James peered into the hole, wondering just how far down into the black depths of the Earth it went. Iron rungs embedded in the uneven wall formed a ladder. James glanced around the office, searched the drawers in the desk, and found a small torch, which she gripped between her teeth. Her handgun, reloaded now and still a little hot to the touch, she wedged inside the back of her waistband.
Forty or so rungs down, her feet met a gravelly path that ran steeply downhill between sheer rock faces, a natural formation. It was a tight squeeze even for James, but never too tight, and she emerged at last from a crack in the cliff face that looked east from Lago d’Avino. A faint, narrow path, barely discernible, ran to the south, descending gradually, and although darkness was descending rapidly there was yet enough light to see Diana in the distance.
James hurried after, torch discarded in favour of the gun. The ground was as soft as frozen mud for the most part, but occasionally a sharp rock against her bare soles made her stumble. With each step, she was increasingly aware of the throbbing pain in her left thigh, and for some reason her left cheek was wet with blood, but she pushed on, refusing to acknowledge any hurt.
“Tell me something,” James said. “You could have killed me in Venice. Instead, you killed Marco, and left me alive. And later, with Felicity. You should have just blown the boat up, but instead you gave me sixty seconds to figure out an escape.” James turned at the sound of feet pounding on earth to see Felicity running down the path towards them. “Speak of the devil… Then here at the villa. You tied me up. You locked me up. But you didn’t kill me.”
Felicity skidded to a halt behind her, but James wasn’t finished with Diana yet. “And I really want to know. Why? The same mistake, again and again. Why didn’t you kill me when you had the chance?”
“She’s dead, James,” Felicity said quietly.
“I know. I thought it was safer to shoot first and ask questions later.”
Felicity sighed. “Come on, James. I found the helicopter.”
James turned to follow her back up the path. “So, about those kisses…”
“Fuck off, James.”
“I really like her jacket.”
It was with a heavy heart that James returned to Venice. Without the adrenaline of the mission, there was nothing to shield her from the reality of Marco’s death, and Elizabeth’s. It added a gilt of tragedy to the timeless beauty of the ancient city. And she was tired. She hadn’t slept since the church, if you could call drugged unconsciousness ‘sleep’.
Even the photograph of the unexploded nuclear bomb that had crashed into the Manneken Pis in Brussels that morning had done little to lighten her mood. “It wasn’t armed,” Felicity said. “We’re trying to pass the whole thing off as a hoax, though the conspiracy nuts are having a field day with it.”
Too many people knew the truth for a cover up to be effective. Then again, no one really wanted to believe they had been saved from nuclear annihilation by a quirk of fate. “What went wrong?”
Felicity shrugged. “We got lucky. Maybe a bullet damaged the arming mechanism.”
Not enough luck for James to escape a long day of questions as tempers flared between Britain, the US, Italy, Belgium and Russia. Indeed, everyone in Europe seemed to be screaming at once, and James just wanted to be elsewhere. As soon as no one was looking, she slipped away, and back to Venice. The Honeymoon Suite was still booked for her there, after all.
And there was something soothing about Venice. The atmosphere and the distinctive aromas, the lights on the water, the memories of gondola rides and lovers kissed.
There was a woman in her room. A beautiful Nordic princess of a woman. With a gun. With a silencer. Pointed at her. “Hello, Olga.”
After a moment’s consideration, James dismissed the threat. Not that it wasn’t real, but she was too tired to fight. “I need a shower,” she said, and stripped in front of Olga, mostly to make it clear she wasn’t carrying a gun.
Olga winced at the sight of her bandaged thigh. “You’re hurt.”
James shrugged, and disappeared into the bathroom. The warmth and strength of the shower was bliss, washing away days of blood and dirt and sweat – and more than that too. Tears streamed from her eyes, only to be washed away, until it seemed she could hardly breathe… but then Olga was there, holding her, calming her. Kissing her. Saying nothing. Nothing needed saying. Not then.
“It’s easy being Double-O Seven,” she said in the dead of night, arm and leg wrapped about her lover. “I save the world and get the girl. In theory, anyway. All the death-defying action and ugly wetwork has a necessary purpose in the fight of good against evil, and it’s a necessary distraction. Because, when I’m not being Double-O Seven, all I am is the ultimate misfit, orphaned from the world. And that’s hard. So hard.”
Olga was silent for a long time, though James sensed she was awake. “I love Russia,” she said eventually. “I would die for her. Kill for her. And I have. I have served my country faithfully for ten years. Yesterday they were full of praise for me, even giving me a medal, and a promotion. ‘You are now one of our honoured elite!’ they said. ‘A top-rank field agent!’”
“SMERSH,” James whispered.
“Not officially, but yes. ‘And your first duty,’ they said, ‘is to kill James Bond.’
“‘Why?’ I asked.
“‘Why ask why? She is a British spy, and we wish to send a clear message. That is why.’
“And that’s when I understood. ‘Is that why you promoted me? Because she’s my friend?’
“‘There are no friends in this business,’ they said. ‘James Bond trusts you. Use that against her. Your first duty is to Russia, and she is a foreign spy. Don’t waste your affection on her. She is not even a real woman.’”
James gave a bitter laugh. “I never get used to hearing that.”
Olga rolled James over onto her back and kissed her. “As far as I’m concerned, you are the perfect woman. Screw genetics. And if I have to choose between the woman I love and duty to a political leadership that loathes the very existence of people like us, then I choose you.”
“You have the soul of a Russian poet, Comrade Olga,” James said, and pulled her head down for another, longer kiss.