“S.H.I.E.L.D.? Never heard of them. American?”
Eve glides into the room with her usual determined efficiency, planning to make a quick getaway after leaving the tray with the teapot and five cups on the desk.
M’s schedule simply says meeting at request of ISC (3x). The Director had made the entry herself just yesterday, right after the secure call from Mallory, the new head of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Eve has no context, and no agenda for the meeting -- but what’s a secret service without secrets, right? The left hand not having clearance to know what the right hand is doing is a founding principle of the business.
What Eve does know, based on that cryptic entry, is that there will be three visitors. Plus M and Bond – equals five cups for tea. Good thing she went to uni.
The head of MI-6 is pacing in front of the large window, her lips pursed in pinched disapproval. What exactly she is disapproving of is not clear – the possibilities are endless, frankly -- but Eve suspects the mystery group whose name Bond just spat out tops today’s list.
“You are not supposed to have heard of this organization, 007, and once we are done with this silly exercise, we will erase its existence from our memory.”
M takes her special cup from the tray, thanking Eve with the barest of nods; a slight flicker of her steel-grey eyes makes it clear that the last comment applies to her executive assistant as well.
“S.H.I.E.L.D., I am told, stands for Strategic Homeland Investigation, Enforcement and Logistics Division. A division of what is not clear to me, and I shudder to contemplate. The only thing I do know is that despite the clever acronym and the reference to the Homeland, they answer to an international cabal called the World Security Council, not to the U.S. Government. And before you ask, I am not privy to this Council’s origins nor to the identity of its members. All I was told is that they represent the ‘collective interest of humanity’. To what extent, what exactly they mean by that, and why the US tolerates them on their territory I have no idea.”
Ah –hence the pinched lips and the rant. If M hates anything, it’s not knowing everything about something. Eve almost pities those S.H.I.E.L.D. reps, blissfully ignorant as they are of the arctic chill that awaits them.
She walks over and holds out the tea tray to Bond.
“It’s not poisoned, is it?” he asks, as he picks up a cup, with that roguish little smile that routinely brings lesser women than Eve Moneypenny to their knees.
“Not yet,” she replies, with a similar curl of her lips. Bond will never let her forget that she almost killed him once; she, in turn, likes to remind him that she still might. (Trust is a volatile and highly overrated commodity in their profession, but its absence should not preclude collegiality.)
M sets her cup down on her desk with an audible clunk and turns her back to the room. The view of the river is obscured by a pelting rain, one of those that drain all colour from the London skyline. Even the blinking lights of the BT tower have a hard time piercing the grey shroud.
“In the meantime, however, Mr. Mallory’s Committee in its ineffable wisdom has assigned us to a joint operation with this … agency. Why, and at whose initiative, I have not been told.”
If M were to speak in thought bubbles, Eve is convinced the word ‘agency’ just now would have been dripping with something. Acid? Viscous green slime?
She sets down the tea tray with a delicate but audible clang, to remind M of her existence so that she can be dismissed. If neither M nor Bond are supposed to have known about this S.H.I.E.L.D. outfit, then the less a mere executive assistant hears about it, the better, no? (Plausible deniability, and all that.)
Of course, M knows exactly what Eve is doing and why, and is having none of it. She turns around and fixes her EA with one of her command glares.
“You, Moneypenny, will act as the liaison between them and us, on all matters of procedure, protocol and administration. They are bringing one of their own for you to work with. As for the operation… well, whatever it is, I have not yet been privileged to find out.”
Acid it is, Eve decides. The carpet is practically bubbling.
“But I am told it is to be kept small, and off the grid. 007, you and one of their agents will be the executive arm of this exercise. And I expect both of you to make sure that I have as little as possible to do with my … so-called counterpart, Director Fury.”
The phone rings – call display indicates reception -- before Eve has a chance to plumb the depth of contempt with which M manages to infuse the word ‘counterpart’. The Director waves off Eve’s attempt to respond, and opens the comms channel herself.
“Yes,” she barks into the hands free setting.
“Three gentlemen to see you, Ma’am,” comes a clipped voice. “Do you wish us to bring them up?”
“No, thank you. Ms Moneypenny will come down for them.”
M hits the button again and turns back to the rain-speckled window with a frown.
“Well, at least they are punctual. I suppose that is something.”
Eve has learned to set aside all expectations when it comes to the type of person the head of MI-6 may meet in the course of an ordinary day, and so she doesn’t blink at the trio who are in the process of being vetted and badged by security.
Only one of them, a white male, is dressed in a suit and tie. With his high forehead and blank facial expression he looks every bit the universal bureaucrat – the kind you find in Whitehall, or on the morning tube. Her liaison, she assumes.
