Monday, December 10, 2012

'Y: 007 Raw' by Rio Moss


Prologue

Saint-Septime en Provence, France

 

        The man who exited the renovated sandstone farmhouse at the bottom of the valley had no eyes and no ears for the sight of the hills sizzling in the heat or for the birds proclaiming their joy to the world.

        . He was carrying a metal briefcase in one hand, a bunch of keys in the other. He gazed down the gravel path that led to the main road with a look of distrust, as if he was expecting something unpleasant to happen.

        Locking the door took him longer than usual because he did it twice, each time pushing his weight against the door to feel whether it was really closed.

        The man looked out of place outside of a holiday home in the Provence. First of all, he didn’t look European at all. His ancestors had emigrated from the Netherlands to the United States in the late 19th century alright, but he had since been bred into a typical American male, tall, strong jaw, dirty blond hair. He was athletic but nobody would mistake him for an athlete.

        The most out-of-sync element of his looks was his dress style. What would you wear on a sunny day in the French countryside? Definitely not a suit, and certainly not a Brooks Brothers outfit with a silk tie and leather shoes from Tod’s.

        With a final push against the door, the man looked up at the upper floor before making his way over to the car port next to the house. A white Mercedes S400 was waiting for him. A hybrid car, because he loved impressing people with how forward-looking and environmentally conscious he was.

        He hesitated between putting the metal case in the boot or inside with him. In the end, he pulled open the right front door first, put the case on the passenger seat, and then went round the front to drive away.

        Arriving at the main road, he looked left and right. There was no sign of traffic, but then this was a two-lane road between two villages with barely a thousand inhabitants between them.

        He put on his right-turn indicators, the law-abiding citizen that he was. He drove another half a mile before a man crouching by the side of a pine tree on the side of the hill punched a number into his mobile phone and hit the send button. The explosion tore the fancy car to shreds. Coryn Maas had just been wiped out.

 

Chapter One

Aegina, Greece

 

        I never bothered about offending people. I didn’t go out of my way to antagonize them, but I wouldn’t ponder whether anything I was about to do was going to offend anybody, whether innocent bystanders, or the other side, or my own colleagues or bosses. You do what you have to do to solve a problem.

        Sometimes it’s hard to gauge what is going to offend people the most. Uttering a profanity, nudity, or killing someone, often for no apparent reason.

        This morning I felt like combining all three of them. A good, short kick with a four-letter word might give me some extra courage to face down the rest of the day, particularly the first hour ahead. I could swear as much as I wanted, there was nobody within earshot. Only God, if He was present in this white chapel at the top of the cliff dedicated to one of His saints and if you believed in Him.

        Killing people was something for later. Even though contrary to what you might think, I didn’t enjoy the deed, but it might be necessary if I wanted to take my mission to a satisfactory ending.

        As to nudity, again, God would be the only one offended for the time being, because there was nobody else around the chapel. It was a bright sunny day, like any spring or summer day in this country. It might be going bankrupt, it would always stay beautiful.

        I decided not to swear, at least not outside my thoughts, but I did go for nudity. Inside the dark chapel, I bundled my clothes into a small heap and stuffed them on top of my sandals in a corner between a pew and the wall. I just hoped they didn’t have a procession or some other religious festival lined up for today.

        Outside, it felt good to let the rays of the sun shine on my body, but I wasn’t a tourist, I wasn’t here for the sunshine or the culture.

        I gauged the distance to the edge of the cliff and I stepped back. I counted to three and just let it fly. I ran forward, ever faster, not acknowledging the fact that an empty space would appear under my feet within five seconds. Four. Three, two, one.

        I jumped into the void. The void was actually a vast expanse of the most beautiful blue water you’ve ever seen. As I said, I wasn’t a tourist, so my eyes and mind were not focusing on how poetic all of this was, but on the ever-shortening distance between my body and the body of water. Call it a clash of titans.

        I won. It didn’t feel like that at first. I crashed through the surface like a seal dropping through a plate-glass window. It felt hard and uncomfortable. I gagged like a toddler during his first attempt at swimming.

        That wasn’t like me. I wasn’t an Olympic champion, fair enough, but I did put in weeks of extra swimming practice before even agreeing to undertake this mission. If you came out to the Greek islands, you should expect to get wet.

        As soon as the shock of the contact with the Aegean Sea wore out, I gathered my wits about me and hurried to the surface. After having washed the confusion out of my eyes, I glimpsed around, in particular at the cliff I had just descended by behaving like a Greek god. There was no movement anywhere, no evidence that anyone had witnessed my foolish behaviour.

        If anybody had seen me, it was a Greek god, or our God, or the people sitting behind their monitors watching the satellite footage. I could see their grins before my eyes.

        After bobbing up and down for a second to relax, I refocused my energy and began swimming. Straight ahead, in the direction of the yellow line on the horizon. Aghia Lefkameni was an island that barely featured on any maps. Add to that an almost unpronounceable name and you knew nobody would be interested. There must be a church or at least a chapel on that island, a tiny village full of ageing fishermen and their wives clad in black, and one tourist resort, on the beach facing Aegina.

        Binoculars were not strong enough for anybody on Aghia Lefkameni to have covered the distance and watched me jumping off the cliff. That also meant that I couldn’t overextend myself swimming. Every 50 feet, I would stop and relax, move the muscles a bit in another direction.

        I watched out for nasty animals in the water and for ships on a reckless course, the two most dangerous things that would pale in comparison to what I’d find at the end of my aquatic journey.

        Despite not wearing any clothes, I was feeling wet and soggy by the time I reached the beach. As I could discern people on the sand, I also became more self-aware. I could see them, they could see me. What if any of them knew me and recognized me? They could just pull a gun from under a towel and start firing away.

        I felt more naked walking on to that beach than I had ever before. It wasn’t that I wasn’t wearing any clothes. Let’s face it, nobody on that beach was either. There were young couples with children, elderly men and women, all barenaked. My feeling of nakedness was related to my good friend Walther. I couldn’t bring my Walther PPK on this mission because, well, I had no place to hide him. Improvisation was the name of this dangerous game.

        In contrast to what I had expected, nobody gave me any looks. I would have attracted more attention had I been wearing even a tiny pair of swimming trunks, but here, nudity was the new normal.

        I just walked past the sunbathers and amateur volleyball players into the resort. There was a towel drying on a wire strung between two young olive trees. I looked around and ripped it off. At least, I had something to cover up if it became necessary. I marched on between the low one-storey bungalows that were spread around like a kid had dropped a box full of Lego blocks and failed to pick them up again.

        My aim was not the resort itself, but the high-end villa complex built behind it. I had studied the satellite pictures to memorize the layout, but it would still depend on luck for me to find the guests at the right place at the right time, and especially, in the right numbers.

        Too much of a crowd and I might have to abort my mission, though on the other hand, if the crowd was unarmed, they might stir up enough confusion to be helpful.

        I didn’t have any choice. I walked around the white reception building where a bunch of tanned tourists wearing straw hats, plastic sandals and not much else stood shooting the breeze. This was the Aegean, so the daytime heat was tempered by a strong wind.

        The reception marked not only the separation between the bungalows and the upscale part of the resort, but also between the flat beach area and the hilly terrain closer to the centre of the island.

        I disappeared behind a rickety shed that must have been a leftover from before the tourist invasion and started climbing. The towel came in handy to wipe the sweat off my face.

        I took care not to hurt my bare feet on the sharp edges of the rocks strewn around the area. At certain points, I would bend and look around to see if I had been noticed. A naked man walking out of the water was one thing, the same naked man climbing up the rocks behind the reception area was a lot more cause for suspicion.

        There was no time for behavioural analysis, so I just made my way up until I reached a relatively flat area covered in cypresses and other typical Mediterranean vegetation. I didn’t know much about birds and trees beyond what I had once studied to pose as an ornithologist visiting Cuba. All I needed to know was whether the trees were broad enough to provide me with some cover. I moved forward and I immediately knew where I had to be.

        Snatches of shouts and music wafted through the trees in my direction. The party was on the way and I was about to crash it.

        I paused behind a tree to evaluate the possibilities. Up ahead was a low wall, barely three feet high, acting more as a form of decoration than as a barrier to keep people outside. The architects had not imagined that anybody would come in by climbing the rocks from the beach area to reach this place. Moving closer, I could count the guests.

        Behind the wall was a tiled area with a circular pool. Useless for swimming competitions, but practical for a party. I counted six women in and around the water, three men between the pool and the low salmon-pink villa with the bottom-to-ceiling glass windows. As befitted the nature of this resort, most of them were not wearing anything, apart from a few bikini bottoms and a fluorescent orange pair of Bermuda shorts on one of the men.

If you wanted to leave the pool area, you either had to walk into the villa or move to the right, where a silver version of the latest Mercedes S-class stood in the shade of vines stretched out over a trellis. I couldn’t see the license plates, but I guessed that was Retep Vane’s car. The guests would have walked up from the parking lot at the entrance to the resort.

        My choice was stark: either I bluffed my way into the party and went in full-frontal, or I crouched behind a tree and hoped the number of people would diminish within a few minutes. The latter was purely wishful thinking on my part. People coming to Greece for the sun would not complain about too much sun and go hiding inside the villa. And if one of them decided to move elsewhere, all of them would.

        The man who would set the tone for the group was Retep Vane. I knew from the surveillance footage I had watched last week in London that he was the man at the centre of this group, lying on a lounge chair with a woman sitting on either side of him. He was holding what I took to be a mojito in one hand and making extensive gestures with the other.

        As was usually the case, he looked slightly older in real life than on the pictures taken by the service. There were subtle patches of grey in the curly mass of hair dangling to his shoulders. He looked unshaven, but that was more a question of projecting a masculine image rather than being too lazy to shave, like I was on my days off.

        I wasn’t here to kill him. I might have to, but that was one of the uncertainties of my profession. You went in to perform one particular task, but along the way, things could and did go wrong, and you had to adapt to circumstances. That meant doing things that might offend people, doing things that later on you might tell your boss but nobody outside, not even your friendliest neighbour or most sensitive niece.

        Round to the right I went, because I reasoned that coming in the normal way, on the path that led up to that side of the villa where Vane had parked his car, was the least suspicious manner of approaching him.

        When I was far enough to the right to be out of the party’s sight, I left the cover of the trees and stepped on to the path. Ouch. Gravel and bare feet don’t mix.

        I felt lucky to see the car was unguarded and had its nose pointing outside, ready to roll. The chauffeur must be one of the men by the pool. I went round the driver’s side and peered inside. Nothing, certainly not a key, and nothing else. I had spotted the laptop lying on the floor under the table by the pool to protect it from the sun.

        I draped the towel around my neck and forgot about my painful feet. I walked from the car in the direction of the pool, conscious that within seconds all eyes would be on me, the naked intruder.

        The only thing I could adjust before my appearance was my hair. The wind had already blown it dry since my emergence from the sea.

        One, two, three. I rounded the bend and stepped into the pool area. At first, nobody paid me any notice. The men and women frolicking naked in and around the water were too busy with themselves to notice another man walking around.

        Instead of going for Vane, I headed for the pool, pretending I was going to take a dip. I stopped when one of the men called out.

        ‘You must be lost,’ the tough guy who I assumed to be Vane’s driver said in a hoarse voice. The people in the water didn’t pay attention, but the boss did. He put his mojito down on the floor and shot a sour look at me.

        I counted on him not remembering me from the night before, at the restaurant, when I sat observing him and his entourage while pretending to enjoy a moussaka and a glass of retsina. I wasn’t, but that was the cover I needed.

        ‘This is a public pool, right?’ I launched into a broad American accent, going on the presumption that if they thought I was some stupid arrogant American, they would be more forgiving of my trespassing trick.

        ‘We’re hiring this villa, so you’d better go looking for another pool,’ Vane said. ‘What’s your name?’

        I wasn’t going to answer that one, so I crashed into the table, lifting it up my right shoulder and propelling it into Vane and the two women sitting on his lounge chair. Almost at the same time, I lifted the laptop off the floor and pulled a towel from the nearest chair. The car keys and a mobile phone were lying underneath. I grabbed the keys and went running.

        ‘Don’t hit the car,’ I heard Vane scream at his chauffeur.

        The man was armed and let it be known. The first bullet just missed hitting my backside. I raced round the car and leaped into the driver’s seat. By the time I started the engine, the chauffeur was coming around the car as well to point his Beretta at the left front tyre.

        I hit the accelerator and nearly scooped him up. His gun flew down to the gravel and passed under my car, leaving him struggling to keep his equilibrium. He had a good look at me, which meant I’d better not bump into him again. No more Greek holidays for a considerable time.

        I raced down the gravel path, enjoying the drive but conscious of the dangers. I couldn’t see much in the rear-view mirror because of all the dust the car was kicking up, but I knew I couldn’t rest. A couple of olive trees got sideswiped but I continued on my way downward which I knew from the satellite footage would take me out of the resort and closer to the coastline.

        I wasn’t going to have myself arrested for driving a stolen car and for driving naked outside a naturist resort, so just before I was to hit the guarded barrier coming up in front of me, I turned a sharp right and dived into the bush. A couple of men came screaming out of the guard post but they were not armed, I was happy to notice. Their work was keeping peeping Toms out, not keeping car thieves in.

        The airbags did not deploy because I braked hard before hitting the first tree. I jumped out of the car, keeping a tight hold on the laptop with the towel still around my neck. The water of the Aegean was glistening down below the incline, behind the trees.

        I ran as fast as my bare feet allowed, missing sharp branches and needles only to stub my toe against a rock. A painful grimace was all I had time for. By the time I reached the water, I heard more voices up behind me. Maybe the chauffeur had run down the hill in hot pursuit and would now soon start shooting in my direction.

        I put the laptop on my head and tightened it fast with the towel. I must have looked like one of those African women returning home with a bucket full of fresh water balancing on her head.

        According to my briefing, the laptop or notebook or whatever you called it, was waterproof. I didn’t want to take the risk that the lads back home found out tomorrow that it hadn’t been after all.

        So there I went, heading back to Aegina the same way I had come, in the water. By the time I reached the open sea, I was out of reach of the chauffeur’s gun. I never looked back to see if he was watching me, I didn’t care. Vane did not have a yacht down here, I knew that much. He was a man like me. He loved speed, and yachts were just not fast enough to move in or out of one place at short notice.

        Today I had won a battle. The war would go on.

 

Chapter Two

London

 

        The man staring at me in the mirror had changed. He no longer cared about the best brands of clothing and wines. At the age I had arrived at, I still wanted a nice car and I still enjoyed the company of the ladies, but I had outgrown the snobbishness of the bespoke tailor and the venerable vintage.

        I just made sure that the Tom Ford suit I bought last Christmas didn’t show any rumples. That was enough for me. The mirror in my office was pure vanity, but at least I hardly spent any time here, so any rumours about me being a dandy were totally spurious.

        I took the black folder from the desk and heading out into the corridor. I scanned my card inside the lift and it agreed to take me to level 7. Chief of staff Bill Tanner’s office was another scan away at the end of the hall, to the right.

        I announced my presence the old-fashioned way, by knocking on the hardwood door with my right fist. Twice in quick succession.

        The light to the right of the door jumped from red to green and I entered.

        A young woman of Indian origin sat behind a bullet-proof glass pane working on her desktop. She whispered my name in a microphone to announce my arrival to Bill, who was working behind the second hardwood door in the room.

        The secretary raised her hand as the light on that door also went green. I stepped into Tanner’s office to find an uncharacteristic absence of a smile on his face. He pointed at the soft leather chair in front of his desk. Despite the office’s location on the seventh floor, there was no view at all. There was not even a window, only pictures of nautical scenes from the Thames to the Falklands. Yes, there was a thing like reflecting glass, but even that was not thought to be foolproof, so the service had decided that the top people should not have windows to enjoy the views of London that top managers at normal companies had.

        Tanner held his balding head between his hands as he looked at me. Did I notice the tracks left behind by tears?

        ‘The place has been a mess since M …,’ he sighed instead of finishing his sentence.

       ‘I know,’ I said. I didn’t but I could guess. Tanner now had to take all the fire coming at him from all directions, from the Cabinet Office, from the House, from the field. He was a moving target.

        ‘Let’s turn to that island of yours with the unpronounceable name,’ he said.

        ‘Aghia Lefkameni.’

        ‘Right. Q studied the laptop.’

        ‘Vane’s laptop.’

        Tanner looked annoyed at my useless remarks. ‘We didn’t find what we needed but we found something else.’

       I hoped it was good enough to avoid days if not weeks of sniggering remarks about my going all out in the buff. I put an expectant look in my eyes.

        ‘Do you remember Coryn Maas?’

        I leaned back to reflect. I knew that name, but not in connection to Retep Vane and his ilk. Suddenly, I knew.

        ‘The Coryn Maas who was killed in the Provence last spring?’

        Bill nodded. ‘The Coryn Maas who spent most of his life behaving like a prominent businessman and charitable gentleman, but in the end proved to be a trustworthy tool of Langley.’

        Maas had been on the payroll of the CIA, helping them to infiltrate charities on the continent that might have had links to leftist and Islamist extremists.

        ‘What’s the connection with Vane? What was Maas doing on the laptop? Did Vane have him killed?’ The theories flew through my mind and out of my mouth like collapsing dominoes.

        ‘It’s not that simple, James. Maas was spending a holiday at his modest cottage in the Provence. We don’t know whether he met anybody there because the security camera footage was removed. He left on May 20 and his car exploded less than a mile further.’

        ‘How did the bomb work?’

        ‘The usual. Remote control by mobile phone. He kept his car in a carport next to the cottage, so it wasn’t difficult for anyone to tamper with it. Someone must have waited until after he left the holiday home and sent a message to blow him up.’

        ‘Was there somebody else with Maas at the cottage? Wife, lover, secretary?’ I asked.

        ‘This was his private place. A spot he kept to ‘chill out,’ if that’s the proper term.’

        I knew what he meant. My home was my chill-out space. A space where you could block out the rest of the world, at least for a short time. Shut off the TV, the Internet, the radio. Lie down in bath with a book or a bottle of wine for two hours and don’t care about what’s happening outside.

        ‘James, are you still with me?’ Bill asked, rupturing my temporary mental absence.

        ‘I must be getting old. Who did Maas need to keep his distance from?’

        ‘He had loads of enemies, as a man in his position would.’

        ‘I didn’t mean his enemies, I meant the people closest to him. Wife, lover, secretary.’

        Maas was married, lived with his wife in a home in the countryside on the border between Belgium and the Netherlands.’

        ‘Bill, it seems to me I need to go down and visit both the French cottage and that home, wife included.’

        ‘What we need to establish is the connection between Vane and Maas. If the latter is on the former’s laptop, did that mean they were enemies or friends?’

        ‘You’ve got a devious mind, Bill.’ I liked the chief of staff. His mind went where mine wanted to go, as if he were my GPS.

        ‘You’ve got points for not killing anybody on that Greek island. Keep it like that. We won’t be telling the French you’re operating in their zone, but don’t go and mess things up by killing some people there.’

        ‘I might have another go at Vane if I happen to find him strolling around the hills.’

        Bill threw a flash drive through the air and I caught it. The basic information about Maas and the upgraded details about my Vane mission would be listed in full. I needed to read it and then destroy it, like in a cheap action movie.

        As I left his office, his secretary smiled at me.

‘Goodbye, barenaked Bond.’

‘Did you watch the satellite footage?’ I asked her. She must have.

‘That was way above my intelligence clearance.’

For a moment, I wished she’d been a lesbian.

 

Chapter Three

Saint-Septime en Provence, France

 

        A falcon circled high above the valley. If I had been a gullible tourist, I might have believed it was a vulture looking for corpses to feast on. I certainly was dressed to fit the part. Tough athletics shoes, shorts with lots of pockets to stuff things in like knives, a mobile phone, a miniature camera. Anyone going through them right now would only find handkerchiefs with my sweat marks though. I was wearing a white T-shirt, not just because that colour was supposed to keep you cool, but especially because it was so neutral it might make you less conspicuous than say, a red or black T-shirt.

        I was going against my second nature of not wearing anything on my head this time. A baseball cap of all things crowned my short blond head. Just an unmarked white one. I didn’t care for baseball, so I never wanted the name of a team I didn’t feel anything for to adorn my head. White again was the most neutral colour I could have, even though a true baseball fan would find it odd.

        Anyway, I wasn’t likely to encounter many baseball fans in the French countryside, was I? I had a small backpack dangling from, you guessed it, my back. A casual search would turn up a bottle of water, a small towel, the ID of a Swiss sales manager for a trade firm in Bern and his driver’s license and credit cards, plus a small pair of binoculars and a black satchel with a heavy object I would let nobody touch.

        The roof of the Maas cottage first appeared in the corner of my right eye. I never looked at it directly, in order not to betray to any observer that my coming to this place was not coincidental.

