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The Ghost of a Chance

By SandyT

Thriller / Action

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…’