Get Free Copy

100 free copies left

This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.

0
Free copy left
You can read our best books
SandyT would love your feedback! Got a few minutes to write a review?
Write a Review

The Ghost of a Chance

By SandyT

Action / Thriller

The Ghost of a Chance



Contents:   

1.  Above and Beyond

2.  The Goldminers 

3.  Boys’ Toys

4.  The Man in the Grey Hat

5.  Handle With Care

6.  A Compendium of Games

7.  Angle of Incidence

8.  They Shoot Horses Don’t They

9.  A Few of My Favourite Things

10.  Edelweiss

11.  And Baby Came Too

12.  Kristalwelten

13.  Breaking and Exiting

14.  Never Interrupt Your Enemy

15.  Slip Sliding Away

16.  The Final Repayment

17.  Phantom of Death

18.  Infamous for Fifteen Minutes

19.  Place Your Bets

20.  Guts or Glory

21.  No One at Home

22.  A Dialogue With Death

23.  Simply Rotting Away


1

Above and Beyond

With imperceptible speed the green and blue orb silently rotated within its precarious shroud. Twenty miles above the earth’s surface a fragile human might die three unimaginable deaths: wheezing suffocation, blood-solidifying fast-freeze or explosive haemorrhaging of veins and arteries. Yet the world looks oddly vulnerable, the eye able to capture both heaven and earth in one awe-inspiring arc, the tissue of atmosphere fragile and insubstantial set against the enormity of the endless night beyond. Looking out across four continents James Bond paused for breath, thoughts in another more personal place before regaining his composure and turning his attention to the equipment surrounding him.

The suit fitted snugly, Jessop’s of Oxford having done a faultless job of body casting. Only the essential reinforced ridges running head to knee down the rear restricted his movement, digging in when flexed. He looked across at the two men with whom he shared the cramped cabin: Cray studied a hard-wired laptop while Foreman continued to peer through the observation window. Despite it being early morning illumination was severely restricted and a perpetual gloom pervaded the interior. A small array of coloured LEDs and a blue backlight on the coms. panel lent a submarine-glow to proceedings setting Cray’s features into harsh relief and the rest of the cabin into shades of pitch.

‘R-minus four minutes,’ the pilot broke in through the earpiece. He needed to focus. Three months of sheer hell and he couldn’t help wondering if he had done sufficient training. The old discipline had returned, the physical toughness and the familiar ‘high’ of stretching to his limits. But mentally: that could only be tested ‘live’ on operations like this morning. And he couldn’t help but wonder as he ran through the format of the procedure at hand if he really had done enough. Trouble was, if the answer was no, he’d not be around to tell the story.

‘Okay Commander – get ready,’ Foreman’s monotone cut across the headphones. You couldn’t accuse him of over enthusiasm – they must drill it out of you these days thought Bond grimly. He checked the carbon-fibre fastenings across his chest: three arrow-shaped bolts fashioned in the dark-grey, lightweight material located snugly in three equally robust sockets. He’d tested them under extreme conditions and had no doubt they’d do their job in the next fifteen crucial minutes. It was the contraption on his back that worried him.

‘R-minus one-twenty.’ It was down to seconds: Cray gave him the thumbs up. Bond focussed his mind on his breathing: deep, full inhalations, slow measured exhalation. His heartbeat drummed slowly in his ears: maintaining that steady rhythm was the key.

‘Rendezvous ready’. Again the automaton: no humanity. Was he, Bond, this detached, or was he just noticing it on coming back, he thought? So much had changed while he’d been away - the politics, the people.  Even the Service itself – it seemed colder, more clinical; dull. Inside the imposing exterior of that marble building on the Thames he could have been inside an insurance broker’s. And here in the field: humourless automatons. Professional, competent, of course; but surely there had been an element of grim enjoyment, the gallows humour that went with the territory and counterbalanced the grim reality of the job? His stopped his mind from wandering. Focus Bond! Again that twinge of uncertainty.

Cray gave a two-handed thumbs-up and it was time. Again Bond found he was unprepared – he ran his hands quickly over the clasps and joints in the familiar seven-point routine he’d practiced over and again in the large, corrugated hangar at Otterburn as the rain pounding an endless barrage outside. He locked the visor, feeling the helmet pressurise. Stretching up he grabbed the handrails and peered briefly through the starboard observation hatch. His mind registered the immense height, the speed, the distance, but not the beauty. Now he felt the satisfying mental ‘click’ as though some piece of dysfunctional machinery had suddenly righted. Finally he felt the rush of adrenalin and his muscles tensed. Foreman reached across and simultaneously pressed the twin release switches and Bond stepped into the airlock.

‘Good luck Commander Bond.’ Bond drew another slow, deep breath then switched on the master circuit, oxygen and pressurisation. The warning light panel at the base of his right eyepiece gave five greens. He gave the thumbs up to Foreman. Finally, just as he watched Foreman twist the rear payload door lock he thought he saw a glimmer of a smile pass across the young lieutenant’s face – but strangely when it did, it seemed to him not to be friendly after all.

It had been a long time, but Bond was right back where he wanted to be, looking death squarely in the face. He stepped out into the clear, thin air and fell to earth.

Arrowing his body into a dart-shape, arms and legs firmly tucked into his sides, James Bond’s body plunged into the aircraft’s wake, turbulence ripping its dark shadow from his peripheral vision. Then: a heart-stopping stillness. All sense of movement was gone - earth, sky, space, clouds thousands of feet beneath - all still and unmoving. But for the savage buffeting of the air he could be suspended weightless, but even this was dulled by the insulation provided by his helmet and instead his ears registered his own rhythmic breathing, heart rate increased but steady. The pale blue in-visor display informed him his rate of descent had already exceeded two hundred miles per hour, atmosphere providing limited friction allowing a higher terminal velocity than in free-fall. Three hundred: three-fifty. Arms and legs remained wedged – spreading them now could mean losing a limb. The altimeter showed ninety thousand feet – he’d fallen eleven thousand feet inside half a minute. Five hundred miles per hour. His mind registered the absence of a parachute as a mild concern, offset against the calculations he had to make. Five-twenty, fifty: acceleration dropping. Precision was the key – there was no second chance. He focussed his mind, checked the instruments, the gyroscope informing his position as he made minute course adjustments.

At seventy thousand feet his rate of descent steadied then began to fall as air density increased, slowing his body like a space capsule in re-entry. Immediately he relaxed his frame slightly to offer the air a greater target – he had to be down to three hundred by fifty thousand to begin the equipment test. At fifty-five he was below four hundred but decelerating too slowly. Making a fast decision he slowly spread his arms and legs.

The Jessop DGT II Wing-suit is a military derivative of the so-called ‘flying-squirrel’ wing-suit favoured by extreme-sports parachutists and BASE-jumping exponents. Invented in the 1930s its early practitioners suffered an understandably poor fatality rate and only with the adoption of modern materials in the 1990s did it reach the commercial market where it is still considered one of the toughest challenges. The standard suit consists of a one-piece parachutist’s coverall with three-sections of canvas webbing between the legs and under each arm enabling the wearer to glide while freefalling, slowing descent and offering the possibility of extended horizontal travel. With practice the pilot can perform acrobatics – turning, banking, even looping – and in the process cover an enormous amount of lateral ground as terminal speeds drop from hundreds to tens of miles per hour. Military applications have taken the concept several stages further, a combination of lightweight jet engines and fighter-plane aerodynamics producing spectacular results. The DGT II contained no metal parts, its ‘scramjet’ engine relying on the massive forward pressure of air forced through a compression funnel being directed via controllable jets to the rear. As a result, it is usefully invisible to even the most sensitive detection equipment, leaving no heat signature. The overall set-up enables the flier to control power with millimetric precision and, performing an incredible range of manoeuvres and achieving speeds in excess of five hundred miles per hour in lateral flight. The potential for clandestine flights into restricted airspace is enormous, as is the risk to the pilot. Aerodynamics precluded the use of a traditional parachute, a lightweight alternative often not deploying reliably. Low altitude results had been euphemistically termed ‘mixed’.

Bond knew there was something wrong as soon as he opened his arms. Spreading his ‘wings’ to a quarter of their full breadth the earth immediately began to spin. Instead of slowing and beginning to level off he found himself in a barrel roll, vision becoming a disorientated kaleidoscope of sky and sun. Frantically he checked the suit and spotted a jagged, three-inch tear in his port side wing. The air was rushing through the rent at what must still be over three hundred miles per hour; a small flap billowed furiously in the air-stream. Mind racing he recalled the mission briefing: there was no ‘plan B’ – in a real-life simulation, where weight and aerodynamics were key, there was no parachute. He had one objective – make the rendezvous. Failure was not on the options list.

Calculations had been precise – deploy the suit and open the inlet valves effectively starting the engines at fifty-thousand feet, then descend at as shallow an angle as possible – the target being less than twenty degrees - to extend the duration and lateral distance covered during the flight. Simulating real conditions he had no radio contact, and to add incentive at his own insistence the reserve chute was back at base. All he had were the suit, his instruments and a target grid reference showing as an indicator arrow on his visor. The rest was skill. Total duration for the flight was supposed to be twelve minutes; altitude lost: seventy thousand feet; ground distance covered, approximately fifty-eight miles.  While the suit was undetectable he was wearing a homer for this test and his flight path would be tracked for later analysis. His chances of a perfect six for technical merit had gone: he could only hope his artistic impression would not be judged by the pattern he made on the ground.

Bond took stock. Stabilisation was the immediate goal. If he switched on the engine he would spin to an untidy oblivion. But he had no means of repair and very little time.

He wrenched at the flap for his chest pocket and withdrew the short Sykes-Fairbairn combat knife from its moulded compartment. Holding out his right arm, webbing taut, he instantly began to spin like a top. He struggled to keep focussed, kept his aching arm rigid, and with his left he reached across to the starboard wing. He span faster. The rubbery structure was tough but he managed to cut just enough; he could always make it bigger if needed. Ensuring he kept the knife clasped firmly in his gloved hand he gently stretched his port wing. His body stabilised: he was still rotating but with some adjustment he was able to control it. Within seconds his brain had factored this into his calculations. Problem one dealt with: now for the second.

The blue digits on his visor gave his total flight duration as two minutes – a minute behind and below schedule. Cursing he was five miles short and one underneath his intended flight path. He would have to fire the engines and run them at higher power than planned, which again they’d not counted on or tested. Reaching across his chest he hit the toggle switch which opening the inlet valves over each shoulder and the sudden thrust of the jets took him by surprise. Building rapidly to fifty per-cent power he formed his body into the carefully practiced full-delta position and turned the hand grip to full power. The wind racing through the twin holes in his wings threatened to dislocate his arms and also meant his rate of descent was greater than planned. The air ripped angrily at his sinews, forcing his limbs against the reinforced wing ribs. The air-speed indicator read two hundred but his rate of descent had dropped dramatically. The suit felt strained - the test data said it would hold up to six hundred but theory wasn’t a reliable safety net. He put this thought squarely from his mind and adjusted to the pain shooting up from his limbs - filing it, reducing it to a piece of sensory input.

Bond turned his attention to the digital compass and altimeter in the bottom of the right eyepiece. Five degrees off course; he shifted starboard and decreased his angle of descent. While he retained good control over lateral movement his ability to control vertical pitch was limited. Ten seconds: twenty. He had been told to expect to see the lights of the Rendezvous at five miles giving him approximately sixty seconds to adjust his trajectory. At his increased rate of descent and steeper angle of interception, however, he would be lucky to get thirty - and if he came in too low it would be game over.

No lights – he should be able to see them by now. Had he over-shot? No panic, just observation. His personnel file may be labelled ‘unbalanced’ but here he was in his element, albeit that element could shortly be the death of him.

A glimmer to port: two green lights, then two more; now a line. Two parallel lines of fairy lights – one green, one red, spread magically out below him, punctuating the thin vaporous clouds and leading him in. He adjusted his course minutely, but the wind caught his starboard wing and he pitched dramatically. He swung his arms out wider, catching the draft fully beneath them and causing a renewed and intense pain to shoot up his arms. His shoulder blades screamed in agony. Use your legs more – that’s what he’d been taught: don’t let your arms take all the strain. He kicked, kicked again, the action swinging him across and placing him on a direct trajectory for the landing lights which now lay squarely below him. He steadied, drew breath and checked the instruments once more. Airspeed steady at two-fifty; rate of descent still too high – an angle above thirty degrees and he would redecorate the inside of the Hercules a delicate shade of gut and sinew. The aircraft was simply coming up too fast.

He switched down the jets to lose altitude quickly but now risked stalling; he dropped with stomach churning suddenness. Switching them back up almost immediately lifted speed above two-fifty and he was slowly gaining once more. His heartbeat thudded in his ears. Eyes fixed on the rapidly approaching fattened rear-end of the dull-olive coloured Hercules transport aircraft he spread his wings as wide as he could, taking eth full force of the turbulence on his arms. Again a white flare of pain tore through him. Airspeed was rising: two sixty, eighty. He took a second to realise that the buffeting had forced his wrist up against the hand throttle, just enough to throw him off course, making his target speed and angle unattainable. He needed an alternative approach plan fast.

Below he saw the trailing lights – twenty halogen bulbs burning brightly down each side, probably run on standard industrial-strength triple core flex maybe fifty yards in length. He recalled a stunt at a college Christmas party; it was all he had.

Bond kicked up his legs and bowed his head, his body following in a renewed, determined swan dive. Abandoning the digital display he relied on his mental guidance systems: he had to get down behind the plane before he overshot. Again his heartbeat pounded, louder and faster, his breathing still controlled but his body straining. His sub-conscious registered passive enjoyment at the transient sense of living.

His altitude dropped with suicidal eagerness: plummeting three hundred feet in a few seconds, now fully in the Hercules’ wake, for the first time he saw the open payload doors. There was a bluish glow: low, so as not to dazzle his approach, the group of specialist aircrew standing in the aircraft’s belly reduced to silhouettes. He had seconds: tilting his trajectory to port he flattened to a thirty-degree angle, arms screaming colourful obscenities. He braced and dropped the final fifty feet, grabbing at the trailing line, feeling the line slam hard into his chest. He hit the engine’s ‘kill’ switch, drew in his legs and swung his arms around the flex. The line felt like concrete with limited give against his falling carcase. Pain sliced through Bond’s limbs like a machete, but his arms and legs closed obediently around the line. First one then two lights slashed rapidly through his forearms, lightning bolts of pain shooting through each shoulder before the third locked in the crook of his left arm, savagely ripping both suit and skin.

But his momentum propelled him forward and he found himself arching wide beneath the starboard wing. Ahead the grey blurs of the twin Rolls-Royce Allison turbo-props grew menacingly in his visor and he felt their collective thrust, doubting if it would be enough to repel him. But he was damned if he was going to fail now. With his last strength he swung his feet upwards as he approached the wing and managed to clip a fuel tank with one of his boots, enough to check his progress and reverse the swing, the lights billowing back towards the rear of the aircraft like a streamer in its turbulent wake. He caught breath and clung on, hurting. The suit made it near impossible to climb even if he’d had the strength: he had no option but to await rescue.

It took the aircrew a full minute to realise he hadn’t perished and to winch him into the broad, flat cargo-bay. As he slid across the floor, body exhausted, he felt the catches being undone on his suit releasing the pressure across his chest and limbs. The rear-door hydraulics whined as his helmet was removed and for the first time he heard the deafening howl of the air torn up in the Hercules’ wake and felt the icy fingers of fresh air upon his face.

‘Good to have you on board Commander Bond. Nice flight, but you just cost me fifty-quid, sir.’ Bond could only stare blankly at the young airman who grinned down at him from beneath a green flight-helmet. ‘I bet this lot you wouldn’t make it.’

*

The traffic lights were against him. Hands gripping the wheel tighter than ever, Rob Fletcher glanced once more in his mirror which framed the police car holding station behind him. They’d tailed his white hired Iveco van the two miles from the town centre, rarely dropping back more than two car lengths. Even when he had slowed as much as he dared to allow it to overtake the car had stayed obstinately put. His mind already saw blue flashing lights, his heart racing at every fleeting reflection off cars passing in the darkness. The copper’s face was hidden in shadow: in Rob’s mind he was already on his radio, reporting in. But he would be too late, the journey was nearly at an end, and if he judged it right he would be able to take the Volvo by surprise just as soon as these bloody lights changed.

Sweat beaded his brow. His watch said eight-ten.

Across the right turning stood two constables, happily chatting in the amber glow of the streetlights about the day’s events. Between them stood a flimsy road sign that announced that the road would be ‘Closed!’ to all traffic on match-days. To his left on the corner stood the imposing red-brick facade of the Trafford public house, a 1920s watering hole of which he had bad memories: on the sole occasion that he, as an opposing football fan had mistakenly visited, sometime in the eighties, he had been singled out for a ‘good seeing to’ – and indeed still walked with the resultant limp. But today the boot was most definitely on the other foot: his good foot. He knew what he had been instructed to do this afternoon was bad: very bad. There was no way he thought he would have gone to such lengths if it hadn’t been for the agency’s incredibly persuasive methods. But they had made it clear that what he carried would cause limited damage, just a frightener - and they had devised a cunning get-away route for him to take through Salford Quays, and besides…it’d put the wind up those smug, arrogant Red bastards. Again his hands grasped at the wheel, knuckles whitening, urging gravity to force the electricity down to the green bulb faster.

‘Come on!’ he roared at a radio advert for a furniture store, veins bulging on his forehead. The quicker this was over the better.

Green!

Rob stamped on the accelerator, arms swinging the heavy black wheel sharply to the right, van leaning alarmingly in the opposite direction. It ploughed through the sign and scattered the two chatty coppers and was off down the terraced road before either could regain their footing. Through two more barriers with little more resistance, glancing a burger stall as it went, the van made it to the edge of the forecourt at forty miles per hour. The great, looming shape of the Old Trafford stadium came into view over the houses, smoked glass façade rising eight stories up to the blazing neon sign beneath a hazy Manchester night sky, arrogantly proclaiming this as the object of his, and apparently someone else’s, intense hatred.

Changing down as he sped past the reviled ‘Megastore’, glimpsing the latecomers hurrying across the forecourt grasping their nasty plastic carrier bags, he swung the huge wheel to the left. The nearside wheels glanced the kerb and the van rocked, tyres squealing as he struggled to keep control, but it seemed to know its true course and headed down the service road beneath the immense North Stand. The engine’s roar echoed back off the plain, red brickwork beneath twenty-five thousand well-behaved rows of fans.

Park diagonally across the middle, they’d said: it would take the police longer to reach him and let him make an easy getaway across the darkened car park, the canal, then off into the Lowry Shopping Centre. Five minutes and he’d be just another anonymous late-night shopper. No need for him to set the device: that would be done via remote once they knew he was clear. It would make one hell of a mess of the tunnel, maybe bring the ceiling down, cause a lot of chaos – and yes, probably hurt one or two people they had told him, in all honesty. He thought he could handle that – he recalled a saying about omelettes and eggs. Just like he recalled the six weeks in hospital.

Running down from the front of the ground a fluorescent-jacketed policeman led four of his colleagues past the row of idle, venting hot-dog stands and merchandise sellers, sliding to a stand-still when he saw that the van had also come to a halt. A horrific thought exploded in his mind. Reaching for his radio he just had time to report his name and ID followed by ‘Oh God no...!’ before the first flames erupted from the vehicle. He clearly saw the roof of the van rise silently upwards, pushed by a solid column of blinding white light which did not stop when it reached the tunnel roof. It continued like a mini-volcano up into the stand itself. In tandem his mind noted with interest that all four sides of the van simultaneously jumped outwards, and then a jet of flame shot from where the rear doors had just been and incinerated PC John Glover and his four colleagues instantaneously.

Mrs Joanne Glover identified her husband two days later by dental records.

The death toll rose for five days, from seven hundred to fourteen, then nineteen and finally two thousand four hundred and ninety eight, including six hundred and seven children. Two thousand pounds of high explosive had been cleverly arranged to fire vertically, blowing a hole fifty feet in diameter through three stories of concrete and steel, significantly weakening the structure and causing it to buckle catastrophically. Most of the people had been killed by the collapse but hundreds more perished in the panic which followed. The scenes shown on television were criticised as horrific and voyeuristic, yet the true horrors were never broadcast. Structural engineers said it could not have been better planned: ‘expert, insider knowledge’ was cited. The country stopped and stared.

Alerts stopped football matches across the UK immediately, but not Europe until two days later simultaneous attacks at Real Madrid’s Bernabau stadium (a device detonated on the underground Metro line beneath it) and outside the Stadium Del Alpi in Turin claimed a further eighteen hundred lives.

For seven days no claim was made on the attacks during which time all kinds of theories were put forward involving the obvious and not-so obvious candidates. No link could be found between the perpetrators - all indigenous citizens to the country bearing witness to their crimes, none with terrorist allegiances and no religious commonality. Three seemingly independent yet plainly connected attacks, especially when the bombs were found to be of similar composition.

The statement when it came chilled the bones of all who read it:

‘In the first joint venture between our respective organisations and pursuant of our individual aims and objectives three football stadia were targeted in a brave attack on greed, privilege and oppression. The impact these have had illustrates the renewed fervour with which we shall fight, and the increased power we can leverage in the first stage of our newfound Co-operative, heralding the dawn of a new era in our global struggle. A warning: so perish the enemies of freedom and those who for too long have wielded power. Our struggle will not cease; our aims will be achieved. Glory to the fallen.’

The statement, in eight languages, was co-signed by the Basque separatist organisation ETA, the IPFC, an Iraqi freedom fighting group, and the right wing Italian organisation ITALIS.

Around the world, governments shuddered.

* * *


2

The Goldminers

‘Of course it was bloody sabotage, ma’am!’ Bond shouted before catching himself and lowering his tone. ‘There is absolutely no way that wing could have been damaged accidentally. The fibres in that stuff can withstand…’

‘I am perfectly aware of the properties of carbon-fibre thank you very much, 007. I neither wish nor need to be lectured on the subject by you,’ replied M, tersely. Bond suspected the latter to be true given the previous few days’ events, but doubted the former statement. But either way he got the message.

‘My apologies, ma’am, but it seems to me…’

‘It seems to me you should cooperate fully with the military police at Otterburn while submitting a full report to me by tomorrow morning.’

Standing in the pleasant, riverside gardens of the Waterside Hotel at Pembletham it was twenty-four hours since the near fatal flight. Bond had only been released from the RAF medical unit deep in the heart of Northumberland an hour earlier. Much to his doctors’ consternation he had insisted upon driving himself the thirty or so miles back to the small hotel situated near Hadrian’s Wall, enabling him to vent much of his pent up frustration on the winding B-roads connecting the two. The unburned residual, however, now fuelled his irritated exchange with his boss.

‘Nobody knew of the test up at the base or in the department – even you and the Chief of Staff didn’t know the timing,’ persisted Bond. ‘I have the time to dig around while I’m up here. I’m pretty sure I have a lead.’ He could also do with an extra day’s recuperation in this beautiful corner of the country before returning to a London he was starting to grow weary of. Plus there was the small matter of a petite and rather adventurous blonde receptionist.

‘Absolutely not, Bond. Leave it to Captain Reynolds and his team.’ (Arse, thought Bond), ‘I have his personal assurance that the matter will be dealt with quickly and thoroughly. Neither you nor I have any jurisdiction on the mainland. The last thing I need at the moment is unnecessary friction with Five.’

Relations with their homeland sister-service, while never genial at the best of times, had been deteriorating of late – the latest in a series of terrorist alerts involving twenty-five embarrassing false-arrests and the closure of the entire London Underground for eighteen hours had ultimately led to questions in the House. The more disturbing events of the past forty-eight hours would only increase the tension, and M was coming under increasing pressure to turn up some decisive intelligence. While she would publicly defend her staff to the hilt she was getting increasingly riled by what she saw as basic errors made by more junior members of the department. A further run-in would certainly not help.

‘I expect you back here Thursday – I may have need of you and I don’t need you entangled in someone else’s mess. I can handle a loose cannon just as long as it’s pointing at the enemy and not at my feet.’

The line was abruptly cut.

Bond snapped his phone shut, ripped out the earpiece and stuffed both in his jacket. What did she mean, ‘need’? And why Thursday, the day after tomorrow - did she want him to investigate after all?

He slumped back in his seat on the terrace he shared with his thoughts. Raising a half-empty glass of whiskey he swilled the contents noisily, examining the multi-coloured splinters of sunlight which probed the ice. Taking a large, cold mouthful he swallowed, savouring the burn on the back of his throat and revelling in the satisfying warmth which radiated towards his solar plexus.

Fathoming M had become one of Bond’s main pastimes of late: he had worked closely with her for the past few years and while he would lay no claim to personal insight he thought he had her ‘modus operandi’. Of course this only occasionally gave him any edge – more often there was a ‘clash of styles’ which resulted in some frank exchanges of views. If his respect for her and the service had not been so deep he would have walked away; then again, had she had respected his talents she would undoubtedly have dispensed with him even sooner – he was under no illusions. He was still a valuable ‘blunt instrument’ as her predecessor had once called the double-O agents but there were limits. And over recent months he thought he was edging closer to that limit, or rather, he thought the limit was edging closer to him. But M seemed to be up to something, and he was damned if he knew what.

It was late afternoon, and the summer sun lit the lazy movement of the steely-grey North Tyne. Gilt-edged ripples formed, intertwined and re-formed in a glittering dance before disappearing beneath the golden stone bridge. Across the lawn shadows were forming in the lee of the hotel and for the first time a chill entered the air. Bond rose and stepped back into the bar, draining the last of his whiskey.

‘Cheers Carl. Another one to my room in about an hour please. And could you ask someone to rustle up some scrambled eggs and smoked salmon and maybe a pot of that Columbian coffee in the meantime?’

‘Certainly sir,’ replied the short, balding figure calmly cleaning glasses behind the bar. Oh for such placidity, thought Bond. He’d discovered that he and the barman shared a mutual interest in golf the first day he’d been here some eight weeks ago. Carl Whatley it seemed had played the tour in the eighties, a scratch player for twenty years peaking with a hard-fought fifth at a windswept Belfry in the Open which, it turned out, Bond had actually attended – one of the few times his schedule had allowed it. They’d talked about playing a round at nearby Dunwell Hall but as Bond’s training was stepped up it had never happened.

Bond had stumbled on the Waterside some years earlier whilst exploring the region and he made a point of stopping off whenever he could, an ideal break in the journey to Scotland on all too infrequent golfing trips. He enjoyed the welcoming atmosphere, somehow more genuine than the artificial air of similar establishments in the South. A delusion possibly but Bond felt everyone deserved some. Walking through a lounge filled with chesterfield sofas, winged-back chairs and scattered broadsheets his mind continued to chew on the dissatisfaction that he knew was magnified by the feeling of a lack of control. He wanted to take direct action but was being constrained for, as he saw it, no good reason. And that he hated with a passion.

Making his way up to the second floor he sub-consciously scanned faces and spaces but no mental alarms sounded. The hotel was quiet and for the first time he noted how shabby it seemed: chipped paint had been retouched and chipped again; carpets fraying – badly in some places; local scenic photography had faded upon the undulating walls. Odd not to have noticed earlier.

Entering the room his mental reflexes ran through the usual routine of diagnostics: ears bent for unexpected sounds, eyes scanning for shifted furniture versus the mental photograph of how he had left it.

Satisfied the room was clean he now needed to sweep his mind in the same manner. His mental de-cluttering technique had been taught to him by Doctor Unwin, the Service psychiatrist, which involved mimicking the brain’s own sleep-induced wind-down processes while occupied in routine physical tasks. Not bothering to fold his clothes he stripped, habitually hanging his shoulder holster within easy reach on the towel rail and stepped into the shower cubicle. Same routine: three minutes as hot as he could stand, three of vigorous scrubbing then a final two minutes as cold as was possible, icy water taking his breath swirling noisily down the chromed plughole.

From the beginning eight weeks ago his regime had been tough. Starting with intensive fitness work initially to get him back into shape along with a few members of the SAS, two of whom he knew by sight, he worked up to some of the more gruelling cross-country tasks with 23-Battalion and a number of strategic day and night manoeuvres including the killer forty-five mile ‘yomp’ in full battle-dress. Limited weapons work - though he had practiced with a number of interesting new pistols he’d persuaded the armourer to let him try - otherwise a weekly two-hour session of repetitive target work sufficed. Week three had been a parachute refresher, hardly required, and the following week they’d started with the wing-suit. M had been asked to evaluate the equipment for possible Service use and had struck a deal which involved the Army getting him back to his peak in exchange for his acting as crash-test dummy. It seemed M wanted to get him up a near vertical fitness curve but she had not intimated why: a period of extended leave (the euphemistic term applied to his thirteen months in the Middle East) was usually followed by a gradual return to duties. Indeed more often too gently for his liking – the drudge of office life and the paperwork it routinely demanded had nearly driven him from the Service on at least one occasion and to drink on many more. Inactivity and lethargy were the killers he feared most.

James Bond took great pride in his professionalism. The singular ability to treat everything with the same cold, analytical rigour; the discipline and fastidious attention to detail; the honing of skills, the rapid assimilation of vital information. And ultimately, when required, the ability to kill: to do it well and without hesitation. These were the things that had earned him the ‘double-O’ status, a role for which there was no job description. Dinosaur he may be, but despite the current trend for trying to make people conform the need for specialists remained. Play people to their strengths was Bond’s philosophy – and his country had an uncanny knack of calling upon his at regular intervals.

The DSG flight was clear in his mind, events immediately afterwards less so. He’d faded in and out of consciousness on the return flight, landing in late evening, the test itself having taken place close to the Arctic Circle. A preliminary examination by a tall, bespectacled Scot with the unlikely name of Doctor McDougall had revealed no breakages but extensive bruising and lacerations to his inner thighs and arms plus mild ligament damage to the left shoulder and right knee. Further tests showed he had suffered moderate concussion though a brain scan proved clear. He also discovered his flight had been the subject of a pool-bet by the eight airmen involved in the exercise, only one of whom had bet on him being successful.

‘Surely that’s a conflict of interests?’ he’d complained to Captain Steve Colman, the jovial thirty-five year old SAS instructor assigned as his liaison at Otterburn. The medical centre was functional and sparse.

‘Only if the stake’s over fifty pounds,’ Colman had replied, tongue not-so-firmly in his cheek. Bond liked Colman: upfront, honest and good at his job. There had been few friendly faces when he’d arrived, the base pretty much running as a closed shop, and squads got shipped in and out en masse. It was very rare for a single trainee to join the base and the clandestine nature of his trip meant he was the subject of much speculation by the base’s fifteen hundred other occupants. Colman, assigned to the DSG programme himself from SAS HQ at Hereford was in a similar boat and the two had hooked up from the start. He’d probed the officer about the damaged wing over a bottle of Smirnoff which, much to Bond’s amusement, he had managed to sneak in wrapped in fruit.

‘Definitely sabotage, no doubt about it. The MPs are playing it hush-hush but I’ve seen the first draft of the report. The cut’s too regular and there’s scorching along the length - suggests a hot metal rod, maybe a soldering iron… or a laser. You were sodding lucky to be able to cut it with a knife, even a Fairbairn.’ More luck – he didn’t want to exceed his quota too soon. ‘Anyway, it’s down at the labs now – they’re running tests to see what they can find out. Got our forensics fellow flown in from Florence within four hours.’

‘Florence?’

‘Holiday. He looked very pleased I can tell you!’ Colman grinned.

Bond’s head ached dully, a hissing grey fog that turned into storm clouds if he moved too quickly. The suit had not been out of his sight for six hours prior to take off: always take ownership for your own equipment. He had examined it minutely, tested the instruments personally: engines, oxygen feed – the lot. There had definitely been no damage – not even a minute perforation, he was sure.

‘You mentioned a laser? Why a laser?’

‘There’s an American device on test at the moment called the Heat Pen. The “Schell Laboratories West-Point Z5S Laser-Wand” to give it its official title but you can see why it doesn’t get called that very often. It’s a small laser, size of a fat pen, basically a very high powered version of those light-pointers you see.’ Colman looked thoughtfully down at his glass. ‘Can’t really be used as a primary weapon, but powerful enough to cut or burn at seven to ten metres. It’ll become standard equipment for Special Ops. within the year. Could have been used on the wing.’

‘But only by someone in very close proximity…’ Bond finished. In his mind he saw Foreman grinning as he opened the airlock. But he got no further, his battered mind finally shut down and he sunk into a troubled sleep in which a small boy threw rocks at exotic birds. He called for the boy to stop but his arms kept reaching for the next.

Colman did not return the following day – instead Bond had virtually been pushed out the door once it became apparent he had recovered his faculties and could perform some basic motor and mental tasks. At one point a number of unfamiliar faces appeared at an observation window before quickly withdrawing when he grinned and waved with what was supposed to be sarcastic cheeriness. Five, he supposed. They had not even bothered to ask him for a statement obviously thinking the facts spoke for themselves.

The drive back had been uneventful barring unexpected sheep, and listening to some inappropriately loud music he had put the Lotus once more through its paces, the well-learned series of corners attacked seamlessly and smoothly, small villages despatched with fluid composure. Loose ends infuriated him, as did the bureaucracy between Britain’s security services that dictated that each had to “keep-off-the-other’s-patch”. It was the seams that were the risk, he told Tanner, that’s where they had to ensure overlap. But instead came the familiar plaintive cries that “lessons will be learned” as a result of some preventable tragedy. Politics and posturing - personal pride over doing what was right.

Stepping onto the cool, white tiles he pulled a large white and pleasantly pliable towel from the rack – not stiff with starch or whatever it was hotels used. Simple pleasures – after the past year it was easy to forget. He examined his body minutely in the full-length mirror as he would examine any piece of professional hardware: acceptable was the word which sprang to mind – how long since he had been able to say that? Only the new, jagged scar across his lower chest marred the picture, those across his left cheek and right hand paling with time. While some would wear these like badges of honour to Bond they were simply archived files, unwanted marks of identification.

There was a knock at the door. Taking his automatic quietly from the holster and holding it beneath a hand-towel he opened the door sharply – the familiar, small waiter smiled and pushed forward a chromed trolley.

‘Thanks – I’ll take it from here,’ he smiled and closed the door. Seated at a small side table the eggs and salmon were dispatched in short order, though the former were over-salted, whilst two large cups of black coffee focussed his mind. A brief review of the early evening headlines revealed no new information regarding the bombings – he could imagine the all-night sessions at headquarters and momentarily experienced guilt at being pre-occupied with himself.

‘Concentrate on your sphere of influence, Bond,’ he spoke aloud. The room’s silence was resounding. Enough mental expansion: time to think.

Still wearing just the bath towel he took the Walther in his right hand, barrel pointing at the dark-red carpet. Next he positioned himself on the side of the bed then switched off the lamp and the TV. Routine and practice: death takes but one fall. His mind clicked into two parallel processes, his consciousness pulling recent events into formal order whilst his subconscious ran through the well-honed instructions. Weighing the cold polymer weapon in his hand he closed his eyes, relying on touch alone.

- Check to ensure the pistol is safetied and unloaded, trigger in front position, barrel free, chamber free, magazine empty – He removed ten nine millimetre bullets and lay then on the bed beside him – Remove the magazine, draw back the slide assembly to the stop.

He’d officially completed the mission he had been sent here to perform, albeit more ‘interestingly’ than planned. He’d been asked to evaluate the wing-suit and overall he’d been impressed with its manoeuvrability, speed and relatively lightweight.

- Insert the empty magazine; draw back the slide assembly to the stop.

The Hercules had been unable to detect him on the official radar hence they had not known of his problems. The homer only fed data back for post-analysis. The wonders of modern technology he thought. But all in all the DSG would be a very effective tool for getting behind enemy lines - he’d write his report to M this evening.

- Remove the magazine; pull the slide assembly back partially.

He’d also include his official evaluation of what went wrong, including what Colman had told him about the laser – he’d already decided in his mind that this was the weapon which had inflicted the damage, and that Foreman had been in on the plot.

- Operate the de-cocking key.  The striker must be released.

Doubtless M would have extracted from Five and that bloody idiot Reynolds whatever they had uncovered so she would have the complete picture. He’d be interested to know what they’d turned up.

- Insert the empty magazine; draw back the slide assembly to the stop.

God knows there were any number of people who wanted him dead – including, as someone once succinctly put it, ‘countless husbands and boyfriends’ – but what worried him was how he’d been targeted on home territory.

- Press the slide catch down. The recoil spring must return the slide assembly to its front position.

How had the base and possibly the Service itself been compromised?

- Remove the magazine; pull back the trigger until it engages in the single action position. The firing mechanism must not be released.

Had he missed something? His thoughts sprang to Vicki, the athletic receptionist. Here he was confident he hadn’t let anything slip – he prided himself on his clinical detachment in these matters. (Others less charitably called him a cold bastard.) Negligent or not it was a wake-up call; maybe one he needed.

- Pull back the trigger - single action trigger - Striker must be released.

On the plus side he felt back in good shape, at least physically. Working towards the test flight had helped him focus and get back to full strength. The surprise ending had also given him the test he needed and he was quietly pleased that body and mind had passed. Would M have gone to such lengths deliberately? He put the thought from his mind.

Checks complete he practiced stripping the gun into its main assemblies and reassembling.

- Remove the magazine and check that the pistol is unloaded. Press the barrel catch down on both sides.

So what were his options? Return to the base and snoop around? His pass had been rescinded, which left him needing Colman’s help. He resolved to get hold of him first thing after breakfast

- Pull the slide assembly with the barrel and recoil spring unit forwards off the frame. Push the recoil spring unit slightly forwards and then remove it. Finally, pull the barrel out of the slide assembly section.

Lastly he cleaned the pistol - oiled parts of the slide assembly, magazine lips, follower and frame with brush and cloth. Then the barrel with an oil soaked brush, pulling the latter and then the pull-throughs several times through the barrel, ensuring he started from the chamber side. Lightly oiling the metal parts he then re-assembled the weapon and checked it for ‘easy action and fault-free operation’. His quick-draw practice was interrupted by three simple beeps from his phone.

‘Predator: green’.

‘And how’s Predator feeling this afternoon?’ It was Bill Tanner, M’s Chief of Staff, a thankfully friendly voice.

‘Oh, fine. I’ve quit the flying lessons though – pretty cut up about it actually.’

‘Sorry to hear it. The lead’s gone slack by the way. But I need to cut to the chase: trouble at the mill. Won’t say more. She wants you back down here for a briefing at one tomorrow rather than Thursday; you’d better cancel any dinner plans.’

‘No clues?’

‘From little acorns…’

‘What the bloody hell does that mean?’

‘Small job, big flap…bit like your flying lessons. Bring your wings, you might need ‘em.’ And Tanner rang off. The lead had gone slack: that had to mean Foreman. Why the hell had Tanner not filled him in with more detail? Fine: if everyone wanted to keep him in the dark it was time he did some fieldwork of his own.

Bond picked up his rather nondescript looking phone from the table: a simple rounded, matt black rubberised tablet with no logos and pressed his index finger into a small indentation on the front. Bond appreciated technology with a purpose but hated when reality lagged behind the promise. Intelligence work had been transformed by mobile communications but they remained tools of the trade. What was fascinating was the way that each new tool changed not just the rules but the game itself. Instantaneous transmission of data; rapid access to inexhaustible information, the web of surveillance cameras - it could all be exploited, provided you knew how - or knew the people with the know-how.

A blue LED blinked as a sensor accepted his fingerprint and the shell cracked open to reveal two flat screens, no visible keys. Bond flicked open a tab and a second layer of the phone opened like a delicate piece of origami: the screen was instantly four times its original size. The whole thing lit, outlined in blue, icons and buttons appearing on the console. Finally Bond ran his thumb up the side of the keyboard and a curved, Perspex screen, maybe six inches by three slid upwards and the whole now formed an impossibly thin palm-top – ten inches by eight - the fabled ‘Q-Berry’ as it had been dubbed. The screen became opaque: both hands operated thumb-dial keypads on either side of the tablet and Bond quickly accessed the net.

‘The main question with the internet is not “does it exist”, but rather how the bloody hell do I find it?’ the standard training began. ‘It has uses you never knew you needed. It’s instant communication – replacing phone, letter and videophone instantly. It’s newspaper, it’s TV, it’s a library; it’s the new music and video transmission and storage media. It’s all the hobby societies you never knew existed – and of course a few popular ones we’re all very familiar with.’ Knowing wink to the audience. ‘To date it has been about putting onto the net all the things invented on other forms. But it is now becoming the point of origin where they are generated, and taking things off-line will seem rather pointless. It’s all there waiting shiny, new and wireless. But the key is: how to find it?’ The rationale behind a number of highly successful business models – how to find stuff on the web. Like all such media Bond wanted to spend as little time learning and more time doing. And in his business time was of the essence, hence the birth of the Goldminers.

In the same way the Service had masqueraded as ‘Universal Export’ in times gone by so it was that access to a range of so-called ‘On-Line Secret Services’ was via a backdoor, the principle being that an obscure location was more secure than acres of security. Bond accessed www.matchstickmodels.co.uk – ‘Don’t get caught under fire!’ the liberally splashed motto read above animated road-mending signage apologising for the site being ‘Under Construction’. But a hit-counter in the bottom right corner hid an invisible icon which, when scrolled across and a cryptic entered, provided access. A simple error message confirmed he was in.

‘You need to know the good from the bad. That’s what we’re here for – panning for gold – separating wheat from chaff’ mixed metaphors from GCHQ. A request was submitted – a name, a place, a face, even a sound - to that equally nondescript but far from dull building in Cheltenham which contained the mental horsepower, the bank of information operatives. It was their job to continuously monitor the net, scanning communications, ‘tailing’ users, ideas and plots, tapping into all manner of on-line fora, reporting suspicions, in the same way that the phone-tappers and CCTV surveillance units randomly monitored the reams of incoming data which was impossible to monitor one hundred per-cent. And their record was formidable, an entire wall proudly recording successfully foiled plots and operations few of which ever reached the public. These resources were on-hand for requests from members of the Service, both field operatives and other departments. He signalled a one-hour service – bit like getting your photos done at Boots – de-prioritising it behind real-time field operations.

Subject: ‘Corporal Foreman, Craig’ he typed ‘Otterburn Military establishment. Born c.1975 (?), deceased 2007’. Trace: ‘basic plus organisational links, social contacts, travel, past twenty-four months’. Response: ‘Text. One hour’. That should be enough: see what they could turn up in sixty minutes. He submitted the form then got dressed: time to fill in that bloody report. Pouring himself another whiskey he sat into rather than onto the snug leather bucket chair and began to type.

By eleven the report had been filed and Bond rose with his second whiskey to close the partly open window. The earlier pleasant weather had turned and now a late August wind brought the first dashes of rain pattering the gently billowing net curtains. Looking out across the gardens, eyes scanning the darkening lawns and the deepening pools of shadow beneath the trees, he saw a shadow flit behind one of the greenhouses. He squinted – saw nothing – then a glint as the moon cleared the gable and hit polished metal.

Instinctively he whirled from the night air, drew the P99 from its shoulder holster in one fluid movement but crashed painfully against the dresser. The bullet whined through the hole in the air he’d just vacated and thudded into the wall above the bed. Single shot, silencer, high-powered rifle.

He took one stride to the window, hurdled the ledge and rolled left behind some bushes. Without taking his eyes off the lawn he fitted the silencer, screwing it flush to the barrel. A second shot ricocheted off the stonework above his head. Instinctively ducking he triangulated the origin. Feet scrabbled for purchase on the criss-crossing gravel paths. Cross referencing his view with a memorised plan of the estate Bond guessed the would-be assassin had made a wrong choice - he was trapped in the open-quad formed by hotel, leisure complex and a glass walkway running between the two. Bond was on the open side. Springing from his hiding place he sprinted low and soundlessly in the same direction. He heard someone crash against the door of the corridor and curse as they found it locked. Another two thumps then breaking glass. Bond ran towards the hotel-end of the passageway, guessing that his quarry would make in that direction. He could just make out a grey figure inside the dimly lit corridor, hunched, rifle in hand, about to break the facing window when he turned and saw Bond. A look of panic spread across Eastern European features and, dropping the rifle the man staggered and ran towards the darkened swimming pool.

Jumping through the smashed window Bond followed; there was no escape. His eyes scanned the darkened reception: the door to the pool area was open. Quickening his step he ducked to one side of the entrance, gun raised. Choice: slow he was easy prey, silhouetted against the door; fast it was.

Bond threw himself across the threshold, spinning so his back came to rest against the wall. The air was thick with chlorine. To the right of the door he saw a figure turn in wide-eyed panic.

‘Freeze!’ he commanded but then something glinted as it flew towards him through the darkness, knocking the P99 from his hand. He twisted, heard the sound of metal against concrete and a shower of sparks illuminated the gloom. Bond had time to register the sharpened debris-hook before it came at him again.

A clumsy lunge sliced across his shoulder, tearing the flesh hotly but this time he managed to grab the wooden shaft. Bond pulled hard, bringing the man towards him with a grunt. He let go but threw himself into the shadows to Bond’s left. Discarding the pole Bond dropped and spun just in time to avoid a fire extinguisher which arced above his head before crashing into the wall with a metallic clang. With a hiss the nozzle sent a plume of white vapour pouring across the tiles.

Bond used the distraction to his advantage. A stack of water-recovery bricks sat against one wall and he threw himself across the extinguisher’s path, sweeping a number across the tiles and peppering the man’s lower body. The man lost his footing noisily, dropping heavily against the tiles and slipping into the shallows. Bond sprang to his right foot and leapt towards the receding figure, grabbing the man’s hair just as he disappeared into the water. Wrenching his head back wild eyes stared back, glinting with fear, throat gasping for air. The man made a wild attempt at a right hook but succeeded only in unbalancing them both. Bond used his weight to counter, pushing him down once more and pinning him hard down on the tiles. The man put up no fight. This was no professional thought Bond.

‘Name!’ he commanded, holding his fist over the man’s face, but no words came from the panting mouth, just a horrible, slow gurgling. In the moonlight reflecting off the water Bond saw a dark liquid oozing from the man’s lips as he let out one long exhalation, head dipped over the edge of the pool. Looking down he could see the metal hook disappearing into the man’s neck, the glistening tip appearing from the other side. The man breathed heavily then his impaled body sagged heavily.

Bond cursed.

A pool of blood crept silently across the tiles before running into the pool to form a dark, expanding cloud. Bond dragged the limp body from the water and rapidly frisked it. He noted the ID but saw nothing of note in the wallet. The other pockets revealed loose change and a pair of glass dice – one with red dots, one with blue - and the man’s phone. Plugging the latter into the Q-Berry he activated the ‘vacuum’ facility which cleverly extracted all stored information and records. In the seconds this took he held up one of the dice to the light: the thing sparkled with some intricate internal pattern he could not decipher.

The progress bar reached one hundred per-cent and he disconnected the phone, using it to take half a dozen photos of the lifeless figure which were immediately dispatched to Cheltenham.

On an impulse he pocketed the dice too.

* * *


3

Boys’ Toys

 

The straps bit tightly but like the blood dripping from the wounds he barely noticed. Sweat drenched him from head to foot; bloodstains daubed his clothing and matted lank, black hair to his throbbing scalp. Awash with panic, brain in turmoil, he span in the darkness, ricocheting between unseen walls. His mind sought a fixed point amid the chaos. Jana, his girlfriend; Ivana their daughter; the small two bed-roomed flat; his grandmother’s window boxes; Jacek and their evenings at the bar… But none would comfort him, each torn from his mind no sooner was it conjured. In their place sprang terrifying visions, real and imagined - chainsaws and electrodes; rats and acid; hooks and white-hot pokers. The body finally gave in, collapsing heavily onto bare concrete, mind initially welcoming the rest then screaming as his body no longer provided physical distraction from the madness.

As his eyes penetrated the inky-blackness shapes materialised in the more receptive corners of his vision. A long, low form described a perimeter to the enclosure. He’d made it this far: he’d won, surely? The terrors he had withstood, the sights and sensations which had nearly cost him his mind were behind him – he’d survived!

A sudden blaze of white light (there’s no such thing, Ms Kryswski was telling him) flooded the confined space, illuminating its farthest corners, exposing and bleaching his filth and desperation. He could only stare upward, caught like a repentant sinner in the glare of a vengeful god.

God spoke.

‘What troubles you, Piotr?’ The crushing voice resonated through the room’s very structure, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere. Its tone was firm, yet appealingly soft. ‘Why cower? I treated you well, we had an agreement: I was going to help you solve all your problems Piotr. Yet you betrayed my trust.’ Still measured, the voice turned suddenly cold. ‘A deal is a deal, Piotr. We all need to know who we can rely on: need to know who’s on our side and who is against us. You decided to gamble. That wasn’t a smart idea, was it?’ The rhetoric was simple, yet as the volume increased and penetrated his skull he struggled to comprehend, his tenuous grasp on reality unravelling as he glimpsed a huge disembodied face in the sky. The next sentence seared his brain and echoed to his very core. ‘You lose. And I seek payment!’

Silence fell with sledgehammer finality around him. As the ringing stopped Piotr found his head mercifully free of the whirlwind of thoughts which had tormented. In that moment of clarity he detected a low rumble in the corner, a rumble which turned to a growl. He turned and faced the dark shape that was now a panther snarling just as the light began to fade.

‘Payment!’ he heard still mesmerised by green eyes which glinted through narrowed slits. Skull unmoving the powerful animal slunk towards its prey.

As the light disappeared the two creatures locked eyes. In that instant the predator struck: hungrily and without mercy. How easily the creature’s teeth sank into his sorry flesh.

*

It is said that little boys never grow up but that their toys just get bigger. Bond knew the Lotus to be a just that: a big toy, a glittering chrome, leather and carbon-fibre trinket, but as a means to an end, a tool for hedonistic pleasure, he justified it to himself fully. The car was, to Bond’s mind, a fantastic analogy for mankind’s development and its failings: at once it epitomised man’s achievements in engineering, art and ingenuity all focused in a tool to deliver that greatest of privileges – freedom. And yet society had taken to regard this fantastic, obedient machine as the source of all evils and seemed intent on its destruction.

  Bond enjoyed cars. Though no fanatic he appreciated excellent engineering and craftsmanship. When the subject of a mode of company transport came up he had been more than ready for the challenge, and dismissing with extreme prejudice the latest Bentley as an ‘over-inflated Volkswagen’ he’d settled on an Aston Martin DB9. The notion had been short-lived; a visit to Stadlers in Mayfair had revealed the company he would be keeping as an Aston owner – the elegant atmosphere being disturbed by the noisy arrival of a number of well-known football players as prospective owners. Next day he strode into a Lotus showroom and chose the new, superbly wedge-shaped Esprit – in a loud, bright metallic yellow-gold with chocolate brown interior. The salesman noted the look of satisfaction and appreciation on the hard features of the buyer. Bond for his part had the warm feeling of a decision well made. Comfort be hanged.

The colour had surprised his colleagues more than the choice of car – very much out of character they commented. But his reasoning was that the car was preposterous enough without the self-conscious conceit of a ‘subtle’ colour. So gold it was, and he loved it.

It was indeed a fantastic car. Changing down from fourth to third for a snaking left-hander Bond blipped the throttle and the vee-ten burbled its compliance in a series of throaty barks. Line of sight clear he pressed the pedal hard and the car leapt forward, flat under-body hugging the smooth hard-top; cool, calm responses feeding back every nuance, every imperfection in the road. He likened the steering feel to a fingertip search in latex gloves. Everything under the sticky Bridgestone’s was communicated with utter fidelity through the palms of his hands and the seat of his pants, enabling him to make the constant corrections necessary to maintain a high speed safe in the knowledge that the Lotus would not deposit him insolently in a hedge without warning. The thing was a bloody marvel. An earlier Esprit he had driven had been good in the dry but a handful in the wet, he recalled with a smile. Expertly setting the car up for the next sweeping right-hander James Bond thought over the past few hours.

His actions following the pool incident had been precise and deliberate. He’d put in an urgent call to HQ requesting a clean-up crew who would seal-off the scene with threats of state secrecy and suchlike before removing all traces. A simple story of a jealous husband would quench the thirst for local scandal. In the thirty-five minutes before their arrival he stealthily returned to his room the way he had come. Standard procedure was to get away from the scene and let the clean-up team do their thing. Packing swiftly he exited via the fire exit.

Once across the stone bridge he accelerated off up the arrow-straight Military Road towards Newcastle before his phone alerted him to an incoming message. He tapped the dash to activate the hands-free and a small screen appeared alongside the head-up display.

‘Corporal Foreman, Craig, born Bristol 1975…’ intoned the text reader and proceeded to tell him all he never wanted to know about the treacherous airman. It was all there, trawled from the incredible array of information sources available - family and friends, education and employment, financials, social activities, misdemeanours, websites frequented. The tale was unexceptional: a troubled background, a desire for discipline and a trade, a rather suspect girlfriend, two young children and crippling debt. Corporal Foreman, it seemed, had been addicted to gambling, which combined with his girlfriend’s shopping habit had contributed to financial difficulties – not unusual. No known links to criminal activities, no unexplained vacations in the Middle East or Eastern Block… Nothing out of the ordinary at all. A grinning, hopelessly optimistic face looked back at him impassively.

‘…discovered hung by a thin wire in barracks this morning while under MP guard. Ends. Cross references…’

Bond was left none-the-wiser. He was about to switch off ahead of the long drive South when another message came in, again from the Goldmine, this time with information on the hotel assassin.

‘Tomacewski, Jacek. Born 1979 Gdansk, Poland. Father Przemek Tomacewski, welder, mother Marta Willems, primary school teacher…’ Another torrent of mundane information but again nothing out of the ordinary. Officially still resident in Warsaw; first UK documentary evidence two years earlier working at a nearby chip-board factory; within nine months he was assistant chef at The Waterside Hotel where he had spent the past thirteen months illegally working to support his family and another gambling habit – a possible if rather tenuous link. He recalled the previous bio and asked the software to correlate the two. Five seconds processing and all it came back with was the gambling, admittedly with one common name in the list of creditors. So much for the ultimate in Q-craft. It was a huge leap to assume he had been put in that role on the off-chance Bond should come to stay. But coincidence could still be an effective killer.

Last piece of evidence for the evening: he called up the contents of Tomacewski’s phone and used voice commands to examine them. The man appeared not to be tremendously popular: two local numbers and one back in Poland. A handful of texts - short ‘I love you’s, a ‘get to work you’re late’ and a ‘Vodafone has brand new offers’ threw up nothing, unless they constituted some sort of banal code. Finally he brought up the man’s photo collection, which at first glance seemed only to reinforce the impression of a life devoid of excitement: the exterior of the hotel, a few local landmarks, two shots of a drunken group in a pub, and lastly and rather incongruously a pretty Alpine landscape taken from atop a hill or mountain.  Bond’s finger paused: the view itself was impressive and yet unremarkable, a holiday brochure vista across a sunlit valley. France, Austria or Switzerland – there were no obvious landmarks.

‘Magnify by two.’ The picture increased in size, detail springing from the screen. A pattern seemed to appear, a kind of irregular criss-cross: a brochure?

‘Tab three left; magnify by four.’ Again more detail but now at the limit of the phone’s resolution. The criss-cross had crystallised into some kind of latticework frame – the photo had been taken through a large window. Looking again, what he had first taken to be a foreground blur took on the circular punctuated shape of a face: a small, indistinct reflection in the glass - someone looking at the same view as the taker. This last had his full attention, because an alarm bell was ringing way down in the pit of his stomach. He sent the phone numbers and the face to the Goldmine and sat back in his seat: something told him that he had seen that face before.

Madeline Peyroux accompanied him as far as Scotch Corner, Miles Davis saw him the rest of the way, playing as ever like a god. Arriving at his Chelsea flat around four in the morning he dropped immediately into bed for a sorely needed few hours sleep. He awoke to birdsong, showered quickly and moved to the breakfast room. He’d notified May that he was returning a day earlier than expected and lo and behold breakfast was waiting.

‘Back soon Master James,’ read a hand-written card on the table. A woman of uncommon fastidiousness, his housekeeper. He watched the news scroll familiar images of the terrorist attacks in parallel to the security forces attempts at a clampdown and the media’s attempts to find the perpetrators. He wolfed down the toast and specially imported orange marmalade but passed on the pancakes. Black coffee woke his mind fully before he headed out into an unstable world.

The lines of impotent traffic were the ultimate testament to man’s inability to manage his environment: progress in neither sense. Parking in the subterranean concrete tomb that was the Service garage Bond made his way via the closely guarded service lift to the eighth floor of the imposing marble building overlooking the Thames and which currently houses the headquarters of the British Secret Service. A variety of Departments occupy the building, officially coexisting and cooperating to provide a seamless, integrated whole. The reality is somewhat more problematic, with silo-mentality alive and thriving.