        I pretended to be looking for some point straight ahead, a clutch of trees half way up a mostly bare and dry cliff. I moved my head slightly to the left. I just saw a short stretch of tarmac in a patch uncovered by trees. That was the road where Maas had met his death. I stepped forward and moved my head around, sometimes scanning the path that slung left and right between the rocks, trees and dead branches, sometimes looking to the right in the direction of the cottage, which was now all but invisible.

        An approach from the rear would be the most innocent tactic. Claim you’re lost if anybody asks what you’re doing so close to a strange house. The information I received from Bill didn’t tell me whether somebody else had bought the cottage and moved in. If there was, it would make my task more difficult. How would I get in without a sound excuse, and what inside the house was there still left from the previous occupant?

        Before I reached the cottage, I first had to cross the road. It was one of those narrow two-lane roads that swept up and down, left and right, the kind of place you see on the Tour de France broadcasts each summer.

        I did some cycling of my own but I never watched it unless I couldn’t avoid it. Like last summer when I went undercover at a café in Belgium to observe a target who was hiding in a crowd of cycling enthusiasts. The sitting kind, those who spent a complete sunny afternoon inside watching the telly.

        It was unconscious, but I looked left and right before crossing the road, half expecting a batch of cyclotourists to emerge in front of my face.

        The vegetation across the road was dense. I not only had to watch my step, I also needed to keep my arms and legs away from scratchy nettles and sharp dead branches and needles. The trek was getting tiring quite soon, so I had a credible excuse for veering to the right in the general direction of the cottage.

        There it was. Two storeys, heavy stones, narrow high windows, one back door. The curtains were drawn, but on the whole the property still looked clean and well kept. Was there a real estate firm looking after it?

        I emerged from the bush and walked around.

        ‘Anybody home?’ I said, but not loud enough to be heard on the other side of the building.

        A door slammed. I froze and reached into my backpack for the satchel. I pulled out my Walther but kept it hidden inside the backpack while hurrying forward. Another door slammed before I saw what was happening.

        A man had run from the house’s front door to a Citroen C4 parked on the paved plaza in front. He started the engine and drove off.

        ‘Stop!’ I called out while pointing the gun at his car, but he was gone. If he were an innocent citizen, he would call the police and say he had been attacked by an armed man. If not, he might return with reinforcements.

        I needed to work fast. I rushed for the door and put my shoulders against it. It was locked.

        Instead of wasting a bullet, I ran to the edge of the trees where I picked up a chunk of wood big enough to hurt someone with it. I slammed it into one of the windows.

        Effective but noisy. As soon as the rain of shards had stopped falling, an upstairs window swung open and a gun appeared.

        ‘Les mains en l’air,’ a woman’s voice ordered.

        Surrender was not in my vocabulary. I ran like hell toward the carport on the other side of the house, out of the gun’s range. Two shots crackled, the bullets hit the spot I had just left.

        The man who ran away had left an ally inside to mop up. I needed to smoke her out without destroying information or before she did. To my surprise, there was another car next to the house. A brand new white Porsche 911 with the top down. Whoever the woman was, she wasn’t worried about being noted. The other guy must have been local because he drove a French car. I suddenly saw this one had Dutch license plates.

        There was no time for reflection, I needed to keep moving if I wanted to flush out the enemy. I ran for the back of the house, my gun ready to fire if the woman had rushed to the back of the house on the inside. I kept close to the wall, bending down to pass the windows. I felt the back door, but it was locked as well.

        Time was running out. Either I could try to break in and expose myself to attack, or I could draw her out.

        I went all the way through to the other side of the house and ran off into the bush. As soon as I was certain she could not see me, I crouched and looked back. I couldn’t see the windows, but I spotted the front of the Porsche and the space at the rear of the house. It wasn’t worth calling it a garden, since nothing had been planted there by man. All the vegetation had just occurred naturally, thrown there by the wind.

        The sound of an engine. Hell. How stupid had I been. She was going to drive away just like her accomplice. I jumped up and ran to the other side of the house to intercept her as she would be driving to the front plaza from the carport. I was just six feet away when it happened.

        The house shook like there was an earthquake, only I was pretty sure that France was not subject to tremors of this magnitude.

        I ran harder just to see all the glass windows fly out in bits and pieces amid a roar of fire. The blast threw me aside between the trees. I covered my face while holding on to my Walther. It must have been a sturdy oak tree. I collided with it and fell into a dark void.

 

        ‘Who are you?’

        The faintest of voices. It almost sounded like an angel, so maybe I was in heaven. Too bad I didn’t really believe in heaven or hell. I tried to lift my eyelids. A searing white light pierced into my eyes. Was this heaven after all?

        ‘Who are you?’

        The voice sounded a lot clearer and a whole lot less angelic. I opened my eyes again. White light. Fire? I blinked. The light was still there, but less intense. I kept my eyes open and things came into focus. The light came from up there, from the sky. Sunlight in a sky that was gradually turning blue.

        I managed to open my eyes wider. Instead of the all-encompassing light, I now saw a woman sitting in front of me. Crouching, black cotton trousers, black T-shirt with some inane slogan on it, short dark wet hair. A Beretta in her right hand pointing straight at my chest. In her left hand, I recognized the Walther. My Walther, but she was keeping it down, pointing at the ground.

        Behind her, I saw the destruction. Rocks, stones, splinters of wood that had once been furniture. The wreckage of the white Porsche.

        ‘You’re American, aren’t you?’ My voice sounded like I had just digested a plate full of gravel.

        ‘I’ve got the gun, I’m asking the questions. Who are you?’

        ‘I’m a hiker. I was just walking past your house and I thought of asking for some water.’

        ‘A hiker with this?’ She waved the Walther at me.

        ‘The guidebooks say there are still bears in the Provence.’

        ‘You were snooping around the house with a gun. You’ll have to come up with a better story before I shoot you in the leg and make you spit out the truth.’

        For some reason, I saw something in her eyes that made me believe she could do just that.

        ‘I’m a British investigator. There was a murder here some months ago and I’m here to look into it.’

        ‘You’re late.’

        ‘I didn’t miss you, or your friend.’

        ‘You mean your friend,’ she said.

        ‘I arrived here, he ran out of the house, into his car, he drove off and the house blew up. Does that sound like he was my friend?’

        ‘How is your investigation going?’

        ‘Now it’s your turn to tell me who you are. Looks to me like you are a murder suspect. Waving guns at people like me, exploding things, and you need a ride.’ I shook my head at what had been the Porsche. ‘I have a brand new Renault Clio two miles from here.’

        ‘You drive in style.’

        ‘A rental. I wanted to keep a low profile. Tell me what is going on here.’

        ‘Show me your ID and I’ll tell you everything I know.’

        I didn’t have anything on me that revealed my true identity, but I did have a passport jammed into the back pocket of my shorts. I showed her the Swiss passport in the name of Juergen Moscher.

        ‘You’re not Swiss. You just told me you were British.’

        ‘You don’t have to know my real name. I work for British intelligence.’

        ‘Six?’

        ‘You’re familiar with British intelligence?’

        At last, she drew back, though she still kept the Beretta trained in my general direction. I scrambled to sit myself upright. There was some dried blood on my forehead, my T-shirt was ripped, but otherwise I was still in relatively good shape.

        ‘My name is Tess Rivera. If you’re investigating the murder, you should know who I am.’

        The wife of the late Coryn Maas. The widow. The woman who was supposed to live in a villa somewhere on the border between Belgium and the Netherlands.

        ‘What are you doing down here?’

        ‘The same as you. Investigating Coryn’s death.’

        Tess stood up and I tried to follow her, but my joints were all stiff. I fell back once before it worked. ‘You’ve been here before?’

        She looked back at the wreckage. ‘I’m going to take up your offer about your car.’

        ‘Let’s walk. You can tell me about your husband while we get the car.’

        She picked up a backpack from behind a tree and put both guns in there.

        ‘Can I have mine back?’

        ‘At the end of the ride.’

        ‘Where is that?’

        ‘Depends on what your plans are. You’re the driver.’

        ‘It doesn’t look like I will have a lot of choice. You’ve got two guns, I’m impotent.’

        ‘A man and his guns. I’d like to get back home.’

        ‘Is your investigation complete?’ I asked her. She would be sticking around if she hadn’t found anything.

        She walked away from the house and crossed the main road before letting me go ahead in the direction of where I had hidden the car. We would need hours to reach it.

        ‘I was inside the house upstairs when I heard that man entering. I was waiting for him to go up when I heard you coming.’

        ‘You heard me? I was as silent as Tinker Bell.’

        ‘There are tripwires behind the house that ring alarms inside. That’s how I knew somebody was coming from behind, but the sound of the alarms scared off the intruder. You know the rest.’

        ‘Did he plant the bomb?’

        ‘It certainly wasn’t me.’

        ‘You’ve been in that house before?’

        Tess slowed down because I was still not in the right shape for a long walk. ‘That was Coryn’s private retreat. I knew he owned it, but he never took me here. It wasn’t our lovers’ nest, if that’s what you’re thinking.’

        I remembered the briefing. Coryn Maas used the cottage as a place to chill out, away from his job, and presumably away from his wife as well.

        ‘What did you find there?’ I asked.

        Tess Rivera didn’t reply. I stopped. She walked right past me as if she knew where my car was.

       ‘Tess. You need to stop playing those games. You pointed a gun at me, yet I never asked for your ID. I trust you. You need to trust me.’

        She slapped me. It hurt.

        ‘All I need to do is find the people who killed Coryn. Convince me you’re not one of them, and I’ll trust you.’

        ‘Why would MI6 kill your husband? If we wanted to, we’d have more subtle ways of bringing that about.’

        We had reached the point where I first noticed the cottage. My head was burning. I stopped to drink some water and offered her a gulp.

        ‘Don’t you think it’s crazy how we all had the same idea at the same time? My husband has been dead for months, yet here we all arrive on the same day, the bomber, me, you.’

        ‘They might have been observing you. The bomber found out you were headed here so he came back to tie up some loose ends. Destroy the property before you found any clues.’

        ‘Why is MI6 so interested in Coryn? We’re Americans.’

        ‘We’ve got our own angle on his case. How far did the CIA research your husband?’

        ‘I was debriefed by people in Brussels.’

        ‘Which means you also work for the agency. They wouldn’t bother you unless you were an active agent with access to confidential information too. Which explains your way with the gun. Shooting at me from the cottage.’

        ‘Are you still sore about that, Mister Swiss man? I just happen to believe in self-defence. Yes, Coryn was working for the CIA, but not with guns and speedboats and fast cars. He was a document man, an analytic type, and a gladhander. He got on well with people, so that made him a good source for information.’

        ‘No fast cars, but that was quite a nice one you had back there.’ Shame about the explosion.

        ‘The other car was blown up.’

        Her tone was so matter of fact, I didn’t get her. ‘I beg your pardon?’

        ‘It wasn’t added to my file yet? They blew up my other car when I left home last week. I drove off in Coryn’s Porsche for once, and they blew up the other one.’

        ‘They planted a bomb in a car meant for you?’

        ‘Who else? They must have been worried I was going to find out too much.’

        ‘Which means you have information that they want. We need to share.’

        ‘First walk me to your car and convince me you actually work for MI6 and they have my interests at heart.’

        I couldn’t just drive her back to the office and have her meet with Tanner, but there was a positive alternative at hand. I searched my backpack for my cell phone, but there was none.

        ‘I’ve got it,’ she said without looking at me. ‘You’ll get it when we drive off.’

        ‘I can’t phone and drive,’ I tried.

        ‘Then you should let me drive.’

        The rest of the trek developed in silence. I thought I was the toughest bloke in the world, but having yourself thwacked by an exploding cottage was not something to be taken lightly. I felt relief when I saw the dark red French car still sitting in the place I had put it, a rocky path behind the ruins of a sheep farm.

        Tess looked askance when instead of heading for the vehicle, I clambered into the farm building. I had hidden the car keys on the floor under the rusting remains of a bicycle frame. They were still there.

        I dangled the keys in front of her face. She wanted to snatch them but I pulled them back.

        ‘You drive or I drive?’ I said, as if it mattered to her.

        ‘Where are you supposed to take it back?’

        ‘Any large town will do.’ No, it wouldn’t. I had driven down from London to Clermont-Ferrand, and that’s where I left my own car. I wasn’t going to leave it there for long. ‘I’ve got a deal for you.’

        She looked at me from across the car. ‘Go ahead, let’s hear it.’

        ‘Do you have a laptop in that bag of yours?’

        ‘I do.’

        ‘We find a place for dinner, a hotel for the night, and then we set up a talk on your laptop. I’ll introduce you to my boss and he’ll explain everything.’

        ‘Sounds reasonable. Who says you’re not going to kill me once we’re in a hotel room together?’

        ‘If I had wanted to kill you, you would have been dead by now.’

        ‘Right. I’ve got both the guns, and you were knocked out, remember?’

        ‘I don’t need a gun to kill.’

        Tess grinned. The first laugh I had seen today. She tapped the roof of the car with her hand and took place in the passenger’s seat. I was the designated driver.

        ‘Where are we going, Miss Rivera?’

        ‘Anywhere out of here.’

        The route zigzagged up and down and around rocky hills. The only villages they crossed had a church, a café which doubled as the restaurant for lost tourists, a bakery and a butcher’s shop. I kept looking for the Citroen with the man who had bombed the cottage. There were Citroens everywhere, but none fitted the bill.

        ‘I’ll find a hotel, we’ll have dinner, and I’ll introduce you to my boss. Tomorrow morning, we’ll return the rental and travel in class.’

        ‘Who is your boss?’

        ‘I told you, I’m with MI6.’

        ‘Then your boss is M?’

        I braked, causing a driver behind us to honk his horn and put up his finger in a nasty but deserved sign of discontent. I put the car by the side of the road and stared at Tess.

        ‘You know far too much for just being the bereaved widow of a CIA operative.’

        ‘Coryn was not an operative. He collected some information for agents, but he never took any action that might have been called spectacular.’

        ‘Yet, he was blown up, somebody tried to kill you by blowing up your car and the holiday home in Southern France, and you know about M. You’re not the housewife you pretend to be.’

        ‘Are we going to talk to M tonight?’

        ‘No, we’re not. If you really want to know, the person on the other side of the line will be my chief of staff, Bill Tanner. M is no longer with us.’

        ‘That’s news.’

        ‘Tell me about yourself.’

        ‘First drive us to the hotel instead of letting us sit here like targets,’ she said.

        I drove off again. ‘It was a mistake not to have researched your past when we first heard of Coryn.’

        ‘How do you know I met Coryn? I was an operative who asked him to collect some information for us. He did, and I thought he did his job well.’

        ‘So you two grew familiar and fell in love. The operative and the informant.’

        ‘Do you understand now why I can fight you under the table?’

        ‘We’ll see about that, but I hope it doesn’t come that far. You and I should cooperate to find what really happened to your husband.’

        She went quiet, so I looked over and expected to find her crying about her late husband’s fate. Her eyes were dry.

        An hour later, I drove the Clio into a gravel alley that ended in front of a wide low building painted white. Au Cheval Blanc. The name of the restaurant betrayed its origins as stables for the local landowner. In addition to serving excellent ‘gibier’ and local wines, the restaurant also featured a hotel under its roof.

        We checked in, one room each, adjacent to each other. I convinced her to share a drink before going up, and while she was obviously puzzled at my generosity, she didn’t seem to suspect anything.

        I told her about my childhood trauma and she expressed sympathy. What was more important, I ordered drinks for both of us. This being a rather modest establishment, we just had simple martinis.

        ‘Are you going to tie me to the bed with your handcuffs?’ she asked before we separated ways in the upstairs hall.

        ‘I don’t have to. I’m a light sleeper, so I’ll hear it if you’re trying to slide out the window with all your sheets tied up.’

        She smiled, since she hardly realized I had another method of keeping track of her.

        First, I needed to reach Bill Tanner on my encrypted phone. He was tied up with a hearing at Whitehall, no doubt explaining the new winds that were blowing through British intelligence.

        I half thought about calling Felix Leiter in Langley and getting all the details about Coryn Maas and Tess Rivera, but somehow I knew Bill would not appreciate me going to our cousins behind his back.

        So I called him again half an hour later, while I heard Tess take a shower next door. Bill must have had a bad day, because he first turned down my request for a three-way chat with Coryn’s widow.

        ‘What did she know about Retep Vane’s list?’ he asked.

        ‘I thought you should ask her that.’

        ‘For Jove’s sake, James, you’re spending the day with her and I’m supposed to do your work? Get some answers from her before we talk.’

        ‘It’ll move better when we’re two against one,’ I suggested.

        Bill seemed to believe that one so he agreed on a conference call. I was to set things up with my laptop half an hour later. I waited until I heard Tess turn the water off, gave her five minutes to get dry and get dressed, and went over to the door of her room to knock.

        ‘It’s your neighbour, Juergen Moscher.’ I kept up that fiction, hoping she had memorized my fake identity.

        ‘Room service?’ she mocked me when opening the door. She was wearing a white bath robe and slippers, but not much else.

        ‘We need to talk to my boss, with the laptop in my room.’

        ‘You’re telling me to get dressed after I showered and prepared to have a rest?’

        ‘Sorry, but I’m working on MI6 time. I’m sure even Bill Tanner has seen women in bath robes before.’ I signalled her to come along with me, into my room.

        After I set up the connection, Bill and Tess made the necessary introductions. I felt like the translator at a conference of highly educated translators. Useless, in other words.

        My chief came to the sensitive questions pretty rapidly, as I had expected. He didn’t want to be here ‘doing my job,’ as he put it, he wanted to go home where his wife would have prepared a nice casserole with some tasty puddings.

        ‘What is the connection between your husband, Mrs. Maas, and a man named Retep Vane?’

        ‘Is that Retep Vane, the drugs and weapons dealer?’

        ‘You seem to know him. What were the links between your husband and him, did Coryn ever mention that?’

        ‘I don’t think there were any links.’

        She watched as Bill and I exchanged looks.

        ‘You cannot think my husband was in league with such a scumbag like Vane, can you?’

        I reached out and touched her hand. I don’t know whether Bill could see that on his screen. ‘We found your husband’s name on a list owned by Vane. That’s why I was here today. I was checking for further evidence of a connection.’

        ‘You could have told me earlier. I would have put that theory out of your head,’ she said.

        ‘Apart from your home in the Netherlands, and the holiday home in France, is there any other property your husband and you owned?’ Bill asked.

        ‘We still have relatives managing a house we had in Florida, but we haven’t been there since we moved to Europe. Coryn was thinking of buying a place in Croatia.’

        ‘In Croatia? Why?’ Bill asked.

        ‘The sunshine, the Mediterranean, the warm atmosphere, the beaches.’

        ‘You already have this cottage in France.’

        ‘There is no beach here, as your agent here found out today. There is no law against CIA staff owning more than one vacation home.’

        ‘I’m sure there isn’t, but we still need to know everything about your husband. Are you certain he never met Retep Vane?’

        ‘I can’t be absolutely sure, because there is a lot he didn’t tell me. Meeting somebody is one thing, working for him is another. My husband held high moral principles.’

        ‘How did he afford a Porsche 911?’ Bill continued.

        ‘You’re forgetting the Range Rover Evoque,’ Tess said. ‘We both had money before we started our recent occupations. Our parents were relatively wealthy, and they died rather early.’

        I felt for her, having gone through the same ordeal myself.

        ‘I want to talk to you.’ Bill pointed at me, but didn’t want to use my name because I had told him I was still using a cover with Tess.

        ‘That’s all for tonight then. Good night.’ Tess walked off without a further word.

        ‘She’s quite a piece, isn’t she?’

        Bill wasn’t in the mood for light banter. ‘I want you at that holiday home in Croatia.’

        ‘She said Coryn was dreaming of buying such a place.’

        ‘We checked his accounts and found evidence he already has one.’

        ‘He went behind his wife’s back and bought a house in Croatia?’

        ‘Precisely. But you come back to London for a briefing before you take the flight to Croatia?’

        ‘Can’t we do the briefing right here, right now?’ I didn’t feel like making the detour to London, even though I also felt badly about having to leave my car in France unguarded.

        ‘There are things not fit for discussion on a web link with strangers listening in outside.’

        ‘I’ll drive back tomorrow. What should I do with her?’

        ‘Don’t tell her more than you have to. And don’t bring her to London. We don’t need her around for the moment. The cousins in Langley should offer her protection if she feels threatened.’

        I didn’t tell Bill I thought she was extremely able to protect herself if she had to.

 

Chapter Four

London

 

        The Trellice was one of those new-fangled places offering modern fusion cuisine mixed in with everything that didn’t seem British. Despite that image, a friend had once recommended it to me, so I booked a table for two. Bill had told me to go out eating with a mystery emissary of his.

