The Mercurius Affair
a James Bond 007 novella by MkB
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER 1 – NEVER LOOK BACKWARDS
CHAPTER 2 – ‘WE WISH YOU A PLEASANT FLIGHT’
CHAPTER 3 – STRANGE CASE
CHAPTER 4 – ALLEGRO CON SPIRITO
CHAPTER 5 – A MAN OF POWER
CHAPTER 6 – A TOO FAMILIAR FACE
CHAPTER 7 – OF KNIGHTS AND PAWNS
CHAPTER 8 – SOMETHING IN THE AIR
CHAPTER 9 – A TRUE SCOTSMAN’S DEATH
CHAPTER 10 – AWAKENING
“The meaning of life is that it stops.”
Chapter 1 – Never look backwards
It had been a good day. A “clean” job had marked the end of his assignment, and those who had to die had now rejoined those who should have lived in the indifference of death. He could now leave Prague and its share of memories behind.
It had been a good day. And still... Seated in a deep leather armchair, in a dark corner of the wood-panelled bar of his Mala Stranà hotel, James Bond was patiently waiting for the sickening feeling to pass. In a professional manner, he forced himself to close his mind to the nagging image of his last target, to the incredulous gaze of the man, and to the silent scream of his dead mouth. He knew the feeling, and he knew he couldn’t wash his soul with vodka. But at least, he could anaesthetize his brain. The pool of dim light shed by a billiard lamp, the hammering of the rain on the windows, the deep carpet and wood-panelling of the room, the soft and quiet atmosphere, everything contributed to let him retire in his inner citadel and close the door. Leaning over the table in front of his armchair, he slowly poured himself another drink. The movement made him grin... Instinctively, his hand reached for the large dressing applied to the left of his torso, under his shirt. But he quickly pulled out his hand and put it flat on his knee. It was no time to pay attention to his wounds. He had enough to do with his old scars.
On one of those scars at least, he could put a name: Lenka Čermáková. Looking absent-mindedly through his glass, he remembered her tall figure, her short jet-black hair over a large forehead, and the green vivid eyes.
He remembered the softness of her midriff, the kiss of her mouth, and the grasp of her hands when they made love.
He remembered the drab cemetery in the outskirts of Prague he had visited this afternoon, her name engraved on the tombstone, and the small pebbles he had left on top of it.
They had met three years before, during one of his previous assignments. She was a scientist, and he found her company a breath of fresh air, a liveliness that relieved him of his life of felony, betrayal and death. For two weeks at least. She didn’t know exactly what his job was, she only knew he was dangerous, and in pain. But she also knew she had nothing to fear from him, and she knew how to heal.
When he headed back to London, there had been no sadness. They both knew it was how it was supposed to end. But one evening, some months ago, he found her sitting in the stairway of his building. She looked up at him with a hint of despair in her deep eyes.
- “Hello James… I… I think I need some company tonight…”
As he smiled, she stood up, and made a step forward, a few inches from him. After looking silently straight into his eyes for a time, she slowly took his face in her hands, and eagerly kissed him on the lips. He returned the kiss, then gently lifted her in his arms, and walked toward his flat, as she started to laugh softly.
They barely exchanged a word that night. As far as he understood, she was there for a symposium, but she didn’t want to tell more, and when he woke up in the morning, she was gone.
After that night, slightly worried, he tried to call her, but he could only leave her voicemail messages. He hadn’t really been surprised when M called him, two weeks ago, to announce her death. The only thing that was really new to him was the connections of Lenka with a top-secret European cryptology project code named Mercurius. She had been working on some algorithms during the past year, teaming up with a British scientist, Prof. Michael Hughes, from University College, London. Both Hughes and Lenka were supposed to have committed suicide the same week, and data related to their current work had disappeared. MI6 supposed they had been executed, and wanted to know the truth. M knew Bond had personal links with the late Czech computer scientist. She also knew he was sufficiently emotionally detached to handle this assignment. But now this was all over, Bond himself doubted that.
For a moment, he looked at the transparent liquid in his glass. He reflected how much, at this moment, he longed for the fire of the drink in his throat and his stomach, for the relief of its warmth spilling in his weary body. He knew he was on the verge of needing it more than wanting it, and he hated the fact.
- “Slivovice? There’s nothing like our plum brandy to celebrate the end of an assignment!”
Bond raised his eyes to meet those of Stanislav Šlesinger, standing next to his table. This jovial man in his early sixties was his contact in Prague. They shook hands, and both settled in the deep armchairs.
- “Thanks, Stan, but I stick to Vodka for such... celebrations.”
- “Force of habit, isn’t it, James?”
- “I have worse habits.”
Šlesinger gave him a quick, embarrassed look. Since their first meeting about two weeks ago, he had never been at ease with this dark young man. Maybe it had something to do with his face, his cold grey-blue eyes and the scar down his right cheek that gave him a ruthless look. Maybe it had something to do with the feelings he could perceive in him… After more than twenty years as a sleeper agent for MI6 in central Europe, he had seen many ruthless young men. But this one was more than ruthless. He was on the edge.
- “James, are you all right?” Šlesinger leaned forward and lowered his voice. “You should be in a hospital... The back seat of my car is still covered with your blood!”
Bond waved off the subject.
- “I’m all right, Stan. Don’t worry about me.” He took a deep breath, seeming to shake himself off his thoughts, and reached for a gunmetal cigarette case. “Mind if I smoke?”
- “Well, as you pointed out, I’m not your doctor... Do what you want with your lungs!”
Bond gave him one of his thin, rather cruel smiles, and lit his cigarette.
- “Anyway, if your health is beyond my concern, I think you’ll appreciate I’ve taken care of your flight. You are booked on the first plane to Budapest tomorrow morning. Here are your travel documents. I’ll come to pick you up at 07:00.”
- “Thanks. It’s perfect.”
- “My friend, Sára Kiss, will send a car for you at the airport, as soon as you land in Budapest.”
Bond raised one eyebrow and gave him a quizzical look. Šlesinger smirked again.
- “Yes. I know. But “Kiss” simply means “Small” in Hungarian. It’s a difficult language, I suppose you won’t have enough time to learn it...”
- “Well, I’d be very glad to get familiar with some Hungarian tongue twisters, anyway...”
Šlesinger gave him a reproachful look.
- “She’s a brilliant mathematician, James... I don’t think she’ll be interested in teaching you... such things! You have an appointment with her at the Central European University (you’ll find the details on the travel documents). She’s involved in Mercurius, so I’m sure she’ll help you understand the meaning of those files Dr. Čermáková left you.”
- “Thank you, Stan” he said earnestly.
The elder man leaned back in his armchair, and observed Bond carefully with squinted eyes.
- “James... May I tell you something quite... personal?”
Bond looked at him through a twirl of smoke and nodded silently.
- “Well… You’re a professional, James. And a good one at that, as far as I know from your record and our recent acquaintance. I know what it takes in our particular line of business. And I’ve been told of your… time in North Korea. So I won’t ask you what you believe in. But do you know who believes in you? I mean, apart from M, apart from your fellow agents… Do you know who would mourn you if you were to die?”
- “Well, I’m sure my garage man would mourn me… I can’t see how he could finish to pay his cottage without my car!”
Šlesinger ignored the quip.
- “I’m an old man, James. Pardon me if I sound patronizing. But let me tell you something. No doubt you’re a loner. You wouldn’t be alive if you were not. But to know what to die for is not enough, you must know what to live for. I observed you during this assignment, and if there’s one thing you don’t seem to value much, it’s your life. I mean, you take risks, it’s part of your business. But please be careful. You won’t stay alive long, if you don’t feel alive.”
He noticed the fierce glare in Bond’s eyes at this point and, hesitating, paused for some seconds. Had he made a point? He was now fiddling about with his glass. He finally made a wave of the hand.
- “Sorry about that. You must think I’m an old bore. But please think about it. Vodka isn’t your only friend… Find people you can care about, and help them care about you.” He stood up briskly. “Anyway, have a good night, James, you deserved it. I’ll see you tomorrow”.
Bond stood up too, and shook his hand as he took his leave. He looked at the chubby, balding man as he was leaving the hotel bar, and sat down slowly once the doors shut. He poured himself a last drink, emptying the bottle. Turning slowly the glass in his hands, he thought about this unforeseen talk. Šlesinger had certainly a point. Bond knew that, since North Korea, he wasn’t the same. But could he help it? Was he getting too emotionally detached? He had always considered that this was the only way for him to stay alive… But to “feel alive” was another matter. This phrase brought sweet and sour memories to his mind. He took a long sip at his drink. “Find people you can care about”… Hell! So many people he had cared about had died…
Bond shrugged. He put some money on the table for the drinks and a large tip, and headed to his room. Never look backwards!
Chapter 2 – ‘We wish you a pleasant flight’
Bond took a last look at Prague through the window of the Bombardier Dash 8-400, but the cloudy sky below the plane was like a thick lid over the city. He leaned back in his seat, rested his head, and focused his mind on the events of the past days.
Apparently, it was a sordid and bloody stupid business that had costed the life of two brilliant scientists.
When M had called for him, a fortnight earlier, he had tried to get some more information about the reason for the call from Ms. Moneypenny, M’s private secretary. But she seemed to avoid his look, and cut short any attempt at witticism, simply stating:
- “She’s waiting for you, James.”
When Bond entered the large office at the ninth floor of the MI6 building, M was sitting at her mahogany desk. On top of the desk, in front of her, there was only a thick folder. He felt a sudden excitement: it was certainly a new assignment...
But his eagerness soon turned into bitterness.
At the end of the briefing with M, he coldly took the brown folder with the red star meaning “top-secret” and took it to his office. After looking silently at the cover for a long minute, he made up his mind to go through the pages.