While the rank of double-O is no longer official terminology it is used informally in the inner ranks to refer to that small, elite group of ‘independent overseas operatives’ who effectively act as paid assassins, the infamous ‘blunt instruments’ of Britain’s foreign policy. Whilst the political climate, the technology and the enemies change the need remains the same. Spies necessitate counter-spies; terrorists require counter-terrorists; assassins counter-assassins. This building amid its countless layers of grey bureaucracy and political correctness contained a small number who performed just those duties and performed them well.

Two sharp tones from his phone broke into his thoughts whilst ascending. Bringing the screen alive he absorbed the message’s content with hard, pursed lips.

Bond entered the bright outer office to a grim-faced Moneypenny, his boss’ redoubtable P.A. who sat typing at a generous, curved and meticulously tidy workstation. Sun streamed through a window overlooking an inner courtyard.

‘She’s in a bad mood, James. That’s all I’ll say because that’s all I know,’ she smiled thinly. ‘I hadn’t heard of anything brewing until you called last night. What in hell were you playing at? Caused a real stink for the lot of us – comings and goings at all hours.’

‘Couldn’t tell you what I was playing at even if I wanted to Moneypenny, you know that…’ he held up his hands in mock helplessness.

‘This game you were playing, did you score 36-26-36 by any chance?’ a mischievous grin swept away the frown and ten years.

‘Penny, I’m hurt,’ he replied, sadly. ‘You have completely the wrong impression…’ before knocking and entering M’s office ‘…38 at least…’ he added thoughtfully.

‘She may have the wrong impression, 007, but I’m sure that I do not. Shut the door and sit down.’ The fun stopped at the substantial wooden door.

The office was palatial, M having no problem exerting her authority in a PC-environment especially over more junior members of the Department. Ten metres by fifteen and five high it had a feeling of space more redolent of a Victorian ballroom than a modern workplace but the décor could not have been further removed. Thick grey woollen carpet blended efficiently with walls of a deep cream, almost gilt colour and a pale eggshell blue ceiling. Glass fittings contributed to a strangely appropriate sea-faring feel, compounded by a number of dramatic oils depicting beautifully romanticised sea-battles down the left-hand wall inherited from her predecessor. Down the right in stark opposition a number of colourful, abstract works set off by slim grey frames punctured an otherwise blemish-free wall. Three large, yet delicately elaborate chrome light fittings sprouted from modern ceiling roses and bathed the room in a pure, slightly harsh, light, casting shadows deep enough to consume your thoughts. The furniture was imposing rather than comfortable, stone and metal contrasting with leather panel work. Finally to the end of the room hung two darkened screens of maybe sixty-inches set into the wall. In other organisations such conspicuous displays of power were fast becoming history, but here in the Civil Service they were alive and well, and nowhere more so than with the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service.

M stood at the far side of the room leafing through an open folder. A woman of late middle age she held a calm authority, dressed simply but with commanding severity – a blue-grey jacket and matching skirt with little or no adornment.

‘Now suppose you tell me what the bloody hell you’ve been playing at, Bond?’ He always had the feeling of being the naughty school-boy when called to see M but his patience after the previous four days events, not to mention the long night drive was wearing decidedly thin.

‘You have my full report from Otterburn ma’am and I presume my preliminary comments about last night. I will of course write this up more fully when I eventually reach my desk,’ whenever that would be. M seemed to pause for breath.

‘Unfortunately I don’t just have your report to read… We had just about managed to keep a lid on the Otterburn affair, then this…’ From her desk she took a newspaper, one of the ‘Red-Tops’, and slammed it down on the table in front of him. The headline took him aback:

‘Pole-axed,’ it read, alongside a picture of the dead man from the pool. He had lost a lot of blood since they’d last met and the paper did not do the scene justice by printing it in black and white but there was no doubt.

‘How do we think they got hold of that?’ he said flatly.

‘Reporter staying in the hotel: outside for a late night drink. Luckily didn’t see you, although your oh-so-subtle car gets a mention as a dash of glamorous after-thought. They’re putting it down to rivalry amongst a group of immigrant workers in the area – helped along by our own department of misinformation of course. It’ll peter out into a rant on the evils of immigration if we’re lucky – PM’s office never sad to see that one run. But the point is I told you not to get involved.’

Bond’s patience snapped.

‘With all due respect ma’am it found me: I was targeted and gave chase – it’s my job. I had him cornered when he fell - never got a word out of him. Definitely an amateur and may be able to shed light on the earlier incident.’

‘You’re of the opinion the two are linked?’ M became more thoughtful.

‘Undoubtedly. Some sort of inside job I’d say: these weren’t opportunists – you have a leak.’

We may have the leak, 007. That’s all I bloody need on top of everything else. Well I think we can hush this up at least,’ she flicked the papers with a casual swipe of her hand. ‘Internally of course Five are all over me like a bad rash. May have to resort to the ultimate sanction.’ M referred to some interesting information that the Service had ‘accidentally’ dug up on a senior member of MI5. ‘The rainy day may have arrived.’ She managed a grim smile.

Moving across the room she sat in one of the sumptuous midnight blue leather chairs behind the black slab of a desk and ushered Bond to do the same. His chair was less well upholstered but he made himself adequately comfortable nonetheless.

‘I presume you didn’t just call me down here to give me detention?’

‘You have an annoying habit of making that rather inevitable, 007,’ she snapped before taking a deep breath and sitting back. ‘I have everybody available deployed on investigating these attacks. We still have virtually nothing on the Manchester bombing – one disgruntled football fan and a van full of Semtex. Aside from being a Manchester City fan he was perfectly normal – and that’s what’s scaring the living daylights out of everyone. No trace of religious zealousness or fundamentalism: usually a web unravels after something like this but here – nothing. He’s never even been out of the UK let alone had contact with ETA or any Iraqis. All we have are a number of untraceable phone calls and these,’ she reached into a drawer and pulled out two small, blackened and roughly circular objects which she threw across the desk. ‘Found in his pockets – not what they seem according to Q but the damage has made it hard to tell.’

The objects danced across the hardened surface and came to rest in front of Bond. They were, or had been, dice of translucent crystal: one with red dots, one with blue. He reached into his jacket and cast the pair he had taken from the Pole across the desk to meet the damaged pair.

‘I believe the phrase is “snap”,’ he said dryly. M went momentarily silent, absorbing the implications. ‘From Tomacewski,’ he picked up one of each. It was difficult to tell for sure, but the size, colour and texture looked identical.

‘According to Q-branch there’s some sort of internal circuitry, but so far very little concrete. We need to assume these attacks are linked but what the hell is the connection. Iraq?’

‘Possibly – or a widening of this so-called Terrorist Cooperation beyond the three groups named so far.’

‘In which case the potential of there being a leak becomes critical – if that group has access to this building we’re in real trouble. There’s one more incident which may be a part of all this, something else GCHQ turned up only last week.’ M didn’t use the term ‘Goldmine’. ‘There are worrying rumours of information going on sale on the net to ‘specialist’ organisations.’

‘What kind of information?’

‘Details are vague – we’d have just assumed this was a fake if it hadn’t been for the source and the potential buyers – including the three terrorist organisations involved in the bombings. There’s a phrase that keeps cropping up: “Every man has his worth”.’

‘Religious undertones? And if there’s a link between the bombings, the sale and our leak…’ he let out a low whistle.

‘Exactly. Right – I was going to ask you to follow that up in Dubai but I’ll send 008 instead, see what he manages to uncover. So, what have we got – three dull, unconnected individuals with tough backgrounds and a debt problem – we need to do some digging, fast.’

‘Digging done – and with one very interesting result,’ he activated the wireless setting on his phone and in a moment one of the huge screens lit up with a the photo of the bright Alpine valley.

‘I found it on the Pole’s phone – appears to be just a holiday snap at first sight, but this smudge here turns out to be this robust gentleman,’ he tabbed to the photo just received from the Goldmine. A target appeared on the dim face and the view zoomed in, the blur dissolving into a black and white mug shot obviously taken some years earlier with text filling the lower screen. ‘Karl Junkers: known German assassin, born Munich 1960. Been out of sight for a few years after becoming synonymous with a number of terrorist organisations in the eighties including an offshoot of Baader Meinhof. Hired hand, mercenary, expert in explosives and interrogation, wanted for the murder of the so-called Stockholm-Angels in ‘83, rarely seen since. Little else known but,’ he let it hang dramatically while a new image appeared on screen, this time of an older man in a dark overcoat stepping from the back of a Mercedes limousine, ‘He has recently resurfaced after much facial reconstruction in Milan in the company of one Vorgov Smolenski…’

M leant forward in her seat. The face was clearer and while older it was clearly the same man.

‘Good God.’

‘Well, he seems to think he is, yes. Everyone’s favourite Russian Billionaire and owner of Skillerbet.com, the global betting network. Vorgov Gheorgianu Smolenski.’ Another picture popped onto the screen of a tall, elegant, languorous man possibly six and half feet tall with long, flowing silver hair shaking hands with the German in some sort office. The poor resolution suggested the shot was clandestine but even this showed intense and piercing grey eyes.

‘Remind me.’

‘Age forty-four. Born Murmansk, mother a shop-worker, father unknown. Child prodigy of the former Soviet Union, removed from his family at the age of six to be tutored at one of the State establishments. At one stage pegged as a future Chess Grand Master he disappeared from the records. Popped up again as a big winner after de-Unionisation during the early nineties: suddenly he’s controlling several pieces of heavy industry and with significant energy interest. Predictably rumoured but never proven to have links to organised crime, a ruthless but very successful businessman, he has more recently managed to establish himself in common with some of his compatriots as something of a celebrity amongst the London glitterati,’ M winced. ‘A favourite with the UK media through his charity work, apparent charm and wit and despite being something of a recluse.  Indeterminate abode – possibly Eastern Europe, unlikely it’s Russia due to having made too many enemies. Spending increasing amounts of time in the UK for tax reasons. Single: very heterosexual, a predictable liking for the playboy lifestyle. By all accounts aggressive and ultra-competitive. At the last check he was the eighth wealthiest man on the planet.’ Bond waited while M gazed blankly back at her arrogant agent.

‘Junkers popping up in his company is rather worrying. We’re already monitoring Smolenski – PM's office getting nervous about all this gambling deregulation – bad PR could set it off in his face. What about Skillerbet itself?’

‘Established 2004, reputedly just achieved the number one spot in global online gambling with turnover in excess of nine billion dollars. Total value estimated at fifty billion. Operates a myriad of networked sites, no one really knows exactly how far the empire expands as it’s technically still a private firm. Also owns a string of bricks and mortar casinos across Eastern Europe and Asia; is looking to expand and get a foothold in Western Europe and in particular the lucrative UK market which gets deregulated next year.’

‘Glad to see you’re keeping up on your reading.’

‘It must be all the free time I get, ma-am.’ She ignored the sarcasm.

‘We’ve been watching Mr. Smolenski; trouble is he’s rather…’

‘Popular at court?’ he ventured, catching her drift.

‘Precisely. He’s moving in the right circles and being seen to investigate may ruffle some feathers. We happen to think he’s a rather nasty piece of work – the criminal links back in Russia are proven. This…this just makes the situation worse. One wrong move…’ M looked troubled as she continued to stare at the photograph. ‘It’s all just supposition, but I don’t believe in coincidences.’

‘I agree. Oh, talking about free time, I thought I may go and watch some racing this weekend, ma’am.’

‘I’m sorry?’ she looked at him uncomprehendingly.

‘Goodwood – historic car racing, thought I’d take it in. Coincidentally I hear Mr. Smolenski is in town on a rare visit, possibly with Mr. Junkers in tow as part of the freak show that serves as his entourage. Maybe we could reconvene on Monday when you’ve had time to – think things through?’

‘And you’ve had time to ruffle some feathers?’

‘As you observed, ma’am, I’m afraid that might be inevitable,’ the corners of the slightly cruel mouth curled up at the extremities. M’s face remained impenetrable.

‘Good. Make sure you hook up with the man we already have on him – Ralf Antrobus. I assume you know him - he’s a sleeper but may be of use. I’ll think about it over the weekend.’ He made to rise from his seat. ‘Oh and, Bond? Make sure something happens,’ she looked at him earnestly.

‘Oh, I find it usually does,’ he replied.

As Bond made his way down through the bowels of headquarters to the office of Major Boothroyd, the service armourer, M sat and thought awhile at her desk, glancing occasionally through a second, pink, laminated folder she had taken from the left hand drawer. In dull red across the cover was typed ‘Psychometric evaluation – Agent 007; June 20xx’.  Pursing her lips she scanned the text in the same way one might re-read a court summons.

‘Doctor Craven, Moneypenny.’

‘Right away,’ came the response.

‘Craven,’ came the familiar cut-glass accent after half a minute.

‘Had him in – appears exactly as per your report. Edgy, weary, impatient. Made a couple of uncharacteristic mistakes recently.’

‘So you agree with my conclusion, that he would represent an unacceptable risk if returned to front-line duties?’ there was smug triumph in the response.

‘No, Doctor, I do not. I just wanted to inform you that despite your protestations I have already done so. As far as I am concerned he is designed for one purpose and one purpose only – and he’s bloody good at it, even in his present state. It’s deliberately light work, but his state of mind could work to our advantage.’

‘Well you’ve had my report,’ this time the response was stiff. ‘After what he’s been through the man’s a liability. Wouldn’t surprise me if he literally went off in the near future – he is most definitely damaged goods.’

‘He’s been through what he gets paid to do, Doctor. You’ve done your job now let me get on with mine. You won’t be held responsible if that is what you are worried about.’ She closed the call before he could reply.

M sat back and stared out the window. Her job was to evaluate the odds and make the decisions. It was a gamble but she’d protected the downside - got him back to physical readiness, lightweight duties to start, keep him out of the Middle Eastern arena for the next assignment or so. Sometimes you needed imbalance to get things moving.

* * *

4

The Man in the Grey Hat

Five miles from the English Channel and set amid the rolling Sussex Downs lies the twelve thousand acre Goodwood estate. The ducal seat of the Dukes of Richmond for over three hundred years, Goodwood House itself comprises three of the eight wings originally conceived by James Wyatt, while its neo-classical interiors contain one of the finest collections of French porcelain and furniture in England.

Horseracing was first recorded there in 1801 and July’s ‘Glorious Goodwood’ meeting still rates as one of the world’s most famous. Motor racing is a comparatively new activity, the circuit having been founded after the war by the ninth-Earl utilising the perimeter service track around the former RAF West-Hampnett aerodrome. With location and funding on its side Goodwood became a leading venue in the fifties. Whilst it hosted Grand Prix’ it was sports-car racing that it made its name: Aston, Jaguar and Bristol fighting glamorous foreign invaders beneath skies in which the Spitfires and Hurricanes of 145 and 602 Squadrons had done a mere decade before. The finest drivers of the day pounded the quick little circuit in an astonishing variety of road-legal machinery, taking the spoils and, in the case of Moss, almost giving his life. Mothballed in 1966 as the cost of upgrading safety and facilities proved beyond even the Earl’s enthusiastic means the circuit lay largely untouched and as a result when the idea of a historic race meeting was mooted in the ‘90s it provided a genuinely authentic setting.

Not only does the meeting provide the opportunity for like-minded enthusiasts to watch, pore over and race their beloved machinery, for one weekend a year it also transforms into a vibrant, living pastiche. Fifties vehicles traverse an infield decorated with appropriate signage whilst visitors are encouraged to dress in period garb, with actors employed as policemen, garage mechanics and barbers. Air displays celebrate the circuit’s wartime role whilst champagne flows in that modern-day pastime of corporate hospitality. The atmosphere is friendly as the great and the good of the motoring world converge to make it the world’s finest ‘classic-car’ race meeting, held together by sixty-thousand spectators and three-hundred meticulously turned-out vehicles. A Revival in all and to all the senses.

James Bond did not ‘do’ nostalgia. Sitting in a jam on the A20, forced to endure the pungent fumes emitted from the rear of some vast over-chromed ‘50s American barge his opinion was that such old things got replaced for good reason. As if to reinforce this thought the blue convertible – a Chevrolet Bel-Air with the larger 283 cubic-inch engine - braked sharply with a pained squeal, driver struggling to avoid a collision at all of twenty miles per hour. The prow of the car dived like a submarine. Top down despite leaden-grey skies and above the muted V8 rumble he heard the driver curse.

The Lotus by contrast idled happily; exhaust burbling. It had been a while since he had visited the south coast and he had been wrong to assume the traffic would be easier from the west. A mile from the circuit things were at a standstill and he would struggle to make the start of practice at nine-thirty.

It had been a few years since Bond had been to a motor-race. He was not a particular fan, preferring to do his driving on open roads with just himself as competition, which despite the scaremongering were still there if you knew where to look. The attraction in this event, not withstanding his dislike for the current nostalgia-fetish was the cars themselves. He had a passion for fine engineering and Goodwood was a Mecca for the great and the exotic. Racing on the circuit were cars whose pedigree, rarity or just desirability justified insurance valuations well into six or seven figures. And while he wouldn’t dream of paying such ridiculous money even had he the means, seeing rare Astons, Cobras and Ferraris in action was a bonus alongside his main objective.

Staking out Junkers and Smolenski should be straightforward, they would not be expecting a tail, but getting up close would prove more challenging: Smolenski’s security would undoubtedly be tight. His prime target was Junkers and there may be a way of getting him on his own, but he would be equally intrigued to find out more about this man Smolenski: his intuition told him the two’s acquaintance was an unlikely coincidence.

His ace in the hole to get round the access difficulties was Ralf Antrobus, a Service sleeper who had, it seemed, been assigned the task of keeping tabs on Smolenski for a while and on this particular weekend was using his cover as a recognised classic-car buff as an ‘in’. Bond was hoping he could take this a step further to engineer some kind of introduction. Over the course of a couple of days he was confident he could ensure an opportunity presented itself; from there it was pretty much ad-lib.

Bond’s thoughts were rudely interrupted by the dual-harmonics of an air-horn from over his right shoulder. Glancing in the door mirror he saw a bright red open-topped Alfa Duetto, the snub-nosed ‘60s model, braking sharply just behind him having cut in ahead of a drab grey saloon. He was glad to have something more attractive filling his mirrors and taking in the Alfa driver found she fitted the bill perfectly.

The girl was a brunette with a sixties-style headscarf of white with black spots trailing in the breeze. A pair of lightly tanned shoulders bracketed a deep crimson top that bulged frustratingly out of sight. Prada shades masked the eyes, but as she crept closer he made out an elegantly slim nose, rounded cheekbones and a delicious, dimpled chin. She waved provocatively first at the saloon driver and then to a group of young men in a camper van who leered from the side windows in return.

Bond closed the gap which had opened up while he had been otherwise engaged. The Alfa shot to close the gap and sat on his rear bumper. He adjusted his mirror to more fully appreciate her mouth – medium sized, smiling and very inviting. She undoubtedly saw the manoeuvre. There could be only one place she was going to in her sixties attire: the day was looking up.

They came to another roundabout. Traffic filtered from the right but the main bulk carried straight on. Checking his mirrors and he swung the steering wheel to the right and floored the throttle. The Lotus shot forward front wheels hauling the car round in a sharply scribed tyre-screeching arc. The on-coming car cut across the Alfa, blocking its passage, and as it cut in behind so Bond completed his loop and pulled smoothly onto the Alfa’s boat-shaped behind: a move of which Bond believed Mr. Chapman would approve.

The saloon driver looked incensed, Bond waved back, then once again turned his attentions to pleasanter matters. The girl seemed oblivious to events behind her, carelessly draping her left arm down the curved flank of the Alfa, tapping away in time to some music.

Bond continued to admire her profile: exquisitely coiffured, undoubtedly moneyed. Twenty-eight: nine? Father minor gentry, old money, possibly fraudulent; mother alcoholic and having an affair with his best friend; schooled at Roedean then Cambridge. Dropped out due to drug problems…no: lack of interest… Currently in PR in the City. He sketched in the minor details and there you had her: Rosemary Elizabeth Double-Barrel-surname. And voracious in bed, he decided.

His luck was out. Half a mile later the road branched and she headed for the ‘Pre-66’ enclosure whilst he was forced to take a right, past the gleaming steel and glass Rolls-Royce factory with its eco-friendly turf-roof, following the ‘VIP’ signs.

A field served as car parking approached along wooden slats. He halted the Esprit beside an uncommonly green S-Class Mercedes with gold badging. Grabbing his jacket from the passenger seat, he set out for entrance C. The weather had brightened, temperature reaching twenty degrees and he donned the Persol sunglasses he’d chosen to signify his validity as a VIP and useful lest he be dazzled by the bling. The rest of his wardrobe similarly spoke of casual opulence – a dark-blue cotton Sunspel polo shirt, Lobb sneakers and of course his Rolex Submariner Oyster Perpetual.

Carried along by the stream of visitors a cacophony of noise told him practice had begun. It was intoxicating – a series of screaming roars which rose and fell sharply; he recognised the varied signatures of vee-twelves, vee-eights, straight sixes and bored-out fours. Vast banners carrying the logos of corporate sponsors dominated the entrance. Buying a striking programme from an equally striking Wren he entered the circuit and immediately went back in time.

A green 1950s Ford delivery van plodded across the main concourse followed by a bright yellow period AA motorcycle.  Crowds, many in costume or service uniform milled across an open lawn dominated by a display of vast ‘50s Americana and lined with modest birch trees which spread a gentle shade over fiercely polished lacquer and chrome. Small children ‘oo-ed’ and ‘ah-ed’ in the face of these alien craft while parents looked lovingly at more modest nostalgia.

The rear of the stands and a series of white marquees provided a bright backdrop, flags fluttered on rooftop flagpoles in the gentle breeze. Bond headed towards the tunnel leading to the infield dodging a black leather-clad biker astride a burbling Manx Norton. Between the stands he glimpsed flashes of green and red hurtling down the main straight – a C-Type Jaguar closely pursued by a menacing Ferrari. Their combined howl shook the ground.

Suddenly a different noise rose above him. Along with those around him Bond looked up to see a fast, dark shape eclipse the sun no more than a hundred feet above them. People instinctively ducked: Bond held his gaze. The downdraft blew dust, skirts and tempers in a whirlwind and he glimpsed the twin-rotors of a mammoth red and black helicopter as it disappeared from view towards the airfield. Somebody was certainly intent on making an entrance and from the logos on its flanks he had a fair idea who.

Into the tunnel and with cars continuing to roar overhead, Bond considered his contact. Ralf Antrobus was a celebrity, but for all the right reasons. A comic actor of some note, he was also a long-standing liaison to the service. While Bond had never met him he was familiar with his work, including, ironically, an amusing portrayal of a bungling secret agent. Having such a high-profile operative was an interesting and useful part of the Service’s ‘resource mix’, enabling intelligence to be gathered from areas where anonymity was not always an advantage. It was surprisingly effective: only the previous year Antrobus had been pivotal to the Courtney affair, unmasking a Nazi-cell at the BBC which ultimately, though not publicly, led to the resignation of the Home Secretary.

A now greying six-footer in his early-fifties, known for his quick, dry wit Antrobus apparently tired of the public’s expectations and kept himself to himself in a quiet corner of Kent indulging his passion for fine cars and fine wines. M held him in high esteem; Bond would make up his own mind.

The VIP-tent occupied a prime position overlooking the main straight in the run up to Madgwick, the circuit’s first corner. Three sides of the marquee were open, canvas strapped over an iron frame, white picket fencing decorated with flowers. It provided a perfect view across half the circuit, stands and airfield where a pair of Spitfires basked in the mid-morning sun. Antrobus sat at a large wrought-iron table in the corner watching the cars fly past. He spotted Bond and smiled: his proffered handshake firm and dry.

‘Bond. James Bond.’ He displayed the rather plain official ID.

‘Ralf Antrobus. A pleasure to finally meet you, Mr. Bond,’ and there appeared genuine warmth in the sentiment. Bond sat down and placed the Q-Berry casually on the table, activating it as he did so.

‘Jamming device: we’re a bit exposed for eavesdropping from the stands,’ he indicated the main stand some hundred yards away. ‘Better safe than dead, I always say.’

‘Er, quite,’ Antrobus looked a little taken aback. The marquee was empty save three women sitting at the rail and a disinterested waiter guarding a tableful of champagne, pastries and conscience-salving fruit.

‘Ironically most of the real VIPs fly in – the place will start to fill up around lunchtime – the talk will be “Ascot, dahlings, and Joscinta-Fotherby-Smythe”. Can’t stand it myself, nothing to do with the racing. You an enthusiast Mr. Bond?’

‘James. Cars yes, racing a little; the must-be-seen jet-set definitely not,’ he grinned. ‘I’d prefer to be sat in the stands truth be told – maybe with a bottle of Dom Perignon in a cooler though, naturally.’

Antrobus grinned back complicitly. ‘One really cannot skimp on life’s essentials, can one?’ and Bond couldn’t help but warm to the stranger with the familiar face.

‘So you’re a regular?’ he asked.

‘Missed last year obviously, but up till then been every year. Lovely atmosphere. Got quite a few friends around the place, usually do something for one of the TV stations. Getting a bit too much part of the social calendar for my tastes – witness the damned helicopter relay later on – who’s got the biggest, the fastest, the one with the best-stocked drinks cabinet. Talking of which I assume you saw the big entrance just now?’

‘Our Russian friend by any chance? Sikorsky twin-rotor?’

‘Yep – special military conversion to carry his damned Rolls around. Completely unnecessary but that’s not the point. Sorry I’m getting ahead of myself. I assume you’ll have a drink?’

‘It’s a bit early, Ralf.’

‘What, for a drink?’ he looked a little hurt.

‘For stupid questions.’

‘Aha! The old ones are the best! Not sure they stretch to Dom Perignon but I can recommend the whiskey – know the bar staff, got them to ship in a few bottles of my favourite single malt. Stashed under the counter.’

‘Sounds like a fine idea. No ice.’ Antrobus ordered the drinks and the waiter returned promptly. Bond downed half his, relishing the warmth in his belly.

‘Do you race?’ Bond asked.

‘I do indeed, James, I do indeed. Only real chance I get. Brought two of mine down this year; an old Mark IX Jag saloon for the St. Mary’s trophy and my lovely DB3S. I’m not really that good, to be honest, but it’s immensely satisfying. Yourself?’

‘Most of my driving’s of a professional nature.’

‘Ah yes. Well, how do you fancy giving it a bash – I’ve got you a drive in the Transatlantic Cup if you want it. Friend of mind drives a DBR1, broke his bloody ankle in the week, looking for a driver for the Sussex Trophy. I told him I’d jump at the chance so the DB3’s yours if you want it. Up for it?’

M had been at work here and a drive in the old Aston certainly sounded tempting.

‘Not sure that’s a good idea to be honest Ralf – different technique with some of this old machinery, hate to total something that valuable in front of an audience…’

‘Not even to get alongside Vorgov Smolenski?’ Antrobus smiled, knowing he had played a winning hand.

‘Okay, you’ve got me – tell me more.’

‘It’s his current fad: buying, collecting, racing. Not very talented, even by my standards: but massively competitive. Driving a hulking great Corvette – seven-litre monster – fast car, likely winner. The race is open to amateurs of all classes so it’s a bit of a mixed bag. What do you reckon?’

A waitress revolved around the room clearing glasses and Bond ordered another. ‘My job is to get up close and make something happen…can’t think of a better way. When can I get a look at him?’

Antrobus glanced at his watch then across the circuit behind Bond. ‘Perfect timing – stickler for punctuality is Smolenski. I love it when a plan comes together. Here comes the freak-show…’ and he gestured across the circuit. A number of gleaming cars sat on a raised platform under a famous auctioneer’s banner and a crowd had gathered including a number of photographers. Towards the stand a smaller group now moved, at its centre a large grey hat.

The broad grey fedora sat atop a man who must have been six-feet six inches tall. Bond could only see his head and shoulders but the figure was obviously a powerful one, the hair a shining silver mane which flooded loosely down the back of the man’s midnight-blue velvet coat. The man moved with a purposeful grace, the gaggle of figures around him struggling to keep up. He took the short flight of stairs in two bounds and was quickly shaking hands with and smiling intensely into the face of an officious looking gentleman in a hat. Vorgov Smolenski certainly liked to make an entrance.

‘What’s the occasion?’

‘Smolenski’s auctioning off a car and his company is sponsoring the big race. This is the PR – he’s due to speak for a few minutes, do a couple of interviews. He has his own V-VIP section over here – can’t get you into that I’m afraid. Just sorry our seats here aren’t any closer – you really need to get a good view of his entourage – a right pack of weirdoes they are.’

‘Not to worry – I have a trick or two up my sleeve – or rather, in my pocket.’ Taking his field glasses from their case he lifted them to his eyes and aimed not towards Smolenski but at the track. Openly spying on the group might attract attention, especially if he started taking photos, but luckily the Q-Berry’s sister gizmo, the cunning yet simple Q-Scope would fit the bill. Viewing the track, Bond made as if adjusting the focus using two rotary dials. Instead, through the viewfinder the image panned to the left, sweeping around the enclosure then across the track.  Rather than taking its feed from the main lenses the view fed via fibre-optic lenses on the case sides, affording a clandestine field of two-seventy degree surveillance without the viewer apparently switching their attention from straight ahead. Combined with digital video and image-tracking technology all sent via Bluetooth to the Q-Berry this formed a seriously clever piece of kit definitely not available at Comet.

Bond’s gaze fell upon the view over his left shoulder. The dais was eighty feet across, roughly circular and heavily shaded by plants, umbrellas and suits. At its centre were five large cars around which figures milled and it was upon these that Bond focussed. Smolenski stood in relaxed pose, the epitome of the Western executive. At ease in the company of others with an air of consummate power and greed. The hat was eccentric, the velvet suit ridiculous yet he wore both with ease. They spoke of a need to impress. He was still talking with the official who smiled as he was being flattered.

Bond was intrigued. From the file he knew the eyes to be slate-grey behind the steel rimmed glasses. Looking beneath the well-practiced dazzling smile he saw intelligence and malevolence. He clicked to record the scene, set the binoculars on their mini-tripod and turned back to Antrobus.

‘Seems like a harmless old eccentric millionaire to me. What can you tell me?’

‘Aha! Right, well for starters I can confirm the public persona: larger than life in every respect. Huge guy, huge wallet – very flash, but of course it’s very difficult to be vulgar nowadays. Small entourage – travels with a herd of twenty or so – harem, playboys outing and hoods convention all rolled in to one. Go everywhere he goes. You’ll see most of them today.’

‘This one of them?’ Bond showed him the photo of Junkers.

‘No, he’s new. Who is he?’

‘Someone nasty. Go on,’ he said, choosing not to elaborate.

‘Smolenski’s been at a few events round the London club circuit - M’s had me drop in on him on and off for six months now. Influential – gets in anywhere, anytime. Remember last month’s supposed gas-leak at Harrods’? Closed for Vorgov’s mistress’s to go shopping for his birthday – had a party thrown, reputedly cost a hundred and fifty grand…’

 ‘Is that all? Presumably it was worthwhile for Harrods’?’

‘They spent a million.’ Bond whistled.

‘Any yachts in there?’

Antrobus grinned. ‘Takes spending to a whole new level. He’s supposedly the wealthiest of the Novi-Ruski super-rich. Moscow is the world’s status symbol capital: their history of boom and bust leads to a “spend it while you’ve got it” mantra. Today Beluga: next year Siberia. So it’s how big is the mansion on the Rublevka golden mile, how long is the custom-built yacht in Monaco harbour and how many apartments on the Champs Elysees. Then of course there’s the women. Less than five stunning twenty-year-old mistresses is simply not trying.’

‘Hard life,’ Bond replied.

‘Indeed,’ responded Antrobus, missing the pun. ‘Linked with over a hundred women in the past twelve months – has at least fifteen on the go currently, impossible to keep track.’

‘And to keep happy, I’d imagine.’

‘Well quite!’ Antrobus grinned again, warming to his role as raconteur. Through the viewfinder Bond saw Smolenski talking to reporters.

‘Man of tremendous charisma and, I have to say, no little charm. Only spoke to him once, at a party at the Gherkin. Very direct, traps you in his gaze like a hypnotist,’ he added.

Antrobus ordered more drinks as Bond panned across trying to identify some members of Smolenski’s party who looked familiar from the files. Increasingly he found himself ceasing to look for Junkers and concentrating on the Russian, intuition telling him he was the central event.

‘Go on.’

‘Right, yes,’ Antrobus continued. ‘Cars have inevitably figured, of course – Lamborghini, Ferrari, countless custom-built Mercedes’, Maseratis, Bentleys… Has a fleet of seven Rolls-Royce Phantoms – literally one for every day of the week – each in a different colour, private plates “B-E-T” one to seven. Bit tacky in my humble opinion, but there you go.

‘Must have got bored with the modern stuff because about twelve months ago he got into historics. Done a bit of racing for fun, but mainly investments. Played it clever, gone for some little known gems, looking for what’ll appreciate. Occasionally unearthed some forgotten classic from the grave.’ Antrobus paused. ‘Been a bit too clever this time though…’

‘Oh?’ Bond was enjoying the tale. Whilst not caring how the rich chose to spend, he was fascinated by drive and motivation.

‘Yes…’ Antrobus turned mystery writer and leant conspiratorially across the table ‘…he’s turned up quite a few now and some people in the business are starting to smell a rat.’

‘What you mean, fakes?’

‘Bloody good ones if they are. Examined of course, those that have been auctioned, but it’s not easy. Not like paintings, coins or books you see – no easy way you can date them. Even the metal – there’s ways to simulate aging and of course most “classics” have had repairs or rebuilds so it’s very difficult to say what constitutes original.’

‘The hundred year old spade that’s had ten new handles and eight new blades?’

‘Precisely. And of course the style’s easy to copy as many cars were one offs anyway; hand-building meant even production-run cars were largely unique. Basically, what do you compare it to? Run up some form of provenance, and Bob’s your Uncle. The watch-out is that you don’t build them too well – most of these things weren’t built to last in the first place!’

‘And these cars make serious money?’

‘Well, for you and I yes, but not in Smolenski’s league, no. Small beer really – a few hundred thousand for an outlay of say one-fifty. Good return, but a drop in the ocean I’d have thought.’

‘In my experience winning is a consuming habit. So go on, give me the punch-line.’

‘1962 Ferrari 250-GTO or Omologato, which ironically of course means “copy”. The car Ferrari built to win the World Sports Car championship in ‘62. The rules stipulated that a hundred had to be built – prevent ridiculously high-powered one-offs – for it to be homologated. Except this is Italy, early sixties, and this is Ferrari. So what do they do? Ferrari builds their road cars with even chassis numbers, the racers with odd. Thus, when you list a range of chassis numbers on the forms, say 1234-1334, it looks like you’ve built a hundred when in fact there’s only fifty.’

‘So there are only fifty GTOs?’

‘Not even that: thirty-nine. This being Ferrari, when the official shows up at Maranello they show him thirty-nine cars, or maybe only thirty, and lots of parts, and half assembled cars which in fact are something else entirely. Then they fill him full of spaghetti and Chianti at the Cavallino restaurant across the road and by the time he leaves he’s convinced he’s seen a hundred.’

‘So the Italians cheated?’

‘Ah well, that all depends on your nationality. The car won fair and square, and a hundred could have been built. But why bother if you can get away with it? It’s a cultural thing: beating the rules can be seen as just another part of playing the game.’

‘But that’s not cricket,’ Bond smiled at the impending British smugness.

‘Maybe there’s the issue: this is more than just sport in Italy – its national pride so the rulebook tends to go out the window.’

‘So, why is it worth so much – just because it’s rare?’

‘Partly. Partly it’s because it won the World Championship. It’s one of those rare, planets-in-alignment moments when everything came together. It’s got the ability, the pedigree, the trophies, badge, rarity, and of course looks…commonly regarded as one of the most beautiful cars of all time…the definitive front-engined racer just before the engine room moved behind the driver. It’s got it all. And as a result it’s the blue-ribbon of classic car investments, the value barometer for the world market. Dealers index other cars versus the GTO. And now, all of a sudden, instead of thirty nine – ta-dah - here’s bastard-child number forty – and no-one ever knew.’

While they had been talking the enclosure had been filling up. Out on the circuit the larger, booming sports cars had been replaced by the high-pitched Formula Juniors. Antrobus dropped his voice.

‘The press say it’s a valid missing link - up pops this car two months ago apparently discovered in Argentina with full authentication from a top auction house. No one else has been allowed within twenty yards of it. It’s like finding there really was a fifth Beatle and he’s riding Shergar.’

‘What’s it worth?’

‘Estimates range upwards from eight million…’

Bond let out another whistle.

‘Of course,’ said Antrobus, ‘if someone were to get close to it and prove it was a fake after all, now that really would spoil the party…’

Bond grinned, agreeing with M’s evaluation of the man.

‘I’m always trouble at parties,’ he replied.

Later he sat and examined the video footage he’d taken more closely. Smolenski continued to move with imposing ease and was obviously used to being the centre of attention. Those around him were more elusive, but four familiar faces had popped up.

First was a man notable primarily for his size: a squat-proportioned, barrel-chested six-footer with South American features in a red lumberjack shirt and chinos. He moved with the disarming grace of an athlete, but looked like he dined on ironmongery. It took him a few seconds, but the alarm bell of familiarity sounded clear and long: he knew this face, remembered from the circulation of Europe’s most-wanted. There had undoubtedly been surgery somewhere along the line but this was ‘The Barber’ – a dubious individual with no official history but the suggestion was that he was an ex-Contra rebel from Nicaragua where he had earned his nickname by cutting more than his victim’s hair.

Next were two no less scary females: shorter but if anything broader he would have put them down as merely fat had he not seen the swiftness with which they moved and the strength displayed in man-handling items of furniture to clear space. The file listed the pair as Dodo and Diana – round-faced, plain and muscular. Both were rumoured to be killers in some rather inventive ways and to be equally inventive sexually - ‘sado-masochistic bisexuals who would do anything to anything with anything if it sated their desire for gratification’ was a phrase which would stay with him for some time. Whatever they got up to they certainly seemed happy on it as the two spent most of their time in each other’s company acting as formidable bouncers for the group.

Aside from these Bond noticed the predictable swarm of elegant women, finely drawn figures adorning Smolenski’s money and intellect. In particular he noticed a stunning coloured girl: a cherub-like face and delicate figure intimating a child-like innocence at odds with the attention she was giving to Smolenski. She clung to his arm whispering occasionally in his ear.

The final name from the files was a comparatively anonymous figure in a rotund grey suit. Rudolph Christochowitz,  Smolenski’s personal banker, a clever Pole who spent most of his time travelling between London, Frankfurt and Zurich; he appeared timid and nervous. With so much money at stake small mistakes presumably meant big penalties.

Bond was about to watch some of the racing when he noticed Smolenski take Christochowitz to one side and begin an urgent conversation: the Goldminers could possibly give him a transcript from the video later. But what he finally saw made him smile: the pair were joined by a third face from the rear of the platform, a figure who kept partially hidden during what seemed a heated debate, then immediately melted away when it ended.

Bond rewound the video and froze the image.

‘Bingo,’ he said.

* * *

5

Handle With Care

He dined with Antrobus in the VIP enclosure, a serviceable smoked salmon with lemon and dill dressing accompanying a passable Pinot Grigio. There was no sign of the Russian or his entourage. Antrobus talked mainly of cars before turning to the business at hand; he had passed Bond off as film producer Joshua Bellman here to persuade him, Antrobus, to do a comedy about a Greek goatherd.

‘But I don’t like the script or the sun. Holding out for a bigger pay cheque, hence the offer of a drive,’ he explained with enthusiasm. ‘How did the spectating go by the way?’

‘An interesting array of specimens on display. One clear leader, a few possible threats in attendance.’ He gave a sanitised version of events that satisfied Antrobus. By one forty-five they stood beside the blue-grey Aston Martin beneath the angular corrugated roof of the garage. Beside it a voluptuous series of curvaceous aluminium bodies stretched out in the August sunshine.

‘Impressive, aren’t they?’ Antrobus cut in. ‘It’s a bit like admiring exotic fish - you keep having to remind yourself some are deadly.’

‘I was thinking more along the lines of Cobacabana beach actually.’

‘Ah, but these babes will kill you if you treat them badly…’

‘Oh I don’t know - I’ve met one or two spiky specimens.’ Antrobus sighed and gave up.

‘Some of these things are brutes: kill you soon as look at you. No nannying devices like traction control to keep you out of a hedge, just gears, pipes and pulleys connecting you to the oily bits. When it all goes right you know it’s all your own doing…’

‘And the same when it all goes wrong.’

‘Quite,’ Antrobus grinned, ‘but that’s the kick, isn’t it?’ He slipped into the driver’s seat and turned the key. Fuel pumps primed the starter caught, carburettors spluttering unevenly to life before settling into a deliciously creamy burble. Antrobus gunned the throttle and the straight six wailed, exhausts poppling enthusiastically.

‘Beautiful isn’t she?’ he said, voice raised and grinning. Bond had to agree.

Smolenski’s blue Corvette sat five berths down. Despite the imminent start of practice no one went near. Bond decided to bide his time and watch Smolenski in action. Smokenski was staying at the Goodwood House hotel and if no opportunity presented itself during the day he’d look to engineer one that evening.

‘I said do you want to put on your helmet, Joshua?’ Antrobus repeated.

‘Of course, Ralf – can’t wait!’ Bond smiled back cheerfully. He donned a white, open-faced helmet and gloves and lowered himself into the snug cockpit. Buckled in he flexed his hands on the thin-rimmed steering wheel and gunned the engine hard, triggering a ‘brap-brap’ sound from the exhaust and a grimace from Antrobus. Bond smiled reassuringly.

‘Don’t worry – I know all about tropical fish.’ Antrobus still wore an uncertain look as the Aston slunk its way out of the paddock to join the parade of cars making its way onto the circuit.

In his mirror Bond glimpsed people near the Corvette, a familiar tall figure already in helmet and red overalls took the driver’s seat with a wave and quickly joined the queue four cars back. As he ambled along Bond’s eyes were caught by a familiar black and white headscarf at the fencing. Through the small passenger window he spotted the girl from the Alfa, head propped on upturned palm, watching with disinterest as the cars filed past. He caught her eye and she smiled in recognition. He returned a wave before returning his attention to the matter at hand: one thing at a time, Bond. Swinging the huge, wood-rimmed steering wheel to the right he brought the sports car through a wide arc out onto the smooth tarmac.

‘Okay old girl, let’s see what music we can make together.’ And he floored the accelerator. The Watson-engineered straight-six howled into life, induction roar building to a crescendo at six thousand revs, exhaust shifting from uneven tenor to high-pitched rasp in a matter of seconds. He revelled in the directness of the heavy controls: the huge wheel, delicate aluminium gear stick and beautifully weighted pedals. Taking her round Fordwater for the first time in a deft right-left sequence he was immediately addicted to the sense of feel he had, although keeping it up for eighteen laps would be tough.

Two laps were taken gently as he learned the circuit, then on the third he really opened her up and the fifty year-old machine responded, only the grip of archaic radial tyres betraying her age allowing a large amount of rear end drift.  Hitting all the apexes and keeping the revs high he was satisfied with the lap but he felt he might be able improve his line through Lavant to carry a little more speed onto the back straight. Shooting past the pits for the third time he saw Antrobus smiling which he took as a good sign, and further along a familiar black and white spotted headscarf marked his second onlooker, pink mouth smiling coolly in his direction. Thus far he had seen nothing of Smolenski and he deliberately eased to let a gaggle of newer cars through. Fourth to come past was the light blue number twenty three Corvette, a huge rumbling truck of a car, tyres screeching, exhausts spitting: not pretty but effective.

He slotted the Aston in behind the Corvette’s up-swept tail, careful not to get too close despite the Aston’s superior brakes. The rear of the American car squirmed under hard braking, live axle struggling to keep fits at rear tyres in contact with the track. Once or twice he backed off in anticipation of Smolenski losing control but both times the Russian showed excellent control and brought the car back in line. If reaction times could be equated to intelligence then here was confirmation of what he had read.

For the next few laps Bond found he was struggling to keep station behind the Corvette. His inexperience was certainly partly to blame but despite its superior handling through the corners his car was obviously slower and Smolenski pulled away markedly on the two long straights. Thankfully he lost some time to backmarkers which Bond proved more adept at overtaking. Even in practice he could see the ruthless competitor. His manoeuvres gave neither room for error nor alternative for the opposition – he scythed down the inside at corners, cut across the racing line and deliberately made contact on at least one occasion to force a Jaguar to surrender track position. And always, he noted, these moves were made down the back of the circuit: the man knew exactly what he was doing. Game on.

Dropping down into third he pressed the loud pedal and the DB3’s delicate snout sprang into the wake of the Corvette’s over-styled rump. Managing to keep station through the chicane as they entered the main straight he made his move. Bringing the Aston out wide he feigned to overtake, provoking a blocking move. Bond swung the more agile Aston sharply in the opposite direction, barely keeping the rear from skidding, then in clear air and only inches behind he pressed home his advantage.

By the time Smolenski realised what had happened the little Aston was alongside and starting to pull clear, both cars travelling in excess of one hundred and ten. As they passed the pits Bond smiled genially across at the Russian. For the first time Smolenski’s steely gaze met his, devoid of its earlier charm. He waved a hand but with no response.

Bond kept ahead of the Corvette for a further lap and was obviously holding him up. Not polite but there was more at stake than mere silverware. After practice the blue Corvette did not return to the pits, stopping with engine trouble out on the circuit according to Antrobus.

‘Looked distinctly peeved, I can tell you!’ he added with a note of triumph. ‘You got fifth on the grid to his ninth thanks to spoiling his last quick lap – bloody good result!’

‘One-nil to the good guys.’

He spent the rest of the afternoon touring the infield, taking in the marvellous air-display of Spitfires and Mustangs, mulling over the situation and keeping a watchful eye out should Smolenski return.

Junkers, he decided, was monkey to Smolenski’s organ grinder. ‘Skillerbet’ was going from strength to strength, but was apparently legitimate, at least until the Government decided to flex its muscles instead of Bond’s. But now he had seen Smolenski up close, seen the unsurprising aggression and competitive edge beneath the smoothly groomed PR exterior of a CEO. A nasty character he decided; there was no smoke without fire, but whether there were flames enough to start a full scale conflagration was another matter.

His mind flicked through the files that had passed his desk over the past twelve months, recalling the analysis which suggested counter-intelligence activity had risen by twelve per cent. Sushi-bar assassinations in London, chemical weapons discovered in Valencia, suspicious suicides in Stockholm and Berlin. Intuition told him the current wave of attacks was more than just an escalation, something altogether more sinister had taken hold. And now he had a link between Smolenski and Junkers, and the Manchester attack and his own. Alarm bells were ringing. 

As the Spitfires wheeled overhead for the last time that September day, for the first time in many months James Bond felt that he may be at the right time in the right place. Just the right spot to fan the flames.

*

The Goodwood House Hotel boasts all mod-cons but is rarely full except on race weekends. Charm rather than electronic trickery had established Smolenski to be a fellow guest but he had to fall back on Service muscle to free up a medium-sized room on the top floor which he strongly suspected would result in a less-favoured guest being turned out into a hastily converted broom cupboard.

The hotel was sumptuous: the room plush, the menu inviting and the bar well able to cater for his needs. Casual enquiries at reception revealed that an upstairs room had been annexed for the weekend by Smolenski’s party and that they would retire there to eat at around seven-thirty. That gave him plenty of chance to engineer a meeting.

Entering from the subtly hued lounge at six forty-five the bar was already full: his enthusiasm for fine drinking obviously shared by the racing fraternity. Moving to the oak-panelled bar he was distracted by an unaccompanied pair of legs. Dark skinned, evenly contoured and mercilessly slim they connected a tight dark-green skirt with an equally expensive-looking pair of deep green silk shoes.

‘What single malts do you have?’ he asked at the bar. The stocky barman reeled off a list of nine in stock adding a further three that he could get within fifteen minutes.

‘I’ll take the Glen Findroch - double, no ice.’ He swung his gaze towards the beautiful coloured girl he had seen with Smolenski earlier. She wore a single-piece dress of sheer black silk which seemed ready to burst in several encouraging places. She was turned away, gazing absently along the bar. Hair short, dark and gelled, the whole vision was of a carefully carved statuette.

‘Could I get one for you too, miss?’ She turned, a gentle smile playing across full, glossed lips.

‘You could but it may cost you,’ a hint of a French accent rolled the vowels. Did her response seem hurried? Her face brightened as though suddenly activated; she held out a slender arm. ‘Slidea: Slidea Thumaratnum. Sly for short,’ she said.

‘Thank goodness for that. And I’m Bellman – Joshua Bellman,’ he knew the alias would bear scrutiny. She returned the smile.

‘How very…English,’ again an intonation to study later. ‘Are you always so formal?’

‘Only when the occasion demands it.’

‘Then I shall have a Drambuie, Mr. Bellman, thank you so kindly…’ Bond ordered and the drink came admirably quickly.

‘What shall we drink to?’ she held her glass up.

‘Fast cars?’

‘If you follow that with “and fast women” I’m leaving!’ she laughed.

‘In that case how about to “Glorious Goodwood” – a fine weekend’s racing surrounded by beautiful scenery.’ They clinked glasses and drank. The girl’s eyes wandered. ‘Are you here for the racing?’ he asked.

‘I’m here with friends who like racing,’ she said the word friends with care. ‘I can take it or leave it myself – machismo nonsense I’m afraid. Not wanting to get too ecological but it’s about as wasteful an activity as you can get. Deliberately driving round in circles in old bangers, I mean…’ This last was obviously sincere and for a moment she seemed to have to compose herself. ‘And you? Are you one of those machismo types, spinning round in your phallic symbol, strutting your testosterone for the girls?’ Ridicule danced upon her eyes and lips. Bond gave a wry smile: she was tougher than she looked.

‘I never go round in circles I can assure you.’ For the first time she turned her gaze upon him, huge brown eyes dark glistening pools. He enjoyed the verbal sparring almost as much as the more athletic pursuits which often followed. ‘I’m racing tomorrow but for once I don’t expect to win.’

‘How reassuringly self-deprecating, Mr. Bellman. “For once” he says,’ her smile broadened and laughter danced in her eyes, no longer just mocking. ‘Why the sudden attack of humility?’

‘I have inferior equipment,’ he said as she ran her pink tongue along an immaculate and expensive set of teeth. ‘My car is rather older than the competition so to be honest no, I don’t expect to win. Bound to be some Russian fellow in a Corvette – brute of a thing. I haven’t a ghost of a chance.’

‘Oh now I don’t think you really mean that, do you Mr. Bellman? Secretly you love a challenge, and you fancy your chances, inferior equipment or not,’ she was definitely fishing, which made two of them. That tongue flicked out deliciously again, moistened her lips.

‘Well that’s possibly true,’ he grinned, ‘but as I say, there has to be something more in it for me – I’m afraid I don’t just do it for testosterone kicks as you put it.’

The girl pulled a face of mock sympathy.

‘Oh dear, have I heard the handsome man’s feelings?’ This was not going as smoothly as he’d hoped. What was she after? In the short term, another drink after which conversation became a little more relaxed. He commented on her choice of drink.

‘Got the taste at college – bit of a tomboy, if you can believe that. Always hanging out with the inmates of the boys’ college – all girls’ schools are so dull. And no: not just for sex. Although that was a bonus,’ she added as an aside. He was amused by her sudden candour. ‘Nearly got myself thrown out on a couple of occasions – drink related, overdid it a tad. Or maybe two tads. At any rate I was found in the head-girls’ bed with four boys one Sunday morning when I should have been at mass. Can’t pretend I was ever religious.’

‘Sounds like a many and varied education you had. Did you ever reform?’

‘Now that would be telling…’ She suddenly glanced down at her watch. The clock above the bar said five past seven.

‘Bloody hell, look at the time – they’ll be waiting for us…’

‘Us?’

‘That’s right, us,’ she grabbed his arm. ‘I told my friends I’d bring a companion for dinner – it gets so boring sat on your own with no-one to talk to. We have a private dining room for the weekend so we don’t have to dine with the riff-raff - although I rather like a bit of riff-raff now and then, don’t you?’

The teasing eyes drew him back through the lounge up a gently sweeping staircase, across a broad landing and through a large, heavy curtain which covered a pair of oak-panelled doors. Passing into the impressive dining area Bond felt the whole table look up.

‘Ah, Mister Bellman – please sit down, we have been expecting you…’

The words fell like a hammer blow and for the first time since his arrival Bond was on the back foot.

The room had an atmosphere of heavy elegance. Twenty-five feet wide, forty feet long and fifteen feet high the traditional furniture, fittings and plasterwork contrasted with the latest audio-visual equipment. Three walls carried heavily patterned flock wallpaper, deep blue floral growths exploding across a silver background. Four high portrait windows let out onto broad ornamental lawns. The room’s long back wall was covered with representations of classic Goodwood moments, automotive, aeronautical and equestrian. A stirring and magnificent centrepiece depicted a lone RAF Spitfire ploughing through a turbulent sea of angry cloud, bringing red, white and gold sunlight streaming through the breach. The room itself was dominated by a twenty-foot dining table with eleven ornately-carved high-backed leather chairs, seven of which were occupied. At the head sat a familiar figure with a thin face and flowing grey hair cascading down the back of a long black velvet jacket. In other circumstances Vorgov Smolenski would have struck a bizarre sight, yet here he nested oozing quiet confidence.

‘Pünktlichkeit ist die Höflichkeit der Könige, as the Germans so precisely have it. Please Mr. Bellman, you will join us?’ The voice was pure spun gold.

Punctuality is the politeness of kings - Bond was caught off-guard: he had intended that this evening would see him play cat to Smolenski’s mouse yet suddenly the roles were reversed.

‘Why certainly, but I make a point of never dining with strangers: poison treats friends and foe with equal contempt.’

Smolenski’s face tensed as if he were trying to place the quote.

‘My grandmother, on my mother’s side.’

‘A wise woman! My apologies, Mr. Bellman. I am often informed that my direct approach can appear rather rude. Time is too valuable a commodity to waste on social niceties being the one thing none of us may buy. Vorgov Smolenski,’ he obviously expected this to have some impact and the hand remained held out squarely. Bond advanced with exaggerated recognition and shook the warm paw.

‘A pleasure, I didn’t realise, I’m so sorry…’ he felt he may have overdone the politeness but Smolenski appeared not to notice.

‘Apology accepted. You may take the seat between Ms Thumaratnum and Mr. Moebius there,’ he indicated with a throwaway gesture. Sly grabbed his arm looking pleased, giving him an ‘I told you so’ smile, while Moebius, a short, thin ferret of a man with a bald skull reminded Bond of Tolkein’s Gollum. A hovering waiter made to fill his glass with wine as he took his seat.

  ‘Whiskey please, three fingers, no ice,’ then to Smolenski. ‘I feel like the guest of honour at a surprise party, only the surprise is I don’t know anyone. Or indeed the occasion,’ he smiled.

‘Let us keep the formal introductions until after the first course. I really thought you may miss it,’ the tone was calm and reasonable: Vorgov Smolenski was a man with whom it would be difficult to disagree.

Four waiters entered carrying domed silver platters which, when uncovered, revealed cold quail on a dressed salad. Not Bond’s favourite dish but superbly executed – tender and quite the best he had eaten. He made small talk with Sly about the impressive setting, the food and the racing, where she reinforced her opinion that it was mere juvenility. His early attempts to bring Moebius into the conversation were met with curt responses, the man instead quietly observing the rest of the table.

In addition to himself, Smolenski, the divine Ms Thumaratnum and the cold fish that was Mr. Moebius five more guests sat at well-spaced intervals. Bond sat in the centre of the table facing the windows and to the right of Smolenski who predictably sat at the head. To his left was Sly and between her and the Russian sat Christochowitz, still the drab grey-suited banker. To Bond’s right Moebius was dressed in a rather colourful get-up of rust coloured corduroy trousers and a red and white striped shirt. Continental fashions never ceased to amaze him. Opposite were some familiar faces in a boy-girl alternate, starting with a stunning blonde full of smile and figure but apparently empty of head. It bobbed and nodded as if on a spring.

‘Of course, of course! How true…!’

Next to her sat the quiet, imposing bulk of The Barber who watched Bond impassively. Facing him sat a rather more interesting brunette who spent much of the first course joking with Sly about her taste in men, while to her left the final male guest was the brooding, inevitable figure of Junkers. Well, he had wanted to get close. He remained quiet, looking up just once with an angry glance aimed seemingly at Smolenski. If he was just emerging from hiding he was unlikely to be too impressed with Smolenski inviting strangers to dinner. Having said that he had to assume Smolenski himself had been doing his homework – the next hour would tell if his cover had held.

