Francine Desmond's future was laid out for her, just like train tracks. Solid, even when they wound precariously around a mountain.
She would finish school (and finishing school, if you wanted to make a pun of that) and would go to a very good university (Sarah Lawrence, because mother had gone there and she was a legacy - not that she wasn't smart enough to get in on her own merits, because of course she was.) Like her mother, she wouldn't be expected to finish that school; she'd likely meet a beau. And let's be perfectly honest - she probably knew him already from the holidays - a fairhaired scion of someone in her parents' illustrious circle destined to take over his daddy's firm - certainly not some weedy, bookish grind from Columbia.
And then she cut classes with a group of other girls - Francine's idea, naturally - and went to the cinema to see Thunderball. Her friends made jokes about Bond's ingenue: "That name! Domino!" Margo had shrieked, bringing the headmother down the hallway with an answering shriek of her own. "Fermer la bouche! Go to bed, you leettle sheets!"
The next day she slipped away from school again and went by herself. She left the cinema in Lausanne and bought a fedora, slipping it over one eye, the score playing out in her head. She didn't care about Domino, but she loved 007. Bond didn't wear a hat or a trench coat, but other spies did. Francine wore a uniform to school; she could wear the coat over the hideous thing, and she loved playing dress-up. She discovered spy novels and read all that she could get her hands on, mostly in French. She lost herself in the fictional SIS of George Smiley and Toby Esterhase and briefly resented not being born British at the same time she recognized the strand of full-on American within her that made her different than the "citizen of the world" girls. Her lingering dislike of Nixon aside, opening China up was a masterstroke. Then she got her hands on Jane's defence books and spycraft guides, and plotted a way to go to East Berlin on winter break. (Plans foiled by scheduled formal.)
She confessed her obsession to two other girls in her year - the ones she thought were her friends - and they laughed. And then they teased her mercilessly for the rest of the term. Some friends they turned out to be, especially after she'd faked enthusiasm about stupid Mick Jagger. For months.
Well, Francine didn't need them anyway. Spies worked alone (mostly.)
She began to Make Plans. She could go to Georgetown University. They had a program aimed at building geopolitical experts. With a degree in the right subjects, and the languages, everything would fall into place.*
"So you want to be a diplomat? Good lord, Francine! You could get a post to the Sudan. You'd melt." Mrs. Desmond had said on her second martini, pugs curled at her feet. "Better to marry an ambassador to King James Court."
"That's not exactly what I-"
"Darling..." her mother trailed off, tracing the air with her fingertips, "...olives."
Francine shut up and speared two olives with a toothpick. She knew how to fermer la bouche, after all. And when daddy filed for divorce and mother moved to London and carried on spending and drinking as if he hadn't, Francine went to Sarah Lawrence instead of Georgetown just to keep the peace.
Two years later she transferred, packing up her considerable collection of Le Carré and Fleming, letting her mother believe that with the International Relations program, she'd be certain to meet and marry a future diplomat instead of a penniless ceramic artist.
But no, Francine Desmond was going to be a spy.*
University was tough. Not the coursework; Francine was a quick study. But she grew tired of fighting the constant unspoken assumption that she was there to bide her time until matriculating with an MRS degree and a promising young politician as her diploma. Being pretty didn't exactly help, especially when a professor offered extra credit on her solo project on Idi Amin with an unsubtle, handsy come-on. She reported him for it, winning her the enmity of his department for "casting the head in a bad light." It was all handled internally and he kept his position, but a hefty iron doorstop appeared in front of his office entrance after that, and it was employed constantly.
Someone else made valedictorian by a few hundredths of a point and gave the Cohonguroton Oration, but Francine graduated summa cum laude and had an offer from the Agency on commencement day. She celebrated with a weekend at the Red Door.*
Francine filled out an alumni newsletter request with her degree and instead of listing her cover as a researcher for IFF, she wrote down the purposely vague "employed by the US Government" and posted it back to Rougemont.
On the job, she was sure nobody saw her as the rebel her mother thought she was, but the things Francine wore were rebellious. Earrings shaped like parallelograms and chess pieces, au fait designer dresses with padded shoulders and batwings and tricky construction. She spent a lot of money on clothes, and it was satisfying not to wear mannish suits or JC Penney twinsets and demure pearls like the rest of the (small) female operative staff at the Agency.
Of course she kept up with trends, but she was also twenty-six, for god's sake. She could stick with boring suits, but as long as she wasn't undercover (why wasn't she ever chosen to go undercover? It was always Scarecrow when it wasn't that weasel Terry, or Humbug, who liked to act as if debriefing a defector in his flawless Russian was the most boring task in the world - not that he was fooling anyone; he loved it). So she might as well stand out among the government pheasants, a fashionable peacock. A fashionable, impeccably-educated, typing-up-Scarecrow's-reports peacock. Because Billy was always sending Lee Stetson out in the field, even though his French was execrable.
"That could be your code name, Francie," Lee said over drinks at Nedlindger's. It was a dive, but this close to IFF, it was their dive. "Peacock." He laughed, a tinge of Glenlivet on his breath.
"Peacocks are male."
