The man in the armchair was fiftyish with greying hair. He held his glasses in one hand as if reluctant to put them on, or indeed to see anything ever again. His expression was haunted, fearful, and his blue eyes reminded James very much of someone. “Are you George’s dad?” she asked.
The villa was a short walk from Lago d’Avino, designed and positioned to escape notice. Had it been located twenty metres further east (and thus ten metres higher), it would have commanded a magnificent view across the Lepontine Alps. Then again, maybe the shelter from the winds provided by the rock was just good practice for a building over two kilometres above sea level.
James had been disarmed, searched and handcuffed before being marched to the villa. The men in black – almost certainly Russian military special forces – had treated her with wary professionalism, saying no more than absolutely necessary and keeping their distance. A short walk, perhaps, but James was wet through and the cool wind from the high peaks stripped the heat away from her remorselessly.
The room at the front had an open hearth amidst an array of lime and orange armchairs. James fell to her knees shivering uncontrollably in front of the fire, soaking up its warmth, and blessedly they allowed her to stay there. One kept watch from the doorway, while the other disappeared into the villa.
At first the man sitting in the chair by the fire seemed oblivious to her, lost in an internal horror, but after a minute he slipped his glasses on and looked at her. “Yes,” he said. “Eric Williams. Who are you?”
“James Bond. British Intelligence.”
Eric looked at her with curiosity tinged with anger. “George said you defeated the Red Queen at cards.”
“It was purely a game of chance. Fate smiled on me.”
“But not on George. He suffered terribly for your victory. And now that…” He removed his glasses and folded them in his hands. “And now that my work here is done,” he whispered, “she has no need to keep either of us alive, except to torture us for her amusement.”
“What was your work, Mr Williams?”
“Neutron imaging. Shame really. It’s state-of-the-art equipment. I could have done such good research with it.”
James sighed with relief as the shaking finally stopped. As if on cue, Diana strode into the room, again wearing the red leather Alexander McQueen jacket, but now with white leather trousers. “James Bond. How very persistent.” She looked irritated rather than angry. “I’m going to enjoy killing you,” she said. “Properly, this time. But later. It’s time for the show to start, and I do prefer a studio audience.” She turned and strode out again.
The man in black ordered James to her feet, and guided her into a miniature film studio at the back of the house. Diana was standing between the two B61 bombs, in front of a large green screen and facing a television camera. James was gagged, and bound to a chair, positioned to see the composited image at the video editing station. Behind Diana, a map of Europe filled the wall.
Several technicians were clustered within a ring of computer displays nearby. “Going live,” one said, “in three, two, one,…”
“People of Europe,” Diana said into the camera, adopting an American accent, “I apologise for interrupting your regularly scheduled programming, but I would like to introduce myself and my two friends here.” She laid her hands on the two bombs. “This here is Tweedledum, and this is Tweedledee. Nuclear bombs, each with an eighty kiloton payload. That’s four Nagasakis – or five Hiroshimas, if you prefer. Just imagine the damage one of these sweethearts could do to Athens or Rome or, I don’t know, London?”
She smiled that chilling smile of hers. “I am the Red Queen, and tonight we’re going to play a game. You are going to send me money. All of you. Just visit this website” – she pointed down and left, and an address appeared on the screen – “and make a donation. If it helps, I will be giving half away, and you can vote for your favourite charity. And one lucky winner will get one hundred million Euros! Just leave your name and contact details and you will be entered into the draw.
“That’s the carrot, and here’s the stick. Each Member State has to get ten stars. To get a star, I need to receive donations equal to the population of that Member State. So for Malta to get a star” – a gold star appeared over Malta on the map behind her – “I need four hundred thousand Euros. For Germany to get a star” – another star appeared, over Berlin, on the map – “I need to receive eighty-one million Euros. The last country to get ten stars will receive a visit from Tweedledum here, so don’t just sit there hoping for someone else to pay. Give now, and give generously!”