First course cleared their host decided it was time to open court.

‘Very good, very good. I had them brought in especially you know,’ seven faces were immediately caught in those creamy tones. ‘I’m afraid I am a little picky with my food – spoilt rotten one gets used to expensive tastes. One of the little appreciated drawbacks of wealth is that it raises ones expectations to unfortunately high levels.’ He managed a pity-me expression.

‘But now then, Mr. Bellman, I realise I have been a little unfair – oh, I hope you enjoyed the food by the way?’ the aside meant to bring Bond into the conversation. Bond paused, unhurried.

‘It was passable I suppose. Possibly a little tough…’ The Russian frowned.

‘Surely more than that, Mr. Bellman…but never mind. Good. Now, introductions! Everybody in turn please,’ this last comment was addressed to the table. The blonde gave him a plastic smile.

‘Oh, hi. Helena Cartwright-Jones – new here myself, actually,’ said the blonde, giggling, perfect hair swaying perfectly gently and falling perfectly back into position. She wore a low cut silver-grey dress which revealed an expensive pair of breasts: very flattering and she knew it. ‘Beauty therapist by day, your choice by night…’ she turned back to Smolenski, twisting the comment around him and ensuring he knew it. ‘Had a bit too much already…’ she added. The woman opposite openly yawned.

The giant sequoia spoke next. ‘Good evening Mr. Bellman – Raul Brandon, Mr. Smolenski’s personal security.’ The English was good but the South American accent was thick.

‘I cannot take chances, especially with the current security situation in Europe. Raul is known as “The Barber” amongst his friends – a little known sideline of his.’ This raised a pleasant smile from Helena and an amused one from The Barber himself. The man was pure muscle – no neck, no shoulders, just a rounded hulk in an open shirt with prominently displayed dog-tag probably reading ‘do not feed’.

‘Rebecca Marx,’ the woman opposite had obviously already had enough of Ms Cartwright-Jones’ simpering. ‘I’m in charge of Customer Analysis – basically psychology – at Mr. Smolenski’s company, Skillerbet.’

‘And who do you study?’

‘Everybody, Mr. Bellman, everybody,’ this time the smile was more measured. ‘I find it is a skill which has many practical uses – our race is an endlessly varied and fascinating one.’

‘Carlos Jutman. I am…Market Research.’ Junkers delivered the alias and job title with a thick German accent. One or the other greatly amused him as he exchanged an in-joke with Moebius, who in turn now spoke.

‘Mr Bellman, a pleasure – Jan Moebius, Head of I.T.’ A smile only enhanced the Gollum similarity – somehow furtive and deeply unpleasant.

‘And of course Ms Thumaratnum, my little honey-trap, you have already met.’ Sly turned and greeted him sarcastically. But Bond was distracted by the use of the old Service term.

‘And last but not least a man I could no more live without than my arms and legs, Rudolph Christochowitz - personal financial advisor and oldest friend…’ Christochowitz greeted the compliment with a transient smile.

‘So now you know everyone – my team. Allow me to explain: you may not have realised but we are competing in the same race tomorrow – the Transatlantic Cup? I am number twenty-three – you are number six. I think we had a little run-in down at the chicane earlier? I’m sure it was not intentional – your unfamiliarity with the car. The race will be different.’ Statements not questions. ‘Have you experience Mr. Bellman?’

‘I’m a keen competitor in everything I do.’

‘We’re no longer talking of just cars, are we Mr. Bellman? Very well. I can see I have you at a disadvantage - for that I do apologise. I’m afraid I too am a keen competitor, and part of the secret of my success is to know your competition well. “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer”, yes?’ The winning smile came quickly but with telling hesitation. ‘In my line of business you must stack the odds somewhat in your favour.’

‘You’ve obviously been very successful at it. Your line is online gambling I believe?’

‘That is my latest and most successful venture, yes. Skillerbet - an exciting and rapidly growing industry of which the UK is currently the hub, and I am market leader. Huge potential. Many of my counterparts saw the US move to ban it as a killer, if you’ll pardon the pun, but I took full advantage. I have the industry’s best intellectual capability in Austria and a huge low-cost operation in Bangalore. No one else has that sort of infrastructure. But it’s the proprietary I.T. that’s at the heart of it – Mr. Moebius and Ms Marx’ baby is a jewel.’ He paused for dramatic effect; Bond responded with a controlled raise of the eyebrows. Smolenski continued with an air of triumphalism.

‘Everyone has pretty basic back-end set-ups when you wade through all the marketing. The important part is what lies behind – how you structure the gaming, adapt it, tailor it to your clientele. I’m not telling you anything that isn’t already in the public domain. Did a double page spread in the FT last month,’ Bond had studied it – “Heads he wins, tails you lose” had been the headline.

‘Some would say you’re maximising revenue by exploiting the weaknesses of the vulnerable.’

‘How I tailor my offering to my paying customers, Mr. Bellman,’ the gaze remained steady, the dictation slowing minutely. ‘It is my competitive advantage. Great companies – the really innovative ones – they create their market, they don’t sit and wait. They identify the need before the customer is aware of it. They keep ahead of competition by adapting their offering to individual customer needs. The net offers unprecedented data – but you need clever I.T. to turn data into usable information. And that is where Mr. Moebius and Ms Marx’ brainchild comes in.’

‘Emerald – my brain, his brawn,’ Rebecca was warming to the tale with some degree of pride. ‘It’s all algorithmically driven, all automated, that’s where Skillerbet is in a league of its own. We don’t have a bunch of programmers searching the data – the core programme does that – it actually seeks out opportunities, does the correlations, the extrapolations. Literally comes back with suggestions everyday of new gaming structures for certain customers.’

‘An automatic, constantly adapting model: in business terms, Mr. Bellman, it is nothing short of the Holy Grail’.

Bond felt like he was watching a commercial and was anxious to keep poking the self-congratulatory bubble.

‘Rather immoral I’d say - staking out an individual, looking for weaknesses?’ He knew he had hit a PR nerve with Marx.

‘It’s no different to TV advertising, targeted direct mail shots. Have you any idea how many people are studying your spending patterns, your travel, your TV watching habits, your web-browsing? Our services take into account people’s financial situation, their betting history, credit rating – the lot. And if we see individuals overstretching we manage their bets downwards,’ the defensive tone was unmistakable.

‘We even refer people to a lovely gamblers-rehabilitation site for the unlucky few who may get addicted,’ added Sly and Bond immediately sensed she had spoken out of turn.

‘I’d possibly question whether it is only a few. Last figures I saw suggested half a million addicts in the UK alone. That sort of power is open to abuse in the wrong hands.’

‘Possibly – I am a great believer in freewill. But in any event, it will not fall into the wrong hands, I assure you. We take the strictest precautions. Ah, the main course!’ For the time being court was ended.

Main course consisted of a lobster thermidor served with an ‘elegant sufficiency’ of buttered vegetables as Sly put it. Waitresses busied themselves refilling glasses, Smolenski reassuring with encouraging smiles – very much the genial dictator. The man had maintained his composure right to the last with calm and silky tones. Only when Bond deliberately spiked him did he bristle, and it had been then that Bond had glimpsed a hint of red in those steely grey eyes.

The man had a huge presence both physically and charismatically – each time he spoke the table reacted, interrupting conversation and turning. After the second course had been cleared Smolenski spoke once more.

‘I’m sorry Mr. Bellman, I went into far too much detail talking about myself earlier and we did not talk of you. What is it that makes you tick – what gives you that essential sense of achievement in life?’ A put-down delivered with the charm of a rattlesnake. Bond met his gaze.

‘I like to think I have many strings to my bow. I’m basically an entrepreneur, been rather successful reading and riding the telecoms boom over the past few years, frankly now I’m moving into investment opportunities, especially looking at how to keep Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue from my door…’ this drew a sympathetically chuckle from Christochowitz.

‘Aren’t we all, Mr. Bellman…’ Smolenski smiled indulgently.

‘So I’m actually here trying to persuade an actor to star in a film we’re co-producing. Got my eye on the cars here though – I deal in exotic goods - works of art, rare books, antiquities, bespoke electronics from the far-east and occasionally cars. The boom in the world economy has created a huge demand for status symbols. I cater for that market, especially middle and far-east.’

‘We have something in common after all!’ that air of triumph once more, ‘We both are exploiting the free-market!’

‘I beg to differ: I cater for a market, and to people with frankly more money than sense. You appear to be creating one for those who have limited funds already. I’m surprised you have a market at all.’ Amusement played around the Russian’s eyes: he was enjoying this and on some level thought he had won. Bond continued.

‘All we have in common is an interest in cars, money and beautiful women. Not exactly an uncommon combination,’ his ploy to bring in the wider audience drew comments from two of the women present. The rest of the table remained silent.

‘Maybe so, maybe so. But we both are taking advantage of the opportunities presented to us by capitalism, Mr. Bellman, something which, as an ex-communist myself I find fantastically amusing. My countrymen are finally playing the West at its own game and they are winning! They are winning because they have been taught to be ruthless, which is what the game demands. We do not impose hypocritical moral restrictions. We are both entrepreneurs Mr. Bond – just on different scales. And I do not take your answer as an honest one. I believe that entrepreneurial spirit overrides all others: given the same opportunities you would do the same as I. Possibly not as well, as I have a number of advantages. What you class as high morals I would contend is merely a lack of imagination: that grey area you highlight between us is not a sea of separation, merely a step across a stream – that from the ordinary to the extra-ordinary. What marks out the true visionaries is that they are not put off by such psychological obstacles, Mr. Bellman; they remove them before looking for the next. I am a billionaire to back up my theory – and I mean a real, British billionaire – twelve zeroes!’ he caught himself. ‘But again you must forgive me for speaking so passionately -’

‘Your candidness is enlightening,’ Bond was sure Smolenski would take what he wanted from the comment and sure enough he smiled appreciatively.

‘You are a true English gent.’ Bond did not correct him. ‘Which is why I know you will take up my offer of a little wager on tomorrow’s race, just to keep things…interesting…’

* * *

6

A Compendium of Games

‘You are of course a gambling man, Mr. Bellman?’ Smolenski’s follow-up was laced with menace. Bond studied the glass in his hand.

‘Only when I’m sure I can beat the odds,’ he replied. Smolenski had sized up his opponent and would now try to intimidate. Bond raised his eyes to meet the Russian’s, ‘And if the stakes are worthwhile, of course.’

Smolenski’s face broke into a broad grin. ‘My sentiments exactly, Mr. Bellman. Of the odds: what do you make of them?’

‘My car is hopelessly out-gunned but slightly more agile. I’d say I was marginally the underdog.’

‘And yet you did not decline outright, which means you think you have a chance: you have studied the odds and have spotted a chink in my armour – I’m fascinated what that might be. My driving is excellent yet rate yours higher; it is your arrogance versus my own. What was it you saw whilst tailing me I wonder?’

‘Never interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake, I always say,’ Bond was anxious to keep the tension high in the hope that Smolenski’s sleeping lion, sensing prey, would react.

‘I like that saying very much!’ he exclaimed, ‘I may use it in the future.’ Smolenski seemed disproportionately pleased. ‘Shall we say - fifty thousand? Pounds?’

Bond was in no mood to be out-ballsed.

‘Why not a call it a round hundred?’

‘Done! But possibly not in cash – when I win I reserve the right to call in the debt as services rendered. I am a firm believer that every man has his worth, Mr. Bellman. A man in my position is always on the lookout for people with unique talents,’ something prickled on the back of Bond’s scalp at the familiar phrase. ‘But that is settled. We shall drink to our wager and talk of things of interest to the rest of the table,’ and with that the gracious host recoiled into his pit of charm.

Dessert consisted of a fantastic cream, fruit and meringue waterfall delivered with mint and much pomp, sectioned at a side table. Served with multi-flavoured ice-cream the whole was rather overwhelming. Bond passed to cries of ‘shame’ from Sly and Helena. As the waiters began to serve coffee he made to withdraw.

‘I’m terribly sorry but I must excuse myself – I need to make a few phone calls. Possibly we shall meet for a drink in the bar later?’ Smolenski seemed put out.

‘So soon, Joshua? Very well. If not later then in battle!’ The Russian made a grand gesture of standing to attention and raising his glass in salute. Bond responded with a simple nod.

Bond made his way down through the lounge and out onto the lawns. Since the conversation had turned to the wager he’d been itching to get away and return to the circuit where two things interested him. Firstly the Ferrari – he wanted to take a look and see if he could spot anything which would support the fake theory and provide a weak spot for him to exploit with Smolenski. The second was Smolenski’s Corvette: the man appeared undaunted by Bond’s quiet confidence which suggested that he had something, legal or otherwise, in reserve. Bond’s money was firmly on the latter.

The pit area was deserted. He slid down the narrow gap beside the blue Corvette and the wood partition examining first its tyres and brakes, then the underside of the engine bay and finally the exhaust and drive-train. When no untoward modifications manifested themselves he grabbed a long-arm wrench, reached up under the engine bay and dislodged the bonnet catch. Security had not been top priority in 1964. A pencil light’s thin beam told him all was in order with the block, head and ancillaries – no additional boost devices or nitrous oxide injection. Dropping the bonnet quietly he circled the car checking for oil or nail deployment devices but again drew a blank. It was of course entirely possible that tweaks had been made inside the engine itself, but at least the fuel would be regulated. None the wiser he turned his attention to the Ferrari, making his way back across the grass towards the main stand.

A temporary marquee had been erected for the auction cars ahead of the following day’s racing and a move back to the hotel for the auction the following evening. Bond had watched it being set up and also the arrival of security which in contrast to the pits was tight. In addition to three external security guards he noted the two robust women he’d seen in Smolenski’s private guard. He needed to be careful: ejection from the event would mean a vital opportunity lost.

It was as he turned to make his way across the two hundred and fifty yards of grass between the pits and the track that he heard a starter motor crank a big diesel engine into life. A blaze of lights suddenly followed and the blinding array began moving towards him. Behind the glare was a huge dark hulking shape of…what? Not waiting he started to run.

Crouching low Bond sprang forward judging he could outrun the combined harvester to the trackside, but it was deceptively quick. A second set of lights appeared ahead and slightly to the left. It too began moving with unerring speed towards him in a path designed to cut off his escape. This time he could not outrun it in a straight line and veered right, still aiming to beat it to trackside; but the second possibly smaller machine really was quick. In seconds it was directly ahead and changing trajectory as the first one cut in from seven o’clock. Unable to see but clearly able to hear the massive rotating blades meshing in the darkness he could not take the chance of diving between the two monsters. Instead he sprinted towards a series of ten-foot high advertising hoardings that ran in from trackside. He hoped to duck behind these but there was no gap, and a second set running from the infield funnelled him up towards Madgwick Corner. Scrambling for traction on the soft ground his shortening shadow told him the farm machinery was gaining: blades grinding, gears whining they followed him down the passageway.

Too late he realised his error: more lights appeared directly ahead. The growl of a third engine revealed the trap. He drew the P99 from its holster, took aim and placed a pair of rounds at and then just beneath the lights ahead of him. The former found their target, taking out two of the six high intensity lamps, but of the latter he had no way of knowing. There was neither room nor time to turn and fire with any hope of hitting anything. Blinded by the lights and unable to see the ground his memory tried to conjure anything of help. Behind and in front the grinding got nearer, blades and spikes waiting. Cold air raced past, wind taunting his ears. The hoardings were solid and too high to climb. Harvester blades were three feet high – too risky to hurdle. Think, goddamit, think!

Luck comes in many forms, but rarely as a humble fold away marhsall’s chair. Without slowing Bond grabbed it, wrenched it open and in one swift move planted it firmly in the soft turf ahead of the steadily approaching machine. He vaulted, both feet cannoning off the elasticated seat, propelling him headfirst over the blades towards the cab, gun arm held rigidly ahead of him. A harsh metallic grinding noise signified the chair’s demise as he dispatched four rapid shots, shattering the windscreen and allowing his body to pass cleanly into the cab where he landed on the soggy remains of its driver in a shower of glass.

‘Dead at the wheel – three point offence.’ Not pausing to see what the other two machines would do he leapt from the high cab and rolled under the rear of the machine which occupied the full width of the passageway with only inches to spare. From behind came shouts as the two pursuing machines came to a halt and a bullet zinged over his head. Three more speculative shots drew sparks. Knowing the odds had decreased to two against one Bond sought cover. They had come out just across the track from the first corner behind a giant TV screen. Using it to shield his escape he sped across the track to the dimly moonlit spectator rise and the trees beyond. The rattle of a machine pistol told him he had been spotted.

Crashing into the undergrowth branches tore his face and sleeves. Another burst of automatic fire splintered tree trunks to his right. Twenty yards later he broke onto a narrow service road to the sound of a car horn and more headlights. Instinctively he leapt to vault the saloon, sliding on his back across its roof before being deposited in a ditch as its taillights receded at speed.

He heard his trackers smashing through the bushes, torches of limited use amid the shadows. Up and out of the ditch, gun raised and aiming to find cover he suddenly hit a high mesh fence topped with barbs: the car factory. The fence stretched out in both directions. Flattening himself to the ground he reached for the multi-tool device he carried and the small pair of metal cutters made short work of creating a man-shaped hole through which he hastily rolled. It was time to turn the tables.

Fitting the silencer as he darted low and fast up a short rise he turned, deliberately showing himself. From across the road came a shout and two torches found him. He dropped to the ground just in time to dodge the burst of fire. The pursuers quickly found the hole in the fence and one covered the other in climbing through, but the shots were again speculatively aimed at his previous position. Fish in a barrel, he thought. Taking aim in the semi-darkness he let go two pairs of shots which drew two cries then silence. A cool night breeze crossed his face and he steadied his breathing, alert. Nothing stirred. Was it that easy? He waited a full minute before lowering his aim. A metallic click announced his second mistake of the evening.

‘Bastard!’ a voice hissed in his ear beside the hard, cold muzzle pressing against his skull. ‘Drop it.’

Mistakes were thankfully not all his own preserve, however: never get within arm’s reach, the manual taught. Feigning to drop the gun he sunk to one knee, thrust his left arm up and across the assailant’s gun arm then span and rose in one move bringing his clenched right fist hard under the man’s jaw. But the man had already switched his weight to his back foot in anticipation – he stepped back, dodging the right hook. A powerful left connected with Bond’s stomach at the same time as Bond should have made contact himself and as he doubled the man, having lost his gun, ran for cover.

His assailant was dressed in night-combat gear: no amateur. Bond took aim just as he reached a side door to the building but unluckily it was open and the figure disappeared. He saved the bullet. Bond looked along the wall and saw a second access door: if they were in the habit of leaving one unlocked…

He stepped directly into a brightly lit yet deserted warehouse filled floor to ceiling with wide storage racks – not yet bolted down - containing all manner of mechanical components.  The building was huge and silent – presumably no night shift – and held multiple hiding places. His opponent was unarmed but in this environment weapons would not be hard to come by. Back flat against the end rack he ducked into an alcove on instinct just as a huge piece of machinery crashed unceremoniously to the concrete floor just in front of him. Looking up he saw a figure leap the gap twenty feet above him sending a hail of heavy shrapnel ground-ward. Bond tracked him along the top of the next row but the man moved with feline speed and agility out of view. Bond surveyed the perimeter of the warehouse. No escape up there: the man would have to come down to get out.

Hearing a grunt he turned and narrowly avoided a huge barrel that burst spectacularly and sent a stream of oily fluid flooding across the floor. Bond leapt over it and ran to the end of the aisle as a pallet crash landed behind him. A fleeting shadow told him the man had jumped across to another rack: he needed to gain some height. Climbing quickly Bond took a position half way up allowing quick access to the ground as well as a better vantage point to view movements atop the other racks. He waited, eyes scanning in the half-light, ears attuned for movement. A clatter to his left was an obvious decoy, as was another directly ahead. He guessed the man was trying to draw him deeper in while making his own way around to the exit. Trying a similar counter-manoeuvre Bond threw a metal rod to the left side of the building where it landed with a resounding clang. No movement.

A small noise followed by a hissing caught his attention. Steam suddenly rose near his right foot. He looked up: there stood his quarry two levels above looking down. He had pierced a large metallic container with a skull and cross-bones stencil from which a stream of angry liquid now spouted. Bond turned and shot rapidly: a corner of the canister exploded sending a shower of liquid into the air. There was a scream, a cloud of gas – Bond dropped to the floor and turned to take aim but incredibly the man was already down and caught him heavily across the chest. Bond smelt burning flesh but his wounded opponent was still strong.  Knocked back against the rack, pistol spinning uselessly across the floor Bond was temporarily helpless. A large wooden beam made contact with his upper-thighs. Pain seared up Bond’s body. By reflex he grabbed at the weapon pushing it sharply forward catching his opponent in the groin. The man let out a grunt and doubled up. Bond’s right foot met the downward moving face and spun his opponent upright. But the man was tougher than expected. Instead of remaining rigid for the coup-de-grace he ran towards the rack to Bond’s right and with amazing elegance vaulted through an empty pallet space into the next aisle.

Bond retrieved the automatic but lost ten yards. He kept pace with the figure sprinting down the next aisle, away from the exit, letting loose four individual shots which succeeded only in releasing more liquids and sparks.

Suddenly the footsteps stopped and again Bond heard scuffling as the man disappeared up one of the racks. Of course – he’d drawn Bond in after all and was now making his way back towards the exit. A large wooden crate slammed to the floor ahead of him and blocked his path to the exit. Almost at the far wall now Bond looked up to see the man leap from the end rack to the next some thirty feet above the floor. Around twelve more separated him from the exit.

Suspended from the ceiling and secured against a wall was a huge pallet of body parts. Bond fired and split the rope, setting the pallet free to pendulum from its high pivot. It swung heavily against the first rack with a resounding clang which echoed around the warehouse. At first he thought the impact insufficient but then in slow motion the rack toppled against the second setting in motion the hoped-for clanging domino effect.

He saw the figure atop the fourth rack preparing to jump and raced to cut off his escape. He reached the end just as the final rack hit the wall and when the metallic echoes subsided there was only silence. There was no sign of a body. Glancing up there was his quarry, hanging from a light fitting. Before he could take up aim the man dropped behind a partition. Bond cursed: the man was proving a slippery, if agile, customer.

Bond threw a box through the plastic-flap doors to the partitioned area. No response; covered by the distraction, Bond followed. Covering an empty staging area with the P99 he moved swiftly to the double doors opposite. The only other entrance was marked ‘Wind tunnel: Danger – authorised personnel only’ together with a cartoon figure wearing a hard-hat.

The attack took him by surprise – only later would he notice the hidden alcove - but a powerful blast of air took his legs painfully from under him and the Walther went spinning.

‘Well blow me down!’ the amused voice carried an East European accent and Bond saw his own gun levelled at him.

‘Goodbye, Mr. Bond.’

The still writhing air-hose provided Bond with his chance. Diving, he managed to spin it so that it blasted the man’s feet. Seizing the moment Bond leapt up the three metal steps and wrenched open the door to the wind tunnel just as a bullet tore across his path.

He had seconds and what he saw was less than he had hoped. He was inside a small control room with only one further exit door leading to the wind tunnel itself. No means of escape. He heard the man mount the steps. Kicking open the second door he threw a stack of books and papers through it then crouched low in the darkness just as the figure appeared in the doorway. As he’d hoped the man moved towards the second open door. Bond seized him by the collar and propelled him over the threshold. He even managed to prise the P99 from the man’s surprised hand.

‘It’s rude to steal.’

Five seconds later he had the wind-tunnel door locked, the attacker covered and stood drawing breath at the control panel.

‘Your turn to be blowed I think,’ he muttered. Surveying the controls he flicked on the tunnel lights leaving the control room in darkness. The man stood against the smooth far wall of the chamber. At one end a giant fan some thirty feet high sat behind an enormous metal grille, towering tall and silent. Fifty yards away at the other end a second grille masked huge outlet ducts. Everything was a bright, sparking white beneath intense halogen lighting just like some giant’s operating theatre. He flicked on the PA.

‘I just need a name.’

The man crouched like a caged animal, surveying his surroundings. He leered and made for the far end of the tunnel, grabbing and trying to free the grille to afford his escape.

‘I only ask questions once,’ Bond said switching the blower on. The massive blades slowly began to rotate. At first the man just stared, mesmerised by the steadily building speed. But as they blurred and finally merged into one seamless Catherine-wheel he renewed his attempts to shake free the metalwork. What started as a billowing of the man’s clothing soon became a gale, then a tornado against which he struggled to stand. Finally he gave up: pinned to the grille unable to move, skin rippling, hair streaming.

‘It’s good to feel the wind in your hair don’t you find?’ Bond looked down at the controls then back into the man’s eyes which returned a piercing glare. ‘Best change that expression - I have a feeling the wind’s about to change.’ He turned control dial watching the great fan gradually slow. The man grinned and shouted something inaudibly offensive.

Bond was losing his temper. ‘Sorry, you’ll need to speak a little louder…’ and he swung the dial in the opposite direction. ‘Can’t hear you.’ The man, stocky and muscular, sprang towards the door, pounding the glass and succeeded in cracking the wire-reinforced pane. Pulling sharply on the metal handle had less effect as the suction build up inside the chamber started to pull him in the opposite direction.

‘Hang on a sec,’ Bond shouted, as if trying to hear him. Instead he pulled a T-bar lever on the panel marked ‘maintenance’ sharply downwards. Immediately three yellow warning lights started to flash and rotate. An alarm sounded. At the far end of the chamber where the air rushed towards massive churning blades the grilles had started to open like a pair of huge lock gates. The man began frantically pummelling the door but had to hang on just to avoid being drawn towards the fan. His face rippled, his clothes dragged taught and finally his feet left the ground as he clung onto the handle for all he was worth.

‘Raise your hand if you have an answer please.’ Slowly, incredibly slowly, the man started to raise his left hand, but as he did so friction ceased to be his ally and Bond watched as his rag-doll figure was catapulted along the tunnel’s length into the fan. Briefly he saw the man’s soundless scream. It was like watching food in a blender.

‘Nope, didn’t catch that.’

Body aching he returned to his room dissatisfied: he’d found out little of value from cars or assailants, and there’d be a nasty stink at the factory in the morning. But Smolenski had made a move, whether pre-ordained, triggered by their discussion or more likely, he berated himself, a tail from the hotel that had seen him examining the Corvette. But there was unlikely to be anything directly linking Smolenski with the attack.

Turning the corner of the moodily lit corridor that led to his room a familiar pair of dark-skinned, unaccompanied legs met his eyes. This time the feet were bare as was the torso beneath the briefest of night-ware, her languid stance against the corridor wall an erotic vision in black silk.

‘I told you it may cost you, Mr. Englishman. Now I’ve come to collect.’ He came to stand over her.

‘Did your mother never tell you to keep wrapped up?’ She pulled him down around her, tongue vigorously exploring his mouth.

‘She said a lot of things I didn’t pay any attention to,’ she said, coming up for air. ‘Now get that door open…’ His mind’s instruction for caution fought his body’s impulse for sex. He followed the girl into the room rather than leading, eyes and ears alert. She immediately tried to pull him down onto the bed but despite his base instinct he made an excuse.

In the bathroom his laptop confirmed no unauthorised intrusion and he returned to the bedroom. One part of him was remembering Smolenski’s use of the phrase honey-trap while his eyes registered the naked silhouette draped across the linen sheets.

‘I may need to complain about the speed of service in this place,’ she breathed as he slipped onto the bed beside her.

‘It’s the quality that keeps the customers satisfied,’ he replied.

*

The Burj Al Arab is not only the tallest hotel in the world but also acts as Dubai’s trademark. Designed to resemble a billowing sail, the hotel soars to a height of three hundred and twenty metres, dominating the Dubai coastline and providing spectacular views of the Arabian Gulf. At a price. Chris Tooley drank in the Technicolour panorama from the Skyview Bar on the twenty-seventh floor and smiled inwardly: it was going to happen. There was no sense of surprise in this fact just the satisfaction of knowing that months of meticulous planning had paid off - this was the denouement and he had earned it. Around him the sickly smell of affluence hung: expensive suits and cocktail dresses, exquisite jewellery and wristwatches, men who were not husbands and women who were not wives. He’d learned to blot it out – he never forgot he was here strictly on business, never allowed himself to get carried away by the complacency of the lifestyle. The delicate opening to Rossini’s ‘La Gazza Ladra’ alerted him to the expected message: bang on schedule, just how he liked it.

- ‘Arrival in Japan in twenty minutes. Trade agreed – twenty-four point five,’ it read, thankfully in full English rather than ‘text speak’. Tooley’s face registered nothing but inside he grinned: it was like watching a Swiss clock ticking away the seconds. Calmly he made his way through the bland chatter and insincere smiles that filled the bar even in mid-morning and made his way across deep woollen carpets to the ample reception area for the lifts.

‘Leaving so soon Mr. Tolman?’ smiled a set of perfectly white, perfectly trained teeth atop the body of the diminutive hostess.

‘Business before pleasure I’m afraid,’ he smiled dropping a large note into the gratuities tray.

‘Looking happily forward to your return,’ she responded. The high-class equivalent of ‘have a good day’ still set his teeth on edge but he managed to respond in the affirmative and stepped into the sparkling chrome and mirrored elevator.

‘Roof please,’ he told the guard who took care of the associated manual labour and the lift with its two occupants ascended with imperceptible rapidity towards the building’s summit. Despite the undoubted luxury enjoyed by some of his peers he was anxious to leave this undeserved opulence. The lift slowed to a soft halt.

‘Helipad,’ announced the attendant simply as the doors soundlessly opened onto a sight even more impressive than the one from the bar. Surrounded only by safety fencing the roof top helicopter pad on the Burj Al Arab provided a three hundred and sixty degree view at roughly the same height as the Eiffel Tower. Replacing the Parisian skyline was that of the ever-expanding Dubai City to one side and the shimmering translucent blue of the Arabian Gulf to the other.

‘Mr Tooley? This way sir,’ he was escorted to one of the hotel’s fleet of private choppers which sat buzzing energetically in the centre of the pad, rotors already at take-off speed, white and blue paintwork gleaming in the forty degree heat.

‘Mind your head sir,’ shouted his guide.

‘I plan not to lose it if that’s what you mean!’ he joked, feeling the pressure of the past six months starting to lift and seconds later the copter followed suit, rising shallowly from the pad before dropping away to the south giving a spectacular view of the downtown area.

‘We can skip the sight-seeing tour today, I’m in kind of a hurry,’ Tooley leaned over to the pilot who gave him an ‘it’s your loss’ look before banking and pointing the chopper towards the seaward horizon for the short four kilometre hop to the islands.

As they skimmed the waters at no more than two hundred feet Tooley ran through the details once more in his mind, revelling in his thoroughness.

‘The devil’s in the detail,’ he murmured.

‘I’m sorry, sir?’ enquired the pilot.

‘Nothing, nothing. I was just thinking how impressive the islands look from here,’ he said, pointing to the growing cluster of small islands ahead which had been just dots from the top of the hotel.

‘They sure are, sir – the World Islands are to Dubai what the pyramids are to Egypt. Three hundred man-made islands representing all the continents of the Globe. They spent five years dredging the seabed - yours from as little as fifteen million dollars!’ he grinned at being able to turn tour guide once more.

‘A bargain – I’ll take two!’ Despite himself, as the island’s detail came into full view Tooley could not help but be impressed by the scale of the grandiosity of the concept, reputed to have come from Sheikh Muhammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum himself.

As the helicopter made a fast descent Tooley went through final mental and physical preparations – checking sequences, back-up plans, weaponry. No slip ups.

‘Looking forward to…’ began the pilot as the copter’s skids settled on the sand.

‘Likewise,’ Tooley cut him off and jumped out of the copter, suddenly impatient to complete the final moves of the game. It took him fifteen minutes, the appropriate ID and two motor-launches to arrive at his destination: the island of ‘Japan’. As the low drone of the motor launch receded he quickly took stock.

The island was possibly ten acres in size and only roughly approximated to Hokkaido, Japan’s northern-most island. An L-shaped villa dominated the centre of the island which was scattered with palms and a number of spacious terraces, all set with chairs and tables. Building materials and equipment told him work was yet to be completed on this millionaire’s hideaway, a second smaller building still showing unfinished concrete. He’d visited twice before to make sure he knew the layout and now made his way straight across the central decked area towards the small wooden jetty jutting arrogantly into the turquoise waters.

He was alone: they would undoubtedly use heat-seeking equipment but his best weapon was the cover he had built up over countless meetings and exchanges. His name was good currency in the circles he had infiltrated, and today he would cash in on that ground work – in London, Madrid, Tangiers – especially Tangiers, he was owed something for that.

Tooley stared impassively out to sea, waiting and wondering again about the future. He’d already decided to quit – he’d out-bluffed the job’s life expectancy rating long ago and with this project behind him he’d…what? Retire? That was too dramatic. Have a career change? Funny, he’d never thought of what he did in those terms. He’d survived through his own guile and cunning but even he could only push his luck so far.

He was interrupted by the dull rhythmic beat of a large powerboat engine at low revs in the shallow waters, and seconds later around the narrow headland which sheltered the islands from the open waters of the Gulf appeared the menacing black and silver shape of a powerful motor boat, maybe fifteen metres long and five wide. Sunseeker – probably a Superhawk. No identification markings but two heads on deck. The boat turned lazily to starboard and began its slow approach to the narrow jetty. Success was so close he could almost tough it.

Rossini distracted him. Looking down he confirmed the number - this was not in the plan but he answered it.

‘Mr Tooley – greetings from over the sea. We bring what it is you seek – fair exchange is no robbery.’ The amused tone was normal, he told himself. He responded with equal casualness.

‘I’m glad the merchandise was to your liking.’ The engine note halted while the boat was still some way short of the jetty. Something was wrong.

‘Indeed it was. So there is just one final check we have to make before we can complete on our deal, Mr. Tooley.’

‘Which is?’ his mind raced – he’d done all this, the passwords, the references, the credit rating – the lot. Were they still going to play silly sods after all that?

‘What is the number, Mr. Tooley?’

Tooley assumed the authoritarian air that had seen him thus far.

‘Number? What the hell are you talking about Asif? All we have to do is complete…’

‘I have received some new information, Mr. Tooley, which means that as a final…formality…I need the number, your number, Mr. Tooley.’

Tooley’s heart stopped. The world stopped. The sea was unnaturally calm, the air deafeningly still. The boat thrummed, the figure, phone to ear, standing behind the wheel. He was in trouble.

‘Allow me to refresh your memory.’ Frozen to the spot he registered the two, slim panels extending from either side of the boat’s gleaming black hull.

‘Zero…’

Curiously detached his mind identified the rack of metal hardware sliding out behind each panel, an array of tubular orifices not dissimilar to those strapped to the side of an Apache attack helicopter.

‘…zero…’

He turned to run for cover, knowing death would come with the final, damning digit. He had a bulletproof bunker, he’d thought of that, if he could only make it…

‘…eight,’ the voice spat.

From either side of the boat a bright burst of flame illuminated the waves and reflected brilliantly off the hull’s surface before the twin Longbow Hellfire air-to-surface missiles shot forward on their short journey to rendezvous with Chris Tooley. Wrenching open the storm-room door, 008 had time to think how quiet they were before the twin impacts incinerated this quite corner of a pretend world, and formally liquidated his retirement plan.

* * *


7

Angle of Incidence

She left before it was light. Bond dozed but remained alert ensuring he lay within reach of his gun. As he suspected she had tried to probe him for information between rounds of experimentation, Smolenski obviously not satisfied with his story.

He’d parried her casual enquiries with offhand responses designed to keep the Russian intrigued and sowed seeds that may prove useful later. Of his own attempts he felt he had been marginally more successful: snippets imparted about life with Smolenski she obviously thought to be innocuous but to Bond every piece of information was valuable. She talked of the money, the clothes, the travel and the characters, though she was vague about her own background. The Austrian link had struck Bond during the meal – that photograph could well have been the view from some mountain top villa – and luckily she seemed enthusiastic in her defence of Smolenski with whom she was obviously enamoured.

‘He really does try to help people you know: you have that part wrong. The addiction thing – that was me three years ago: off the rails. Took me off to Edelweiss, his clinic in Austria. Gorgeous place, his own little Rivendell,’ her voice became distant. ‘I keep asking to go back but he says it’s always full – had a stream of people through it when I was there. Not the rich and famous like you might expect but ordinary people like.’ When asked what happened to the ordinary people she became vague as if trying to recall a dream: the struggle seemed to surprise her.

‘I loved the Edelweiss flowers – everywhere, every single room. That beautiful scent followed you wherever you were, inside and out. Fresh flowers every day, lovely fresh flowers…’ and she had drifted off into a troubled sleep.

Breakfasting in his room he watched disheartening news coverage of the lack of progress made on the terror attacks. Bond recognised the signs of a ‘Mabel’ order: a blanket directive issued by the PM’s office to the media to play down the threat. Something only implemented in extreme circumstances. Local news carried no coverage of the deaths from the previous evening, which he found strange: he’d half expected to have to place a call to HQ to pull him clear if the police turned up; but nothing.

His report to M detailed the night’s events in précis along with his growing suspicions, while requests to the Goldmine were rapidly dispatched for information about the girl, Moebius and Marx. He was particularly concerned that the attack at the circuit signified that Smolenski had his own suspicions. The information from Sly he filed for later retrieval while the earlier events hardened his intent to teach Smolenski a lesson. You could learn a lot about a man by observing him lose.

The circuit was busier on Saturday, weekenders bringing their children, a bright morning and clear forecast attracting the populace with their wide hats, posh-frocks and in many cases fancy dress. It was a colourful scene with the sun reaching a mid-day high in a gloriously clear blue sky, brief clouds high enough not to hinder views of the air displays which again drew gasps from the crowds. Three Spitfires tore in tight formation at what felt no more than head-height across the infield, an admirable performance for a trio of old aged pensioners not designed to last. Bond hid himself in one of the hospitality tents to assemble his thoughts and plan the race.

‘Is this seat taken?’ Bond’s self-absorption was interrupted by a cool female voice with a hint of an American accent. Five foot nine, a slender vision with sculpted carves and short brown hair in a slightly dishevelled yet popular fashion, this time free of a headscarf.

‘Why of course,’ he smiled across as she took the seat opposite, noting a beautifully packaged termination to those legs as she elegantly did so.

‘I believe you’ve been tailing me?’ she grinned

‘Chance would be a fine thing, Miss…?’

‘Laguardia – Sophie Laguardia. And you are?’

‘Bellman, Joshua Bellman.’

‘Well, Mr. Bellman, with your striking blue eyes, I never forget a face, and I think we may have shared a traffic jam together yesterday. Yellow Lotus?’

He feigned dawning recognition.

‘Red Alfa?’ he asked innocently. She nodded. ‘Beautiful rear end, I seem to remember.’

‘And I remember thinking “arrogant pig”, so we were both right, weren’t we? But let’s not argue over trivialities, shall we?’ She gestured to a waiter, ordered a Pimm’s and turned on him with an intense gaze.

‘You’re very full of yourself. Let me guess: P.R.?’ he asked.

‘Journalist: chief features editor for “Celeb” magazine – doing a piece on your Russian friend Mr. Smolenski, wondered if you might be able to give me the inside scoop on our genial billionaire?’

‘And what makes you think I’m a friend to Mr. Smolenski?’

‘Well you got escorted straight to his private dining room last night: not many people are so honoured. I’d say that makes you one of the chosen ones, wouldn’t you?’

‘Afraid not – Vorgov likes to get to know his enemies a little better, the old intimidation thing. We’re in the same race later on and he’s a little put out that I outpaced him in practice.’

‘Oooh spicy, the boys will fight… So he’s going to be out for revenge today - I like it. Going to give him a good whipping for the fun of it?’ she said apparently fascinated.

‘I don’t play for fun in anything I do, Ms Laguardia.’

‘I bet you don’t, Mr. Bellman,’ she mocked. ‘I like a bit of macho-posturing – very seventies. You don’t strike me as a medallion man, all chest-wig, gold shades and posing pouch. Not a banker, not quite arrogant enough. Not a sportsman: physique’s good but not that good. Too animated and full of authority for an office job. Services I’d say – Army?’

‘Close but no cigar. Ex-Navy. Currently trying my hand in business – importing mainly. Trying to get some contacts from Smolenski which is why I went along with the unexpected invite last night.’

‘Not to mention the delivery girl – all over you like a rash, poor skinny cow.’

‘Meow,’ said Bond in spite of himself, and immediately felt childish for doing so. ‘The messenger may have played a part in my decision…’

‘So predictable. Men are so easily manipulated – it really isn’t fair on you, poor dears.’

‘Forgive me if I am not blinded by your sincerity.’ He decided to do some fishing of his own. ‘So how are your investigations going – is he as easily manipulated as the rest of my poor, dumb species?’

‘Ooh no. He’s a different kettle of fish – now there’s a weird expression, what were they thinking when they dreamed that one up? No, he’s a species to himself is Vorgov, definitely the puppet-master…’ She seemed to catch herself before saying something she had not intended. ‘Very influential is Mr. S. – both in the world of business as you presumably know, but also personally. They call it charisma – I’d call it sliminess myself – but it’s undoubtedly powerful. Met him briefly at a premiere last year – blagged myself a ticket from… well I won’t name-drop – crept up like a bad smell and before I knew it I was telling him my life story. Managed to drag myself away but one or two lesser-willed females weren’t so lucky that night I can tell you…’

‘Does he have that sort of reputation too?’ Bond asked.

‘What? Man with his money in this day and age? Getting screwed by the likes of him is a career goal for a whole sorry segment of society.’

‘And getting screwed in business is a certainty for another.’

‘Well exactly… Ruthless bastard if ever I met one,’ she took a long draft of Pimm’s, exposing a delicate throat simply adorned with a plaited-silver chord with a central four leaf clover. ‘But I’m supposed to be asking the questions: the business side – is he as bad as they say? And what about his “alleged” Mafia links – what do you know?’ she wasn’t very subtle for a journalist, if indeed that was what she was.

‘Afraid I’ve really had no dealings. All I can tell you is he’s suffocatingly competitive, comes off him in waves even when he’s got the charm switched on. Not sure I’d want to see him with it switched off.’

Another round of drinks followed during which Sophie plugged some more and Bond deflected. They established a common taste in music, the opposite in drinks, and the fact that they both liked to dine at Sambolo when in Milan. She was engaging company but at the same time he was trying to figure out what he had stumbled across: another Smolenski stooge, or something else? One thing was for sure: she was no journalist. At one-ten he made his excuses.

‘I’ll cheer you on – may have a flutter. I’ll see you at the ball tonight at the hotel?’ and without waiting for an answer she was gone with a bounce in her confident stride.

The crowds had thickened and it took him longer than expected to reach the pits. There was chatter of the air displays, the food and occasionally updates on the attacks which seemed to have happened in another world.

‘…It’s all the Iraqis…’ ‘…Nigel’s brother blames the Russians…’ ‘CIA stirring it up you know…’ He was due to check in with HQ just after five. He hadn’t mentioned his afternoon’s activities for fear M might regard it as a frivolous waste of the day or, God forbid, too dangerous.

Antrobus was working under the bonnet when he strolled up.

‘Trouble locating your dipstick?’

‘Nice of you to join us! And if you start with flange or big-end jokes I’ll have to call the stewards,’ he grinned, mischievously. ‘Take a look over at our friend along the row,’ he gestured with a torque wrench. ‘Now there’s a spot of trouble.’ Bond glanced casually along the row of gleaming metalwork and saw a hive of activity surrounding the number twenty-three car – at least five mechanics were attending to various tasks. And seated calmly in the centre of the melee was Smolenski, cigar clamped between his teeth looking for all the world like a fighter pilot preparing for battle.

‘Thought he might get rattled – I know you said that’s what you wanted – but he doesn’t seem to have flinched. Got a bleeding army of little helpers though. Right, let me take you through what I‘ve been up to… I’ve adjusted the mixture and changed the brake balance like you asked…’ 

‘Hang on, I just want to go and have a few words…’

‘But…’ Antrobus’ protestations were lost in the revving of engines as Bond strode towards the Corvette.

‘Afternoon!’ he hailed the Russian, ‘glorious day for it!’ He leant on the door and peered inside the snug cabin. ‘Problem?’

‘Fuel – somebody introduced a foreign liquid into the fuel supply early this morning,’ Smolenski’s eyes looked straight through Bond to where Antrobus was still working, and he immediately suspected what Antrobus had done: a primitive yet effective form of sabotage.

‘Oh dear. And can your little Oompa-Loompas fix it?’ Let’s see how much it takes to rile you, you slimy bastard. Smolenski grinned a slow, measured smile – Bond got the sense of a cobra recoiling ready to strike.

‘It will be fixed, and I will beat you, Mr. Bellman, if that is what you wished to ask. Your Englishness really is debilitating, isn’t it?’ Bond didn’t rise.

‘Golly, am I that transparent? Well, we shall see. And then we can talk over it at the auction this evening. I hear your GTO is top-lot by the way? I was wondering how people might react to documentary evidence that it’s a fake?’ It was a roll of the dice but worth a chance.

A flash of red in the eyes, that was all. The cast-iron composure remained a split second too long, enough to tell Bond that his shot had hit the mark. The mechanic indicated for him to turn the engine over once more and, turning from Bond without acknowledgment, he did so. The huge vee-eight boomed into life drawing a crowd of children to the back wall of the pits. Bond waved before turning to walk back to where Antrobus was closing the light-green bonnet of the DB3.

‘You pissed in his fuel tank, didn’t you?’

Antrobus shrugged. ‘Not me, I’m on telly, guv. People on telly don’t piss in fuel tanks.’

Bond grinned. ‘Bad news is he’ll recover. Good news is I had something even more potent.’

‘You realise the Corvette’s faster by a fair margin: three hundred and twenty horses to two-forty I reckon. Even with some of the tweaks I just made and a weight advantage you’re going to have to keep him back.’

‘Then that’s what I’ll have to do. It’ll take him a couple of laps to work his way up behind me, and if I can get ahead of a car or two so much the better. I reckon it’ll be lap five before he’s on my tail.’

‘Leaving half the race with him rammed up your exhaust. You’ll be able to hold your own round the bends, but on those two long straights he’ll have you. They’ll black-flag you for too much weaving – this is proper rules remember.’

‘Fair enough – but I have a couple of tricks to keep him on his toes…’

‘Hmm. Try to push him out wide. That thing’s going to struggle to tighten its line into the corners once he’s committed, so get him going out wide and he won’t get by. Oh, and he hasn’t mastered the line through Fordwater, loses momentum into the second bend – has to tighten and scrubs off too much speed.’ Antrobus looked lovingly down at his car like it might be the last time he saw it. ‘She’s going to be fully stretched though. I’d ask you to go easy but that isn’t going to happen is it?’

Bond didn’t reply. Seeing the marshal signal for the cars to file out he grabbed his helmet from Antrobus, pushed it down on his head and swung into the cosy cockpit.

‘Queen and country, eh. Bloody hell.’

Bond pressed the starter and the familiar wail of the six rose as he depressed the throttle pedal. Releasing the clutch a little too sharply the car pulled away and he left Antrobus wearing the look of a man who’s just lent his dog to a hard-up butcher.

A colourful array of cars made their way round the parade lap; a variety of fifties and sixties hardware, some competitive, some playing only for places. Each the object of great affection and even love – mere machines, yet machines with emotion. As someone once said, they don’t build museums for refrigerators.

Bond re-familiarised himself with the controls, swinging the tail out a few times to get the measure of where the grip started and finished and to warm the tyres on the undulating tarmac. He found the car wonderfully controllable – predictable handling compensating for the lack in absolute grip, another area where the fat-booted Corvette won out. He’d found he could four-wheel drift with relative ease, another point to the Aston. As he looked out across the circuit another possible advantage struck him – the sky had noticeably darkened in the past half-hour: the smaller, lighter car would have the advantage if it rained. Despite his optimism with Antrobus he knew he needed all the help he could get if he was to inflict the necessary defeat.

Acrid smoke and petroleum fumes assailed his nostrils while his ears filled with the bestial sounds from the bellies of the beasts which came to a halt on the grid. Beside the pit wall he could make out a number of familiar faces behind the Perspex: Sly, The Barber and Cartwright-Jones to one end, Antrobus in the pit itself, eagerness itself and the Laguardia woman at the other, doing her best to look semi-interested.

Starting duties were given to a suitably old-fashioned gent waving a chequered flag: Bond just had time to balance the tricky clutch and they were off in a cloud of smoke and squealing tyres. Being careful not to spin his rears too much he found himself struggling to stay ahead of a lunging Jaguar E-Type. It reared up on his offside flank trying to steal the inside line into the long double apex right-hander at Madgwick. Up into fourth gear: Bond held his line, tightening slightly, forcing the E-Type to drop back and in the process getting somewhat out of shape. Helped by the consequent baulking of the gaggle of cars behind he squeezed the throttle and powered out of the corner onto the straight. This led down to St. Mary’s, a slightly sharper right followed by a deceptive left that kinked blindly behind a shallow bank. Pulling out of this tricky combination he found himself immediately on the tail of the number fifteen E-Type, a grey lightweight roadster. This one was notably faster and pulled away on the straight leading down to the Lavant hairpin at the far end of the circuit. Confident in the Girling discs he left his braking late and as a result found himself on the Jag’s curvaceous tail before it powered away down the long back straight teasing out a twenty yard lead.

Behind him the pack had dropped some way back but he knew watching your mirror was the best way to get caught: he had to concentrate on what was ahead. Down through the sweeping right-hander at Woodcote into the short chicane Bond practiced his heel-and-toeing, a technique enabling simultaneous depression of both throttle and brake to balance the car when cornering. By no means an expert it gave him an advantage as well as a small sense of satisfaction.

The end of the lap came quickly and as he held the inside line over the start-line he glimpsed Antrobus holding a board. ‘P5, S -3’ it said, indicating he had held fifth and Smolenski had made up just one place on the opening lap: less than could have been expected. From here it would be harder for him to make ground.

Lap two was a carbon copy of the first with Bond trying to settle into a rhythm around the gentle curves of the wonderful little track. Swinging the Aston’s large wheel, feeling first the heavy bite of the tyres, then the lightening which communicated a reduction in grip, Bond’s arms moved as one with the old machine. So hypnotised was he that the oil in the chicane nearly caught him off-guard: he should have seen the Jaguar ahead give a tell-tale wiggle of its hips, instead he just about caught the slide with an instinctive piece of steering correction which had the rear Avons squealing in protest. The tyres would not stand up to that sort of treatment for long.

Glancing in his mirrors he saw that the chasing E-Type had made ground, and that breathing down its neck, jinking to one side then the other was a white AC Cobra, a brutish Anglo-American mongrel which went like stink. Antrobus’ board told him Smolenski remained in eighth right behind the Cobra. To his right he noticed Smolenski’s party had swelled with Moebius and a few new faces joining the happy tableau. Antrobus was starting to look pensive while Sophie was apparently reading a magazine while drinking something luminescent from a broad-rimmed glass.

Now was the time to put distance between himself and the pack. Bond floored the aluminium pedal, straight-six screaming beyond six-thousand revs with an exhaust note now a pure-spun, even roar. Ahead the number fifteen car ran wide under pressure into Madgwick and Bond seized his chance. Taking a slightly wider line he turned in deeper than before, cutting a swath across the slower-moving car and preventing it coming back on line. He knew he’d be forced wide coming out of the curve, but with the Jag on the outside he’d have won the corner. Sure enough as he powered out the E-Type was left with nowhere to go. He’d put another car between himself and the Russian which should increase his frustration.

Soon afterwards the white Cobra took the E-Type and Bond glimpsed the blue Corvette weaving madly before gaining the same place, moving up to seventh to Bond’s fourth. Later on the same lap car number fifteen swung its rear again and this time both the Cobra and the Corvette took it cleanly. His three-place advantage had been reduced to two as the pair snapped viciously at his heels.

Cheating in modern motor racing is not an easy matter: meticulous scrutineering, TV footage and a close-knit community mean flagrant cheats seldom prosper. Bending the rules is arguably easier in the rarefied atmosphere of Formula One where the finer points of aerodynamics are lost in legal jargon but amateur historic racing is a different matter. A fair contest is far more reliant upon trust, sportsmanship, and the fact that taking part is meant to be the end. Thus, what Bond observed was unlikely to be noticed.

Hurtling down the main straight he saw the Corvette in his mirrors pull out to pass the Cobra down the offside nearest the pits, and two things immediately struck him: the lateral gap between the two cars and the uneven brightness of the Corvette’s headlights, turned on in the dull afternoon. At the same time, glancing to the pit wall he saw The Barber raise a pair of binoculars to his face, which struck Bond as odd given the cars’ proximity. Suddenly he was dazzled by an incredibly bright light which pierced the gloom. Night training had given him a reflex to immediately divert his gaze and the resulting imprint on his retina was offset from centre but nevertheless he slowed minutely. More especially the Cobra driver slowed dramatically, slewing alarmingly towards the left-hand banking. Its driver seemingly managed to regain control just in time, nearside wheels chewing the turf. But then the car started to pirouette, spinning out of control across the grass at the end of the straight and impacting heavily into the banking. Bodywork, glass and earth scattered in all directions. Smolenski took the place and Bond guessed at the arrangement of mirrors and lenses that had momentarily blinded the Cobra driver.

Sneaky bastard, thought Bond.

Laps four and five saw Bond hold his own against the more powerful American car but it took every ounce of skill he possessed to do so. He found himself cutting apexes too close for comfort, took St. Mary’s with no thought for what may be around the blind-bank and his braking into Lavant was getting so late he could see people adjust their seating for fear he may join them. In the process he closed right up to the third placed car, a stunning red Ferrari 375 Mille-Miglia, named after the famous Italian road-race. Into the chicane, remembering the earlier oil spill, he managed to steal the inside line, but as he did so the Ferrari swerved to force him up against the unforgiving concrete pit wall. There was a crunch of metal and sparks flew. Snatching third then fourth gear he could see himself explaining to an ashen-faced Antrobus why his pride and joy was now three inches slimmer, but then the red car retained its line and he could see a safe passage through Madgwick. The manoeuvre had already cost him in another way: through the Ferrari’s cabin he could see Smolenski’s Corvette, the three cars crossing the start-line perfectly abreast as they started lap six. It was now or never. If he lost Smolenski at this point he would not be able to catch up: his only hope was to beat him through the corner, a move which would require not a little good fortune.

Flooring the throttle he saw the Ferrari ease off, not up for a potentially destructive battle. Instead the Aston and the Corvette pulled clear, the latter ahead by a nose: this was where he’d find out if the DB3’s brakes were as good as he’d been told. He kept the throttle to the floor for one, two, three seconds longer than before whilst simultaneously adopting his previous wider line in an attempt to force the Corvette even wider. But the Russian pre-empted this move, bringing his car sharply to the right trying to force Bond to brake first in an expensive game of chicken. This was surely not what the genteel organisers of Goodwood had in mind but the race-goers would love it: well, in for a penny.

Instead of giving ground, in the split second before he knew he would have to brake, Bond nudged the nose of the Corvette with the Aston catching it just ahead of the front wheel-arch. There was a painful metallic scraping and Smolenski eased off just enough for Bond to take the wider line and push him into slowing. Two-nil, he thought.

It took the Corvette half a lap to regain the lost ground during which time Bond checked the dials and flexed his arms on the long back straight. But soon enough the broad, gaping grimace of the Corvette was gulping at his fumes like a shark snapping at a shoal of herring. Back down the main straight and Bond was on his guard for the light-and-mirror trick but The Barber was nowhere to be seen. Smolenski tried a standard double-bluff left-right jink which was thwarted by his own car’s bulk and left him no closer going into St. Mary’s. Woodcote came and went and he wondered if Smolenski had a problem, as he seemed to have backed off.

The long Lavant straight held the answer as, amongst the crowds lining the in-field fencing there now stood a familiar, lumberjack-shirted figure, binoculars at the ready. A more secluded area to make his move and a longer straight to boot. Smolenski was dead astern – no move this lap – but with only four more left he would bank on a move on lap eight. Time was short and he knew what he was going to do.

Down the main straight Smolenski had dropped back a short distance, confident that this lap would bring him the place. Exiting Madgwick Bond reached up and ripped off the central mirror from its delicate aluminium support.

‘Sorry Ralf – needs must.’ Coming down into Lavant corner he deliberately hung the car’s rear out in a rather lairy slide which drew cheers from the nearby stand and as anticipated brought the Corvette lumbering onto his tail. The move cost him time but meant he came out of the corner a little faster than he would otherwise have done, hence while closer he was still in control going onto the straight. Time to give Smolenski something to reflect on.

