Spying a distraction for these difficult times

Bond paced the room like a great cat trapped in a cage, his muscles tensed and ready, his mind alert. Ten days of sheltering in place had reduced him to near-desperation.

The screen of his government-issued ultra-secure and hardly-hacked-at-all laptop flashed white for an instant and then a well-known face appeared, poised and unflappable.

“Ah, Moneypenny,” Bond said, forcing the hint of a smile to his lips. He wanted to appear nonchalant. She mustn’t know how on-edge his nerves really were.

“Hello James,” she replied, smiling to herself as if in memory of an old secret they shared. Even several decades past the time when she should have been drawing her pension and living in quiet retirement, Moneypenny was still serving her country. “M is ready for you now,” she said, her false teeth creating a sibilance that Bond found charming.

Moneypenny’s face disappeared and was replaced by that of M, now sporting a much older and more careworn visage than that which Bond had first encountered those many long years earlier when he’d been promoted to double-O status.

“Bond,” M growled, “You haven’t changed, I see.”

Bond paused. He had to admit the new work-from-home policy recently instigated by MI6 was causing some degree of confusion. Should he have changed out of his dressing-gown and slippers into more formal attire? What was the etiquette governing such things anyway? As M was sitting in the shadows with only his face illuminated, Bond couldn’t tell if his superior was attired in a suit and tie or in a smoking jacket and cravat. He felt at a distinct tactical disadvantage, which was something he hated above all else. Except, perhaps, reality television.

“Never mind,” M continued brusquely. “We have a situation.”

Bond brought his wandering mind back and focused on M’s words. With luck this situation, whatever it was, would bring an end to the enforced idleness he’d had to endure for the last ten days.

“We want you to undertake an urgent mission,” M rasped. Bond wondered if he’d really given up smoking as per medical advice or if M was still sneaking the occasional clandestine cigarette. That would be, Bond felt, more in character. His own nicotine patches, all twelve of them, barely sufficed to stop his hands from shaking. Withdrawal symptoms were never pretty, and played havoc with double-taps, not to mention the accuracy with which he removed the top of his daily hard-boiled egg at breakfast-time.

“I’m ready, sir,” Bond responded coolly. He hoped M couldn’t hear the desperation in his voice. Bond needed action. He was like a thoroughbred racehorse. Too much stable time would be the death of him. Without action he’d become merely another choice cut in a French butcher’s shop. “What do you need me to do?”

*****

Bond felt ten days of tension ease out of his body as he pressed the accelerator to the floor. Now that everyone was sheltering in place the roads were wide open and thus absolutely perfect for an Aston Martin to roar along at high speed. If only years of budget cuts hadn’t resulted in an MI6 carpool filled with 1-liter Ford Fiestas, Bond could have truly enjoyed the moment. As it was, the irritating whine of the three-cylinder engine coupled to a complete lack of acceleration meant that the best he could do was use his imagination. Still, it was better to be out and about, no matter at what speed, than to remain cooped up inside his London flat.

So much had changed during the years in which Bond had savored his OO designation. As a career alcoholic, he’d enjoyed his times behind the Iron Curtain. The Soviets had known the importance of inebriation and Bond was happy to admit he had no way to estimate the thousands of liters of vodka he’d consumed during his time locking horns with the KGB. Now that the great enemy was Islamic fundamentalism, going undercover was something he’d come to detest. Sipping endless cups of sweet tea in a souk in Lebanon was not at all his idea of spying. Bond was a man who’d been more or less continually intoxicated since the age of six when he’d discovered a way to ferment his evening drink of hot cocoa and now alcohol was to his system what red blood cells were to lesser mortals.

As for the many random sexual encounters he used to take for granted, ever since an unfortunate incident in Phuket Bond had learned to be wary of falling for a seductive glance and a firm pair of breasts.

He sighed. So much of the pleasure had gone out of life.

Fortunately, he was still allowed to kill people, a least in theory. In practice, however, he knew it was highly unlikely he’d ever be permitted even to touch a gun again. According to the Department Of Health & Safety At Work, carrying a firearm was too risky to be permitted under nearly all imaginable circumstances. The paperwork required to fill out an On The Job Accident Report alone would take a team of expert bureaucrats not less than three weeks to complete and then pass on for pre-submission review by MI6’s lawyers, who would then spend another two weeks reviewing the pre-submission and most likely return it for amendment.

Health & Safety notwithstanding, Bond was still informally allowed to pose before the mirror every morning and point his right forefinger in a menacing way, after which he could, once a week, also whisper “bang” for extra dramatic effect.

Turning past the Victoria & Albert Museum and making an unnecessary downshift before swinging hard into Exhibition Road, Bond considered his mission. He was taking a diversionary route towards the Special Forces Club in Knightsbridge, refreshing his counter-surveillance skills on the off-chance that someone was following him. Though he had to admit, these days most things were done by satellite and drone rather than by a team of expensive operatives and a fleet of discrete vehicles.

The fact that his Ford Fiesta also had MI6 CAR 5 painted in large black letters on top didn’t assist in achieving anonymity. Apparently the Cross-Services Finance Group had insisted on ensuring all MI5 and MI6 cars could easily be identified from the air in case one was stolen at some point. As a result, British intelligence was in the unenviable position of being able to perform covert operations only on people who were insufficiently tall enough to be able to see the tops of their vehicles and who lived either in basement flats or bungalows.

