The legend is that she came up from the secretary pool. The legend is that she was the first female agent in MI-6. The legend is that she was turned as an asset while having an affair with the Russian ambassador to the UK. The legend is that she was a Russian mole that got turned into a double agent for the crown.
Maybe none of that is true. Maybe she was a young girl recruited straight out of Oxford and maybe her recruiter was a woman who’d worked as an agent in the war and maybe she still dealt with the Boy’s Club only in high heels and wearing lipstick.
Maybe all of it is true. Maybe she was a secretary, a double agent, a mistress, a recruit. Maybe after nearly sixty years in the service, she’s realized that the legend is more important than the truth.
“Report,” Carter said, her voice snapping. She was standing, even as M slumped in her chair, pressing fingers hard up into her eyeballs. The room smelled musty, and dry like cobwebs and worn wood.
“M-“ Carter started, nearly saying the full word, then stopped. “M. I need your report.”
“They killed him,” M said. She hadn’t heard her own name in months. The pseudonym was beginning to feel real. She wasn’t sure. Was she Anya? Was she the M that Carter referenced in all of the reports sent back to headquarters?
“You knew they would,” Carter said, shortly. M looked up. Carter still had on her perfect red lipstick, but the cold made her look her age. She wore a heavy jacket that only emphasized how thin she was, the white in her hair. Had she looked that old five years ago when she picked M out of the line of new recruits?
“Yes, I did,” M said.
“Well,” Carter said. “Let’s get to work.”
“Did you have to,” M stopped. She wasn’t sure what the question was. She and Carter had been working undercover for two years now, and she still barely knew anything more about her handler than she had back in London.
“Loss is part of the job, M. We all lose something to be here. But it’s important work. We don’t do it because it’s easy. We do it because we can and we’re the ones trained to.” Carter pulled the chair out from the other side of the worn table. She put her hand flat across the table, palm covering the knife marks and the water stains.
“Chin up,” Carter said. “You aren’t dead. That’s the best you can do tonight. Finish your report, maybe we’ll find the damn leak and be able to get some real English tea.”
M swallowed around the heaviness in her throat. She took a breath and began her report.
“Heard you spent some time with the Soviets,” he said. She didn’t know his name, just his designation. 002. The second agent given a license to kill without orders.
M ignored him. She rechecked her weapons. Cleaning them was therapeutic, she could ignore the smell of roasting pork that seeped up from the floorboards and got into all of her clothes. She could ignore the shouts of waiters and cooks and the perpetual din of customers.
She pulled out her cleaning rags.
“Did some time there. A little wet work,” he lit a cigarette, then offered over the pack to her. She glanced up, keeping her expression neutral. She kept her hands in motion.
He shrugged, tucking the pack away. “You know if you’re operations for this mission we have to talk at some point.”
She remembered the dead civilians. She remembered his shrug when she’d found them, his explanation that death was easier than paying them off.
“Cunt,” he swore to himself, looking out the window.
She put her gun back together, and held it, imagining herself holding it up and aiming it at the back of his head.
“The mission is still salvageable,” she said. “But if I see another slip up like today, I’ll pull us both off it and fuck our careers to hell.”
“Fucking cunt,” he swore again, turning to look at her.
“We do it my way or we don’t do it,” she said. “Do you hear me?”
“Yes, ma’m,” he snorted.
“Sir,” she said, and snapped the clip into her gun.
“Yes, sir,” he said, looking back out the window.
“If you get caught-” she started.
“I won’t get caught,” Silva said, smirking. He grinned with all his teeth and his eyes sparkling.
“Just be careful, Silva, I’d hate to have to train someone to be as much of a pain in my ass as you are,” she said.
He stood and then leaned over and kissed her cheek. “I will be very careful and very good, mother.”
Years later, she took Moneypenny with her to Peggy’s funeral. Carter had died quietly, much like how she’d lived. She’d died without reaching out, without telling anyone that the cancer had come back.
Peggy’s husband was at the funeral and so were her two grown children. M nodded at him and said, “I’m so sorry, Robert.”
Moneypenny held the umbrella and said nothing.
“She didn’t want to call you. I know that you worked together for years. I know that she cared so much for you, but she was,” Robert trailed off, sniffing. He reached for a handkerchief and wiped at his eyes. “Thank you for the flowers.”
“Of course. Let me know anything you need, anything at all,” M said. She patted his arm and smiled grimly at his daughters. They looked like her, like Peggy. Red haired and decisive.
“Let’s go,” she said to Moneypenny. They walked back towards the car where an agent stood at attention. Moneypenny moved to get in the front with him, but M ordered, “With me, Moneypenny.”
She ignored the look that Moneypenny shared with the driver and slid the partition up. Moneypenny got in on the other side, the wet umbrella against her leg.