The second, in half-open combat boots, black jeans and leather jacket, is the same unassuming height and colouring as Bond; even his dirty-blond hair is styled in a similar manner – short and spiky. He stands perfectly still, yet carries his lean, muscular body with the loose grace of a cat, ready to pounce. His eyes casually scan the lobby with the air of any curious first-time visitor -- but Eve has long since learned that bland can come in fifty shades of deadly. This is Bond’s counterpart, without doubt; the two of them could be brothers (except for the ears).
Then there is the third, and if this is who she thinks it must be, a starker contrast to her own boss Eve could not have imagined in her wildest dreams. Towering over the other two in every way possible, the man is tall, bald and black, his complexion much darker than her own. He is wearing a calf-length black leather coat, a patch over one eye and what seems like a perpetual scowl on his face -- projecting both supreme confidence in his own authority and the fact that he really, really doesn’t give a shit whether you’re okay with that.
“Director Fury, I presume?” she addresses him with a smile. He doesn’t deny it, even gives the curtest of nods. “Eve Moneypenny. I’m here to bring you to your meeting with the Director of MI-6.”
Only one of the trio responds verbally – Mr. Suit. He even smiles, in a blandly efficient way, and extends his hand for a short, firm shake.
“Pleased to meet you, Ms Moneypenny. Phil Coulson. Interesting weather you’re having here.”
No further introductions are made at this point; the Bond-clone doesn’t seem to mind. There is a brief flurry of excitement as the metal detector registers strong objections to his presence, and the loud beep causes him to flex his fingers for just the briefest of moments. Eve makes a snap decision and waves off the converging guards; the guy at the scanner takes the hint and steps aside. The Bond-clone gives Eve the briefest of nods.
The ride up the elevator passes in silence, as she reflects on just why The Suit might seem so disproportionately grateful that no one tried to disarm his colleague. Score one for diplomacy.
The look in M’s face when Eve ushers the three guests into the room is priceless. Her glance slides over the bureaucrat and the operative and arrests on Fury, with barely concealed horror. (The head of MI-6, Eve knows, does not do flamboyance.) Fury, in turn, doesn’t bother to hide the fact that he, too, would much rather be somewhere else.
Coulson inserts himself into the tension of the moment with the finesse of a finely-honed scalpel.
“Madam Director,” he says in his pleasant, light tenor, “please allow me to make the introductions. Director Fury, I’m Phil Coulson, and this is Agent Barton.”
Well, if Eve is to be the liaison, she may as well start now, and so she returns the favour.
“The Director of MI-6, known in the Service as M, and Mr. Bond.”
M has successfully swallowed her disdain and motions her guests to the sitting area in the corner of her office. Fury shakes his head at Eve’s tacit offer to take his coat and simply flips it back as he sits down, but Barton hands her his damp jacket with a polite flash of a smile that resides solely in his eyes. It does interesting things to his face.
He’s wearing a t-shirt (black, naturally) underneath his jacket, and Eve gets a close-up of both the source of the metal detector’s objections -- a pair of Heckler & Koch P30s, in a double holster that crosses a nicely developed chest – and a set of rather impressive, veined arms. She suppresses her momentary appreciation and reverts resolutely back to professional mode.
While Coulson sits down in the seat she has indicated for him, Barton ignores his. Instead, he perches on top of a credenza beside Fury like a bird of prey, keeping those chiseled arms free for whatever contingency may arise. Bond, it appears, has noticed and does likewise, on the opposite side. The two men take each other’s measure like silent predators staking out their territory; Eve can practically see the waves of testosterone cresting and colliding in the middle of the room.
M, seemingly oblivious to the silent battle being waged in her office, isn’t one for niceties or talks about the weather, and so gets straight to the point.
“It appears as if our political masters have thrown us together rather against our mutual will, Director Fury. Why, I have no idea. I loathe uncertainty. Pray enlighten me.”
As it turns out, he can.
“Be glad to … M. Our agents discovered activities on your Island of Skye that may involve an extremely dangerous international syndicate. One that we have some experience with.”
“Your agents.” M’s voice has that silky tone that Eve has long since learned to recognize as a prelude to war. “In Britain. I can assure you, Mr. Mallory’s Committee and that so-called Council of yours that MI-6 can and does handle any and all foreign threats on British soil. Including on the Isle of Skye.”
Fury permits himself a toothy grin that is the antithesis of an apology – whether for the covert presence of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Britain, or his geographical slip-up – and that offers not a hint of reassurance.
“These guys are special. Which is probably why your agents haven’t noticed them.”
The unspoken ‘or us…’ hangs in the room like a toxic cloud. Fury picks up a teacup and, after a moment’s thought, extends his little finger in a way that makes it clear he normally executes the gesture with the middle one.
Eve makes a point of not looking at M; the Head of Her Majesty’s Secret Service being condescended to is something best unnoticed by lesser beings. To his credit, though, Fury doesn’t dwell on his victory and instead nods to Coulson. The latter takes a small USB stick out of his pocket (wait – now why didn’t that set off the metal detectors?) and waits for Eve to bring him a laptop.