Bond’s mission was to identify a potential security problem; a man who was burned-out and was now the wrong person in the wrong place. A man who needed to be, as the phrase went, “retired.” As the Special Forces Club was a favored watering-hole for these types, Bond was on his way to sniff around a little. It was his ideal job: spending time in a club with a lot of whiskey on hand, the cost of which could later, he hoped, be reclaimed on expenses.

*****

In theory all pubs and similar establishments had shut down across the country on government edict. In practice, Bond knew that the kinds of men who have faced real threat of death in foreign lands would be undeterred by the mob hysteria induced by a sensationalist mass media. He fully expected the Club to be open.

Bond approached his destination and as he did so he spotted a parking space on the other side of the street. In fact, the entire street was a parking space as his was the only vehicle on the road. Keen to maintain his razor-sharp reflexes and superior driving skills, Bond jiggled the steering wheel and then pulled hard on the handbrake to initiate a J-turn.

The under-powered Fiesta sagged a little and then came to a dead stop, still pointing straight ahead. Bond sighed and eased the car toward the curb. He really, really missed the days when he had access to one of the glorious yet sadly unreliable Aston Martin cars of old. Yet, he told himself by way of compensation for the disappointing nature of his arrival, the Fiesta would at least start when he turned the key to activate the ignition.

Bond got out and tugged his French cuffs so they were clear of his jacket. A chap couldn’t just stroll into The Club, as it was known, without being sartorially elegant. Standards must be maintained.

As he walked up the half-dozen white stairs to the black front door with its gold central door-knocker, Bond saw the hand-written sign:

CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.

His upper lip curled in a sardonic smile. He knew well enough to ignore that kind of subterfuge. Sure enough, pushing hard on the door caused it to yield and he stepped into the red leather-and-cigarette-smoke ambience of the world’s most exclusive gentleman’s club. He traversed the entry hall and made his way straight to the bar.

Bond instantly knew he had a problem. Not for these hard men the namby-pamby gauze face masks worn by terrified civilians desperate for the merest shred of psychological assurance. No. The men sitting in overstuffed leather chairs and standing by the well-appointed bar were all wearing the General Service Respirator. Only Bond was barefaced.

So how was he supposed to identify anyone? How could he work out who belonged here and who was the person out of place?

“Respirator, sir?” asked the barman, proffering a GSR for Bond’s use. “Changed the filters myself, sir, not twenty minutes ago.”

“Thanks,” Bond replied, taking the mask and slipping it over his own face. Civilian respirators were to the GSR what pea-shooters were to the SA80A3. These were the real thing, designed to be worn for up to 24 hours. As such they had an integrated drinking system to permit frequent hydration.

“Double martini, sir?” the barman asked. Although the Club had originally been restricted to current and former Special Forces officers, over the years and under the influence, as it were, of various intelligence agencies among whom the CIA were the most notable, the Club had expanded its membership to include those who practiced the Dark Arts. In times gone by, Bond had been a frequent habitué and had passed out across nearly every square inch of the much-worn Indian carpet that lay underfoot.

As he stood sipping his double martini through a straw, Bond employed his extensive training to observe the body language of everyone in the club. Even with face obscured, someone who didn’t really belong here would, sooner or later, give themselves away by means of an inappropriate gesture or, perhaps more simply, by asking directions to the toilets.

As he kept the room under observation, Bond’s mind turned to sex. With nearly everyone in the world terrified out of their wits by context-free sensationalist reporting there was very little sex happening in Bond’s life. But he knew from previous experience that once the mass terror faded there would be a great deal of pent-up erotic energy needing to be released. Bond intended to place himself in the thick of things and make up for a great deal of lost time.

He shifted his posture fractionally and was reassured by the feeling of his bottle of extra-strength Viagra pressing against his left breast. As a professional through and through, Bond had no intention of falling down on the job through lack of prior preparation.

Bond ordered another double martini and continued musing. It was funny, he thought, how governments are always obsessed by external threats but it’s generally our own actions that cause the greatest problems. We’ve met the enemy, and it’s us, but we never learn. We always make the same mistakes, over and over again. As he drained the remains of his second martini through the straw that ran via an airtight seal into his respirator, Bond suddenly felt deeply tired.

He’d been protecting the nation for such a long, long time. He’d lost so much. Had it been worth it?

He looked around at all the faceless men in the room. In their time they’d served too, in various ways. Some were loudmouths, some were discrete; some were bullies and some were true gentlemen. All had imagined they were on the front line, protecting the nation. But if the nation itself, the people of the nation, were in fact the real enemy during every crisis…? Did it make any sense to try to protect a nation that seemed perpetually to run eagerly towards the next catastrophe? Did people who voted for Brexit really deserve to be saved? How, in fact, could anyone be saved from intentional self-destruction?

What the country really needed, Bond thought, was a kind of Super Therapist, not intelligence services and a military so reduced that it could barely be counted on to respond to an invasion mounted by a determined troop of Boy Scouts.

Suddenly, before he even had time to order a third double martini, Bond knew why M had selected him for this mission: he was the wrong man in the wrong place. He was the one who needed to be “retired.”

Bond gently placed the martini glass on the counter of the bar. “M’s paying,” he said to the barman, who nodded imperceptibly and went to write the amount, suitably inflated, down on a piece of paper. Bond pulled off the GSR and placed it on the much-stained wooden counter. For a moment he considered taking it with him as a memento but then shook his head and stepped away.

Back outside in the faint sunlight that struggled to permeate the perpetual British cloud, Bond stared at the Fiesta with something approaching mirth. There it sat, alone, on a deserted street.

This is what it had all come to, he thought. This was the triumph of Western civilization.

Bond tossed the keys in the general direction of the car and then turned and walked away.

He never looked back.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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