He heard the pounding of the huge V8 in his right ear as it pulled out to his offside, one light deliberately skewed to brightly illuminate the inside of the track. Ahead he could see a lumberjack shirt leaning over the fence as if to get a better view. Changing into top gear he held the wheel tight with his left hand and pulled the Perspex window down, then took the mirror from his lap. Timing was everything: Smolenski would be focussing on the track down the side of Bond’s car to avoid being dazzled, he would wait until he was out of the Aston’s wake, ensure he held his line so that The Barber could get a good fix, then provided he got the angle acute enough…

‘The angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflection’ came a distant childhood memory and, thrusting the mirror out of the window facing backwards, just as the Corvette’s lights flashed onto main beam, Bond closed his eyes and prayed to the god of old racing cars.

* * *


8

They Shoot Horses Don’t They

In moments of panic the human body will often freeze awaiting further information to continue. The survivor, however, continues to function: brain focused sticking to a course of action. Smolenski, temporarily blinded, resisted the urge to brake instead accelerating through the gap left by Bond. Thus a quarter of a million pounds worth of racing cars were momentarily piloted by two sightless drivers at one hundred miles per hour down Goodwood’s back straight.

When he opened his eyes rather than seeing the Corvette dropping back Bond watched its bonnet creep ahead of the Aston. But then a slight swaying betrayed a rear wheel encroaching upon the grass. He braked so that when Smolenski’s over-correction came he was some yards ahead and the big Corvette veered across his path rather than into his offside wing.

Tyres protesting loudly the beast continued with speed unabated but now at an irrecoverable angle. Smolenski frantically sawed at the wheel in an attempt to bring the car back on line but it was no use. The Corvette’s nearside front wheel lifted and in slow motion Bond watched it start to roll. There was neither time nor room to get the Aston clear but in the split second that the roll commenced he swerving left. The Corvette bounced onto its roof, creating clear air under its upturned bonnet for the Aston to shoot through. Bond momentarily had the Corvette’s long snout overhead before it span, front wing catching his boot with a thump then he was clear. The Aston slewed, he caught the skid and was away still doing eighty-five.

In his mirrors the big blue car completed a barrel roll, shattering its thin panels leaving it sitting sorrowfully back on its wheels venting steam. Flames began to lick the long, battered snout. Turning into the chicane for the ninth time Bond glimpsed marshals being pushed away back by the tall figure emerging from the cockpit. He grinned: nothing like a bit of your own medicine.

Down the main straight he indicated to Antrobus that he would be coming in next lap: he could do without the attention. On the following lap he feigned engine trouble and pulled into the pits, driving straight through the parc-ferme to where Antrobus waited applauding sarcastically. Cars for the next race were warming up while overhead a large black and red twin-rotor helicopter climbed steeply into the thick blue sky.

‘Bit late to get out of the limelight – the pair of you’ll be the talk of the ball this evening. You bloody pillock.’

‘Just basking in reflected glory, that’s all.’ He gave a brief account of the race including Smolenski’s dubious tactics.

‘Tricky sod! Could have killed someone with that!’ he seemed truly scandalised. ‘Well you’ve definitely stuck one on him – flew off in a right sulk!’ From behind fencing separating competitors from public a familiar voice addressed them.

‘Is that what it’s always like? Thought this was supposed to be all friendly, nicey-nicey?’

American turns of phrase tended to grate on Bond’s sensibilities. On the other hand she wore a figure-hugging white blouse, marvellously shapely three-quarter length black jeans and a pair of simple red pumps – very 60s. The effect was pleasantly understated yet utterly bewitching.

‘Motor-racing is a dangerous sport – didn’t you read the back of your ticket?’

‘Yes, especially when the driver’s a bloody hooligan!’ She seemed happy despite the rebuke – shed seemed to have woken up.

‘So, have you got everything you need now Ms. Laguardia?’

‘Oh, I’ve never had any complaints…’ she giggled deliciously and Bond warmed once more at her use of the famous Groucho Marx line.

‘I’m not surprised,’ he threw back. Antrobus raised his eyes and made himself busy with the toolbox. ‘Article coming along nicely is it? I suppose today’s events will help it along, a bit like sex does.’

‘I beg your pardon?’ She affected shock.

‘They both improve the circulation.’

‘Ha-de-ha,’ there was a definite sparkle in those deeply beautiful eyes. ‘Right, can’t stop round here all day – I’ve got a story to write. See you at the auction.’

It was not a question, and in any event Bond would have been hard-pressed to decline.

*

Bonhams Classic d’Elegance is a staple of the classic-car auction circuit attracting some of the big-name sales which act as a barometer in determining which way the market will trend over the coming year. A bad sale for a pre-war Bentley will affect all pre-war cars for the year, while a good price for some mid-seventies Italian wedge-shaped exotic will likewise bump up period stocks. Together with three or four other key auctions in Europe and the U.S. it acts as fashion-show and stock-exchange rolled into one, and like those dubious institutions there is plenty of money and artifice which surround, follow and clear its path. Influence, confidence and Turtle-Wax.

Bond strategically positioned himself at the junction of the passages leading to auction marquee and the ballroom. Currying favour with an elderly barman had liberated a bottle of Dom Perignon ’55 and he stood flicking casually through the glossy telephone directory of an ‘information pack’ (not to be confused with a mere ‘brochure’) whilst in reality surveying the crowd.

Amongst the auction lots were high-profile cars from various collectors including a couple of aging rock-stars. A pre-war Mercedes-Benz 540K was expected to make two million along with two other Ferraris and a rare Bugatti Grand-Prix car. But the headline lot was the 250 GTO which had a four-page spread devoted to it between vulgar advertisements for motor-yachts and wristwatches.

His plan for the evening was simple. Firstly, having laid some groundwork with Sly he’d try to trade his winnings for an ‘in’ with Smolenski – the man was obviously trawling for intelligence and in fact he may be able to spin something even if his cover had been blown - disgruntled Civil Servant seeks employ. In parallel he also smelled a weak link in Moebius, designer of ‘Emerald’, the all-powerful software at the centre of Smolenski’s empire. The man was introspective to the point of depression – maybe another ‘in’ given the right incentive. In contrast Marx looked solid and Jones was unlikely to yield much more than what she made patently obvious. Finally, he was determined to get to the bottom of the fake-Ferrari scam: was this just a side line to earn some lose-change and get one over on an establishment he obviously resented, or was there something else? The auction’s main event at around half-ten would make fascinating viewing.

He did not have to wait long for Smolenski to arrive and required no alert when he did. The Russian’s flotilla sailed into view, at its epicentre the man himself in full-length black silken velvet jacket with tails and matching trousers. Turning to greet a chosen few on his way he moved with an elegant grace, the slim-fit of the ensemble emphasising his height. The silver mane was tied back into a ponytail, the chiselled features contoured by the debonair smile. Radiating heat heads both male and female turned as he swept by. For all the afternoon’s events the man looked in remarkably good humour.

‘Mr. Smolenski – delighted to see you up and about after your little spin. Those American cars can be a bit of a glaring handful, can’t they?’ If he had expected to get a reaction he was disappointed. The charm was ablaze and looked as if nothing could dampen it. A molten grin spread across the Russian’s features.

‘So true, Mr. Bellman, so true. And you – unlucky at the death after all. Such quick wits are to be admired,’ this last in hushed tones as he passed close then, more loudly, ‘I would ask you to join us once more but I am involved in the speech making later and there are one or two things I need to attend to personally – forgive the perfectionist in me. I’m sure the ladies would be only too happy to keep you company until my return,’ then more quietly again to Bond, ‘Especially Ms. Thumaratnum, or as we know her, the proverbial good time that’s been had by all…’

Bond saw three women and three reactions. Sly, dressed in sheer violet silk unnecessarily adorned with lashings of gold bubbled across with a broad grin while the blonde Jones woman, again in far too revealing an outfit smiled pleasantly but seemed a little put out at having her Russian billionaire amputated. Marx, like her attire, was more restrained. Taller than he recalled and dressed in a stunning dark-grey trouser suit she looked very much the professional. Emphasising her athletic, well-toned figure the outfit curved in all the right places. She returned his gaze coolly. He’d wanted to get closer to Smolenski - was this a ruse to keep him occupied? Bond decided that, unfortunately, he would need to break away from the ladies shortly.

‘May I offer to buy the drinks, ladies?’ Sly immediately bounced in his direction closely followed by Helena with Marx lagging less enthusiastically behind, scowling subtly at Smolenski. He led the way to the bar and on a show of hands ordered champagne for all bar Marx who insisted on an obscure brand of mineral water.

‘Salue!’ exclaimed Helena Cartwright-Jones. She looked a ‘salue’ kind of girl, Bond thought and a glance at Marx’ face showed she agreed.

It was now seven forty-five. Due to start at eight-fifteen the auction was divided into two sections of twelve lots, each expected to take around an hour and a half. In between there was to be what was promised to be a ‘sumptuous buffet’, hence the whole lot should be wrapped up by twelve. Making small talk he allowed the women to start dictating the conversation, deciding he’d struggle to get anything meaningful in this forum. He’d probe later when he could get each on their own.

At eight a gong sounded and the commencement of the auction announced. They were shepherded to seats on the front row to the left of the central aisle.

The marquee itself was a fabulous edifice, something so far removed from the concept of a ‘tent’ as to almost defy belief. Fifty yards square and fifteen high the walls were draped in expensive awnings, each supporting column adorned with brass light fixtures bathing the whole in a warm vanilla glow. From the ceiling the main lighting came from a series of hugely ornate chandeliers which, while too ostentatious for Bond’s tastes, contributed to the air of elegance and occasion. With much pomp and ceremony the auction got underway with speeches from the chief auctioneer, Smolenski and the Earl himself who made passing reference to the earlier duel on the track. Smolenski’s words were limited to jokey asides on a similar topic then self-deprecation at the number of the cars on the bid list which he was selling – eight in all.

Early lots were sluggish with bids having to be teased out by an obviously experienced auctioneer. At least two cars failed to make their reserves and an air of impatience dampened the earlier enthusiasm. He sat at an angle so as to take in the whole room, noting prominent bidders. If some game were to be played out this evening he wanted to have the key players marked. A number of people drifted out to the bar including Marx: Bond excused himself and followed. She passed through the atrium, collecting another glass of champagne on the way, then hastened to reception where she hurriedly conversed with a tall, thin man he did not recognise.

When she returned Bond ducked behind a life-sized cut out of Stirling Moss. As the first half was coming to an end he decided to stay where he was and was immediately rewarded by a familiar voice in his ear.

‘Fancy a dance, mister?’ Sophie’s attractive features wrenched him from his thoughts. ‘Let’s get in before the crowds.’

‘What an excellent idea. Then you can tell me what it is you really do for a living, Ms. Laguardia.’

He suddenly wanted to pierce her disguise. He escorted her into the hotel’s ballroom which had been cleverly fitted out to resemble the multi-layered deck of a cruise liner. Lanterns and flags hung in parabolas from walls to central ‘masts’, the floor’s polished wooden decking shone and a twelve-piece band played softly on the upper level. Overhead a thousand twinkling fairy lights simulated the night sky and Bond had to admit it was very pleasing.

As they took to the floor the orchestra struck up and a singer began ‘There may be trouble ahead…’ A minute later the crowds came chattering out of the auction. For now they danced.

‘Whatever makes your say that?’

‘You’re no journalist; you’re just not devious enough my dear.’

‘And you’re no “import-exporter”. You’re too smart and you wind people up the wrong way.’

‘Really?’

‘Please don’t take that as a complement.’

‘Oh I assure you I shan’t.’

She moved serenely and with obvious good training.

‘So what are you, then? Curiosity, intelligence, wit…and of course an interest in our Russian friend,’ he indicated toward Smolenski who had entered with the curvaceous Ms. Jones on his arm. The pair took centre stage.

‘Inland Revenue?’ he asked innocently then winced as she replied by standing firmly on his foot.

‘Try again, but remember you only have two feet – after that I raise the stakes.’

‘Sometimes it’s best to stop gambling and go home with what you came with…’ The talk continued in the same tongue-in-cheek vein and Bond concluded she was too smart to let anything accidentally slip so instead suggested they eat, hopeful of another stab at Smolenski prior to the auction finale.

The chance presented itself earlier than anticipated: before they reached what turned out to be a ‘nouvelle cuisine’ buffet – which Bond translated as ‘everyone-goes-home-hungry’ – his path was blocked by the bulk of The Barber. He was ushered into an alcove where Smolenski stared impassively out at proceedings. Bond waved Sophie on.

‘I’m not queuing up at the buffet for you if that’s what you’re after, Vorgov.’

Smolenski continued to stare into the middle distance, brandy glass in hand. Up close he stood a full four inches above Bond. He obviously used his height to gain psychological advantage. Raising the glass briefly to his lips he spoke, the measured tone replaced by menace.

‘I’m sure your levity is a hit at the office party but I would prefer to skip the dull theatrics if you don’t mind. I welcome you at my table, I arrange that you are entertained,’ as if scripted Sly turned and flashed a tantalising smile at the Russian. ‘You prove to be a worthy adversary. You tell me you are a modest businessman yet my instincts tell me you are something altogether more deadly. I underestimated you – I considered you a fly trapped beneath a glass – my mistake. So I am left wondering,’ he turned his gaze upon Bond and the effect was undoubtedly powerful. ‘Exactly what are you, Mr. James Bond?’

So much for trying to get a job. Cover blown but how far? He let Smolenski continue.

‘You disapprove of my business, you made that quite clear, yet you gamble for high stakes, Mr. Bond.’

‘You forgot to mention the fact that I win. Maybe you could tell me what the real game is and maybe I’ll play that too?’ Smolenski paused, and then broke into a broad grin.

‘You ask too many questions, Mr. Bond.’ He raised the ornate cane he held in front of him. For the first time Bond realised that what he had taken to be a large glass bauble set into the bulbous golden handle was in fact a hollow crystal containing…two crystal dice that glittered as they tumbled. He felt a chill: one was decorated with red spots, the other with blue.

‘A Christmas present from Liberace, perhaps?’

Smolenski just stared into the depths of the crystal he now held before him and to which he now seemed to speak.

‘I read a book once about a man addicted to letting dice dictate how he led his life. He started with the small stuff, what to eat and wear, then it took over whether he went to work, when he had sex. Gradually he subjugated his own will to the will of random chance and allowed it to rule his life and by a series of small, seemingly logical steps it led him to steal, rape and ultimately to kill. It became his religion, and others followed. A feature I rather enjoyed.’

Bond had heard similar monologues develop into things far darker and more lethal.

‘So gambling is the new religion and you’re its god, is that it? Deity fantasises – not original.’

‘Oh come now, Mr. Bond. Money is everyone’s God, I have no delusions of grandeur in that direction,’ he gave a somewhat self-conscious snort. ‘No, I was rather taken by the notion that people would willingly give up free will in exchange for the adrenalin rush of gambling. Remarkable idea, don’t you think?’

‘There will always be people to prey on the fears and weaknesses of others. Drugs, religion, gambling. And of course a lack of money.’

‘You are a perceptive man, Mr. Bond. Which makes you all the more dangerous. But an excellent gambler. If you leave your bank details at the reception I will have your winnings wired to any account and in the currency of your choosing. As I told you last night, my game is money, in all its many forms, but I do not let man’s artificial niceties get in the way. Hence in the long term, Mr. Bond, I always win.’

‘With a little help from your friends when necessary.’

‘Nobody remembers who came second, Mr. Bond, nor the manner in which victory was achieved. It is the beaten and the weak who rationalise ineptitude with comforting phrases. It is never “how you play the game”.  That is how you British lost an Empire – the complacency of the magnanimous victor. I have no intention of getting complacent, Mr. Bond. I have perfect clarity of vision. As an entrepreneur you will appreciate this.’

‘I think you’ll make someone a lovely little dictator one day.’ He could feel he was closer to Smolenski’s core and wanted to prod harder. ‘Fake cars and cheating on the track though – they don’t seem like much of a vision to a man of your…ambition. They seem a little small-time. Or maybe a mistake. I think you’ve overstretched yourself - your desire to win has got you exposed, but there’s something bigger at stake, isn’t there? You need to clean-up.’ Yes, that was right; he was cleaning up a mistake. Smolenski’s eyes burned brightly, boring briefly into Bond’s skull.

‘You are a venomous spider, Mr. Bond! Yes, that is what you are. Dangerous certainly, but merely a spider nonetheless. I, on the other hand, exist on an altogether different scale.’ The voice had taken on a robotic, growling quality and his eyes bulged. ‘You would do well to leave me well alone, scuttle off and play in whatever little microcosm you normally inhabit. As for tonight, everything will go off as planned despite your groundless accusations.’

From the marquee a gong sounded to signify Act Two and the crowds began to drift back.

‘Goodbye Mr. Bond. We shall not meet again.’

He drained his brandy and turned. Bond watched him stride away.

‘Afraid I’m rather with Vera Lynn on that one, Vorgov,’ he muttered.

The man was undoubtedly psychotic, the pathological rhetoric he had encountered before. But he was worried: money, power and personal charisma made for a volatile mix. Words raced round his mind: every man having his worth, abdication of freewill, the obsession with winning. And everything ‘going off as planned’. He was sure something sinister linked Smolenski’s gambling empire to the terror attacks. Something important was going to happen tonight and he sensed he had to figure it out fast.

Back in his seat Bond scanned the audience. A mix of old and new wealth, light hearted faces and cheerful chatter despite the astronomical sums involved. Bond had to filter out a number of faces familiar through television in looking for those he may recognise for professional reasons. As for the Ferrari, Bond smelled a fake, but how would Smolenski tie up this loose end if that was what it was? Had he a fake bidder lined up? Whatever happened he would have a ringside view. He was reminding himself of the finer details in the brochure when some hastily scribbled writing on a blank page caught his eye.

‘Hi handsome – we need each other. Something bad is happening – I need you to get me out. 2100, Kristalwelten, Wednesday’. The words were scrawled in blue biro. Kristalwelten: the name rang a bell. He looked carefully round as the auction recommenced but no one met his eye. More games: but whose?

The second part of the auction was held in the round, with four cars taking centre stage alongside the auctioneer’s lectern. Three immense pre-war behemoths occupied most of the space.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, the final part of our auction tonight features four automobiles in no need of introduction. So by way of unnecessary introduction…’ a small ripple of laughter preceded a brief description first of the Mercedes and the Bugatti, then a very rare 1930 Duesenberg Model SJ ‘…a car probably more deserving in its time of the title “best car in the world” than any other…’ It was certainly imposing - a huge car whose proportions belay its mammoth dimensions: its sparkling, lacquered ten-foot bonnet stood as high as a man’s shoulder.

Alongside these three glamorous monsters the GTO was almost dwarfed, yet its presence was no less spellbinding. In a world before car styling clinics, focus groups and wind tunnels here was a car which could lay valid claim to being the most beautiful automobile of all time. A glorious feast of gleaming red curves flowing tail-ward as if shaped by the wind from a low, delicately pursed ovular air intake across four voluptuously rounded wings to an almost fantail upturned rump. Shame its creators thought they needed to cheat to win, thought Bond with an ironic smile.

It was standing room only at the rear of the marquee by the time they re-started and bidding on the Bugatti was intense. A cheer greeted it passing the magic million mark before topping out at one point three on a telephone bid from Hong Kong.

Next up was the Mercedes which immediately shot to eight-fifty then stalled and finally made ‘only’ one million-fifty. This was rapidly beaten by the glorious Duesenberg, however, which raced to one point five, then six and seven with a tense bidding war breaking out between three bidders in the room and the same bidder in Hong Kong. One eight, eight-fifty, nine… Bond could see two of the room bidders – both grey men in their mid-fifties - sweating profusely, next moves slowly considered. Two million...! More cheers and applause.

After much baiting the ‘Duesy’ closed out at two-two, a new record for a fine car.

‘Sold! For two-point-two million pounds!’ Thunderous applause.

After a brief hiatus during which details were logged, forms filled, e-mails despatched and waiters scurried forth refilling glasses, at ten-forty-five it was time for the final lot, number twenty-four, the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO.

‘May I open the bidding at four-million?’

A stunned audience was immediately hushed as the huge bid was taken up in the room. Bond turned to see a man in his early forties, dark haired, possibly American five rows back. The air was thick and warm, the scent of caviar, cigar-smoke and a riot of the world’s most exclusive perfumes mingled. Background noise had all but been extinguished.

Steadily the price rose above five, and after a brief standoff at five-five the pace quickened once more with the American breaking both the six and seven million barriers trailed by three other bidders in the room, only two of whom Bond could spot. ‘Oohs’ and ‘aahs’ accompanied each response like an invisible game of tennis, the audience warmed to its role at this stage in the evening.

‘Eight million!’ from one of the phones - Dubai the whispers had it. Bond looked along the line. He had been keeping a watchful eye on Smolenski who sat a few seats down alongside the increasingly tipsy Helena Cartwright-Jones. He remained impassive, occasionally sipping another brandy, glancing in detached amusement at the tense scene around him. Beside him sat Moebius and The Barber – the former looking nervous as though on Smolenski’s behalf, The Barber a little more enthusiastic but with obvious effort in a suit that made him look like a well-dressed ape. The man was about to make upwards of eight million pounds profit yet showed no emotion. Bond’s gut told him the lead bid was from a stooge, he had to prevent the car being bought by a real bidder who could prove the truth…

‘Nine-point-five-million!! Thank you sir!’ This bid came from a man in a toupee and much to his rather younger partner’s delight. A murmur ran around the audience.

It was then that Bond’s instinct told him something was wrong. Smolenski took out his phone as though he had received a message, just as The Barber got up from his seat and proceeded to the back of the marquee. Moebius did not seem to notice. Smolenski ducked quietly from his seat and made his way, unnoticed in the increasing excitement, to the rear. Why the hell would the man leave now?

Ten million pounds!’ The applause was deafening; people at the rear were standing to get a better view of the protagonists. Bond walked quickly to the rear just in time to see the two other men quicken their stride through the now deserted foyer towards the front doors. He glanced back to the auction, then back to Smolenski, deep in conversation on his phone.

Then it made awful sense.

The guards on the car overnight had not been preventing damage, they’d been helping it. Him, the car, Sly – all the loose-ends. Good God.

‘Bomb!’ he shouted to the security guards. ‘James Bond, Secret Service,’ he flashed the glossy version of his warrant card, ‘There’s a bomb in the car – evacuate. Now!’

The guards initially grinned at what they took to be a drunken prank but the warrant card sobered them up: radios were drawn and frantic commands given. Somewhere an alarm sounded and after a few seconds pause panic ensued. If the bomb had been on an immediate trigger it would have detonated as soon as Smolenski left therefore on a timer. But how long?

Passage back blocked by a wall of people he ducked beneath the canvas wall and sprinted across the darkened lawn to the rear where he rolled back inside. Hurdled the Bugatti then hurling himself over the higher bonnet of the Mercedes, stamping expensively on one of its colossal mudguard he landed on the thick woollen carpet and rolled beneath the Ferrari. As the night before he searched the underside for any unusual package, any dangling wires. Why had he immediately thought the bomb may be underneath? He wrenched open a door, searched the footwells, beneath the seats, the rear parcel shelf… Lots of nothing.

He began to panic: a bomb could be moulded to look like anything – it could be in the engine bay, a tyre… His mind switched channel to look for anything which shouldn’t be there… and immediately there it was – right on the dashboard in plain view. A completely innocent looking pair of ironic pink fluffy dice. One sniff confirmed Semtex – around ten pounds each, enough to blow the cars, the marquee and half the hotel into next week. No wires, no wires…what did that mean? He could see no detonator – there must be a separate trigger, a smaller bomb which would trigger the main one. He checked for keys but life was never that simple.

He had a choice and the lesser of two evils won out.

Ripping the dice from their position he jumped from the car shouting superfluous instructions that everyone should get out, then ducked back under the canvas and ran.

Bond sprinted headlong across turf eyes rapidly adjusting to the darkness. The cold night air roared in his ears; feet pounded the grass, free arm pumping the air – how long did he have? His mental clock stood at two and a half minutes since Smolenski’s departure. Five minute fuse? Best assume three.

A huge silver disc appeared in the lawn ahead, the newly uncovered moon revealing a lake. Bond slowed, swung round in a discus-thrower stance and hurled the package as far across the lake as his arm would allow, then dropped like a stone and covered his face.

He was wrong about the Semtex not having a detonator. The explosion when it came was immense. The whole lake rose like a ghostly shroud, a huge inverted waterfall which reached twenty-five feet into the air. Then the air resounded to an ear-splitting boom before a powerful wind hit his face and it began to rain. Seconds later a mini-tsunami washed the lawn around him as he regained his feet and jogged back to the marquee to where shouts and screams resonated.

Suddenly the marquee seemed to rise, billowing like some huge Edwardian skirt and lit up like a hot-air balloon at dusk. A split second later the sound of a smaller explosion erupted followed by screams. Fiery shapes lit up the sky before crashing down on the lawn around him. A piece of metal which could have been a door sliced into the grass no more than five yards from his head.

Bond sprinted towards the inferno: roof collapsed, flapping entrails of the marquee waved wildly like some hellish creature. Figures staggered alight from conflagration, screams rent the air and the familiar smell of burning flesh assailed him as he entered. He ran to aid the wounded: it was like picking through an air crash.

The marquee, the cars and anyone still in it had been all but obliterated. But for his actions, much of the rear of the hotel and everyone therein would have lost their lives too. As it was the death toll was in single figures rather than hundreds but to Bond this was scant compensation and he berated himself for not acting faster. Only as day broke on the Sunday morning did he find out that Antrobus had also met with an accident at the garage, his big old Jaguar falling from a sturdy jack and crushing the life out of his friend.

*

The story when it broke was that a Muslim fundamentalist group had carried out the attack on ‘American-sympathising English aristocracy’, an antiquated but useful phrase. The bomb itself supported this view in type and construction. Sly was amongst those who had perished plus of course the potential embarrassment of the fake Ferrari had also been disposed of into the bargain. Of Sophie there was no sign, though she was not on the lists carried in the following day’s papers.

‘Extremely convenient. Smolenski’s come out with a statement saying he feels lucky as the intended target and sorry for the victims. Even gets the insurance money based on the bloody car’s auction value,’ spat M as she and Bond looked out across the Channel from a wind-swept promenade at Portsmouth. ‘You’re absolutely sure about all this?’ she asked for the third time.

‘The man’s a psychopath. He was behind the attacks on me and the bomb I’m sure. Designed to tie up at least three loose ends. The dice and that “every man has his worth” saying of his: he’s our man. I’m worried how he blew my cover though.’

M turned to look out to sea again.

‘You’re not the only one,’ he could tell from her tone this was not good news. ‘We lost 008 this morning in Dubai. The breech came quickly from what we can make out.’

Bond’s reaction was purely professional: for obvious reasons he did not know the identities of any of the other Double-O agents but there was a predictable kinship.

‘Linked to the case?’ he asked.

‘Probably. But it means the leak is worse than we thought. From now on we need to assume your moves are in the open.’

‘This gets easier by the minute,’ the tiredness and frustration were catching up but he regained his composure quickly. ‘So I go to Austria – you said he’d used it as a bolt-hole, we know he has this clinic, and I have the note.’

‘Which could be a trap or a message from a dead girl. This Sly woman or Cartwright-Jones.’

‘Or a live one like Rebecca Marx. If she wants out we need to take the chance. You said I was now out in the open – a direct attack at the nerve centre – if I can get in there I can find out what he’s up to and kill it at source. So: am I in?’

M weighed up her decreasing number of options.

‘I agree. I’ve already asked Major Boothroyd to be on standby for all Double-O’s. Tell him what you need. I want you there by Tuesday – one less attack is lives saved,’ she seemed to hesitate. ‘One more thing – you won’t be going alone. I’ve been coming under increasing pressure, and last night’s events put the tin-hat on it. Five-want in, and in the current climate I’m afraid we’re not in a position to decline… Agent codename “BFG” will meet you in-situ. Good luck 007.’

She turned and walked back to the grey Audi her driver had kept running in the layby. It pulled out sharply and accelerated away along the seafront, tyres hissing in the light rain.

Bond took one last look out across the Channel, salt air biting into the hard, cruel features. Then he walked back to the Lotus which sat sulkily in a pay-and-display. He could do without ‘help’ from Five, damn them.

‘Bloody amateurs,’ he said.

* * *


9

A Few of My Favourite Things

A vast, empty space - enclosed and in near darkness. High, vaulted roof a hundred feet above an uneasy floor, width twice that between sheer walls, length a quarter of a mile. This was no cathedral to traditional gods: today’s residents brought their own familiar idol. A lethargic yet compelling god creating commonplace miracles: capturing hearts and minds with effortless ease.

‘The dollar, gentlemen!’ The harsh, abrasive voice echoing slowly off disinterested concrete. The void awoke: eight huge, rectangular windows suddenly opened in the darkness, illuminating its darkest secrets. Laid bare, the cathedral answered.

‘To the dollar!’ Accented, male and female, each window found a disembodied voice. In a sudden reversion to domesticity glasses clinked, vast thirty-foot high champagne flutes quivered into hazy view, foot-high bubbles shimmering surreally – the very walls fizzing with energy. The voice rolled on.

‘We remain on track for the quarterly forecast – all activities are going to plan. May I thank you once again for your continued commitment to our venture.’ A ripple of applause greeted the words. ‘No no: we must thank our little green god for showing people the way. All we are doing is showing people their true worth, remember,’ polite laughter from some quarters. ‘And now, back to the game…’

On cue a single blue laser shot from the ceiling and struck a vast, foot-wide crystal in the floor. The beam split into a hundred fragments, refracting in as many directions and creating a brilliant fallen star burning away the recent darkness. Concentric circles of light formed around the diamond and spread like ripples while a series of radiating lines of red, green, blue and orange brought the console to life, light flowing like blood from its heart. At each intersection further crystals mimicked their larger parent struck by more lasers from the ceiling. The final arrangement of thirty rings was forty-feet in diameter, a living, pulsating alien web.

Shadows betrayed the presence of a number of three-dimensional objects upon the piano-black surface. Two feet high and metallic each carried a small LED screen and each of these displayed a face or a building or a place. The apparition drew more applause from the disembodied audience. Again the voice spoke and the words cannoned over the new-born alien below.

‘Our state of play, ladies and gentlemen,’ a new, larger window opened up at the far end of the void: a huge vertical curtain of text, figures, graphs and video images unrolling from ceiling to floor. A rapidly changing series of subjects was presented, including familiar events in the UK, Spain and Dubai.

‘Many winners from the month’s events, and a few losers – Mr. Monday, Ms. Thursday notably. Well done to you both, your judgement has, as usual, proved most precise,’ more polite applause and some laughter as graphs and figures appeared under the headings Monday and Thursday. Under ‘Running total’ appeared the figure two hundred and fifty three million.

‘But all that could change ladies and gentlemen in the coming week. Remember – it could be you…!’ laughter from three of the windows. ‘But if you would all like to turn your attention to the images now on your screens you will see the choices you have for this month’s Killer…’ a series of short video clips streamed like TV adverts across the screen. A narrative summarised each in light-hearted fashion before concluding with a jovial:

‘The choice, folks, is up to you!’ The screens returned to their figures but now with a list of the clips just seen running down the right hand side. ‘As usual you have twenty four hours in which to make your choices and place your bets, the price as always is fifty million of which the usual ten per cent will go to your favourite charity…’ A big, mock grin appeared twenty feet high in one of the windows, expensively enamelled teeth dazzling even amid the lasers.

‘Unless there is any more business I have just one more item to bring to your attention…’ the voice paused for no answer. The cold faces looked on with curiosity.

‘I regret to announce that I have made an error. Ladies and gentlemen, something evil this way comes.’ A face appeared in the middle of the central screen. ‘This vermin got close to us, a cockroach who appears to have been on our books for a little while. And like all cockroaches this one has proven surprisingly difficult to stamp out.’ The voice grew angry, momentarily losing its characteristic good humour. ‘Knowing now what it is answers a number of questions. And, like any pest, once you know its nature you can identify and exploit its weaknesses. This month I will be adding a new piece to our play, my own. I will lay down one hundred million – twice your stakes - against my ability to eliminate this irritation. I trust that you will wish me well.’ A mix of laughter and applause met the words, to which the figure in the speaking window gave a series of courteous bows.

‘You are too kind, too kind…’ A new piece emerged soundlessly from beneath the central diamond onto the gleaming black game-board. A squat, motorised figurine with a screen for a face, it slowly moved along a bright red radial to take up station near the outer perimeter.

The screen showed the face of James Bond.

*

Flight FR302 touched down on Salzburg airport’s single runway at exactly three pm local time. Bond watched the flaps spread and listened to the strangled whine of the CFM turbo-fans as they commenced reverse thrust to slow the 737’s progress before the long taxi to the terminal.

The flight had been uneventful. The views coming in from the east across the southern part of the old city towards the mountains were spectacular yet James Bond was impatient. Security meant not reading anything useful on the flight and he despised what masqueraded as food and drink on short-haul.  Part of him wished he had been born fifty years earlier and experienced air-travel in its glamorous hey-day, when each flight was an adventure. Charter travel and budget airlines meant that today it felt like holding your breath for two hours of cheap discomfort. Rail he considered generally superior.

Usually a fan of the airport terminal’s societal microcosm, today he was glad to be free of the unimaginatively titled ‘Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’ airport, having got through customs with ease, Q’s latest piece of handiwork holding out. Through the mercifully short arrivals hall with its Mozart logos and Sound of Music aficionados he was out under thirty-degrees of Austrian sunshine a bare fifteen minutes after landing. A short walk beneath a shaded canopy brought him to the car rental office and a queue comprising an amusing list of national holiday-making stereotypes.

Bond quickly located the envelope marked ‘Mr. Sterling’ in the message rack and retraced his steps to car park E1 analysing the mental photograph of the faces inside the building. He quickly located bay 328, scanning his surroundings as he went. Two maintenance men in denims and a family of four who had mislaid their rental car. Nothing sinister. Only later would his mind nag him into questioning the wife’s insistent and unnecessarily loud phone conversation.

Ten minutes later he had negotiated the airport’s exit system to reach the Autoroute in the direction of Munich before exiting onto route 21 and then the scenic route 178 along the picturesque Saalach river valley. The Tyrollean countryside was just as beautiful as he had left it three years earlier, though out of ski-season the vistas were surprisingly transformed. In place of the bright, craggy carpet here was an equally pretty backdrop, but this was no sightseeing tour.

It was Wednesday, and a snatched nap on the plane had been sorely needed as the past seventy-two hours had passed in a blur. First had been details of the assassination of 008 and the latest on the terror strikes. More background had been unearthed on the two assassins and he had digested the full file on Smolenski; it all fitted the image of the man he had built up so far. Of the three dead men at Goodwood no trace had been found – no missing persons filed, no one checked into nearby hospitals. They had simply vanished – obviously the way Smolenski preferred to operate.

Monday afternoon and most of Tuesday had then been spent in cramming sessions with four of the service’s best minds. First up had been the Service’s corporate tax and legal expert, McDougall, a dour and predictably cynical Scot who put some meat onto the bones M had laid out a few days earlier. The complex web of Smolenski’s trading structure - holding companies, off-shore tax avoidance set-ups - it seemed they were leaders in the field, gaining hundreds of millions just by dint of which Swiss canton held company registry. While the detail was dry the picture was impressive: the Service had put some effort into building a complete picture but McDougall himself had to admit this was not easy.

‘Tougher that a mountain dog’s wedding tackle,’ being the colourful euphemism he chose. It was apparently entirely legal.

Monday evening had been spent with Q-department and Major Boothroyd the armourer. The P99 automatic was deemed adequate personal hardware while the choice of a long-range sniper’s rifle came down to the Parker-Hale M85 versus the U.S. Marine’s weapon of choice, the M40A3. Bond spent two hours evaluating each in the sub-basement firing range before plumping for the better weight and consistency of the former. Boothroyd and his vehicle team had then updated him on the latest mods to the Bowler 4x4 before finally under the watchful gaze of two of Boothroyd’s assistants he’d put in two hours with the Walther in simulated combat conditions.

‘You’d be better coming in fresh in the morning, sir,’ advised a newer member of the team.

‘If I can score ninety-seven when dog-tired I know I can do it when fully rested. I don’t get to choose when to do it for real.’ Bond reached his flat at two in the morning and slept sounder than he had in weeks.

Tuesday morning had him scheduled for two hours with Chris Fletcher, the professional gaming consultant Bond knew well, which rapidly became four hours including a long lunch at his favourite restaurant around the corner. The formal part of the meeting had started with Fletcher running quickly through an updated menu of the games and how they were adapted on-line.

‘Online gambling is a nebulous phrase. The field is just as wide as “real” gambling - everything from cards to horses, bingo to stocks and shares. Sometimes you play against a computer, others against fellow online users. And just like the real thing it’s tough to tell the good from the bad. Most of it is harmless and frankly a bit infantile, but unlike the real thing any of it can be dangerous – it’s not just the poker schools, although that is the big danger area as that’s where the glamour attracts the punters and it’s easy to lose fast and big.’

‘Who plays?’

‘The demographic roughly breaks in two: you have those who gamble already and are looking for a more convenient way of doing it. Not to everyone’s tastes – it lacks the adrenalin. We find this is what they do when they get home so it’s all incremental.  They’re going to get into the same trouble as they would anyway, maybe a bit more. More at risk are the “accidental” gamblers, those who stumble into it. You see in real life one form of gambling rarely leads to another – someone who goes to bingo every week doesn’t one day decide they need something stronger and tries poker or the horses. They may do that anyway, but there isn’t the causality you get with drug use.’

‘You mean the idea that today’s pot-smoker is tomorrow’s heroin addict? I don’t buy that – there are stratifications.’

‘True. But ask Narc. and they’ll tell you there are links, not least the fact that once you’re breaking the law the next step can seem slight. Point is on-line there are no boundaries: people get addicted to the gambling itself, and just as at a casino you get the naive and the weak chasing losses – things spiral and punters soon get cleaned out.’

‘It’s still free choice - no one gambles by accident.’

‘Sure, but bear in mind most people spend large amounts of time at PCs or on tablets and phones. Facebook, Twitter and of course that old charmer pornography – it’s easy for people to waste a life in a twilight world.’

‘Good title for a book.’

‘I’m working on it.’ Bond was reminded of his own survival techniques manual which lay untouched and incomplete on his hard-drive. ‘People get lost on the internet and as with any drug you only need to dabble once.’

‘Okay so people are getting into debt but they need to accept responsibility for their actions. Where’s the problem?’ Bond was feeling marginally defensive about gambling, one of his few serious pleasures, as Fletcher had in the past counselled him against his excesses.

‘There’s still something of a frontier spirit about internet gambling. The interesting thing is that the U.S. recently “ran it out of town” so to speak – banned it, at least on U.S. sites. Now, that’s not going to stop it by any means – but it is an interesting lead which so far we seem unlikely to follow in the U.K. The Department of Justice arrested the CEOs of two of the biggest companies who thought they weren’t serious – both these guys are worth billions: this is a serious sign of intent.’

‘So the industry’s looking for a bolt hole?’

‘Yup – and for once the U.K., in not taking the U.S.’ lead, is it. We reckon the U.K. has nearly three million users with year-on-year increases in the double-digit range. Far from being public enemy number one they’re being welcomed with open arms by the Government who enthusiastically talk about this as simply a branch of the “leisure-industry” – they’re even lobbying for better tax rates.  On top of that individual tax regimes here look good for multi-millionaires and of course our I.T. infrastructure is finally first-rate…’

‘Hence Mr. Smolenski suddenly elevating this country to the top of his favourites list.’

‘Exactly. And with the rest of Europe looking likely to follow the U.S. the U.K. could corner the market for the at least the next decade.’

‘Okay I agree you can debate whether this is a nice idea, but what’s the big story here – what’s Smolenski’s angle?’

‘Beyond making a shedful of cash? I’d have thought that’d be enough!’

‘Tell me why he’s doing so well then?’

‘Ah, now that’s easier. Firstly, he’s always first – Skillerbet spots the opportunities before anyone else – the I.T. games, gizmos, the consumer trends. But there’s two main competitive advantages which I believe keep them out front. First, the games are the best – the graphics, the speed, the variety, and the apparent returns – which I’ll come back to. Secondly, Skillerbet’s biggest selling point is that it customises itself around the gambler. “Your own personal Vegas”. Not just one straightforward site or set of games, there seems to be a customised service for each user. Initially a simple menu, but endless permutations. I’ve had a team of four working non-stop for two weeks and they haven’t found the bottom yet.’

‘So what have they found then? Apart from a need for glasses and a use for tax-payers money.’

‘Erm…’ he mumbled with slight embarrassment, ‘well, that is true, yes. Well for a start it draws you in, asking for more personal security information at each level and credit guarantees. It lets you take credit out while you’re playing – again, highly dangerous. It also gets more interactive, with the ability to talk to more users, and of course the stakes get subtly higher. Very clever, and the guys do report it gets very addictive. One said he lost track of how much he was gambling for – and the man’s bloody well trained.’

‘Can I take a look?’

‘Come with me into the strange world of Skillerbet…’ They spent the next two hours running through the basics as well as exploring some of the darker depths. Bond couldn’t see the attraction but understood that many would and as he accumulated a modest return his mind explored the uses to which addiction may be put.

The afternoon kicked off with I.T. guru McCuthrick, another Scot who defined the word geek. He explained how it was all possible.

‘Oh, the basic algorithms I could knock up in an afternoon, a website over lunch. But this gaming-levels idea, and the customisation – that’s very interesting…’ So started a number of novel trains of thought Bond had to fight to keep on track.

‘An iterative engine would be employed, possibly a series of them, re-feeding data back and re-setting the games parameters. I’d love to have a go at that… tried something similar but struggled to be honest…’ He also explained the convoluted mathematical models that lay behind the software, illustrating that the statistical-models threw up some surprising anomalies which could be manipulated if you knew you way around.

It struck Bond as he was introduced to the final briefing of the day by a curious little fellow named Dr. Joseph Motul, Professor of Psychology at Bath University that what he had met during the course of the day was the Service’s equivalent of the Skillerbet board he’d met at Goodwood. And as Professor Motul talked of the causes and effects, the stimuli and drivers of gambling, and Bond learned of the ways in which these could be manipulated, channelled and fuelled, he started to get a sense of foreboding which was still with him when he arrived in Salzburg. Despite the alpine setting something distinctly unpleasant was in the air.

At Lofer he made a sharp right, a tight turning beneath a canopy of sun-punctuated foliage, and now the landscape with its greenery and bubbling river opened into something new: this was not the same Tyrol, surely? The chocolate-box hotels set some way up the gently rolling foothills either side; cable car stations marked the bottom end of ski-runs, many familiar. At the distinctive church steeples of St. Johann he bore left on route 161 then finally, in the distance, high up to the left of the meandering road he saw the huge TV mast which marked the peak of the Kitzbuhellerhorn.

Silver and copper mining were responsible for Kitzbuhel’s initial prosperity, and it was only with the arrival of the first Norwegian skiers towards the end of the nineteenth century that a more lucrative route to prosperity opened up. Accelerated by the Edwardian ‘grand-tourists’ who flocked to the Tyrol in the early years of the last century the small town soon became the place to be seen. As a result a number of very fine hotels sprang up to cater for the visiting money and its attendant whims. The town itself is a typical ribbon settlement effectively spilt in two: north is the residential and business centre, such as it is – a conglomeration of small factories and large shops - whilst to the south lies the hotel district centred on the old town with its historic churches, brightly painted sixteenth and seventeenth century burgher’s houses and exotic boutiques. It is here that today’s money parades on a Saturday night through the narrow streets, parking its sports cars and SUVs on picturesque Vorderstradt. With a meagre indigenous population of five thousand it is nevertheless a town fully equipped to relieve a tenfold winter swelling of its ski-suit-clad wealth.

At the heart of proceedings sits the Hotel Tiefenbrunner, confidently overlooking the visiting hoards. A short ‘L’-shaped frontage in period pink and ochre stucco with characteristic pitched roof, the five-storey building imposes itself on the street with grandeur and history. Though not lavish by modern standards it possessed the warmth and comfort Bond prized above the trappings of so-called luxury, and was kept in an immaculate state of repair.

Bond forewent the chance to park amid the Mercedes’ and the Porsches out front and instead parked the stubby, dark-green Bowler beneath the balconied rooms facing towards the Horn to the rear. Grabbing his cases he strode up the short flight of steps alongside what looked like a new pool and spa area, noting a fine, bronzed female body glistening beneath the arc lighting as he did so. A pair of luscious green eyes blinked open and smiled invitingly as he passed. He politely returned a smile and wondered idly if they were available on room service.

‘Bond, James Bond – a room with a view?’

Check-in was short and sweet like the receptionist. Bond received his requested triple-room on the third floor overlooking the street.

‘Would you have my cases taken up?’

‘Certainly, Mister Bond,’ she maintained eye contact while bending to attend to something unnecessary beneath the desk displaying amble charm in the process. ‘A message for you, sir,’ Bond took the proffered sheet and took in its contents: his contact from Five had arrived early and was awaiting him on the street terrace.

‘Thanks,’ he said through gritted teeth. They’d doubtless send him some juvenile delinquent who thought he knew how to be a secret agent as he’d ‘watched all the films’, or else some dull crusty with a paunch to keep him in check, who’d repeatedly tell him he’d ‘done that before you were born’ and insist on drinking American, or worse, English lager. If it was Hawkins he may well have to shoot him. Past experiences with Five had not left him impressed. Bond regarded them as enthusiastic amateurs at best and at worst lethal liabilities.

Striding out through the main doors beneath the ornate green and gold awning over the bar and terrace his worst fears were confirmed by a grey, balding figure sitting straight ahead.

‘Why Mr. Bond, what an unexpected pleasure. Taking a well-earned break from all that importing and exporting?’ The voice came literally from left field. Turning, he breathed her in - smile dazzling, skin supple, shoulders deliciously bare and the voice delightfully playful just as he remembered.

‘My, Ms. Laguardia what a big mouth you have – what do they say about journalists and free lunches?’

‘Touché James, touché…’

* * *


10

Edelweiss

A humdrum of tourists milled down Vorderstradt, idly glancing in sparkling boutiques they could ill afford whilst gorging themselves on ice-creams which they obviously could. Beneath the implacable exterior Bond’s mind was alight: the Laguardia woman, MI5: how had he missed that? M had told him they had Smolenski pegged and journalistic cover was perfect: able to ask awkward questions, snoop around and generally act as rudely as they liked. Not for the first time that week he thought he’d dropped the ball. After the initial shock his mind consoled him with her looks, undimmed upon re-acquaintance. Dressed in fine red silk blouse and taupe linen skirt she wore a white scarf loosely around that delicate and highly kissable neck. A Prada bag unceremoniously cast to the side of the table reassured him it was not carried through affectation.  Aside from rather unruly hair she was the very model of the classy, confident young woman; her slim, athletic figure now more pronounced than before.

The waiter delivered an ice-bound Perrier in a tall, slim, sweating glass. Bond ordered a Martini then set the Q-Berry to ‘white-noise’.

‘So we’re batting for the same side, Ms. Laguardia. Or should I say “BFG”?’

‘From the Roald Dahl story. It was one of my favourites as a child – the heroine was called Sophie and like me wore glasses. She befriends the Big Friendly Giant and battles the big ugly ones. All in her nightie. Anyway, let’s not go through the tiresome rigmarole of introductions just because neither of us is who the other one thought they were.’

‘And have I met the real you?’

‘’Fraid so,’ she wrinkled her nose, a gesture he felt sure she knew to be unashamedly attractive, ‘Warts and all - I’m no actress.’

‘That’s a shame, but I’m sure the warts are an exaggeration,’ a reflex glint appeared in the blue-grey eyes.

‘My, my; aren’t we cock-sure of ourselves already?’ the briefest hesitation was judged to perfection. ‘You’re surprised to find the Five agent is a woman, right? Expected someone old and geriatric like Hawkins or Rickman I expect?’

‘Hawkins did have good legs…’

‘…but instead they land you with someone not only a few years younger but also…by jove! A dashed woman trying to mix it in a man’s world? So up go the defences and already you’re talking down to me. I had hoped for better to be quite honest.’ The tongue was only half tucked into her cheek, his attitude obviously all too familiar.

‘Guilty, at least to some degree, I’m sorry,’ he admitted. ‘In my defence I would say I rarely say “by jove”,’ he attempted a conciliatory grin. Her face softened slightly.

‘You normally work alone, right?’

‘Only person I trust. To be honest I wasn’t impressed to be teamed up no matter who it was. But a pretty face, if I may be so truthfully bold, is part compensation: I’d look like a toy-boy or a geriatric nurse sat here with Hawkins and his bloody pipe!’ This elicited an unselfconscious laugh.

‘So what’s the deal: how long have you been working on our Russian friend then?’ he asked some time later.

‘Me? Six months: got a lot invested in him. Picked it up from a background op. that’s been running for a few years. Covert surveillance, compiling a list of associates, patterns work mainly. Frankly not very high priority alongside the terrorism panic. He rose slightly up the ranks last year when two employees from his Casino in Milan who’d been talking to the press were found with a gut full of concrete. Force-fed whilst still alive.’

‘And those bearing witness shall be turned unto stone. Nice.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Just reminded me of an old saying. So it’s time to send for Sophie Laguardia.’

‘Not quite. Suddenly Smolenski’s promoted to the A-list and the guy who was supposed to take on the assignment goes down with a bad case of Hampstead-Heath-itis. So there’s me, newly recruited from Intelligence on her first front line assignment. Only it just got a hell of a lot bigger since you entered the picture – straight to the top of the rankings. So now I need to know: is my being a novice going to be a problem for you, Mr. Big-Shot form MI6?’

‘Nun at all,’ he replied, wasting a good pun on a rhetorical question.

‘Good. So: your turn to spill. All I know is that you’re one of the elephants that we zoo-keepers from Five have to clean up behind.’

‘Glad to see inter-departmental prejudice is still being taught so thoroughly. You must score high marks for “building diverse and collaborative relationships”…’

‘I’m quoting directly from the handbook,’ she said with a straight face. ‘So? I’m assuming you’re one of the fabled double-Os?’

‘Does it matter?’

‘Well if you are it means your objective is to kill.’

‘Only if necessary. The job isn’t just hired-gun,’ her eyebrows raised quizzically. ‘It’s judgement. Besides, it’s not enough to kill – there’s something bigger than just Smolenski going on and we need to get inside to find out what the hell it is. It’s like removing a tic – if you don’t get the whole thing right away the damage continues after the creature is dead. We need to get on the inside and yes, that might get messy. I’m assuming you came armed with more than just your dazzling wit and a new hair-do?’

‘I’ve got it where it counts sugar,’ she replied unflinchingly, her accent more pronounced as she milked the terminology. American accents Bond found were like satellite TV channel: generally unpleasant but if you searched long enough you were bound to find one you liked.

‘To that there’s no answer,’ he resisted. ‘You’re the expert - what have we got to go on?’

‘Okay well Skillerbet’s officially registered in Innsbruck but that’s only a PO Box. Most of the admin and transactional work is done in Bangalore, a bit like a call-centre. They’re elusive about where their headquarters is but we reckon it’s this gambling rehab clinic, a place called Edelweiss Spitze on the Glockner mountain range about forty miles southeast of here. Officially it’s a centre for research into gambling addiction rehabilitation – undoubtedly a P.R. sop to his conscience - but from what I’ve been able to find out they do take quite a variety of patients from all over Europe, and not just the rich. Makes a big deal of it in response to criticisms of his business dealings.’

‘Skillerbet sails pretty close to the wind – pressure-selling, exploitation, encouraging people to bet-the-farm.’

‘Exactly – preying on the poor and desperate – far from the glamorous image: it’s all pretty shoddy if you ask me.’

‘But perfectly legal.’

‘Well, here, yes – the U.S. has banned it, yet our lot seem intent on encouraging it.’

‘You sound like my housekeeper.’

‘And you sound like something out of an Agatha Christie novel; housekeeper – who has a housekeeper these days? Some Slovakian gymnast presumably?’

Bond grinned.

‘Her gymnastic days are definitely behind her. Tell me more about this clinic. How often does Smolenski visit?’

‘One week in four. He follows a pattern: one week here with the assortment of mis-shapes you saw at Goodwood, one week he’s in London acting the celebrity, one week in Moscow or Poland – we don’t have that piece of the jigsaw. The fourth varies – New York, Frankfurt, Monaco…whatever. If he runs true to schedule he’ll be arriving tomorrow evening.’

‘So this is where he runs the operation from – head-office, research and development, all the heavy-weight I.T. Makes sense – out of the way, secure. The question is what else goes on up there?’

‘You tell me, I’m just the reference book,’ a note of bitterness crept in: presumably she too resented the involvement of an outsider. ‘Skillerbet’s an unpleasant set-up but I can’t get from there to terrorism. Yes, one or two of the perpetrators had debts with them, but they had debts with a lot of people. You must have more if you think he’s linked?’

Bond kept his suspicions to himself, settling on a vague statement about ‘positive intelligence’ before going back to the question.

‘The only thing certain is that we need to get inside.’

‘Aha – now that’s tricky: its half way up a bloody mountain. A single private approach road – got part way along it once but got turned back by guards. Not a huge place from the amount of traffic – I monitored the comings and goings for two weeks last June. Maybe fifty working there, that’s all. But as for getting in – tough. I’ve had one or two ideas but you’re the expert – so what’s the plan?’

‘Need to know basis only – but let’s just say I’m doubly glad you’re not Hawkins – he’d have made one hell of an ugly wife.’

As the terrace busied with a party of sightseers the conversation turned to more prosaic topics including skiing and the local wines, postponing talk of their mission until the evening.

They dined at a quietly excellent little restaurant in nearby Jochberg, eschewing the delights of the fine but public Tennerhof. Bond paid the host a hundred Euros for privacy, mention of a ‘very important question’ hinting at a proposal which drew an indulgent smile. Their conversation was thus helped by the Heuriger’s continuous acoustic guitar throughout the evening, the waiters leaving the two lovebirds alone.

The chef excelled with a rare steak served in a local green pepper sauce washed down in Bond’s case by half a bottle of a grainy Russian Vodka, whilst Sophie played safe with the local Esterhazy Rulander. Conversation inevitably returned to Smolenski and his lifestyle.

‘I know from my sources that at the moment he’s in Hamburg overseeing the completion of his new yacht – a six hundred-foot leviathan named ‘Entrepreneur’. Heli-pad, ballroom, even a god-damned submarine dock. Can you believe that?’ Bond could – he’d seen the roll call of the world’s billionaires’ private yachts, and the six-hundred footer had a grim inevitability about it, Blohm and Voss the likely constructors.

The hoteliers’ invitation to sample ‘the World’s Greatest Apfelstrudel’ proved in Bond’s opinion to be wholly accurate and the meal was rounded off by two large, steaming black coffees with pear schnapps.

‘Disgusting stuff but it doesn’t do to offend the hosts,’ he said, smiling. This time it was Sophie who seemed anxious to get back to business.

 ‘So what’s the plan then? I’m presuming while the cats away we mice don’t simply just walk in the front door?’ she threw in sarcastically.

‘That’s exactly what we do,’ he grinned. He had already decided that despite not being enamoured with Sophie’s presence the appearance of a couple could prove useful. She was less than amused, however, when he explained.

‘Why can’t you be the gambling addict you arrogant sod and me the supportive partner?’ Her brow furrowed and Bond was momentarily distracted by the contours of her face in the candlelight.

A: I probably wouldn’t be seeking help, as all men are arrogant, if you recall; and B: if I did I wouldn’t tell my lovely wife…’ The logic was flawed but he already knew what he wanted to do and having her the centre of attention would be essential. ‘I’m gambling that Smolenski won’t be expecting us on his doorstep – no one will be primed – his entire entourage are away. All I need is half an hour to take a look around so I need people occupied. Based on what we know the nerve centre has to be up there. We should soon get a sniff of it.’ In reality he thought it would not be anything like this easy and that cleverer methods would be required.

He paid the bill with a further tip, though the staff could not help but notice that the lady was less than happy as they left: such was life.

The evening had no climax, Sophie retiring to her room immediately they returned to the hotel, petulance or not he couldn’t tell. He took a scotch in the small hotel bar before turning in: it would be a long tomorrow.

