“Well, George,” James said, “shall we continue our game? Or should we wait for our Chinese friend?”
“I don’t –” He stopped and swallowed. “I don’t think we should wait.”
James nodded, and guided him across to the table. To the Steward she said, “Mr Li is late. We shall continue without him.” She slipped into the seat opposite George and smiled warmly. “Are you in Venice alone, Mr Williams?”
His eyes lit up with alarm as he looked past her. James swivelled in her seat and stood to face the new arrival.
Flanked by two more men in black, who could have been twins of the others, was a woman wearing black leather trousers and an embroidered red leather jacket, an ensemble James recognised as Alexander McQueen. It screamed power and wealth, perhaps even royalty.
James was impressed despite herself by the shorter woman’s aura of danger. Her long, flowing hair was a dramatic burgundy framing pale skin and intensely blue eyes. Eyes that regarded James with a cold ferocity. “James Bond,” she said. “You never were one to take a hint.” Her accent was Russian, perhaps. Certainly Slavic.
Projecting a supreme confidence that she certainly didn’t feel, James thrust out a hand. “You have me at a disadvantage, Mrs …?”
A moment’s fury passed swiftly to leave an expression of icy indifference. “Diana,” she said. “Just… Diana.” Ignoring the outstretched hand, she circled the table to whisper in George’s ear. He nodded, and retreated to the bar, ceding his place at the table to Diana.
“Shall we, James?” she said.
James glanced briefly at the three men in black that stood watching her, their expressions threatening. She shrugged, and sat again.
For years now she had been catching hints of the Red Queen. Inevitably she had formed an image in her mind of a mad woman screaming, “Off with her head!” Looking at Diana now, she could certainly imagine her doing it. Worse, she could imagine her deciding to teach the British – or whoever – a lesson by firing a nuclear missile into the heart of their densely populated capital.
Diana pushed a pile of chips forward. “Fifty thousand.” There weren’t even any cards on the table yet. Tradition demanded a small blind.
The Steward started to object, but James held up her hand to stop him. She matched the blind and added another fifty thousand. The Steward dealt them two cards each.
Diana ignored the cards. “I’m surprised to see you here, James. Spies are dropping like flies, these days. British, Italian, Chinese. Who knows, maybe even American.” She pushed another pile of chips forward. “I say, death to spies.”
The words sent a chill racing down Bond’s spine. Death to Spies. SMERSH. The old Soviet counterintelligence agency that had once been the bane of British Intelligence. For a dark moment, Bond wondered whether Olga was a part of this new aggression. “Old words for old days,” she said dismissively, and matched the bet, also without looking at her cards. “Why steal nuclear missiles you can’t use?”
The Steward discarded a card and laid three cards face up. An ace, a jack, and a three.
“Who says they can’t be used?” Diana said. “The PAL may be the most sophisticated lock ever invented, but it’s said that every lock has a key.” She tossed some more chips forward. “We have the software that was used to program the PAL.”
James shook her head. “But that is useless without knowledge of the hardware lock, which is specific to each warhead. And any attempt to open the warhead, or to examine the internals with X-rays, will result in critical damage, rendering the warhead as useless as a lump of uranium and plutonium. It would be easier just to build your own.” She made her bet.
The Steward discarded another card and laid down the seven of spades.
“X-rays are not the only way to look inside,” Diana said. “High energy neutrons are very effective. And do you know what emits neutrons?” She tossed another pile of chips forward. “Oh, that’s right. Plutonium! How convenient.”
The horrible thing was, it might just work. “So, what’s your plan? Blackmail? Wanton destruction? To start a war?”
James matched the bet again, and the Steward placed the fifth card. Another three.
Diana smirked. “Start a war? Why not.” She pushed her remaining chips forward. “All in, James. Winner takes all.”
“Very well,” James said, pushing her remaining chips in too. By her count, the pot was close to a million Euros, and neither had yet looked at their cards. Chance, not skill, would be the decider.
Diana turned her cards over, and there was a collective gasp from around the table. Two queens. Two red queens. Diana stared at them in shock, clearly questioning whether this was all a setup. A rigged deck.
“Two pairs,” the Steward announced.
Diana looked across at James, eyes blazing with exultation. The game suddenly meant something to her. Not the money, but the symbolism. Victory for the Red Queen over James Bond.
James turned her own cards over, and laughed. A three and a seven.
“Full house,” the Steward confirmed.
The Red Queen’s fury was barely contained. “Enjoy your victory, James. You won’t get another.” She stood and stormed from the room, the three men in black and a clearly terrified man in white following in her wake.