        I had returned the rental Renault to its place of origin in Clermont-Ferrand and picked up my own car for the trip back to England. I gave Tess a lift to Paris from where she would return to the Netherlands by train. No, nothing happened that night at Au Cheval Blanc. I spent the night half asleep, with one ear attuned to the rhythm of the adjoining room. I heard Tess get up once, flush the toilet and return to bed.

        She was impressed with my Bentley Continental GT.

        ‘Your Tanner shouldn’t be worried about CIA operatives buying Porsches if this is what you can afford,’ she said.

        Bill’s briefing had included handing me the ticket to Dubrovnik, a map with the location of Coryn’s house, and a list of local contacts from the real estate agency to an attorney. I felt like I was off to present one of those shows that help Britons find a new home in the sun.

        He had also ordered me to have the dinner with this mystery guest.

        The waiter brought a bottle of Italian sparkling water to my table just as a dj started spinning what I believe was known as soulful house.

        I was sitting with my back to a wall and my face directed at the main entrance, as I always do in restaurants if I can. A middle-aged gent with a rapidly disappearing tuft of reddish hair on top of his head approached my table. He was carrying a laptop case.

        My muscles tensed. The Walther was sitting in its usual place under my suit jacket.

        ‘Dance,’ he said.

        ‘Not tonight, thanks.’

        ‘Oliver Dance, that’s my name.’

        I mumbled something in way of an apology and gave him my name. ‘My name is Bond, James Bond.’

        ‘I know, otherwise I wouldn’t be here shaking your hand. By the way, do you know shaking people’s hands amounts to a massive exchange of bacteria and genetic information?’

        Please. Who was this Oliver Dance? My shrink?

        ‘How did the liquid work?’ he continued.

        I must have looked flabbergasted, because he pointed at his glass.

        ‘You want a drink, is that it?’ I waved at the waiter.

        ‘I’ll do with a Cabernet Sauvignon, unless you have something else in mind for tonight,’ he said.

        That’s what I ordered from the waiter. Dance looked at me with a grin.

        ‘What is it?’ He was beginning to annoy me.

        ‘I meant the liquid you provided that young American lady with.’

        ‘How do you know?’

        ‘Bill briefs me on everything.’

        ‘Does he?’ For a while, I had thought I was the only one to share in Tanner’s confidence and absolute trust, but if even this blowhard could hold the chief of staff’s ear, I began to wonder. ‘What is it you want to tell me?’

        ‘The liquid you poured into that young lady’s drink at the French auberge? Did it work?’

        When Tess took a toilet break during dinner, I emptied a capsule from my pocket into her glass. It contained a tasteless and colourless liquid which set off a reaction that could be picked up electronically long after its digestion. In other words, even now, I could watch my cell phone and see where she was. In the northern part of Belgium, when I looked just before sitting down at the Trellice to wait for this pretentious git.

        ‘She was married, so she’s not a young lady anymore’ I said.

        ‘She’s single again, so that should be enough for you, from what I heard around the office.’

        ‘If you listen to office gossip, that means you’ve got too much time on your hands.’

        The waiter came with the bottle of wine, and Dance did the obligatory swishing wine around the glass and tasting a microscopic nip before saying it was excellent, which I strongly doubted it was.

        ‘On the contrary, my dear 007, I have been hard at work on your behalf.’ He reached into the laptop case and produced a hard silver case, which he put on the space between our plates.

        He must have noted the suspicion on my face.

        ‘You still don’t know who I am, do you?’

        ‘You’re Oliver Dance and you’re one of Bill Tanner’s friends,’ I said.

        He smiled. ‘You really don’t know, do you?’

        I was tiring of his games. I thought about taking out my Walther and shoving it in his face. Get on with whatever you have to say, I thought.

        ‘I am the new quartermaster,’ he said.

        ‘What happened to …?’ He raised his hand to stop me. I didn’t even know there was a new quartermaster. Why didn’t Bill tell me?

        ‘This is on a need-to-know basis. He took leave because he received an offer from a major corporate group based in California. Silicon Valley, if they still use that term.’

        ‘So now I have to call you Q,’ I said.

        ‘You don’t have to do anything, but I would appreciate it. Before you question my abilities, let me tell you that I worked with Tim Berners-Lee.’

        The inventor of the Internet, for those who didn’t believe Al Gore. Dance had my attention, though I still wondered what he had helped the wise man on. Probably something far less prestigious than the Internet, but nevertheless.

        ‘I hacked into the FSB sites before they found ours,’ he added. The FSB was the successor to the KGB, its post-Cold War equivalent, less fear-inducing but still a potent rival, especially with the growing Russian communities in Western Europe.

        ‘Good for you. What’s in that case?’

        Since the waiter was arriving with the veal and orange dishes I had ordered, Dance – I still found it hard to call him Q – kept the case on his lap until he found a new place to put it.

        He opened it and handed it to me.

        I saw a row of transparent tubes with coloured plastic caps and a square plastic object, white and flat.

        ‘Is this my iPod?’ I asked.

        Dance smirked. ‘Please, 007, don’t laugh at me. Let me first introduce you to one of the basic laws of chemistry.’

        The last thing I was in the mood for was chemistry, especially with a man like this.

        ‘Each colour on those tubes represents a different function. Blue is sleep.’

        There were three tubes with blue caps, two with red ones, two with yellow ones.

        ‘The red ones are poison. You mix them in with anything and they have a mortal effect. Even a small drip on, let’s say, this piece of veal on my plate, will be enough to send me into the afterlife. The yellow ones have a double function. They act as a serum neutralizing the effects of the red ones, though you have to apply them within ten seconds to be effective. They also act as a truth serum. Whoever swallows this, will be unable to hide lies from you.’

        ‘Are you going to tell me about the iPod?’ I asked, pointing at the small plastic square.

        ‘You’re not going to tell me you’ve never seen one of those before?’ Dance asked.

        I certainly wasn’t planning to flatter him with my supposed stupidity.

        ‘It’s a transmitter-receiver. Made entirely of substances which don’t set off alarms at airports or under the roving eye of handheld metal detectors.’

        I picked it up and noticed a blue and a red button. ‘What are these for and how do I explain this to someone who finds it?’

        ‘The blue button is on, the red is off. Don’t explain anything. Just say it’s a toy you bought for your son.’

        ‘What kind of toy is this?’

        ‘Just something any child will be happy to fiddle with.’

        I couldn’t think up any reason why a child would want to fiddle with a white piece of plastic, unless it was a toddler who would put it into his mouth, bite it, and throw it away if it bored him. Which it would within a minute. I didn’t need to have children to know that.

        ‘Do you have children?’ I asked Dance.

        ‘A son who just moved to Boston to start at MIT. My daughter is a bit too young for that and too artistic. Juilliard is more her avenue.’

        ‘Congratulations. You tested all of this?’

        He nodded. We got to work on the veal with orange sauce. The conversation was dominated by Dance describing his children’s career planning with me. I could never talk like that, not just because my job didn’t leave me any room for children or any semblance of a normal family life, but also because I could never reveal such intimate details about myself to anyone. The number of people I could allow to know details of my private life had to be held down to fewer than five.

        Dance saw me glance at my watch after we finished the tiramisu with cranberry sauce.

        ‘One more thing, before I forget.’

        He pulled a watch from the inside pocket of his suit. Diners around us probably thought he was trying to sell me a counterfeit.

        ‘That’s the same watch I already have.’ I showed him mine.

        ‘No, it’s not.’ Again that annoying smirk on his face, like the teacher telling off a naughty little boy. ‘The one I’m giving to you has a built-in GPS and messaging device.’

        ‘So you don’t have a tube with fluid that you inject in my veins to know my whereabouts?’

        ‘You can do that with your American lady, but it wears off after a week. This one never does because it recharges itself with solar energy.’

        ‘What if I put this watch where the sun don’t shine?’

        Dance did not see the joke.

        ‘What about the message device?’

        ‘You work it with the numbers.’ He explained the whole works to me, press the button on the right that many times, and a list of letters would appear, than with each letter marked, the watch would give you a list of words to choose from. I felt it was more complicated than texting on a mobile phone, but I didn’t want to offend our Internet genius so I listened to all of his gibberish and pretended to admire his ingenuity.

        ‘You invented this all by yourself?’

        ‘007, you know Q is a team, not just one person. I’m only the human face of Q, the voice who translates the technological mumbo-jumbo into language understandable to field agents.’

        Why did it sound like field agents were a subhuman species?

        We left the restaurant as new acquaintances, uneasy about each other and wondering if our next meeting would confirm a positive relationship or show us we should keep apart.

        He took a taxi to wherever he lived, I took the underground to Chelsea. Driving a Bentley around these streets had turned into a nightmare. You needed an hour’s drive to get anywhere, and then another hour to find a proper parking space, and at the end of the day, your car could still go missing. Sometimes I wished MI6 was entrusted with street-level security as well.

 

Chapter Five

Dubrovnik, Croatia

 

        The glare forced me to put on my sunglasses straight away as I walked down the movable staircase on to the tarmac. The weather in Croatia was obviously showing another season than the drizzle in London had.

        I was prepared. I was wearing a white pair of trousers and a pinkish short-sleeved dress shirt from a London tailor with an ampersand in its name. The food on the plane had been sandwich-level so I craved for something more.

        The arrival hall was not exactly crowded. That’s why I immediately noted the person in the grey chauffeur uniform holding up the sign with the name Loiseau. The French word for ‘the bird.’ Nice touch, I thought. I wondered if Dance was responsible for choosing the name on my new fake French passport. If questioned about my French, I could pretend my mother was English-speaking and I had grown up in some non-French speaking country like the US or Ireland.

        The person in the grey uniform was a woman.

        ‘Triss Marron,’ she said after she had helped me put my backpack in the boot of the Audi A8 and we had taken place in the car.

        ‘Therese?’

        ‘Triss, like in Beatrice, but with double s.’

        I might not understand her name, but she had my attention. She looked athletic with a strong push in the feminine direction. The colour of her hair was like her name, marron or chestnut brown, cut off in two straight lines on the side. Sharp nose, sharp eyes. I could tell she was an MI6 agent.

        ‘You came down from Zagreb for this?’ I asked her while contemplating her driving style on the winding road high above the Adriatic coastline.

        ‘I arrived here two days ago to look for the property.’

        ‘And?’

        ‘It looks empty, but we can’t afford to drive by in a car like this. They’ll remember.’

        ‘Where am I staying?’

        ‘Within walking distance of both the old town and the Maas place.’

        ‘What else can you tell me about the house?’

        ‘Coryn Maas bought it four years ago through a shell corporation registered in Hong Kong, Phoenix Meuse Development and Investment. He’s spent very little time here, since the neighbours only remember a caretaker passing by occasionally.’

        ‘Do we have a grip on the caretaker?’

        As we rounded another bend, Dubrovnik came into view. A peninsula jutting into the sea, with the harbour turned like a crescent toward us. Heavy stone towers guarded the outside, and the walls surrounding the city were more than obvious. This was a well-defended place.

        ‘He’s not been seen for a while, according to the neighbours.’

        ‘You posed as a real estate agent, I imagine.’

        ‘Absolutely right. Do you want to get inside tonight?’

        ‘I’d love to get inside straight away. What’s the passage like?’ If it was in a desolate part of town, I would want to inspect the house right now. Keep things short and simple.

        ‘We’ll check in at your hotel first, then I’ll pretend to take you on a tour of the city.’

        ‘That’s nice of you, Miss Marron.’

        ‘Triss.’

        ‘Triss it is.’ The name reminded me of Tess, same consonants, short and tough. I spent the rest of the ride admiring the scenery. The road had winded down almost to sea level and passed the outer walls of the old city on the land side. Even MI6 agents read guidebooks, so I knew you could walk up the walls and go all the way around the city if you had enough time. I wasn’t here for the sightseeing, but I might come back here on holiday if I didn’t leave behind too much broken crockery, damaged egos or worse this time.

        Triss Marron would be a nice type of person to keep me company on a holiday, though I didn’t know if she would find enough time to come down from Zagreb again.

        ‘Do you often come here?’

        ‘Most of my business is inland. There is some smuggling along the coast, since it’s the main route between Albania and the EU, but things from Bosnia pass by Zagreb.’

        I knew what she meant. Drugs from Turkey, people from Bosnia, Kosovo and even further afield. Weapons too. Stolen cars in the other direction.

        ‘There is your hotel.’

        A rectangular building in neoclassical style, but obviously not older than a decade.

        ‘I’ll park the car outside, pretending to be your driver. We’ll meet down there, at the bus stop.’ She waved at a crowded street where buses, taxis and other vehicles fought for every space.

        I checked in. My room was a suite on the fourth floor with a brilliant view of the northwest side of town. The hotel was outside of the old city, but I could see the main entrance, the heavy-set Pile gate, where all the tourists passed through to head into town. I scrubbed my face, packed my essential gear into a small backpack, and set out.

        I didn’t know how Triss had done it, but she had made the car disappear and she was now waiting for me to cross the street and head into the old town. She was still wearing her uniform, but without the cap that would have drawn too much attention.

        She looked a lot better without it. I could visualize her without the uniform and in more feminine attire. She had an athletic figure, with the only awkward element the slight bump caused by the gun inside her jacket.

        ‘Pay attention to your surroundings. It’s crowded everywhere, and we don’t want anybody sticking needles into you,’ she said.

        ‘How romantic.’ She was referring to Bulgarian agents who once stabbed a dissident working for the BBC in London with a poison-tipped umbrella. A classic of popular spy lore.

        We passed through the Pile gate without saying a word, just moving our way through the throngs of tourists in light togs and with cameras and mobile phones at the ready. I looked out for people snapping us instead of the monuments. The crowds provided us with a perfect cover, but they also would protect anybody following and observing us.

        The other side might have a few inconspicuous elements posing as tourists here and there, relaxing while taking pictures of us. As soon as we entered the old town, there was a round low covered structure to our right.

        ‘The old town’s water supply,’ Triss commented.

        In front of us was the Placa, pronounced Pla-tsah, a long straight boulevard which once was a canal dividing the mainland from an island on the right. Now it was the place to be seen, the car-free street where everybody walked from morning until late evening to see and to be seen.

        A couple of actors dressed up as animals from a popular cartoon blockbuster jumped past us into the crowds. Both Triss and I were on edge, but just for a second.

        ‘I’m still missing one piece of my equipment,’ I whispered to her, covering my mouth just in case a lip reader was observing us.

        ‘Just a bit of patience, we’re almost there.’

        ‘Do you mean it’s at the house?’

        She laughed at me like a tour guide who had just told a joke. My sense of humour wasn’t exactly going viral. I felt naked again without my Walther, but that was the problem with air travel these days. Even if you put a weapon in your check-in luggage, it would provoke a row.

        That’s why Bill had said he would entrust the local agent with the armaments part of the trip. I wasn’t confident Triss was quite up to speed with my requirements.

        ‘Where’s the house?’

        ‘You see the building at the end of the street which looks like the Doges’ Palace in Venice?’

        I nodded.

        ‘The fourth street on the right before we get there.’

        The side streets were not really streets, they were alleys. On the left, I could see narrow staircases going up between the houses, up toward the mountainous land side. Side streets on the right were slightly wider and flat. Despite the ban on cars, there was still a kind of motorized tricycles moving through. They were used to deliver goods to restaurants and shops and to take away the garbage.

        ‘Follow me.’

        Triss suddenly veered right, and before I could object and say this was not the alley where Coryn’s house was supposed to be, she had put at least fifteen feet between us. I nearly bumped into a little old lady in black who was sitting on a chair in front of her house. I mumbled an apology in French, true to my role.

        Triss accelerated, as if she was trying to lose me. I pretended to be looking left and right, admiring the old houses which had survived earthquakes and battles from Napoleon until a siege by the Serbs in the 1990s war of independence.

        She fled into a portal on the right. Without missing a beat, I stormed inside, hoping there was no trick. I didn’t want to bump into a metal door or fall into a well. Triss was waiting for me by a heavy oak door. As soon as I was inside, she closed it behind me. We were facing a patio, an inside court where a collection of cacti received light from above.

        Without a word, Triss went up a spiral staircase with fine bronze and stone carvings worked into the side. I wasn’t here to admire the sculptures, I wanted to know what she was up to. It wasn’t until we had reached the roof that she spoke again.

        The view took my breath away. As far as you could see, orange tiles, some of them brighter than others.

        ‘The new ones were placed to repair damage from the war,’ she said, falling back into her part as a guide.

        On the left was the mountain side, leading up to a centuries-old fortress where the Serbs had set up their artillery to shell the historic town. On the right I could see the Adriatic shine in the sun, with a forested island in the background.

        ‘Are we really here just to enjoy the view?’

        Triss didn’t look at me but paced toward a collection of flower pots filled with earth and not-so-healthy looking plants. She grabbed a hoe and started digging up one of the pots. She pulled out a yellow plastic bag and swung it at me. I caught it. Its contents were unmistakeable. I peered inside to look at the Glock.

        ‘Put it in your backpack,’ she said.

        ‘What if someone had decided to throw out these dying plants?’

        ‘What if?’ she asked back.

        ‘Can we see the house from up here?’

        Instead of pointing into the distance, Triss took her mobile and put it into camera mode. She zoomed in on one particular roof somewhere to the right of the chunk of city we were facing.

        ‘Is there a way to cross over from here?’

        ‘Are you mad? We’ll cause more damage than is good for us. We need to go there the old-fashioned way, on the surface.’

        She ticked me on the shoulder and turned back toward the staircase. A minute later, we were strolling on the Placa with thousands of real tourists again.

        When we emerged on the main street, I saw a man in a light cream suit standing on the opposite side, apparently paying attention to postcards and video recordings of the war. As soon as we turned right in the direction of what Triss had described as the Doges’ Palace look-alike, he left the souvenir shop and paced in the same direction. He went slower than us, so I couldn’t look back without making myself conspicuous. I kept four feet behind Triss, looking into shop windows when I had the opportunity, not to inspect the goods on offer, but to see whether Mister Cream Suit was still tailing us. He was falling back.

        We were just one street away from the one where Coryn Maas had his holiday home when I decided to tell Triss about the man.

        ‘The local intelligence service knows me. They might have decided to put a man on me as they saw me take the flight here,’ she said.

        ‘Isn’t that a threat to our operation?’

        ‘What can he do? He’ll see us enter a house and leave again. There’s no crime in that.’

        ‘There is if he sees we’re breaking in and he knows the house doesn’t belong to us.’

        ‘He could be thinking you’re renting and you’re taking me inside for an afternoon tryst.’

        ‘That’s what I call positive thinking, Triss.’

        A tryst with Triss.

        She abruptly turned into the alley, not the one where Coryn Maas was supposed to have a house, but one earlier. I followed her for ten paces until she turned right into an even narrower alley and I hit a left to hide at the entrance to a patio. We waited for the man in the cream suit to show up, but he didn’t.

        I counted to ten and shook my shoulders. We moved further into a warren of passageways where no two people could walk abreast.

        ‘How are we going to enter?’

        She lifted an object in the air which looked like a metal thong. I smiled my approval. I couldn’t see that work in a modern home in London, but it would do for an old house with a heavy gate.

        ‘Are you sure he doesn’t have a sophisticated alarm system in place?’

        ‘If he has, why does he need a caretaker?’

        Point taken. We took a sharp left and a left again until we reached an alley that was four slabs wide. There was laundry hanging from the upstairs windows, and the sun just found a three-foot-wide gap to shine on the floor.

        ‘That’s the one,’ she whispered. Three houses ahead on our right, an empty-looking three-floor house painted light blue. Rather charming, I thought, though I would have preferred it to be situated closer to a beach.

        I didn’t like the fact that there was an eighty-something lady sitting on a chair in her doorway three houses further across the street, and she was talking to somebody who liked a postman. As Triss was working to open the door, the uniformed man walked over to our side. I smiled at him, which kept his eyes away from my partner’s efforts on the door. He handed me an envelope addressed to Mr. Maas at this address. It bore a Belgian stamp.

        ‘Are you done yet?’ I asked Triss as the postman walked away and I ripped open the envelope.

        She mumbled something which sounded angry and pushed the door open. We went inside and found a dark and musty hallway with two doorways on either side. These were comfortable rooms, but at first sight there was nothing we were interested in. No computers, no file cabinets, just sofas, chairs and tables, paintings of the Croatian coast.

        ‘Let’s go upstairs,’ I said, still holding the envelope in my hands. I was going to wait until we found some light before looking at its contents. ‘Shouldn’t we pay the caretaker a visit?’

        The fewer people knew about our visit, the better, but the caretaker might inform us about Coryn’s comings and goings, and especially about visitors he might have received here. Looking at the property, I somehow didn’t think Vane might have showed up here in person. Too dark, too confined, too cramped for his style.

        ‘Will he survive our visit?’ Triss asked as we moved up the stairs. She was now brandishing her weapon. I took the precaution of doing the same, though I felt this house was empty, as dead as its occupant was.