No one asks her to leave and so she stays; as the Official Liaison she might as well have at least an idea of whatever joint Op the Committee is foisting on them. Bond winks at her as she pulls up a chair; Eve delicately shows him the finger. Barton, she notes, remains motionless on the credenza like a black gargoyle on a spring.
The next twenty minutes are spent on a sequence of photographs, including satellite shots the quality of which has M licking her lips in a mixture of disgust (they’re looking at us?) and raw envy; then there are clips from surveillance tapes, a series of headshots of mostly white males with cold eyes, and utterly dry recitations from Coulson.
It’s all pretty abstract, and there are a lot of gaps in the information being provided. But according to S.H.I.E.L.D., a group of scientists of questionable provenance may or may not be carrying out illicit geological research activities off the coast of Scotland, on Skye.
M is not impressed.
“Geology? I was expecting portable thermonuclear devices at the very least, to lure you and your … people out of the woodwork.” She gestures vaguely in Barton’s direction. “And the concern about this geological research is what, exactly?”
The image on the screen shows an artist’s rendering of a horribly deformed face – more a skull, really, a bright red skull – wearing a Nazi officer’s uniform.
Bond raises a questioning eyebrow even as M harrumphs.
“You must be joking. A mask? Really. You Americans have such a flair for the cliché.”
Eve, for her part, can’t tear her eyes off the image; there is something about those grotesque features and the contemptuous eyes staring out at her from the screen that wrings a primal warning from the deepest recesses of her mind. She crosses her arms in front of her chest, grabbing her elbows so as not to shiver. Barton’s eyes flicker across to her for the briefest of moments. He doesn’t miss much, she concludes, and finds herself curiously comforted by his attention.
“This man, Johann Schmidt, was the leader of HYDRA, the deep science division of the Nazi SS. He was implicated in serious crimes in Norway and elsewhere in Europe. In fact, he was planning to take over from Adolf Hitler.”
Coulson makes a small pause, presumably for effect, and Fury takes the opportunity to make a point of his own.
“Based on what we know about him, this would not have been an improvement.”
Coulson nods and continues, as bland as ever.
“Schmidt’s attempts to turn himself into a form of superman through a special chemical formula resulted in the facial deformity that you see on the screen. It took a very special unit of soldiers, under a very special leader, to thwart his plans.”
He takes a sip of his tea as if to soothe a suddenly dry throat before continuing.
“This man,” Coulson clicks again to produce the image of a dark-haired, vaguely smug-looking man in his forties, “is Schmidt’s great nephew, Anton Marquardt. A multi-disciplinary scientist loosely associated with several Max Planck Institutes. He has acquired a derelict estate on the Isle of Skye where he is currently carrying out drilling operations.”
M casts a sharp glance at Eve, who needs no further cue to head for the desktop computer in the corner. Coulson, however, waves her off.
“No need to look it up, Miss Moneypenny. Marquardt has a perfectly valid license from the Scottish Government to take soil samples to a depth of 1,000 feet, ostensibly to look for hydrocarbon deposits. We don’t think that’s what he’s doing, though.”
He turns off the laptop and recovers his memory device.
“So what is he after then?” M is getting impatient. As briefings go, this one rather lacks granularity.
“That’s the problem, Ma’am; we don’t know.”
Fury chimes in, his voice gravel on steel.
“But we intend to find out.”
“Any SigInt?” Eve asks the obvious question, given that she drops about three pounds of transcripts from intercepts on M’s desk each day.
“No signals intelligence whatsoever,” Coulson responds flatly. “That’s part of the problem. They’ve established a virtual dead zone around the facility, scrambling all communications.”
M has heard enough.
“Forgive me, but what exactly, is the basis of your concern, Mr. Fury? Somebody’s fucking family tree? If we sent agents after every person in this country whose relatives committed war crimes somewhere on the planet I would require a bloody army.”
Eve notices Barton’s head lifting at the sudden invective, delivered in M’s immaculate Oxbridge accent. His lips quirk a little, almost as if he were recalibrating a prior assessment. (Eve, too, is observant.)
“I have a feeling that your Council and my Committee are sending us on a wild goose chase. And those generally do not get better odds by inviting a foreign covert agency to operate on British soil. Quite the contrary, in my experience.”
Fury cuts off Coulson’s attempt at a reply with a couple of raised fingers.
“Actually, that wild goose chase of yours is more like ghost busting. HYDRA went underground after Schmidt’s demise, but small cells periodically pop back up. Been keeping us entertained off and on for decades. Like a game of whack-a-mole.”
All smugness has drained from Fury’s face, and his one eye burns with a disquieting intensity.