“That is the best death you can hope for as an agent. Old and surrounded by those that love you.” She glanced at Moneypenny. “How long have you been out of training?”
“Six months, sir,” Moneypenny turned her head slightly to look at M.
“Six months. I think it’s time for your first mission. You didn’t train in fieldwork, did you?” M remembered a damp room, the reassurance of Carter’s voice on the other end of the phone, reassuring her that she wasn’t dead and that if she didn’t get moving she would be.
“Logistics and operations, sir,” Moneypenny said. She straightened the hem of her skirt.
“Do you know how girls like us become women like Carter?” M asked.
“No, sir,” Moneypenny said.
“We do things we are not trained to do, when we are sure we can’t do them. We push ourselves to be better and faster than the enemies of our state. And we do it because we can,” M stopped talking. “I’m going to start sending you on some missions. There are some fossils from the Cold War who need to be shaken up and maybe retired.”
There was silence for a moment, the splash of the tires in the rain. London was very gray.
“Do you hear what I’m saying, Moneypenny?”
“Yes, sir,” Moneypenny said, slowly.
“Good,” M said.
She was harder on Moneypenny than the others. Bond, and Silva before him. Both would sashay in with a smile as though they were errant school boys. They always looked like they were about to kiss her cheek and beg for sweets. She knew it was noticed. She knew that 007 wandered about as though he didn’t have a care in the world.
But she also knew the sharp edges under his skin, the places where he was so broken he could barely function without cutting himself anew. She knew why he preferred his affairs with married women. She knew because she also had those broken shards, those pieces of glass that she used to make up covers and legends and logistical plans that accepted loss of human life as a given.
She let Bond get away with it because he was good. Not the best, not Silva. But he was good and functional in ways that Silva couldn’t be. She let him get away with it because when she had started Carter had let her get away with it.
Moneypenny was different.
“Did the mission objective say to blow up the damn embassy?” Her voice stayed even, but the tone grew sharper.
“No, sir,” Moneypenny said.
“What was the secondary objective?” M asked.
“Prevent the mole from defecting,” Moneypenny said. “Sir-“
“Was lethal force allowed in mission parameters?”
“Yes, sir.” Moneypenny stood at attention.
“Did the mole defect?”
“Yes, sir.” Moneypenny’s breathing was shallow, quick breaths that made her chest flutter.
“Was there the option of using lethal force?” M asked.
“If you don’t use it next time, then you find yourself in the awkward situation of no longer being employed by our organization,” M said. She said it low and watched Moneypenny freeze. “This job only takes from us. And if you are not prepared for that, then there’s no place for you here.”
“Yes, sir,” Moneypenny said.
Moneypenny got better. She got better as Bond seemed to get worse. Where he spiraled, she focused. She became a targeted weapon, the newest in M’s arsenal.
“I’m partnering you with 007,” M said. She did not look up from her paperwork, scrawling a green M on the bottom of the memos she was sending out.
Some things still had to be on paper.
“Yes, sir,” Moneypenny said. She asked no questions, just sat in her chair, posture perfect, hands clasped on her knees.
“Are you going to ask?” M said.
“About what?” Moneypenny asked.
“A 00 agent has never become the head of MI-6. We invented the 00 system long after I was off field work.” She looked up, and saw Moneypenny wearing the same calm expression Moneypenny had had when delivering her last report on a kill order.
“You will not be given the option of becoming a 00.” M raised an eyebrow. “Learn as much as you can from 007. He’s good at what he does and he’s what many agents try to be.”
“Yes, sir,” Moneypenny said. She stood. “I’ll wait for orders.”
Later, dying, M thought that her only regret is that it’s Silva. She’d let him go, knowing that he was wounded. Knowing that he wasn’t an agent anymore. She’d let him go, thinking that he deserved that at least. He deserved to be set free. The same way that Bond had when he’d ‘died.’
She wondered if Bond would continue. The new regime might be more to his liking. She hoped she left Moneypenny with enough experience to climb that ladder of boys’ politics. She hoped that Bond would soften in his old age a bit, that maybe he would see the plans she left behind.
Mostly, she thought that it was time. And that she’d done all she could and that it was time to move on.
Years later, Moneypenny will say to someone new, a young girl, only months out of training, “We all lose things at this job. But you do it because you’re trained to and because you can.”
Moneypenny will watch the girl fail to understand that bit of insight. She will watch that girl stumble and fall and lose her faith. She will pick her up and remember all of the times that M had stared at her and realize that what M had really been saying, what M had really been building was for this moment. She will realize that M was picking her up, not so that Moneypenny would serve her country well or so that M could have another agent in her stable. M picked her up so that Moneypenny could pick up someone else.
“We do this because we can,” she will say.