        ‘What do you think I am? A ruthless killing machine?’

        ‘That’s what I’ve been told.’

        ‘By whom? Not Bill Tanner, I expect.’

        She shook her head and put her finger in front of her lips as we arrived on the upper floor. She went down the hallway and into the rooms in Hollywood cop movie style. Gun in both hands first, pointing it left and right in quick succession. If anybody had been inside with anything heavier than a miniature toy gun, she would have paid a heavy price.

        The rooms were as dull and dead as those on the ground floor. It didn’t look like Coryn Maas had visited lately.

        ‘What was that letter the postman gave you?’ Triss asked as we were preparing to move to even higher ground.

        ‘Postmark Belgium.’

        ‘That’s where he lived with his wife, isn’t it?’

        ‘In Holland on the Belgian border, but he did work in Belgium. He was active in Brussels, you know, the capital of Europe, the European Union, NATO, all of that. A great place to spy.’

        ‘So what’s in the letter?’

        I used my mobile phone as a flashlight. It had an app I had downloaded just last year, when I needed to find my way on an unlighted path for a morning excursion in Cambodia. I had to walk two miles in absolute darkness from my hotel to the Angkor Wat temple complex to witness the sunrise. And find my target who was there to take pictures. But it wasn’t Retep Vane, so that’s another story.

        Just as I was looking at the first paragraph, we heard a bump upstairs. I immediately closed my cell phone, put the letter in my back pocket and took the Glock out of my backpack.

        I moved up the stairs first, letting Triss cover my back.

        At the top of the staircase, the space was only four feet high. On the right, a few old suitcases were stacked in a corner. I pushed open the door on the left, which revealed a child’s bed covered in cobwebs. There was nobody there.

        Something was scraping its way on top of the roof. I looked up and saw a square pane of wood. The access to the roof. I pointed at it to make clear to Triss that this was our next destination.

        I don’t know what I was expecting. The caretaker? The man in the cream suit? Instead, after I pulled down the pane and stuck my head through the hole, I saw a Chinese man in a polo shirt and slacks pulling away a heavily bleeding old man.

        ‘Stop,’ I said, pointing the gun at him. Before I could pull the trigger, he dropped the old man and leaped off the roof to the top of a neighbouring house.

        ‘Save this guy,’ I told Triss and off I went, never looking back.

        By the time I left the roof of Coryn’s house flying, the Chinese guy was two buildings further. After heading inland, he suddenly moved to the right. It was impossible for me to get a clean shot. First of all, I would have had to stop to focus my aim, and that would have given him the opportunity to increase the distance.

        I didn’t give him that chance. I jumped from roof to roof, brushing laundry out of the way, leaping over treacherous edges and kicking buckets to the side. When I arrived at an alley, I pulled back and jumped. I landed on both my feet before rolling over.

        Two roofs away from me, the Chinese man kicked open a door and vanished inside. He was running down to street level. I needed to catch up with him or I would lose him in the crowds of tourists.

        Instead of following him, I took a short cut.

        I stuffed the Glock back in my backpack, not expecting my target to take the time to turn around and threaten me, and I took hold of a metal bar hanging over the edge of a house. I swung my legs, looked down which I know you’re not supposed to do but you have to if you want to know where you are going to land. I let go and landed on the balcony of a room below. A red, black and white cat hissed at me from behind the window. I jumped over the balcony and did the same thing again, measure the distance to the lower floor, let go and catch the metal railing of the balcony below. This time, it wasn’t a cat staring at me, it was a butch guy in his underwear. He was reaching for something, but by the time he had grabbed it, I was already down on the street, picking myself back up again.

        I ran in the direction where I expected the Chinese man to emerge. I counted to three. Nothing happened. I suddenly understood. The house was standing against the outer wall of the city. It must have a rear exit.

        I pushed my way past a throng of stunning Israeli women who only captured my attention for five seconds. I went round the corner faster than a skater on steroids. There he was. My target. Halfway up a staircase on the side of the city wall.

        I could have taken a shot there if it hadn’t been for those tourists going up and down the same staircase, slowing the Chinese man down but reducing his vulnerability as a target. There was also the fact that I had put my gun in my backpack.

        I raced up the stairs as well. The view at the top was absolutely brilliant, if you were there as a sightseer. The old city with its orange roofs, the palace and the basilica were on the left, with those stark mountains in the background. On the right, there was a view down the steep walls to the Adriatic.

        The only view that interested me was the one showing my target running up and down the walls away from me. I followed suit, pushing and shoving tourists out of the way. The only consolation I had, was that he faced the same problem. Overcrowding, the perils of mass tourism, hot weather that sent sweat streaming down my back. Blame it on climate change.

        I needed to stop this chap and ask him what he was doing in the Coryn Maas holiday home besides trying to kill the caretaker. I never considered the possibility of failure, because to do so would lead to the acceptance of failure. I could consider that if he ran off, I would still have the letter someone sent from Belgium to Maas at this address, but I couldn’t guarantee the message would include anything useful.

        So I repressed the option of failure and I ran on, brushing aside the angry looks of the bystanders and focusing my attention on the man in the polo shirt, still running away from me at a frenzied pace that meant he was far younger and fitter than me.

        There was a sharp descent where he just took three steps in one go, but the downhill stretch was followed by a steep climb back up. I tried to outdo him by taking four steps in one go, but that resulted in me smashing against the wall and nearly losing my balance.

        He was on the way back up. I leaped like a mad leprechaun. The way up was far harder and he increased his advantage again. By the time I was at the top, he had opened the distance between the two of us. I paused for a nanosecond to wipe the sweat off my forehead before surging forward.

        The stretch up ahead was straight and relatively flat, which allowed me to make up some lost ground and to look around. Down on the left below the wall was a busy street, where tourists were milling in the shade to look at souvenirs. Down on the right was the Adriatic, lapping at the foot of the wall. A cruise ship was coming up in the distance, manoeuvring its way between the old city and an island.

        I looked ahead and I saw a woman coming from the other direction. A woman in an athlete’s track suit and with a black baseball cap tight on her head. That wasn’t enough of a disguise to prevent me from recognizing her though.

 

Chapter Six

Dubrovnik, Croatia

 

        Tess Rivera brushed a hawker aside who was trying to sell her computer mousepads with black-and-white pictures of the Dubrovnik walls. How had she found out about her husband’s place? I racked my brains for any information I might have let slip, but she must have found out on her own.

        I saw the bulge in her pocket. I was sure it wasn’t a rabbit’s foot, but I couldn’t tell whether it was a gun. Even the Chinese man, who had probably never seen Tess before, sensed danger.

        He slowed down as he saw himself locked between Tess and me. She spread her arms to block his passage. He looked down at the crowd on the left but chose against going that way. The landing would not be soft.

        My target wasn’t surrendering. He looked back, saw me and spat on the ground. Then he slung his right leg over the railing on the sea side, his left leg followed, and he leaped into the void.

        Not again, I thought. I still remembered my jump into the Aegean from the chapel. This time, I was wearing all my clothes. Tess shot me a surprised look when I swung over the railing myself and landed in the Adriatic just five feet from my target.

        ‘Stop it or you’re going to drown,’ I shouted at the Chinese man. I didn’t even know whether he spoke English, but his swimming ability certainly wasn’t much to crow about. He splashed and splattered about like a goldfish thrown out of its bowl by a cat.

        I bumped my fist into his head as a show of force. He dived or should I say, he sank? When he didn’t come back up again, I followed him down.

        He had created some more distance between us, so his swimming skills were not as bad as I had assumed. Never underestimate an enemy. If I have tricks up my sleeve, so will he.

        I moved forward under water before getting to the surface just before he did. I love swimming for recreation, but moving around with your clothes on and a backpack restricting your movements is a drag.

        Just as I threw myself at him, the cruise ship came into view. It was boring right at us. I pulled at his hair with my left hand and slung my right around his neck. He thought I wanted to drown him, but I needed him alive.

        I could hear the shouts from the cruise passengers. Dozens, maybe hundreds were crowding on this side of the ship to get a good view of the city walls, but as an extra they got an aquatic fight between me and my target. I wondered if they thought this was a show put on for their benefit, because I seemed to hear cheers when I pulled the Chinese man under water.

        When we surfaced again, we got the waves from the ship right in our faces. I finally managed to free a hand to take the Glock I had received from Triss and put it against the man’s head.

        ‘Stop it now, or you’re dead.’

        ‘You don’t want to kill me, bro,’ he said in a fluent American accent that upset me.

        ‘I’m not your bro. Who are you working for?’

        He grinned but remained speechless, even when I threatened to pull him under water again.

        He took advantage of the scrap to pull out a knife from inside his trouser leg. He stabbed at me but his movements were slowed down by the water. For the next minute, which felt like half an hour, we were fighting a ballet. He knew I wouldn’t kill him with my gun, but he had no such compunctions.

        I bashed a fist into his temple, but that didn’t seem to slow him down. He kept wielding his knife, ripping holes in my shirt. I struck him with the butt of my Glock and slammed my left into his right ear.

        He sagged and I took the opportunity to pressure his hand into releasing the knife. It sank out of view but still he wasn’t giving up. He opened his eyes, spat water in my face and kicked me in the shins.

        A motorized sloop approached.

        ‘Do you work for Retep Vane?’ I managed to ask before he slipped out of my grip and swam off.

        I hurried to chase him but he reached the sloop before I could touch him.

        ‘Police, stop him,’ I shouted, but my words made no impression on the Croatian fisherman. He helped the Chinese man on board and turned away just before I reached the boat.

        I fired two shots at the vessel which was now heading for the old harbour at high speed. I looked up to find Tess Rivera on the wall. She was gone. Instead, there were crowds of tourists looking, some of them waving at me. I waved back.

 

        ‘Who was he?’ I asked Triss. I was putting on fresh, dry clothes in my hotel bathroom while she was enjoying a glass of Pinot Noir on the balcony. The sun was going down after a tough day.

        ‘The caretaker. Before he died, he said he hadn’t seen Coryn Maas at the property since last year.’

        ‘That’s useful. A dead caretaker and a murderer on the loose.’

        I hadn’t told Triss about Tess Rivera’s presence in Dubrovnik. If she was smart enough to track down her husband’s secret getaway, she might show up here at the hotel any time soon, I thought.

        ‘What did he have to say about the Chinese man?’

        ‘He showed up at the door just ten minutes before we arrived.’

        ‘Did he take anything?’ I could hit myself for failing to have searched his pockets, but the Adriatic was not the perfect place to do so.

        I appeared in the room wearing a white pair of trousers and a turquoise polo shirt. Triss whistled.

        ‘He said he was an emissary from Maas himself and needed to pick up a file.’

        ‘What kind of file?’

        ‘The caretaker said he didn’t know where it was, and he got suspicious when his visitor got pushy and wanted to search Coryn’s room.’

        ‘What’s the end of the story?’ I was growing impatient, and hungry.

        ‘Just when the caretaker was about to ask him to leave, the man found what he was looking for. A small plastic box. Then he turned to face the caretaker and stabbed him with a knife.’

        ‘When we found him, he was moving the man about on the roof. What was the point of that?’

        ‘The box was hidden on the roof, inside a fake chimney,’ Triss said.

        I pulled Triss down to the restaurant for a dish of local mutton and meatballs, flushed down with imported wines. I couldn’t care less about the vintage, I just wanted to eat, drink and sleep.

        We were about to order desserts when my mobiledf rang.

        ‘Bill,’ I said. The weariness was dripping from my mouth.

        ‘You had a rough day but maybe tomorrow will be better,’ the chief of staff said.

        ‘I take it you have good news for me.’

        ‘It depends on how you take it. Our old friend Retep Vane and his entourage have landed in your part of the world. A flight from the Turkish part of Cyprus landed in Pula just two hours ago.’

        Vane spent most of his time in Northern Cyprus because it had no diplomatic relations and therefore no extradition agreements with most of the rest of the world apart from Turkey.

        Pula was in Croatia just like Dubrovnik, but at the other extremity of the Adriatic coast. I was sitting with Triss at the far southern edge now, close to Montenegro and not too far from Albania, while Pula was closer to Slovenia and Italy. I estimated driving time between the two cities at more than ten hours on the busy but narrow road that followed the coast all the way.

        Bill turned out to know as much as I did about Croatian geography. ‘You need to be on a domestic flight out there first thing tomorrow morning.’

        I briefed him about the Chinese man and the plastic box from the Maas house. I didn’t give him the details about how he gave me the slip. That would be something for the report I would eventually dictate to one of the pool secretaries at MI6. She would type it up and e-mail it to Bill, who I hoped would be far too busy to read it in detail.

        I was an action man, not a bureaucrat. Even action men needed a break, and this evening was as much as I could enjoy.

        ‘We’re off to Pula tomorrow morning,’ I told Triss as soon as Bill had ended the conversation. He had given me some more details about Vane’s whereabouts.

        ‘I also have good news for you,’ she told me after looking at the screen of her phone.

        ‘The Croatian police are not going to interrogate me about my little splash off the walls of Dubrovnik.’

        ‘James, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. My office in Zagreb has helped me look out for an Asian man travelling out of the city.’

       ‘You are getting ahead of me.’ I admired her initiative, but then I could hardly expect her to be just my sidekick. I watched her push hair off her forehead to one side.

        ‘A Japanese-looking man – those are the words of my informant – was signalled arriving dripping wet at an address on the other side of town. He walked out half an hour later and drove a BMW 3 up north.’

        ‘Any words on his destination?’

        ‘We didn’t question him, we only saw him leave.’

        ‘What about the man in the cream suit?’

        ‘You’re still thinking about that guy, James? He must have made quite an impression on you. I suspect he was just one of the local guys keeping a look out for British agents causing mischief.’

        I wondered if he was working together with Tess. I had expected that man to enter Coryn’s holiday home, but instead there was the Chinese man. There seemed to be no link between the two.

        We ordered tea rather than coffee because we wanted to be rested and fit to catch the early-morning flight from Dubrovnik to Pula. I was taking the first sip of the green tea when a slight buzz in my pocket revealed I had received a message.

        I saw the number and opened the message. ‘Look at this,’ I told Triss. I showed her the picture of the Chinese man, looking scared as he prepared to jump into the Adriatic.

        ‘Is that her?’

        I had told Triss about my brief encounter with Tess Rivera, how she forced our target to head for the water.

        ‘Shouldn’t we be looking for her?’ Triss asked.

        ‘Our priority right now is to find Vane and catch this man if we can. I just hope Tess won’t find him before we do. I’ll send the picture to Q for analysis.’

        ‘The quartermaster. How is he?’

        She had never met Oliver Dance. Not surprisingly, since she had been staying in Zagreb for the past two years, with only sporadic visits to London. Dance had not been overseas since becoming the new Q last month.

        ‘He doesn’t sound like someone I’d like to meet.’

        ‘You’re lucky they sent me instead.’

        ‘I’d like to know about the types of weapons he supplied you with on this mission.’

        ‘The usual stuff. A transmitter, some juice to pour in people’s drinks and make them talk or not.’

        ‘Do you have anything for me, James?’

        ‘I could mix you a Martini if you’re up to it.’

        Her smile as she leaned in closer told me she was. I was about to whisper sweet somethings in her ear when my mobile phone interrupted me again.

        ‘That was fast. Who is it this time?’ Triss asked.

        ‘Q or one of the minions in his empire put the Chinese man’s picture into the database and found a positive match.’

        I showed her the file picture. Underneath were all the details. Bokey Tan, aged 35, born in Taiwan, raised in California, professional hitman since the age of twenty. Independent operator with friends in various intelligence services. He was not known to operate in Europe, so his presence in Croatia must be a first. There were no obvious links to either Coryn Maas or Retep Vane, but Tan was believed to be travelling on a US passport under the name of Michael Tu. Q said they would put him on a priority list, allowing MI6 to know as soon as he crossed a border with that passport.

        ‘What do we do if we meet him again?’

        ‘That depends on how he reacts. He shoots, we shoot, he loses. If we catch him alive, we ask him what we want to know, and then we deliver him to wherever he’s a wanted man.’

        ‘He sounds like a common criminal more than an intelligence operator.’

        ‘That’s why we can afford to send him away, unless he has confidential information he can use as an asset to win a more favourable deal.’

        Bokey Tan was driving north. I wondered whether we would meet him again and find the plastic box he had taken from Coryn’s holiday home.

        With the tea almost gone, I asked whether Triss wanted a tiramisu. She didn’t. We went upstairs, locking arms in the lift.

        As I closed the curtains in my room, I pretended not to be surprised at the man standing across the street below. He was still wearing the cream suit.

        I kissed Triss but I knew I would have another task tonight. I asked her to stay put and to act as if the room was occupied. Keep all the lights on, move about. I checked the Glock and went downstairs.

        Instead of moving through the lobby where I would be seen from the street level, I passed through the kitchens and went out the rear where the delivery trucks came to supply the hotel. The smell of rotting food was pungent.

        The man in the cream suit had moved. He must have realized that I had seen him and that I would be coming after him.

        I crossed the street in front of the hotel and slipped into an alley. He might have withdrawn here to wait, or he might have decided to move as far away as possible and resume his job tomorrow morning.

        I ran around the alleys near the hotel. Since we were outside the old town, the houses were newer and the streets wider. I found my target heading for the Pile gate to enter the old city. I tailed him but stayed at a reasonable distance. Even at this hour, there were still sufficient numbers of tourists going for an evening stroll that I could hide behind them if he happened to look back. He didn’t.

        As soon as he’d vanished into town out of my view, I raced forward. Too late. He was nowhere to be seen. There was a narrow passageway to the left on the inside of the city wall. Unless he had entered a nearby house, that was the ideal way to hide. I rushed in with one hand on the Glock in my pocket.

        I was moving past the first side street when he hit me. The metal tube he was brandishing hit me on the arm like a train. I loosened my grip on the gun and stumbled against a wall. He lifted the tube again and would have smashed it into my head if I hadn’t stepped back. Instead, it hit the wall of the house with a loud metallic clang.

        I evaluated the possibility of screaming my lungs out, but I wondered whether that would scare tourists away from the alley rather than draw them in to help me.

        I decided against noise and grabbed the man’s leg instead, pulling it toward me so he lost his balance and fell to the stone floor. I jumped on top of him, slammed my left against his chin and reached inside my pocket for the Glock. The tube was useless now. He dropped it and let it roll across the floor.

        Once disarmed, he seemed to become clueless. He wriggled under me but I kept him pinned to the floor. I pressed the gun into his loins.

        ‘Whom are you working for?’ I hissed into his face, adding spit to the threat.

        ‘Don’t kill me,’ he begged like only a coward would. Fighting off people like me was obviously not on his programme unless he had the upper hand from the start.

        ‘Come with me to the hotel and tell me everything,’ I said. I preferred to have everything done with here, but I needed something to make him feel more comfortable. He knew I wouldn’t kill him inside the hotel.

        Before waiting for his reaction, I searched him. He wasn’t carrying any guns, which meant he was more of an observer than an active fighter. I filched his mobile phone and looked down the numbers of incoming and outgoing calls, but nothing struck me as familiar.

        ‘I’m not going to ask it again. Whom are you working for?’

        ‘I don’t know.’

        Wrong answer. I picked him up and smashed him into the wall, away from the lone street light in the alley. The gun was pointing at his stomach.

        ‘That’s not the kind of answer that will win you points with me. Your name, nationality, or else.’ I pressed the gun in so hard I feared his dinner might fly out his mouth.

        Milan.’

        ‘Who’s in Milan?’

        ‘No, Milan is my name.’

        Fair enough. Milan was a common name in the old Yugoslavia. ‘Serb or Croat?’

        ‘Croat of course, I’m from Zadar.’

        A city up the coast.

        ‘Why are you following me?’

        I had to relax the pressure because an elderly couple had entered the alley, no doubt on their way home. I tried to smile at them, hoping they would not call the police about the presence of two shady men in their street.

        Once they had disappeared out of my sight, I put the gun against Milan’s throat and nodded to make him continue.

        ‘They sent me an e-mail and some money, so I started working for them.’

        I got the picture. He claimed he never met the people he was working for. ‘What did they want you to do?’

        ‘To follow the woman and report any contacts or activities.’

        ‘So you were following my partner, not me?’

        ‘When you joined up together, you also became a person of interest.’

        ‘A person of interest? So that’s what I am to you? What else did you tell them?’

        ‘Everything. About your visit to the house, your run on the walls and the fight with the Asian.’

        ‘Do you know the Asian, Milan?’

        ‘Never seen him before.’

        I pressed his mobile to his face. ‘You are going to call them now and tell them I am leaving town to head back to Britain.’

        ‘I can’t do that. I never call them, I only send them text messages.’

        Another job for Q. I would ask to check all the numbers on Milan’s mobile and have him run down the Croat as well.

        ‘What did you say your last name was?’

        ‘Tobak. My name is Milan Tobak.’