“There has been a recent uptick in minor seismic activity in the region where HYDRA is operating. It may just be coincidence, and at this point geologists – including yours – haven’t raised any concerns. But if our analysts are correct, and HYDRA has established an operation here, their activities may be the cause and in that case, believe me, you want to deal with them. And you need us. These guys play for keeps, in ways you don’t know yet.”
“And what do you expect us to do? Him and me?”
Bond’s sudden question is directed at Fury. He encompasses Barton in the ‘us’ via a small tilt of his chin, but his tone makes it clear that he won’t regard the answer as any kind of order. Those he will only take from the woman with the iron stare.
Barton himself still hasn’t said anything; Eve is beginning to wonder whether he’s under orders to remain quiet, and how long that will last. His eyes certainly don’t seem to miss much, and there is definitely someone home behind them. He laser-focuses on Bond now, watching his reaction as the Director replies.
“You and Barton need to go up there, find out what Marquardt is up to and whether HYDRA is in fact back in business. And if they are, put an end to whatever it is they’re doing.”
Sounds simple enough. Eve has heard less detailed directions emanate from M’s lips on many occasions: Investigate the death of John Strangeways. Bring back the Lektor decoder. She also remembers just how … well … those missions went.
To her surprise, M doesn’t argue. Not with the mission parameters, anyway.
“I suppose MI-6 should be grateful that your Council is asking for our participation in this little adventure of yours? Rather than that of MI-5, which normally handles domestic matters?”
Fury bares his impressive teeth in what is most decidedly not a smile.
“Wasn’t my idea, if that’s what you’re asking. S.H.I.E.L.D. doesn’t need you, and I don’t care how you carve up your responsibilities. But this is very definitely an international threat, and the Council insisted that you be involved.”
“And my Committee apparently agrees with you, Mr. Fury. Well. I suppose there is nothing for it then. After all, we must not say ‘no’ to Mr. Mallory and the Committee. It appears that Commander Bond, whom they have requested by name, and your Mr. Barton will be going to Scotland together.”
She directs a haughty gaze at the still figure on the credenza.
“You will be happy to know that Commander Bond is one of our finest, most experienced field agents.”
Bond allows his eyes to crinkle in a small smile; Eve knows that the indirect compliment – however weaponized for the occasion -- has just been filed away, to be repurposed at some future juncture.
Fury is not impressed.
“I think you’ll find Agent Barton adequate to the job. Whatever that turns out to be.”
“It is comforting to know that S.H.I.E.L.D. strives for adequacy.” M’s smile is without humour.
Fury doesn’t reply, just raises an eyebrow and flashes a look at his agent with that disconcerting single eye – a look that it takes Eve mere seconds to see for what it is: The cutting of the man’s leash.
Barton peels himself off the credenza and walks over to Bond, passing by M without so much as a glance. He extends his hand to his fellow agent, who shakes it hard – a ritual exchange that Eve is happy not to be a part of. His hand safely retracted, Barton’s mouth curls into the slightest of ironic smiles.
“So, Commander, how come your boss gets a letter and you get a real name? No call signs for agents in MI-6?”
M does not like to be ignored.
“Commander Bond goes by the code name 007.”
Barton is visibly unimpressed.
“Letters and numbers, huh. Very original. Mine’s Hawkeye,” he drawls in response, and somehow Eve has the feeling he is pouring on the Midwestern accent a little extra-thick.
“How quaint. Hawkeye. M.A.S.H., or James Fenimore Cooper?” The Director does not wait for an answer; it wasn’t really a question. “Commander Bond is one of our double-oh cadre of agents, Mr. Barton.”
Barton is utterly unperturbed. For all Eve knows, he adores Alan Alda and has no clue who the other guy is. (She doesn’t – what Google is for, right?)
“That supposed to mean something to me, ma’am, double-oh?”
“It means, Mr. Barton, that Commander Bond has a license to kill.”
Barton drops the country hick act like a hot rock. Even his face changes, Eve notes.
“You’re shitting me. You need a license for that here?”
“You most certainly do, Mr. Barton. The United Kingdom is a civilized country.”
Coulson sends a pleading look towards Barton – Hawkeye – obviously trying to get him to keep the diplomatic incident contained before it goes nuclear. Eve has the feeling that this doesn’t succeed very often, especially not with Fury grinning like a pit bull whose pup has just started to chew on his first Doberman.
“Civilized, eh. So you need, like, a warrant before pulling the trigger? Judicial oversight? Accountability, and all that jazz? Must slow things down quite a bit in a fight.”
“It’s actually more like a blank cheque,” Bond offers coolly. “We’re not that civilized.”
M shoots Bond her best Medusa glare, even as Barton’s eyes light up in an appreciative glint. The grin he directs at Eve is positively feral.
“Better get me one of those then, Miss Moneypenny.”