypical case. And in this particular instance I am going to ask that you do not pursue your interest in the individual concerned. In fact, I am going to request that you actively avoid her unless introduced in a purely professional capacity and that any subsequent interaction with the individual concerned be limited to the bare minimum required to do your job. No innuendo Bond, no flirting, no seduction – in short, none of your normal tactics. Agent Rider is off limits to you in any capacity until you are told otherwise." M's tone was absolute; with a bite to it that Bond had learnt from long experience meant that she had made her final statement on the issue.
As M continued with her declaration Bond straightened until he was sitting bolt upright and frowned at his boss with an increasing mixture of curiousity and irritation. Rider – how did he know that name? And what was going on here that M would take such an actively protective stance over one measly fast track recruit? And why the hell should he stay away from her anyway? His eyes caught and narrowed on the file that M had pulled out of her desk draw, instincts borne of long experience telling him that the answers he wanted were enclosed within.
"M - with all due respect - Ma'am
- you know that you have absolutely no right to dictate who I choose to interact with within the Service outside the confines of active missions and potential security issues." Bond responded, irritation at his Boss' high handed intrustion into his personal life bleeding into his response despite his best efforts. "So if you want me to stay away from Rider, you have to give me a reason. Who is this girl?" he inquired sharply, his irritation increasingly clear in his voice as he continued. "And why on earth does a fast track graduate warrant the personal interception of the head of the Service? It's not as if a brief encounter with me will break her."
M simply stared at him for a moment before continuing in a quieter tone. "While normally I would agree with you, 007, in this case you would be wrong. Your involvement with the individual concerned might just be the last straw that breaks the camel's back and I am keen to avoid that scenario occurring. I spent too much time recruiting Ms Rider to have her leave us within a few weeks of commencement."
"And as to who she is," M glanced down at the open file in front of her. "I had hoped to avoid showing you this, as Ms Rider is entitled to her privacy. But I know you, Bond. Even if I give you a direct order to avoid the girl you will find some way to get to her unless you genuinely agree with the reasoning behind my decision to request that you stay away. So here," she pushed the file across the desk to him and leaned back as she recited, obviously having memorised the contents some time ago.
"Alexandra Katherine Rider. Born to John and Helen Rider on 4 June 1990." Bond raised an incredulous eyebrow at that even as he scanned the supporting evidence in the file. 18? They were recruiting teenagers now?
"Her parents both died in a plane crash when she was an infant and she was raised by her paternal uncle, Ian Rider." Bond's head came up from where he was perusing the file. That name was familiar - how did he know that name?
M gave a satisfied nod at the look on his face. "Ian Rider was Six. In fact he was a 00 - 004 to be precise. This was slightly before your time, but he was one of my first recruits in my position as M in London."
"Was?" Bond noticed the past tense. M frowned.
"Ian Rider was seconded out of Six at the PM's direct request to work for a small division in the Home Office about six years ago. I protested the order, as neither 004 nor myself were happy about it, but it was made very clear to both of us that the transfer was non negotiable. I heard very little about his activities post transfer as whatever project the Home Office was working on it kept everything strictly compartmentalised. Even from me." M frowned again.
"As you can imagine I was not best pleased that one of my best agents had been shanghaied out from under me. I did maintain an inquiry into the circumstances of the transfer but I was essentially stone walled. I heard nothing regarding 004's circumstances for a number of years and then four years ago I was informed that Ian Rider had been killed on active service."
Bond looked down at the file again. 4 years ago. She would have been 14. He turned a page and there was the standard personnel photo in glorious Technicolor. A woman, no – he corrected himself, a girl - who looked exhausted even in her photo, blond hair pulled back from pale skin, eyes tired and haunted, bottom lip cut and a massive contusion over the entire right side of her face. She was still beautiful, but it was a fragile, bruised beauty and a far cry from the fierce golden creature he had glimpsed in the atrium today.
"I did my best to make further inquiries into the circumstances of 004's demise, but it was made very clear to me from the highest level that I should cease and desist. Which brings us up to the present day."
Her voice changed ever so slightly from the dispassionate tone of one reciting facts to one with a distinct undercurrent of anger and Bond tore his gaze from the file photo to raise an eyebrow at his superior.
"Are you familiar with the recent debacle around Alan Blunt's so-called 'Office of Special Projects?'
Bond frowned. He had been out of the country on missions a great deal over the last few years (after Vesper it was agreed that the best tactic would be to keep him busy) but he definitely recognised the name.
"Was that the Home Office sub unit which had been found to have been dabbling in domestic and overseas paramilitary operations?"
M nodded in confirmation. "That's the one. MI5 finally pulled it down when it became clear that it had essentially been setting itself up as an independent third Service. It had been set up under the previous Administration under quite a deep cover, international development I believe, and the current administration wasn't really aware that it was still running. However, on investigation our siblings at Five realised that it had its fingers in a rather horrifying number of pies and had done so for quite some time. God knows that kind of damage it did during its tenure." She paused to take a calming breath before continuing.