She smiled happily as gold stars started appearing all over the map. “This is what the map should look like.” Then she frowned as all the stars winked out. “If you doubt me, if in one hour I don’t see at least one star for each Member State, then I will send Tweedledee to prove how serious I am. I’m thinking Strasbourg.” On the screen behind her, the map of Europe was replaced by a computer simulation of Strasbourg being obliterated by the distinctive shockwave of a nuclear explosion. Diana shrugged. “Or maybe Barcelona.”
Smiling brightly again, she said, “The game starts… now!”
“Off air,” the technician announced. “Broadcast successful.”
Diana stood in front of James and removed the gag. “Oscar-worthy, yes?”
“This has nothing to do with money, has it?”
“Nothing. In fact, it’s all going to charity. Not that the Euro will be worth anything tomorrow. No, this is about the destruction of Europe. Starting in one hour with Strasbourg, and tomorrow… Paris, perhaps. The city of romance. Although you have been such a nuisance, James, that I’m tempted to choose London.”
“One thing I don’t understand.”
“What’s your delivery system? These are gravity bombs with sophisticated safeguards. Even if you succeed in unlocking the PAL –”
“– these B61s need to be released by high-speed jets. I don’t see any planes here, and there’s certainly no runway.”
“Oh, James, such lack of vision – but you’re still hoping to stop me, aren’t you?”
“You wanted an audience. I’m giving you one.”
“Hmm… Very considerate. But you’ll just have to wait, along with everyone else, for the next exciting episode.”
Still handcuffed, James was escorted by the men in black to a small, bare, windowless room, and locked inside. “Fifty minutes,” she said to herself. Fifty minutes before they came for her again, to give her a front-row seat on Diana’s mocking destruction of European harmony. Fifty minutes for James to bring a halt to this megalomaniacal aggression. “Time to save the world again…”
The Russians had searched her pretty thoroughly, even taking her boots, but they hadn’t stripped her completely, and hadn’t – thank the gods – searched inside her. Not that they would have found anything, but what they wouldn’t have found would have led to some awkwardness. But none of that mattered. They had left her her knickers, complete with the thin, barely detectable bits of plastic in the lining that made handy shims for escaping handcuffs.
Two minutes later her wrists were free, though feeling much abused. The Russians had tightened the cuffs securely, and James had had to crush them into her wrists to slip the shims fully into the ridged locks. She clenched and unclenched her fists for a minute as circulation returned.
Getting out of the room proved a bigger challenge. The shims were useless against the cupboard’s lock, and there was nothing in the room apart from a bare, tungsten-filament light bulb dangling from the ceiling. “I wonder,” she said, and coiled the electric cable about her hand. She pulled on it until she had lifted herself off the ground. “Damn,” she said, unsure if there was any point in continuing.
The ceiling cracked suddenly, and a metre of cable slipped out. James cried out quietly as she fell, the cable clamping painfully about her hand. She succeeded in pulling another half-metre out, enough now for her purpose, and used the shims to strip away the plastic protection about the live wire – trusting brown to be live, which wasn’t always the case.
“Hey!” she yelled, banging on the door. There was no answer, but she yelled and hammered on the door until she heard a response.
“What do you want?” a man’s voice demanded.
“I have just received a message from my boss. He wants to talk to Diana.”
“A message? How?”
“Subdermal radio receiver.”
There was a long silence. “Okay. Step away from the door. One wrong move and I will shoot.”
James remained exactly where she was, heard the key turn the lock, and saw the handle turning. She pressed the exposed cable against the handle, which twisted with sudden violence and released. Letting the light bulb swing away, James wrenched open the door.
The Russian was sitting on the floor with a dazed look, a handgun lying nearby but out of immediate reach. His alarm at seeing James was short-lived as she picked up the gun and hammered the butt down on his skull, uncaring whether this left him dead or merely unconscious. With an effort, she managed to drag the inert body into the cupboard, searched it quickly for weapons, spare ammo and other useful items, and left him locked in and handcuffed.