"Peahens are brown," Francine said distastefully. "I hate brown."
"If you want to be out in the field, you'll need a handle, though," Lee pointed out, laughing uncontrollably. "Narwhal? Rascal? Applesauce?"
"How many drinks have you had, Scarecrow?"
She would have sworn she saw tears form as he gasped for breath. "No, no... I got it, I got it: Moneypenny!"
Francine kicked Scarecrow squarely in the shin, with great force. She could have taken him down with pressure points if she'd had to.
Me, Billy. Send me this time, she silently implored her boss, because she had far too much pride to beg out loud. She knew "the field" wasn't about wearing a trench coat and a fedora and skulking in the shadows. Well, sure, there was some skulking in the shadows, but she could skulk, in the shadows or out of them. She could skulk with the best of them.
She got her wish with a Christmas mission in Switzerland (purloined documents from East Berlin! Gold ingots in a switcheroo trade at the Musee Rath!). There was something about the snap of crisp air and knowing Geneva like the back of one's hand along with three languages, or maybe it was the magical setting or all the adrenaline after racing through the streets on Huber's tail. They'd taken the attaché case packed with little felt bags of ingots and played backgammon with them on the floor in the hotel on the rue Puits-Saint-Pierre. (And wasn't that crazy?)
They ended up in bed four drinks later, snow falling silent against the windowpane. She'd even forgotten he'd grown up on a series of dusty airbases in hick central and gone to the University of Iowa (among a bunch of other ones -- had he even graduated?) and sometimes poured ketchup on his french fries. He had long eyelashes, close up, and a sexy voice. Okay, he was gorgeous and smart and a seasoned agent and she'd proven herself in the field, finally.
She could be Scarecrow's partner. Should be, by all rights.
When they returned, triumphant, Francine Desmond got report-typing duty and Lee Stetson got a new partner who wasn't Francine Desmond. And she was livid. She didn't fermer la bouche. She gave Billy Melrose a piece of her mind.
"Is it because I'm a woman?" she'd asked, and she hadn't wanted to say that, to believe that. But in a messed-up way, it was better than thinking it was because of some shortcoming in her that made her good at debriefs and hasty translations and reports and bad at skulking. Billy denied it, of course, and she felt bad later. Sort of. Billy was fair. Scarecrow's co-field operative was a good agent and he was more experienced. But where was she going to get experience? In the archives?
She felt sorry for herself. She got drunk. "Didja know I went to the same, hmmn, Fin-shing school as Lady Di-ana?"she slurred between hiccups. She slept with Lee again. Because that was one thing his new partner couldn't do. So. So ha.
She woke up alone with a hangover, swore it wouldn't happen again, and went back to debriefs and translations and reports.
And then Lee's partner died in the line of duty - one well-aimed short-range bullet to the skull. And she didn't know how to feel about that. She slept with Lee again, feeling sorry for him, that time.
That was the end of it. It wasn't that she didn't find Lee much of a draw anymore, but it wasn't like that. He was a colleague. Utterly reliable at work, but two girlfriends on the side, and Francine Desmond wasn't the sort to wait her turn in her private life, because wasn't it bad enough at work? She started dating...a diplomat.
Francine couldn't help being annoyed by Amanda King. (A.) She was a housewife. Not that there was anything fundamentally wrong with being a housewife, or raising the next generation (because yuck, god knew she wasn't up for that, kids were sticky and loud and really, she'd have them if it meant having a staff to do the sticky work, including having the kids themselves, so perhaps not). (B.) She didn't know anything about spycraft or how The Agency did things. (C.) She didn't understand the concept of an internal monologue, and (D.) God, so much plaid, and so many barrettes. Who dressed like that? Millions of suburban housewives, that's who.
And (E.) Amanda was getting field assignments. A civilian! An inexperienced civilian with no...experience. She should be typing things up, playing mother like the secretaries in Le Carré's Circus, paying her dues. No, scratch that, she should be icing cupcakes in her Cape Cod across the river while Francine got field assignments, because Francine had wanted field assignments since she was thirteen years old, skulking in the shadows in a canton near Lake Geneva, while her schoolmates did recitations because Francine's French and German were already letter-perfect. At thirteen. What had Amanda King been doing at thirteen? Not reading Jane's Defence Quarterly, that was for sure. And she might have laughed at her for reading it, just like Suzette and Patricia had.Amanda would be great at being an Agency wife, Francine would give her that.
"What were you thinking?" She rounded on Billy, who sat at his desk looking unperturbed, as usual. Of course he wasn't perturbed. That King woman was becoming Lee's de facto partner. Francine didn't care about him, not like that, but she resented the way this Amanda-come-lately had slipped so easily into the field, even if she had some, well...potential.
"You're very valuable to the Agency, Ms Desmond," Billy replied. "Immensely valuable."
"The Agency has a funny way of showing it."
Francine felt a bit of feminist remorse every time she delivered a verbal zinger, but just a bit. Respect had to be earned here. And the train hadn't yet stopped at that station.
And there was absolutely no reason why a little doubt and adversity wouldn't make Amanda King a better spy. After all, it had worked for Francine.