"As you know the Head of that unit was a man known as Alan Blunt. He was Six himself before he moved onto the Home Office, although he never reached any higher than deputy station head. It seems that Mr Blunt's plan was to set up a smaller version of the clandestine services with no oversight, so that missions could be taken at his own instigation and on his own recognisance without worrying about any trifling legalities. He was assisted in this endeavour by certain individuals, including a Clarissa Jones and others, whose stated briefs were to replicate the departmental structure of Six in miniature when ever possible. Accordingly, they had a Quartermaster, R&D, etc." Her voice flattened even further. Bond could tell they were coming to the meat of the issue now. "They also had field agents. And unfortunately for her, Ms Rider was one of those field agents. In fact, over a period of years she became Blunt's most successful field agent."
Bond inhaled quietly. She had been a field agent. How on earth was that possible? She was far too young. Any such attempt to recruit someone that young was not only blatantly illegal but also criminally stupid. The only logical explanation he could think of was that the dates in the file were wrong. He glanced sharply down at the photo again and checked the date of birth. Definitely 1990. So how old had that girl been when Blunt got his hands on her? He looked up again at M, his entire face asking the question.
"We understand from the testimony of Clarissa Jones that Ms Rider was forcibly recruited within a few days of her Uncle's death by Alan Blunt. There was an ongoing mission, during the execution of which Ian Rider was killed. For some reason Alan Blunt determined that the best person to continue the mission post 004's death was his 14 year old niece, Alex Rider."
Bond felt his mouth tighten. What the hell had been going on in Blunt's head? M continued, ignoring his expression. "We understand that Ian Rider had been essentially grooming his niece from almost her birth onwards in various skills that he thought she may find useful in adulthood. Considering his own personal skill set those skills were by their nature rather esoteric and Blunt considered that the skill set she had already mastered at the time of her uncle's death made her an ideal candidate for field agency status."
"She was 14."
M nodded at the uncharacteristically open disgust in Bond's voice. "Indeed. However, this did not seem to be a deterrent to Blunt. We understand that Ms Rider's subsequent 'recruitment' and 'employment' was somewhat brutal and involved a considerable amount of blackmail in order to keep her under Blunt's control. There was a note in her file of a threat of deportation for Ms Rider's long term family housekeeper, essentially the only family member she had left, and threats of long term incarceration in a high security juvenile establishment if she ceased to toe the line."
"But why would he bother? Surely he can't have been that keen to keep her. She was only 14 for god's sake."
M sighed, an unusual display of emotion from such an insular woman. "I believe Blunt had a number of motivations. One, while he may have recruited her as essentially cannon fodder in order to finish the mission her uncle was involved in it must have quickly become apparent to him just how talented Ms Rider actually is. And secondly, the appeal of an agent that no one would ever guess was an agent, someone who came across as a child, or at the very least as a completely forgettable teenager, would have been immense to some one like Blunt. Plus, I understand from the debriefing of Clarissa Jones, that while Ms Rider initially came across as a somewhat scrawny child, she very quickly blossomed into some thing very similar to the young woman who caught your eye today. Alan Blunt must have loved the possibilities inherent in a young, beautiful, seemingly vulnerable girl who would be able to get close to some of the worst in this world by whatever means necessary. And who then have the skills to terminate those subjects if required to do so. She would have been perfect."
Bond felt his stomach clench at the implications of that bland description. His imagination, horribly sharpened by the realities of his long experience, shied away from considering those particular scenarios any further. It was enough for him that he could guess what Rider had experienced, he didn't need the details.
"Ms Rider had little or no training apart from a brief immersion with the SAS at the outset of her recruitment. Over the next four years she undertook an operational tempo that was frankly disturbing. She was nearly executed on a number of occasions, has been imprisoned more than once, and has been exposed to increasingly frequent life threatening scenarios as the period of her service has gone on. She has also suffered a number of traumatic injuries in the field, including a gun shot wound to the chest when she was 16 that required extensive cardiac surgery. However, despite all of this Ms Rider has been consistently successful in every one of her missions and was at times loaned out to the NSA and possibly other foreign agencies, although details of those secondments are at this time, not finalised."
Bond flicked through the file on his lap and noted the extensive list of code related missions associated with Rider's file, as well as the corresponding list of injuries. To experienced eyes it all led to one inescapable conclusion.
"M, this mission tempo is excessive, even for a fully trained 00." Bond commented bluntly. "And Rider certainly was not. I mean, if Blunt valued her so highly, why on earth would he try and maintain this kind of operational tempo? Even the best agent needs a certain amount of time to recoup between missions. If Rider continued at this rate she was going to slip up at some point, the question was simply when."