*

‘Remind me just what the hell I’m travelling in again?’ Sophie was obviously used to life’s creature comforts and Bond would admit that the Bowler did not offer first class accommodation. ‘I mean, the world seems to travel in something air-conditioned and German round here, even the four-by-fours. Your Land-Rover is thirty years out of date,’ she added as they were passed an ungainly Porsche Cayenne with blackened glass and twenty-two inch rims.

‘Great for the car park at Sainsbury’s, less good for getting out of sticky situations. And it’s not a Land-Rover, by the way.’

‘And that’s why God invented the good-old American Jeep. We could at least have gotten us a Jeep - go anywhere with lea-ther and air-con…’

‘…and cup holders?’

‘Yes…’ she grasped the sarcasm mid-sentence. ‘Either way it’d beat this old shed…’

‘I’m a traditionalist: Queen and Country,’ he responded, resisting the urge to extol the Bowler’s many virtues, contenting himself with dispatching a slow-moving truck with a sudden surge of acceleration which took Sophie off guard.

Aside from the world’s very deep wet bits, the Bowler Wildcat is one of the fastest modes of traversing the planet yet devised. Built by a small company in deepest Derbyshire it looks to the uninitiated like a customised Land-Rover – the trusty sit-up-and-beg army Defender in a bulging, carbon-fibre party frock. Those more familiar with the Landie will quickly spot the unique proportions – wider and lower in stance and longer of wheelbase the Wildcat shares few elements of its parent’s DNA, transplanted into a bespoke space-frame designed specifically for desert races such as the infamous Paris-Dakar. In an event whose attrition rate is two-thirds, which often claims lives and has been known to be interrupted by civil war, eight Bowlers had completed the course the previous year.

Bond’s Wildcat was a five-litre super-charged variant geared for acceleration rather than outright top speed but it could touch one-fifty if pressed. Five hundred and seventy five horsepower combined with the latest weight-saving technology in body, chassis and drive-train led to the one statistic which summed the car up: a nought to sixty miles per hour sprint time of four seconds – enough to scare Porsche drivers aplenty even over rough terrain. It had room in the back for all the equipment he required – including the Walther P99QA he felt naked without – all discretely hidden in the metalwork for the journey on military transport via Munich two days earlier.

Like the rest of his professional tools he’d practiced long and hard, much of it up at Otterburn as well as at Land-Rover’s test track in the Midlands, but this would be his first chance to use it in anger. Like most pieces of focussed engineering there were compromises such as a lack of interior comforts. Compared with Kitzbuhel’s pedigree parade of BMW and Mercedes four-by-fours the Bowler growled and strained at the leash like an unruly pit-bull. To Sophie it was a pain in the derriere. Bond loved it.

They’d set out at eight to beat the tourists, Bond estimating it would take an hour to get to the summit of the Grossglockner pass. They’d breakfasted in the hotel: a rather excellent buffet mixing the best of the local ham, cheese and fruit with the obligatory full-English – with an Austrian twist, of course. Bond had a large plate of scrambled eggs with smoked-salmon strips followed by a mound of bacon rashers while Sophie stuck to a restrained bowl of muesli and some fruit. He downed two large black coffees before excusing himself to obtain a packed lunch from the kitchens on the pretence of a day’s hiking, giving their objective as the Hahnenkamm, Kitzbuhel’s second peak. Thus equipped they loaded up the Bowler and meandered out through the southern streets onto the main road south.

They drove at a quick but easy pace along the valley before starting to climb up the winding Thurn Pass. Half an hour later they dropped into the broad Salzach valley, heading east along the A168. The valley was high sided and though the mind got used to the stunning views the eye was still drawn by an occasional vista suddenly opening up between the mountains, or as the sun broke and a rainbow materialised across a waterfall cascading from a crag. Twenty minutes later they skirted Zell-am-Zee and Bond took a right, following the signs south that would lead them up the Grossglockner.

At three thousand eight hundred metres Grossglockner is Austria’s highest peak and the highest Alp east of the Brenner Pass. Its distinctive pyramidal shape comprises two peaks – the ‘Gross’ and ‘Klein’ (big and small) – separated by a saddle known as Glocknerscharte. Part of the Hohe Tauern mountain range overlooking the Pasterze, Austria’s largest glacier, Grossglockner is also one of the country’s main tourist attractions, aided since 1935 by the astounding Grossglockner pass, a twenty-nine mile public highway which climbs two and a half thousand metres through some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe. Forty-one hairpin bends and over sixty other corners twist between rock and sheer three hundred metre drops which await the careless. Nevertheless this morning the main obstacle was traffic: with overtaking room at a premium he’d rather avoid the slow parade of coach parties.

Driving at a steady sixty-five (Bond always thought in miles) amid the flat foothills and through Fusch he was again struck by the incredible splendour of the area. As they climbed the view grew ever more breathtaking; as the drops increased, the vegetation grew thinner and the sight of clouds beneath them started to disorientate.

It took them fifteen minutes to wind carefully up through the toll-gates and past the gift shops, additions since the heady pre-war days of Stuck and Nuvolari heroically piloting their Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union silver-arrows in the pre-war hillclimbs.

It was just after nine when they reached the Edelweiss Spitze viewing platform, the highest point on the road and regular stop-off which even at this hour was home to thirty or forty sight-seers. A handful of cars, a small coach and a dozen bikes dotted the car park. From here a horseshoe-shaped cobbled road ran around the ridge, and beside the return road a second, private road quickly disappeared around the far side of the outcrop. It was here that Bond now pointed the Bowler.

The road was barely a double-car width and for the first few hundred yards this did not matter but then, passing through a shallow tree-lined gorge they emerged with rock only to their right, the view to the left looking as though the mountain had yet to be painted in. In its place a hazy view out across the valley they had just driven – floor some fifteen hundred feet below, opposing mountains two miles distant and snow-capped despite the season.

Sophie gave an involuntary ‘wow’ and leaned across the cabin. The road clinging limpet-like to the rock started climbed gently, curving first left then, through an archway, to the right. A flimsy-looking steel barrier was all that stood between them and scenic oblivion.

‘I only got as far as the gorge – security must be having a day off.’

‘Don’t think so, look,’ he indicated an electronic eye mounted in a roadside shrine, following their passage.

‘Just keep your eyes on the bloody road, okay?’

Coming around the right hand bend the road suddenly climbed up to a large wooden gate set into an outcrop that rose three-hundred feet out of sight. As they drew closer they realised the gate was huge – maybe thirty feet high – and across the road some five yards ahead of it was a fence, maybe ten feet high, beyond which a small waterfall cascaded down the rock and apparently through the road itself.

In the rock to the right a metal panel contained an intercom and swipe-card reader.

‘End of the line,’ said Bond as he pulled the Bowler alongside. Sophie was looking ahead.

‘It’s a bloody drawer-bridge!’ She was right: the space between the fence and the gate was an abyss. You had to admire the security precautions, he thought – distinctly odd for a clinic, though.

He pushed the button and explained in German that Mr. and Mrs. Sterling had an appointment to see Doctor Rebecca Marx, gambling that she was with Smolenski. The snapped response did not bode well.

‘They don’t take personal callers. Bugger off, basically.’

‘You’re surprised at this? Duh! And that’s it – that was your plan? Just knock on and walk in?’

He grinned and again pressed the button. There was another brief exchange during which Sophie heard Smolenski’s name mentioned twice. Then a pause.

‘My silken powers of persuasion never fail…’

Sophie gave him a quizzical glance.

‘Okay, they’re letting us in to leave our contact details. And because I said I couldn’t turn around on the road…’ she laughed. ‘But we’re in, and that’s the important thing.’

A generator-whine signalled the gate’s descent, the wooden façade proving to be just that: the bridge itself was at least five-feet thick and comprised concrete and steel as well as a smooth, tarred surface, so that when fully extended it formed a seamless part of the track, guard-rails and all. To the right was a half-tunnel of moulded Perspex which sent the waterfall flowing down an unseen gulley in the rock face. The bridge was supported by a pair of hydraulic rams two-feet in diameter – unsurprising as the gate must weigh five tonnes.

‘Why does it feel like we just dived into a shark-infested lake…?’ Sophie breathed nervously. He knew the feeling; the difference was he enjoyed it.

They drove across the bridge and into a short, concrete-lined tunnel where Bond noted the hydraulic mechanism, then out onto a bright, spacious terrace fifty yards wide cutting thirty yards into mountainside. It reminded him of an Oxford quad complete with curiously shaped doorways, a balcony, flowerbeds and even a well. The fourth side was open to the view while above them towered a startlingly modern glass canopy; starting some twenty feet above their heads it curved sharply up the cliff face forming a kind of outer shell, meeting the rock at a point out of their vision maybe a hundred feet overhead. Given this architectural feature the clinic itself appeared rather subdued. Bond parked the Bowler next to a monstrous black Audi Q7 and a litterbin and withdrew his phone.

‘You have an urgent call now?’ asked Sophie incredulously.

‘Just checking – thought so,’ and apparently satisfied he put the phone away. He reached behind him for the bag which had contained their lunch. ‘Hello there!’ this as he opened the door of the car, pre-empting the security guard’s approaching sub-machine gun.

‘Nein! Drehen Sie sich herum, urlaub!’ The guard was a very solid six and a half footer. Bond switched to ignorant Britischer.

‘We’re here to see Doctor Marx, yes? Marx?’

Another tirade, this time one hand maintaining contact with the Kalashnikov. A second man entered the courtyard: much smaller – maybe five nine – plump with black tousled hair and bottle-bottom glasses. His manner was polite but firm.

‘I am Herr Trinn. This is private property. You must leave now.’ Bond ran through the explanation about seeing Doctor Marx once more, casually placing a used tissue inside the bag, crumpling it and depositing it in the bin. Trinn indulgently took down their details without conviction.

 ‘It’s a lovely place – I do hope you can accommodate my wife. She really does need your help.’ Sophie subtly but resolutely stood on his right foot and pressed hard. Bond grinned through gritted teeth.

‘And Edelweiss are your favourite flower too, aren’t they my sweet?’ Trinn gave a short laugh.

‘So they are with Doctor Marx – it aids “psychological tranquillity”. We have fresh Edelweiss brought in every day – it’s said they’re becoming hard to get in the area because of us!’ As if reminded he checked his watch, ‘In fact you must go now as we are having our delivery soon. That shows our meticulous attention to detail, I think!’ he finished triumphantly and ushered them back to their car.

‘Indeed it does, Herr Trinn. Auf wiedersein!’ then aside to Sophie: ‘That’s the trouble with Germans –they don’t see the big picture.’

He reversed the Bowler across the yard, gave a cheery wave to the smug German and the wary guard then retraced their route into the tunnel. Sophie thought he took unnecessary care negotiating what appeared a generous opening pausing, windows open checking his mirrors and fiddling the controls for a good twenty seconds before finally moving across the bridge and accelerated away. The gate started to rise almost before they were safely across.

‘I’m presuming there was a point to that little pantomime?’

‘Need to know only.’

‘Oh yes, thanks for that,’ she shook her head as they made their way back along the narrow cliff-road. ‘So, that was a shambles then. Didn’t get near anything, not a peep. Did you really expect to just waltz in and be shown around? So we’re done,’ Sophie summarised with an air of disgruntled finality, looking back in the mirrors. ‘It’d take a big army to get in that place. Don’t suppose you have one handy by any chance?’

‘Would you settle for a very small army and a big ugly baby?’

Her blank expression made him grin.

* * *

11

And Baby Came Too

 

The brakes squealed in protest as Bond brought the big car to an abrupt halt.

‘Get out,’ he commanded.

‘What?’

‘Just get out,’ he repeated and she followed his lead. ‘We’re out of view of the gate and the cameras,’ he popped the car’s bonnet and raised it on its support, reached across the engine and pulled out a lead. ‘I need you to break the habit of a lifetime and play the damsel in distress.’

‘Who to?’ she was puzzled – things had just turned rather odd.

‘Our friendly Edelweiss-seller: I need to get inside his van.’ Sophie realised his plan but didn’t think she had a choice.

It took fifteen minutes with her stood out front in the sun and Bond wedged uncomfortably between the car and the rock-face, praying nobody else turned up first, before the florist’s blue VW van picked its way around the bend. It stopping sharply upon finding the road blocked, Bond having parked at a deliberately obstructive angle.

‘Hello!’ Sophie greeted the man in the manner of a desperate female tourist. ‘Can you help me, sir?’ A cheery Austrian voice replied in very good English that he would try, and within a minute the man had his head under the bonnet attempting to work out the Bowler’s complex ignition system.

Bond worked his way to the back of the van, quietly entered, and proceeded to doctor six trays of delicate flower arrangements. Within two minutes he was silently creeping back along the van’s nearside. He signalled to Sophie who, on cue, dropped a comb through the engine bay which the Austrian gallantly bent to pick up. Bond slipped unseen into the passenger seat.

‘Oh hang on – should this be attached to something?’ She was a good actress after all. A moment’s fiddling had Sophie back in the driver’s seat successfully trying the ignition.

‘Wunderbar!’ exclaimed Herr Schwarzer the florist, rotund features beaming, apparently unperturbed at not discovering the simple solution himself. Sophie blew him a compensatory kiss that reddened his cheeks.

‘Get down!’ she hissed through gritted teeth before crunching the gears and pulling over to allow the van to edge past.

‘There you go – doddle!’ grinned Sophie as she accelerated round the next bend towards the Spitze. ‘Now – suppose you tell me what the hell that was all about?’ she said, slamming the brakes on when they had cleared the narrow gorge.

‘Only if I drive.’

‘Oh God – Mr. Insecure is back. Fine – I prefer to be chauffeur-driven anyway.’ They changed places, Sophie taking the shorter route across the centre console. They accelerated back along the horseshoe road and returned to the Pass.

‘Okay, so – hang on, we came up that way?’ she objected as Bond turned left up the mountain instead of down the way they had come. ‘Getting a bit fed up now Bond – where are we going?’

‘Patience, eager one,’ he grinned. She returned a menacing stare.

‘Right – phone, litterbin, bad-car control, breaking and entering a florist’s van. I admit defeat - how exactly does all that move the peanut forward?’

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘First the phone – no signal. My phone should be able to get a signal anywhere on the planet, I know because I’ve tested it. But that place is shielded, probably some form of Faraday Cage like they have back home,’ he referred to Millbank and Vauxhall Cross, the respective London headquarters of MIs 5 and 6.

‘Ah, right, so no bugging then?’

‘Well not exactly. The cage prevents any form of electro-magnetic signal getting in or out. But they aren’t completely watertight – you get blind spots. You just need a strong enough bug, a powerful transmitter and a directional receiving device.’

‘Which you just happen to have brought in your hand-luggage?’

He changed up as they drove across the plateau and started to descend towards a short road tunnel which bored its way through an oncoming outcrop.

‘Close. I have a clever friend by the name of Mr. Boothroyd, and he knows some clever little Buggers, and they lent me their Christmas toys. Our Edelweiss arrangements now each contain a small but perfectly formed little bug.’

‘Aha! Clever! – And you dumped the transmitter in the trash, right? Hey, Mr. Sneaky, I like it,’ she giggled. ‘So what about the receiver though – you’d need loads of them set all around the mountain to find a blind spot…’

‘Or…I could just use one…’ he encouraged her.

‘…and move it around a lot? But hang on – the blind spot is more likely to be around the front, where that fancy glass frontage opens up, so we’d need a receiver suspended in mid-air?’ she was clutching at straws.

‘Watch and learn.’ He turned the Bowler’s wheel sharply to the left, dropped down into third and hit the throttle.

The Bowler leapt from the tarmac and onto the rough. The gently undulating ground that bordered the road proved no obstacle for a car designed to take fifty-foot sand dunes in its stride. Even when Bond floored the accelerator, Sophie clutching tightly the handrail, it seemed to glide even more serenely, flattening bumps on which lesser off-roaders would have foundered.

A deeper gulley appeared but he didn’t lift off; pounding the throttle harder on the upside he induced the car to leave the ground as it left the ditch coming down with a controlled lurch fifty feet further on.

‘There’s nothing like a drive in the country, don’t you think?’ Bond smiled across the snug cabin. Sophie’s slightly worried, slightly exhilarated face looked back.

‘Just tell me you know where you’re going.’

‘I’ll know when I get there.’

In fact Bond was heading to the top of the ridge which shouldered the valley. A row of five peaks increasing in height in the distance: the third, slightly flattened one was his destination. The Bowler relished the rough terrain after the constraint of the road.

The engine roared its approval and Bond revelled in the machine’s demonic power. It pounded the mountain: tail squirming happily on the broken surface, Herculean suspension soaking up the worst the Tyrol could throw at it.

As the incline steepened Bond allowed himself a playful powerslide around a group of large unforgiving boulders. They crested the final rise with all wheels clear of the ground and the car came heavily down upon the summit. Bond used both hand and footbrake to bring the car to an enthusiastic and dusty halt.

Sophie caught her breath, body pushed back in the seat.

‘Still want a Jeep?’ he asked.

Superlatives failed her: it was quite simply the finest view she had ever seen.

The day was clear, the sun still rising to its fullest height and the faintest river of cloud wound its way lazily along the valley. Beneath them the ridge fell sharply away on all sides providing the feeling that they were perched upon the very edge of the world. The nearest lip of pine trees lay five hundred feet below, valley floor five hundred beyond that. Peaks filled the distance, striding confidently away into a milky horizon.

‘It’s the stillness that strikes you,’ she said, finally finding the words. ‘That sense that up here nothing else matters: nothing can hurt you. No problems, no pollution. There’s just no…’

‘People?’ he suggested, watching the clouds drift by like slow traffic.

‘Yeah - suppose you’re right: it’s because there’s no people. The world would be a great place if it wasn’t for other people. Who said that?’

‘Sartre?’

‘No – he said that hell was being stuck in a room for all eternity with your friends.’

‘Ah, but of course all his friends were French.’

‘Good point, well made,’ she laughed. ‘I’m sure you could get slung out of the Service for that you know – being so rude about our European cousins.’

‘You should hear what we say about the Americans.’

‘I am not American, I told you that!’ The cute indignance had returned.

‘I know, you told me – you lived in New Hampshire with a weird aunt for fifteen years but you were born in Basingstoke. Think I’d have stayed there actually, nice place New Hampshire.’

‘Not when you can’t go out and mix with other human beings it isn’t,’ she recalled glumly.

‘Doesn’t seem to have done you any harm – I mean it’s not like you’re sullen, moody or have trouble socialising, is it?’

‘Sod off.’ She threw a crumpled lunch bag at him.

They’d admired the view for a good quarter of an hour when they’d first arrived before Sophie announced she was hungry. Bond explained it would be an hour until they could check the set up of the bugs so they sat and enjoyed a fine meal of succulent meats, a variety of cheeses, freshly baked baguettes, still warm in their foil, and predictably strong black coffee whilst overlooking an almost unbearably idyllic panorama. It was said that from here you could see twenty-three thousand-metre peaks, and they had fun counting, an exercise which reminding Bond that Americans exaggerate.

After a while he checked his Rolex and announced it was time to move. Sophie groaned and said she was settled for life. He had to agree that lying up here with her he’d lost a little enthusiasm himself but he quickly shook his mind free from this corrosive.

From the rear of the Bowler he removed two large metal packing cases and deposited them on the grass. Next he unlatched four of the enormous steel bracing tubes which criss-crossed the rear compartment of the car and withdrew a long, bubble-wrapped tube from each. From the first he unwrapped what looked like an aircraft propeller engine with four long, thin folded blades and a long, thin black tapered object that also had a rotor attached to its thinnest extremity. Next, from the second case came a three-foot long, aerodynamically sleek black object which opened out with a series of flaps and hatches. Bond carried out a series of checks with each one then proceeded to attach the engine to the shell and the tapering rod to the rear.

Next he took the four small cylindrical objects, removed a layer of polystyrene padding and inserted them into a hollow compartment beneath the contraption so that they protruded at what was evidently the front-end. When complete the whole formed a strangely shaped and rather ugly miniature helicopter some six feet in length and two feet high.

‘Sophie, meet Baby-Nellie – the cleverest and deadliest toddler you could ever wish to meet.’

Sophie grinned with realisation – and with jealousy that her Service didn’t get the toys to play with. Bond held the heavy device up.

‘High-powered receiver here,’ he indicated what looked like a large directional microphone set into the nose cone, ‘along with fibre-optic cameras front, rear, both sides, top and bottom, all with four hundred magnification. Down the sides – directional LED projector screens, effectively a cloaking device like they use for tanks in the Gulf. Cameras on one side project their picture on the other – not quite invisible but good enough from a distance. Twin fifteen horsepower engines give it a load capacity of forty pounds and a top speed of a hundred. She’s not quite up to carrying passengers but for aerial surveillance she’s untouchable. Oh, and she can get nasty – she’s got armour piercing shells as well as conventional rounds in short bursts and a harpoon gun.’

‘Naturally – you never know when you may want to go fishing,’ Sophie added with earnest sarcasm. ‘And does she make breakfast too?’

He grinned.

‘I’m told they’re working on it. But be careful if you ever meet Boothroyd’s team - they never joke about their work,’ he grinned.

He sat the copter back on the grass and picked up its remote. Turning a tap on the side of the engine he pressed the ignition and backed away.

‘Stand back – she can be temperamental when woken.’ Sure enough the engine grumbled and chugged before settling into a very hushed rhythm – in fact Sophie was slightly disorientated by its silent running, popping her ears just in case.

‘I didn’t mention her two best features: she can run for twenty-four hours on one tank of fuel, and she’s near silent. Isn’t she beautiful?’ And with that he pitched the rotors and the drone effortlessly ascended into the clear-blue alpine sky.

They watched it climb away from the mountain’s edge and over the valley before coming to a halt a half-mile away, a small black silhouette against the bright blue sky. ‘Right – clever stuff: she’s on automatic and will hold station indefinitely.’ He put the controller down and reached inside the rear of the car grabbing two pairs of what looked like bulky ski-goggles. He threw one to Sophie. ‘Put these on, sit down, and whatever you do don’t start wandering around.’

Sophie did as she was told only to find that not only were they cumbersome they were also opaque, blocking her vision completely.

‘They’ll never catch on in Valdisere…’ but she was cut off by her own loss for words as Bond activated the cameras and her vision was suddenly filled.

The goggles sat proud of the face, forming a hemisphere around each eye which curved round the back of the head and into her peripheral vision. Onto this was projected a two hundred and seventy degree panorama, a composite picture from Nellie’s six cameras. Looking down her view changed accordingly; looking up she could see the rotors-blur overhead. It was fantastic: she nearly keeled over on the grass.

‘Real-Virtuality. Good, isn’t it?’ She could only agree: she really wanted one of these.

‘I’m going to do a high level pass across the valley then drop her down and approach from the North West. We need to find that blind-spot.’

The picture changed as the copter moved forward and Sophie swayed dizzily. Within a minute it had reached the far side of the valley and was descending towards a craggy ridge not unlike the one upon which they were sitting. Then Bond banked to port, horizon dropping, and the screens suddenly filled first with perfect blue then the valley floor as it accelerated back the way it had come. Lower across the valley, back towards them, she could make out a silver streak running down the rock-face which she initially took to be a waterfall, but as the copter came closer she realised it was too regular, and stopped half-way down.

Closer still the sun glinted from a shiny, diamond-shaped surface which was far larger than she had assumed. Calibrating her perspective she guessed a width of fifty yards and a depth of nearly one-fifty, a slightly convex surface that seemed to bow gently from the flat, grey mountainside as if liquid filled. Down each side two narrow waterfalls plummeted to the valley floor six hundred feet below.

‘Now that is what I call a window…’

And it was: a four hundred foot high glass window into the heart of the mountain shimmering in the Austrian sunshine.  She made out a pattern of lines demarking panes of varying sizes, a vast irregular mosaic of occasional reds, greens and blues. Near the top a narrow lateral strip was revealed to be the parking level upon which they had stood: above it the glass canopy reached a further hundred feet up the rock face. It was fantastic - like a mammoth crystal set into the rock, a gem drilled into the canine tooth of Grossglockner.

‘Wow…’ was the best she could muster.

Bond had been moving the copter in small lateral steps at a distance of half a mile from the mountain. It took half an hour of meticulously repeating this exercise before he finally registered the signal strength he had been looking for. He set the drone onto automatic.

‘Bingo.’

Only when he activated the sound-system did she realise the headset featured earphones. A distant static was all that came through and she readied herself for some technical hitch before:

‘…it must be clean, properly clean. No, not there…’ English, then the signal faded, replaced by a conversation in German, then another. It was like spinning an old fashioned radio-dial.

‘I’d say we have contact, wouldn’t you?’ Bond was occasionally impressed by technology. The camera zoomed in but all it revealed was the complex metalwork of the window structure and ever more intricate reflections. ‘Shame we have no vision – the glass looks one-way.’

Later, seated in the car, headsets in the boot, he explained that there were forty-eight bugs each with an individual channel transmitting through the device in the waste bin and from there to the copter. She watched his mouth as it delivered the lecture.

‘I was counting on the fact that they probably assume no need for any bug-detection equipment – which seems to be proven given we’re getting a signal. So now we can listen in on any room we like. The bugs also triangulate with each other giving us the internal topology.’ On his laptop she saw a three-dimensional line drawing superimposed onto the view from the copter.

‘Nothing interesting yet – sounds like general housekeeping, plus they appear to be moving some equipment out. No sign of Smolenski yet. Some clever software tracks the sound in each room on these bar graphs; it will alert us to any new voice signatures. All we can do now is wait for him to arrive.’ He was like a little boy with a new games console, she thought.

‘So – time for a drink I think,’ he turned to the two small, primitive looking brass taps set oddly into the centre console.

‘Designed for fresh water supplies when you’re dying of thirst in the desert…’

‘No, I’m fine…’

‘…but,’ he interrupted, ‘specially adapted for when you are entertaining a beautiful lady on a mountain-top.’

‘A common occurrence?’

‘You’d be surprised.’

A panel in the dashboard eased down revealing a moulded foam drawer containing two champagne flutes. She had to admit there was a certain style going on here. Taking the glasses out he filled both.

‘Krug or Tattinger?’

‘Why, Krug of course. What else does one drink when sat on top of the world?’ They toasted the view, then each other, drawing closer together each time.

‘So, erm, we just wait now?’

‘That’s right.’

‘On a mountain top?’

‘Looks like it.’

‘Drinking champagne?’ she felt his hand run from her knee up her right thigh as he caressed her cheek with his face.

‘Yup,’ he murmured.

‘Kids are out,’ the hand rose higher.

‘Won’t be back for hours…’ he kissed her neck

‘You know, I once had a dream that started like this…’ Another firm hand cupped her cheek as his mouth drew tantalisingly close, blue-grey eyes intense.

‘Shut up,’ he said.

* * *


12

Kristalwelten

 

An insistent beeping woke him and he cursed having allowed himself to fall asleep. Jumping to the cockpit he tore open the laptop and peered at the alert – a new sonic registration inside the main atrium. A looping video clip showed a car entering the car park. Bond immediately recognised as Junkers giving instructions to the staff. It seemed the rest of Smolenski’s party had been delayed and would not arrive until around eight, two hours from now. This was not good. His plan had been to monitor Smolenski for a few hours then have Baby-Nellie tape the rest while he drove via the hotel to make the rendezvous at Kristalwelten at nine. UnableHeHeHe to pick up Nellie’s signal directly he’d have to scroll through her recordings when he returned. He needed a back-up plan. He asked Sophie how her German was.

‘Sehr gut, danke,’ came the reply. He told her to hole-up at the café at the Edelweiss viewing platform around a mile from their current vantage point.

‘Park yourself in a corner and listen in. Reception might not be a hundred-per-cent but you should get the drift. You’ll look like a hiker listening to music.’

‘And I brought my laptop rather than my iPod?’

‘So you’re not with the latest fashion – deal with it.’

‘And you’ll be…?’ He told her of the cryptic note at Goodwood and the meeting at Kristalwelten as they packed the car.

‘If it was Sly or the Cartwright-woman she isn’t going to show…’

‘But if it’s Marx she may be the “in” we need.’

‘Or it may be a trap.’

‘Smolenski thought he was dealing with me with the bomb: any contingency would be an admittance of fallibility. Whoever sent it, the note’s real’

‘Fair point. So, you go and see what she has and, erm, remove it by whatever means possible? Including sleeping with her, no doubt. Needs must, right?’ There was a note of disapproval. ‘I wonder what would happen if “she” turned out to be a “he”…what would you do then, Stud?’ Amusement rang through the coolness. In answer he kissed her and despite her best efforts she did not resist.

‘It’s a bit of a trek, probably take me three and a half hours round trip but I want to get there early. The café opens late so you shouldn’t get thrown out. Only call me in an emergency.’

‘And I’m listening for what exactly?’

‘He comes here for a reason, and it isn’t some clinic I’m damned sure of that. If he’s bringing his entourage then he’s here for some kind of board meeting – and that’s where we find out what Skillerbet has to do with these attacks. He thinks he’s in a safe environment - I think we’ll get an idea pretty quickly even if we have to wait for the details. With a bit of luck by tomorrow morning we could have enough information to sanction a full raid and seizure of Skillerbet’s assets. Then we go home.’

He didn’t for a minute think it would be that simple but that was the story she needed for the moment.

Before leaving he checked that the drone was still in place. The video window showed a steady image of the glass window into the mountain, colourful reflections ever changing in the failing sunlight.

They retraced their route to the main pass and into the small car park beside the robust, two-storey white building with the steeply pitched terracotta roof. Colourful awnings flapped in the evening breeze. A gentle sea of cloud had rolled up the valley and would make visibility poor on the descent.

He dropped her at the bright yellow door to the café, leaning across to kiss her on the cheek only to have her grab him by the collar and roughly press her lips against his.

‘For the audience.’

‘Encore,’ he replied and returned it with interest. A tourist bus sounded its horn and she jumped down from the car.

‘See you later darling!’ she called musically before grabbing her rucksack and slamming the door. He gave her a cursory wave then swung the big car towards the road, reflexes on alert. This was where things started to get interesting.

Turning sharply he caught a glimpse of Sophie taking up sensible station in an isolated corner of the café. She looked beautiful, and for a moment he felt a tinge of guilt. It passed quickly.

Swarovski has manufactured the world’s finest cut crystal at Wattens near Innsbruck since 1895. Through the twentieth century Swarovski gained a reputation for quality and avant-garde techniques and design which continues to the present through costume jewellery and high-grade optical equipment in addition to the better known statues and sculptures. Kristalwelten, or ‘Crystal World’, is the ambitious museum-cum-art-gallery-cum-retail-outlet attached to the factory. Built partly underground this three-storey construction acts as a showcase for unique works commissioned by world-famous artists using Swarovski’s crystal. Best described as eclectic it features such diverse exhibits as a pair of giants’ gloves, a twenty foot long squid and more predictably the world’s largest and smallest cut crystals.

As night fell Bond approached the complex’s most striking feature, a twenty-foot head carved into the grass-covered earth that formed the structure’s roof. The huge circular face loomed eerily above him as he passed into the deserted entrance. Its two-foot diameter eyes sparkle with lit crystals while a waterfall cascaded from an expressionless mouth.

The note gave no specifics but having positioned himself where he could see the entrance Bond saw nothing of interest in the half hour as the day’s visitors started to drift away into the dusk. The clientele was a predictable mix of nationalities: an easy place to blend-in.

It was eight fifty-five when he registered a familiar face - smaller than he remembered, scuttling down the path from the car park between tall rows of corn. He watched the figure pass close by and disappear into a darkened gallery. It was not ideal: small with a single entrance and exit, but its labyrinthine nature would provide some cover. After a few minutes he followed.

Passing into the dimly lit atrium he glanced at the exhibits – a three-hundred carat crystal set into a large floor-mounted display case; a life-sized horse and rider both colourfully and expensively adorned in crystal-laden mediaeval fighting armour; to the left a hollow-glass wall running the full ten-metre height of the room filled with crystals of infinite sizes and colours, set off by carefully arranged LED and strobe lighting.

The figure passed into the next gallery. A glance back to the entrance satisfied him no one had followed and he stepped quickly through a black curtain.

He found himself inside an optical illusion. The room was hemispherical, maybe thirty feet in diameter, its domed roof a patchwork of reflecting prisms which flowed down the walls and behind a perimeter guard rail to the floor. In a moat behind the rails lights threw colours and pictures onto the walls and roof, prisms rotating and changing shape to ensure the whole space including the mirror-finished floor appeared to constantly shift. A sea of dazzling images one moment, a mysterious night-sky the next.

Moebius stood facing the wall.

‘I love this place – it’s so very peaceful. I often come here to think. Light and dark, Mr. Bond: those two apparent enemies. Yet like so many things, the one has no meaning without the other. Like the chicken and the egg, yes? Which came first?’

‘Spare me the philosophy Moebius: we haven’t got much time. Tell me something I don’t know.’

The man seemed distracted. He clung to the guard rail like it was his hold on reality, eyes surveying the ceiling, voice distant.

‘Vorgov says that conflict is the natural state of the world, that man’s struggle to create order is working against that. All man’s achievements, indeed the story of every species’ evolution has been through struggle, through turmoil. It is the natural way he says.’

‘Survival of the fittest – not very original.’

‘I suppose not. But if you view that those struggles are necessary and will happen anyway, that no matter how long you hold back the tide eventually the waters will find their way; once you accept that inevitability…’ Bond tried to decide if the man was armed – he took a step further into the room, positioning himself away from the rail.

‘If you’re trying to seek absolution you’ve come to the wrong place, Moebius. And unless you’re going to talk I’m leaving.’ He turned away.

‘C-Bay, Mr. Bond. As you may have guessed it is a market place – global, on-line, but basically just a marketplace – for information, intelligence: weapons - anything. Smolenski set it up to “accelerate evolution”, help the human race along,’ he looked Bond in the eyes with a pleading air. ‘If wars ended sooner, even if they end in the same conclusion, less people would get killed. This is right, this is logical, yes?’

‘Who are you trying to persuade, me or yourself?’

‘If you accelerate conflict then you reach the same end result with less bloodshed. This is logical.’ A frightening possibility was dawning in Bond’s mind.

‘Just tell me what I need to know.’

‘Yes: I know now, we must stop it. What you need to know – and how to stop it – is on here.’ He held out a USB memory stick. ‘Details of the system and security; the contacts, the communications methods; financing: the lot. I can’t convince myself any more – you are my hope…’ he took a hopeful step towards Bond and in his face he saw Sophie’s amused insinuation was true.

‘Why not the police?’

‘Because I want to live. You don’t know how powerful Vorgov is – not just his money; information - he’s brilliant at exploiting everything he knows, every contact. That’s what makes C-Bay so powerful; it enables him to control people… Except me: I want out. But no matter who I go to, he’ll know. He always knows…’ the sentence hung ominously on the air.

‘And in return?’

Moebius moved across the mirrored floor.

‘I want you - it is you I trust, you can take me away…’ the eyes were wet, the face grimacing.

A whine like jet engine rose from the doorway. Instinctively Bond threw himself to the floor.

‘Oh, I can do that, Jan…’

Flames suddenly turned the dim space into daylight and Bond was forced to cover his eyes. A solid orange jet of fire cut the darkness above Bond’s head and incinerated Moebius where he stood. In the mirrored dome fire seeming to engulf him totally, his outline blurring as the air cooked in the intense heat.

At its nucleus Moebius gave a strangled scream before his lifeless flaming carcass crumpled to the floor. The horrible odour of roast meat filled the air. The jet subsided, the assailant anticipating two bodies.

Bond did not wait for discovery: Walther drawn, silencer fitted he pumped a pair of bullets into the centre of the doorway. Leaping from the ground he threw himself at the resulting groan, flattening a bulky figure to the ground beside the venomous weapon.

The smell was overpowering but he had no time to think – a second figure attacked him from the left. He raised the gun only to have it knocked from his grasp, the metal walkway echoing as it clattered out of reach. Bond sprang from the dead body, grasped the leg of his new opponent and twisted it violently. The man span with the twist, cleverly avoiding a break, and used the momentum to catch Bond in the ribs with his trailing leg. Pain flared as a second blow met his shoulder. He grabbed the arm, twisted and pulled, bringing the man down and around. Estimating the location of his opponent’s face he used the flattened heel of his right hand to shatter the man’s nose in the darkness, feeling the crack and wetness that followed.

A searing pain in his crotch told him the man was not done and off balance he heard the figure stumble towards the entrance. Recovering his gun he followed.

A burst of automatic fire blew a six-inch chunk of black marble from the wall beside his head and he immediately dropped and scrambled back round the corner: a third man had kept guard at the entrance. His vision held an imprint of a man with a sub-machine gun held at chest height, his injured partner hunched nearby, gun raised. His had to draw them in. Stepping back he raised the Walther and placed a single shot into the hollow glass wall of crystal backing onto the atrium. The wall exploded into sparkling life sending a waterfall of crystal cascaded into the entrance hall. A second shot accelerated the flow. Then he ran.

Machine-gun fire and the sound of feet kicking through glass followed. He heard what sounded like a war cry: the man was approaching, and seemed to hold no fear. Bounding up a metal staircase three steps at a time he removed the silencer trading stealth for power. The man rounded the corner firing vigorously. Bond loosed two shots not waiting to see if they struck home.

A neon lighting display exploded above him sending a shower of glass and sparks raining across the metal-latticework. He slung his body through the arch at the end of the walkway just as another salvo chewed the doorframe above his head. Into a sparsely furnished room with one large central display case and smaller wall displays. Running into the next room he heard heavy footsteps on the metal staircase and the sound of a magazine being loaded. Smolenski had sent a three-man army to eliminate him and Moebius and seemingly didn’t care the mess they made; power and retribution.

His mind recalled the gallery lay out from the leaflet: the series of linear themed galleries ran through to a final video show and gargantuan shop. One room labelled the ‘Eno’ room – a darkened ‘meditation space’ might give him the cover he needed.

Past richly decorated costumes, crystal Christmas trees, a glisteningly-tentacled squid: he was in room six and needed to reach number eight.

But seven was a painfully well-lit corridor maybe twenty yards long, lined with the obligatory crystal and featuring a floor composed entirely of pulsating LCD screens showing a swirling vortex of colour. He slowed minutely to calibrate his vision.

‘So much for lucky numbers…’

Without warning the ground exploded in a hail of glass and bullets. Bond threw himself down a short flight of steps at the end, aggravating his shoulder but managing a controlled forward roll which saw him land behind a display stand.

The shooting stopped. Gun raised he listened but there was only the fizzing and crackling of electricity through the smoke. Tongues of flame rose but there was no movement. His attacker had most definitely burned his bridges. Where was he now?

Re-loading he rose and without taking his eyes off the smoky corridor. Slowly he backed out of this gallery, passing the un-needed sanctuary of the Eno-room. He spied a door marked ‘Privat’ and soundlessly slid through it.

The serviced corridor was as mundane as the world on the other side was fantastic: bare concrete floor and walls, air-conditioning ducts and fluorescence worming across the ceiling. Turning right he ran quickly to its furthest extremity planning to intercept his foe in the last gallery or the shop. The last door was marked ‘Geschäft’. He listened: heard nothing, then opened it a crack, gun raised. Service lighting only – all the staff had gone home. Glancing at his watch he realised the time and thought of Sophie.

Suddenly the door slammed painfully on his right wrist and his gun dropped to the floor. Cursing he threw his weight at the door forcing into the face of the hidden attacker. The man stumbled and Bond reached for the gun - too slowly. A foot kicked it beneath a large display case of rather vulgar crystal animals.

Turning, he saw the stubby nose of a sub-machine gun. Springing on his left foot a well-aimed kick knocked the muzzle away just as it spat forth its deadly venom and bullets peppered the ceiling, obliterating a range of intricate chandeliers and triggering a series of piercing alarms. Glass rained, littering the floor and piercing his face.

‘You do realise all damages have to be paid for?’ he said as the man fell then followed up with a right-hander with his bodyweight behind it. Ripping the gun from the man’s grasp he trained it on its owner.

‘Now then…’ he began, but the man had a back up. A knife whistled past Bond’s ear as he ducked his head in a reflex action. He pulled the trigger but succeeded only in creating a new skylight. The magazine was emptied.

‘Damn!’ He threw the gun aside and briefly looked to recover the Walther but it was useless. The man was half way to the exit. Bond noted a massive chandelier which must have hung full ten-feet from the roof near the exit. His eyes scanned for a suitable instrument: he spotted a red and green crystal handled samurai sword in a display case. Shattering the case with his elbow he grabbed the sword and in one movement threw it, spinning, towards the chandelier. It made contact at the roof stem triggering the entire glittering mass to crash down onto the man below.

‘And if I told people they wouldn’t believe me.’

Bond walked between shattered cases and sculptures, broken glass cracking beneath his boots. A pair of legs protruded obscenely from the destruction, blood seeping across the polished black tiles in a widening puddle. A number of heavy, vertical crystal shafts had pierced his torso. Bond bent to search for ID but then a familiar metallic click told him to stop.

‘Do not move.’

The voice was muted and heavily accented; a slick, wet noise told him his earlier victim had returned to seek vengeance for the facial reconstruction.

At that moment he felt his phone vibrate. He feigned to reach for it and drew the anticipated response to stop.

‘Draw it slowly and slide it across the ground. And be quick! I am losing patience!’ And a lot of blood by the sound of it: he must be weak.

Bond complied, the end game inevitable. The phone slid through the debris to within a foot of the man, a tall, thickset Slav in night camouflage.

‘Let us see who is so anxious to contact you, shall we?’ and the Slav put the phone to his ear, carefully holding his gun in his right hand.

Bond gave a high-pitched whistle. The Slav’s body suddenly jolted, a look of surprise overtaking his face. Electricity shot from the earpiece sending his brain into instant spasm. The gun and phone fell: the features lost all expression. He fell heavily to his knees then flat on the floor in a lifeless swan dive.

‘That’s the trouble with mobiles – such high charges.’

A minute later, sirens sounding in the distance, he slipped into the driver’s seat of the Bowler and flipped open the phone. It was a video message from Sophie, her pixelated face worried.

‘Bond – no idea where you are but I couldn’t wait any longer. Our friend finally showed at ten with his full team and some more besides. They’ve been talking a lot and, boy, you are not going to believe what they’re up to.’ He suspected he might. ‘I’ve e-mailed you a summary but it can’t wait ‘till morning – there’s something big going down tonight and I, erm, I’m going in.

‘Sorry to have to break it to you like this, but I’m not single – I have a team out here, there’s three of us, and we’re going in tonight. Can’t say how but you’ll figure it out. Like I say, sorry I didn’t tell you but, well, as you said, “need to know only”…’

And with that the message ended.

Bond fired the engine, rammed the car into gear and stamped hard on the accelerator. He ignored the road markings and pointed the big car directly at the Autoroute entrance ramp, ploughing across the cornfield: time was most definitely of the essence.

* * *


13

Breaking and Exiting

The crags rose five hundred feet above Edelweiss Spitzet. Accessible only with expert climbing gear the summit provided a stopping off point for the four MI5 agents – base camp before the final, downward assault.

Smolenski’s board meeting had started shortly after his return to the clinic just after nine-thirty, all beamed loud and clear via the bugs to Sophie’s laptop. Taken by surprise she nearly missed it, as she must have done the cars. She had listened intently, mapping out the voices on a napkin. Some she recognised from Bond’s descriptions – Karl Junkers, the Marx woman – others she could not place, including one oriental and one middle-eastern voice. At least three attendees joining by speakerphone judging from the hollow echo. Very quickly the subject of something called ‘C-Bay’ arose and the pieces started to fall ominously into place.

They had collected her at ten thirty. She had tried to call Bond but without success. Her professional feelings were mixed: he’d have made a useful ally on a mission like this; on the other hand it would be one in the eye for the arrogance of the Special Intelligence Service when they succeeded without him. Either way she hoped they would meet again, if only to gloat.

They started to climb just after twelve when the night had shrouded the mountain in a protective blanket of darkness. Vision was via the latest ‘night-sight’ headsets which produced a clear if eerily green view of the world. Making their way up the south western ridge not far from where they had launched the drone that afternoon they made rapid progress. Her party comprised three men, two of whom she had worked with before. She had not been entirely honest with Bond, as she knew he had not been with her. All four were part of the crack MI5 elite SO-23, generally referred to as the ‘Ghost Squad’, although she had told the truth about being seconded onto the Smolenski case as reserve.

Going in the back route was risky, but a frontal assault would have been useless, and as yet they had no mandate to call in the local authorities. Based on the audio the clinic was occupied by no more than thirty staff and guards, and with the element of surprise she was confident they could take control. By the time Bond arrived the fat lady would not only have completed her karaoke she’d be in the taxi home with some desperate Geordie. Cheers and applause all round.

The four camouflaged figures stepped over the ridge together and began the rapid abseil down the silent cliff face feet bouncing softly off the rock, hands paying out the rope. They made the first two hundred feet in unison before their leader, Crellin, raised his right arm to signal a halt. Dampening her motion on the next inward swing against the rock, right hand locking the rope through the figure-of-eight descender, Sophie listened. A wind whistled across the smooth rock and the kernmantel rope creaked with the strain. Had he heard something? Below them the glass canopy over the car park sat like some mammoth futuristic conservatory. She saw no sign of movement. She glanced across at Crellin, framed in a green glow and he made the ‘okay’ signal. They continued their descent.

They covered the remaining hundred and fifty feet to what presumably was the window frame. Above the glass canopy a three-foot-wide metal rim ran down each side from vertex to just above the courtyard. Dropping lightly onto this rim they split into pairs, each taking a side, still using the rope as support to slide around the darkened glass.

Sophie checked her breathing; aware of their proximity to Smolenski despite knowing it could not possibly be heard. Close to, the window was a fantastic piece of architecture: a vast, irregular patchwork of crystalline panes like a modern day cathedral’s boastful rose window. Occasional shards of moonlight glinted at obtuse angles: in other circumstances it would have been quite beautiful. Steadily they climbed down, hand over hand, positive footfalls, maximum cushioning.

There was no warning: one second her footing was firm, lightweight Berghaus boots doing their job; the next they slid from under her and she was falling. Beneath her the metal gulley moved and shimmered; it took her eyes a second to adjust for the night-vision and she realised it was water – they had been climbing down a water channel. It was the passage formed to channel the twin waterfalls down the sides of the huge glass window: how had she forgotten? It must be possible to turn on and off, re-routing the flow: which meant someone knew they were here.

Wrenching the eight-loop in her hands she painfully arrested her descent, the harness cutting strongly into her shoulders and groin. The water flow increased, cascading away from the rock and Sophie was caught in the deluge. Then if became a raging torrent: hundreds of gallons of freezing melt-water pummelled her downward like in a g-force simulator. It was all she could do to keep her head upright. Twisting it sideways she saw two of the others fifty feet away, clinging on as she was beneath a similarly lethal looking deluge. She realised Rayton had fallen. She had to act, had to descend or suffer the same fate.

Paying out a small amount of rope the weight of water nearly took her hands off at the wrist and she had to stop. There was no way down, at least none that she would survive. Neither of the others had moved – they were caught like mummified statues.

There was a blinding flash of light to her left. Squinting she saw a widening crack open up in the window. A section thirty feet wide and ten feet high was reclining back into the cliff, spewing a letterbox glare painfully amplified by the goggles. She ripped them off: what the hell…?

The panel descended to lie flat and amid the glare she made out five or six silhouettes moving toward the outside edge. Frozen thoughts started to disconnect: she was shivering uncontrollably. A voice spoke which somehow heard above the roar:

‘Unexpected visitors! How pleasant. Won’t you come in?’

*

The speaker only crackled into life as Bond dropped down the south side of the Thurn Pass. Through a hiss of static he could make out a number of overlapping conversations. Unable to control which bug to focus on, by clever manipulation of the receiver on the Q-Berry he’d managed to patch into its master frequency, and what he heard was unpleasant. He’d put in a text alert to station V, Vienna, but was not counting on back up.

Ramming the stubby gear lever into top at ninety-five the Bowler accelerated down into the darkened valley. Bond drifted around the hairpins that punctuated the descent, slewing left then right in a slalom rhythm he would ordinarily have found satisfying. Instead he tried to decipher the fragmented conversations.

At least two rooms seemed to be full of shouting Germans, with references to domestic activities, an occasional insult and a limited amount of unwarranted laughter. Beneath this he isolated three other exchanges; all quieter, all in English.

Two Englishmen were being questioned about breaking into the clinic, and Bond immediately realised these were Sophie’s MI5 ‘assault’ crew. That they had been captured was disappointing but not entirely unexpected: what the bloody hell had she been playing at? She should have held station until he returned. Now his hand had been forced. At least the two men seemed to be holding their own despite what sounded like a high degree of physical violence. The interrogator was a professional and sounded very like Junkers. Obviously a vocation, though Bond suspected he viewed it more as a hobby.

The second conversation was the one he was trying to catch more of: Smolenski talking to two Middle-Eastern men in low tones. What he heard sent a chill down his spine.

‘The water treatment locations are clearly marked… enough for twenty four sites… contamination should be total… Eighty-five per cent fatalities…’

 ‘…tickets…?’

‘…fully repaid… two-hundred and fifty thousand…’ Smolenski. ‘Do we have a deal?’

‘Do we have a choice?’ came the rhetorical response.

Bond felt a dull, leaden feeling in the pit of his stomach. His mind filled with images and statistics. And faces.

He brought the Bowler out from behind the eighteen-wheeled tree-carrier ahead and floored the throttle. The bluff-fronted vehicle surged down the centre of the road, lights blazing, causing an on-coming car to swerve into the roadside gulley. Its horn sounded furiously.

The final, faintest conversation sparked up again with an indignant female command. A giggling German voice whispered something Bond could not catch. Then Sophie screamed. He switched the receiver sharply off, hands wringing the steering wheel as if trying to remove the last traces of water from a damp cloth.

The path to the summit was taken at more than twice the speed of his earlier ascent, all four wheels digging into tarmac and occasionally roadside dirt to gain traction. On more than one occasion he deliberately used the crash barriers to guide the car round a sharp corner using what was known in the service as the ‘Playstation technique’. Not pretty, but it got the job done. He reached Edelweiss Spitze at one-ten, not slowing as he left the road. Strapping on the night-vision goggles with one hand he killed the lights at sixty, wheels levelling ditches and rises with equal distain.

A flash from the right told him he had been spotted – shots rang off the Bowler’s bodywork and in his amplified vision sparks shone like small stars.

He pressed harder and the engine roared. More shots – two or possibly three defence posts. Through the ravine, out onto the cliff-road, guard rail looking toy-like at this speed. Gravel and stones sprayed over the edge as the car slid, a loud metallic thump reporting contact as the car was nudged back into line. A car blocked the road fifty yards ahead. The only weapon to remove it was the Bowler itself, robustly strengthened extremities designed for just such a situation. He steadied the wheel, slowed slightly: then lined the car’s blunt nose up with the side of the Mercedes. Easy come…

There was a sickening crunch as the Bowler took the impact on its nearside, the Mercedes flung across the road like balsa. From the corner of his eye Bond saw it lurch, tail first through the barrier but by the time it was sailing earthward in a steep arc to end in a spectacular fireball he was away and clear.

Two hundred yards ahead stood the forbidding gates of the clinic: now he was entirely reliant on the technology. Right hand steadying the wheel, his left activated a circular icon on the Q-Berry’s cover and entered a five-digit code. With less than a hundred yards left he pushed ‘call’.

Inside the gatehouse the small detonator he had deposited earlier reacted obediently to its telematic prompt. It exploded with what in isolation would have constituted only a minor conflagration. When combined with the explosive gel-compound which had been projected from the Bowler’s wings onto the hydraulic supporting rams, however, the effect was somewhat more spectacular.

In the brightened world that was night-vision the gate disappeared in a fireball. Too late to wonder if he’d used too much explosive and whether the door itself would be damaged. Fifty yards: no movement. Had he applied enough gel? Forty, twenty… and then down it came; he felt the thud inside the cabin. Aiming at the cloud of smoke the Bowler thundered across the bridge and into the unknown blackness. Another unseen but violent impact - another parked vehicle – then out onto the car park.

A hail of bullets welcomed him as he slewed the Bowler into a ninety-degree broadside, bringing it to a halt in a cloud of gravel, rear end hard up against the crash barrier. Hitting a switch on the dash a number of tear-gas ducts activated around the car. Five advancing figures dropped writhing to the floor, tearing at their eyes and throats. He drew a protective mask and activated the car’s second defence mechanism: a high voltage current passing through the outer panels. Grabbing a rucksack he wrenched open the door and dropped out under cover of smoke and general confusion.

He guessed six or seven guards, driven back to the perimeter by the gas, and a shout from the tunnel suggested reinforcements. From the rucksack he took a grappling hook and crouching low moved to the darkened edge of the cliff behind the car. He attached the line in a place he hoped would not be easily noticed then hurled himself over the edge just as running footsteps echoed in the tunnel. He dropped like a stone having paid out ten metres of line. His body crashed against the convex glass well out of earshot of the guards who were now trying to figure out where their trespasser had gone.

Based on the map sketched by the listening bugs there was a high-ceilinged central atrium and it was this into which he wanted access. He took a miniature limpet-mine from his backpack and attached it to the glass. He set a ten second fuse then swung as far to his right as he could.

There was a sharp crump followed by the messy sound of broken glass. Smoke issued from a rough ten-foot hole, falling debris twinkling in the moonlight. So much for the breaking: now for the entering. Swinging back across the glass he induced a shallow arc, the latter half of which brought him cleanly through the jagged aperture. A burning sensation told him he hadn’t judged it quite well enough, metal latticework piercing his trousers; superficial but painful.  Unclipping the G-clamp he dropped soundlessly, Walther drawn, to the atrium floor.

The moon leant a ghostly glow to a series of ungainly sculptures, industrial furniture and what looked like palm trees. Twenty metres wide and fifteen tall a series of three gallery levels led away into deeper recesses of the clinic.

An alarm was sounding and he could hear shouting. From the traces the bugs had picked up Sophie and the team were being held on the third level some way into the mountain. But his first priority was gaining access to the Skillerbet mainframe.

Circling the perimeter of the atrium, back to the glass and keeping his gaze fixed on the upper galleries he arrived at what looked like a concierge desk beside a large statue of a horse. On the desk a PC slept and beside it he saw the device he had been looking for: a small docking device with two small geometrical indentations.

‘Don’t fail me now.’ With one hand he flicked the PC on, knowing that in doing so he was announcing his presence. The clock was running. Reaching into his jacket pocket he retrieved the transparent crystal dice and prayed that the electronic brain was still intact. Without it this was going to be a wasted journey.

He inserted the dice – one with red spots, one with blue - into the colour-coded docking station as the sign-on appeared.

‘Enter user name.’

‘Tomacewski.’

‘Checking user name and crystal key encryption.’

‘Come on!’ he muttered, feeling the familiar impatience with electronic brains. Seconds passed and he listened to voices and footsteps, expecting a door to burst open at any moment.

‘Accepted.’ He grinned: he was in. Now, the sequence had to be right: Tomacewski’s access would be limited, so it was only half the story. To get to the interesting stuff he had to hack into the mainframe. Into a USB port he slotted the Q-Berry’s access link, then used the relay transmitter on-board Baby-Nellie – still holding station outside– to call HQ.

‘Connection failed.’

Damn - it wasn’t working: a red LED showed no signal. The Faraday cage was blocking his signal, he needed to find a new ‘window’ and that would waste time.

He slipped off the Rolex and turned the crown three clicks up and one down. The face disappeared and the camera view from the helicopter appeared. Using the navigation arrows he dropped the copter down the mountainside and almost instantaneously got a signal. Instructing it to hold position the view-finder told him she was hovering about a hundred feet below him: but the element of surprise no longer mattered - another five minutes and her work would be done.

It took ninety seconds to get the boys back home patched into the Skillerbet mainframe and he waited for the signal that they had successfully broken in to start the download. Only then would he go and find Sophie.

As the download proceeded to unravel more layers of security he was granted increasing levels of access. He quickly exploited this by exploring the newly unlocked menus, following trails and links, and suddenly before him, spread out in horrible detail, appeared confirmation of the scheme he had suspected.

The database was vast: thousands of names from all points of the compass. Alongside biographical information of each gambler was a financial summary including how far they were in debt – or very occasionally credit – and detailed online gaming history. Besides employment details were notes – some innocuous, some more sinister – of information, data or skills that each had access to, cross-referenced with ‘case file’ references, other names and figures Bond could not decipher. Scanning the lists he could only wonder: bank vault access codes; daily code words for U.S. Navy covert operations; an itinerary for the forthcoming visit of the Israeli Prime Minister to Brussels. Bond scrolled down. The value of some was obvious: disarm and enable codes for the warheads on-board British nuclear submarines; the delivery of wages to a Boeing plant. Others were more obscure such as the regular weekend movements of the controller of the Aswan dam, but when cross-referenced, as with ‘destructive chemical agents’ the implications became horrifying. He found Tomacewski and Foreman, both listed, cross-referenced to each other and – a bolt slid home – to himself. This was the mechanism which had snared 008, and most probably led to the recent bombings.