        I send the messages to Q hoping he was still up and about. There was a 24-hour service, but I didn’t know how high my priority was in the grand scheme of things. My inquiries were not related to any imminent threat.

        ‘What are you going to do with me?’

        ‘Put you on the next plane to Zadar and make sure I never see you again.’

        ‘My mission is to stay on your tail until you leave the country.’

        ‘I’m flying out tomorrow morning so you can sleep for an hour of eight. Make sure I don’t see you again.’

        I watched him walk back to the main street. I kicked the metal tube into a drain and set off to the hotel. I still had my gun and his mobile. Would he carry more efficient arms the next time? I sincerely hoped I would never see him again, because I didn’t like being watched by anonymous people.

        ‘Does the name Milan Tobak mean anything to you?’ I asked Triss when I arrived back in my room.

        ‘He gave you his name?’ She walked up to me and held me before giving me a kiss full on the lips.

        ‘He received messages telling him to follow you around. Then he saw you joining up with me, and decided I was the one to tail.’

        ‘Sounds like a low-level operator. Did you hurt him?’

        ‘No, but I told me I didn’t want to see him again, and we were leaving the country tomorrow morning.’

        ‘Do you think he’s outside now?’

        She almost made me loose my balance the way she swung around and hung from my neck.

        ‘The curtains are closed. This is our world, whoever’s outside.’

        We forgot about the man in the cream suit, the Chinese man. I didn’t forget Tess Rivera.

 

Chapter Seven

Pula, Croatia

 

        Sleeping on the road had never been my forte. Whether on a train, bus, plane or in someone else’s car, I was never able to fall asleep because I wanted to stay aware of my ever-changing surroundings. I preferred not to have anyone else drive, because I wanted to keep control over my direction. If anything came up, I wanted to react the way I wanted.

        That’s why I didn’t sleep on the flight from Dubrovnik to Pula. I had an aisle seat but the plane was not that big that I couldn’t look out and admire the coastline of Croatia with its dozens of small islands.

        After we arrived, Triss had arranged a car at the airport, an Audi A4 with its handbrake the size of a Rubik’s cube, and a pair of Berettas hidden under the passenger seat. She had left our previous guns at a safe in the hotel, where someone she trusted would pick them up and send them back to Zagreb.

        ‘It’s a difficult country to move about in,’ Triss said, launching into a description of the geography. An extremely long coast, hundreds of inhabited and uninhabited islands, a large hinterland and a narrow area between the two parts of the country, with Bosnia sticking into its heart like a shard of glass.

        As promised, MI6 texted me the full details of Retep Vane’s whereabouts by the time we reached a safe house near the centre of Pula. Since it was almost noon, we went for a stroll through the town, behaving like the young foreign couple we were supposed to be.

        We saw a bronze model of the city in a park, walked past the well-preserved Roman amphitheatre which looked even better than its bigger brother the Coliseum, and strolled through a Roman gate, reminding me of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Just a few steps further, James Joyce was waiting for us. A bronze effigy of the Irish writer sat outside a restaurant in the town where he had taught English to members of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, a decade before they would become the enemy.

        We picked a restaurant along a pedestrian street, reducing the risk of a drive-by shooting. I still insisted we sit inside, out of the view of casual passersby, some of who might not be as casual as they looked.

        Retep Vane never travelled alone. He would have a retinue of thugs with him, and after what I did on Aghia Lefkameni, they would be armed. Instead of sticking to my mission and steal the laptop, I should have incapacitated him, but I wasn’t like him. I had to follow orders, some of them mean and nasty, some of them too soft. Even now, I didn’t have the green light for a kill, a red light turning to flickering yellow at best.

        The tiramisu was on the table when I finally thought it opportune to discuss our next move with Triss.

        ‘We’ll be posing as a couple on holiday at a beach resort in Croatia.’

        ‘Not a tough job. We already look the part,’ she smiled.

        London thinks Vane is preparing a high-level meeting because of the place he’s holing up in.’

        ‘Is he renting a villa or does he stay on a yacht?’

        ‘He hates boats because it makes him feel vulnerable. Something to do with getting caught in a storm on the Black Sea when he was six. His father almost didn’t make it.’

        ‘So he’s renting a villa.’

        ‘He’s a cheap bastard, so like the last time I met him, he prefers to rent only a suite inside a resort populated by tourists.’

        ‘Which should make our job considerably easier.’

        ‘Considerably. Were it not for one detail. He’s allergic to anyone approaching him with a surprise. Say, a gun, a grenade, or even a knife hidden inside a shoe or under one’s trousers.’

       ‘He’ll have anybody searched who comes close to him. That won’t look good at a holiday resort full of tourists,’ Triss said.

        ‘He found a solution to that problem.’ I hadn’t told her all the details of my operation on Aghia Lefkameni.

        ‘A metal detector app for mobile phones?’

        ‘You sound like Q now.’ I hesitated before I threw the bomb. ‘He’s staying at a naturist resort.’

        ‘What?’ she giggled.

        ‘A nudist camp.’ I didn’t think I needed to clarify what a naturist resort was, but there I went.

        Triss kept giggling while pointing at me and at herself. I nodded.

        ‘That’s right. In order to get close to him, we’ll be staying at the same resort, but don’t worry. I checked it out. At the restaurant and inside the supermarket, people are expected to wear clothes.’

        ‘That’s a relief. But if we’re not wearing any clothes, where do we hide our weapons?’

        ‘That’s exactly Vane’s point. Everybody’s naked, so almost no threat, but we’ll think of something.’

        ‘Like what?’

        ‘People heading for the beach still carry bags with food and suntan lotion, or towels slung over their shoulder.’

        ‘That’s how you plan to hide the guns?’

        ‘Don’t worry, I’ll think of something.’

        ‘How soon are we supposed to show up there?’

        ‘I was thinking of driving up there immediately after lunch. The place is in Rovinj.’

        ‘That’s maybe an hour’s drive up the west coast.’

        I knew my geography. Pula was at the bottom tip of the triangular peninsula known as Istria. Rovinj was halfway up the west coast, between Pula and the Slovenian border, which until 2013 would function as the border with the European Union. Just a short drive through Slovenia would bring you to the north-eastern tip of Italy, with the city of Trieste.

        As we walked back to the safe house, I kept looking for men in cream suits, Asians and women like Tess. There were several in that last category, but none acted suspiciously.

        ‘Are we booking a room there?’ Triss asked as we entered the safe house.

        London did.’

        ‘So they know we’re going commando?’

        ‘Don’t worry about your reputation. It’s all for Queen and Kingdom.’

        ‘I’m sure the Queen doesn’t want to know.’

        ‘Half her relatives like to prance about in the nude so I think she will forgive you.’

        ‘Stop joking. Do you know how vulnerable we will be? If Vane sends one of his henchmen after us with a semi-automatic or even with just a metal tube like that man in Dubrovnik?’

        ‘I’ll find something.’

        ‘Like what? An invisible missile shield?’

        I touched her hair to calm her down. I don’t know whether it was fear, or embarrassment at having to walk around naked.

        The journey up to Rovinj developed in silence until we were about one mile from our destination.

        ‘He knows what you look like.’

        ‘He does, but unless one of the people we bumped into told him about me, he will have forgotten most of it. There’s also the naked element. People walking around without clothes all look alike.’

        ‘How do you know?’

        I looked at her. A smile broke out. I liked that.

        ‘Was that how you got close to him on that Greek island?’

        ‘He was staying at a nude resort there as well, but his guards were rather weak.’

        ‘He won’t make that mistake twice.’

        I drove into a sandy path up to a barrier. ‘We’re new guests,’ I told the man in the white uniform. This looked like a heavily guarded border between enemy states.

        ‘Checkpoint Charlie,’ Triss said, guessing my thoughts.

        The barrier went up and barely a bend in the road further, we understood where we were. A couple was strolling by, wearing sandals and straw hats but nothing inbetween. Their child had more clothes on than they had, mainly as a protection against the sun.

        Luckily, there were trees everywhere, providing cover if needed, I noted. I put the car into a parking lot amid a crowd of vehicles. I looked at the license plates. Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France. That was our car’s weak point. We had local plates with the PU at the start signifying Pula. It was rare for Croats to vacation at a resort so close to home.

        I told Triss but she said there had been no time to order false British or other plates. I left her with the car to pick up the room keys at the reception. The staff was wearing the same white uniforms as the gatekeeper, and the few guests inside the small building were all dressed up, either just arriving like me or preparing to leave for the outside world.

        I showed my French passport, filled in the details and took the key. It was an old-fashioned metal key, but I noted the suites had already been upgraded to more contemporary electronic cards.

        ‘I have a friend over from Turkey,’ I told the staff member handling my booking.

        ‘We don’t have guests from Turkey,’ he said in a gruff voice.

        I didn’t insist, because doing so might well throw suspicion on me. It wouldn’t take much for Vane to find out someone had been asking for him. There couldn’t be too many guests from Muslim countries like Turkey at a nude resort, and he would have registered under a false name just like me anyway.

        I walked back to the car and we set out to find the room.

        ‘Let’s get into our room as quickly as possible.’

       I noted the obvious about a nudist resort. When you’re the only person wearing clothes, people will stare at you. It’s like the world upside down. Imagine walking naked down the promenade at any European beach town or on London’s Oxford Street.

        Here it was our clothes that made us stick out like a sore thumb.

        Triss sighed as soon as we closed the door of our room behind us. We were situated in a small one-storey bungalow with a view on the beach, that is if you could imagine all the young olive trees away.

        The furnishings were modest. Rattan chairs, two beds, a low table, a desk, a TV set, and a balcony area. Hardly any privacy, I thought. My first reaction was to plant a chair against the inside of the front door and jam it against the door handle.

        ‘You think that’s going to stop anyone?’

        ‘For a second.’ I understood her concern.

        ‘What now?’

        ‘We get ready for a walk along the beach. We’re newly arrived guests making a reconnaissance walk around the resort, so we don’t need to lie down anywhere.’

        ‘Bokey could be on his way here.’

        ‘What?’

       ‘The Chinese lad you chased into the water. My sources caught him between Split and Zadar early this morning. He could be here quite soon.’

        ‘He drove all night just to take that plastic box to Vane, is that the theory you’re thinking of?’

        ‘Why don’t you do some reconnaissance of your own while I relax here?’

        I understood her fears but there were more pressing concerns.

        ‘We’re a couple. If one of us goes out on his own, that won’t look good. Especially a man on his own. People will think I’m off to the beach to ogle the local talent.’

        ‘Instead, you want to ogle me as well as the local talent, is that it?’

        I went up to her and kissed her in the neck. ‘You know that’s not true. I touch, but I don’t have to look.’ I closed my eyes and found her mouth.

        ‘Stop it, you naughty boy. Go and play with your guns.’

        I turned my back to her and began stripping. I put on the blue sandals that came with the room, and a pair of sunglasses. We each carried a straw bag which contained sun lotion, towels, mobile phones and thermos bottles. Perfect for a day on the beach.

        ‘Let’s put the suntan lotion on first, otherwise we’ll stick out like a pair of lobsters at a seafood buffet,’ she said.

        Good point. I tanned quite well, actually, it’s just that I never had the time to spend on a beach. I might go for a swim if I had an hour off, but you wouldn’t catch me dead lying on a towel. Part of it was that I considered just lying there a waste of time, part was that lying flat on your back in public was a position of weakness. The only advantage it had ever brought me was when I was lying by a pool in Las Vegas where a notorious organized crime figure and weapons dealer also spent his afternoon. I pulled a special gun from under my towel and shot him with a poisoned dart. Nobody noticed, and his death became only obvious when all the other guests had departed from the pool before dark.

        I wished this mission were equally simple, but here I needed not to kill someone, but to find information.

        ‘Let’s walk around the carpark,’ I told Triss when we were out in the open.

        ‘On the parking lot, in this getup?’

        Just as I turned left back to where we had arrived from, a flabby elderly couple greeted us in German. ‘Guten Tag,’ I said back, and behind me, Triss mumbled something similar, though it sounded like it had trouble coming out through her gritted teeth.

        ‘This is the job, for Queen and Country, no place to be angry, Triss.’

        ‘I’m not angry, only disappointed I hadn’t thought of this before.’

        Walking round the cars gave me five Croatian license plates in addition to ours. Since Vane had come in from Turkey, he would have had to rent cars locally, and that’s how I came to the conclusion that the two Porsche Cayenne SUVs with Pula plates must be his. The three other cars either had plates from other regions or were just not the class of vehicle Vane would be seen in.

        ‘Let’s go for a beach stroll,’ I told Triss after I had photographed the plates with my mobile and sent the pictures to Q.

        ‘Shouldn’t we just wait for them to have dinner at the resort’s restaurant? It would save us lots of effort and we wouldn’t have to parade around butt-naked.’

        ‘That would be too easy. They could be ordering room service, or they could recognize us and we’d be sitting ducks. Let’s walk around and find them.’

        The beach was of soft sand obviously carted in from elsewhere, because the Croatian coast was famous for its rocky bays, promontories and inlets. The resort beach, only accessible to diehard naturists, had been laid out in the shape of a crescent, with a stone pier sticking out to form a barrier against waves that might threaten to eat away the sand.

        There were various groups of people on the beach, some of them just suntanning, others trying to keep their kids busy with ball games, still others heading out for a swim in the quiet artificial bay. We just walked without staring at the guests. Triss was also trying hard not to attract any attention, but she looked a lot more beautiful naked than she had done in the driver’s livery I first saw her in at Dubrovnik airport.

        She stared right in front of her, away from the nude bodies on the beach and away from any guests giving her the once-over. At the end of the stretch of sand, I steered her to the right past a beach bar where a bunch of wrinkled men sat enjoying German brews and a couple of volleyball courts lied deserted in the afternoon sun.

        ‘What if they see us before we see them? We’ll be dead meat,’ she hissed at me when we passed the sports area.

        ‘They won’t recognize us, not in this get-up. Would you recognize any of them if they walked around here naked?’

        ‘The Chinese man, I would. You, if I knew you like you say Vane does, yes, definitely. We’re naked, not invisible, Bond.’

        That was the first time she used my surname. I imagined it indicated her level of frustration with my tactics.

       And yet I knew they would pay off. Melting into your environment is one of the basic elements of the spy craft. Don’t wear a Hawaiian shirt if everybody around you looks like an accountant. Don’t drive a brand new sports car if all the other motorists move around in Ladas. I must admit that on that count I had made many mistakes, but then I was a real car lover, and would always prefer a Bentley or Aston Martin to a Lada or a Dacia or any other budget vehicle.

        At a nudist resort, do like nudists do. If we were wearing clothes, not only would everybody be looking at us, we would present an immediate target for watchers looking out for something out of the ordinary. By walking around in the nude, Triss and I had reduced our visibility, how strange that might sound to anybody living in what naturists called the ‘textile’ world.

        As I had guessed, the area beyond the volleyball courts was different. Instead of the bungalows like the one we had checked into, there were modest villas with their own pools behind low ornamental metal railings.

        The resort was split into several sections, from the campsite with tents and trailers all the way to luxury units. Our trajectory now brought us closer to the latter, where a wealthy individual like Vane would stay.

        We moved on, my eyes darting about behind the sunglasses to try and locate the right place. I counted about ten villas, and not all of them had a view of the sea, which made it harder for us to get close. We couldn’t afford to be seen walking around each of the buildings, because that’s not what tourists do in the middle of a sunny day on the Mediterranean.

        ‘How much further do we have to go?’ Triss asked.

        I took her hand in a grip hard enough she couldn’t pull him out and let onlookers know we were not a couple after all.

        ‘I wish I was wearing shoes with laces so I could pretend to bend down and tie them up,’ I told her with a smile.

        ‘I wish I was wearing lots of things I could pretend to be fixing up,’ she replied.

        I stopped and crouched, pretending to massage a hurtful foot. After three seconds of touches and subtle looks around me, I straightened up and continued to the back of the villa area, where the terrain went uphill and became more densely grown with low Mediterranean vegetation.

        ‘We need to come back here tonight for a walk in the dark. We’ll see more when we’re in the dark and they’re in the light,’ Triss said.

        Only then it would be too late, I thought.

        Just before we reached the villa built all the way at the back, I again performed my foot massaging play. I could look across the pool to a building that was set further back from the path. A man was seated on a lawn chair with his back toward us, apparently reading a book. He had a tiny coffee cup and a glass of water on a low table next to him. A Turkish coffee, I noted.

        I got up, took Triss by the hand again and took her up into the bush. ‘Got them,’ I whispered in her ear.

        We climbed up the hill until we reached a wooden observation tower. Unfortunately, it had been designed to watch the sea, not the villas we had just passed.

        ‘Shall we get back and get dressed?’ she asked, barely a minute after we had climbed the tower.

        ‘I’m beginning to like it here,’ I told her and I wasn’t joking. I could imagine myself renting one of those villas for a week and relaxing by the pool, if only I had something livelier to do than cultivating a suntan.

        Triss took my hand and pulled me down the stairs.

        ‘Let’s hide in the bushes and watch that villa.’

        Whatever it was, I hadn’t expected this. Agent Triss Marron performing more duties in the altogether than I had ordered her to. Nudity beyond the call of duty.

        ‘You’re going to earn yourself an OBE,’ I said with a smile.

        She slapped me in the face. ‘You’re going to earn yourself a sexual harassment suit if you’re not careful, James.’

        Back from Bond to James. She knew I would notice.

        ‘What’s your ideal job, Triss?’ I just had to ask her.

        ‘Visiting nudist camps with our most masculine agents,’ she said, pulling a sour face that I knew was a joke.

        ‘I’m serious, Agent Marron.’

        ‘Do the same things you do, James. Eliminate bad people and save the world, or at least our country.’

        ‘Do you want to do that in Croatia or in London?’

        ‘Anywhere where I can be useful without having to suffer ignominy and poor hygienic conditions.’

        ‘That rules out most of the world, then. What about the Ziggurat?’

        The MI6 headquarters in London resembled a post-modern version of the ancient Babylonian and Assyrian towers.

        ‘Sounds fine for a few years, until boredom sets in and I want to move out into the field again.’

        ‘Like you are today.’

        ‘More like I was yesterday, down in Dubrovnik. Catching bad people and sorting through clues.’

        ‘We should be catching more bad people tonight than we did yesterday. He escaped.’

        ‘But we got the man in the cream suit.’

        ‘Fair enough. Silence now.’

        We had approached the villas from behind, through the bush, where nobody was supposed to wander, not even in the daytime. We crouched and looked at the land side of the building. There was a measly garden which obviously had not received enough water lately, behind a low railing anyone could jump over. The windows were wide and narrow, and placed about four feet from the ground. The villa was shaped like a crescent, with the pool where I had seen the man with the Turkish coffee on the other side, turned toward the sea.

        ‘Everything’s quiet,’ Triss said.

        ‘Apart from us.’

        I took a picture of the front entrance with my phone camera for later reference.

        ‘Do we need satellite surveillance?’

        ‘Our operation is not big enough for Bill to put in a request. I’d rather have a few extra hands.’

        ‘So would I,’ Triss said, with an unsettling look into my eyes.

        ‘Let’s return to our room and prepare for action.’

        We first went back up the hill to the tower in order to descend the same way we had come up, a matter of not arousing any suspicion.

        As soon as we entered our room, Triss let out an enormous sigh of relief and headed for the closet where she had put her clothes. She pulled on a pair of jeans and a red T-shirt.

        For some reason, I didn’t feel like wearing anything. I stepped into the shower to scrape the suntan lotion off, threw a towel on a chair and pulled it up to look through the window.

        Our mobile phones went off simultaneously.

        ‘Bokey Tan just had lunch in Pula,’ Triss said.

        ‘My message is telling us how to proceed tonight. Since Vane will be holing up here, we need to watch him make contact and intervene at the appropriate time. Under no reason should he be killed.’

        ‘Is M saying we should abduct him from the middle of a dozen armed thugs?’

        ‘M is no longer at play here. Bill is running the show, and he’s got a lot more on his mind than our escapade this evening.’

        ‘At least he won’t see our nude pictures. That’s a relief.’

        I felt like slapping her, gently. She was a riot.

        ‘There’s just two of us. There’s not much we can do, just wait and see what develops before intervening. I’m supposed to have everything go out over the radio.’

        ‘What radio?’

        I hadn’t told her about the gear from Q, most of which would be totally useless tonight, but for the small piece of plastic that had the capacity of letting the lads at MI6 listen in to whatever we were hearing.

        ‘We’ll also need dinner,’ Triss reminded me.

        The sun looked like it was about to set. It would soon be dark, far earlier than we were used to even during a weak summer in Britain. At least, it wouldn’t be cold.

        ‘We need to take shifts,’ I said. We couldn’t afford to be both away from our lookout simultaneously.

        ‘I’ll go first and confirm that diners actually wear clothes.’

