James was not one to rely on good fortune, or to use bad fortune as an excuse. Marco was dead because she hadn’t been careful enough. Weeping and sleeping in a dark corner was absurd behaviour for someone who had endured SAS training and become an elite British Intelligence agent. And yet…
For once, luck was on her side. Perhaps the idea that someone might murder a member of the Agenzia and then stay at the scene of the crime was too improbable. There was no detailed search of the church. There was much movement, many voices, much quiet discussion, and much shouting. Through it all, James drifted in and out of consciousness, the cold, hard stone leeching the heat from her almost beyond endurance.
And then it was quiet. The sun was high, perhaps early afternoon, and James dared to move, shifting to stand, loosening her cramped muscles. The church was empty of people, though full of ghosts. Marco had been taken away. Only the splashes of his blood, and the crime scene marks, remained.
There was a door at the side that she guessed led to a private part of the church. A small bathroom there gave her a place to wash the blood from her hands and face. In a small study, a Bible and miscellaneous paperwork on a desk, there was a phone. She dialled the emergency number. “Jane Eyre,” she said down the silent line.
“What page?” a voice said.
“San Martino. Side entrance. Code Red Omega.”
“Five minutes,” the voice said after a long pause, and the call ended.
The motoscafo dropped her off outside her hotel, and zoomed away. After a long and therapeutic shower, James headed for Ostaria dai zemei. A relaxing meal of cichetti washed down with a glass of Hombra Sporca was just what she needed to kick her mind back into gear.
Elizabeth was dead. Marco was dead. But they hadn’t died in vain. Felicity was a talented and resourceful hunter, and James… was alive and free.
The Russians, whoever they were, would pay. If they suffered horribly, so much the better. As for the man in white… It would be very interesting to see how he played. “The perfect excuse to shop for a new dress and heels,” she murmured, allowing herself to smile.
When she arrived back at the hotel at last, James found a man waiting for her on her bed. “Hello, Q,” she said. “Please tell me you’ve brought my gun.”
Dressed in slate-blue, floor-length Giorgio Armani, and matching calfskin ankle boots from Dior, James strode confidently into the palatial Casinò. It was like coming home. After purchasing fifty thousand Euros’ worth of chips, she greeted the Floorman with familiarity and was allowed to pass through to the private rooms where the high-stakes poker was played.
Her quarry was there ahead of her, unmistakable in his tailored white suit and scarlet bow tie. He glanced up at her, and drank her in, much in the way that someone might admire a beautiful woman the first time they set eyes on her. James’s fingers itched to slip the gun from her bag and put a bullet between his eyes, regardless of witnesses, but she was not unaware of the other two men, thickset, in black suits, one sitting by himself at a table to her right, the other at the bar to her left, both glaring at her with intense, cold hatred.
The man in white returned his interest to the cards. The men in black made no move for their guns. Indeed, no move at all. James chose to ignore them.
There were ten seats at the poker table. Nine were filled – with men. In James’s experience, one in ten poker players were female, and usually she was that statistic. “Mind if I join you, gentlemen?” she said, taking her place without waiting for an answer.
Texas Hold’em Poker was the House’s game of choice. She settled into the game, playing artlessly while studying her opponents. Three were clearly amateurs, bright-eyed and all too self-satisfied with their wins. Four were just as clearly old-timers, sharks, their eyes watchful, their body language fiercely subdued. One was… a Chinese assassin.
James locked eyes with him, trying to understand why he was there. Li Jun, the one-man army, was forty-nine, his short black hair threaded now with grey, his dark eyes fiercely intelligent. She wondered if he was as troubled by the wound in his leg from her bullet as she was by the scar running under her breasts from his knife. But for once she sensed no animosity from him, merely a wariness.
The man in white was an enigma. Twenty-something, his physical perfection was startling, and aided by blond hair and a tanned complexion. If there were a Mister World competition, he would win it easily. James was almost tempted to ask: “Do you want world peace?” His attention was almost entirely on the cards, however, as though this were purely a game of chance. He didn’t seem excited when he won, or disappointed when he lost. At times he tapped a finger on the table, a momentary anxiety, but its significance escaped James.
Round the table the dealer went, like the hour hand on a clock. Round and round the bets went, like the minute hand. The world outside the table fell away. All that mattered was cards and chips, probabilities, the subtlest movements of the players. While others found the adrenaline rush of a winning hand to be an addictive ecstasy, for James the only pleasure in poker was mastering its deceptions.
One by one the other players fell away, James accumulating chips in bursts and spending them easily. Li Jun’s ruthless determination quickly took out the amateurs, but he floundered a little against the others, who had grown wise to his tactics. The fight against the old-timers had felt like a war of attrition that the assassin had barely survived, while James and the man in white grew fat, so to speak, on the fallout.
When only the three were left, the man in white pushed back from the table, breaking the spell that held them all. “Do you mind if we take a break?” he said with a smile.
Leaving his chips on the table, he wandered out of the room, followed closely by one of the men in black. The other stayed at the bar, his eyes fixed firmly on James. She stayed where she was for the moment, baffled by just how friendly that smile had been. Her instincts and her head were tearing her in opposite directions.
Opposite her, Li Jun stood and stretched. “I would be most grateful if you kept him distracted,” he said quietly, his English spoken with only a trace of an accent.
James nodded. “Be careful,” she whispered.
That sentiment earned her only an expression of contempt, before he followed his prey out of the room.
James wandered over to introduce herself to the man in black, but he moved away from her warily, saying nothing. He showed no interest in leaving the room, and made no attempt to communicate with anyone. He merely watched her, in much the way a cat watches a bird that’s just a little out of reach.
After five minutes, the man in white returned, alone, his face pale, his eyes haunted, his hands shaking as he crossed to the bar and ordered, “Scotch. A double, please.”
He downed it with a haste that James found slightly offensive. “That’s no way to treat a single malt,” she said, joining him.
He laughed. It was the slightly manic laugh of a person in shock. “I’m sorry,” he said, looking at her with an air of desperation. “Sorry,” he repeated.
“Bond,” James said, holding out her hand. “James Bond.”
There wasn’t the slightest flicker of recognition as he took her hand. “George Williams,” he said. “What can I get you?”
“Vodka martini. Shaken, not stirred.”
He laughed, more naturally this time. “Is that even a real drink?” he asked. Frowning suddenly, he added, “Did you say ‘James’?”
His innocence was genuine. James was completely baffled. “The name is like the drink,” she said, shrugging. “Right because it’s wrong…”