But this was only one side of the story: the ‘why’, or the ‘who’ as in who had wanted him killed wasn’t listed – that must be the purpose of the codes he couldn’t figure out. Once uploaded there would be more time to unravel it all but the potential was clear: extortion on a massive scale. Not of governments or corporations, but of thousands – millions - of individuals, caught in a web of debt, selling whatever they could. ‘Every man has his worth’: not possessions, not material wealth but information. A vast database to be traded: any information, any job, to the highest bidder. Not a single scheme but thousands. No wonder they had not found a pattern – there was none.

He quit the list which had become gruesomely hypnotic. The progress bar showed the Dataminers were just over half way through their task, then a menu caught his eye which reminded him of a holiday camp schedule. ‘Sponsored activities timetable’ below which sat a series of dates.

Clicking and reading today’s entry he found the details behind the fragmented conversation between Smolenski and the Middle-Eastern men. Information doubtless sold by some unsuspecting gambler was about to be used: a planned chemical attack on thirteen fresh-water reservoirs across mainland Europe. He noted the locations using a well-learned mnemonic together with the chemicals mentioned: there was little that could be done from London – he had to prevent the attack himself.

Suddenly the room lit up and a familiar voice interrupted him.

‘You really are getting on my nerves, do you know that?’ Smolenski’s tone eternally calm, playfully amused. ‘You are that annoying piece of cotton stuck to my beautiful grey coat – try as I might I cannot shake you off.’ He supported the analogy with a gesture of the hand as he sat lugubriously on the first floor gallery. His chin rested on his hands atop the famous crystal-tipped cane, legs astride a small metal stool. He was flanked by the Barber, Marx and the two generous ladies of random sexuality from Goodwood. Together with the Barber they had guns trained upon him.

Bond raised his hands, Rolex clasped in his left as they descended the wide curving glass stairs towards him. ‘Your friend Ms. Laguardia did not tell me you would be joining but I did suspect you may put in an appearance. Had I known it would be quite so dramatic I would have sold tickets! You really are very good value for money, Mr. Bond. Can you people not just ring the bell like anyone elsee He

?’

‘I don’t like to get people out of bed unnecessarily.’ His mind raced, playing for time – how far had the download got? He resisted a tell-tale glance at the PC. ‘So – personal extortion to pay off gambling debts, the mass sale of intelligence and information…’

‘Please, please let’s not go through the “get-the-baddy-to-tell-you-the-plot” routine. Neither do I intend to allow you the luxury of escaping a slow lingering death which no one will witness. I want to see the cockroach die, Mr. Bond, if not beneath the heel of my shoe then at least in full view.’ The Barber and the two fat ladies approached. He prepared to move, weighing his chances.

‘What about Sophie, what have you done with her? We need to catch up on old times.’ Seconds counted; come on, play along damn you. As the Barber came closer Bond prepared to do battle with this mountain of a man.

‘Oh, I don’t think so,’ the Barber kept his gun trained but it was the two women who came at him and Bond realised too late what they had in mind. ‘She is no concern of yours now, just as you… are no longer one of mine.’ Bond moved to the right but they grabbed him. ‘Goodbye Mr. Bond.’

Four powerful arms grabbed and pushed him through the gaping window. For the second time inside an hour James Bond found himself hurtling down a mountainside. Only this time there was no rope.

* * *


14

Never Interrupt Your Enemy

The controls on the Rolex were fiddly. He closed his eyes to recall the sequence of commands for the harpoon: if he was lucky he had eight seconds and a window of no more than twenty metres. He pressed what he hoped was the right button then tried to control his descent by opening his jacket.

Three, four… Below him darkness: his eyes refused to adjust. Three seconds… four: a glint of light – rotor blades? Five, six… Then miraculously he saw a thin, silver strand annotating the copter to the rock. Spreading his arms the harpoon line approached like a knife blade and a second later it sliced into him.

He felt the line dip sharply as the little copter took the strain. He tri3d to grab hold but started to slide: not designed for passengers he just needed her to stay aloft. His arms clutched the line as it angled to the vertical. Stealing a glance beneath him he saw the copter swing towards the cliff and moments later heard the sharp impact above the wind announcing it had made heavy contact. A strong vibration ran up the line thumping him violently against the rock. The question now was whether the line would hold both their weight.

Bond clung on with his right hand while his other three limbs scrambled for purchase on the rock. Without climbing gear he was stuck; the harpoon entered the mountain some fifteen feet above his head – beyond that he just had to hope the rock was climbable. The line swung with its heavy pendulum intact. For now it was holding. In the darkness the wind whistled between his body and the freezing cliff. His gloveless hands numb he mentally isolated the pain along with the gash across his thigh. There were no lights above: he was quite reasonably presumed dead.

The climb to the top of the line was relatively easy and left him some hundred feet below the gaping hole through which he had been propelled. He found a foothold but it was sufficient only to enable him to take his weight off the rope. Wedging himself behind the line he managed to free both hands and with careful balancing started to haul himself up the helicopter’s carcass.

It took him a full five minutes, twice nearly losing his footing. The wind blew a constant spray, soaking his clothing and amplifying the plunging temperature. Finally he grasped the dull carbon-fibre and what remained of Q’s most sophisticated piece of surveillance equipment, and like a predator he started to extract from it what he needed.

Ten minutes later the harpoon fired its second shot, directly up at the car park over-hang a hundred and seventy feet above. He heard its fangs bite deep before tested it with two sharp tugs and then with his full bodyweight. With two other pieces of salvage strung across his shoulder and the rest of the craft discarded to the valley floor he began to climb.

At the car park the noise had subsided. German voices and vehicle movements suggested an evacuation. Peering over the parapet he saw four guards and three remaining vehicles: a large Volkswagen mini-bus, the hulked shape of the Bowler shunted unceremoniously to one side and a bright orange Koenigsegg sportscar brooding in the corner. He’d put money on this being the method of transport being taken by the terrorists being blackmailed into poisoning the reservoirs.

A scream diverted his attention. A door opened and through it came a small group headed by the familiar figure of the Barber holding Sophie across his shoulder in a fireman’s lift. Next came the imposing frame of Smolenski, impeccably dressed as ever, who strode calmly across the dust chatting merrily to three middle-eastern men carrying large suitcases. The Barber was making for the VW bus whilst Smolenski was presumably preparing to send the men on their horrific mission. It was now or never.

From across his right shoulder he unhooked the bulky and irregular shape of Nelly’s grenade launcher, gripping it with both hands like a shotgun. Flicking the control to ‘arm’ a series of LEDs lit up and a whine confirmed it had powered up. He fired.

A streak of flame burst from the muzzle and shot towards the bus. The recoil knocked him momentarily off balance. The white van lit up like a huge bulb before coming violently apart at the seams. Panels, tyres and glass showered the other vehicles and bounced noisily off the arching glass. Smoke filled the courtyard and billowed out across the valley.

The group panicked and for the first time Bond realised that trailing behind the others had been the two MI5 men, bound and led out by two other guards. The explosion caught one whilst the other ran for cover. He grabbed a weapon from his fallen comrade and shot at two guards running for cover.

The Barber dropped his burden and raised his free arm. His gun spat three rounds towards where Bond crouched but Sophie took him off-guard with a carefully aimed kick to the groin which would have felled a lesser man. Instead it just won her enough time to wriggle clear and scramble behind the inferno that had been the bus.

Bond shifting his position to the left and moved closer. Taking the second of the weapons he had retrieved from Nellie’s armoury and discarding the now spent grenade launcher he leapt over the barrier under cover of the Bowler. Amid shouts and smoke he saw Smolenski dive back inside the building. The big Costa Rican loosed a volley of speculative fire then followed. The two MI5 men had got the better of the remaining guards helped by Sophie and an Uzi machine pistol.

Running footsteps alerted him to the escaping terrorists: he saw the pair reach the Koenigsegg and throw the cases into the makeshift boot.

‘Freeze!’ he shouted, and fired the long sub-machine gun at their feet. Instinctively they stopped as dust kicked over their boots. ‘Turn round slowly: hands raised.’ They did as instructed. He bent and retrieved a Heckler and Koch handgun and three magazines from one of the fallen guards. Then, to the MI5 men: ‘Stay here and guard this lot – there’s some nasty stuff in the car that mustn’t get out. I’ll go after Smolenski – he can’t get far.’

‘And what am I supposed to do, stay here looking pretty?’ asked Sophie.

‘Well it doesn’t matter what I say – you’re going to do exactly what you want anyway, aren’t you?’

‘Yep. Oh, and thanks.’ For once her face looked sincere.

‘I should bloody well think so. Right then – we’ll go and get Smolenski, if that’s alright with you dear?’

She grabbed the back of his head and kissed him firmly. ‘You talk too much. Come on.’ And with that she headed off to a side door and Bond followed.

They were in broad white corridor that ran the full length of the frontage. A series of windows let onto the exterior while five or six double doors opened on the opposite side. A rattle of gunfire greeted them from the left and they ducked for the cover.

‘Nicely done – no wonder you got caught,’ he hissed.

‘There’ll be time enough for sarcasm later.’ He chanced a look around the wall and another burst of fire took the edge off the plasterwork above his head.

‘That was random – they’ve ducked through an exit two doors along. Any ideas where that leads?’ She thought for a moment.

‘Well, based on my extensive explorations as a roughly manhandled captive…’ she started, then: ‘The first door’s a stairwell – it’s the one they brought me down. The clinic seems to be all on the front. That next doorway must go into the interior – living quarters possibly?’

‘Or an alternative escape route. Come on.’ Still carrying Nellie’s cumbersome sub-machine gun he ducked round the corner, leading with a volley of fire into the empty corridor. He ducked into the next doorway and shouted for Sophie to follow. At the next doorway he paused.

‘I’ll lead, you stay low and follow.’

‘Certainly, master,’ she grinned.

Counting silently to three he kicked the door open and ducked back but nothing happened. Again chancing a look he established they were in some sort of hallway with a single door ten feet opposite. A sign on the door simply translated as ‘Interior’. They repeated the manoeuvre and this time found themselves in an altogether different environment.

It was like walking into a fridge. An icy wind blew momentarily past them before air pressures equalised. Bond cursed his hesitation as they each ducked to one side in the semi-darkness, aware they were exposed in the doorway. They had entered a large cavern inside the mountain: the walls and floor were bare rock which glinted damply. Bare bulbs of varying colours cast a confused glow some way inside and indeed upward but then the vast depths seemed to devour their beams, the distance a gloomy pitch punctuated by occasional swirling vapours.

‘Nice décor. Who’s their interior designer – Gollum?’ Sophie gazed round to get her bearings.

‘No time to wonder. There are two paths,’ he said looking down at two pairs of railings that penetrated the cavern’s innards at slightly different angles. There was no other path and he was regretting the absence of a torch. ‘It’s a leap of faith - one each, come on.’

‘Oh, that’s reassuring,’ her tone indicating nothing of the sort. She chose the left leaving him the right. Weapons outstretched they advanced into the darkness.

The cave sloped sharply upwards and both paths began to climb, a combination of slope and wooden steps. As their vision improved they could make out dim glows ahead or off to the sides which threw rock formations into relief, but as the paths diverged to either side of the cavern they could barely keep sight of each other. It was bitterly cold and Bond breathed to the side to stop valour blocking his vision.

There was a noise ahead and he crouched, eyes straining. The path ahead climbed to a ledge. As he started forward he realised the blue-green tinge the ledge appeared to have was not illusory: the surface comprised a solid ice floe that broke like a static wave between the two paths. To his right it formed a sheer silver slope across which the light played.

An echoing crack ahead was followed by a sudden explosion in the ice beside him. Without spikes he could not risk the ice so instead he dropped to the floor beside the path. The confused acoustics prevented his taking a precise bearing. No more shots came: a delaying tactic? They had to pick up the pace. From across the ice he heard muffled footsteps: Sophie had had the same thought.

He covered her with a burst from the machine gun – nearing empty - aimed in the direction of the last shot. The ice ledge threw up a snow shower. He followed - just in time: the loud ‘crump’ of a grenade coming immediately from behind. He sensed movement from the ceiling. Plummeting from the darkness came a mammoth ice formation at least twenty feet in diameter and twice that in height. He leapt for the short ladder which led to the ledge and swung behind it as he heard the monolith’s shuddering impact.

‘James!’ Sophie called, and then a shot rang out. She screamed but scuffed footsteps indicated it had merely been surprise. Another shot, then she got the message and was quiet

Bond pulled himself onto the ledge to find two figures, distracted, looking for what they assumed to be the second of their victims. Nellie’s gun fired its last as Bond took out the two assassins: one armed with an automatic the other with a grenade launcher. They fell and were still.

‘Silver medal for the men’s team this time.’ He heard heavy breathing to his right.

‘Dead?’

‘Or phenomenally good bleeders.’ She ignored the quip and re-armed herself with the automatic. ‘Two down, two to go. The odds are improving all the time. Smolenski must be some way ahead – that was his stay-behind squad. Onward and upward.’

He discarded the bulky machine gun, checked the Heckler and Koch and moved forward with speed. The twin paths continued steeper than before – ahead the cavern sloped away for a hundred yards or more; still with no sign of Smolenski. There had been no other doors, no ladders. Where the bloody hell was he going?

They climbed half the remaining distance past numerous ice formations and outcrops, some artificially lit, before halting. Bond made out what must be the head of the cave but at the same time the two paths diverged: wooden steps continuing the journey, handrails silhouetted against the ghostly glow. Between them the ice floe fell to a lower level so they were suspended above the cavern floor. Bond was starting to feel very exposed but there was no alternative.

Mounting the steepest part of the climb they came to a level walkway. Ahead a dimly lit veranda stood on the edge of what looked like water: a smooth, black expanse that stretched into the unknown depths beyond. On Sophie’s side a walkway joined and Bond could see a figure sprawled on the wood: Smolenski? Thirty yards away Sophie had also spotted it. She moved forward with admirable stealth, but he wanted to shout to her to stop. Instead he moved forward in parallel, watching the prone figure, gun drawn.

For the first time he heard his breath rasping, saw it white in the freezing air. A similar cloud hung near Sophie’s face: a smaller one hung close to Smolenski.

The first he knew something was wrong was when the floor wasn’t where he expected it. Ten yards from the veranda his left foot met air and he was falling. Hands clutched for a handrail no longer there. His trailing foot slid on the wooden edge giving him the vital half-second needed to grab the vertical struts supporting the last piece of rail before a section of the floor itself snapped and fell, twirling into the deep crevasse below. Between him and the veranda was nothing at all. Frantically clinging to the rough wood he saw that the walkway on Sophie’s side was complete: like a children’s puzzle only one side got to its destination.

‘What…?’ Sophie’s puzzled question got no further.

‘…is happening?’ Smolenski completed as he looked over the guard rail. The Barber stood suddenly at Sophie’s side and deftly removed her weapon. ‘A trap, Ms. Laguardia – and not a very tricky one, truth be told,’ he adjusted his cloak. Bond angled his body and started a pendulum swing, sure of what he had to do.

‘The reservoirs – I know about the reservoirs – the information got out, I transmitted it out… My people have all the information,’ he struggled to get his angle of swing correct, the darkness making it a judgement call. ‘All the names - all the contacts. They’re blown, Smolenski.’

Smolenski paced slowly along the veranda, cane in hand.

‘Possibly, possibly. But you forget I still have the information - that is not corrupted. I still have my pockets stuffed with a sparkling stock of gems, Mr. Bond, and I intend to distribute them liberally over a wide area… for a price. Come Christmas every nation, guerrilla army and terrorist cell; every intelligence outfit and cult group will have exactly what it wants. Information: the information it has been waiting for; the information it imagines will give it an edge. The irony being, of course, that it won’t – ultimately it will all cancel itself out.’ Bond heard the smug grin. He swung more vigorously, caught one boot on the planks but then lost purchase.

‘You see, they’ll be back again next Christmas, just like the children they are, imagining that the rocking horse in the toyshop window will really make them happy. But as we know these pleasures fade.’

‘You’re just a street-trader, Smolenski, hawking your wares…’

‘And that from a nation of shopkeepers, as Napoleon succinctly put it! Really Mr. Bond, you are clutching at straws now.’

He was right. Bond hung, arms around the rail support, legs flailing in the darkness. Smolenski continued his diatribe.

‘No, I am the ultimate middle-man, Mr. Bond; giving evolution a helping hand, that’s all. I’m just the entrepreneur in the right place at the right time.’

‘With the right lack of scruples. How many people will die in your evolutionary acceleration, Smolenski?’ One boot on and wrapped around the spindle. Smolenski was pacing up and down; The Barber had dropped to the back of the veranda presumably with Sophie.

‘Oh for God’s sake Bond, you don’t really believe that. You of all people know that the death of an individual is sometimes deemed necessary for a cause.’

‘We’re not talking an individual or a cause.’

Exactly! I am talking all individuals and all causes… the principle is exactly the same, it’s just a matter of scale. All these people – the terrorists, the freedom fighters; the lunatics and dictators… they all think they’re right! Look at organised religion – the worst insular thinkers around! Look at how many wars they’ve created. I could argue by accelerating all this there’s actually less loss of life…!’

‘Except…’ he swung once more, ‘that you acknowledge… they’ll be back for more from you eventually…’ he was afraid his exertions would give him away ‘...so you accept the bloodshed will continue.’

Smolenski laughed.

‘You may have me there, Mr. Bond. But who knows? In years to come maybe I will be seen as a revolutionary: the first to see another path for the human race.’ Bond crouched in the darkness, gun raised. A whining noise suddenly began high up above him. He pulled the trigger. Nothing happened.

‘Oh, they’re blanks – planted for you to find. I’m very disappointed you fell for it, but as you so rightly said, “never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”, Mr. Bond. I thank you for that. Nice gadgets by the way – you really must let me have the name of your toy-maker.’

From the ceiling a slim shaft of moonlight pierced the interior gloom. Bond looked up and saw a circular platform descending suspended on a thick steel cable. It came to rest upon the veranda.

‘Forgive me not killing you myself: time is very much of the essence. And why get a dog and bark one-self?’ Bond heard the rattle of gunfire from lower down the cave. ‘Now if you will excuse us, we must fly.’ And with that Smolenski, The Barber and a painfully restrained Sophie stepped onto the circular platform which began a rapid ascent towards the hole in the cavern roof. Through it Bond saw the night sky and thought he heard the rhythmic thump-thump of powerful rotor blades. Looking desperately across the ten-metre void he scanned for anything which would help him but found no solution: he was trapped weaponless while his foe literally flew away. Behind him he heard voices and the rattle of more automatic fire.

He remembered the reservoir poisoners – if they were no longer prisoners there was more work to be done. As for Smolenski, he vowed he would track him down.

* * *


15

Slip Sliding Away

 

With no weapon he was a sitting target. Two men crouched over the grenade launcher on the mezzanine fifty feet below. A movement higher up alerted him to someone moving fast and low along the gulley shadows.

Bond dropped silently to the wooden veranda and squeezed into the hollow beneath. A shadow passed overhead. Puzzled the man turned, partially retracing his steps. Bond waited until he was two paces from the veranda then moved.

Reaching through the slats he grabbed and twisted the man’s foot sharply hearing the bone give with a sharp crack. The man crashed screaming to the floor; Bond was up on the walkway before the sound died in his throat. The assailant rolled over and tried to raise his gun but Bond’s left hand closed round his wrist to deflect the danger whilst the closed fist of his right jabbed sharply into the bewildered face. There was blood a scream like the deflation of a water balloon then the body sagged.

More shouts and footsteps from below. Grabbing the man’s pistol he took the body by the scruff of the neck, holding it up in front of him as he walked back along the bridge to the ice-lip. Two shots rang out, the second striking the unconscious figure in the chest. Bond responded with a well-placed salvo which connected with the second figure no more than fifteen yards below. It whirled off into the gulley and started to slide slowly back the way it had come.

Speed was crucial. Taking two steps forward Bond threw the lifeless body onto the ice ahead then dived on top as the body began to slide rapidly down the steep slope. It picked up speed quickly and within seconds had reached the mezzanine. The third man didn’t realise what was happening. Bond took him by surprise, a shot penetrating his forehead before he had even raised his gun. Throwing his human toboggan to one side he jumped onto the ledge and picked up the long, tubular grenade launcher. Running to the second ledge, hurdling a large ice formation he hit the slope after a bigger than anticipated drop.

The ice was less steep here and adopting a ski position he slid with ease down its length. Meeting no resistance he checked the launcher and found it loaded but not set – how the hell did these things fire? The moment’s frustration nearly brought him crashing down as he narrowly missed a sharp-edged sculpture. A second later he found and catch, took aim and fired.

The double doors erupted, quickly replaced by a smoking hole through which Bond leapt, coming to a skidding halt back in the gleaming white corridor. He stopped short of the courtyard, arresting his haste with caution: the MI5 men had been compromised and he didn’t know how many opponents remained. As if to reinforce the thought a hail of bullets peppered the doorway showering him with splinters and glass. The firing stopped; he made for the doorway only to see the gaudy orange sports car wheel spinning across the car park. Gravel spat at him as he returned fire, succeeding only in shattering the small rear window as the car roared into the tunnel. They’d got away: within hours they could be halfway across Europe, and conspicuous as they would be they would be travelling fast. If they managed to introduce whatever chemical agent they had been given into even a single water supply the result could be catastrophic. He had to stop them.

Across the terrace the dark, battered green form of the Bowler sat approximately where he had left it. The bulletproof tyres were intact though the side was riddled with bullets. He hoped that was the extent of the damage. Blipping the lock he threw himself inside, slammed the door and started the car. The vee-eight roared into life and he thrust the gear lever into first.  Spinning the car around he just had time to line his trajectory into the tunnel before it disappeared in a cloud of smoke, dust and rubble. A split-second later the noise hit him as debris bounced off the Bowler, its frame shaking with the explosion. When it cleared the tunnel had collapsed and the exit was well and truly blocked.

‘Bastards,’ he hissed. He took a deep breath and looking around.

He jumped down from the car leaving the engine rumbling: there was no other way out. Ahead the tunnel had disappeared and maybe the bridge beyond. Through the gloom he considered he may be able to get out on foot but the terrorists were away – all he could do was try to get a message through on whatever was left intact inside the clinic – and without his direct line to HQ even that would be slow. Too slow.

He ran over to the metal barrier marking the edge of the car park. In the early light of pre-dawn he saw a five hundred foot sheer drop. At its foot a slope of scree swept away into the valley.

He decided.

Climbing back into the Bowler he turned it to face the barrier then threw the pair of winch levers, hearing the mechanical whine as the devices engaged and started paying out steel cable front and rear. Leaping out he took the one from the front and paid it under the car and out the back, then laced the front and back lines through the tow-hooks at each rear corner so that each line protruded evenly. When ten yards had paid out he used the external stop control then took each line and looked for suitable anchorage points. It took less than two minutes to get them secure to the barrier supports either side of the car then, hands frozen, he got back in the cabin.

The winch cables were not long enough, this he knew. The Bowler was a tough car but the Armco-style barriers were fallible, and… no time for a risk assessment. Bond strapped the five-point racing harness tight.

For desert-raid use the Bowler is equipped with a central under-body ram-type jack. Slamming the car up against the barrier he engaged the ram which slowly raised the Bowler off the floor. As the nose rose he eased the accelerator: the last thing he needed was to get stuck. It seemed to take an age, but as the front wheels finally cleared the Armco the car lurched forwards and the nose plummeted, heavily and finally, over the edge.

The car sank, as did Bond’s stomach, before both made contact with the huge window below. The car bounced slightly before settling on the glass, hanging nose-down, but unnervingly stable. Bond hung suspended in the safety harness.

He grabbed the two winch levers and pushed forward, simultaneously pressing the throttle and the car moved down the glass, first at a crawl then faster as he got used to steering using the winch controls. Preventing a time-wasting pendulum effect was tricky but soon he had a rhythm and made fast progress. The green beetle raced down the huge pane towards the valley floor as first light appeared from the east.

Out across the valley Bond could see the winding silver ribbon of the lower Grossglockner pass as it gradually flattened towards Zell. This was the faster, most logical route but was he in time? He continued looking, hoping to see the vulgar orange shape to indicate he was right, but also realising the sooner he did, the less likely he was of being able to catch it. On the flat the Koenigsegg – a two hundred miles-per-hour monster - would undoubtedly outpace the Bowler. His only hope was to catch them on the rough where the two machines might be more closely matched.

He sped up, faster than was wise. The distance to the ground was refusing to diminish: from this high and in the semi-gloom it was tough to tell for sure. Finally he started to reel it in – fifty yards, now thirty, then… lock. The rear winch stopped first, canting the car over at an angle as he stopped the front. It was the end of the line.

The car hung nose-down eighty feet from the loose scree. The Bowler was renowned for being able to withstand a vertical drop of fifty feet onto its nose but here it would need a little help. He pressed the ‘cut’ button to disconnect the winches. A red warning light appeared with the message ‘Do you really want to perform this operation?’

‘Of course I sodding well want to!’ he shouted angrily and jabbed it a second time. This time the clamps released without further argument and the car fell like a stone.

A question asked after air-crashes is why planes are not constructed from the same material as the famously indestructible black box. A similar question could be posed as to why we equip passengers with airbags but not cars themselves.

Ten yards from the ground a set of sensors in the Bowler’s nose detected the imminent impact and a series of electronic impulses raced to the air-bag triggers around the car. From the front a huge, dull green barrage-balloon exploded, similar ones sprouting miraculously from behind the doors, the roof and under-body. The first cushioned the initial impact and immediately deflated, the car rolling forward at an angle onto its roof where the second and third bags, slightly firmer, encouraged the roll and collapsed for the next, on the driver’s side, to take the strain. Finally the momentum carried the car through the last of its two-seventy degrees of spin to rest, rather clumsily, on the final bag which deflated immediately to leave the car deliberately back on its wheels.

Bond stamped on the throttle and pointed the battered prow down the incline. Twisting a dial he activated the ‘paddle-track’ tyre grips designed for sand-rallying, acting like scoops to keep the car skipping over loose surfaces like a paddle steamer on a lake.

Now the Bowler was in its element. The land was rough and loose, dotted with trees and bushes, and the big car half powered, half slid down the shale and scree towards the road, still descending at a suicidal forty-five degree angle. His pulse was racing – this was all or nothing, no prizes for second.

He heard the car before he saw it: a screaming banshee wail and a screech of tyres. Around the corner to his left what he first saw puzzled him – a bright cone of light followed by a motorhome. But then from behind it came the wailing creature, lithe and bright, like a whippet scuttling from a hole. It shot past the lumbering van behind which it had thankfully been stuck; Bond slid the Bowler the last few yards onto the road, switched on his lights and gave chase.

The motorhome was dispatched on the short straight, Bond slipping the car between it and the opposing trees just as the road dropped sharply into a hairpin left. The Bowler’s off-road tyres protested but ahead the Konigsegg gleamed in the glare of his xenon spotlights.

‘Come on!’ he urged and the car obeyed. Showing a remarkable turn of speed he gained on the orange car along the next straight but the latter was undoubtedly better suited to the corners. He was doing this all wrong –he needed to rebalance the odds.

‘Play to the enemy’s weaknesses, not his strengths.’ He wrenched the wheel to the left sending the car down into the trees, shortcutting the next hairpin. If he remembered rightly the road had a further half-dozen sharp hairpins before levelling into the valley. Six chances to make up ground. No match on the tarmac, he could still take the shorter route.

Trees and bushes crammed in from either side, briefly illuminated by the powerful headlamps, scraping with insistent vigour the carbon-fibre bodywork. A dull thump suggested he had left something behind. Sawing at the wheel he carved a path through the lethal trunks and occasional boulders. Suddenly the trees gave way and he was out onto the road, narrowly missing the tail of the Koenigsegg which shot across his path, taillights burning an angry red before disappearing round the next bend.

Bond didn’t slow. He used the tarmac to pick up speed then the Bowler dived into the next set of trees. Again the madding crowd, again the frantic evasion, then out much sooner this time and the disappearing brake-lights, this time away to his right but slower and further: he had a chance on the next turn to get ahead.

Into the trees a third time, this time less crowded, more space. Away to the right he saw headlights intermittently through the trees, but lower, dropped out of sight. Looking back ahead he saw the reason – the road dropped into a shallow cutting: instead of cutting across the Koenigsegg’s path he would be going…

The car shot off the top ledge just as the orange bullet sped beneath. The Bowler crashed to the ground amid a stack of logs which were scattered as the car threatened to lose its footing. Bond held the wheel, opposite locking and dropped a gear to apply more power and control. Tail wagging, he managed to maintain vital momentum and pushed on.

The opportunities were running out – two more turns. He shot from the trees onto the outside of the curve just as the sports-car came through on the inside, pinning the heavier but less manoeuvrable vehicle into the rock face where it slammed violently, still doing fifty. The impact sent a bolt of pain down his spine. Fighting for control the Bowler bounced from one side to another as the Koenigsegg sped away.

He took to the trees for the last time and again he found himself rising, but less so this time. The surface was uneven, the car pitching violently. He realised that both cars would make the crossing point at the same time and, bracing himself for impact, he hurtled on.

At the last moment the Bowler’s nose hit a gulley and instead of broadsiding the orange car it took off over the road at a height of four feet. The front of the car cleared the Konigsegg but he felt a rear wheel make contact and his world span. The Bowler turned three-hundred-and-sixty degrees laterally in mid-air before coming to ground in the one o’clock position. Bond struggled to keep the car pointing forward on a rough, tree-less piece of ground he recognised. He swung onto the road, cutting in just behind the Koenigsegg as it rounded the last curve.

Ahead were the toll booths which indicated less challenging – therefore faster – valley ahead. Flooring the throttle he quickly shifted through to fourth; engine roaring he was no more than five yards behind. Just short of the booths the orange shape slowed and moved across him: there was solid contact with the larger car’s bumper. It was enough to put him off course, and while the Koenigsegg splintered the red and white toll-barrier the Bowler demolished the deserted booth itself. Wood, glass and plastic beat the car’s cabin and bounced away to either side, paper showered his windscreen forcing him to activate the wipers. The car slew from side to side and Bond realised the paddle-tracks were still deployed but did not have time to switch them off. Every movement could be crucial.

As he had feared the road now straightened into a series of short straights connected with sweeping curves and the Konigsegg began to pull away. He had no weaponry apart from a handgun – no heavy artillery, just the four wheels with which to prevent a catastrophe. In the early dawn up ahead came the lights of a village he couldn’t name. Just a shop front, a post office and some low wooden fencing. He watched, judging the lead car’s trajectory and realised it wasn’t going to make the turn, he was carrying too much speed. Sure enough the brake lights glowed long and hard but the car didn’t seem to turn; instead he saw the shop front, illuminated by the car’s headlights, first grow then suddenly diminish as the projectile struck. Ploughing along the frontage the low car took out the supporting columns and the building’s second tier collapsed heavily down upon the first.

The Koenigsegg almost come to a halt but the driver managed to keep the engine running and drove through the debris to accelerate off once more. But ground had been made up. Bond slowed marginally until he could see his path was clear then accelerated now no more than fifty yards behind. His mind raced: how to get ahead? It was one long straight along to Zell-am-See and from there a series of valley roads, the one east taking him to the main Salzburg road and back to the Munich autobahn and… he shuddered to think.

The intersection arrived quickly, too quickly for the Koenigsegg which ploughed straight on taking the road into the town instead of bypassing it. Accident or design? There was a chance, there had to be. The road bent left then back around to the right as it circumnavigated the town’s lake and Bond spotted a chance.

Instead of following he turned the Bowler off the road and let it coast down the fifty years of shingle which lay between him and the still-black waters of the lake. He watched the low orange shape shoot off, distance expanding around its parabolic course.

‘The shortest distance between two points…’ he murmured then floored the accelerator.

Shingle flew and the noise inside the wheel arches and on the underside was immense but speed was the only way. Was the angle of entry shallow enough? Too late to worry. Huge wheels sought grip but found little as the car shot towards the water and Bond readied himself for the impact.

The front wheels hit water like concrete and the nose pitched upward. A second later the rear tyres slammed the surface, huge paddle tracks slapping the water violently and preventing the car from sinking. The heavy car shot forward, skimming the surface of the water like a blunt green stone. He estimated a speed of sixty was needed to stay afloat but the confused speedometer read nearer one hundred with the wheels spinning. He had to spin the road wheels as fast as possible – the rapid slapping of the paddle-tracks being the only thing keeping him off the lake’s bed. Maintaining speed was one thing, maintaining course was another. The spray was tremendous and defied the wipers’ efforts to keep the screen clear. Headlamps all but useless he shot blindly across the grey waters, right foot firmly planted on the floor, hands clenching the violently shaking wheel.

The engine bellowed, the water roared. A warning light flashed an urgent red but he ignored it. If he didn’t make, the swim to shore would be the last of his worries.

To the left he could just make out the twin yellow arcs of headlamps making rapid progress. They passed houses, behind trees, their course parallel to his. Hopefully they assumed him lost and that they were free: they definitely would not expect a waterborne attack...

The distance closed: he guessed he was fifty yards from the unseen shore, now twenty now… A powerful jolt as the front wheels hit the shallow beach and the Bowler reared as it approached the road. The two yellow-cones were speeding towards him at a right angle, their paths destined to intersect. A flash of orange as the creature was caught in his headlamps and Bond braced himself for impact.

The Bowler’s nose leapt and for a second the Koenigsegg was out of view and he feared he had gone right over its roof. Next moment it came down and the view was of the sports car flipping in a destructive barrel-roll. Orange panels flew were torn like cardboard as the Bowler ploughed on, bonnet crumpled. A wheel came loose, then the whole rear section. Finally the shattered Koenigsegg came to rest, venting vapour and liquid some way ahead. Bond brought the Bowler to a crunching halt.

Undoing his harness he jumped out, gun drawn and ran to the dead car. The air was rich with the smell of hot oil and burning rubber. Inside the cockpit two figures slumped, the driver undoubtedly dead, his head shattered across the wheel from the impact with the broken and bloodied windscreen. The passenger moved slowly, a case held across his lap. He was reaching to his left.

‘Don’t even think about it – just get out of the car!’ Bond spat unsteadily. The man looked up, blood streaming down his face and started to raise his hands.

‘My brothers are your brothers,’ he responded.

Bond did not move, keeping his eyes squarely on the man as he made to climb from the low-slung car. Behind him was the metal attaché case containing the chemicals. It was still closed, meaning the man had made no attempt to arm or set off the device. Even so he was nervous – there was more at stake than just one man’s life.

His opponent was obviously disorientated, so the feint was neither unexpected nor particularly well executed. Dropping his knees slightly as though stumbling the man dragged his right hand across the seat. Bond saw the shoulder tense and the transfer of weight to his front foot ready to take position with his weapon.

They say reflex is faster than action. The man’s chest was two-holes better off by the time his own gun had cleared his thigh. A fast half-rotation later the lifeless body came crashing down in the soft brown mud.

* * *


16

The Final Repayment

Autumn had arrived dressed in grey. Prestbury Road glinted a sodden black beneath orange sodium street lamps and a damp, gunmetal sky. Marcus Rillman drummed his fingers on the steering wheel of his run-down Rover hatchback in time to the R&B emanating from the so-called stereo. Or rather mono since one of the rear speakers packed up. Marcus was unsure how to tackle this, being ‘less practically minded’ according to his mother. She always went on to extol his academic virtues before lamenting the fact it had not led him into one of the golden professions, meaning a doctor like cousin Richard, or a barrister like Susannah’s eldest. Over the years and through much practice Marcus had learned to block such comments out.

He got caught at the lights at Pittville Circus – again – and waited as precisely two cars and a single-decker bus crawled across in front of him. His drumming grew more insistent. With no clocking-in or out he was usually unconcerned at the duration of his daily commute – he left early simply because he rose early. As a result he would normally take the time to view the world around him, wake up properly and drift through a list of possible ideas for the book which one day would undoubtedly make his fortune. A stress-free life was infinitely preferable to the ones treasured by his mother, not that he would ever voice that opinion.

But this morning he had a certain eagerness to reach work and there was an urgency to his murmurs of ‘come on’. Today felt like Christmas, filled with anticipation and promise. A day when change would start: a day to look back on as a turning point. Yes, the turning point.

If only...

The drive down The Promenade was pleasant at this time in the morning; the beautiful facades lining Cheltenham’s modest town centre made him feel he was in a bubble apart from the world which seeped through the television. If it wasn’t for work it would be easy to lose track of reality altogether, but the daily grind more than made up, bringing him as it did in contact with the harsher realities of life. Realities which despite his best efforts never changed, and which had, if he were honest, started to make him a little depressed. Thankfully it also paid the bills. But that was no longer enough, hence the need for change.

He shared a house with the friend of a friend who had moved here to take up a teaching post. He needed a lodger to pay the crippling mortgage and was only too glad to take Robert on despite the B.O. and the Lionel Richie collection. The money would have been welcome on its own even if he had not had his little – ahem - problem. His little problem: this was how he always thought of it as he lay awake in bed, when his mind wasn’t trying to figure out why he was going to bed alone or trying to recall the players in Arsenal’s seventy-one double-winning side to get himself to sleep. But it most certainly wasn’t a ‘little’ problem at all.

A van parked in the bus-lane outside Starbucks halted his progress, a static line of angry traffic opposite forcing him to sit and stare at its uncaring hazard lights. Marcus bit his lip – he’d maybe been fooling himself about the Christmas morning part – this was more like the day he’d run home from school in blind terror upon realising he had left a joint in plain view on his bed-side table. His mother’s uncharacteristic decision to leave the cleaning ‘til weekend saving him on that occasion.

With this latest and rather larger problem he had expected no help, and yet it had arrived seemingly out of the blue. If he traced it back, as he often did, he would have to conclude that the trouble started on May twelfth 2005. The game had been Mexican Hold-Em, the site a famous name which he’d discovered a week earlier. After pornography, gambling is the second biggest pastime on the internet and Marcus had discovered them in that order. Bored one evening he’d signed up and entered a low-stake game thinking it would be slow and dull like the bingo his grandmother had taken him to one wet Saturday afternoon, but he was equally convinced he could earn a tidy sum with his ‘advanced mathematical skills’.

The reality was different in both respects. Cleaned out in minutes he was intrigued nonetheless. ‘Hooked’ came seven nights later when, having had little more luck, he entered what he told himself would be the final game, this time for higher stakes. Seated at his desk with a bottle of vodka in hand, Ennio Morricone on his iPod and an unconscious squint in his eye Marcus interrogated the innocent cards in the manner of Clint himself. Yes, he thought that had probably been the turning point. He’d ended up staking far more than he had intended - five hundred by the end – and of course the worst possible thing had happened: he’d won.

A horn alerted him to the fact that the traffic on the other side had passed and he overtook the van, humming to hide his embarrassment. Never one blessed with an enormous amount of self-confidence, his latest doomed ‘intrigue’, as he called them, had scarred him and meant that for the past three months he had withdrawn entirely from Cheltenham’s admittedly meagre social scene. Boris had been the one – a five-ten, blonde bon viveur with a liking for Nietzsche and expertise in East European wines. But he’d decided to go and play hunt the thimble with a drama student named Raymond, five years Marcus’ junior, and that had hurt. Had they not laughed at the students’ downtown on a Friday night, dressed in their bohemian fashions, counting out their pennies from leather purses before ending the evening vomiting in a gutter? Now he felt ridiculous - worse, pitied. Washed up - at twenty-nine.

And those three months had led to a fast escalation of his ‘little problem’. The initial run of good luck lasted precisely one month. At one stage he was ten thousand in credit across a dozen sites, a fact he put down entirely to his innate mathematical genius. He would not have dreamt of entering a real casino but on line this was easy – soon everyone would be doing it, word would get round. For now he would make hay. And when he had a stack he’d show mother. And Boris.

The big news in that early period had been Skillerbet. Most sites were primitive, allowing a limited amount of losses on a limited number of games. The graphics were basic, the flow predictable. With Skillerbet all that changed. From day one he found he enjoyed the experience, the variety, the ‘tailored’ service; other participants conversed with excited animation on the forum and via messaging. In those early days he would play only a few hours a night, maybe a little more at weekends. He stuck mainly to poker where he had had his early success and read all the strategy texts he could get his hands on. While he never regained that early peak there were small victories, indeed in retrospect, and given a suspicious nature one might say they came at exactly the right points: once or twice when he was about to cut his losses, to come blinking from the PC-screen back into the daylight. But there was always an offer, an incentive that came just at the right time. An evening’s free play; a doubling of the pot for ‘loyal customers’… There was always something, and Marcus always fell for it.

And then of course Skillerbet offered him credit. Far from requiring you to deposit funds before playing they were quite happy for you to play ‘long’, and later, if necessary – which it always was - to arrange loans with subsidiary companies. At first these were small, and Marcus decided to default on the first – the company was registered in Gibraltar – but a threatening letter and some nasty stories on the web put paid to that. Apparently they followed up aggressively on their debtors.

Later, when trying to combat his addiction he read an adage which made him grimace: the successful gambler knows not only how much they can afford to lose before walking away, but also how much they are prepared to win. Previously this statement may have struck him as faintly absurd, but eighteen months later and over two hundred thousand in the hole he knew exactly what it meant. Walking away was no longer an option.

The traffic was lighter as he reached Landsdown Road then past the Police Station where it becomes Gloucester Road. Most of the traffic was likely going his way and looking around he noticed Carlo Pinatelli and some woman from accounts in a BMW: so, the rumours were true.

U.K. Government Communications Headquarters is located in a vast circular building on the western outskirts of Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. GCHQ, or ‘the dough-nut’ as it is known locally, is no secret in itself, but everything and everybody contained therein is strictly subject to the Official Secrets Act. The modern day successor to Bletchley Park it is the hub of the combined Secret Intelligence Services ‘signals intelligence’. The SIS ‘Dataminer’ service is located there, indeed Marcus Rillman worked in a related department, and just as all employees are forbidden from discussing their work outside the building so the same rules apply between departments. So it was that while all his friends and family knew where he worked, and speculated humorously upon the ‘secret’ nature of his doubtlessly exciting work, Marcus himself knew the truth to be far more prosaic.

Security was unsurprisingly tight. On an average day it took him fifteen minutes to get through the seven security checks, starting with entry to the car park and ending with the keypad at his office door. In between he had his iris examined, a swipe card read and passed a total of eighteen cameras, three of which had facial recognition software. Strict rules had to be adhered to about changes in appearance, even to the extent he had been dressed down for cutting off his shoulder length hair, a relic of his heavy-metal days, shortly after joining.

Today security seemed to take longer than usual and by the time he exited the lift on the third floor of the northern quadrant of ‘E’ building onto the relentlessly grey carpet it was eight fifteen and he was irritable.

‘Morning Marcus!’ a cheery voice assailed him upon reaching his workstation, ‘how’s the teeth?’

Marcus ran his tongue across the bridgework he’d had done the previous afternoon and Chris Peters had been ribbing him as to how much it would hurt.

‘Lovely, thanks. Quite enjoyed it.’ Normally this would have been the cue for some early morning banter but today Marcus was pre-occupied and Peters, who didn’t really care for Rillman, decided to leave him be. Marcus’ brain was already into third gear: Predator, Predator… That was the winning lottery number. Would he be on the list? Come on, he urged his PC as it commenced its tortuous start-up routine.

The ‘way out’ had appeared innocuously. One of the forums contained a post from a guy in Iceland who made vague references to a moneymaking scheme related to information gathering. The poster worked in a bank and had managed to sell various statistics about currency movements and payments – presumably some weak form of industrial espionage: hardly high-crime. Marcus felt if people would pay for that kind of information they’d pay for some of the boring stuff he had access too. Not that this was critical to the security of the nation – far from it.

Contrary to popular belief about his exciting life, Marcus actually monitored the travel movements of various civil servants, quite possibly the world’s dullest job. Why this was being done by GCHQ he had no idea, but he gave it a go and with the magic word ‘GCHQ’ he suddenly found himself the centre of a flurry of e-mail activity. Marcus was not stupid: there was no way he was going to be telling people how to get into the place, even had he been able to. Nor was he about to try to start hacking into more sensitive areas that would attract attention. On the other hand there was some information which could not possibly be sensitive or ‘top secret’ – who travels where, how they book, when they make changes etcetera. A few names of low-ranking civil servants, department codes – hardly the stuff of spy-thrillers.

At first he got a few hundred from contacts who said they sold the information on to marketing and travel companies, but when specific questions started to arrive Marcus began to smell a rat. In fact the smell got so bad he decided to stop. Two things happened to change his mind. First, a question arrived with a price tag of five thousand pounds, which made him sit back and take a deep breath. Second, the following day an e-mail arrived with his photograph attached, drinking in a local pub the previous evening. Marcus had been shocked: all of a sudden this real, virtual world had come crashing into his bubble.

‘Coffee?’ Miranda Shepherd was en-route to the machines.

‘Er, no thanks,’ he responded hesitantly. ‘No, actually, twelve strong, ta.’ He realised he’d skipped breakfast. Miranda took orders from the other four in the office on a yellow post-it that she stuck to the stained plastic tray.

‘Good job this stuff is free, eh Marcus?’ Marcus smiled thinly: his debts and gambling addiction the stuff of office gossip, but the magnitude and not to mention unique debt-repayment scheme were not.

For six months he had been fully in their pay. He convinced himself he was not compromising Queen or Country but the information he was obtaining was increasingly sensitive. They’d said to pass anything and everything on, so he started sending stray e-mail circulars, prints left at the copier and gossip. He hadn’t actually sought this information out, hadn’t raided any files or cupboards, had he? Staff moves, covert operation codenames which he was very occasionally party to. The part he was most ashamed of was sending information about colleagues – roles, personal information, background. The progression was gradual, each small step seemed insignificant. Rationally he told himself none of this was harmful. But in the dark each night he had to distract his thoughts: it was a long while since he had slept soundly.

On the plus side – and it was quite a big plus – his debt had dropped dramatically, even allowing for the fact he still played. Just when he thought he’d give it a miss one day news of another game would come in, or he’d enjoy an improbable win. He was helpless. Each time he’d give it one more chance and each time he’d lose more. But his new trade got him around that; the debt which had stood at over two hundred thousand was down to below fifty. But the requests had dropped in frequency, and he was finding it hard to supply them with anything new.

Which was why when he had received the previous evening’s e-mail right at the end of play, his jaw had quite literally dropped. Sixty thousand they were offering – by far and away the largest payment he had ever been offered – and for one, single piece of information. The request was being sent to a number of ‘suppliers’ and the first one to reply got the lot. That one thing would give him his freedom - the last and final repayment.

‘There you go – one hot steaming receptacle of sewage Mr. Rillman. And yours Ms. Jensen,’ she passed a similar plastic cup over the partition to a large, bespectacled girl in an uneasy cardigan. The glamour of the place knew no bounds. Marcus stabbed in his passwords, random sequences as security always implored, and the ‘SigTel’ application opened up. The moment of truth. He clicked ‘new query’. The nature of the work of the various civil servants he had access to was unknown to him, but some of them certainly seemed to get around. And curiously a number seemed to be tracked, using GPS technology and some form of chip on their person. Not one hundred per cent reliable but combined with the travel monitor it presumably meant their bosses could check up on them. Marcus was well beyond the stage of protesting about civil liberties given the scale of the phone tapping operations he knew about, but this did seem a bit strange. No matter – his was not to reason why, as he was often reminded.

He typed a single word and watched the egg timer turn. Eight seconds later the screen filled with a Goggle-Earth-style view of the world. The camera zoomed in, gridlines appeared and subdivided as the camera closed in first on the northern hemisphere, then on Eastern Europe and finally upon Warsaw. The tracker was not done yet, and after a brief halt to reload the Warsaw views the camera began to zoom once more, into the city centre, stopping only when the screen filled with the roof of the Marriott Hotel. Right in the centre of the grid was a small, red dot alongside a single blinking word: ‘Predator’.

Marcus Rillman nearly cried.

* * *


17

Phantom of Death

 

The insistent pulse of the music mirrored the hypnotic undulation of the girl’s naked body. Her limbs wrapped athletically around the gleaming chrome pole, slowly and gracefully shrouding herself in the anticipation of the crowd. Stomach, breasts and thighs glistened under spinning strobe lights, her writhing form illuminated in a staccato series of rapid-fire tableaux. Short blonde hair fell sharply across a round cherubic face, eyes gazing distantly to the floor, attention fully within her own intimate space. Grasping the pole low with both hands she slowly kicked up long, muscular legs and inverted her body, chest pressing against the cold, hard metal, legs splayed in a conscious display of eroticism.

Around her in the dim, smoke-filled room they sat: businessmen, drug-dealers, playboys and thieves. Money was the entrance requirement, howsoever gained. Strewn amongst them were the girls, businesswomen all, anxious to please, eager to tease out the maximum revenue for their exertions. Most of the men were only too happy to pay for wine women and more of each, a few preferring to fool themselves that the girls acted purely for pleasure. An extensive menu of leisure drugs was part of the club’s service, exotic fixes delivered upon silver platters to a fanfare of applause, including the front row table where the head of the Federal Crime Bureau nested with his two favourites: Irina and Kitti.

The man in the corner was new. Tall and handsome he was also very quiet, making some girls nervous but to the majority he represented a challenge. He tipped highly and only wanted to talk; but his mouth was cruel they said, the placid exterior just a facade. Tonight, the fourth in a row, he had arrived around two a.m. requesting the usual corner alcove beside the faux-Greek statue ‘Aphrodite With Serpent’. He sat and mulled over his third whiskey.

‘Just a drink, sir? I’m sure I can entertain you far better…’ gushed the young girl as she leant over provocatively, breasts jutting enthusiastically up at him. James Bond thought that yes, she probably could.

‘Maybe later. It’s been rather a hard day,’ he smiled, slipping a fifty Zloty note under a sequinned G-string. The girl somehow managed to hide disappointment amid her lack of clothing.

The floorshow had reached its familiar denouement which teetered between the erotic and the merely graphic. Five hours a night for three days in a row and the enjoyment did wear smooth, the excitement dulled when you’ve literally seen it all, the toys more comical than novel when brandished for the twentieth time.

Schneck, however, had yet to put in an appearance. Whether due to a tip-off or the same decline in novelty-value the man had failed to show his face at his favourite club for a week now and Bond was starting to feel he was wasting his time. The lead at the booksellers had proved fruitless, his ‘insider’ at police headquarters more than useless, and despite some physical encouragement Schneck’s former accomplice had yielded little. Only the disclosure that the former head of Station B frequented a little whore named Livetta here at The Red Angel Club had saved him from an icy swim in the slow-moving waters of the Vistula. But four nights later Bond was mentally writing the brief report to M that would leave at least this loose end untied when he left for Moscow in forty-eight hours time.

It was November, two months since Smolenski’s airborne escape from the Tyrol, and those eight weeks had been frantic. The information gleaned from the Skillerbet database had yielded over five thousand follow-ups, two hundred of which had been classified as ‘imminent’. These would be handled exclusively and with authorised extreme measures by ‘H.A.S.T.E.N.’, the rapidly convened international Security Services task force which included a link to the U.K.’s own C.O.B.R.A. To date Bond himself had dealt with eleven of the more serious: six in Europe, two in the U.S. and three in the Middle East. Most had been resolved cleanly with the targets taken alive but two had been necessary kills, the one in Boston being particularly messy. M was tolerantly uncritical – time was of the essence, and under such extreme circumstances he found she shared his impatience with political correctness.

M represented the Service at the funeral of 008, a singularly low-key affair bereft of pomp or heroic epitaph. Bond knew he could expect the same when his time came: life was for the living, and he filed the end of his colleague’s life away as a reminder of the need for professional diligence. It also served as a secondary reason, aside from Sophie, for him to track down Smolenski.

He blamed himself: forced to admit his gung-ho approach to the raid and especially the chase through the ice-caves may have led to her capture he ensured he was at the centre of the operation to find the Russian. Officially coordinated by M with her counterparts, a combination of insider information from Bill Tanner and a wormhole into a secure Service website meant he was up to date on what had been slow progress.

The man had vanished – the copter astonishingly not having been tracked out of Austrian airspace and neither it nor the man himself had been seen since. The clock was ticking: he’d said he had enough information to sell and do more damage, and indeed a number of plans had been foiled which looked to have possible links. But the list had frightened M – the possible information still out there ready to be sold on the open market was devastating. The question was why there had not been more attacks or breaches – it was as if Smolenski was waiting for something.

The clean-up operation had progressed with a good strike rate up until the past few wasted days in Warsaw. It was here that via a series of contacts and surveillance data in Frankfurt he had tracking down Vasily Schneck, former Head of Station in Budapest who had turned rogue-info-trader. After listening in on Schneck hawking details regarding U.K. and U.S. agents working inside Russia to the Russian authorities Bond had tracked him back to his home city of Warsaw. Here, in unusually low temperatures of twenty degrees below zero things had frozen to a halt and news from M the day before meant he had only one night left to close the pipeline.

It seemed the Americans had tracked Smolenski to a villa complex named Cheramushka seventy miles south west of Moscow. Owned by a former Party member it had already been under surveillance, and this part of the sieving had recently found gold. The whole group had been seen – Smolenski, Barber, Marx plus the two female heavies absent from Edelweiss along with a small militia of at least thirty armed guards. Cheramushka was heavily fortified from the days of the Soviet Union when it was used as a retreat for Polit Bureau VIPs including various Soviet Leaders. Set in five hundred acres of woodland it boasted watchtowers, a twenty-foot perimeter wall and a barracks, incongruous alongside more leisurely fittings such as tennis courts, stables and a large boating lake. It was said Brezshnev himself learned to swim in the underground swimming pool. It was also noted that there appeared to be a large underground bunker on site, rumoured to be the ‘bolt-hole’ for the Party in the event of nuclear war.

The U.S. had proposed a mass, frontal assault but M had persuaded the PM to push for a more surgical infiltration. It had taken six hours of conference calls through the early hours of Sunday to detail the plan to back this up but M and Tanner had finally come up with something that the Americans grudgingly accepted. Air surveillance was good, as were insider details of the layout. The Russian security force seemed unconcerned, meanwhile - indeed they appeared content to sit back and watch the Westerners knock themselves out. Bond would have eight hours to take a team of four operatives - two U.K. two U.S. – inside the compound ahead of the main assault. And when it did, there would be no time to ask for names and numbers.

A sudden barking laugh broke his concentration and looking across to the entrance Bond inwardly smiled: a middle-aged, sandy-haired man of medium height and wiry build had entered. Accompanied by a younger man and woman he was greeted warmly and shown to a large table in the centre of the room commanding a fine view of the stage.

The sandy-haired man looked confident and relaxed and no sooner was he seated than a girl perched on his knee. Vasily Schneck’s picture had done him an injustice: he looked even more of a worm in real-life. Bond smiled grimly, mental gears silently meshing: this would be his final homecoming party.

‘Champagne!’ the Pole shouted across the music and the chatter, and immediately a huge bottle appeared in the hands of the traitor. Smile unwavering he uncorked it noisily whilst staring into the eyes of the highly paid girl by his side. She returned his gaze attentively – the money was obviously worth it. Long, gleaming black hair and a size-zero figure she twisted adoringly around her short-term employer.

Bide your time, he thought. While the temptation was to stride right up and wipe the smug grin off his face he knew that would be messy. Better to get him alone then lay out the two options, only one of which would allow him to see another Christmas. Bubble burst, he was sure Scheck would play ball. As a betting-man he’d put money on him crying like a baby.

The evening wore on: the atmosphere got thicker, the bar-bill got larger. Bond enjoyed Katja and Luna and their panting double-act and Luba with her tiresome snake; his eyes remained upon the stage, his mind on his quarry. The building had a number of exits – covering them all from outside was impractical. The time to strike was inside when he was off-guard.

His chance came mid-way through the third bottle of champagne towards the end of Luba’s act. A brunette in a blue silk kimono appeared on an upper balcony. He watched her parade its length before descending the broad staircase at the room’s head.

‘Livetta!’ cried Schneck in mock surprise. ‘Why, you are a picture!’

‘I thought you were not coming to see me this evening, Vasily…’ her manner was coquettish, presumably the role he liked her to play.

‘The important thing is I am here, my little Livvie, and you are here and we have champagne!’