It began with a short two pages report by an MI6 analyst about a project named Mercurius, after the Roman messenger god. It was an EEC funded project involving scientists from five countries. Apparently, it aimed at creating some kind of new cryptographic protocol intended to secure bank to bank transfers and stock exchange operations. The project was subdivided into eight workpackages, each of them confided to two to four renowned scientists. Recently, the two scientists in charge of workpackage 6, Combination of cryptographic primitives, were found dead, and they were supposed to have been killed because of their involvement in Mercurius.
Then came a note from Scotland Yard, about the death of Prof. Michael Hughes, from University College department of computer sciences, in London. It stated that the shattered body of this respected scientist, known as a family man and father of three children, had been found 120 feet down a rocky cliff, near Deal. Two days after his death, his wife had received a letter in their mailbox, posted from Deal, in which he begged her pardon for cheating on her with his colleague Lenka Čermáková, and explained he couldn’t bear this double life any more, and felt unable to leave either his wife or his mistress. But the Yard considered this “suicide” as obviously dubious: according to the autopsy report attached, Hughes had been killed by a head snap that could not have been caused by his fall. Besides, the letter sent to his wife had many odd spelling mistakes for a man who, according to his friends and family, wrote spotless English and was experienced in academic writing. The body of the letter was typewritten, but a graphologist had produced a report about the handwritten signature: the expert deemed that it was in no case written by Hughes’ hand, and concluded it had been rather clumsily copied, apparently using some kind of tracing paper. According to the police, it seemed even very dubious that Hughes ever had an affair with his Czech colleague. Finally, the police report stated that some files belonging to Prof. Hughes appeared to be missing. His laptop and some data keys containing his latest research material couldn’t be found. It was therefore concluded that the scientist had been murdered and his death disguised as suicide to conceal the theft of his research data.
The third document was a Czech police report with its English translation. It was about the death of Dr. Lenka Čermáková... The young woman had been found dead in the bath of her flat, after cutting her veins apparently. But the autopsy report stated that she had bruises on her arms and face indicating a violent struggle, and that she had certainly been drugged with a narcoleptic. The typewritten letter found next to her and stating she didn’t want to survive her lover, Michael Hughes, seemed as dubious as the first letter. And as for the British professor, her laptop and some data seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. Bond put aside the translated abstract, and leafed through the Czech documents. His eyes stopped on the crime scene photos. He fixed for a moment the image of the livid body he had loved lying in a pool of blood. The blood... He could even feel its nauseating smell, he could feel it wrap around him like it had wrapped around Lenka... He felt his stomach was about to turn, and stood up abruptly to dismiss the feeling. He walked to the window, lit a cigarette, and tried to control the burning anger he felt growing deep inside of him. After a moment, he slowly crushed his cigarette in an ashtray, and came back to his desk to read the last item in the folder. He had regained control over his feelings. But still not over the little pulse beating on his temples.
The last document was a report sent by Stanislav Šlesinger, signalling that an unidentified group in Central Europe was trying to get offers for what they claimed to be top-secret cryptographic research material.
Bond closed the folder and put his hands flat on the table. All this sounded like a very badly managed operation, a crime perpetrated by clumsy, low-grade professionals. It was certainly not the kind of job a secret service would have done. There were too many gross mistakes in those poorly disguised killings. It looked like some gangsters or a mob had given up their traditional smuggling and robbery activities to try to make it with the same methods in the world of intelligence. Bloody fools! And bloody mess…
The rest had been routine work. The next day he was in Prague to meet Stanislav Šlesinger. The MI6 man knew his business, and he had links in Central Europe. He set a rumour afloat that Bond, supposed to be the representative of an international software firm, was interested by the Mercurius cryptographic data that was said to be up for sale. A few days later came the first contact, via email. Bond asked for a sample of the data, which was quickly sent. The electronic file was immediately transmitted to MI6 analysts, who confirmed it was without the shadow of a doubt taken from Mercurius.
The first rendezvous was soon arranged, in a crowded coffee-house right in the middle of the tourist area. Bond was told to sit down at a particular table, and wait for someone to join him. After about an hour, two men came and settled in front of him. The oldest and biggest one, who did most of the talking, had the build of a rugby player and was in his early forties. The youngest, in his mid-thirties, looked very strong and hard despite his short size, and had something in his eyes that made him look a bit deranged. They spoke poor English with a strong Central European accent Bond couldn’t identify with certainty. Both of them were casually dressed, and wore big camera cases across the shoulder. They could have been tourists, except their gallows-look. Everything in their appearance and attitude seemed to confirm Bond’s first impression: they definitely looked like Mafia strong arms, not like secret service professionals. Their obvious concern was to check on their client before allowing him to meet the boss. They gave him some more information about the data, and some details about the way the payment was to be made. They seemed satisfied with Bond, and told him he would receive an email in the next few days to set a new and final appointment. He was to bring the money with him to take possession of the data.
The photos of the two men taken by Šlesinger during this interview using a telephoto lens were immediately sent to MI6 headquarters for identification. The answer came after two hours: they had no background in intelligence, but both of them had impressive police records. The oldest one, Pavel Nekovář, was a Czech thug. The youngest, Vukasin ‘Vuk’ Stojaković, was a Serbian and had spent several years in jail for heroin smuggling, before moving to Czech Republic three years before. Both of them were known to be currently hired as henchmen by Pjeter Dobroski, the ruthless boss of an Albanian Mafia cell in Prague. A simple checking proved that both Nekovář and Stojaković were travelling under their real names in the UK at the time Prof. Michael Hughes was killed. Simple case. More than simple: childish...
Three days after this preliminary meeting, an email came. Bond was told to wait the next day at four and half in the morning at a bus stop in the center of Prague, unarmed. On due time, an old van stopped. ‘Vuk’ Stojaković was behind the wheel, and Nekovář on the passenger’s seat. They went out, opened the boot doors and beckoned to come in. Behind the closed doors, they searched him thoroughly and, satisfied, went out, leaving him alone in the boot of the van, without windows. They drove for a little less than an hour. Bond had no idea where he was being taken, but he was sure Šlesinger knew it, thanks to an undetectable microchip in the heel of his left shoe.
The final act was played at dawn, in a big isolated shed. Bond was introduced to Dobroski in a small office on a side of the shed, with the two thugs staying two steps behind him. After a short talk, he deemed he had enough intel about Dobroski and the case, and it was time to balance the accounts. When he felt the moment was right, Bond suddenly struck out at Nekovář first and, taking advantage of the surprise effect, made the huge man lose his balance. He pushed him with all his strength, using the massive body as a human shield, and slammed Vuk against the wall as the Serbian was drawing his gun. He heard the sharp crack and felt the shockwave of the bullet in the dead body pressed against him. Letting go of Nekovář, Bond took hold of Vuk’s shooting hand and sent him crashing against Dobroski’s desk with a judo throw. Vuk’s gun was now in Bond’s hand, and he had the semi-stunned thug and the Albanian Mafia boss in his line of fire. Maybe he could have handled it in a different way. Maybe it was because of the Dexedrine tablet he had taken before going to this rendezvous. Maybe it was because of the cold anger he felt snarling deep in his chest for days. But everything went so fast he had no choice but to follow his instincts. Anyway, the bullet he sent right in the forehead of Vuk froze Dobroski, who had a hand in the drawer of his desk. For some seconds time stopped, and Bond himself, aiming at the man, couldn’t tell if he was going to shoot the Albanian boss. But he regained control and, still very tense, shouted some sharp orders. He took Dobroski out of the small office where the linoleum floor was covered with two slowly growing puddles of blood around the bodies. He made him take an unsteady position, his legs apart and hands against the wall of the shed, and searched him. When he was finished, Bond reached for his mobile phone in the inner pocket of his jacket. He felt the dampness of his shirt before seeing the large red stain and being aware of the pain. Apparently, Nekovář’s body hadn’t been massive enough to stop Vuk’s bullet. Indifferently, he dialed a number.
- “Stan? Could you lend me a hand in a bit of cleaning up?”
Before noon, the Mercurius files were safe while Dobroski was in a local safe house, and two advanced interrogators just arrived from London had taken charge of him. Clean job, indeed. And still, Bond couldn’t feel satisfied...
The voice of an air hostess aroused him from his meditation.
- “Would you like something to drink, sir?”
His first impulse was to order a straight vodka, but he changed his mind and settled for black coffee.
After all, it was only nine in the morning.
Chapter 3 – Strange case
After a short flight, Bond was in the heart of Budapest before eleven. A driver was waiting at the airport and took him directly to the Central European University building, where he had his appointment with Dr. Sára Kiss. He gave his name and the purpose of his visit to the security staff on duty at the reception, who passed a phone call and turned back to him.
- “Dr. Kiss is coming, sir. You can wait for her in the main hall.”
The receptionist opened the thick wooden doors, and Bond was shown through into a large elegantly renovated hall, where modern architecture was nicely mixed with the original structure of a nineteenth century palace. He hardly had time to admire the building before he spotted a woman coming out of a lift towards him. He recognized her thanks to the file given by Šlesinger, and his first thought was that passport photos seldom do justice to beautiful women. Beyond her blazing and wavy hair hanging loose on her shoulders, her sharp green eyes and thin silhouette, there was something magnetic, slender and feline in her figure, something no photograph could ever give any idea of. She addressed him in spotless Oxford English.
- “Mr. Bond? I’m Sára Kiss. Nice to meet you. Please come to my office, it will be more comfortable to talk there.”
She led the way to her office and offered him a seat. The room was small and tidy: two bookshelves, a large cupboard, a desk with two neat piles of files and a laptop were the only furniture. But he noticed an unexpected shape in a corner of the room, something he identified as a cello case. Sára Kiss seamed to size him up for one or two seconds before she started to talk.