        ‘You’ll be happy to know that we might go for an early checkout before the night is over.’

        ‘Back to the real world.’

        ‘The real world of shootings and violence,’ I said. I didn’t think there was anything wrong about the unreal world.

        ‘What are you looking out for?’ She pulled up a chair to sit down next to me, also facing the outside.

        ‘This is the main route between the parking lot and the villa area. Anybody arriving or leaving will pass right by our window.’

        ‘What if they take an alternative mode of transport?’

        ‘Like what? A helicopter? We’ll hear it.’

        ‘A yacht of some kind.’

        I suppressed a four-letter word. Triss was bringing me down to earth with her realism.

        ‘Vane doesn’t like boats, I think I already told you.’

        ‘Others might arrive or leave by ship and we would never see them.’

        I stood up and pressed my face against the window. In the right-hand corner, I could see the beach with the bay and the pier. If that’s where they arrived, no problem. I hadn’t seen anything about a yacht harbour nearby, so I assumed the resort didn’t cater to that kind of visitor.

        By the time I noticed on my watch it was half past six, nothing had happened yet.

        ‘Do you think Bokey Tan will come here?’ Triss asked.

        ‘We have no idea whom he’s working for, but it sounded from your sources’ intel that he should be close by now.’

        ‘Do you want me to ask around?’

        ‘No need to reveal your interest. You know what? You can go to dinner now. Just let me know where the restaurant is and what’s on the menu. If you see any suspicious activity, let me know, but don’t intervene.’

        Triss left our room in her less than suitable-for-dinner attire, but who cared in an environment where not wearing anything was the norm.

        I made sure all lights inside our bungalow were out. From the outside it would look as if we were all off to dinner. If they had anybody watching the place, maybe they would think there was only a single woman staying here, but I couldn’t rely on them being that dumb.

        A professional would have paid off the staff to look at the guest list, or sat outside and watched us walk around. Before we left on our exploratory tour, I had placed bits and pieces in strategic locations that told me nobody had entered the room during our absence, not even a professional. If anybody was watching us, he certainly had not made a move that could betray him.

        I regretted not having neutralized the man in the cream suit back in Dubrovnik. I hated killing when it wasn’t necessary, but maybe I should have locked him up or sedated him one way or another to give us extra time.

        Maybe was not a word that should be in an MI6 agent’s lexicon. Approaching middle age had not only made me lose my interest in fancy brands of clothing or top-level libations, but it also had damaged my certainties. Doubts were making themselves felt within the confines of my neat world.

        I was woken up to reality when I saw a familiar figure walk up the path from the parking lot. He was wearing a black suit, so he didn’t want to partake in the naturist lifestyle. Bokey Tan. He wasn’t carrying the plastic box the dying caretaker had talked about, but I could tell from the bulge in the suit jacket that he was packing firepower. From the shape I guessed the weapon was equipped with a suppressor, which was practical at a populous resort.

        I slid off my chair as if this made me less visible if he looked my way. He never did. He looked right in front of him as he pursued his journey through the resort. Somebody must have provided him with the precise information about where Vane could be found. Since he didn’t carry the box with him, he probably would be negotiating a deal.

        As soon as I felt he wouldn’t see me if he looked behind him, I slipped out of the bungalow and headed for the parking. I looked for a new BMW 3-series. It was harder than I thought it would be. There were several such cars with plates from various countries, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, even Estonia.

        It took me a while to find one with Croatian plates that began with DU, the abbreviation for Dubrovnik. I looked around to see if nobody else was wandering about the area. There were some couples on their way to the restaurant, wearing far more clothes and more expensive ones than I had expected at a nude resort. That was a problem for Triss, I couldn’t care less.

        As soon as the couples were gone, I slipped underneath the car and disabled the alarm system. The next phase, opening the door, was kids’ play. While I was at it, I also had a look at the trunk. Unfortunately, there was nothing that told me anything and certainly no plastic box.

        Bokey Tan had come to Vane with empty hands. Didn’t he mean to hand him the box in the first place and was it something he wanted to hold on for himself or for another client, or was this part of a ransom deal, where he picked up the money first and put the box out for a pick-up by the other side later?

        When I heard voices in a foreign language, I closed the car and put the alarm system back on before slipping away behind other cars. I assumed the language was Turkish. I had received training in a wide variety of European tongues, but I also had the ability to recognize many others. Anyone with a grain of linguistic talent can recognize Arabic, Chinese or Japanese, especially when you have the faces of the speakers to look at.

        I didn’t want to see any faces, but I interpreted the sounds at Turkish. So Vane was sending over his henchmen to check out Tan’s car. I wished I were up at the villa right now, with Triss and I preparing ourselves to tackle Vane and Tan.

        I thought about messaging Triss to leave her dinner and join me up there, but I wanted to give her some more time. There might be a tough few hours ahead.

        I moved back to observe Vane’s men looking at Tan’s BMW and following precisely the same routine I had. I was interested to see whether their search would turn up anything I had missed. When it didn’t, I moved back and hurried up the path, back to our bungalow. I didn’t need to leave Triss a written message, a mobile text would do when the need arose. All I did, was to pick up one of the bags with my gear inside. I even left the suntan lotion in, despite how ridiculous that might seem if anybody searched me.

        Behind the volleyball courts, I turned right into the villa area, but keeping at least one building between myself and the place I suspected Vane rented. I made sure they wouldn’t be able to see me spooking around in their neighbourhood.

        At the villa that was just southeast from Vane’s, I swung my legs over the low railing after I had made sure the occupants were out to dinner or the building was unoccupied in the first place.

        Moving to the side to get my first night view of the other villa, I regretted not having asked for night-vision goggles from Q. It was always hard to tell ahead what I would need on a particular mission.

        I slid along the side of the villa, keeping my head low. A number of young olive trees and lantana bushes provided limited cover between the garden and the pool at the rear of Vane’s villa where I had seen the guard earlier in the day. Apparently, excessive privacy had not played a part in the design of the area, since maybe the resort owners didn’t feel like people walking around nude all day long would crave to hide themselves from other residents.

        I crouched in the bushes and took my time observing the scenery. There were lights on inside Vane’s villa, but they were not the full-on lights I had expected. He was smart and had only turned on night-table lights, I suspected.

        That made my job a whole lot more difficult. I had a rough guess where Vane and I suppose, Tan, were huddling, but I didn’t know how many other people were inside. There had been three Turks in the parking lot, but I don’t know how large Vane’s entourage really was on this occasion. Obviously larger than it had been at Aghia Lefkameni.

        Now was the time to message Triss. I told her to bring the gun, though I knew she had taken it with her to dinner, so there was no need for her to return to our bungalow.

        Before I had time to message her more details, there was a stir at Vane’s place. Between the chirps of the crickets performing their evening concert, I thought I heard a couple of snaps I was all too familiar with in my trade.

        The worst thing I could do now, was to leave my hideout and join in the fracas. I readied my Beretta and strained like a leashed dog looking forward to a steak being thrown into its pen.

        I felt a presence in my back. I swung around, ducked and pointed my gun at the person creeping up on me.

        ‘Triss,’ she said in a low voice.

        I nearly killed my own partner. Friendly fire, just there’s nothing friendly about it, just sheer stupidity.

        There was no time for apologies. I signalled her to come closer and I updated her on the situation, including the Turks on the parking lot.

        ‘I’ve got this for you,’ she said, handing me a thermos bottle in the dark. I stuffed it in my bag.

        ‘You stay here and cover me. I’m going inside to have a look at what’s going on.’

        Just as I prepared to move over the railing and cross into Vane’s pool area, there was movement at his villa.

        The lights inside went out, and three men in suits left through the back door, past the pool and over the back railing. They almost decided to come our way but then suddenly veered in the direction of the main path to the volleyball courts, the way we had come during the daytime.

        I hesitated what to do with them. I could shout at them to stand still. If they did, they would mean a heavy burden on us, since it would be hard to control them. If they offered resistance, the shootout would alert Vane and his goons inside that something was up, and we would be outnumbered.

        ‘We have to let them go,’ I whispered to Triss, who I could see was itching to have a go at the trio.

        ‘What if they have the plastic box?’

        ‘That‘s a risk we have to take. I want to get inside.’

        We waited until the three had disappeared out of sight. I jumped in the direction of Vane’s pool area. Triss stayed in his bushes while I entered through the glass door that the three departures had failed to close on their way out.

        There were conflicting smells emanating from the suite. A strange mix of Mediterranean vegetation, put there to relax the guests, with sweat and exotic foods.

        I kept going close to the ground, my head and back arching to stay behind the cover of a long dinner table. When I reached the end of the table, I saw the bulky shape on the floor.

        This was Retep Vane, I knew immediately. I kneeled by his side and felt his pulse. There wasn’t anything left to feel. I wanted him alive, they killed him.

        The same sense that Triss was crawling up behind me again overpowered me, but this time I knew it was not a friendly force.

        I jumped backward against the table right on time to see the fire sending off the bullet from the muzzle of the gun. A man was standing behind a curtain firing at me. I shot back, shattering the window looking on to the pool.

        The next few minutes were like hell. We fired at each other never knowing we would hit anything. I dived behind the table for cover, he moved into the kitchen. I hit a few pans which fell on the floor with loud bangs.

        Shards of glass flew all around. I wasn’t going to pick up the bill for Vane’s villa, and the Turks weren’t likely to do either.

        It was dark inside but there was enough ambient light for me to recognize Bokey Tan. Why did he kill Vane and who were the three men who left early? Innocent bystanders or Tan’s accomplices?

        When the shots stopped, I counted to three, fired one shot above the table in the general direction I supposed Tan to be in. There was no reaction, so I took my chances and ran across the room, past Vane’s body, closer to the kitchen. I heard a door in the distance.

        Tan was leaving the villa to run back to the parking lot. I ran behind him and nearly stumbled over two bodies lying in the hallway. They must have been Vane’s bodyguards, the ones who stayed with him while the others walked off to check Tan’s car.

        Outside, I fired one shot at the disappearing figure of Bokey Tan. I could see Triss running toward me. ‘Search the house and follow me to the parking lot,’ I shouted at her, as if she had the time to do both.

        This was the second time in two days that I was running after Tan. I was wondering how he would get away this time, though I hoped he wouldn’t choose the sea again. I had had it with wet clothes for a while.

        Suddenly, there was a cry of pain ahead of me. Another sound, like a man surprised in a very bad sense. I passed by our bungalow when I saw what had happened. Tan had kicked out two of the Turks returning from the parking lot.

        As I approached the scene, he was killing the third one with a shot and swinging the gun at me.

        I jumped into the dry mix of sand and gravel as the bullet flew above my head. I looked up, wiped the pebbles off my face and saw him head for the cars.

        He had to veer left to come out behind the cars. I took the opportunity to take out the thermos bottle Triss had given me. I threw it with a wide arc in the direction of where I knew Tan had parked his BMW.

        The explosion shattered the evening quiet of the resort. First there was the thermos turning into a ball of fire, then Tan’s car which was literally lifted off the ground.

        Immediately, a concerto of car alarms ruptured the night. In the light of the fire, I could see Tan run. He had survived the explosion and was heading for another vehicle. A Porsche Cayenne.

        He jumped in and drove off with shrieking tires. He must have filched the keys from Vane, I realized. I ran for our Audi and looked behind me to see Triss catching up.

        I dived into the car, threw the bag on the back seat, and started the engine. Just before I pulled out, Triss took the passenger seat.

        ‘Buckle up. He’s not getting away this time.’

        I backed out and drove like mad in the direction of the resort’s main entrance and exit. I saw the Cayenne up ahead just as it rammed the barrier. The man in the white uniform ran out with his arms in the air. I honked and nearly bumped him out of the way.

        The path out of the resort was dusty so Tan succeeded in sending clouds of dust our way. I turned on the fog lights and tried to remember every twist and turn in the road we had arrived on earlier in the day.

        Triss fastened her seat belt and gripped a handle above the windshield.

        We left the dusty road and switched on to the main road without a scram. I could see Tan’s taillights going left, toward the town of Rovinj.

        ‘Hold on for the city tour,’ I told Triss. We hadn’t had the time to see the town, which according to my information was picturesque and medieval, but then most towns along the Adriatic were.

        Tan was obviously in a hurry to get away from us. Twice on the two-lane road, he overtook vans, narrowly missing oncoming traffic. Twice, I waited for the other cars to pass and did the same.

        With Triss in the car, I felt a heavy responsibility. Too many of my missions had ended with the deaths of local assets, from Italy to Bolivia.

        I wished I had one of my home cars at my disposal. The Bentley Continental GT Speed I had bought with my own money as my home car, or one of the Aston Martins the old Q had provided me with. You couldn’t wish for a better company car than that.

        ‘James, are you going to catch him or are you just tailing him?’ Triss asked when it became clear we were not going to overtake Tan.

        Thank God this was night and we were wearing clothes, otherwise it might have gotten quite hilarious. A nude man and a nude woman in a car chasing a Chinese hitman across Croatia.

        ‘He’s too far to take a shot, but he’ll have to stop at some point. We’ll corner him and take him, preferably alive.’

        ‘He’s not the type,’ she said.

        ‘Your type?’

        ‘The type who lets himself be taken alive.’

        ‘He wants to stay alive to pick up the plastic box. He must have stashed it inside a hotel room in Rovinj.’

        ‘If he killed Vane, whom is he working for?’

        ‘What did you find at the villa?’ I asked her while taking a sharp turn to the right. The road was leading toward the city centre of Rovinj, another three kilometres away.

        ‘You’re not going to believe what I found.’

 

Chapter Eight

Rovinj, Croatia

 

        Despite my efforts to keep pace with Tan up ahead, Triss now had the larger portion of my attention. ‘Stop playing with me, spit it out. What did you find?’

        ‘I moved Vane’s body.’

        ‘What did you do that for? The Croatian police might not be happy about that.’

        ‘You think they will be happy if they ever find out MI6 turned a resort into a full-scale war zone?’

        ‘We’ll be gone by the time they figure that one out.’

        ‘I won’t. My job is to work with those people. How will I explain when they find out?’

        ‘All they need to know is that a Chinese hitman murdered a visitor with a shady background.’

        ‘There is still the matter of the vanished couple, the blown-up cars and another half dozen of dead Turks.’

        ‘The vanished couple are French so that shouldn’t be too much of a concern for your public relations image.’

        ‘You’re in and you’re out, and you leave others to clean up your mess.’

        ‘That’s exactly what London would tell me. Now are you going to say what you found at the villa or not? Time is running out, we’re almost in Rovinj.’

        ‘As I said, I moved Vane’s body and found something interesting underneath.’

        There must have been lots of blood.

        ‘This must have dropped out of his back pocket during the struggle.’

        She held up a tiny bloody stub.

        ‘A flash drive.’

        ‘We might need Q to break the codes.’

        ‘Don’t worry, as soon as we get access to a computer, we can get a look at it.’

        I didn’t know whether I had to be happy or frustrated. Any flash drive from Vane might give us at least a look at his operations, but it was too soon to tell whether it was relevant to this case. I wanted that plastic box Tan had taken from Coryn’s holiday home.

        Right now, I needed to keep my eyes on the road. The city of Rovinj had organized an evening market to attract tourists. Wrong timing, because it meant car access to the town was restricted. Tan must have seen me approaching, because instead of veering out of the way into a side street, he just accelerated ahead, chasing traffic police and visitors out of his way.

        Where food and souvenir stalls were set up in the middle of the street, he moved to the side and mounted the sidewalk on the right. The crowds dispersed to the left, fear or anger on their faces depending on their reaction to seeing an SUV disrupt the market atmosphere.

        I followed Tan everywhere he went. I had it easy, he smashed his way through the souvenir market, I only had to follow his trail of destruction.

        ‘Should I try and shoot him?’ Triss asked. She was wielding her Beretta and preparing to lower the passenger window.

        ‘In this crowd? Are you mad? We need him alive. We need to find out who’s behind him.’

        ‘Right now, we are.’

        ‘That’s very funny.’ I was concentrating all my energy on following him and avoiding creating as much damage as he was doing. ‘No shooting until I say so.’

        ‘Fine, boss.’ Triss put the gun away.

        The streets got narrower as we neared the historic centre. The old town was built on a circular hill surrounded by water on all but one short side. It was like a ship linked to land by one narrow passageway.

        Tan rammed a stand loaded with cheeses and bottles of honey before veering to the right across the crowded plaza separating the old city from the new one and heading straight for the yacht harbour.

        Almost as suddenly as he had made a turn, he stopped without killing the engine and ran out, away through the ancient city gate into the narrow paved streets of the old town.

        ‘Stay here, he’s coming back for the car,’ I shouted at Triss as I tailed him, even though it dawned on me he might just as well be boarding a yacht. I hoped she would switch off the engine of his SUV.

        I pushed myself through the throngs of panicky tourists jamming the city gate. The stone face of what looked like a pirate looked out over the plaza from the front of the gate. I saw Tan far ahead, at the top of the street, which was paved with large flat squares, each of them a bit higher than the previous one, allowing people a comfortable climb up to the top of the city, where the tower of the Saint Euphemia church reached to the sky.

        By the time I was halfway up the street, Tan had vanished. There was a slight bend to the right where he could have slipped away into a side alley.

        I stopped for one second to pick up some fresh air before storming into the alley. I thought I caught his shape moving into another alley on the left. For the following minutes, I just stormed from one poorly lit passageway into the other, always trying to find Tan while aware he could just stop somewhere behind a corner or in a doorway and shoot me in the face.

        That’s why I kept holding my Beretta ready to shoot. I might fall into a stupid trap, but I wouldn’t go down like a lame duck.

        I saw the sea at the end of an alley on my right. We were already far away from the yacht harbour, so I wasn’t worried about him escaping by water again. There was a strong wind which caused lines of foam to appear on the waves.

        After I lost sight of Tan, I just raced straight ahead to erupt onto a wider cobbled street. A one-story house separated the street from the sea. It had a sundial made of blue mosaics next to its front door. Beautiful if you had time to admire this kind of thing, completely useless because it was night.

        I looked around for any signs of life, I stopped to listen out for Tan’s footsteps on the stone somewhere around here. There was nothing. Just the sound of the waves slamming into Rovinj.

        Next was the clock at the top of the church’s campanile tower telling me the time. Eleven o’clock. I wondered whether Tan might have headed for the church, the main landmark in this town.

        I raced up the next street, looking into each alley I passed, but there were only tourists. Couples looking for romance in a medieval town. I entered the church but not to admire its mosaics and effigies of a Byzantine-style God. I wasn’t looking for God, I was looking for the devil.

        Out on the plaza in front of the church, I phoned Triss to let her know my failure. I also warned her that Tan might soon go looking for his SUV. That was all the hope we had left, that he would turn back to pick up the car and continue his journey.

        ‘He stashed the box somewhere in a house in here,’ I told her when we were standing by our car.

        Police were arriving on the scene to find out what those damaged cars were doing in the middle of a pedestrian area, so to avoid any problems, we made ourselves scarce. We went to sit outside a café and ordered drinks. I could have used something strong, but the local beer was the only alcoholic beverage on offer.

        We watched as the police surveyed the scene. Triss went over and talked to them. They left immediately.

        ‘What was that about?’

        ‘They wanted to tow away the cars.’

        Which would have kept Tan away.

        ‘So what did you tell them?’

        ‘That we need them to transport our bottles of honey out of town.’

        After an hour, there was still no sign of Tan showing up.

        ‘Should we spend all night here, like a couple of homeless drifters?’ Triss asked.

        ‘Like a romantic couple,’ I countered.

        ‘We lost him, and he’s not coming back.’

        ‘If we leave, the first thing that happens is that he’ll be back here, step into his car and leave.’

        ‘He’s not that dumb.’

        A short evaluation led me to agree with Triss. I phoned London to tell them the bad news. Bill was off to some high-level meeting, so it was his secretary I talked to. She agreed I should return to London and deliver a full report first thing in the morning.

        ‘I’m on the next flight to London,’ I told Triss.

        ‘Which is next morning.’

        ‘Which means we can spend the night together.’

        ‘Right here on these chairs,’ Triss said. The waiter was moving around, wiping down a chair here and there to let us know we were already overstaying our welcome.

        We paid and went over to the cars. I let the air out of the Porsche’s tires. ‘We don’t want to make it too easy for him.’

        We never headed back to the resort, which would be under police siege right now with investigators trying to find out what had happened. They had several dead guests, a villa full of bullet casings and bodies, and the wreckage of an exploded car on the parking lot. Now was not the time for us to make an appearance.

        Triss helped me book a flight which would make sure I would arrive at MI6 just before noon. Lunch with Bill Tanner. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but despite my failure, I had one minor achievement I could pride myself on. I would leave Croatia knowing that our agent here was still alive. Triss Marron had been an excellent fellow combatant and I wished her well.

        She would have to deal with the fallout from Vane’s death and from the chase if local police ever managed to tie the ruckus to her.