‘Then I must take you away at once… come, come!’ She clapped her hands sharply and turned, walking luxuriantly back towards the stairs. Her pert buttocks moved expertly beneath the flowing silk as she ascended and Schneck was not the only male whose gaze was drawn. Bond checked his gun but remained seated. He watched them disappear behind a blood-red door then waited two minutes for them to reach a vulnerable stage before following.

He heard giggles a playful scream and the low murmur of a man’s voice. He released the safety on the Walther and with his other hand tried the door to find it unlocked. He gave it a sharp twist and stormed in.

Sophie’s face stared up at him blankly in the semi-darkness. She was lying on the bed, naked beneath a translucent negligee. The room was dark and her motionless body seemed to glow. Her eyes looked at him pleadingly. Momentarily he froze.

That split second saved him. In the moment’s hesitation he realised two things: Schneck lay dead upon the floor and there were figures in the shadows to either side of him. Instinctively he ducked; each man tried to grab him and was thrown off balance. He thrust a fist into the solar plexus of each man, winding both. He heard guns drop as the two arched. Pivoting on his right foot he swung his left leg across the face of the first then repeated the movement in opposite fashion for the second. Both crumpled, one with a groaning exhalation.

For the first time he turned his attention to the figure on the bed and realised the illusion. The pause cost him: a chair crash painfully on his wrist; he collapsed to the floor and found himself looking up into the eyes of a thickset man with the stance of a big-cat. He appeared unarmed – the two unconscious thugs presumably being the execution squad. Bond blocked the exit but the man had other plans for escape.

Taking one step back he ran at the wall on the far side of the bed and his stocky frame crashed right through in a cloud of plaster. Without waiting to wonder what was on the other side Bond followed. The wall crumpled and leaving a similarly shaped hole on this side of the bed. The rooms were identical except on this bed a naked couple scrabbled to cover their embarrassment. As Bond broke in so his quarry broke through the far wall. Again Bond followed, crashing into the third room; again same layout, again a conjoined couple – this time with leather straps and masks. Again the other man disappeared through the facing wall.

They crashed into fourth and fifth rooms amid screams, dust and confusion. Bond made up ground and by the time they crashed through the final partition they were neck and neck, his shoulder aching. The corridor was narrow, dimly lit and led to a fire escape. He fired but the man performed a deft somersault, evading the bullet and forcing open the external door. A blast of freezing air filled the corridor as the man ran outside. With running footsteps behind, Bond followed.

He was on a fire escape. Looking down he saw man complete the last of a series of gymnastic vaults to land with a dull thump in the thick snow thirty feet below. Bond loosed two bullets which pinged off metalwork before vaulting the rail down to the next landing with a thud. Five further drops saw him crouched in the alley, Walther drawn.

His quarry disappeared round a corner and Bond sprinted in pursuit, feet pounded the snow. He slid out into the middle of a broad thoroughfare with three and four-storey 1950s buildings lining each side. Neon signs indicated the area’s speciality and gave the snow a pink night glow. The forecast had been for minus twenty-two and it certainly felt it: dressed in a thin shirt and jacket the cold already had Bond in its grip. Icy fingers clawed his skin and clouds of vapour punctuated his path.

The dark figure hurtled down the central tram tracks between pavements piled with snow four feet deep. Bond followed, struggling for grip. Their footfalls echoed dully in the empty street; the man made to turn left at the next intersection only to be met by and the glare of a headlamp and an angry horn. The man bounced off the front of the lumbering red and yellow tram sending him whirling onto the pavement beyond. Bond, slid to a halt just in time, palms slapping the windows on frustration. All he could do was wait as the near-empty machine slunk past. His mind raced. The fact Schneck had been hit could be coincidence, but the hologram of Sophie was a message: Smolenski knew where he was.

The tram clattered past leaving an empty corner in its wake. Glancing right he saw nothing but to the left tell tale fragments of vapour indicated the man had doubled back towards the river. Bond followed. In the gloom and snow he could not recall the street names but their grid pattern and orientation about the river gave him reference. His chest pounded, breath constricted and he felt the icy prickling begin to give way to numbness.

A gap in the buildings widened and he found himself looking out over the river and the distinctive modern towers of the Swietokrzyski Bridge. Running onto it Bond saw the man stumble. Rhythm lost his quarry slid  to the side of the road and twenty yards further he staggered onto the pavement and fell against the barriers, wheezing.

‘Don’t… don’t shoot… it was not… it wasn’t...’

English. Bond took the man by the scruff of his black fleece and thrust him over the barrier to the edge of the bridge. Their breath merged in a single billowing cloud.

‘Shut up. You don’t get the right to an attorney. Just tell me who you work for and make it fast because my balls are getting very, very cold.’

The man put up a protective hand. ‘I don’t… I don’t work for… anyone, I just…’ His gaze suddenly shifted from Bond to a noise behind, a car pulling onto the bridge. He turned to hold the man in front of him, hidden gun lodged firmly in his spine.

‘Act natural...’ he hissed. A blue and white police VW slowly crunched its way through the ice and snow towards them. Dammit.

The driver’s door opened and a young policeman got out. In his hand he held a Heckler and Koch, oddly with a silencer fitted. M wasn’t going to be pleased having to bail him out of some god-forsaken Polish jail the day before he was supposed to be in Moscow. It would also reduce preparation time. He prepared his defence.

‘British police,’ he ventured, reaching for and raising his official warrant card.

‘Release that man and raise your hands,’ the policeman replied. Bond slowly released his grip, puzzled, slipping the Walther into his waistband and raised his hands.

‘Look, I…’

The Policeman did not pause but instead fired two shots to Bond’s left. There was a cry and he turned to see his captive topple over the wall like a rag doll. Moments later the body hit the ice below: there was a crack then a splash as it gave way. Bond went for his gun.

‘Whoa!’ came a second voice from the car.

From the passenger side of the car stepped a menacing silhouette.

‘Nice evening for a stroll, Mr. Bond. Bit chilly though?’ The Barber was right. Coughing large clouds of vapour he realised his skin was numb and his chest had tightened. The air had thoroughly chilled his lungs and he was shivering involuntarily.

‘You Brits – such bravado going without a coat!’ Bond weighed up his chances. The Barber was armed with a sawn off shot gun and the Policeman had him covered with the H&K. Behind him the frozen river meant a leap was dangerous but…

‘Does the hologram mean Sophie’s dead?’ he asked.

The Barber grinned, a manoeuvre with which his face clearly wasn’t comfortable.

‘Just unavailable for a personal appearance this evening. She’s quite well… taken care of.’ Again a grin that could have been a snarl. ‘Okay,’ he said to the Policeman, ‘tie him. Drop the weapon first though,’ he added as an afterthought. The moment’s confusion was enough.

The Policeman had taken a half step forwards; Bond moved forward on his left foot, took hold of the man’s gun arm by the wrist and turned him against his body as a shield. The man went limp as he took the full force of the Barber’s shotgun blast. Before the echo had subsided Bond hoisted the perforated body in a fireman’s lift and vaulted over the barrier to the ice below.

As he’d hoped their rotation brought the dead man’s body beneath him, cushioning the fall. The impact was heavy, and the ice gave way. Instantly his body was engulfed by a wave of unbelievable shock of cold. There was no sense of being wet; it was like someone had switched off his senses. His whole body went numb and ceased interaction with the world. Blackness engulfed him and, rising, he found himself beneath the ice. Stiff limbs clawed vainly against the rough surface. Drawing the Walther a shot only succeeded in perforating, not shattering it.

His shocked mind fought to recall how to survive beneath ice; his lungs screamed. Backtracking, he moved to his left six or seven feet and seconds later in the darkness he finally found the gap through which he’d plunged. As his head broke the surface he opening his mouth to fill his welcoming lungs just as they seemed ready to burst.

A shotgun blast peppered the ice, grazing his left shoulder. No pain: just a jolt that twisted him sideways. He turned to face the shore, took a large breath then submerged, trying to feint a more serious wound. He needed another exit. Dropping beneath the ice he swam towards the far shoreline which he estimated to be around sixty metres.

There was no feeling in his feet and hands and it was tough to get into any sort of rhythm. His face had hardened into a mask and he found it impossible to blink. Each stroke was forced, each limb screamed. Near the bank he’d seen reeds – and maybe a break in the ice.

After what seemed an age his feet struck the riverbed and outstretched arms tangled with vegetation. Kicking for the surface his fingers met ice in every direction. He forced distant legs to drag him closer to the edge and as the water shallowed and the ice thinned he braced it with his shoulders as his lungs prepared to explode.

Just as it seemed he was entombed the ice gave. With shoulders and head pressed against the crack and after a tortuous hesitation his head burst through and he gasped for precious air. Hands grabbing for anything solid he felt frozen earth. Clutching at roots and rocks he scrambled up the bank, icy fingers drawing lines cross his back. His clothes were heavy, his binary nerve endings registered pain or nothing.

At the top of an incline he became aware of lights: breaking the inky curtain there stood a long dark shape with a white glow silhouetting one end, deep red the other. Amid a shroud of mist and smoke that drifted through the still night air the solemn shape of a large black car stood parallel to the river. It was twenty yards ahead and slightly ahead of him. Engine silently fuming, moonlight glinted from its chromed radiator, the Rolls-Royce stood impassively in the night.

Vorgov Smolenski - in person.

A sliver of pale blue announced an open rear door.

‘Barber? Barber?’ came a low, impatient whisper. When no reply came the door opened wider, revealing the intimacy of the Phantom’s interior.  ‘Barber!’ more insistent this time. Bond made up his mind – it had to be either the driver or Smolenski first – he chose the latter. His numb fingers had difficulty drawing his gun from his waistband where it thankfully had remained and he slithered towards the rear keeping as low as possible. Thoughts of cold left him, but his movements were slow. Why or how Smolenski was here he ignored: this was his one chance.

Reaching the right hand door he grasped the freezing handle carefully and, correctly assuming the occupant to be concentrating on the opposite door, yanked it open.

Smolenski sat in the left hand seat, attention on the half-open nearside door, a small handgun grasped in his right hand. At the instruction he turned, surprised for a split second before the self-confident veneer returned.

‘Drop it outside the car.’ Bond’s voice was firm despite the searing cold. He could feel his hands seizing on the metallic stock. He heard the weapon fall to the tarmac then got in.

‘Close the door and sit back.’ Smolenski complied. His face retaining the familiar controlled composure. Bond scanned the interior – no other occupants. He’d seen no one else in the vicinity but could take no chances. Regretting not sending up a so-called electronic ‘flare’ when leaving the club he reached inside his jacket, praying he had not lost the bleeper that would alert Station W. He could hold him until then.

Bond slumped shivering in his seat, fingers struggling to gain access to the pocket, eyes not wanting to be distracted from the Russian.

‘You have remarkable powers of self-preservation, Mr. Bond: I really must congratulate you. I may use a rather amateur army for much of my work, but I know quality when I see it. Such a shame you were born on the wrong side...’ he spoke with the same incredulous sentiment as the man who bemoans the ‘waste’ of the beautiful young lesbian.

With gratitude Bond located the bleeper and activated it: help was only fifteen minutes away.

‘It’s not just ideology which separates us you bastard,’ Bond, shaking despite his best efforts, was in no mood for pleasantries. ‘Right, wrong: end of story. There may be grey but you aren’t even close, Smolenski.’ His vision was blurring; had to control his breathing and conserve energy.

‘Then I am undone, Mr. Bond. As you see I am unarmed, stripped of my defences, naked in front of my executioner. I may just sit back and enjoy the ride – you would not deprive me of my last journey as a free man…?’ Bond saw the movement of Smolenski’s left foot but his mind wasn’t quick enough.

The mechanism must have been fibre-optic, the reaction milliseconds. Bond felt a hundred tiny pinpricks as minute hypodermic needles shot through the perforations in the innocent beige Connolly leather, piercing his clothing and skin. The effect was immediate: his muscles froze head to toe – there was no intermediate relaxation allowing his gun to drop, it remained fixed in his hands. His mind whirled, suddenly alert as adrenaline surged but found no outlet. His chest heaved, struggling to exhale.

Smolenski prised the weapon from Bond’s grasp.

‘That’s right – an “injector seat”, Mr. Bond. A crude but effective security device, don’t you think?’ He heard footsteps: The Barber opened the driver’s door and stepped inside. ‘That’s it: you just relax. I know you can hear me just fine for the moment. It’s not fatal: the primary effects will wear off within minutes, but this - this will take you from us for a while longer.’ Smolenski reached over and shot an impact-syringe into Bond’s neck then reached into his armrest. Bond’s seat began to recline and the footrest rose so that his body lay flat.

‘Sleep well Mr. Bond! When you arise, we’ll find out just how good quality you really are…’

The seat began sliding backwards and first his head then his helpless body disappeared beneath the parcel shelf into the Phantom’s cavernous boot.

Just before his feet vanished into the darkness from somewhere far off he heard a voice like melted chocolate:

‘…sleep well…’

And he knew no more.

* * *


18

Infamous for Fifteen Minutes

 

The noise was intense: being so close to the helicopter’s rotor blades was painful even before the heat hit. Forty degrees in the shade even at three in the morning, boosted by the powerful draught from the exhausts outlets two feet above his head meant he was sweating profusely even before the attack started.

Bond’s hands clutched his rifle and tucked his head close into the side of the helicopter once more, peering through the night-vision goggles to check their position. Below sand rose and fell in eerie, green-tinged waves dotted with dark patches of vegetation and debris.

‘Thirty seconds,’ his ear-piece announced as they swept low over the extremities of the city, sandstone houses and dusty streets barely a hundred feet below. The draught howled past his face. He tensed.

‘Visual – prepare for drop,’ crackled the pilot. His mind registered the familiar landmarks: the hundred-foot radio mast to the left, Hotel Sadr to the right, and ahead the unassuming three-storey police station where the two SAS men were being held.

The Apache copter arrived quickly, rearing back into the air as the pilot executed a perfect but gut-wrenching halt.

‘Go! Go!’ he yelled.

The four men dropped from the chopper’s skis ten feet to the roof. Speed was everything. They had six minutes before the chopper returned for its one and only collection.

Two men approached each of two stairwells; each door was kicked down and tear-gas thrown in. All four men in gas masks and lightweight combat body-suits followed, Bond leading one pair, the very capable Boswell the other. All three had been hand-picked by Bond for the mission. All were equipped with the latest German/American XM8 combat rifles in favour of the standard – but flawed - British SA80s at Bond’s insistence. Armed with laser sights and LED torches attached to their helmets which illuminated the smoky gloom as they descended, progress was quick and efficient.

‘There’s four of ‘em, sir!’ Boswell shouted via the headset from the opposite staircase. There was a burst of gunfire to his left and two figures appeared in the doorway.

English!!!’ screamed the first, simultaneously raising his rifle. Bond’s XM8 all but cut him in half. The second man stood and stared for a split-second before turning to run, again screaming the alarm. So much for surprise. He took the necessary action without hesitation.

He motioned for Johnson to follow, taking up station at the door and covering his exit. They met Boswell on the landing and the two leapt down the next staircase, headlights sweeping the floor below. The digital eyepiece read seventy-five seconds.

‘How many do you reckon?’ Boswell hissed. Bond motioned for him to stop: he heard a click and span to fire a short burst which took the sniper’s arm off at the elbow.

Again without words he indicated that Boswell should hold this landing as agreed while he and Johnson would infiltrate the first floor where they knew the men were being held.

Voices came from below and light suddenly poured from a guardroom. Johnson covered Bond as he ripped a stun grenade from his belt, unpinned it and cast it inside. They both ducked back against the walls but the explosion shook the flimsy building and dust and plaster cascaded from the ceiling, adding to the melee.

Johnson swung out and covered the scene indicating with a thumbs-up that no one was left standing. Bond turned along the narrow corridor to the cell doors. Along the walls was a grisly array of torture equipment – an electrical generator, blowtorches, an electric drill… His mind briefly revolted. Sliding each cold viewing slit open in turn he identified that only two cells were occupied.

‘Stand back!!’ he yelled and without waiting for an answer attached three small blocks of Semtex to each – one at the lock and one at each major hinge. Each fuse was one second longer than the last: primed a second apart and in the right order they would detonate simultaneously. There was no margin for error.

He counted off the seconds and pressed each in turn, yelled to keep back, then threw himself along the floor.

Six explosions sounded almost in unison, one door falling immediately, the second coming down with a sharp kick. Through the pool of light cast by his torch stepped a ragged figure, but when he looking inside the second cell there was nothing. Scanning, he saw the second captive in no state to walk unaided. The man’s face gazed up in confusion, fearful and bloodstained, obviously already acquainted with the hardware outside. The display said three minutes thirty: this was a problem.

‘Help me get him up!’ he shouted and he and Johnson grabbed the man beneath each arm and half carried, half dragged him along the corridor and up the staircase. More gunfire from behind and a pair of doors burst open.

‘Take him – quick!’ Bond instructed, returning fire. He sprayed the doorway with a sheet of bullets while his mind tried to estimate how close the magazine was to empty. The attackers fell back; he took another stun grenade, set a one second delay and hurled it into the doorway just as three figures emerged screaming abuse. Open-mouthed the explosion threw them to the floor where two lay still while one twitched.

Bond sprang up the stairs behind Johnson, fitting a new magazine as he went. Boswell came to take the weight of the fallen man and the three of them ran to the roof as he covered their backs.

Footsteps betrayed the final attacker, a bulky man who shot wildly up at them. Johnson cried out and fell to his knees as a bullet caught his leg. Bond responded with a well-placed volley that silenced the big man.

‘No problem,’ Johnson answered his enquiring glance, ‘won’t stop me caning you at five-a-side next week!’ he replied cheerily, struggling to his feet. Bond grinned, doubting it.

He sprinted the final few steps before they all came out onto the roof. Five minutes fifty – the copter was just dropping in to land.

The two SAS men safely stowed in the slings secured to the copter’s flanks his troop retook their stations on the outside of the anorexic chopper for the twenty-five minute return to base. Bright lines of tracer fire followed their flight but nothing with any serious aim. By the time spotlights attempted to track their path they were away and clear, mission accomplished.

It was as they flew over the surrounding villages that he became aware of the night’s other main event, one that would occupy no column inches. The event which would never be reported, drowned beneath the heroics of Alpha 24 squad’s daring rescue. The village he had visited frequently, where he had successfully taken part in ‘hearts and minds’ PR, where he had seen first-hand the effects of the conflict on the locals. The village where he had been taught songs by the local children.

The smoke was thick and still rising. Fires burned across the village and there was little movement. Buildings perforated, ragged, flattened. Debris and rubble littered the streets. He caught fleeting glimpses as they sped through the smog but it was enough to see that the village had been utterly destroyed: it and everything in it wiped from the face of the earth.

Returning to unwanted congratulations he immediately sought to find out what had happened: which group or faction was responsible for the attack. The grim faces told him everything.

‘Friendly fire: it was the good guys.’

‘Who’s that?’ he had asked.

*

The nightmare always woke him, yet Bond’s body demanded a re-evaluation. His body was upright, it’s position fixed, yet he felt no pressure points. There was a draught and it was dark, only distant noises gave the game away. Voices, electronic sounds: an occasional metallic vibration. The movement of air said outdoors yet he sensed enclosure in minute echoes. He tried to move…

…and pain started.

At first he only heard the scream in his head. Its remoteness gave room for analysis and he questioned if he was asleep. Then his ears popped – and suddenly sound flooded in – not just his own screaming but incessant voices, filling the void, teeming from all sides.

He listened, pain screaming his name. It seemed to flow down each limb and ricocheted up and down his spine. He talked his body down from its tension, recognising the link between movement and pain. It eased but the memory remained. A moment later this new reality was confirmed.

‘So you are back with us, Mr. Bond?  Struggle will only increase the intensity.’ Smolenski sounded like a doctor attempting to ease a long-suffering patient. The familiar hypnotic creaminess oozed into his weakened brain. He blinked and realised he was wearing a hood. Feeling was returning, detail between the larger sensations of residual pain. He felt the hood against his neck, the frame holding his outstretched arms and legs, the cold air pushing its way past him. Sounds solidified. Smolenski was speaking through a P.A. system; and was that an animal’s growl?

‘Welcome Mr. Bond. Will you join me?’ And to that piece of rhetoric Bond suddenly found himself moving bodily forward accompanied by a mechanical whine. The hood slipped from his face.

He was suspended from the ceiling of some sort of hangar – a huge cavern of industrial geology in a dull palette of steel and rust. The massively buttressed walls were sheer and a mechanical hoist was sweeping him along ten feet from the decaying, vaulted ceiling. Eighty feet below a dark, multi facetted floor stretched four hundred yards away to the edge of his vision. The place was immense.

Ahead, in what was presumably the centre of the hangar was a circular, illuminated platform maybe forty yards in diameter raised twenty feet from the ground. A five-yard wide mezzanine walkway formed a perimeter around a bright sunken display which cast figures and equipment into sharp relief. Junkers, Marx, Dodo and Diana all sat on sofas while The Barber stood impassively gazing down upon the scene. It was towards this gathering he was being taken.

The hoist came to a shuddering halt above the edge of the platform making the body-cage in which he was captive swing violently forward. Pain shot to every extremity as he was lowered to the height of the platform.

‘Oh, did I not turn off my little security device for you? Movement sensors send exquisite electric shocks through its inhabitant when activated – perfect for alerting me when my guests awake, and for keeping troublesome ones still. And you are so troublesome, aren’t you?’ Smolenski stood, hands upon the chrome handrail around the far side of the mezzanine, speaking through a Bluetooth headset which was magnified through unseen speakers.

‘Cut the crap Smolenski and get it over with,’ shouted Bond in reply. Attack, he decided, was the best form of defence.

‘Get what over with, Mr. Bond? If you mean killing you I will, but in my own sweet time,’ he saw that sickly grin flick into place. Bond had to find his bearings. He changed tack.

‘You have your information, why haven’t you used it?’

‘All in good time – you really are a man with no patience; no wonder you keep getting yourself – and others – into trouble. You really ought to think more, you know. It’s a common failing of men in your profession: all action, bluster and bravado. Very impressive for a while, but ultimately it gets you killed. Boo-hoo. The ones who survive – they are the thinkers. Anyone can act, not everyone thinks. It’s a simple truism but a powerful one nonetheless. It is, I believe, your main weakness.’

‘And pseudo-philosophy is yours.’

Was this Moscow? The underground complex? Smolenski started slowly walking towards him.

‘No. My main weakness is… Actually you know I don’t believe I have any!’ Smolenski became playful, sending a querying look towards Marx and the others. She shrugged with disinterest but the Russian took this as agreement. ‘No, wait,’ now he stood face to face with Bond, and in a soft voice almost whispered ‘I remember now – I cried when I went to see Bambi,’ and he laughed, not a maniacal self-absorbed guffaw but an entirely sane chuckle.

‘You lop off a branch,’ he continued ‘but the tree flourishes. I made two mistakes – allowing you to get under my skin in England and then not recognising you for the threat you were in Austria. You see I am entirely capable of self-analysis, Mr. Bond. I can see where I have erred and I will learn from my mistakes. I assure you I will not do so again. You, on the other hand, I do not believe are capable of such a thing,’ he moved around the platform taking up station part way around, leaning on his crystal-topped cane, grey hair tied elegantly behind his head. For the first time Bond noticed the large fedora hanging on a mahogany hat-stand incongruously placed next to a computer console.

Bond remained silent, biding his time. For the moment he was helpless, but the man had not killed him straight off, meaning this was leading somewhere.

Suddenly a huge screen lit up high in one of the walls. Upon it appeared a sixty-foot high human torso in X-ray form, gigantic white bone structures contrasting with deep blue shadows betraying the location of the major organs.

‘Look! You’re on television! Probably not a very good idea, being on T.V. in your profession, is it? Not to worry. Dr. Marx, would you take over the analysis?’ Rebecca Marx drew herself off the sofa and turned to the screen.

‘White male, age around thirty-six. Six feet one inch in height, weight one-eighty pounds.  Physically in reasonable shape. A proven athlete, though his stamina is in doubt being as he is a moderate smoker…’

‘Tut…where is your sense of social responsibility Mr. Bond?’ Smolenski grinned: Bond remained silent. Marx continued.

‘Skeleton shows a number of healed breaks – left collarbone, left forearm, the little finger of the left hand, both femurs. All healed well, obviously benefits from high-quality medical care. For the moment lungs clear, heart shows no abnormalities. Kidney’s a possible worry…’

‘…I’d get them seen to if I were you, old man,’ chipped in the Russian.

‘The kidney’s are evil and must be punished.’ A t-shirt he had once seen: keep the conversation going.

‘Ah, we’ll come to your aggressive tendencies.’

‘If I may interrupt the school-room banter…’ Marx broke in, tersely.

‘Sorry, but unless this has any point I’d like to make a move…things to do, you know.’

‘Why Mr. Bond, I do believe we have re-discovered your sense of humour! I have missed it.’ Smolenski gazed intently at the screen with amusement.

‘…as I was saying…’ Marx turned to face Bond and suddenly he became aware that within the metal latticework frame he was naked. ‘Blood and urine clear – surprisingly. Evidence of injuries too numerous to list – major ones on right cheek, back of left hand, right thigh, aging lash markings to back and severe recent shrapnel wounds to lower left stomach. Looking back to the x-ray we find that some of this surprisingly remains in place…’

‘Bit slap-dash some of these doctors – they missed a bit! Might be worth a letter of complaint.’

‘Sitting too close to the pancreas,’ he explained, ‘waiting for it to work its way down.’

‘Ooh, must hurt like hell…’

‘I grin and bear it.’

‘Psychologically…’ Marx cut in, ‘an equally damaged individual. His chosen career reveals him to be a goal-orientated thrill-seeker who thrives on danger and risk. He rallies against inactivity and loathes relaxation, taking enjoyment in risk through gambling and fast-living in his private life. A self-starter he likes to push himself and others to the limit and beyond in all aspects of his life. While he balances this with discipline and control, priding himself on his professionalism and detachment, his play-boy lifestyle and occasional emotional entanglements have more than once earned rebuke from his superiors. This self-destructive tendency has been highlighted in internal reports and means he has to be handled carefully by one individual,’ Bond winced – he couldn’t care less about this attempted humiliation but how much information did they have on the Service itself?

Marx continued: ‘An undoubted womaniser – I have the word “misogynist” with a question mark – he possesses a large sexual appetite. A man who takes pride in his finely honed skills and the need to rely on no one but himself, the proof of which is in his continued existence.

‘Finally, underpinning all of the above the subject needs solid foundations – certainties on which to build his mental psyche. This he conveniently finds in the somewhat antiquated notion of Queen and Country which prevents him from hesitation or self-doubt. Not a deep thinker.’ And with that denouement the beautiful Doctor Marx raised her gaze as if waiting for applause. Instead Smolenski now took over.

‘And there you go – James Bond, 007 of the British Secret Service…’

‘…deceased,’ added Junkers, helpfully.

‘Now Karl, let’s not jump the gun. I have to hold him back, you know, he’s very excitable. I know he doesn’t look it but sometimes he’s like a dog with a bone,’ Bond was thinking he looked just like a dog, but was getting a little tired of Smolenski’s inane chatter. He wished he would get to the point and said so.

‘Oh very well… you really take the fun out of things,’ then to the room in general he turned and shouted:

‘Let there be television!’

And there was: five thirty-foot high screens flashed into life joining the first in two lines of three angled down from near the ceiling.

‘Consider that your screen test, James. And the good news is you made the grade!’ Smolenski turned and moved unhurriedly back around the walkway, cane applied every other step with a sharp ‘click’. He signalled to a man who had just ascended one of the long staircases to the platforms. The man operated a control panel and Bond’s cage swung forward a few more feet coming to a grinding halt at a gap in the handrail.

‘Forgive me if I’m not flattered,’ said Bond through gritted teeth, trying to appear amused while at the same time working out what flex he had with his hands. Any movement would trigger the electricity ‘alarm’. ‘Not sure I look my best trussed up like this.’

‘Oh I don’t know,’ teased Dodo from the seat where she had been sitting in quiet amusement with her partner. Around him Bond was aware of figures moving in the shadows: along the walls, below the platform and far away at the extremes. Taking up stations. But not below – what lay in the darkness below?

‘You ask why I have not used the information I possess? Good question. And frankly none of your business. But I can play the archetypal villain if you wish, although I apologise upfront for my lack of extreme physical deformity – an oversight on my part.’

‘Your overbearing arrogance more than compensates.’

Smolenski grinned.

‘I told Jan Moebius that we were accelerating mankind’s evolution, fast-forwarding the future by precipitating the inevitable. You know he didn’t believe me? But it’s true. When looked at coldly, rationally, it is perfectly reasonable. I once saw an episode of Star-Trek – I’m a great fan, a real Trekkie – where Captain Kirk landed on a planet at war, but instead of bombs and bloodshed, attacks and casualties were reported on public address systems. People were told they had been killed in “virtual attacks”, meaning they had time to say their farewells to family and friends before going – voluntarily – to the gas chambers.’

‘Such lovely imagery – you must be a hit at fan conventions.’

‘I am not a “fan” of death, Mr. Bond. I am not against it: I would say I am – what is that excellent word…?’ he tailed off in concentration on his English.

‘Ambivalent?’ suggested Marx.

‘Yes, I am ambivalent. No, it is mankind that kills – always has, always will. The only species to do so for recreation. But like that fictitious world, all we can do is find a better way of arriving at that same, inevitable conclusion.’

‘But that’s the point,’ he could not help but be drawn into this psychotic river of reasoning, ‘it’s not inevitable, we have choices, it’s up to people to fight…’

‘No, no no! You see there you are with you conventional thinking, Mr. Bond. Again you reason subjectively. You must be dispassionate. To say that to fight is better… that is surely illogical. To resist, yes, to disagree, certainly. These things are an integral part of humankind. But to leave their resolution to endless, meaningless fighting: this is illogical.’

‘But that’s what you’re advocating,’ he heard himself say, body weary after the initial burst of post comatose adrenalin.

‘You are not listening,’ for the first time Smolenski’s cool façade was cracking. ‘I am fast-forwarding to the end. There is no progress without pain, but the pain can be reduced. The hand quickly amputated to prevent the loss of the gangrenous arm. This is medical common-sense.’

‘It’s anarchy.’

‘It is evolution, Mr. Bond! And you speak as ever as if this is a bad thing – order is borne from chaos – the world itself evolved from a primordial soup!’ Smolenski rose from the handrail and began to walk back around the walkway, passing Marx on the sofa and Junkers who had remained constantly silent, a curious rather than amused onlooker to this pantomime.

‘No, Mr. Bond. You are incapable of viewing the bigger canvas and thus I have to conclude my superior intellect. What I am doing is revolution, nothing less. This is the information age, we are told. Through Skillerbet I have found the perfect mechanism to liberate the most secret information – without pain or suffering,’ he flashed Junkers a glance, ‘well, not much. Freedom of information – but then governments, especially your own, ironically, do not like this.’

‘We’re not talking names and addresses we’re talking about national security…’

‘Security of what? The very establishment and tyranny these people are fighting against. Fifty years from now 9/11 may be celebrated as a heroic day for freedom fighters, the day when the free people of the non-western world finally proved they could stand up and resist their aggressors. The relentless invasion of Coke, McDonald’s and free-market-economics into every city and culture on the planet is, in their eyes, every bit as offensive, and far more insidious than Panzer divisions ploughing through Brussels and Paris. History is written by the winners… Who will that be? That I confess I do not know, but you will agree if you are totally honest that even you are curious.

‘My project will break down these barriers, kick open these doors. Tonight, Mr. Bond I open Pandora’s Box to the world…!’

‘…for a price, presumably.’

Smolenski completed his approach and now stood barely three feet from Bond, staring him in the face. Bond stared back.

‘I believe in the free market, Mr. Bond. As I told my Skillerbet clients, “Every Man Has His Worth”. Including me. You would not expect me to provide my services for free?

‘So tonight begins the Sale of the Century: all my wares open to the highest bidder. Access to arms and formulae, addresses and passwords, names and locations, secrets and lies. Everything my merry band of gamblers has accumulated. All must go, starting at midnight. I love a sense of the theatrical, don’t you?’

His voice echoed across the void and the sound of footsteps increased.

‘Oh, and of course I nearly forgot: you, my dear Bond. You will play a key part in the launch of my new venture. You will be the centrepiece of the pre-match entertainment. You’re the warm up, the P.R. A “taster”, if you will, broadcast live across the internet. Mr. Bond, welcome to your fifteen minutes of fame - or should I say infamy.’

Then the lights came on.

* * *


19

Place Your Bets

 

A blaze of light shone out from the second-floor platform in a slow, concentric ripple.  It spread across the cavern’s floor, lighting up gantries and faces. Illuminating the space beneath the smooth surface it revealed a complex labyrinth of passages and chambers. He could see only into two but didn’t like what he saw.

‘Untidy basement, untidy mind,’ he said.

‘A gauntlet, Mr. Bond: thrown down as a challenge to the best the British Secret Service has to offer. I should warn you no one has yet survived, but I fancy your chances. As do a few of my colleagues – take a look.’

Smolenski directed Bond’s attention to one of the huge screens hanging from the ceiling. A display showed tables of data in different windows, all of which he scanned before settling on the relevant one. ‘British Agent Lab-Rat’ it was titled, with a series of names across the top and headings down the left that needed no explanation. ‘Heat’, ‘Electricity’, ‘Sound’…a series of tests. Or tortures. ‘Beast’, ‘Man’ and ‘Machine’ completed the list and beside each item were figures.

‘The latest betting of my colleagues plus a select viewing audience across the globe. It seems they give you a good chance of reaching the mid-point but most feel you will fade, terminating before the end. I am, as yet, undecided. I think you have the potential, but as Ms. Marx so rightly surmised, you are the kind of man who needs the right motivation.

‘Karl! It is your time my friend!’ he shouted. Karl Junkers appeared at the top of the stairs: calm and smiling he carried the struggling figure of Sophie. Bound and gagged she was dressed in jeans and a blue t-shirt, hair tied roughly back. His mind registered her firm figure and strong, beautiful face. Clear eyes reassured him she was thinking rather than panicking and would be ready to act when the time came.

‘A damsel in distress? Look closer: yes, she is real this time – forgive me that little ruse, I really could not resist! Around that rather beautiful neck you will notice a chain and pendant. This is hard-drive containing the first offering in this evening’s auction. Bidding has already started on this opening lot and is climbing – look at the scoreboard…’ this time he did look up and Bond’s gaze followed. He was trying to assimilate this new information. Smolenski was a gambler, but what was the game and how could change the rules in his favour?

‘Twenty five million already!’ he whistled, ‘not enough – I have set a reserve of one-hundred but don’t tell anyone,’ he whispered then actually giggled. ‘The big-hitters are waiting till just before the auction ceases at twelve. The winning of this first lot will mark the official start of C-Bay – and bidding will commence on all the other prizes on offer. There’s a tremendous amount of interest – it’s remarkable how many…freedom-fighting organisations there are in the world. Not to mention the security services anxious to squeeze the geniis back in their bottles. It is funny – we even have one Japanese official of a certain bank negotiating back the information for his company which he secretly sold to us in the first place! In the words of Louis Armstrong, what a wonderful world!’

‘Forgive me if I don’t laugh,’ replied Bond. He needed as much information as possible. He’d also regained full movement of his limbs and, if he could mask the pain from the electrodes he had a degree of freedom. ‘So what’s the first lot? Presumably not a box-set of Friends DVDs?’

‘You should be more respectful with your use of levity, Bond. Please show the appropriate gravitas. Gravitas: what an excellent word that is. Upon the hard-drive around Ms. Laguardia’s neck are contained the names, locations and current mission details of every single British Secret Service agent around the world. Not just MI6 but also MI5, SAS, Cache, Black Apple, RK6 and so on. At twelve midnight – four hours from now - this information will be plugged into that console and uploaded to the C-Bay website. I see the bidding has reached thirty five million – things are heating up!’

Recalling the demise of 008 and his own targeting in Northumberland he had no reason to doubt the Russian’s claim. He also knew how damaging the information could be in the wrong hands – in any hands. Even a supposedly friendly nation would find things it did not like. But of course to a terrorist network… He shuddered.

‘So where do I come in?’

‘Glad you asked – very cooperative, thanks for coming. Well you see for the remainder of this evening, until the auction closes, you will provide entertainment for the viewing audience around the globe as you make progress through my simple assault course. I calculate that by eleven thirty you will either have completed it or have been…deleted.’ Junkers grinned childishly and Bond hoped he’d come across him somewhere along the way.

‘And if I win?’

‘What? Oh well then of course you will get the information from around Ms. LaGuardia’s neck and win the auction. Simple as that. Heck I might even throw her in for good measure,’ he added. ‘Then again…I may not.’

‘I can’t imagine you honouring a bet, especially that one.’

‘I do not welsh, Mr. Bond, especially when I have set the rules. Either way I win – your travails will be broadcast live on the internet. “Fatality Television”! How do you like that? It may not be the first, but I promise you it will be the most stylish. The one thing it does mean is that from now on I will not make the mistake of allowing you to leave my sight. I will be watching you James Bond every single step of the way,’ the creaminess had been replaced by thick black menace. ‘Make the most of your one night of fame: tomorrow you might have a million hits on You-Tube. I, more importantly, shall move on, to bigger and better things.’

‘Tell me - were you bullied at school, Vorgov?’ The Russian smiled thinly.

As he turned Bond seized the moment. The base of the cage was resting against the marble walkway, his bare feet almost in contact with its cold surface. Not readily visible but noted by him earlier there lay a small metal hook wedged against the lower bar of the chrome rail. A small fragment of debris from some element of construction. An accidental lifeline.

Bracing himself he slid his foot as far as he could through the straps. Electricity raced up his leg and spread across his lower body. With huge effort he prevented his face showing the pain, his whole body fighting to remain motionless.

He felt a toe make contact, then a second. Gently he nudged the hook from where it nestled, pain redoubling, trying to keep his movement as economical as possible. On the third try he hooked his second toe under the slim piece of metal and held it in place with his big toe. The whole process took no more than five seconds.

From above came the whine of the winch. The cage lurched and was hoisted sharply away.

‘Good luck, Mr. Bond. In case this is out final parting, goodbye: it has been an extraordinary unpleasantness knowing you.’

‘You say goodbye, I’ll say hello.’

‘Vera Lynn again?’

‘Lennon and McCartney.’

‘Whatever. Look – there you go…!’ The top screen showed his ascent, filmed from somewhere to his right in widescreen. From now on he had to assume his every move was being monitored.

As the cage began its retreat along the cavernous void he could see into more of the illuminated basements. As he passed so each one darkened dramatically, inviting him to memorise the layout as best he could. His progress was accompanied by Frank Sinatra crooning ‘Come Fly With Me’: he strongly hoped the humorous soundtrack wasn’t going to continue.

The hoist began to descend. Gripped between his toes the metal hook dug into his flesh but he was determined not to lose any advantage no matter how small. In the cold draught he was again reminded of his nakedness and hoped clothes awaited him below.

‘Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen! Tonight live and for your entertainment see a real-life spy race for his life! This British Secret Agent is just one example of the fantastic wares on offer on the C-Bay launch-night auction – proof that this is the one-stop-shop for all your intelligence needs. If you need to know it then know you can get it on C-Bay dot-com…!’

The rest was lost as he descended below the glass ceiling and into Vorgov Smolenski’s rat-run. This was the secret of the gigantic subterranean cavern at Cheramushka. He only hoped the attack by the combined security services came in time.

*

The air inside the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy was starting to grow stale. Whilst the air-conditioning was reputedly capable of handling a ten-day non-stop flight this H.A.S.T.E.N. flight had been prepared in double-quick time and one of the sacrifices had been a full recharge. As a result the atmosphere was as ripe as a barman’s armpit.

‘A lovely turn of phrase, Tanner: thank you very much.’

M was exasperated, Tanner no less so. The pair were holed up in the makeshift office they had been allocated on NATO special flight NV-022, their port-side cabin littered with maps and notes, a small stand weighed down by two lap-tops and assorted electronics.

The plane had taken off from Brussels at twelve Central European Time and after making its way into Russian airspace was now locked into a three hundred mile radius holding pattern around Leningrad. Aboard were Secret Service representatives from a dozen NATO powers, ten from the U.S. alone. The flight was crowded, noisy and, with disappearance of 007 forty hours earlier, frantic.

‘I think we need to face up to the fact he’s a no-show. We need to go ahead with the assault, ma’am.’

Tanner’s solemn assessment was realistic and M knew it. Yet a part of her held out for information which would furnish her with another option.

‘The assault will neutralise Smolenski and Skillerbet for good – end of story.’

‘Will it?’ replied M. ‘I wish I shared your confidence, Tanner’. She had not slept for twenty-three hours. She had rushed to Brussels to meet the flight whose departure had been brought forward. All the cajoling she, Tanner and Bond had done, all the prep with the Americans, and now they were back with plan ‘A’ or, as Jefferson the U.S. Chief of Operations had christened it, ‘The Big Kahuna’.

The infiltration plan had been quickly ditched – if the British couldn’t keep track of one of their supposedly finest agents then they couldn’t be trusted to pull off an operation like this. The PM seemed anxious to prove a point but had too easily capitulated when it was suggested 0011 take Bond’s place.

‘What time is it?’ she rasped. Tanner allowed his five years of experience to absorb her tetchiness and replied.

‘Ten after eight. They’ll be assembling the attack copters at Chernoi.’ The military base East of Moscow was considered more secure than the larger Chkalovskoye facility.

‘It’ll be a blood-bath and we’ll all be to blame.’

‘There’s a fair chance it would have turned into that anyway.’

‘And what if Bond is inside after all?’

‘Then he can do something about it, ma’am. If not, then it doesn’t matter.’

‘He can only do something about it if he isn’t killed in the first wave. What’s the point of a man on the inside if you go and bloody well kill him before you damn well start!’

M paced the small room in an attempt to counter her irritability. There was no point telling her to sit down and stay calm.

‘It’s no better than fifty-fifty that he’s there at all. It’s a fair distance from Warsaw and he definitely didn’t come in by chartered aircraft.’

‘On the other hand no one can explain how Smolenski’s getting in and out either,’ M said in a quieter tone. It sounded horribly like she was resigning herself to what lay ahead. Tanner wasn’t sure which he wanted to believe. He looked at her and saw a face exploring the same old arguments.

‘What if we told them we had received a signal?’ M said slowly.

‘Go on.’

‘What if we said we had received a signal which we believe to be him? No detail. We could get them to change the plan of attack – a ground based assault. We both agree it stands a better chance of securing the computer data than some gung-ho air-attack.’

‘And if he isn’t there?’

‘Who’s to prove he isn’t? Or wasn’t? I’m not telling, and I’ll have you or Bond on Official Secrets if you do…’

For the first time in hours she actually smiled.

*

Metal scraped painfully on concrete as the cage hit ground. He’d been dropped into a brick-lined cell fifteen feet square. It contained a single item of furniture, a locker-room bench, upon which lay a plain yellow overall emblazoned with the Skillerbet logo and a pair of plain black sneakers.

‘One minute Mr. Bond, then it’s showtime!’ he heard Smolenski over the P.A., words wrapped in tinsel. ‘Remember – there’s a prize waiting – I never welsh!’ Then the roof turned opaque - polychromatic glass - and he was left with his thoughts.

The facts.

Smolenski intended to start releasing the information on the British agents to the highest bidder in less than four hours. The rest of the lethal database would follow not far behind – he doubted the deadlines would be weeks: more like days or even hours. Smolenski would want his cash fast.

Fact: the assault on the villa complex would go ahead without him. What form it would take he wasn’t sure. If it were not for Sophie he may have been better staying put and sitting it out but inactivity was against his nature, Marx had been right. He had to fight his way out of this bloody party game but had a feeling that would be a tall order: this was no amateur set-up. As if to reinforce the sentiment three beady web-cams followed his progress, doubtless broadcasting his face across the globe. So much for anonymity.

He had little choice for the moment but to play along. Weaponless he would have to live on his wits. He had the hook and one emergency back-up option which he had a nasty feeling he was going to need. For the moment he hung the hook through the chest of his overalls and prepared for action.

‘And he’s off, ladies and gentlemen. Remember, this isn’t just some mindless muscle: this is the cream of the world’s intelligence service; an SAS-trained killing machine. Surely he’ll be the toughest test yet for the SkillerMaze… So, place you bets…!’

The P.A. suddenly shut off and the room went dark then, from behind, came a grinding noise. Bond’s senses detected something approaching through the dark. The wall hit his back, propelling him towards the far side as the room compressed. It happened quickly but he felt himself fall not against the opposing brick but instead into the warmth of what must be a second chamber. His mind raced and instinctively he dropped to his haunches as the grinding stopped and the lights returned.

He was indeed in another room and turning he saw the doorway slide shut behind him. This new room was metal-lined; thirty feet square but unlike the last it was far from empty.

A smell of oil pervaded the room, and its source was obvious. Pretty much the entire floor, including where he now stood, comprised a large, circular pool of black: depth impossible to fathom, surface rippling smoothly. At random intervals small podiums, frames and metal bars protruded at odd angles so that it reminded him of a stagnant pond on a bombsite. The walls had odd protuberances: scaffold poles, wooden slats and drainage tubes. The high ceiling was likewise dotted with ropes, poles and ladders. Bond took it all in. No opposing doorway, no obvious destination for him to make for. Was it hidden? If so where?

A sudden roar lit the room: a jet of flame emerged from one of the drainage tubes in a huge, forceful torrent. His body reacted as a reflex. As the oil caught fire he leapt to catch hold of one of the ropes and hauled himself above the pond as a tsunami of fire set the floor ablaze. Behind it came an uprush of super-heated air. Flames licked his overalls as he swung his legs over a lateral pipe leaving him draped at an awkward angle around two feet from the ceiling. A real baptism of fire: how appropriate.

From his raised perspective he examined the room. He could see three possible routes through the room though on two he would need to drop down to platforms sitting uncomfortably close to the inferno. In the corners of the room were the tell tale red LEDs of cameras tracking his progress, taking in his torment. He waved and grinned: give the punters what they want, he thought.

Timing the moves to leverage momentum he swung across to a pair of ropes and then down onto a podium close to the centre of the room. Steadying himself he looked at his hands which had somehow become greasy: more oil. From pond or ropes? As if in answer flames suddenly spouted from the ceiling where he had come into the room and worked their way quickly down his first rope-hold. Retreat was not an option. He felt like he was being corralled.

Inside he was calm but knew he was against the clock. Where was the exit, what was the objective? Think like Smolenski – where would he put the exit? He scanned the ceiling, then the wall above where he had come in. Nothing.

A shudder from beneath drew his attention – the podium was slowly sinking. He estimated he had fifteen to twenty seconds. There had to be a way - like any videogame there’s always a way out. Shame he only had the one life.

It came to him as he stared down: the floor: the exit had to be beneath the fiery oil. And he’d bet on it being near the door he came in – a double bluff.

The flames had not abated, if anything they grew higher. He began to feel light-headed as the oxygen supply diminished. How to get down? He glanced at his sleeve: the fabric was ferociously hot: by rights it should be singed but it wasn’t; partly flameproof – at least that was something.

Within reach was a scaffold pole, hot to the touch, leading into the wall. He quickly made his way to the second rope he could have chosen when he entered and from there back to the pipe. It wasn’t low enough – he’d have to lower it. One hand on the rope he used the other to wrench one end of the pipe. On the third try it gave and as he noticed the podium disappearing beneath the flames it broke it two, spewing cold water. Flames spat viciously across the room and he felt boiling oil splatter his hand and neck. He winced, controlled the pain then swung his leg over the crooked downward-spraying pipe and let his body go.

Hanging by his legs his torso swung like a pendulum, licked by fire. Wrapping his hands in the baggy sleeves of the overall he reached into the oil and felt heat clamp his wrists like handcuffs. It was shallow, maybe six inches, making it impossible to submerge. If he dropped into it he’d be rapidly cremated. He counted off the few seconds he had, seeing the oil start to seep onto the fabric and catch light.  Three, four, five…the warmth became unbearable: he could his skin prickling… Six, seven, eight…and his hand, bandaged by the cloth, felt a handle. He gave a sharp twist and a welcome give, bubbles rising to the surface. He raised the manhole cover and the blazing oil began to escape.

Breath short he relaxed, trying to gain his thoughts, intending to form a plan, but he was interrupted by an ominously metallic sound. Looking up he saw his makeshift trapeze break and felt his body fall towards and through the black hole.

He landed heavily on a wide metal grid that was slick, oily and still alight in places. Oil poured round him into the fiery well.

‘That’s one obstacle overcome – apologies to Mr. Tuesday, the wrong choice I’m afraid – never under estimate a spy, Mr. T. They’re very resourceful, as I can attest. But what will he make of phase two…? Don’t change that page…!’

Smolenski’s glib entreaties barely registered. Bond recalled Smolenski’s list: electricity was next – he’d need more than his overalls to get through this one.

He heard the hum before he saw any apparatus. As his eyes got used to the half-light he could see the familiar glow of wires, valves and transformers. This wasn’t going to be sophisticated.

Again, satisfying the appetite of the beast that is television there was a blaze of light – a complex array of LEDs arranged in concentric rings around a ceiling of similar size to the previous room but considerably lower. In fact the room was no higher than six feet and he had to crouch. It wasn’t furnished; its walls and ceiling were of a cork material while the floor had a complex silver pattern inlay. From the corner of his eye he saw the manhole cover descending and under cover of a casual turn quickly slipped the hook under the lip to prevent its full closure. The makings of a plan were forming but he was deliberately being given no time to think.

‘Hello, Mr. Bond.’ Across the low space a panel door opened and out stepped Junkers, crouching, but dressed for all the world as if he was going for a night at the opera: evening suit, deep red waist-coat and matching bow tie.

‘So far I have not had a chance to demonstrate my skills to you as you have to me. I hope you will be equally as impressed – I consider myself something of an artisan. This,’ he spread his arms to encompass the room, turning his head proudly, ‘is my playroom. I have a ninety five per cent success rate.’

‘The boast of an idle thug. Killing is easy.’

Junkers grinned.

‘Not if you wish to kill in style Mr. Bond…’ he replied with passion.

‘Don’t tell me - you suffer for your art.’

‘No, Mr. Bond, others suffer for it…’ And with that he held up what looked like a remote control and pressed a key.

Pulses of electricity shot up Bond’s legs, paralysed his groin and sending fingers shooting through his chest. As it subsided he buckled and fell heavily. Looking down he saw the reason – the floor was inlaid with metal conductors, circuits activated at the touch of a button. He stepped off the one upon which he was standing.

‘Ooo…one point to me I fear. Your move.’ Junkers sank back in a large leather armchair in the centre of the far wall. Beside him were a large electrical generator and a series of huge capacitors. Bond looked at him, then at the floor, then glanced around the walls at the ever-present cameras. He hoped he was putting on a good show.

‘Suppose I don’t want to play?’

‘Oh dear…well, if Mohammed won’t come to the mountain…’ Another button and wires sprouted from the ceiling. Hundreds, three feet long hung limp before starting to move. The only way to avoid them was to throw himself to the floor, thereby playing into Junkers’ hands.

The jolt paralysed him and he writhing in momentary agony. Convulsing he made contact with the wires which delivered a similarly powerful shock.

‘Here is your objective – and a sign of my unfailing self-confidence,’ – a gun, slid along the floor so it rested some six feet ahead of him, maybe thirty-five from where Bond lay.

He got up slowly: okay, he thought - let’s play. He started to walk towards Junkers. Again the button. This time he jumped to evade the circuit – ‘the rules of the game’ apparently that not all could be activated at once. It was effectively his speed of movement versus Junkers’ hand-eye coordination. He, Bond, had the more difficult job, but he still fancied his chances.

‘I am unarmed Mr. Bond...all you need to do is get close enough. There are no circuits where the gun lies…but I warn you, the charges become greater as you get nearer…It’s all about risk…’ Then the wires came down again, cornering him.

Bond weighed up the distances and his chances.

‘I don’t bet myself, but I would say you don’t have a ghost of a chance…what do you think?’

A ‘direct hit’ near the gun would undoubtedly be fatal – he had to make ground faster than Junkers could anticipate. If he could do that…

‘All this thinking doesn’t make good T.V. Bond…please remember our viewers…’ This was Smolenski over the P.A.

‘You want a show?’ he whispered to himself.

Momentum and surprise were key. With a sudden burst of energy he accelerated to a run, but rather than directly towards Junkers, who had activated the intervening circuit in anticipation, he ran to the side-wall. Jumping feet-first he bounded off the wall at an angle, coming down onto his hands near the far left corner. Junkers hit the corner circuit but succeeded only in singing Bond’s hair. He sprung off the floor onto the back wall with his feet. Springing from a half-crouched position he twisted in the air to land squarely in front of Junkers who had half-risen in panic.

Bond grabbed the gun, cocked and pointed it, immediately realising from the weight that it was not loaded. Junkers froze, half turning back.

‘Drop the junior electrician kit,’ he calmly instructed, ready for Junkers to move. He did. A smirk betrayed his moment of action. Bond immediately jumped as high as he could into the air whilst simultaneously throwing the gun with all his might at Junkers head.

The floor crackled and smoke rose, but before he landed the heavy weapon smashed the German’s ugly, fat face in several fragile and bloody places. The force knocked him clean over the back of the chair where he proceeded to leak blood.

Bond turned to the cameras.

‘That’s entertainment, folks.’

He went round the torture chamber and smashed each of the six cameras in turn, feigning to forget one and trying to open the far doorway before knocking it out. Hopefully this would put Smolenski off the trail, expecting him to continue forward through the maze. Sure enough a few moments later the far door opened with a hiss, just as Bond was raising the manhole cover back into the fire room. As he had hoped the lights in this room had been shut off, as had the cameras. He took no chances and quickly smashed the webcams in the dim light which leaked from below before making his way back to the first entrance. This was the tough one, and one which would mean him using his final secret weapon.

Taking the metal hook once more, and opening up his overalls he sat down against one wall, not relishing the thought of what he was about to do.

The object which had shown up on Smolenski’s widescreen x-ray was not in fact shrapnel at all. Nicknamed ‘Bognor’ it was Q-department’s ‘last resort’. Gone were the days when clever devices could be sewn into lapels or hidden in the heels of shoes. The ‘Internal Personal Emergency Toolkit’ or IPET was two inches long by one wide, fashioned to resemble an irregular piece of plastic, but made from carbon fibre so as not to set off metal detection equipment. Sewn into a purpose-made ‘wound’, usually but not exclusively in the abdomen, its ray-shielded shell could carry a variety of miniature hardware which may be required in, as the name suggests, the very last resort. Bond had initially rejected the idea but after requiring surgery earlier in the year had decided to have one fitted, although Tanner’s comment that it was ‘just like having the oil changed in your car when it’s in the garage anyway’ nearly reversed his decision.

The hook did not make the best surgical instrument. He picked at the remains of the stitches – deliberately kept fresh by re-opening the wound every six weeks – and it immediately began to bleed. He’d been shown the best way of doing the procedure to minimise blood-loss but some was inevitable. He stopped half way through, the pain intense. Ironically there were painkillers – high-strength morphine - inside but he had already decided not to use these on himself.

It was messy work but finally his fingers made contact through torn flesh and he withdrew the slim case, realising how he had got used to the discomfort of having the thing there in the first place. He drew a deep breath through gritted teeth.

From inside the case he withdrew the morphine, a cyanide tablet, a small blade and an electronic homing device which he immediately activated as he rose to his feet. His stomach objected, preferring him to stay put.

‘Come on!’ he commanded and immediately realised he was not alone. Soft footsteps and a low growl told him he was being studied.

Slowly, very slowly, he turned to face the predator.

* * *


20

Guts or Glory

 

Every sinew in his body tensed as his eyes met those of the magnificent Siberian tiger. A large specimen, maybe five hundred and fifty pounds; body a rippling mass of muscle and intimidating power. James Bond’s stomach roared in pain as he twisted his body and it took every ounce of effort not to call out. Control, 007.

The animal stared impassively back, daring him the next move. He considered the blade – only of use in close combat, which in this case he would lose heavily. Likewise the morphine – unless he could get it to actually eat the damned stuff. The tiger slunk along the oily and he noticed blood on its snout: Junkers’ he presumed. The hungry creature must have been the next challenge, released back up the chambers when he did not appear gamely for action. Instead it had found the unconscious body of the German. How poetic.

The beast was beautiful: sleek fur rippling in the dim light, eyes sparking with life catching stray reflections. Bond’s breathing was controlled and even.

As the creature’s head turned slowly away he took his chance, bolting for the manhole, disappearing cleanly and dragging the cover across just as fierce jaws snapped inches from his face. God, the thing was fast.