- “So, Mr. Bond, our common friend Stan told me you had some important news about Mercurius. I hope it is good, because the last news I had was very sad...”
- “I’m sorry about the death of your colleagues. I’ve been told you and Prof. Hughes were close friends. ”
- “Yes. I met him about ten years ago, when I had a post-doctoral fellowship at University College. He was a very kind man, and a brilliant researcher.” She marked a pause, and continued with a sour note in her voice. “In the beginning of Mercurius, I wanted to team up with Michael and Dr. Čermáková. As I understand it, I’ve been lucky we changed our plans...”
- “Why did you change them?”
- “We planned to work together on the sixth workpackage, Combination of cryptographic primitives, but the following workpackage needed a coordinator, I accepted the role.”
- “And you are now responsible for this part, about...”
She smiled at his brief hesitation. Bond couldn’t help noticing the sparkles in the deep green eyes.
- “It’s entitled Partitioning algorithms for hardware-software co-design. This is my other field of research. Basically, it consists in the implementation study for the previous work. But as I’m very interested in cryptographic primitives, I’ve had frequent talks with Michael Hughes about the progress of the work.”
Bond looked at her straight in the eyes, seriously and carefully.
- “ Dr. Kiss, I’ll be straightforward: this connection is the reason for my presence here. You certainly know that, after the death of Prof. Hughes and Dr. Čermáková, most of their current files, and notably those related to their work on Mercurius, seemed to have disappeared?”
She nodded, squinting imperceptibly her eyes. He continued.
- “Those files... reappeared. But the data is in a shambles. Many of these files are sketchy personal notes, very difficult to understand, even for a specıalıst. We know this workpackage was about to be completed, but if those files cannot be put together, months of work will be lost. And thanks to your connections with Prof. Hughes and your insight on his current works, you are certainly the best expert possible on this case.”
- “What do you expect me to do, exactly?”
Bond slowly took a data key out of the inner pocket of his jacket, and put it on the desk between them, casually letting his finger tips rest on the little plastic object.
- “A simple polish of the data. Just have a look at the files, organize them. Hopefully, you’ll be able to reconstitute the work done, and deliver the workpackage.”
She looked thoughtfully at the data key for a few seconds.
- “I see... I guess I owe this to Michael. In memory of our friendship...” She looked up at Bond. “If I accept, how will we proceed?” She leaned back in her chair, with a thin smile : “Pardon my curiosity, Mr. Bond, but you are the first spy I’ve ever met!”
He smirked, but ignored the quip.
- “As the late Prof. Hughes was the coordinator of Workpackage 6, England is in charge of the case. My service is therefore responsible for the data as long as the workpackage hasn’t been delivered. The data cannot go out of the British embassy until this business is done, but if you accept to give the files a final polish, you’ll have an office at your disposal 24/7 at the embassy, a few blocks from there, and I will stay in Budapest as long as necessary, to ensure the security of the data.”
- “Do you mean you will escort me?”
- “My duty is to escort the data. But escorting you would be my pleasure...”
Her lips didn’t openly return the smile, but her eyes did.
- “I’m sure you’re a man of duty, Mr. Bond. I will help you. Shall we meet at your embassy tomorrow morning at nine?”
Bond put back the data key in his pocket and rose to take leave. Sára Kiss asked with a mischievous smile:
- “By the way, Mr. Bond... If the files are not to get out of your embassy, what is on this data key?”
- “Absolutely nothing. It was just a prop. And by the way, Dr. Kiss, my friends call me James.”
Bond employed the end of the morning in seeing to the details of the arrangement with the military attaché at the British embassy. Shortly after noon, everything was set up, and he had a couple of hours before his routine report to MI6. Having bought a copy of The Times at a news-stand, he decided to have lunch before heading to his hotel, and found a little csárda – a local traditional restaurant – he remembered from a previous visit a couple of years before, next to St. Stephen’s Basilica. He chose a small table for two in a corner, facing the door, and as an apéritif he indulged himself with a glass of Unicum, a Hungarian bitter herbal liqueur that remembered him the German Jägermeister. Bond liked the cosy atmosphere of the place, the sound of the cheerful conversations around him, in this language he couldn’t understand and sounded like none of the languages he could speak. It gave his loneliness a touch of sweet melancholy. Besides, he had always valued Hungarian cuisine as one of the most interesting in Central Europe, with its varied influences brought by the rich and violent history of the land.
When coffee came, after a light lunch of stuffed peppers, he lit a cigarette, and his thoughts irresistibly went back to his interview with Sára Kiss. Bond instinctively sensed a raw charisma in this woman, a powerful liveliness that he didn’t expect to meet in a mathematician. Beneath the surface of her golden skin, he felt life sparkling... Her quite strict clothes and the tidiness of her office seemed to him like a thin veil over her inner animal magnetism. He realised that his thoughts were beginning to be less professional... But after all, his main assignment was over, and escorting this data was a simple routine mission.
Yet, he opened The Times and ran through the pages, applying himself to focus his mind on the news. He read attentively a leading article about energy and water related issues in Middle Eastern countries, and sighed at the thought that a thick report on the same subject by some MI6 analysts was certainly waiting on his office desk in London. Blasted paperwork! He looked rapidly through a full page dedicated to an account of a series of conferences given in Europe by Maxim Fokin, a Russian coal mining tycoon who prided himself on promoting peace and friendship in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Bond gave the ghost of a smile, remembering the classified dossiers he had read about the man: Fokin was a former FSB (ex-KGB) field officer, who had mainly developed his familiarity with the coal mining industry a decade before, when he had been assigned the coordination of FSB operations against labour unions in Siberia. What a funny curriculum vitae for a peace enforcer! Bond lit another cigarette, and leafed absent-mindedly through the pages. The headlines about a recent defeat of England in cricket, or even a study demonstrating the superiority of honey over pharmaceutical medicines to heal cough, didn’t really catch his eye. Now that his main assignment had been completed in Prague, and that everything was settled for this routine mission, he started to feel slightly depressed. What was awaiting him now? A cold and impersonal hotel room here in Budapest for a couple of weeks, with nothing to do but keeping an eye on some files, then in London endless days of paperwork, acedia and vodka. He felt he was going to be exposed to the only kind of death he had ever really dreaded: the death by boredom...
But maybe he could find an antidote... He smiled: a detail from his interview with Sára Kiss had just came back to his mind. He folded The Times, put it on the table and dialled his mobile phone.
- “Stan? Will you do me a little service? I’m sure you’re a music connoisseur...”
Chapter 4 – Allegro con spirito
There was something delightfully outdated in the decor of the Festetics Palace. The white walls and moulded ceilings with their crystal chandeliers, the marquetry floors seemed to come right out of the XIXth century, shining in a fin-de-siècle gloss. It was a quarter past seven in the evening when James Bond, who had swapped his navy blue suit for a black dinner-jacket, climbed the large red-carpeted stairway leading to the Hall of Mirrors where the concert was to take place. Whatever may happen, he regarded this evening as an opportunity to take his mind off the events of the last weeks. He couldn’t remember exactly when he had attended a chamber music concert for the last time... Was it four, five years ago? In those days, he was on an assignment, engaged in shadowing one of the other attendees. But it was a different situation today: his only project was to devote himself to the pleasure of music... and maybe of a musician, he thought with an inner smile.
In the concert hall, the stage was empty except three chairs and music stands, but most of the seats were already taken by a light-hearted crowd of people chatting and laughing in a low voice. Bond chose an easily accessible free seat at the end of the second row. An elderly couple who was obviously bickering suddenly stopped when he sat next to them. He answered their polite smile and nod, unbuttoned his dinner jacket and settled comfortably in the seat. Soon the lights over the audience were lowered, bringing out the stage. The chatters instantly stopped, and a woman in evening dress came on the platform for a brief introductory speech in Hungarian Bond didn’t understand. Then she left the floor, and in a burst of applause, the string trio came on stage. The violist and violinist, two men, seated on opposite chairs on each side of the platform, and Sára Kiss, the cellist, took her place between them.
She rested her instrument between her legs, covering the flounces of her long bare-shoulders black satin dress. During the few still seconds before the beginning of the first piece, she gave a look at the audience, and her eyes met Bond’s. He thought he could read some amusement in them, beyond an evident surprise. Was the faint blush on her face the consequence of stage fright only? He tried to make up his mind, but in a split second, the first chords were struck, and another kind of tension filled the concert hall. Bond recognized a string trio by Beethoven, and strived to let the allegro con spirito music unbend his mind. But he couldn’t take his eyes off the cellist. Allegro con spirito, indeed: he couldn’t have thought of a better expression to depict this woman, in unison with the piece she was playing. In every move of her hand on the neck of the instrument, every stroke of the bow and every sway of her body, he felt how lively she was, but with a grace and reserve that intrigued him. When the audience burst into applause after the final, as the musicians were taking a bow, he could hardly have named which pieces had been executed.
As the crowd began leaving, Sára Kiss stepped down the platform, and made the few steps that separated her from Bond. She addressed him in a quite distant manner, but she had that mischievous look he had noticed at the end of their first meeting.
- “I didn’t suspect you were interested in music!”
He answered with a semi-serious smile:
- “I’m interested in every beauty.”
As he had expected, the hackneyed compliment made her give up her reserve. She laughed heartily:
- “Did you take this phrase out of the MI6 instruction manual?”
- “Of course. It’s on page one of the Field manual for turning a foreign agent. But I’m afraid it’s a very old edition...”
- “And what is on page two of this manual?”
- “Something about inviting the agent to a nice dinner. Some champagne might be involved – but it’s classified intel...”