        We booked a room at a modest hotel on the outskirts of Pula. I ordered the last bottle of champagne from room service. We had just sat down on the sofa when my mobile rang.

        ‘A Canadian citizen with a passport naming him as Michael Tu just crossed into the European Union from Croatia,’ Henry Willows from surveillance said.

        ‘Which car did he use and where?’

        ‘He arrived by speedboat in Trieste, Italy.’

        Trieste was the city nestled in the northeastern-most corner of the country, on the border with Slovenia and just a short drive from Croatia. Tan had taken to the sea after all, but in a faster ship than he had expected.

        I told Henry to follow up and to pin down Tan’s movements and most likely destination.

        Barely one hour later, when Triss and I were cuddling and trying to take each other’s clothes off, the next call came.

        ‘A US citizen named Wayne Wang just booked a flight from Trieste to Brussels,’ Henry said.

        ‘Are we sure it’s him? He’s not playing games with us, is he?’

        ‘There is no other Asian travelling anywhere at this moment. If we’ve pinned the wrong man, that means Tan is taking another route, maybe with a car someone provided him.’

        ‘Let’s go with Wayne Wang. Tell Bill I won’t be seeing him at the office tomorrow. I’m off to Brussels first.’

        ‘He won’t like that.’

        ‘Tell him a lost cause just turned into a winning cause. He’ll understand.’

        ‘You’re off to Brussels now?’ Triss asked after I had thrown the mobile on the carpet and we collapsed on to the bed.

        ‘You’ll have to book me a flight.’

        ‘Am I your secretary now, James?’

 

        The flight to Brussels left half an hour earlier than the one to London, but still I would arrive too late to intercept Tan or Wayne Wang, as he now called himself. Fortunately, MI6 had quite a healthy crew in what was the capital of Belgium, the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

        The city also had its fair share of murky international lobbyists, arms and diamond traders, and extremists from a range of countries. Our local section had its hands full, but Bill had made a special call to arrange for a watcher at the airport.

        By the time I emerged from the flight, I was told that Tan had booked himself into a downtown hotel under the name of Toby Tu from California. No more Wayne Wang.

       A young man in a shiny Italian suit was holding up a sign reading ‘Mr. Delacroix - Universal Trading’ at the exit. He shook my hand and introduced himself as Beau ‘B-e-a-u, like the French’ Bradwick.

        I didn’t believe for a moment that was his real name, but it worked for him. A young whipper snapper, fresh off the boat.

        ‘What can you tell me about Tan’s movements?’ I asked him as he guided me through the bleak multi-storey parking tower.

        ‘He picked up a car that was waiting for him somewhere here and then drove it to the hotel. He hasn’t been seen out since.’

        We took the lift to another level and walked out amid the vehicles, first left, then right.

        ‘Here’s your ride,’ Bradwick said.

        ‘Wow!’ Even I was impressed. A fine car was one of the few things in life that still had the power to surprise me. The Aston Martin One-77. In silver. Named like that because only 77 of them were ever made. ‘Did you drive this here?’ I asked Beau.

        ‘I came by train.’

        He threw the keys across the roof and I caught them just before they were going to scratch the surface.

        Chelsea?’

        I turned around, surprised there was somebody here who knew where I lived. I saw a young guy with a fuzzy beard in a blue T-shirt. I smiled.

        ‘Lokomotiv Krasnoyarsk,’ I said.

        He mumbled something and walked away backward, his eyes on the car.

        ‘How long have you been here?’ I asked Beau when we were pulling out of the complex and heading for the Brussels ring road.

        ‘Two months.’

        ‘You already know the lay of the land?’

        ‘It’s a small land. Brussels is here, the hills out southeast, the coast out west, Antwerp up top.’

        ‘Sounds about like Belgium. Where is the hotel?’

        ‘Right in front of the Central Station. In the heart of town.’

        I knew the place. It was within walking distance of the tourist area, with its marketplace, narrow streets filled with restaurants for tourists, and shops selling beer and metal effigies of that little boy doing his thing.

        ‘Does this car have any special features?’ I asked while trying to keep my speed under the legal 120-kilometre limit.

        ‘No word from Q. Just all the usual stuff, I suppose.’

        ‘You suppose.’ I checked the glove compartment and the central console. Defibrillator, check. Gun, check. Oliver Dance obviously did not know about my predilection for the Walther PPK, so he had put in a Glock instead. Nice touch, it would have to do. I turned a knob next to the handbrake, not knowing quite what to expect. I got Brahms at full blast.

        ‘Any special requirements?’ Beau asked.

        ‘Each morning at 7 past 6, I want a glass of orange juice to be put beside my bed, squeezed from oranges grown on the south flank of Mount Etna in Sicily.’

        Silence from Beau.

        I looked at him. He was staring in the distance.

        ‘You must be used to working with primadonnas. I was joking.’

        I was beginning to like the kid. A bit dour, shy, introspective, not my type of person, but I could understand he would make a fine agent one day. More of a desk analyst at MI6 than a field warrior like me. Or was I overestimating myself?

        We drove into Brussels with its roads turning into tunnels one moment and coming out the next, with a never-ending flow of cars cutting in and out. I parked the car in a reserved space under the hotel.

        ‘Do we know which room he’s in?’

        ‘415, under the name of Toby Tu.’

        ‘The same guy from the flight.’

        ‘For once, he didn’t change his ID. He must have run out of passports to use.’

        ‘Any sighting of a plastic box?’

        ‘None so far, but he could have ditched the box and kept its contents.’

        My room at the Brussels hotel was number 517, one storey higher to avoid surprise encounters. It was average, as far as hotel rooms came. The TV set, the sofa, the mahogany desk, the minibar filled with everything in small portions.

        The extras were provided by MI6, Beau Bradwick told me. They included four suits not exactly to my taste, with a range of ties and shoes. There was also a dark blue track suit. Someone in London or Brussels must have thought I would go out jogging, maybe as a cover to tail Tan.

        Beau pulled a hard black case from under the bed.

        ‘How original.’

        He threw the case on the bed and opened it with an electronic card he then handed to me. The suitcase was surprisingly empty. It contained only a mobile phone and a couple of small boxes with wires attached.

        ‘What am I supposed to do with that?’

        Beau didn’t say a word but switched on the mobile phone. It showed the name of a local service provider, as any other mobile would.

        ‘It’s a mobile phone,’ I said, feigning surprise at the wonders of technology.

        ‘Don’t look at me like that, I’m not Q.’

        The logo was replaced by a blank space.

        ‘This is where you bring in your personal code, like this.’ He tapped in a row of numbers and letters, eight in all. A new number appeared, followed by a question mark. ‘This is Tan’s identification code, so you hit y for yes.’ He did, and the screen showed a map of central Brussels with a red dot flashing.

        ‘So this shows us where Tan is at all times?’

        ‘It’s more than that. If you go to another screen, like this, you can listen in to his phone conversations, but only on the hotel phone.’

        ‘Which is completely useless, because he will use his mobile for important conversations.’

        And I just thought of something else.

        ‘And he is likely to speak Chinese, which I don’t understand.’

        ‘There is a new feature on this, Bond. Listen. Yo soy un viajero bonito.’

        ‘I am a happy traveller,’ a metallic female voice said, like the worst railway station announcement you ever heard.

        ‘Does she also attempt Chinese?’

        ‘Mandarin, Cantonese, Fukien and Shanghai dialects.’

        ‘He’s still going to use his mobile phone.’

        I took delivery of the phone and the wires, which turned out to be part of the batteries, just like with a normal mobile.

        ‘You leave this on at all times, and you’re going to know where Tan is, unless he runs more than one mile away from you.’

        ‘How did you plant a device on him?’

        ‘It’s too complicated for you and me to understand. Q told me over the phone but I’ve already forgotten most of it.’

        ‘A charmer, isn’t he?’

        I looked out of the window to see a busy triangular plaza. Stalls were selling the usual souvenirs mixed in with beers and home-made candles. At the outer edge of the space, tourists were basking in the sun eating anything from American fastfood to mussels and tuna sandwiches.

        Just when I thought Beau should be going and I should be getting on with my job, music erupted all around us.

        ‘It’s the mobile phones,’ he said.

        I went for mine, he grabbed his. A priority message from London. There were looks of surprise on both our faces when we read the invitation to a top staff meeting at noon, less than an hour from now.

        ‘We’re going to have to give this one a miss,’ I said.

        ‘No, we won’t. We have a media centre in Brussels where we can follow what’s going on.’

        ‘You said I couldn’t afford to get more than a mile away from Tan.’

        ‘You won’t have to.’

 

Chapter Nine

Brussels, Belgium

 

        Angels in long white dresses were staring down at me from the azure blue sky. It looked like I was in heaven, only the colours were not quite how I imagined heaven. Not that I frequently racked my brains about what heaven would look like, if indeed it existed and I would even ever get near it with my kind of record. I had killed dozens of people, but I didn’t know whether the fact that most of those were villains would help me one bit with the powers upstairs.

        Anyway, I wasn’t in heaven yet, I was in a crumbling empty old house in the centre of Brussels. Beau told me the history of the architect, an early 20th-century amateur who had not achieved fame until after it was too late.

        Apparently, Beau had spent his first two months in Brussels researching local architectural history.

        Water leaked in through a hole in the roof when it rained but MI6 was not ordering any repairs because the present situation looked more authentic, he said. I wondered what would happen if we had to hold a conference here in the pouring rain.

        We went down an impressive spiral staircase where the walls showed the same scenes of angels radiating joy. I was wondering whether that was the message we would be getting from MI6.

        I checked my special mobile to find Tan still in his room. According to Beau, no GPS device had really been planted on the hitman. He had been ‘painted’ by laser when walking through Brussels airport and a satellite did the rest.

        At the bottom of the stairs, Beau brought in a code in an incongruous-looking electronic pad on the wall. He pushed open the oak door to reveal a soundproof conference room that could be found in any intelligence or security agency in the world.

        Three people were already sitting in the room. Beau introduced his colleagues and boss, MI6 Brussels station chief Dominic Ronson, whom I had met once before on a mission in Switzerland.

        The sturdy man with the short curls stood up and shook my hand. We sat down and watched the huge flat screen on the wall at one end of the room. One of Beau’s colleagues, a young woman with a dark Mediterranean complexion, hit a computer keyboard and a stylized picture of the Ziggurat appeared on screen.

        The next moment, we saw Bill Tanner appear, a serious expression on his face. From the background, I could tell he was seated inside the main conference room, which could seat up to 400 people, though a skeleton staff would still be at work in their offices for the most vital tasks.

        He made the throat noises required of somebody about to make an important announcement and asking everyone to keep quiet. Even in Brussels, we did.

        ‘You all know the sad events that hit us over the past year,’ he said, without referring literally to M’s fate and to our temporary move to new headquarters, almost ten months ago.

        I was hoping he wouldn’t delve too far into the past. I didn’t want to see those events again before my eyes, and I feared Tan might abscond before the speech was over.

        ‘Now the time has come to move on, how harsh it may seem to some. The powers that be have decided on a successor for M.’

        The people around the table in Brussels exchanged glances. Dominic shrugged. He knew as little about MI6 political jockeying as I did.

        ‘Out of respect for M, he wants to be known as Y,’ Tanner said.

        Now we really were taken aback. I could see eyebrows being raised from Los Angeles to Hong Kong and back. Y?

        ‘He will be talking to most of you individually within the next few weeks. Let me introduce to you: Y.’

        Bill stood up and temporarily disappeared from view.

        When he reappeared, he was shaking hands with a tall athletically built man with a tan and a mop of black hair on top of his head. My first thoughts were of a university professor, maybe in archaeology, who despite a sedentary job, had managed to keep fit.

        I leaned forward to check whether the line I saw was on the screen or on his face. It was the latter. A horizontal line above the left eye. A mark that showed he had seen field action.

        As Y took Bill’s place in front of the cameras, I leaned over to whisper in Dominic’s ear. ‘Do you know him?’

        For a moment, it looked like Y had overheard me. He shot a stern look at the camera, or was it at me? He was like a headmaster preparing to pounce on a snotty boy.

        ‘Benedict Yarborough,’ Dominic whispered back. ‘He’s seen action in Pakistan and Bosnia.’

        ‘Why don’t I know him?’

        The Brussels station chief didn’t reply since in London, Y was opening his mouth.

        ‘Colleagues and friends, I know I am not arriving here under the best of circumstances. Let me tell you this. I will be available to all of you all of the time. No matter what your problems are, if you think you need to take them to me, just do so. I will be here for you.’

        I was impressed, even though the statement sounded too much like a politician, like a presidential candidate canvassing for votes.

        ‘We face an ever more complicated world, from the Arab Spring to Chinese militarism to the depletion of natural resources. It is your task and mine to make more sense of this world, and to insure that the people of the United Kingdom can survive whatever problems show up in that kind of uncertain world.’

        He should have been addressing the United Nations, I thought, not without a splinter of admiration.

        ‘I trust you to continue with the good work you were doing before I came here, under my illustrious predecessor.’

        Did I detect sarcasm about M, or was it really deference and a realization of what he was up against? My impression was that Y wasn’t the kind of man to be intimidated by other people’s records, least of all people who were no longer around to compare himself with.

        I missed his final words because of my daydreaming. Dominic snapped his fingers and the screen went blank.

        ‘What can you tell me about him?’ I asked the station chief after the other MI6 members had left the room.

        ‘He’s sharp and obviously talented enough to mind the shop.’

        ‘Mind the shop? That doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement of our new leader.’

        ‘You’ll have a chance to meet him sooner than later, since you work out of London,’ Dominic said, an edge of envy creeping into his voice.

        ‘I never met him and I barely know his name,’ I told him, acknowledging I was out of the loop.

        ‘That’s because he was permanently abroad, jetsetting even more than you were.’

        A ring disrupted our conversation. We both searched for its origin. It turned out to be my new mobile phone, courtesy of Q. The sound indicated that Tan was doing something. I looked at the screen to see what it was. He was moving, though he was still inside the hotel.

        ‘I need to go,’ I told Dominic.

        He accompanied me upstairs, past the pure white angels and the blue skies, up the classic staircase. If I had been an architect or a collector of antiques, I might have wanted to purchase this house for myself.

        ‘Will Beau still be working with me?’ I asked Dominic.

        ‘He’s got a European Union conference on monetary regulation coming up.’

        ‘That sounds exciting.’

        Dominic gave a short bark that served as a laugh. He stayed inside, out of view from the street, while letting me out with the push on a button that was camouflaged in the foot of a marble fruit basket. Nice touch.

        I didn’t know where Tan was headed, but I wished I had the Aston Martin at my fingertips.

        According to my wonder of technology, he was reaching the hotel lobby. So was I. Emerging on the triangular plaza, I kept myself covered by the stalls selling souvenirs and beers, making sure that anyone leaving the hotel would not run into me.

        As the red dot on my phone screen left the confines of the building, I saw Tan appear. Without as much as a movement of his head, he looked left and right for trouble. Whoever had supplied him with a car at Brussels airport, also had given him a new wardrobe. He had a soft pair of sneakers on his feet and was wearing jeans and a green T-shirt under a black jacket with the zipper half closed.

        Tan was not carrying a plastic box or anything else apart from the thing that caused a bulge in his back.

        He turned left, away from me. Before reaching the first intersection, he veered sharply right, crossed a street just in front of a black cab whose driver shot him an angry look. I waited for the car to pass before I followed Tan.

        The Taiwanese-American who called himself Toby Tu followed the crowds, which was a smart thing to do. He could hide among the tourists, but so could I. It looked like Tan wanted to be swallowed up. He walked through a pedestrian gallery covered with a glass roof. I fell back, because if he looked back, he might see me. I was also aware of my reflection in the windows of the chocolate and watch shops as I strolled along trying to look like a tourist myself.

        Halfway the gallery, Tan followed the stream to the left, into the maze of narrow pedestrian alleys known as the Butchers Street. Half the space was taken up by chairs for the restaurants whose waiters tried to entice passersby with free drinks. The drinks were free, but you were expected to splurge on the mussels and French fries and beers.

        Tan seemed to be taking in all the sights, but his speed told me he had a target. He was moving too fast for a tourist.

        He turned left, crossed a wider street, went right, veered left again into an alley until he reached the Belgian capital’s main market square. The view was brilliant, with the gothic city hall sending its sharp tower into the heavens, and the cleaned baroque buildings with their roof statuettes and gilded elements attracting the camera-toting tourists.

        Again, Tan took the tourist itinerary, but without stopping for pictures or souvenirs. He passed by Manneken Pis without more than a passing glance at the figure of the little kid doing his thing.

        There were tourists standing in the way, eating waffles laden with cream and chocolate and fruit. Tan nearly bumped into one, obviously a Japanese woman. He didn’t apologize but stepped up his pace.

        I was losing him and I saw what he was up to.

        The lights flashed on a red Range Rover Evoque parked on the corner of a side street. I needed my car. Which was precisely what I said when I phoned Beau Bradwick.

        ‘I have a conference in ten minutes.’

        ‘Never mind the conference. Get Dominic to send somebody else and get me the car first.’ I gave him my estimated location.

        Fortunately for me, Tan spent several minutes inside his car without leaving. I saw he was calling somebody on his mobile. Making a rendez-vous or telling him about me?

       I dived into another side street, but pretended to be admiring the chocolate pixies and elves in the shop window. The chunks of marzipan shaped and coloured like fruit were not too bad either.

        If Tan drove off and I wasn’t able to stay close, he would vanish off my mobile phone screen, and my mission would end in complete failure. Again.

        The Range Rover pulled out, nearly hitting a taxi. A serenade of horns followed. I looked left and right for signs of the Aston.

        Instead, an Evoque just like Tan’s, but silver, braked hard just behind me. I swung around to see the window on the driver’s side go down and Tess Rivera waving at me.

        ‘Jump in, or I’m going alone,’ she shouted.

        I went round the front of the car and took place next to her. ‘What are you doing here?’

        I didn’t have to ask, I knew. She had followed Tan in Dubrovnik and she had picked him up again in Brussels.

        As she sped away to follow Tan, I called Beau to let him head for his conference and leave the Aston under the hotel. The car was too visible anyway.

        ‘Is he the man who killed your husband?’

        ‘I don’t know, but I sure would like to find out. And make him pay if he is.’

        ‘Are you going to kill him?’

        ‘If I have to.’

        ‘Is this sanctioned by your employers?’

        Tess didn’t answer that one. Tan was speeding through the maze of narrow streets, away from the pedestrians-only centre. There was definitely no more sightseeing on his agenda.

        ‘What was in the plastic box?’

        ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Tess said.

        I didn’t believe her. ‘The box Tan took from Coryn’s holiday home in Dubrovnik.’

        ‘I have no idea, but it must be important,’ she said in a voice so flat it sounded like she didn’t mean what she was saying.

        ‘He doesn’t have the box with him, but maybe whatever was inside is so small he’s carrying it somewhere on him.’

        ‘Let’s hope so. I’m not interested in that box, I just want to know whether he killed Coryn and why.’

        ‘The answer might be inside that box.’

        We were leaving the city centre. The main city was separated from the newer areas by a complicated ring road which went up and down through tunnels just like the ones I had used when arriving from the airport.

        Tan was playing a dangerous game. He started out in the slow lane to the right, then veered into traffic that went down into a tunnel. We followed, but it was a hairy ride with narrow misses as we switched lanes to keep up with him.

        There were horns, angry faces and obscene finger gestures that met us each time we followed the trail Tan set out for us.

        ‘We can pull back a bit, I’ve got him on my screen,’ I told Tess.

        ‘Are you worried we will crash?’

        ‘It’s not my car, so I won’t have to file the expenses.’

        ‘Thanks for the empathy.’

        ‘Did you ever follow us to Rovinj?’

        ‘Why should I have? Did you find anything there?’

        I hesitated about revealing the events at the nudist resort, but maybe she already knew about them.

        ‘Tan killed Retep Vane.’

        ‘Who?’

        I took my eyes off Tan’s car to look at Tess. She wasn’t lying, or was she? ‘You really don’t know Vane?’

        She shook her head. Swerved to the left, narrowly missing a Mercedes limousine before passing another car and veering right again, out of the tunnel and up, three cars behind Tan.

        ‘He was a thug. A major arms, drugs, people smuggler based in the Turkish part of Cyprus. He made occasional forays into countries where we could watch him, like Greece or this time Croatia.’

        ‘How does he tie in with Tan?’

        ‘We never got the occasion to find out. My mission in Croatia was to search your husband’s house first, then I was told to go and track down Vane. Catch him and talk to him, but Tan arrived first.’

        ‘So your mission failed.’

        That was blunt. ‘We did manage to track Tan to Brussels. Now it’s in our hands. We can’t afford to lose him.’

        ‘If we do, you can blame it on me, is that it? There’s always a convenient excuse.’