Checking the steel cover was secure he dropped into the electric room and crossed to Junkers’ body, now a mangled scarlet heap. The neck was chewed, the head all but severed, a slick of oozing Rhesus positive and overblown intellect meandering across the marble floor. He removed the large man’s clothes and replaced them with his overall. Dressing in Junkers’ rather ample garb – he’d been too fortunate with sizing up to now – made him feel clumsy. Other than that they were functional. He dispensed with the jacket but stuffed the bowtie in his pocket: more small weaponry just in case.

Next he cut open the overalls at the chest and started to do the same with Junkers himself, using the small blade to surgically cut open the man’s bloated stomach. Bond wasn’t squeamish but neither could he have been a doctor. As a rule he focused on the living, the dead he left well alone. The stench nearly made him gag but he succeeded in freeing a generous piece of meaty looking flesh.

‘Looks like a main course if ever I saw one,’ he murmured before dragging the corpse to the doorway of the tiger’s den. It slumped wetly. Hopefully the body should be just visible to the cameras and with the head turned should pass for him. Game over, all bets are off ladies and gentleman: Mr. Smolenski wins again…what a disappointment; I really thought he’d do better than the others…

Decoy set Bond swept up the meat and jumped onto the grate where he halted at the manhole cover: now the tricky part. He took the morphine from his pocket and broke the two tablets into powder, spreading it liberally into the messy innards of Junkers’ guts. Carefully he raised the cover an inch or so pausing before raising his head. Nothing.

Only now did he raise his eyes, peering through the crack: he could see the creature hunched in a corner. He raised the cover two inches further and hurled the red blob out onto the floor and closed the hatch again rapidly. He heard the tiger pounce; he imagined its razor-like incisors ripping the flesh, devouring this latest offering just inches from his head. Bait taken.

He took stock. The watching audience, and hopefully Smolenski, now thought him dead. Would they come to check? The main event was the focus: his early defeat an unfortunate anti-climax. No, he had time: it was up to him now to use it.

Above him the noise stopped; there came pawing sounds then silence. The morphine would slow but not disable the creature. But that was all he needed provided it had eaten the whole dose.

Again he raised the manhole cover but was unprepared. Tigers show remarkable cunning in the wild and this was no different. It used its paw to flick the steel cover up and out with no more effort than flipping a beer-mat. It flew from Bond’s vision falling with a ringing clatter as the animal bore down. Bond rolled off the grate, dropping to the ground via a narrow gap through which a paw followed. Pinned to the ground he felt a white-hot stroke across his shoulder as a claw ripped his shirt and tore his flesh. Pressing desperately against the wall he guessed the tiger couldn’t get through the gap and also saw that its reflexes had indeed been dulled.

It slunk down off the grate casually, circling somewhat unsteadily. Springing on the balls of his feet Bond slipped through the gap and pulled himself up through the man-hole in the ceiling. No time for the cover - he ran towards the locker room and saw the bench, the crane and the cage where he had last seen them. Time to head up and out.

As silently as he could he climbed up the cage and onto the wide-link rusting chain by which it was suspended. The corrugated roof was maybe eighty feet above him: his first objective was to get outside and set off the SOS beacon. The attack was planned for tonight but the timing had still been under review: there was a chance of rescue but equally of destruction. If had been put back altogether he may be on his own.

He put these thoughts aside as a familiar padding noise came from below. The big-cat entered the room, snarling. He continued his climb, trying to keep movements to a minimum, hoping the darkness would mask his furtive ascent. The screens were alive and occasionally he caught voices. A clock said ten forty-seven. He thought of Sophie. His training told him to get clear, every person for themselves. No sexist chivalry permitted – the diversity police ensuring equality even in death.

*

‘What the bloody hell do you mean they’ve brought it forward?’ said M. ‘They can’t do that without consulting us? Who the hell do they think they are?’

‘They’re America, ma’am.’ Tanner immediately knew he’d said the wrong thing.

‘They know we can’t get the ground force in place that quickly. This is bloody typical!’ She was shouting at the lack of options and he felt guilty he could offer no more. ‘If it was CIA agents lives on the line they’d be a damned sight more careful, that’s for certain! “Bring all the boys back home”…’

‘Ma’am…’ Tanner interrupted as a figure appeared in the doorway.

‘If you’d like to join us in the Command center the operation is about to get underway.’ Grant, the weasly, bespectacled assistant to CIA Chief Schaeffer, himself a great Alsatian of a man, stood expectantly.

‘We’re just checking our intelligence…and kindly knock first in future,’ replied M sharply. The weasel may or may not have smirked as he turned away. ‘And why do they have to use such grand titles – it’s just a bigger cabin for God’s sake,’ She added. ‘So: any news?’

‘None,’ Tanner responded dejectedly. ‘We have all stations scanning, but most are preparing for the evacuation. We have all the safe houses in North, West and Southern Europe prepared and clandestine flights planned out of the all Eastern European ones bar Bucharest. Chapman and his team will be out within seventy-two hours. To be honest it’s Five who are more worried – running around like…’

‘Good – spreads the battle out a bit.’ She looked directly at him. ‘God, Tanner, this could be apocalyptic.’

Five minutes later they were listening with restraint to a briefing of the planned operation. The Americans had grown impatient with the apparent inability of any other nation to organise itself and had ‘taken the bold initiative’ to ‘hit right at the heart’ of this ‘malignant terrorist cell’. To M it sounded like the same plan as usual: kick in the front door, destroy everything in sight and worry about the consequences later.

A flight of four F16s would lay down a blanket of fire across the campus followed by twelve Apache gunships which would go in to pick off survivors, targeting the villa where it was assumed the main control room was located. Towards the rear of the estate, camouflaged within a woodland expanse and bracketed by small hills was what looked like a large aircraft hangar. With a limited amount of discussion it was agreed that this should be ‘taken out with maximum force’. M remained quiet.

Tanner was dismayed at the glee shown throughout. When one of the assembled audibly ‘whooped’ he made an exit.

*

They came in low and fast from the west, two pairs of the finest airborne weaponry on the planet. Wings swept back for attack speed, tails carving a confident path through illegal airspace, pale jet-stream settling in their wake against an ink-blue sky. Flying in perfect formation they moved as one: quickly, economically, direct. On the ground their path would be marked by sound which trailed far behind, parallel vapour trails the only witness to their passage.

In eerie green-lit cockpits their course was plotted; small manual corrections made to attitude and pitch, close guard paid to landmarks and heat signatures. Their payload was compromised speed. Stealth was the game, at least until they reached the target. Their objective clear: total annihilation.

‘Alpha-one-nine T minus sixty seconds. Control – seeking confirmation, over,’ crackled the lead pilot.

‘Copy, one-nine. Proceed: mission confirmed green, repeat mission confirmed green. Over.’

‘Copy that.’

So the mission’s only radio exchange ended. Thirty seconds to target the pilot flexed his thumbs and the deadly F16s bore down.

*

His hands were bleeding. The chain was not only rusting but corroded, sharp edges catching his aching skin. He tried wrapping them in his ripped sleeves but this didn’t make much difference and the blood ran down his arms and chest. Not much further, he told himself: just ten more feet. Time and again his feet slipped making progress slow and on one occasion making sufficient noise for him to expect the P.A. to bark for him to stay still or bullets to reach out and pull him back to earth. But all eyes remained on the big screens. He saw six clearly and his curiosity forced him to examine them. One showed the labyrinth on eight windows, Junkers’ yellow and crimson bulk visible in High Definition, face hidden from view. Next was a full screen of the C-Bay website, showing auction progress and timing. He smiled grimly at the bidding: he appeared to have reached the one hundred million dollar mark. He’d report this valuation to M. The other three screens showed huge faces that he took to belong to members of Smolenski’s inner circle. The smiles were not the faces of some sinister global terrorist network, more a bridge club, which somehow made it even more sinister.

Four minions sat at terminals and a twenty black-clothed armed guards lined the walkway, facing inwards. Smolenski stared down at the platform’s central void. Previously this had been dark and Bond had been unable to see within. Now it was brightly lit: lasers cut down from the roof tracing an intricate web. He could not see what lay on the floor but some arrangement of mirrors seemed most likely. Its purpose he could not determine but he estimated its relevance from Smolenski’s rapt attention. It was this bright focus which leant him cover: like moths transfixed by a security light at dusk their eyes lost perception in the gloom.

The knowledge of what was at stake spurred him on. One hour, and the entire UK security system would be useless, thousands of lives in imminent danger. He had to find a way across the roof and somehow penetrate those defences before the assault. Simple destruction, as at Edelweiss, was not enough.

Then he saw her. For the first time since entering the labyrinth there she was, that unmistakable shock of dark hair now dishevelled and tousled. She was naked – stripped of her defences as he had been. She was manacled untidily to one of the chrome pillars supporting the large-screen equipment. Hands raised behind her head she stood unashamed and alert as ever. Rather than a damsel in distress he saw an ally, a doubling of his capacity. If possible she would be his first target.

The last few feet of chain were negotiated with difficulty as he overcame the out-hanging jib from which the crane was suspended, requiring him to haul himself up and over its cold angular section supported by his arms alone. His muscles screamed, his stomach burned, but he drove mechanically on, concentrating on one painful move at a time.

He clambered onto the stanchion in the rafters. The clock said nearly – just one hour before the auction ended. Momentarily his weariness suggested he should sit and wait it out, wait for the cavalry to arrive, but again he dismissed the risk as too high. He had to get to the data first, or at least be well placed when they struck and provided a distraction. That of course was provided they did not change the plan he, Tanner and M had meticulously concocted, and go for outright destruction instead.

He forced the thought from his mind and turned his attention to a hatch some ten feet from where he crouched. Taking a deep breath he let his body swing across the gap and moved monkey-bar fashion to the hatch. There was a rusty latch which gave with a tell tale squeak. Hanging by one arm he thumped the hatch with the other and he was relieved when it popped off. Freezing air caught him by surprise, a rapid intake scouring his lungs. He took a cautious look over the lip before pulling his body through the gap and into the icy night. His body fell forward and he allowing himself to crash softly into the snow which covered the roof, revelling in the brief hiatus. Alone he allowed himself a few luxurious seconds to recover his breath.

It was as he turned to the west that he realised his plans would need to change. It took a few seconds to absorb the shock of the scene that met his eyes.

* * *


21

No One at Home

 

Villa Cheramushka was deliberately surrounded by open countryside giving little cover for would-be attackers. Raised slightly above the surrounding countryside on a clear day you could see the spires of Karvitograd twenty miles to the north. What you definitely should not see is the sea.

‘We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto…’ Bond muttered taking in his unexpected surroundings.

An array of street and building lighting a mile away indicated the edge of a built up area whilst the other two sides were bordered by water – one narrow frozen inlet which could have been a river or canal and the unmistakable darkness of the open sea. Occasional boats twinkled red, green and white amid the punctuation of shipping buoys.

He was in a shipyard, a dry dock or construction silo, one of many in a vast jagged industrial landscape below. Cranes towered, the hulking shadows of half-built or half-deconstructed ships slept in the darkness, a goods train dozed in a siding. Immediately behind the hangar sat the rusting hulk of a Soviet gunship maybe three hundred feet in length, supported by a pair of gantry cranes beneath which it hung like a bear cub clinging to its mother.

Slowly he turned, his mind numbly taking it in. He was definitely not in Moscow, in fact he had a strong feeling he knew his location – the size of the shipyards indicated the port of Gdansk, birthplace of Solidarity at the mouth of the same Vistula river in which he’d almost drowned. He’d studied maps for an aborted ‘lift’ of a double agent two years earlier and the distinctive geography of the deep-sea inlet was familiar.

Which meant there would be no assault: and no rescue.

He had to get word out about his location, but while the IPET contained a homing device it was not very powerful, range limited to a few miles. He needed to boost the signal.

He ran to the edge of the roof and peered over. A hundred feet below guards paced the perimeter behind a high, mesh fence. He also saw two familiar figures: Dodo and Diana smoking in the shadows like furtive factory workers. A mobile phone may do the trick, plus he needed.

A thin metal ladder ran the height of the building in four equal sections but a descent would make him a sitting target. The foot was mid-way along the building’s length and ran down to the perimeter track. This was patrolled by guards who intersected and laughed every two minutes or so. He had to get down fast but knew he should wait for the two women to go back inside – taking on the four of them was asking too much.

The wait was short: they exchanging some joke at which they both laughed heartily and disappeared from view. The time was now.

The ladder was attached to the roof with large bolts. They were corroded and with some persuasion he removed them so that the top quarter of the ladder broke free, bending backwards alarmingly under its own weight. It was prevented from falling completely by three lower brackets at roughly twenty-foot intervals. Taking a last look at the guards’ positions he stepped back a few paces, timed his run, then jumped.

Grabbing the top of the ladder his momentum carried the top of it away from the building, top section bending as it did so. As he’d hoped, the lower bracket gave way, his weight stressing its fittings, just as the top section neared the horizontal. The descent was fast, the ladder collapsing segment by segment so that he approached the ground at a rapid but controlled rate, steel buckling to form a squared arch between the building and the ground.

He caught them simultaneously, one in the cheekbone, the other between the shoulders. Both instantly fell. He grabbed an AK47 from each and disposed their side arms over the wire fence. A stubby but effective Heckler and Koch he stuffed into his waistband.

He was about to retrieve a phone when a yell betrayed his error. The vital warning prevented his death. Dodi and Diana had come back outside and their reflex response to his unexpected presence saved him. He dropped and span, using the gun as a club against the first. A loud grunt accompanied the impact; Dodi, the larger of the two, doubled over. Her partner drew a weapon and dropped to cover him over the other woman. She screamed abuse. Bond leapt clear just as she fired four shots which penetrated his earlier shadow and pinged sharply off the metal fence.

Landing heavily on his right arm he raised the rifle with his left and let off a short burst. A line of holes peppered the wall to Diana’s left, the last three cutting into her left shoulder and clouding the air with scarlet.

Now Dodi was rushing towards him, reaching for her weapon. Swinging the Kalashnikov he pulled the trigger only to hear the dreaded click indicating a jammed firing mechanism. Too late he swung at his assailant, managing to knock the gun from her hand but failing to prevent her attack.

Her bulk threw him off balance. He could only roll with the movement, going down in a heap beneath her in the snow. The second, operational AK was strapped across his back, the useless one he managed to cling onto. With his free hand he reached inside his jacket just as Dodi’s hands closed around his neck. She pushed his head deep into the snow as his fingers closed around the small metal object in his pocket. He took a deep breath and held it, stiffening his neck to delay unconsciousness, then prised his hand from his jacket and lifted the blade towards her jugular.

The mess was predictable, the IPETs razor-edged knife slitting her throat neatly and efficiently. She crumpled. Behind her but unseen he heard Diana scrambling in the semi-darkness.

‘Dodi? Is he dead?’ Oblivious to what had happened she awaited the victor, wounded but still armed. Bond supported the dead woman’s body as best he could trying to maintain the appearance of a struggle while behind her he extricated the automatic from his waistband. He saw a shadow approaching and, gun free, let her get closer.

Something must have alerted her. Another shout was the precursor to a pair of shots that entered the snow beside him. Pushing the deadweight clear he placed a shot below the left breast and she immediately fell heavily to the ground.

He took another deep breath - no time to rest. He set to work, dragging all four bodies into the shadows – were there cameras? – removing weaponry, clothing and the precious phone. Local calls only – but with the homer he could set it to transmit something far more powerful. As he busied himself with the fiddly electronics his mind pieced together the next step of his plan. Close behind this was the thought that only he could save Sophie. He’d failed her once; he wouldn’t get a third chance. He had to get back inside with maximum impact. Luckily he thought he’d already seen just the way to do it.

*

‘I’m sorry General, could you repeat that?’ M was intent on making the most of the moment as they assembled once more in the so-called ‘command center’. Schaeffer cleared his throat uneasily and repeated the announcement.

‘It appears that the villa complex was unoccupied. After the initial strike the chopper squad reported no movement. Our scans show no heat signatures. We’ll have ground troops on site within the hour but it seems Smolenski and his terror-cell weren’t there. There was no one at home.’

Reactions were various but all were noisy: shock, anger; frustration. Only the Russians seemed amused by the pandemonium going on around them. The General raised his voice:

‘Folks we need to work together on this one…’ Alright saying that now thought Tanner. ‘We are currently checking our surveillance to see how they got out: we’ve had twenty-four hour coverage for the past six days, there’s no way they could have gotten out…’

‘But apparently they did, General, and as a result they’ve successfully led the might of our combined security forces a merry dance.’

‘I’m sorry, a “merry dance”...?’ an Eastern European official queried before being silenced by a glance from M. Tanner was as ever impressed by his boss’ powers of intimidation. She continued.

‘Might I suggest we turn our attentions elsewhere and use our collective intelligence networks rather than brute force to solve this problem?’

‘Wa-it a moment there…I thought you told us you thought you had a man inside…’

M thought quickly. ‘I said I had a man on the inside with Smolenski. I did not say where he was, because that I did not know. Based on your information I assumed that was Moscow.’ She was sailing dangerously close to the wind but time was running short.

‘I agree – we should be looking outwards,’ chipped in Japan. There were murmurs of approval to this rather vague statement.

‘Ladies and gentlemen can I ask that you each make contact with your teams and report in any further leads within twenty minutes. Anything which may have been…forgotten about due to our collectively agreed objective in Moscow.’

Moments later M swept down the port gangway towards their cabin and meeting area, Tanner trailing in her imperious wake.

‘Damned fools. A ground squad would have spotted that earlier rather than wasting time. Right,’ she said, thumping the pile of papers heavily onto the smoked glass coffee table, ‘what have we got?’

‘Right, well let’s go back through the list. Copenhagen yacht, possible sighting of Smolenski… A man answering 007’s description in Athens... The Skillerbet Rolls popping up in Northern Poland…three men plotting to take over the world in a café in Lyon…’ The list did not sound promising to say the least, each lead having been assigned to a sub-team comprising a member back in London, a field operative and a duo of ‘drones’ back at GCHQ. They checked in with each team over the next ten minutes, before being interrupted by a call from Station B in Berlin.

The duty officer, a time-served officer named Eames, sounded as if he had just climbed ten flights of stairs.

‘Distress signal received at ten-fifteen local time, ma’am. From 007.’

‘Where from for God’s sake? How?’

‘Northern Poland. It’s his SOS flare, the IPET device. He’s somehow tapped into the phone network – the whole country’s mobile phone system is lit up like a bloody Christmas tree! Ten million phones just received a text saying zero, zero, seven.’

‘How very…like him. Do we have a fix?’

‘Should have it within the next two minutes.’

‘Right – wake Blaydon and tell him to get a helicopter squadron airborne awaiting my instruction. I’ll get all the approvals. What do we have – forty minutes? God this is going to be tight.’

‘Better a slim chance than none at all,’ interjected Tanner.

‘Don’t start giving me the odds...this has to work and that’s all there is to it.’ M got up and strode back to the committee leaving Tanner to sign hurriedly off.

*

Inside the cavernous former dry-dock in Gdansk’s vast Northern shipyard the atmosphere had intensified. Smolenski stared down at a party of security guards standing ashen-faced beneath the walkway.

‘What do you mean he’s still alive?! I can see his half-eaten carcass in widescreen Technicolor…!’ he screamed, looking up at the screen. But even as he spoke reality dawned. His face hardened as he watched the tiger greedily lapping up the blood of his chief torturer. ‘He will pay.’ He grabbed a gun from The Barber and took aim at the guards below.

‘Wait!’ screamed Marx, leaping from her reclining position in alarmed response, ‘you can’t just shoot them all - you need them!’

Smolenski paused, looking at her, then lowered the weapon and smiled.

‘You are as ever correct my dear. I should not kill them all,’ she relaxed slightly. ‘I will need them. But,’ he continued, reaching across and grabbing her roughly by the arm, ‘don’t ever tell me what I can and cannot do.’ He raised the gun, levelled it at her stomach, eyes not wavering from hers. Her breath shortened. He cocked the gun, turned it slightly and shot the left-hand guard in the head.

‘I need you more than I needed him. Remember, there is no such word as can’t.’ He grinned horribly, holding her for a second longer before throwing onto the chaise longue. ‘Barber: take a squad and search the perimeter. He is one man - he must not be allowed to enter this building.’ The Russian threw the weapon and the big man caught it across his chest. The Barber nodded, turned, and ran down the spiral staircase where he began to bark orders to the assembled group.

Smolenski turned his attention to the screens.

‘And what about me then?’ asked Sophie. ‘Do I figure somewhere along the line or am I here just as eye-candy?’

‘Why Miss Laguardia,’ he smiled, ‘you are as integral a part of my plans as was – is - Mr. Bond. He was the starter. In a few minutes the first auction will end the main course, and then we will move onto C-Bay proper – the full dessert-menu if you will. You? You are the sorbet, cleansing the palette between courses. Often overlooked, occasionally undervalued, but not by me. As I have told you before, I am a perfectionist. My customers require the full service. And I think you will agree there is more of a market on the internet for women than there is for men…’

Sophie saw Smolenski’s face change. Until then the veneer of sophistication had been maintained, but the past few minutes had begun a transformation. Now she saw through the mask, saw the creature beneath, the one who could cheerfully perpetrate atrocities. The face had taken on a ragged appearance; eyes stared with an intense hatred. Even the liquid grey ponytail had lost its sheen, hair streaking down his shoulders. Previously she had asked herself how it was possible for such an intelligent man to be responsible for the things of which she knew him capable. Standing in front of this figure that had stopped looking entirely human she thought she was beginning to understand.

Behind her she continued to work her bindings. The great advantage of being a woman was the likelihood that you would be underestimated by men. The insecure knots applied by one of the guards had resulted from her successful use of ‘feminine wiles’.

She stood unselfconscious despite the leering guards below, knowing that when the moment came she would be ready. Then it would be payback.

‘One hundred and twenty million!’ Smolenski screamed. His smile had turned into that of a maniac. He stared in awe at the huge screen. Down one side of the scoreboard Sophie saw a list of the other ‘lots’ which would be coming up for sale at midnight. Already bids of interest were coming in. Numbers flashed up – big ones – but it was the human cost rather than the monetary values that struck Sophie. ‘Access to German social security mainframe’; ‘Market leading pharmaceuticals company formulae contamination’; ‘Boeing fly-by-wire over-ride codes’; ‘U.S. East Coast water supply poison’; ‘Sellafield nuclear reactor’… a never ending stream of potential catastrophes flashing through Sophie’s mind. There were hundreds, no: thousands of potential saboteurs, moles, spies…all willing to sell to the highest bidder. But Smolenski for all his malevolence was just what he said – a middle-man. The evil was already out there just waiting to be tapped into.

The massive clock said a quarter to twelve.

‘I should really smarten myself up for my audience, don’t you think? I’m doing a personal address at midnight to mark the official opening,’ he turned to Sophie once more. ‘What do you think – will I do?’ his smile was wide-eyed, his expression radioactive.

‘You look like a man about to destroy world order…’

‘Do you think? Thank you – that was the look I was going for. I really…’

But he got no further. His speech cut short by the bow of a ship smashing its way through the far ended of the hangar.

* * *


22

A Dialogue With Death

 

The climb had been the hardest part, the rusting icy ladder cutting into his hands and defying his hypothermic grip. It took five minutes and every ounce of his frozen strength to keep hold during the one hundred and fifty foot climb. With three weapons stashed, better-fitting clothes, the homer transmitting repeatedly from its hiding place his objective now was the crane.

From the roof he’d spotted the rusting shape of a Soviet patrol-craft, an old Grisha V class vessel around two hundred and forty feet long which was in the process of being broken up. Draughting maybe eleven hundred tonnes it’s disassembly had presumably been interrupted by the horrendous weather. The craft was suspended between two huge gantries which straddled the hull so that it hung in a cradle. Beneath the covering of ice and brown oxidisation they may once have been yellow but now they stood menacingly like two discoloured carrion birds caught tearing apart their prey. The boat’s bow sat fifty yards from the hangar doors while its tapering stern pointed back down the slipway. The cranes moved on broad metal tracks allowing part-built vessels to be shunted like rolling stock in a siding. Between the hangar and the ship a single-story building prevented its entry, and from the wires, signs and the dull hum Bond guessed this to be the dedicated electrical generator all Smolenski’s hard-ware undoubtedly required.

He climbed two rungs at a time, hearing his pounding heart and seeing his billowing breath. He unlocked the metal trapdoor with a single bullet and hoisted himself into the cab. It took a minute to figure the controls and start the engine. Behind him he saw lights go on in the second crane cab – the two operated from this single control room. Now was the power still connected?

A shudder ran through the structure and a roar grew as power surged to the winch mechanism: the boat was resting on a wooden cradle and first needed to be lifted. Machinery groaned, ice having seized the steel cables on their rollers. With a jolt they gave way and the ship slowly started to rise. A gauge showed him lift: two, three, four metres – then he stopped. Next he invited the crane to start moving forward – getting the controls initially reversed – before it started to move towards the hangar. A faded notice instructed that the laden speed limit was two kilometres per hour.

‘Speed kills,’ he murmured and pushed the throttle flat.

Nothing. He tried again. More nothing. Engines whined, but there was no movement.

‘Come on for God’s sake, come on!’ he shouted, forcing the lever forward for a second time. Below he heard cracking and splintering as the metal rollers broke through the ice covering both rails.

He felt a lurch, the crane moving no faster than a quick walking pace, but below the ship swung like a massive pendulum. With the throttle wedged and the crane underway he dropped back through the hatch. The gap to the hangar was narrowing fast. Would the ship have enough momentum?

Gunfire from the ground. Unstringing the operational AK47 he sprayed the snow with fire. Two bodies fell. More shouts: he was surrounded, but escape from the craft was not his objective. Again he fired then ducked.

Shinning down a wire he dropped twenty feet to the deck and sprinted to the bow pausing only to return fire. Another guard fell but reinforcements were arriving. He took cover behind an empty gun turret. For a second he thought he’d lifted the ship too high and it had missed the generator, but then a heavy impact told him the roof had come off and, moments later an explosion confirmed the generator had been taken out.

The resulting fireball shot up each side of the hull and curved spectacularly across the sky above him. Lit up like a Christmas grotto he could see the hangar doors approaching: the markings, the years of corrosion... Then he took cover and prepared for impact.

The resounding ‘boom’ of first contact was quickly followed by the grinding of metal-on-metal. The doors bulged then buckled as the bow of the ship broke through followed by the gantry which slammed the doors down and opened a huge new doorway in the north wall. The crane demolished roof supports creating a shower of metal, snow and years of fatigue. Snow fell from the sagging roof.

He was up on his feet picking off the guards even as they dodged the falling masonry: the plan was working. The crane continued relentlessly towards the centre of the building. The only downside was emergency lighting: he’d hoped to knock out the power and be able to attack in darkness, possibly even stop the auction. But an emergency supply had kicked in albeit at half power: most of the screens were off but the main console and one screen remained. It read fourteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds.

Sections of wall and roof crashed onto the now irrelevant basement labyrinth and he shot at the scattering guards. The boat tore up the glass floor leaving a wake of debris and the sound of running feet and random gunfire betrayed the general confusion. Bullets bounced off the hull’s thick armour whilst screams spoke of casualties. And still the boat ploughed on. Bond saw Smolenski standing open mouthed. The Russian clicked at his collar and the P.A. came alive once more:

Will…you…not…die…when…you…are…told!!’ Each word was underlined, the voice constricted. Here was Vorgov Smolenski raw and uncut. Bond stood deliberately upright on the bow keeping watch for the remaining few guards but the building was fast becoming deserted.

‘Sorry I’m late – I know how you value punctuality.’

Smolenski’s face burned. The remaining guards followed his voice and volleyed shots across the bow. Bond dropped to one knee and removed his belt. He grabbed a hooked-line and cast it across the bow with the angled securing hook leading the way. It shot over the walkway and crashed through the single active screen which exploded in a flash of electricity. With it went a main source of illumination and it took a split second for his eyes to adjust. The boat suddenly foundered on some impediment and the crane motors began to struggle. Taking a quick glance he saw that the bow had lodged on the concrete foundations of the central dais, stopping some ten feet short.

The rope was secure, the anchor having found purchase. Looping his belt over the rope Bond jumped just as the ship came to a lurching halt. He slid down through a cloud of dust in the semi-darkness, spraying the area with the AK-47 and taking out three of four guards. Smolenski remained at his post, the pale figure of Sophie behind him; the Barber stood arms folded seemingly oblivious to the chaos. He was grinning.

Bond’s trajectory from the boat would intercept with where the man stood and he jumped the last fifteen feet, rolling onto his shoulder and coming to rest behind one of the sofas. He aimed the gun across its back.

The dim scene had changed. The gunboat had come to a grinding halt and with it the cacophonous noise. So too the sound of the guards: most now dead, wounded or fleeing. Debris continued to fall from the roof but after the previous three minutes a hush had fallen. And in it, his quarry had vanished.

 ‘What time do you call this?’ Sophie called through the gloom. He was glad she had not lost her sense of humour.

‘I had one or two chores I needed to get out of the way. I’m all yours now though.’

He half expected Smolenski to cut in but he was nowhere to be seen. The shadows were long, the darkness heavy with dust.

‘I could do with a bit of help you know?’ Sophie’s plaintive voice carried across the chamber.

‘With you shortly.’ He could see the whole of the circular walkway including the console, which remained the only electrical equipment still alive. The console had to be the master control: with Edelweiss gone this was his HQ. If Smolenski possessed a back up he’d have departed: his continued presence told him this should be his target. He had to knock it but dare not break cover. His mental clock told him there were around eight minutes left.

A shower of sparks announced a short circuit in one of the screens above them. At the same time Sophie shouted. Too late he turned to find the Barber on top of him. A blinding pain filled his head as a metal object made heavy contact. He staggered; a second glancing blow to the shoulder sent him sprawling and his gun spinning towards the console.

The Barber came again, this time with an iron girder – seven feet in length - raised and ready to inflict more damage. Bond reached for the automatic in his waistband but was too slow. This time he dodged the blow the metal bending the thick railing in what would have been a skull-breaking impact. The blow resonated around the platform, echo bouncing off the roof and walls.

‘You’re a nice mover for a big guy, aren’t you?’ The gun was stuck. The metal came again; again Bond dodged, and again metal clanged together.

‘Ballroom or ballet?’

The Barber’s face showed the flash of anger he had hoped for, but all that came out were grunts. The girder swung and he saw the man’s muscles tense. This time he heard it whoop through the air within inches of his face. Then the gun was free and Bond took aim.

‘Freeze!’ he heard, but the voice was not his own. From the stairwell came running steps and two figures in combat gear stood covering him with rifles. ‘Drop the gun!’ He reluctantly complied.

‘It’s okay boys,’ Smolenski’s chocolate tones emerged from the shadows. The man’s silhouette was changed: he was now ragged and unkempt. He looked like a man who had spent a night on the pavement. ‘I only asked you to practice restraint earlier when we needed him. But that’s all over,’ he sniffed, composing himself. ‘You have my permission to execute him. Trouble is who do I give him too? You boys who’ve worked so very hard, or Barber here? Choices, choices.’

Smolenski’s love of the theatrical gave Bond time to think: he could see Sophie, unnoticed, wriggling furiously to get free. She too needed those vital seconds.

‘Surely employing local assassins was in the terms of the lease for this place?’ he said, dryly.

‘I make the conditions,’ the Russian replied, straight-faced. ‘I know which would be more entertaining - I never told you why he’s called the Barber did I, Mr. Bond? No? Spare me a moment, will you.’

‘I’d love to but I may be late for the rest of my life…’

Smolenski ignored him.

‘Raul earned the nickname back in Costa Rica, as an aspiring mercenary. Very messy business he was in: came across a lot of devious forms of torture and death across the continent. Not just guns and blades - fire, electricity, poisons. The man’s a walking encyclopaedia. Caused no end of arguments between him and dear Junkers. Ah, Karl – he was far more the scientist was Karl. Raul here – he’s an artisan. It comes from the heart.’

‘And to other people’s no doubt?’

 ‘He found he had a particular talent for decapitation – the removal of the head,’ he used actions, ‘from the body. Hence the name. Rather witty I thought.’

‘And yet you just don’t see the number of Costa Rican stand-ups you’d expect. How do you explain that?’ Time, time, he had to give her time.

‘I assure you it is more humorous in translation. He takes enormous pleasure in doing it skilfully, innovatively, though not necessarily painlessly. Do you know he once took off a man’s head with the wing of a Messerschmitt fighter? Extraordinary!

‘And he’s been waiting. He would have been the last leg of the gauntlet, your final challenge; but you robbed him of the satisfaction. Just between us, I don’t think he’s very happy.’ As if to underline the point the metal bar came down across Bond’s shoulders and brought him to his knees. He heard the metallic click of safety catches being released.

‘Raul, if you please…?’ Smolenski reached down and picked up a long scabbard from one of the leather sofas and threw it to the Barber who caught it in one huge paw.

‘Truncate him.’

The gorilla of a man, still standing behind Bond, placed one foot on Bond’s back, pinning him in the prone position. He heard the blade being unsheathed. Turning slightly he saw it glint, three feet long and a foot wide at its thickest.

‘Oh, I must warn you, he’s more power than precision – this may take more than one attempt…’ Smolenski hissed. Bond shifted his weight slightly onto his left knee. Come on Sophie!

‘Don’t take too much off the top, will you: baldness runs in the family...’ He felt the foot press down harder, sensing the upward swing.

He judged the moment the Barber committed his weight to the downswing to perfection. Rolling his body the foot slipped and scraped down his left shoulder blade, unbalancing the Costa Rican. At the same time he grabbed the metal bar which leant against the rail, twisted and fell back onto the floor with it raised between his hands.

The bar met the downward plummeting blade precisely, the force pushing it down towards his neck, elbows crashing painfully against the walkway. In the same moment he glimpsed a pale figure behind Smolenski duck to the floor and a split second later Sophie let go a burst of automatic fire from the retrieved gun. She caught both guards: one crumpled to a bloody heap, the second went spinning off the walkway to the glass floor below.

‘What kept you?’ Bond shouted, still bracing the Barber’s blow. He managed to force his opponent away allowing him to get to his feet.

‘I could say the same about you!’ she shouted back. ‘I got fed up with waiting.’

Smolenski moved, hand in jacket, and reflex made him throw the metal bar. It arrowed through the air making contact with his shoulder, putting him off balance just as he aimed at Sophie. She shouted a warning back and he flattening himself to the floor to see the Barber, sword fully raised. This time there was no downswing. His chest exploded, showering Bond. He grabbed the sword as the big man fell.

‘Touché!’ he added before looking back across the walkway fast turning into an abattoir.

‘Whoa! I’m not part of this – I surrender, I’ll come quietly!’ It was the forgotten voice of Rebecca Marx emerging from behind a console.

‘You always were spineless!’ shrieked Smolenski grabbing his cane.

‘Oh please!’ she said, drawing a small pistol. ‘What are you going to do with that, tan my backside?’

Smolenski smiled.

‘Oh, it’s a little bit more prickly than that my dear…’ He aimed the bottom of the cane at her. A sharp ‘clack’ echoed across the hangar and Marx tensed, hand rising quickly to the poison-tipped dart lodged in her neck. Her body froze then fell lifelessly to the floor.

Smolenski swung the cane towards Sophie. She felt a burning lance rip across her bicep followed by paralysis in her right side. She screamed as she fell but managed to remain conscious.

‘Focus, Sophie! Stay focussed!’ shouted Bond. ‘Don’t give in to sleep! Keep your mind active!’

She groaned.

‘For God’s sake give her up, Bond, and stop trying to play the chivalrous hero. It’s all a bit nineteen-seventies.’

‘Like your wardrobe, Smolenski. Style is temporary, class is permanent.’ He circled towards the Russian who blocked the path to the console. Sophie lay between them. Sword raised he moved slowly but deliberately. Smolenski’s cane was raised but failed to fire.

‘Am I low on ammunition? That’s what you’re thinking,’ he came back, triumphantly.

‘No, I really was thinking you look a mess.’

Smolenski cackled, brandishing the cane like a gun. The famous grey mane flowed down his back, eyes wide and staring. The torn clothes and hunched stance put Bond in mind of old Ben Gunn.

‘Take your chances, Bond. You told me you were a gambling man. Well, you have…’ he glanced at the illuminated console. ‘About forty seconds. So what’s it going to be? What you gonna choose, hero-boy?’ The man was increasingly off balance.

Bond glanced down and grinned.

Smolenski suddenly produced a shrill scream as Sophie’s foot met his groin. Bond leapt onto the couch and propelled himself towards the console. With an explosion the sword cut into the web of cables. His second swing cut into the control console and a shower or sparks and glass was followed by billowing smoke.

‘I now declare you…’ he began as a final blow extinguished the last glimmer of life from the mass of circuitry, ‘…officially off-line.’

There was a moment’s pause.

Noooo!’ Smolenski’s came at Bond cane raised, out of ammunition after all. He brought it crashing down on Bond’s right shoulder and pain ripped across his back as he felt it dislocate. He switched the heavy blade to his left hand, right hanging uselessly by his side. He was just in time to fend off another blow yet despite its weight and sharpness the sword made no mark on the narrow black shaft.

‘You’re done, Smolenski. The wire’s down – no sales tonight or ever. We’ll soon have these hard-drives picked clean. Give it up.’

‘I told you I play to win, Mr. Bond. This is not the end. I was serious when I said the British Agent’s information was inside this crystal,’ he indicated the bulbous, vulgar top to the slender cane. ‘And that’s not all. Much of it I have in here!’ he tapped his head with the cane. ‘My memory is prodigious! It’s all here – I will rebuild! There are more Junkers’ and Moebius’ out there.’

‘…but only one Vorgov Smolenski.’ Bond’s vision was beginning to blur: the sword was growing extremely heavy. He scanned the walkway and saw a discarded automatic.

‘And that is all the world will ever need!’ he shouted, his words echoing around the cavernous hangar. Bent nearly double he was hunched ready to pounce when he too saw the gun. It was closer to him than Bond.

‘Bet my reactions are faster…!’ he cried, manic eyes glittering and it was like the door to his insanity had finally swung open. The hunched figure darted forward. Bond aimed the blade at a point where he anticipated Smolenski and would grab the weapon. It made bloody contact at the wrist. Smolenski wailed and dropped his cane drawing his injured hand to his face. Blood flowed. Bond snatched the fallen cane and swinging it round his head brought it down on the side of Smolenski’s head.

The Russian went head first over the rail and disappeared from view. For the first time Bond looked properly at what lay within the walkway.

It looked like a science exhibit – a vast circular arrangement of metal objects; wires and markings on gunmetal twenty feet below. Set into this gleaming surface was gems, crystals of implausible size. In the centre of this arrangement Smolenski lay broken but still alive.

I...will not…be beat-en…!’ The words came with difficulty and Bond could sense the strength required to form them.

‘I’ve got better things to do than prove you wrong.’ He turned to Sophie, dropping to one knee to check her pulse. She had slipped into unconsciousness. He covered her with his jacket.

‘Sophie! Don’t go to sleep now! Not now! Sophie!’ This wasn’t meant to happen, not after all this. Her pulse slowed. ‘Come on!!’ he shouted into her ear. No movement, no quickening.

Then her pulse stopped and he caught his breath. No. Frantically he looked around for any idea.

He took her in his arms and rose unsteadily to his feet, shoulder screaming, lightning fingers spreading across his torso. The short walk was completed through treacle and he started to feel consciousness ebbing away. He bit his tongue to stay focussed. In front of the console hung severed power cables, live and sparking. With effort he rested Sophie’s body on the console then with his good hand grabbed a cable and touched it to her below her left breast. Her body tensed, back arching briefly, then fell back as he removed it. The shock ran through him but there was no effect on Sophie. He repeated the exercise, shouting at the apparatus to do his bidding. Again nothing. Then a third time – still nothing.

He clenched his teeth and tried once more. And this time movement - her face contorted and she coughed weakly, eyes blinking.

‘You…you made it…?’ her voice was confused.

‘You bet,’ and he kissed her with relief. She coughed once more.

‘Steady…big fella – plenty of time…later...’

A sudden volley of shots broke the moment.

‘I…will…not…be…ig-nored…!’ came Smolenski’s howl from the pit.

‘Down!’ shouted Bond shouted and the pair dropped to the floor, he on his injured shoulder. The pain was white.

‘You…will…listen…!’ he screamed and this was underlined with a volley of fire which ricocheted off the ceiling spent bullets clinking to the floor around them. Bond cursed not checking: this was his fault.

‘Evolution, Bond! It’s all about…evolution! Law, order, society…helping the weak… Holds the human race back…’ The voice was crazed but weak. ‘People like me: it’s us…us that drive it forward…You’ll see! You’re trying to hold back…the tide… it’s inevitable. I am the accelerator…!’

‘You were just the middleman Vorgov: making blood money, that’s all. Don’t get carried away with your own importance Napoleon.’ Bond looked up at the console; another volley hit it and a separate panel marked ‘Gameboard’. He edged to the pit, gun ready.

‘You don’t…believe that.’ They heard but could not see Smolenski dragging himself along. ‘When will…you wake up…and realise…it’s every man for…himself – that is the natural order…!’

He got no further. His shots had set off a programme on the gameboard: above them there was a blinding light. A narrow beam shot from the ceiling directly down upon where Smolenski stood at the centre of the board staring upwards. His arms were limp, one leg twisted at a broken angle. Into his upturned mouth the powerful shaft of blue light disappeared only to emerge from the small of his back. From here the light reflected at a hundred angles, but it was the skewered figure of the Russian billionaire that fascinated. As they watched the hole formed by the laser blackened and charred, smoke curling from its edges. There was a terrible crackling sound followed by the odour of burning flesh. A series of groans could have been involuntary, though at one point Sophie swore she saw him try to speak. His body froze, cooking for ten seconds before his whole frame suddenly ignited, blazing for a few brief seconds before crumpling to a smouldering heaped which no longer resembled a man.

It was over. The console was dead, so was Smolenski. Bond fell exhausted beside Sophie. Above them towered the prow of the grey Soviet patrol boat and for the first time Bond noticed its name: ‘Admiral Vlankovich’. Below the rusting nameplate, scrawled in white paint was graffiti presumably scrawled by Polish shipyard workers.

‘Now we are rid of Soviet scum,’ he translated aloud. But Sophie had given into unconsciousness. He put his jacket round her shoulders and pulled her close. It was some time later that he heard the sound of choppers.

* * *

23

Simply Rotting Away

 

Hotel rooms vary greatly in quality but the layout and resulting sense of déjà-vu rarely change. Reclining upon the bed propped up by four uncomfortable pillows he winced as his stomach muscles tensed. He uttered an expletive as he changed channel on the wall-mounted LCD screen.

‘You are watching BBC News Twenty-Four. Here are the headlines at eleven o’clock GMT. The Prime Minister today used a UN address to appeal for a renewed offensive against nations sympathetic to Al-Qaeda in the wake of the recent upsurge in terrorist activities. Speaking to a special meeting of the G-Eight powers in Brussels...’

Bond didn’t need to listen to the same dull rhetoric for the sixth time and lifting his whiskey from the bedside table he made for the terrace. A light evening breeze met him and he stepped out onto grey stone tiles smooth and cold beneath his bare feet. He faintly registered the feel of the liquid as it ran down his throat with an ease afforded by its three predecessors. Drawing in the cool night air he gazed out across the familiar Paris skyline.

Usually he was only too glad to spend time here, decrying anyone who attempted to tell him the place had lost its magic. The same had been said when the Grand Dame herself first gazed out across the city a hundred years before. Those who harked back to a ‘blanc et noir’ heyday of the fifties were equally guilty of that most self-indulgent waste of time: nostalgia. Or so he would argue.

But the sight of the Tower provocatively dressed in her illuminated best was lost upon him tonight, the gothic brooding of Notre-Dame similarly unappealing. Tonight they, like so many things, tasted bad. Only his faithful liquid companion retained its flavour.

He heard raised voices below – a French couple arguing about the attention he had paid to the waitress at a restaurant. The man called his girlfriend (not wife) paranoid. His tone was mocking. It was, he said, her only failing, but the rest of her was perfect. There was a slap, followed by a laugh that only fuelled the woman’s fury. She came back with a catalogue of past misdemeanours. Losing his temper the man shouted something vulgar before leaving to the slam of the door. He would not escape, thought Bond wryly.

In the ensuing silence his frustrations returned to a background of television.

‘Tension is mounting in Korea after the decision by Military leader Sing-Yun Koo to ignore the deadline set by the UN for it to abandon the nuclear weapons test due to take place tonight over the North Pacific. The US in particular is pressurising UN to act swiftly...’ Once more Bond’s mind wandered out across Paris attempting to lose the present.

Hospitals ranked well below hotels and the one in Warsaw whilst able had been gloomy. In ten days he received precisely three visitors – Sophie, from the adjoining room he had insisted upon, and M who was accompanied by Bill Tanner from London.

‘No grapes?’

‘Like you they don’t tend to travel well,’ M had replied.

‘I had rather hoped for a thank you card.’

‘And I had rather hoped for a little less bravado. Not only can I not trust you to be in the right place at the right time. Apparently I cannot now expect you in the wrong one either.’ Tanner gave a shrug of the shoulders and grinned behind her.

‘At least you can rely on me to do the right thing when I get there.’ She replied with a stare capable of freezing the more junior members of her department.

‘Thank you,’ she said.

The debrief was spread over two long mornings separated by a blizzard which prevented them travelling from the Kempinski. He’d used this window of opportunity to fully debrief with Sophie, in the process proving to both of them his restored physical strength.

‘You really know how to make an entrance.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘The boat – very classy. Many people would have gone for stealth and surprise but...’

‘I don’t do stealth and surprise – wastes time.’

‘Oh yes – man of action, I forgot.’

‘Allow me to make mine speak louder than words...’ and he pulled the thin sheet over them once more.

Recuperation had been painfully slow and occasionally just painful. Surgery had been required to repair his torn stomach and dislocated shoulder while the burns only marginally avoided a skin graft.

‘You really ought to be more careful, Mr. Bond,’ from a doctor could well be his epitaph.

Sophie was released a week earlier than he and although she visited every day conjugal visits were out of the question.

‘I may just have to break you out of here myself,’ she suggested over a pizza she smuggled in along with a fine Merlot.

‘What, just so you can have a quick “pa-role” in the hay?’ She had beaten him soundly with a pillow.

The mop-up operation was going well according to Tanner. Over the three weeks he was in hospital most of the loose ends were closed and all of the computer hard and software recovered.

‘As for your TV debut I’m afraid it will have to wait. The one thing we did manage to do was block the video stream on Smolenski’s website. The introduction and went out but visual went down straight after you got lowered into the pit.’

‘And I paid such attention to my make up, too.’

‘Dunno what you’re being so flippant over – would have spelt the end of your Service career, that’s for sure,’ said Tanner.

‘Oh I don’t know: these days I think being a celebrity is de rigueur in most walks of life – why not in the Service?’

‘Sort of – “I’m a Secret Agent get me out of here”?’

‘At least I’d have an alternative career when I decide to leave.’

Tanner stood up.

‘You won’t, though.’

‘What?’

‘Leave. 008 was about to leave you know. Buy a boat, go round the world,’ Tanner said thoughtfully. ‘Figured he’d better quit while he was ahead – already exceeded the life expectancy for a spy.’ He paused. ‘But you enjoy it too much.’

‘It’s not the work I enjoy it’s the living that goes with it.’

‘It’ll be the death of you,’ Tanner grinned and Bond was thankful.

‘Not a chance,’ he replied.

M stipulated that he should lose himself for a month. Despite his protestations he was told that if he were found within two hours of London he’d be shot on sight. As a result – and pedantically choosing train rather than flight times - he found himself at the Concorde Lafayette. Not his first choice, but central and with fabulous views. He also found himself with Sophie, looking just as she had at Goodwood. She was every bit as vivacious and simply stunning.

The vacation had started well enough – they skipped the obvious sights and instead tramped round like two students, touring the markets, the bookshops and obscure museums. By night they ate in the rejuvenated Latin Quarter, he insisted on taking her to Le Choucas whilst she spoke to the concierge at the hotel to find the Transfuge, an oddly named but wonderful little seafood restaurant that had opened up since his last visit.

‘Sometimes you need to keep up with the times,’ she chided him. It was at the latter restaurant that he had received the call from M and recounted edited highlights to an unimpressed Sophie.

Later they walked back across the Seine, stopping to watch half-empty bateau-mouches glide beneath the Pont-Neuf.

‘So, Smolenski’s part in all this isn’t even going to be mentioned?’ she repeated uncomprehendingly.

‘Too much explaining: too much public furore. Not my decision.’

‘So all those attacks, they just get left as they are, blamed on someone more convenient?’

‘Not specifically; there’ll just not be any information released related to Smolenski’s master-plan, that’s all.’

That’s all? What so Joe Public can’t handle the truth, is that it? So we’ll just not trouble his simple brain?’

‘Not exactly how M put it but...’ he started to joke but Sophie was winding to full steam.

‘So what exactly is the difference here – that’s misinformation. Lying by omission. It’s nothing to do with not worrying the public: it’s adding weight to existing policy. And you’re okay to just sit there like that’s all fine and dandy?’

‘I do my job.’

‘Man of action, right; I know.’ She turned to look dejectedly across the city. ‘We went through all that, all that, and now the politicians kick the results round like a football.’

A breeze blew up the river. The evening air had turned cool.

‘Don’t get hung up about it. The important thing is that the good guys won, that’s what you have to keep reminding yourself. And before you but in yes, we are the good guys and yes we did win. No one is going to give you a medal, no one will write books in your honour and you’ll get paid considerably less than a footballer. But that’s it, that’s the job. You know you’ve done the job even if they don’t and that’s all the job satisfaction you’ll ever get.’

‘The same public who’d sell each other down the road to pay off gambling debts?’ He turned to face her.

‘There you have me. As soon as you start seeing the public as individuals you do start questioning whether you really want to protect some of them,’ he smiled. ‘That’s why it’s easier to think of Queen and Country. Bit old fashioned but at least she’s a little bit more infallible. Don’t think about it: just use your time. Like the song says: “enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think”…’

Sophie stared out across the leaden waters upon which danced cold reflections in the still January night. A pair of scooters raced across the bridge, horns sounding.

‘I just...’ she started.

‘I know,’ he answered. ‘So do I.’

In the morning he woke to find a hastily written note under the lamp:

‘Different outlooks: different choices. It’s been fun. Sophie X.’

A wall of stifling warmth and the sound of the television welcomed him back into the confines of the apartment.

‘And finally Britain’s latest ‘Super-Casino’ has opened in _______. Called simply Cash-ino, the five-storey venue owned by American billionaire Ralph Stoner was opened by the Home Secretary who praised the creation of over a hundred and fifty jobs in the area...’

The newsreader was silenced when Bond’s whiskey glass penetrated screen.

*

Winter had come late to the Western Highlands but when it finally did it had come with a vengeance. This was the fifth straight day of snow and the transport infrastructure was struggling to cope. The drive had been long and tedious, the Lotus again showing its shortcomings as a long distance cruiser albeit one with a good heater and hi-fi. For this journey he had foregone the delights of the Northumbrian back roads for the direct route up the M6 but it was, nevertheless, no easy cruise.

Left alone with his thoughts since Sophie’s departure three days earlier he had been trying to keep his mind occupied. Tried and failed. He knew his path. He’d stop short of calling it a vocation, but he needed no psychological bolstering to reassure him – no medals or tickertape parades. How he went about it was his business and his alone – even M when she had occasionally tried to tell him how to spend his time. Life was for living not laying the odds or calculating the percentages. After all, you didn’t know how much of the stuff you were going to get.

Making his way northwest from Glasgow past Loch Lomond he reached Glencoe by mid-afternoon in a twilight that seemed to have lasted all day. He remembered the route despite it being his first visit for years, spotting the old church steeple poking above the trees from someway off. He turned into the small parking area killed the engine, picked up the flowers from the passenger seat and stepped out into the freezing day.

He took a lungful of glorious highland air and gazed out across the valley lying beneath its blanket of mist and thick duvet of snow. The view always had been spectacular and he felt a momentary twinge which he recognised as a fleeting connection to childhood. He opened the gate and made his way up the narrow gravel path beneath the naked trees; air crisp, fresh-fallen snow crunching pleasingly beneath his feet.

He found it without realising he was looking. A low, black marble headstone tucked away towards one corner of the graveyard frosted like an alpine ridge. The plot was overgrown, a fact he was surprised to find embarrassed him. He bent down on haunches to read the plain engraving picked out in gold upon the shiny surface:

‘Andrew Bond and Monique Delacroix, Devoted Husband and Wife, Beloved Parents...’ The numbers were not important.

He lay the flowers down on the virgin snow, then scraped away some ice and ran his fingers over the epitaph his father had apparently insisted upon. It had always seemed a strange choice when he was younger, unnecessarily cruel; yet as the years passed he found he understood it more. As he read the words he almost found them calming.

'Omnia perfunctus vitae praemia marces', which roughly translated means: 'You are rotting away now after having had a great life.'

Devoid of sentiment or ego its simplicity appealed. A simple summation of all that could be achieved or striven for: what more did you need?

The sparrow hawks above him wheeled in the chilly winter sky turning towards sunnier climes. Around him mid afternoon was fast turning into early evening and he surveyed this peaceful corner of Britain. Was this enough? And did he really have a choice?

James Bond turned and walked hastily back along the narrow path leaving the wrought iron gate to swing-to behind him. Neither its’ closing nor his receding footsteps left an echo within the churchyard.

THE END

Write a Review Did you enjoy my story? Please let me know what you think by leaving a review! Thanks, SandyT
Continue Reading
Further Recommendations

Raymond Keith Moon: Great story arc. Nice command of the balance of overview and detail. Feels a bit like a multi-player computer game, but provides satisfying explanations for all the apparent magic. Please keep writing!

Diane April: Really liked the concept of this story. The beginning had a great explanation about how things worked in the real world that people tend to overlook. It was a nice change from the usual zombie story that just makes things up as they go along and actual facts don't matter.

Ali Albazaz: I started reading "Caged" few hours ago and I'm on chapter 7 now. Caged is definitely one of the most addictive stories I've ever read. Thank you so much for writing this novel.

Leah Brown: This was an amazing read! I was hooked from the very first chapter, holding my breadth to see what would happen next. The characters are rich and vibrant, and the world Danielle has created is fascinating. If you love YA, you MUST read this book. Such a smart, brilliant debut novel. I loved it!

Nate_L: I started to read this, excited about the story line. The writing style only made me more excited, I was stunned by Mikes ability to put this kind of story into words. It's Dashner-style, simple but sophisticated... (Makes sense to me, lol!)The beginning was a tad confusing, as I thought she was ...

taosgw74: If this is the authors first attempt at writing, I'm floored. I was engrossed in the plot from the get go.

RiverSong: So, at first glance, I thought this was just going to be like any other werewolf book out there that you could find on Wattpad, but I was intrigued enough with the little bloop that I wanted to read more. Following that weird thing that I call curiosity, I found this thing called an obsession. Th...

thePeeJ: aced it boiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii...

FateFellShort: I have read this story and have followed the writers on tumblr from the beginning. Its a wonderful story. Beautifully written with a really nice pace, that makes it enjoyable to read more than once. For me, fairy tail has very good characters but what the writers have done is give them more depth...

More Recommendations

TruffleQueen: This piece of writing is more than just letters across a screen. Its more than just 40 chapters. Its a different world. And in that world, you get to experience so many things. I mean, you're practically sucked in there and once you just keep reading it gets harder and harder to get out. This st...

gunter1987: I just want to say here that this is my first review, but I really wanted to review this story. I apologize if I don't write English to well, I am French.Reading through the many science fiction stories posted here and other places in the world, I started to see a few linking themes: heavy-hande...

mrh: I have loved reading this story. It is amazing. I love how the one single event of meeting Draco has changed the story. This is such a great twist on harry's story. I would love to read more... will you be writing a Year 2?

Spring: I normally don't read fiction novels, but I absolutely enjoyed reading Silent Shadows! The style is quite different from the previous fiction novels I've attempted to read. Great job!

This story wasn't for you ?
Look at our most viral stories!
Iosaghar

FreakyPoet: "you made me laugh, made me cry, both are hard to do. I spent most of the night reading your story, captivated. This is why you get full stars from me. Thanks for the great story!"

The Cyneweard

Sara Joy Bailey: "Full of depth and life. The plot was thrilling. The author's style flows naturally and the reader can easily slip into the pages of the story. Very well done."

This story wasn't for you ?
Look at our most viral story!
Spectra

Ro-Ange Olson: "Loved it and couldn't put it down. I really hope there is a sequel. Well written and the plot really moves forward."