A flicker of vacillation passed through her eyes. She bit pensively her lower lip, imperceptibly tilting her head, and observed for a few seconds this strange man who had so unexpectedly appeared in her life. He certainly had good looks, a fine presence and disarming self-confidence. But beyond his sophisticated, suave and witty demeanour, there was something dark and almost feral in him, something that made him look dangerous. And terribly appealing. She made her decision.
- “Well, then, what about meeting me in fifteen minutes in the entrance hall, downstairs? You’ll teach me the rest of the procedures.”
Bond smiled and nodded, bowing slightly.
- “I’m your servant.”
A quarter later, the woman was descending the stairway. Bond was watching her, leaning coolly on the wrought iron banister. She had swapped her evening dress for the attire she was wearing earlier in the day: black tight trousers and a simple but elegant cream coloured blouse, now with a red trench-coat draped over her shoulders. Her only piece of jewellery was a large red crystal pendant hanging on a black cord leather necklace. He undid his bow-tie, pocketed it and unfastened his collar stud to conform to this more casual dress-code. He noticed she only had a tawny leather purse.
- “No cello case any more?”
- “My friends kindly proposed to take care of the instruments.” She seemed to suddenly realize something: “Oh! That’s it... You spotted the cello in my office, this morning, didn’t you?”
He simply smiled at her, without answering.
- “But how did you get the details about this concert?”
- “Don’t you remember?” He leaned close to her and whispered in her hear : “I am a spy...”
She raised an eyebrow, looked at him for a few seconds, reflecting, and decided in mock indignation:
- “I’ll give Stan hell for that!”
As they were both still laughing, Bond offered her his arm and they headed for a taxi.
He chose a famous restaurant in the city park, where he knew the decor would be on level with the food. They first stopped at the bar, and once they were comfortably installed in the cosy Art Nouveau room Bond ordered a bottle of Taittinger pink champagne. When the waiter retired, Sára Kiss asked:
- “So, what are we celebrating?”
- “There are many options... But the choice of the toast is yours!”
He noticed the shadow and the serious look in her eyes when she answered after taking a time for reflection:
- “Then: to friends, James. To friends, absent, present... and future.”
He couldn’t agree more, and approved whole-heartedly:
- “To friends.”
They touched glasses, and the light tinkling sound discarded the ghosts of nostalgia. They engaged in light conversation about music and her passion for cello. They talked about London life, and how much she missed the city. By the time they moved to the main dining room of the restaurant, a relaxed atmosphere had grown between them. When they rose, Sára took his arm in a very spontaneous and natural gesture that touched Bond. He liked the warmth of her body close to his and her faintly perceptible perfume wrapping around him, but he was semi-consciously attracted to her human warmth above all. He knew a cold heart was part of his shadowy profession, but tonight he felt a violent desire to get closer to the light and warmth of this woman.
The waiter smoothly set them down and proceeded to take their orders. They both settled for a roasted breast fillet of duckling served with a slice of grilled duck liver, and agreed with the sommelier’s suggestion of some Egri Bikavér red wine, the “bull’s blood of Eger”, as Sára translated it. For dessert they ordered palacsinták, the traditional Hungarian crêpes filled with dried and fresh fruits, walnuts and hot chocolate sauce, with which the golden Tokaj, the world-famous late harvest dessert wine, was an obvious choice. After the diversion of the dinner order, their conversation resumed.
- “And you, James, what can you tell me about your work?” She added with a smile: “I mean, without having to kill me afterwards?”
He smirked, and evaded the question as usual:
- “I’m afraid that if I were to tell you about my daily work, boredom would kill you first… My job is as boring as the one of any other civil servant.”
- “Of course,” she quipped with an ironical smile, “I’m sure this spying thing is such a boring job: overthrowing dictators, stealing top-secret microfilms, turning foreign agents…”
- “You’re right… save for the last point!”
She smiled and continued:
- “At least, there must be an advantage about dating a secret agent… I guess that, if you’re not talkative about yourself, you must be learned in the art of listening?”
He replied, tongue-in-cheek:
- “But I hope you don’t consider me learned in the art of bugging…”
She tilted her head and considered him seriously for a second.
- “I can understand and respect that, you know. Everyone has secrets… and at least, humour is a stylish shield!”
- “Give me no credit for that: everything is in this MI6 manual, you know…”
She gave him a playful smile:
- “Oh yes, the manual… By the way, tell me about the following procedures?”
A few hours later, Bond, lying back in bed, propped himself up on his elbows and took a circular look around Sára’s place. The one roomed flat, on the Pest side of the city center, was pretty much what he thought the home of a young single academic woman would be. Besides, the after-effects of her professional life were visible at the other end of the room, where the immaculate white wall was covered by bookshelves, over an office desk. Leather, wooden and steel modern furnitures were mixed with some finely chosen exotic works of art he deemed from Central Asia, giving the place a touch of distinction and personality. But the former tidiness of the room was now quite upset: two chairs were upside down on the floor, a vase with some flowers had fallen down the table, and a large choice of male and female pieces of clothing were scattered all around. Bond stated in a matter-of-fact voice:
- “I’m afraid we ruined your flat...”
She raised her head to look at the room, and laid it back on the pillow.
- “Yes,” she giggled, “but it was worth it, wasn’t it?”
He smiled, turned on his side, and leaning his head on his left hand to face Sára, he looked at her. The soft light coming from the bed head wrapped them in a warm and peaceful atmosphere. His free hand went slowly over her, exploring with a light touch the curves of her body. When his fingers lingered on the long, thin pale scar on the side of her right breast, she looked him straight in the eyes.
- “Breast cancer,” she simply said. “Five years ago. I was lucky it had been detected soon enough.”
He considered her for a moment, without detaching his eyes. He was about to kiss her when she rolled and seated astride on top of him.
- “Look, James. I’ve been aware that I was mortal a little earlier than I should. I mean, we’re all told we’re going to die, since our childhood, but who really trusts it before his mid-life? I’ve had to make decisions, and I’ve chosen life. I don’t want to mourn my wounds and my scars. I just want to have the best of life. Now.”
He drew his torso up to kiss and embrace her, and she grasped fiercely his hair in her hands. When their lips finally parted, she gently pushed him back on the bed, bending her body over his. He closed his eyes when her long, soft trailing hair brushed his face, then let his mind surrender to its caress going down his chest, her breath and her lips on his skin.
She was right. It was no time to mourn. It was time to live.
Chapter 5 – A man of power
Maxim Fokin was a man of power, one of the siloviki as Russians call them. It had been a long way from the Siberian boy born in a shabby family of Novosibirsk, to the international coal mining tycoon with smooth manners and bespoke suits. He was a clever man, beyond the shadow of a doubt, but what would have been cleverness to him, without his very special talent for seducing people and choosing the right direction? Plain cleverness would have led him at best to a drab office in some state administration, and Maxim Fokin had certainly other ambitions. After starting his studies at the Novosibirsk Electrical Engineering Institute, he had been given an opportunity to complete his degree in power engineering at the prestigious Moscow State University.
His encounter with the city had been the real start of his career. There, he had been noticed for his promising abilities: as a natural leader, a gifted manipulator and cynical ambitious, he was definitely a good candidate for KGB. He was soon admitted at the KGB Intelligence and counter-intelligence academy, where he learnt invaluable skills. The refinements of strategy and tactics, foreign languages, covert communications, subversion and many other subjects were now open to him, and he felt new horizons were opening wide, horizons he had always deemed he deserved. At twenty-five, he was at last given the rank of lieutenant and affected to the First Chief Directorate, in charge of foreign operations. There, he spent some exciting years as a field operative mainly in Europe and North America, gaining experience, and the reputation of a ruthless, cold and cruel agent.
The young Maxim Fokin enjoyed this life for a time, but he knew the winds were about to turn. At the end of the eighties, still in his early thirties, he obtained thanks to his technological background to be transferred to the Sixth Directorate of KGB, in charge of economic counter-intelligence and Industrial Security. There, he thought he could be safer from the political stirs he felt coming, and work more effectively at his own advancement in life. For this was what really interested him: he had never been a patriot or ideologist, and couldn’t care less about the predictable end of the Soviet Union. On the contrary, he was quite excited at the thought that only crumbling empires can offer ambitious men the fate they deserve...
However, his calculation proved to be clever: the regime changed, the KGB became FSK and then FSB, but Maxim Fokin stood firmly in place. In times of change, nothing is as valuable as a stable network of friends and informants, so he applied himself to develop his influence in Russia, and to maintain his connections with foreign countries. At the end of the nineties, he thought it was finally time for him to quit the secret service and live by his own rules. Now a colonel, he had been assigned the task of coordinating the FSB operations to crack down on labour unions in ‘Kuzbas’, the historical Kuznetsk Siberian coal basin. He had now enough experience of economics and industry, and enough supports in Siberia and over the world, to build his own empire. He had chosen energy, and specially the Siberian coal mining industry he had grown familiar with, as his kingdom, and in a few years, he had entered the circle of the new Russian billionaires. For nothing, and no one, could resist Maxim Fokin. At least, this was what he prided himself on, and to this point, there had been no reason to contradict him.
But as ruthless as he was, Fokin was a man of culture, wit and good tastes. This was part of the many things he had learned during his career. His wit, together with a certain sense of humour, had led him to sponsor his own Peace Enforcement Program, promoting peace particularly in the turmoiled regions of Central Asia and Eastern Europe. What a wonderful cover for keeping up his own intelligence network, and getting in touch with all local warlords, clients for his little gunrunning that allowed him to nicely balance the accounts of his program! It was definitely a clever and funny idea, but its only drawback was that Maxim Fokin had to give his program some public support, through charity events or public conferences, like the one he was to give this evening in Paris.