M glared down at her clasped hands for a moment before meeting Bond's questioning stare. "It is my belief that he had decided that Rider was ultimately disposable and that he was simply utilising her until she expired. He must have realised that the odds of maintaining his hold over the girl would decrease exponentially once she became an adult. And I understand that Rider's housekeeper was killed in an attack in London last year so that lever was gone. Based on those facts and my understanding of Blunt's mentality he would have seen Rider as a resource he was about to lose and so it would be no issue for him if she was killed on active service. So he was sending her out again and again in the knowledge that she would eventually, as you put it, fatally 'slip up'. At which point he would have merely lost a resource he would have lost in the near future anyway, and in such a way as to prevent Ms Rider raising any awkward questions upon her escape from his control."
Bond curled his lip in disgust. "So he was essentially sending her on suicide missions over and over again until one of them stuck."
M nodded. "I believe so." She sighed again. "It is a testament to Ms Rider's native ability and skills that she managed to survive this long. But if the issue had gone on for long enough the odds would have finally caught up with her."
She glanced at her hands again before looking up at Bond and continuing quietly. "I have now met Ms Rider on a number of occasions. I have found her to be a remarkable young woman and one worthy of anyone's respect. The fact that she has managed to maintain any sense of ethics or self after what has been done to her is in itself admirable. However, as to be expected there has been some damage. In Ms Rider's case the damage has manifested itself as a profound disassociation between her persona in the field and her native personality and also in an understandable distrust of those asserting authority over her person. She is also, by sheer lack of exposure, somewhat alienated from what would normally be her peer group."
"In other words she's a hell of a lot older in experience, than she is chronologically," Bond commented dryly. "I can't see that actually being a major disadvantage."
M's mouth thinned again. "It's not that simple, 007. In some ways Ms Rider, is as you would put it, considerably older than her biological age. In the field she has the skills, and the mind set of an experienced field agent. In fact the closest comparison I could make to the skill set she has developed is that of a 00." Bond raised an eyebrow at that surprising statement, requesting clarification.
"She has killed in the field on a number of occasions, including at least one target with whom she was previously sexually intimate. However, outside of the field - well that is a very different story." She fixed Bond with that gimlet stare again.
"Alex Rider, Alex Rider that is – not Agent Rider, is a very young girl. A young girl whose emotional stability has been ripped away from her again and again and who is, in many ways, not as emotionally developed as her peers. She is a child
, Bond, not a woman, despite what she might look like, and despite what impression her performance as an agent might give. Since she was 14 years old she has been brutalised and abused and emotionally manipulated by those who should have her best interests at heart. I sincerely believe that by trusting Six, by agreeing to be recruited she has held out the last olive branch to this country, and certainly this agency that she is ever going to be willing to extend."
She looked at Bond for a long moment before continuing in a level, matter of a fact tone. "I don't want her to regret that decision. I want her to have the time and the space to find her feet unmolested, to work out who she is and who she is going to be, for Alex to catch up with Agent Rider. If she can do that I sincerely believe that she will be one of the finest agents we will ever have had the privilege to utilise. If not, I think she will crash and burn and never recover. And after the way she has been treated by an agency of this government she deserves this time to regroup and she deserves the space to try and be that person and that agent that she was meant to be."
Bond glanced away from that fierce stare and back to Rider's picture for a moment before he looked back up at M.
"And you think that I would derail that process." It was a flat statement in Bond's most toneless voice.
"I think that you are a man with his own demons, whose attentions are difficult enough to handle if you are a psychologically stable young woman. I think at this stage of her life you would break her like a butterfly caught in a threshing machine."
Despite himself he winced internally at the image. M always did know how to hit to the heart of an issue. She continued on, ignoring the fleeting pain that she had noted passing across his face. This had to be said.
"I know that unless you have to be, you are not an intentionally cruel man, Bond. But in this case to become involved with Ms Rider at this time would be an act of cruelty on your part, even if you started out with the best intentions. So I am asking this of you, 007, leave Ms Rider alone. Let her build herself up without your interference so that she can find out who she really is. After what has happened to her I believe that she deserves that at least of us – don't you?"
He looked down at the file for one last time at that fine boned face with the achingly exhausted eyes before he closed it and pushed it back across the desk to M. "Fine," he commented shortly, ignoring the dull ache in his gut that he didn't want to examine too closely. "Fine. You have my word. As far as Ms Rider knows I won't even exist."
M nodded briskly. "Good. I appreciate it, Bond. And undoubtedly this will be best for both of you, mark my words."
Bond nodded a curt acknowledgement even as he pushed up from the chair and exited the office, feeling the weight of M's measuring gaze on his back. He suddenly had the beginnings of a headache and a bitter taste in his mouth. He needed a drink or a willing woman and if he couldn't get one he'd settle for the other. And if some part of him acknowledged that he was trying to shove the memory of a haunted gaze in a battered face to the back of his mind? Well, selective self awareness had always been a talent of his.Please review! Pretty please with sugar on top!