He sighed at the idea of it, crushed his cigarillo in a silver ashtray, and leaned back in the sofa of his suite at the Ritz. He rubbed his hands over his face, and pushed aside the thought that he endured less and less timeshift with age. Looking at the gilt framed mirror over the mantelpiece, he considered himself for a moment. The early fifties had brought their usual share of marring: the now sparse hair was almost grey, and deep vertical wrinkles gave his once handsome face a sterner and harder look than he would have liked. But his rather athletic build hadn’t changed too much, and he was still good looking in a suit. Most of all, his piercing blue eyes had lost nothing of their magnetic glare. He knew these eyes could still freeze or bewitch anyone with a single look.
He took a glance at his watch: only less than one hour free before going out... He’d better finish his work quickly. With a deep breath, he bent over the ultraportable laptop set on the coffee table in front of him. Through the secure Internet connection, he started to go through the new encrypted messages. He let aside a couple of routine reports from his informants in Central Asia, and wrote a quick and thorough list of instructions in answer to his “assistant” in Tehran. He didn’t pay much attention to the report of one his contacts in South America, stating that an important local oil company had requested support from his organization for some shadowy operations: he had not enough time to deal with this issue at the moment. He finally opened the last message, and ran through it carefully, squinting his eyes:
Subject: Mercurius completed
Operation completed successfully.
James Bond “cleared” the case: Dobroski and his men are out, and the data is at the hands of MI6 now.
Bond left Prague this morning for Budapest. I think this assignment is over for him. We are now waiting for your instructions.
Maxim Fokin smiled. Perfect. But nothing was to be neglected. He clicked the “reply” button, and started typing his answer:
Subject: Re: Mercurius completed
Follow Bond immediately. Make sure he really is on another mission. No risk is to be taken.
I am very disappointed to learn that your outfit is not already on his lead in Budapest.
Chapter 6 – A too familiar face
It was sweet to wake up besides Sára, thought Bond, contemplating her body half-covered by the sheets. At this early hour of the morning, a shy rising sun was bathing her skin in its rose gold light, through the Venetian blinds. Outside, the traffic was starting its humming, nagging noise, and a new day was on its way. But at the moment, there was only the two of them in this room, and nothing else mattered. For how long? How many days would it take before she got tired of him, like Tiffany and many others, he thought with a disillusioned smile? Probably his fault... too much of a loner, and his profession didn’t help. Maybe he was good at making love, not at sharing it...
Since his arrival in Budapest, some days earlier, he had spent almost all his nights with her. Most of her spare time, she was at the British embassy, working on the Mercurius data, but they usually met in the evening for a late dinner. She had an art for making every moment special, be it having a drink, lovemaking or chatting, in her direct and refreshing manner. She had an art for calming down the bitter anger that had been lying down inside him for weeks. But they belonged to different worlds, worlds they had both chosen and that would soon swallow them back...
He couldn’t help extending an arm to brush a lock of blond hair out of her face. She briefly opened her eyes, smiled at him and said in a drowsy tone:
- “You never sleep, do you?”, before rolling to snuggle up against him, her back pressed against his stomach. He held his breath for a handful of seconds, then simply put an arm around her waist and nested his head in her neck.
His mobile phone rang before the alarm clock, and the ringtone meant that it was a call from the MI6 headquarters. With a sigh, Bond got up as gently as he could, and smiled at the soft moan uttered by Sára when their entwined bodies parted. He found his jacket and quickly searched it for the phone.
- “Bond speaking.”
At the other end, the cold, impersonal voice of an operator announced:
- “Good morning, sir. Channel 16, please.”
Bond swiftly dialed a code, and the operator added:
- “Thank you, sir. Connection established. I put you through.”
A beeping sound, and he recognized a familiar female voice...
- “Hello James! How is it in your part of the world?”
- “Just as in yours, Moneypenny: it’s early... To what do I owe the pleasure of this call?”
- “Business, James, business... As your current mission shouldn’t be full-time, M wants you for a quick job tonight. In fact, you’ll just have to attend a conference. It’s at the Budapest Hilton, at 18:00, and your name is already on the guest’s list.”
- “Attend a conference? What is it about?”
- “Peace enforcement! She wants you to check on this Russian tycoon, Maxim Fokin. Nothing special: just attend his lecture, and see if you can grab something interesting to thicken his file.”
Bond frowned. It was not precisely a job for a Double-0 agent...
- “Last time I checked, it seemed to me thick enough,” he protested wryly. “Besides, don’t we have any other agent here more... suited for this kind of job, like an analyst?”
- “To tell you the truth, not at the moment... Come on, James,” she chuckled, “if you bring back enough intelligence on this Max Fokin, maybe M will send you after him!”
- “Fine then,” he sighed, “I’ll do my best.”
- “Fine. I send you the documents, check your mails. And about the Mercurius data, how is it going?”
- “Quite well. My Hungarian contact is working on the files, she’s made headway but it proves to be a quite difficult task. She needs some more days.”
- “Oh, yes, her name is Kiss, isn’t it?” she added with a hint of irony. “I saw her file... She seems to be a very beautiful woman...” There was a pause at the other end of the phone. She continued slyly : “I guess she gives you a regular account of the job. Blow-by-blow...”
He smirked. Their old quips and bickering... But he decided to play along with her:
- “Penny,” he said reproachfully, “why do you always have such a sharp tongue on me?”
- “It’s up to you if you want this to change, James! Bye,” and she hung up.
Bond sighed, and turned to Sára, who was fully awake now. She ran her hand through her hair and stretched like a cat...
- “A friend of yours?”
- “Yes. An old friend.”
When Bond sat in the conference room of the Budapest Hilton, he couldn’t help asking himself how many men and women in the audience were agents from various intelligence services, strained by a day spent learning by heart a dull cover story presenting them as journalists, like him. No face was familiar to him in the hall, until Max Fokin appeared and made his way to the rostrum. Bond immediately recognized the figure of the Russian tycoon, and also identified his usual bodyguards, two bulky fair-haired men with crew cuts who took discreet position on each side of the stage. Both in their early thirties, they were dressed in similar dark suits, with a slight bulge under the left armpit. Yevgeniy Korovin, on the left, was a former FSB agent, like Fokin, and his military background was still evident in his posture. Dmitri Sokolov, on the right, had a more tortuous curriculum: no military record for him, but an impressive police record… Since his teenage years, he had been involved in violent actions, and had quickly spent some years in prison for bludgeoning a man to death during a burglary. When he was released, he got in touch with the Moscow Mafia. Recruited for some low-grade jobs, he must have proved efficient, as he soon became a renowned executioner with particular skills for torturing his targets, skills that were said to be far beyond simple ‘professionalism’. Certainly a dangerous and unpredictable fellow, thought Bond. But not as dangerous as his boss... Conscientiously playing his part as a journalist, he took some notes, listening attentively to Fokin while he was praising the necessity of solidarity and fraternity in today’s world and unfolding the details of his actions in Central Asia. Of course, there were no obvious hints, but all his speech seemed to confirm his intention to reinforce the influence of his organisation, camouflaging smugglings and intelligence activity under the mask of humanitarian action. Certainly not a very original plan, but given Fokin’s position, it revealed a thirst for power and an ambition to extend his influence that could be seen, in itself, as a potential threat. After one hour and a half, the conference was over, and Bond felt a bit weary and frustrated by what should have been an analyst’s job.
As he was getting up to leave, his eyes met those of Dmitri Sokolov, one of the bodyguards, and his senses became immediately alert. At the look on the man’s face, he was sure he had identified him: it was almost insensible, but this imperceptible lingering, these harder and warier eyes and the deliberate effort to continue scanning the crowd left him no doubt. The question was: how did this man knew who he was? Bond could have understood if Max Fokin, or even his other bodyguard, had identified him: both of them were former FSB agents, and could have seen his zapiska during their intelligence career. But Dmitri Sokolov, a low-grade hoodlum, promoted executioner and torturer of the Moscow Mafia thanks to his sadistic propensity, how could he have had in hands his file or photograph, to be able to identify him on sight? There was only one possible explanation: Fokin had defined him as a potential threat or target for his organisation, and given his men a file about him... and possibly about many other MI6 agents. Bond didn’t like that, and he felt the urge to make a move. On an impulse, he decided to confront Fokin directly: maybe by provoking him he could extract some more information. He made his way through the men and women gathered around the rostrum. He noticed the slight tension in the two bodyguards when he approached, confirming his first impression. Without paying attention to them, he headed towards the Russian tycoon, and addressed him with a dry smile:
- “Mr. Fokin, very interesting lecture. Very... instructive!”
From the very first look of the piercing blue eyes, he knew the man had recognised him too. Why in hell was he such a well-known face in this outfit?
- “Well, I thank you, Mr. ... ?”
- “Bond. James Bond.” There was no point at this stage in keeping his journalist cover.
- “Yes, I think I’ve heard your name before, Mr. Bond. Glad to meet you. I hope you didn’t find my ideas about peace too... unsettling?”
- “Not at all! To tell you the truth, I found them quite predictable. What else could a man like you aspire to?”
Fokin’s smile and eyes were impenetrable.
- “I take it as a compliment, from a man like you, Mr. Bond. I’m sure we have a lot in common.”
- “A least, we share an interest for certain affairs. That’s something, isn’t it?”
In spite of Fokin’s very professional self-control, Bond thought he could read the shadow of an irritation.
- “Certainly. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m already quite late, I’m afraid...”
With a polite nod, the respectable Russian businessman took leave, closely followed by his bodyguards.
Bond, on the steps of the Hilton, was still trying to weigh consequences of Fokin’s apparent interest in his own person, or maybe in the entire Double-0 section. Absent-mindedly, he felt the soft purr of his mobile phone vibrating in his pocket, and answered.
- “James, it’s Sára. I discovered something about the Mercurius data. There is a problem... I think some of the files are not original and have been forged and...”
- “Don’t tell over the phone. Are you at the embassy?”
- “Don’t move, and don’t talk to anybody. I’ll join you immediately.”
Chapter 7 – Of knights and pawns
- “First, tell me: what do you know about cryptography?”
In a small office at the British embassy, James Bond was bending over Sára’s shoulder, trying to decipher the meaning of some cabbalistic lines on the screen in front of her. He sighed, taking a chair and sitting beside her, and admitted :
- “Not much, I’m afraid. Can you explain me the gist of what you’ve discovered?”
- “OK... The purpose of Mercurius is to create a new cryptographic protocol. Such protocols consist in fact in a combination of what we call cryptographic primitives, that is algorithms with basic properties, like hash functions, block ciphers, trapdoor permutations, etc. We more or less implicitly rely on the security of the primitives themselves, but a poor design in the combination of these primitives results in a vulnerability of the protocol. If you think of the protocol as a wall, the primitives are the bricks, and if the bricks are full of holes you’ll have a nice wall, but completely useless. Does that make sense to you?”
- “Yes, go on.”
- “Basically, Michael and Lenka were in charge of this combination process. As I was almost done with sorting out their files, I decided to give their work a last examination before wrapping up the final report. And then something struck me... I felt uneasy with some parts of their design. I decided to engage a quick verification process, and I discovered a severe vulnerability, due to an error in the combination scheme of the primitives. I’ll spare you all the details, but I found this quite weird: it felt like this error had been intentionally hidden...”
- “So you think these results were forged? You think someone could have introduced this error in Michael and Lenka’s work? But it is also possible that they simply made some mistakes, and didn’t have the time to correct them, isn’t it?”
- “It could have been a possibility, even if it would have been surprising coming from researchers of their calibre. But I have further evidence that some of the files have been forged. You know that every computer file has some properties giving its creation or modification date and time? Well, these properties can be changed quite easily with some techniques. I discovered the modification dates of these files have been changed, but fortunately whoever did it was not a total computer geek: he forgot to change the creation date.” She had been speaking in a neutral, professorial voice, but when she turned her face to his and looked straight in his eyes, her emotion was visible. “James, all the files introducing this vulnerability in the Mercurius protocol have been created after Michael and Lenka were killed. Someone sabotaged their work.”
Bond let the news sink. So finally, there was more to that case than the sloppy job of a handful of low-grade criminals trying to make easy money with data they didn’t even understand...
- “Do you think the people who did that wanted to sabotage Mercurius? To delay the project?”
She shook her head with assurance:
- “No. They would have simply destroyed the files. I think whoever did this planned to exploit the vulnerability introduced in the protocol. It would have been a piece of cake for them: a terrible vulnerability lying there, hidden, and waiting for its creator to use it and take over any system implementing Mercurius...”
- “But there was an other phase, the implementation study. Wouldn’t you have discovered this anyway?”
- “No. The implementation study is based on the protocol design. If the protocol design is bug ridden, then so will be the implementation. We depend on each other’s work. This could have been discovered at last, but certainly after a long time, during which the hacker who created the vulnerability would have been almighty...”
Bond rose and took a few steps in the office, mentally trying to quickly sort out the possibilities. The Mercurius protocol was not intended for military use, which excluded some hypothesis. It was meant to be used for securing bank to bank transfers, stock exchange operations and so on... Whoever would have been in control of a vulnerability in Mercurius could have had a detailed inside knowledge of all economic activity in Europe and beyond. London, Paris, Frankfurt, all the major stock exchange would have been at his mercy. The hackers could have had a simple digital bank robbery in mind, but this could also be a large scale economic intelligence operation... For this was no amateur job: the mastermind behind this plan had had enough knowledge of intelligence services to be able to manipulate them... Now, Bond could see clearly that the MI6 had been manipulated: the sloppy job of Dobroski and his gunmen made sense, someone had arranged for them clumsily stealing the Mercurius data and leaving ridiculously obvious breadcrumbs. Someone who wanted MI6 to trace the data, find it back with some files discreetly modified, use it to finalize the protocol without seeing the proverbial worm in the apple, and finally ‘clean the place’, erasing any lead from the Dobroski gang. And he, MI6 agent 007, had been a mere pawn on this chessboard of a plan! But Dobroski, at least, could provide a valuable lead... Bond dialled his phone and launched a secure line. He went through the identification routine with the MI6 operator and waited to be put through to the duty officer.
- “Agent 007 speaking. This is a code 14 call. I need to talk to the people in charge of interrogating Pjeter Dobroski immediately.”
- “One moment please.” There was a pause, and after a long minute the duty officer continued. “Hold on, please. I’ll put you through to the Chief of staff.”
This in itself was not a standard routine, and Bond felt a bad presentiment when he heard the familiar voice of Bill Tanner, the Chief of Staff and his best friend in the Office.
- “Good evening, James. What about Dobroski?”
Bond gave him an outline of what Sára had discovered, his impressions of a wider economic intelligence plan than what was feared, and explained how Dobroski was their only lead to the mastermind who had managed to manipulate the Service. When he was finished, Tanner observed a pause, then made a short sigh:
- “In this case, James, I have very bad news. Pjeter Dobroski is dead.”
Bond gritted his teeth. Too late...
- “What happened?”
- “We interrogated him for two days, then handed him back to the Czech police. We have been told he had a heart attack this afternoon, and died before reaching the hospital. That’s all we know at the moment.”
- “A very convenient death... Looks like the old KGB methods are still in fashion. Could he have been easily poisoned?”
- “I guess so. He was a simple common law prisoner there, as far as I know he wasn’t in isolation. It would have been an easy job.”
- “I see... I’ll get in touch with Šlesinger to try and find any other possible lead.” After a second of reflection, he added: “Bill, I have the feeling we are faced with very serious and professional people. Dr. Kiss has been involved, and I think she may be in danger. Could you send an outfit to protect her in Budapest?”
- “Wait a minute...” Bond heard Tanner’s fingers hammering swiftly on a keyboard. “That’s fine, I have three men available within a two hour’s reach by car. I’ll send them immediately. I’ll order them to report to our military attaché in Budapest, as soon as they arrive, so that you have total freedom of movement. Colonel Nigel Cowley, if memory serves me? Can you brief him about the protection of Dr. Kiss?”
- “I’ll see to that. Cowley is a good man, I’m sure he’ll handle the situation perfectly. Thank you, Bill. I’ll report as soon as I find something new.”
- “Sure! Typical you,” Tanner exclaimed with a short, weary laugh. “Good luck, James. Take care.”
- “Thanks Bill. Goodbye.”
Bond looked at Sára. Her grave face was turned to him.
- “Do you mean it, James? Do you really think I’m in danger?”
- “It’s just a precaution. By the way, when you called me, did you use a phone line of the embassy?”
She first looked startled, then a flicker of fear crossed her face.
- “No... No, I used my mobile phone... Your number was in memory... I’m sorry...”
Cursing inside, he waved it off as carelessly as he could.
- “Never mind. Look, here is what we are going to do now: you’ve had a long day and did a good job today, you deserve some rest. I need to pass some phone calls to fix things, it won’t be long. As soon as I’m finished, we’ll go to your flat together, and I’ll wait for the protection team with you. Then, I must leave and tie up the loose ends of this case.”
Chapter 8 – Something in the air
Forty five minutes later, Šlesinger and the British military attaché were briefed, and all the immediate arrangements were made. It was a few minutes after 21:00 when Bond went out of the British embassy with Sára, leading her to his rental car parked in a nearby alley. A few passers-by crossed their way: some businessmen hurrying home after a long day at work or a last drink at the pub, some couples arm in arm chatting cheerfully, just like they would have been only a few hours before... Bond’s senses were alert, scanning the street for any suspect movement, paying attention to the dark porches along the pavement. It came from the street: soon after they had turned in the alley, a motorcycle with helmeted driver and passenger roared behind them. On an impulse and before he had even seen a gun, Bond swiftly dived to the floor with Sára, shielding her with his body while reaching for his Walther. At the very moment they hit the ground, the muffled sound of a silenced pistol resounded four times. Two sharp cracks from Bond’s Walther answered immediately. The motorcycle swerved wildly as the passenger jerked and fell rolling on the asphalt, but continued its way full throttle.
- “You OK?”
- “Yes,” Sára answered, panting.
- “Come one. Quick.”
Bond rose to his feet and, seizing her by the hand, ran to the body lying on the street thirty yards from them. After some precautions to make sure the man was not armed, he knelt aside him and found him breathing with difficulty. Bond took the helmet visor off, revealing a sharp face hardened by agony. He didn’t know the gunman, but he knew he would either pass out or more probably pass away in a handful of seconds.
- “What’s your name?” he asked him
The man apparently tried to form words, but his lips only fluttered without a sound. With a supreme effort, he looked Bond in the eyes and managed to spit a single word before blood started to fill his throat. The spread-eagled body jerked again, and the breathing stopped for good. Bond searched him quickly, but as he expected there was no clue of the man’s identity.
- “What did he say?” asked Sára in a toneless voice.
- “Mudak. It’s a Russian word. He called me a bastard. Can’t blame him, though... Come on, let’s move now. The police will be there in minutes and I don’t have time to explain this mess.”
Taking firmly her hand again he took her to the car, less than fifty yards from there, and he drove away as fast as he could, but being careful to follow the traffic rules to avoid any stupid interference by the police.
- “Sára, they must have targeted your mobile phone. Open it, and take off the battery, then please do the same with mine.”
She complied without saying a word, deadly pale and her hands shaking slightly, as Bond drove silently for a long time, ensuring they were not followed by any vehicle. When he was sure there was no visible tail on them, he spotted what he was looking for: a telephone booth on the side of the street. He parked the car in front of it, asked Sára to wait for him, and walked to the phone. After dialling some numbers, he finally heard the friendly voice of Stan Šlesinger, and briefed him quickly about the last events.
- “These people are pros, Stan, and they have technical means too. They must have intercepted Sára’s phone call, when she told me some Mercurius files were forged, or they wouldn’t have reacted this way. Now I need you to check on some things as soon as possible. What do you know about Maxim Fokin?”
- “Do you think he’s involved?”
- “Well, the gunman I killed was Russian, and I’ve been given the opportunity to notice I’m a well-known face to Fokin and his outfit. It intrigued me, but now it seems to make sense...”
- “If you’re right, James, it’s not good news. His organization is very powerful. I’ll check immediately with my contacts about the possible connections to Mercurius. What’s your plan now?”
- “I was going to take Sára to her place, where a protection team is supposed to join us, but she wouldn’t be safe there or in my hotel. After what happened, we can’t come back to the embassy, so I’m going to take her to a quiet hotel for the night. By the way, I need you to contact Colonel Nigel Cowley, our military attaché here: tell him what happened, and that the protection team must join us as soon as possible at the Oppeln Hotel, and ask for Mr. Somerset at the reception.”
- “Yes. I’ll call him at once.”
- “Thanks Stan. I’ll call you soon.”
- “Take care, James.”
Less than half an hour later, Bond and Sára were led by an uniformed groom up the heavy carpeted staircase of the Oppeln Hotel. Bond had asked the receptionist for one of the quiet rooms on the second floor. In other circumstances, he appreciated the intimate charm of these rooms, with their carved wooden doors accessible only by a balcony corridor overlooking the gravelled inner courtyard, from which a wisteria wine came up to struggle with the wrought iron banister of the balcony. Tonight, he simply chose them because they were less exposed to a possible sniper attack. After tipping the groom, he carefully closed the door, drew the curtains and quickly inspected the room. Sára was standing motionless, her face terribly white as she was looking around her absent-mindedly. Bond came to her, took her hand and squeezed it briefly.
- “I’m sorry you’ve been involved.”
She turned to him, snapping out of her thoughts, and looked at his face as if she had just noticed he was in the same room.
- “You don’t have to be sorry. You saved my life...” Her sentence ended in a strangled voice, and he held her in his arms in silence. She took some time to pull herself together, then asked in a more assured tone: “Who are these people? Do you have any idea?”
- “Maybe... I think a Russian organisation is involved, but it’s only a gut feeling at this point. What do you know about Maxim Fokin?”
She shrugged and sank in the sofa.
- “Never heard of him.” She added, with a tired smirk: “But apparently he heard of me, and it didn’t please him.”
Bond smiled. Brave girl! He stepped to the mini-bar, poured two stiff vodkas and handed one to Sára, sitting beside her.
- “You should have a drink and get some rest.”
- “Thanks.” She drank her glass in two long gulps, and seemed to relax a little bit as the liquid was spreading in her body. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath before getting up.
- “First, I really need a good, hot bath,” she simply said before disappearing into the bathroom, and running the bath taps in full.
Bond finished his glass with relief, and went to the mini-bar to pour himself another vodka.
- “Care for another drink?”
His question was left unanswered, and he heard the dulled sound of Sára’s body collapsing on the tiling. At the same moment, he felt his own body getting limp, and the bottle fell of his hand. In a split second, it dawned on him: a combat gas! They were being poisoned by something released in the ventilation shaft, or through a hole in the door and windows. Staggering, leaning on the wall, he managed to run the few yards to the door and opened it, trying to get some unspoiled air. On the balcony corridor, at the doorway, he found two men wearing gas masks. His sight was already getting blurry, and they seemed to him like nightmarish, deadly insects coming to him. Gathering his last strength, Bond leaped on the closest assailant in a desperate effort. His hands locked around the man’s throat were too weakened to do any serious harm, but the weight of this dulled body wildly knocked against him put the man off balance. They went over the wrought iron banister of the balcony, but Bond was already unconscious when their bodies crashed together eight yards down on the gravel courtyard.
Chapter 9 – A true Scotsman’s death
The shock of icy water splashing over him brought Bond to life. He tried to stir, but to no avail. He uttered a low groan, struggling to collect his wits, and gradually realized his situation. He was held upright, tightly tied to an improvised rack, which seemed to be a vertical ladder. His arms were stretched to the back side of the ladder with the wrists tied to the rungs, and expert bindings around his shoulders and armpits maintained his back flat against the metal rack. Other strands of rope just below his waist immobilized his hips, and his ankles were tied to the broadly spaced stiles. He was completely naked, and as his feet almost didn’t touch the floor, his dulled body weighed heavily on the ropes, biting hard in his flesh. As he slowly regained consciousness, the pain was brought back in his whole body. He felt the pangs deep in his stomach, his skull was aching like hell, but worst of all his shattered ribcage stabbed him with every breath. Broken ribs, he thought in a haze, but as far as he could tell, nothing else seemed to be broken.
Another splash of icy water made him come to for good. He tried to move again, but there was no play in the bindings, and the sharp pain in his chest made him groan once more. Bond shook his head, and through the blood dripping from the arch of his right eyebrow, focused his eyes to scrutinize the place. He was effectively tied to a kind of metal ladder leading to a closed trap-door, at the third of the length of a long dark room without windows. A similar ladder was symmetrically set at the other end of the room. From the stifling heat, the metallic walls and the humming of powerful diesel engines, he inferred he could be in a boat hold.
Just in front of him, a squat blond man with a crew-cut holding an empty bucket in his hands was observing him carefully to determine the necessity of a third splash. Bond felt a shudder run down his spine when he recognized Dmitri Sokolov. Standing back a few steps, Maxim Fokin in person was watching him. His figure seemed incongruous in this dreadful room: whereas Sokolov wore a stained vest and battle dress trousers, his boss was dressed in an elegant black dinner jacket, and casually smoked one of his favourite cigarillos. He looked like he was arriving straight from a dinner party. Behind the Russian tycoon, two henchmen were holding Sára by her arms. She looked terrible: her clothes were soaking wet, certainly from the same awakening method, and she seemed almost unable to stand up on her own. She was visibly in shock and still under the effect of the incapacitating agent. Her eyes were gazing at Bond as if asking what this was all about. His heart sank, and he hoped that at least they would kill her quickly. For there seemed to be no other option than death for them now, and the presence of Sokolov, the sadistic torturer, was a clear sign of what was going to happen.
When their eyes met, Fokin addressed him cheerfully:
- “Mr. Bond! Welcome aboard the Sárkány! She’s one of my coal barges specially fitted out for having “small talks” with my guests. Look,” he made a gesture towards the ceiling, “there’s a one metre layer of coal above us, and water on the other sides. Totally soundproof. Can you dream of a better place?”
Bond made a terrible effort to speak in a hoarse but intelligible voice:
- “Actually, yes, I can dream of some better places to be at the moment...”
- “I can understand. But you deserved to be there, Mr. Bond. You’ve given my men a lot of trouble today, you know. And to top it all off, you had me leaving earlier than expected my charity dinner... This well planned operation ends in a terrible mess. Such a shame.”
- “Which operation?” The words came out painfully.
- “I think you perfectly know what I’m talking about. I’ve been told that your friend, Dr. Kiss, discovered something she wasn’t supposed to... Really, it’s a pity you involved her in this business. After your very effective intervention in Prague to clean out the Dobroski gang, everything was supposed to go smoothly: you had found the stolen data back, and the Mercurius project could go on with the little “improvements” we had added...”
- “Dobroski, ...” Bond didn’t manage to end up his sentence, but Fokin continued:
- “Oh, Dobroski was the perfect fool to be used! Thanks to him I had the data stolen without drawing attention to me, and made the whole theft look like a nasty trick by some clumsy mobsters. By the way, I expected you to have him killed... Fortunately, he was a total dummy, and couldn’t tell much... He never understood what he was involved in. Anyway, I had to dispose of him as soon as I could.” He grinned: “Standard procedure, you know.”
Despite the shooting pain in his chest, Bond was beginning to master his breathing. His next sentence came in a steadier voice:
- “Why did you choose Mercurius? It’s not your... usual line of business...”
- “That’s exactly the point, Mr. Bond! You know what is nice with the coal mining industry? Of course, it’s not very glamorous, but it’s the perfect cover for a little intelligence business like mine. Do you know that more than fifty countries in the world have commercial coal mines? And there are coal reserves in virtually every country on this planet! Can you dream of a better reason for my men prospecting, gathering information and cultivating profitable relationships all around the world? Yes, coal is wonderful. But there’s something more that coal can’t get me: in our days, Mr. Bond, the power lies in economics, and this is where intelligence work should be directed to. Being in control of the Mercurius protocol would have given me total access to all the major economic intelligence in the world. This would have given me a leg up on competition from any other intelligence agency. But this project ended tonight... Do you have any idea how much time and money I’ve devoted to setting up this operation?”
Bond ignored the question:
- “How did you find us at the hotel?”
- “Elementary! I had your car traced with a GPS chip. I had a permanent, yet invisible tail on you.”
Bond, along with anger, felt some relief: there was no point in lying to him now, and this meant he hadn’t been betrayed by a mole inside MI6. Fokin continued:
- “Unfortunately, you made the business less smooth than it was supposed to be... Apart from ruining my plans, you killed one of my men tonight, almost killed another at the hotel, not to mention the mess you made of what was supposed to be a clean, unnoticed abduction. You really deserved me to take care of you personally. And believe me, I know how to deal with those who thwart me.”
He took the time to light a new cigarillo before going on.
- “I heard you’re from Scotland, Mr. Bond. I’ll do you a favour, and offer you a true Scotsman’s death. I will offer you the death of William Wallace.” He turned to Sára, and asked civilly, as if engaging light conversation with her : “Do you know the story, Doctor? This William Wallace was a Scottish knight, and the leader of resistance against English occupation, at the turn of the XIIIth and XIVth centuries. He is still a kind of national hero in Scotland. Anyway, the best is in the end: after his capture by the English, William Wallace has been one of the first men to be ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’, a penalty that used to be highly popular for treason in England. Do you know what it involved, Doctor? But I’m sure Mr. Bond knows...” Maxim Fokin turned back to Bond, with his thin, civil smile. “We’ll follow the good old traditional procedure. First, Dmitri will start with cutting off your... How did they say in the old days? Yes! Your “privy parts”. It’s always a very entertaining debut, believe me! Maybe you’ll faint at some point, but don’t worry: we will do the necessary to revive you so that you don’t miss anything. Because then comes the most interesting part: Dmitri will slit your stomach open, search your entrails and slowly, very slowly, disembowel you. He is really good, you know, I’ve observed him: he can keep you alive for hours, half-gutted... It will take very long hours before the little pieces of you feed the Danube fishes. I promise you you’ll beg to die, Mr. Bond, and I promise you death won’t come easy.”
Sára, still too weak to struggle, was looking at the scene in horror and disbelief, her eyes going from the Russian to Bond’s naked body tied up to the ladder, as if she was looking desperately for any sign that all this was only a nightmare. Fokin nodded to the henchmen who where holding her. Without a word, they gagged her with adhesive tape, handcuffed her to the ladder facing Bond, and left the room by an exit that he couldn’t see, behind his back.
- “Fokin, I’m a professional, I understand you want to take vengeance on me, but this woman doesn’t belong in our business. For the sake of your honour, as a former officer...”
The Russian burst into a short, harsh laugh:
- “How chivalrous! You really deserve to die like a ‘Braveheart’! You have guts, Commander... Enjoy them while you can.” Fokin turned to Dmitri and added in Russian: “Go on. The full treatment.”
The stony face of the torturer didn’t betray any emotion, but a mad blaze lit his eyes. He disappeared out of Bond’s sight for some seconds, and came back trailing a little worktable and a canvas bag. He put it beside Bond, on his left, and started taking out of the bag and disposing on the worktable a mix of surgical tools and hunting knives with a meticulousness that was obviously the beginning of his jubilation.
Bond felt sick with the apprehension of what was ineluctably to come. His training regarding resistance to interrogation had taught him to face realities. Hopefully, he would bleed quickly to death at the first stage of the torture, or at least pass out. He wished he could. But he also knew a skilled and patient sadistic torturer would be able to take him to the pit of hell... There was absolutely no hope left. There was only the experience of pain in front of him, to the edge of madness, and the regrets for having involved Sára. He met her eyes: she was still too weak to move about on her rack, but her chaotic breathing was a sign of panic. He hoped she would pass out without being forced to watch Dmitri’s macabre ritual. Bond put these thoughts aside, and concentrated on the last thing he had left: his anger. He let it coil inside him, putting all his last strength in it. The torturer had now picked up his first instrument, a large hunting knife with an eight-inch blade. Tucking the knife in his trousers belt, he finally grabbed a piece of thin rope and turned to his prey. Bond, feeling his heart thumping madly in his chest, started to curse in Russian, calling Dmitri any name he knew. It started like a whisper, a painful murmur out of his crushed lungs, then it grew and swelled to become a powerful, angry and desperate shout. Bond was so concentrated on shouting out his anger that he didn’t realise what was going on, until three damped shots resounded in the room. Staggered, he looked in front of him to see Dmitri crumpling down. Two men in black tactical suits and balaclavas, armed with MP5SD silenced rifles, were already barking orders at Maxim Fokin, throwing him to the ground and handcuffing him. When the Russian was under their control, one of them proceeded to free Sára who had finally fainted, as the other was cutting Bond’s ropes. A third man came into Bond’s sight, took off his balaclava and addressed him:
- “Commander, I’m Agent 227, and this is the protection team you asked for. We have successfully taken over and secured this barge. Are you injured?”
Bond was unable to answer, out of emotion and exhaustion. When the last of the ropes maintaining him upright fell to the ground, two of the men tried to support him by the arms. This simple move made the stabbing pain in his chest unbearable, and he allowed himself to pass out with relief.
Chapter 10 – Awakening
The obsessive beeping sound of the monitor crept into his head, filling all the space of his drug dozed mind. For a long time, he concentrated on this tiny, regular spot of sound guiding him like a beacon on the path to consciousness. But it was the characteristic smell of an aggressively clean room mixed with medicines that made Bond realise he was in a hospital, long before his eyes opened. When he took a first glance around him, he saw the friendly figure of Bill Tanner reading in a chair at his bedside. The sight of the MI6 Chief of Staff brought all the events back to him, sweeping away the haze that clouded his mind. He tried to stir feebly, but his body was still limp. Damned drugs... Tanner must have noticed something, for he folded his newspaper and got up to address him:
- “Hello James. Nice to see you. Keep quiet, everything is fine. You’re in a London hospital.”
Bond was unsure of his voice, and it seemed to him hoarse and cavernous when he tried to articulate his first word:
- “She’s fine. She has been put under observation in a Budapest hospital. Your common friend Šlesinger came to take care of her, and she should be out today or tomorrow. She was in shock, but not injured. Your blood analysis showed you both have been exposed to a powerful drug, but it had no after-effects.”
- “At the hotel... They used a combat gas to get us...”
- “Yes. At the Q section, they think the gas might have been the famous Kolokol-1, the incapacitating agent used by the FSB. It could make sense: Fokin certainly had some old acquaintances there who could have smuggled some gas cans for him...”
- “How did our men find us?”
- “You have been bloody lucky... The protection team arrived at the Oppeln hotel about one hour after you had been abducted, and they found the place crammed with Czech policemen. Your little turn of crashing from the balcony was quite a success, you know!” Tanner chuckled: “If Fokin’s men wanted a stealth operation, it was a complete disaster! Well, anyway, they had managed to take you away without leaving any clue. Given the situation, we launched a code red alert. Fortunately, you had informed Šlesinger of your gut feeling about Maxim Fokin. As this was our only lead, we stuck to it. The Q section managed to locate most of his known henchmen in the area with their mobile phones. The result was not easy to exploit: we had located three groups of more than two men in different parts of the city, and we didn’t have enough agents nor enough time to shadow them all. It was heads or tails... But when Fokin himself moved and headed towards one of the groups, we thought we had something. From a satellite image, we knew the men were in a barge moored in Csepel, an industrial district just south of Budapest. Not the kind of place you’d expect Fokin to be at night! So we equipped our men in consequence. By chance, this kind of job was familiar to them: two were former SBS – and the third a former SAS, which is not too bad either,” Tanner added with a smile. “Anyway, they drove at breakneck speed and made it to the barge at the same time Fokin arrived. They managed to sneak in the boat and took position. After some minutes of observation, they neutralized two henchmen who were coming out of the hold. The hoodlums were so scared it didn’t took long to make them confess their boss was “having a conversation” with an Englishman and a woman in a hidden compartment of the hold. Then, you know the rest.”
Bond nodded. Tanner was watching him carefully.
- “James... I’ve read some dreadful things in the report of our men. Do you remember what happened in this hold?”
- “Not really... I was still under effect of the gas,” he lied, secretly hoping he could avoid being sent once again to Sir James Moloney, the head MI6 psychologist, for the compulsory series of long sessions for post traumatic stress treatment. Tanner watched him thoughtfully for a moment.
- “Well... Anyway, if you ever remember and want to talk about this with a friend, rather than the Chief of Staff, I’m there.”
- “I know, Bill. Thank you.”
- “Oh and by the way, James, if you’re interested: you’ve been injured by your fall at the hotel, and you have a nice collection of broken or cracked ribs: very painful but not really serious. You won’t need surgery. With the painkillers, you should be back on your feet in a couple of days, and in one month it’ll be all forgotten. At least, that’s what the doctors say! But most of all, you need rest now. I’ll come and see you tomorrow with Moneypenny: she really insisted on being allowed to visit you, you know! Goodbye, James.”
Three days later, Bond had managed to convince his doctors that he was fit enough to get out the hospital, and with the help of the painkillers it was almost true. Finding again the familiar surroundings of his Chelsea flat, along with his freedom of movement, was a blessed feeling. Having just thrown his keys on the table, he decided to indulge himself in the simple pleasure of a long, hot shower. An hour later, watching dusk creeping over the tree-lined square down his windows, he felt at last perfectly relaxed. Bond was enjoying his first cup of decent fresh coffee in days when someone knocked on the door. He opened it to find Sára in front of him. Before he had even recovered his surprise, she threw herself in his arms, and explained:
- “When you told me you were going out of the hospital today, I took the first flight to London. I really needed to be with you, James. I hope you don’t mind?”
- “Of course not!” Holding her by the shoulders, he considered her for some seconds: “You look wonderful!”
She returned the look, and stated:
- “You look... terrible!”
They laughed wholeheartedly. Then Bond’s eyes noticed her bruised wrists, still streaked with handcuff marks. He gently took her hands in his and added seriously, looking deeply into her eyes:
- “Sára, I’m sorry for what happened...”
- “Don’t tell you’re sorry. Remember, you saved me. Now, I owe you one life.”
- “You don’t owe me anything.” He added with a smile: “And one life is a very long time!”
- “So I’d better start paying you back tonight...”
Kicking the door closed behind them, she took his face in her hands, and kissed him hard on the mouth.
James Bond will return...