        ‘There are no excuses, only missions accomplished and not accomplished. Why didn’t you tackle Tan in Dubrovnik? You were tailing him.’

        ‘I was keeping an eye on Coryn’s house. He walked in, then later you and that woman did.’

        ‘She was a colleague from MI6.’

        No response.

        ‘So you waited until we were running around on the walls before showing up.’

        ‘Remember, I wanted to stay out of it, but then I thought, why don’t I intercept the guy from the other side. We had him in a pincer, but I didn’t expect him to leap into the sea. Neither did you,’ she said.

        ‘You’re right about that.’

        A sharp horn sound from the left as we passed a delivery truck from the right. Tan was diving into a tunnel again, but by now there was no doubt that he had seen us.

        ‘He’s going to play us.’ I wished I was in control of the car. Or even better, I could make use of this brilliant car Beau had shown me. It was now sitting idle under the hotel. I grinned, wondering if Q had not equipped it with a remote control that could guide it on its own to the place I was in now. Keep dreaming.

        Tess hit the floor to wedge the car in between another SUV and a bus. The result was an annoying scratching noise and superficial damage on all three vehicles, but she forged ahead. Surely, the Brussels police would not launch a chase for a light traffic incident causing no injuries whatsoever.

        ‘What did you find out about your husband?’

        ‘He had lots of contacts.’

        ‘You and I both know that’s the polite way of saying he played all sides.’

        ‘Coryn a double agent? I don’t believe that. Whom else would he have been working for? Do you have proof?’

        ‘Just think about this, Tess. I don’t want to spoil the memories you have of a man you loved, but he did get involved with some nasty people.’

        ‘Aren’t you?’

        I was worried she was going to brake in the middle of the tunnel to continue our conversation.

        ‘Nasty people usually end up dead either before or after I meet them. Vane is a case in point. Now you need to talk to me about Coryn.’

        ‘Or what? You’re going to kill me too?’

        Was it my style that caused this outburst? ‘We are allies. Even allies need to open up to one another. I told you about Vane, you tell me about Coryn.’

        Up ahead, Tan was keeping to the left, apparently not planning to leave this road, which went up and down from surface to tunnel and back.

        ‘His car was blown up in France. Then somebody tried to blow me up as well when I left home in the Netherlands. I know it wasn’t about me, he was the one with the secrets.’

        ‘You drive like a pro, and your detection work is more than up to scratch. Don’t tell me you learned all this by living with a CIA informer.’

        ‘Let’s focus on Coryn.’

        ‘I agree. What did you learn about him?’

        ‘He was involved in major transactions, some of which happened at both holiday homes, in France and in Croatia.’

        ‘So he used those places not just to chill out, but to meet people he couldn’t afford to meet at your place or in Belgium.’

        ‘Because the CIA and half a dozen other intelligence services would spot him. Brussels is a nest of vipers.’

        ‘At last, something we agree on. Keep your eyes on that viper,’ I said as I saw Tan slowing down.

        We were driving on a lane to his right, about four cars behind. He slowed down, forcing us to do the same, but that wasn’t a problem, since there was a red light coming up.

        ‘He’s going to turn left,’ I said.

        There were altogether about a dozen cars waiting around us, both on the left, the right and ahead and behind us.

        The light turned green. The car in front of Tan’s Evoque, a Renault, turned left. At first, he didn’t, he moved ahead, but then did a brisk left to end up on the right of the Renault.

        Tess did flick on her lights and cut in front of another car on her left to follow the flow. Tan was picking up the pace again but we had left the ring road to head out into the outer parts of Brussels.

        ‘We’re heading east,’ Tess said.

        ‘In the direction of the airport.’ I knew this much about Brussels, not one of my favourite hangouts at any time of the year.

        ‘In the direction of lots of other places as well.’

        It turned out Tan was not really going east, but north. He turned and turned to throw us off his track, but my mobile phone was doing its work and showing me his location each time we lost sight of him.

        This was the messy part of Brussels. Old houses, some of them dilapidated but nice if you could imagine what they’d look like after tough restoration work. Brussels had been a pearl of architecture in the late 19th century and during the Art Nouveau craze of the 1920s.

        ‘Coryn sold information to all parties,’ Tess said.

        Her statement caught me off guard.

        ‘I never found any evidence of this man you called Vane, but if he visited Croatia and Coryn had a house there, it looks more than likely that they met somewhere some time.’

        ‘Did your husband ever visit nude resorts?’

        ‘Are you joking?’

        ‘Those were Vane’s favourite hangouts. He met contacts there, because they couldn’t hide any weapons. In the end, Tan just walked in at night, with his clothes on and his gun ready.’

        ‘Coryn wasn’t afraid of nudity, but I can’t see him walking around like that in broad daylight in the middle of strangers. Could you?’

        ‘I didn’t know Coryn.’

        ‘I meant, could you walk naked in broad daylight in the middle of strangers?’

        I stared hard at her. A smile was hiding there somewhere. ‘I don’t think that’s relevant to our job here, which is to find what your husband, Vane and Tan were up to.’

        ‘It must be in that box.’

        Something popped inside my head. ‘What if he’s playing with us? While he’s driving around Brussels with us following him, someone else has gone into his hotel room and taken away whatever was in that box.’

        I phoned Beau. He was still at his conference minding the bureaucrats. Dominic was my next try.

        ‘Can you send someone over to check on Tan’s hotel room?’ I told him about my fears, but I left out the bit about teaming up with Tess.

        He promised he would send another agent who was currently drawing up a list of suspicious telephone numbers with Syrian connections.

        ‘Do you have people at the CIA you can trust?’

        ‘Coryn was the one with CIA connections, not me. You’re stubborn, James.’

        ‘That’s why I’m a field agent. I work until I get my man. Or woman.’

        Tan’s Evoque was picking up speed again. We stayed back because we didn’t want to alarm him, even though he must have seen us for a long time.

        Metal balls appeared in the sky beyond him.

 

Chapter Ten

Brussels, Belgium

 

        They weren’t UFOs and this wasn’t science fiction. Tan was approaching a set of huge metal balls joined by tubes, symbolizing the structure of an atom. The weird building bore the obvious name of Atomium, and it had been erected here as part of a World Expo in 1958.

        The structure was surrounded by parks and streets full of cars, with an exhibition centre down the road. By the time we reached the structure, Tan’s car had vanished. I looked at my mobile.

        ‘He stopped. He must have parked somewhere and gotten out of his car.’

        We looked around for the red Evoque but it was nowhere to be seen.

        ‘Are you sure he didn’t see your device and threw it away?’ Tess asked.

        I explained how there was no device at all. He had been painted with a laser and was being tracked by satellite. She seemed to understand it, or maybe, she didn’t care.

        We found a spot to park the car and hurried in the direction of where Tan was supposed to be if my phone was right. The red dot was moving toward the Atomium.

        ‘There you go.’ I saw the hitman enter the building.

        ‘You must be kidding. He’ll get trapped in there,’ Tess said.

        ‘Let’s not sell the skin of the bear before we shoot him. Old Belgian proverb.’

        ‘Funny. Why don’t you go in and grab your man, while I guard the exit.’

        ‘Do you have a gun?’

        She showed me her handbag. I guess there was space in there for some small calibre weapon that might stop Tan if he let her get close enough.

        ‘Come with me.’

        ‘He’ll play us and run off again.’

        ‘I have the cell phone. We’ll never let him get far enough from us.’

        I asked staff where they had last seen a Chinese man come through and they pointed at an elevator. We went up into one of the tubes and ended up inside a ball. There was no time to admire the scenery.

        One of the balls had been refurbished as a sushi bar. An Asian hostess asked if there were two of us and where we wanted to sit. There was only one rectangular bar structured around the train with the dishes, but there were also other tables which offered you a view of Brussels, or at least of the expo area known as the Heysel.

        We weren’t here for the food anyway.

        The woman had barely assigned us two seats or a snap sounded from the kitchen. The bulled went right past Tess’s head and smashed a wooden board with the name of the restaurant in Japanese characters to smithereens.

        Tan had fixed a suppressor to his gun, and now he came into view from the kitchen. Through the doorway, I saw the cook’s body lie on the floor in a growing pool of blood.

        The waitress disappeared behind the counter as I fired back. I don’t know whether she was hit or just smart enough to hide as the firestorm broke loose. I just fired at the kitchen opening, hoping one of my bullets would find Tan or at least contain him in there.

        I wasn’t using a suppressor, so each time I fired, it sounded like a sledgehammer hitting a steel surface. There was nothing I could do about it, my only aim was to hit Tan. I considered the implications of killing him, which would mean our hopes of finding the links between Vane and Maas would be severely curtailed.

        Tess and I lied low behind the heavy wooden tables, the windows behind us splintered by Tan’s shots. The restaurant went quiet but for the wind blowing in.

        I looked at Tess. She made a move to get up and look over the counter but I put my hand on her arm and shook my head. I didn’t want to sacrifice her for my cause. After all, in this operation, she was a civilian, a bystander, not an official agent.

        I lifted my right arm and fired a shot into the wall of the kitchen doorway. There was no reaction.

        ‘He’s jumping,’ the waitress said from her hiding place.

        I took her comment at face value and signalled to Tess to cover me. I took the weapon in both my hands and forged forward. The waitress sat behind the counter and pointed at the kitchen. I went inside and saw the rope from the emergency escape system hang out the broken window of the kitchen. Tan had nearly reached the ground level even though the rope stopped short of touching the pavement.

        ‘Tess, run downstairs,’ I shouted while I fired a shot at Tan and grabbed the rope to follow him. The waitress was on the phone, probably to call the police to come and find the murdered chef.

        I raced down the rope, keeping my gun ready just in case Tan would turn around and see me as the vulnerable target that I was.

        Just while I was preparing to leap to the ground, my mobile rang. I jumped first and ran after Tan, who I suspected was looking for his car. I saw him turn back to shoot at me so I jumped behind a car to take cover while listening to my call.

        ‘Bond, you have to help me,’ a barely recognizable voice said. Dominic Ronson sounded like he was running out of breath after a long and tiresome jog.

        ‘Where are you?’ I asked, though I thought I knew the answer.

        ‘In Tan’s hotel room. They shot me,’ he said before breaking out in a nasty cough.

        ‘We’re on our way,’ I told him. We weren’t. I called Beau Bradwick while I was running and trying to locate Tan. Behind me, I saw Tess run out of the Atomium with her gun at the ready.

        I told Beau to drop the conference and rush to save his boss at the hotel. As soon as I finished the call, I could look up the screen to find Tan. There was no red dot.

        I stopped and looked around. He could not have vanished so rapidly. I told Tess when she caught up with me. We looked around for a car speeding away, but there was just normal traffic.

        ‘Let’s head back to my car,’ Tess proposed.

        I shook the mobile as if that was going to work.

        ‘Do we head to the hotel or can we drive around here until we pick Tan up again?’ she said after I told her about Dominic’s call.

        ‘Let’s drive.’ She pulled out in the Evoque and drove back and forth around the expo area. I looked out for any sign of Tan or of his car, but I couldn’t find anything. He had vanished, into thin air, as the cliché said.

        ‘Let’s go and find Dominic,’ I ordered her.

        Q would be the target of some angry questioning about why his equipment had failed me. I wondered if he would have an explanation that satisfied me. I was angry for letting Tan escape again.

        If Dominic had been attacked in Tan’s hotel room, did that mean my feeling had been right that the hitman had only wanted to draw us away while somebody came to pick up whatever had been inside the plastic box from Dubrovnik? Dominic must have stumbled upon that person and had been shot as a reward. I slammed my fist into the dashboard of Tess’s car.

        ‘Tan’s whole trip was a decoy to get us away from the hotel,’ I told Tess when she shot a glance of concern at me.

        ‘You think he was playing us?’

        I explained my theory. She agreed it could be possible, though she still believed Tan went out to the Atomium to meet somebody.

        ‘We didn’t see anybody.’

        ‘The sushi chef?’ Tess asked.

        ‘He knew we were tracking him. He wouldn’t risk talking to a contact in full view with us so closely behind.’

        ‘Maybe he only needed to pick something up, and then he killed him to stop him from talking to us.’

        ‘The Belgians will have to find out if the chef really has a dodgy background, but I wouldn’t hope for too much. All Tan did was trapping us in a convenient location and making his getaway. We’ve lost him. Again.’

        ‘Are you going to get a reprimand?’

        ‘Are you?’ I asked.

        ‘You’re still not satisfied I’m in this to find who killed my husband?’

        ‘I never trust anybody for the full 100 percent.’

        ‘After all I did for you, you should at least give me a 90 percent. I tried to trap Tan in Dubrovnik for you, and I helped you follow him here.’

        ‘Maybe that was part of the plan. Tan drew me away from the hotel, and you just showed up and volunteered to drive me all the way here.’

        Tess slammed the brakes so hard my forehead hit the ceiling of the SUV.

        ‘That is a totally callous accusation. If you don’t apologize right now, I throw you out of my car.’

        Two cars behind us used their horn to tell us to hurry up. Neither of us bothered to look behind us and react.

        ‘I apologize, but you must admit it could’ve been a plot.’

        The other cars passed us, but I didn’t take note of the drivers’ gestures.

        ‘You are outrageous, and no, that’s not an apology, merely a lame excuse. You suck, Bond.’

        ‘I do admit that you helped me a lot. But somebody, somewhere, is going to make the remarks I just have. It was convenient for you to show up at the moment you did and take me to follow Tan.’

        ‘I had no idea where he was going, remember. It was you with your stupid cell phone who tracked him down, I was just doing the driving.’

        She continued the drive into town, but we didn’t exchange any more words until I told her how to find the hotel’s underground parking lot. I noticed the Aston Martin was still in the place I had left it after the drive from the airport.

        By the time we arrived at Tan’s room on the fourth floor, a hotel security member had cordoned off the hallway and asked us if we were staying in one of the rooms adjacent to the hitman’s.

        I explained we were colleagues of the victim.

        Before he had a chance to say anything more, I saw Beau run out of the room. I waved at him. He shook his head and tried to hide the wetness in his eyes.

        ‘James, he’s dead.’

        I gave him a short hug, Tess embraced him. The Brussels station chief murdered. That would be a tough meal on Y’s clean plate, not to mention a media extravaganza if they were allowed to find out Dominic’s identity. At the least, it would rate a ‘British diplomat found murdered in Brussels hotel room.’ There would be questions about what he was doing there in the first place, since he lived near the Belgian capital. Sex and drugs would feature at the top of the list for the Fleet Street rabble.

        The room had been declared a crime scene, but we could still enter if I put on plastic bags around my shoes. Dominic was lying on his back with his feet under the bed, as if he had tried to hide there and someone had been pulling him out. He had been shot in several places in the arms and shoulder. He must have bled to death, because the carpet was soaked red.

        ‘What did he tell you?’ I asked Beau.

        Beau shook his head and looked like breaking into a fit. ‘This man gave me my big break, my first foreign assignment.’

        I removed my eyes from the corpse and looked around the room. There was blood spatter on a wall, obviously Dominic’s before he had collapsed onto the floor. Several items had been thrown off the furniture, a mirror was shot to shards.

        ‘This is Tan’s room, not Dominic’s,’ I said as I tried to focus on the essential. We had to look for traces of the ever-elusive and over-elusive Taiwanese-American hitman.

        I put plastic bags over my hands and started making rounds of the room, pulling open drawers and doors. Tan had done his best not to leave any traces of his presence. There were no shirts, no underwear, no ties that betrayed a man had occupied this space.

        I even looked under the bed, to see if Dominic hadn’t managed to find something and tried to hide it there. If the person who had killed him had had any time and any sense, he would have done the same thing. I even opened the minibar, finding only an empty space where I assumed the Scotch had been. I felt like gulping down some of the other stuff myself to recover from the emotion, but what would Tess and Beau say? Drinking on a friend’s grave.

        The windows had escaped the carnage. There was no broken glass, no blood spatter. ‘The killer must have had the key card for the door,’ I told nobody in particular. ‘Tan must have left it behind somewhere and told the killer where he could find it.’

        ‘We don’t have Tan’s cell so we can’t find whom he talked to,’ Tess said. She was still standing with Beau by Dominic’s body.

        The only piece of territory I hadn’t recced yet was the bathroom.

        No signs of struggle here either. The first item I wanted to search was the garbage can. The empty Scotch bottle was there, so I had been right. There were no hairs from the man’s comb. He had been afraid of leaving DNA for us to analyse. The other items inside the can were crumpled paper napkins and a plastic wrapping.

        ‘Can you help me out with this?’ Tess called out.

        I walked out of the bathroom and found her sticking her right arm inside a tall porcelain vase containing a thorny type of dry plant.

        ‘Did you find anything or are just showing off?’

        Tess and Beau both shot me a look of distaste like there was some chemistry working between them. A pang of jealousy hit me.

        As I walked over to the vase, my mobile phone started acting up. I looked at the screen and swore. ‘Down! Now!’

        I hadn’t finished shouting yet, or the window behind Tess and Beau flew apart in thousands of pieces darting around like shrapnel. The bullet whizzed right past the woman’s back and hit the vase, sending shards of porcelain mixing with the glass around the room.

        Tess and Beau were lying on the floor, whether because of my shouts or because of the impact of the pandemonium, I couldn’t tell. The door opened and a Belgian policeman ran inside.

        ‘Stay out,’ I shouted at him. He was just one more moving target in my way. I wiped the glass from my face and pointed the Glock at the window. I shot at an opening in the roof of a baroque house across the street. I just hoped my instincts were not wrong and no innocents were inside.

        The next moment, I saw a figure move. It was Tan, like the mobile phone had told me. He had re-emerged, only with more firepower.

        I shot off two more bullets, but I wasn’t sure they would do any damage at this distance. Tan fired again, but I dropped to the floor and rolled over behind a sofa. His bullet hit a mirror.

        ‘Let’s get out of here.’

        Tess and Beau were a bit dazed and had slight cuts from the bits of window, but they still responded to my calls.

        We rolled around like a bunch of monkeys at play until we had reached the door and got up to walk into the hall. The mobile phone told me Tan was on the move.

        ‘Don’t go back in there unless you’re certain it’s absolutely safe, but don’t let anybody in either. We need to retrieve the stuff.’ And Dominic’s body.

        ‘I’m coming with you,’ Tess shouted. She had traces of blood all over her face where the glass shards had cut her.

        ‘You need a doctor,’ I shouted as I ran to the lift.

        She followed me.

        ‘What was inside the vase? I didn’t see anything when it flew apart,’ I asked her when we were heading down to the ground level. I kept my eyes on my phone screen. Tan was about to leave the house he had used as a shooting platform.

        She held out her hand to reveal a black tube in hard plastic.

        ‘Is that a flash drive?’

        ‘Show you later,’ she said.

        ‘Whatever it is, don’t lose it,’ I said. I was tiring of mysteries, I just wanted straight answers.

        As we ran out of the hotel’s front door, Tess pulled my elbow and pointed across the plaza. Tan was carrying a sports bag while running down into the tourist crowds. There was no way I could shoot him now.

        ‘If he drives out of here, we’re done. Our cars are under the hotel,’ I said.

        ‘Don’t tell me you’re a good driver but a poor runner.’

        At that point, Tess threw herself into a higher gear and passed me by, all the while avoiding colliding with tourists sampling ice creams, waffles, beers and coffees. I put away my gun because it was useless here. I would hit more civilians than I ever had a chance of injuring Tan.

        When I saw him turn left into an alley, I let Tess follow him while I jumped into one alley earlier. I had covered this territory before, when I tailed him out of the hotel. As I had anticipated, I gained a few seconds by taking this road, and I drew up level again with Tess. What I hadn’t counted on, was that he had seen us and would take countermeasures.

        He jumped to the right, swung around and pointed a gun right at us. I felt wind through my hair, whether it was the bulled grazing me or just the movement of my head when I let myself drop, I didn’t know.

        The bullet clattered into the brick which had been behind my head just seconds earlier. Tess ran to the opposite side of the street to take refuge in a marzipan shop. I was so exposed I could do nothing but fire back and hope he wouldn’t shoot again.

        Tess jumped back out of the shop and finally started shooting to cover me. Tan disappeared. I counted to three and went after him, Tess staying behind me. I looked into the alley from where he had shot at us, but there was no Tan to be seen.

        I recognized one of the houses.

        ‘Let’s get in there.’ I pulled Tess by the arm and got my gun out again. It was like I expected. The door was not locked. I pushed it gently open, careful not to make any creaking noises. I went in with Tess so close behind me I could smell her lily perfume. When she opened her mouth to ask me something, I put my finger to my lips. Any sound was going to betray our location to Tan.

        It was dark inside, but I could still see the angels smile down at us from their blue skies. There was a staircase leading up, but I imagined it would only take us to that hole in the roof, so I took the way down, sticking close to the wall and letting my eyes get used to the darkness first. Tess was still following me one pace behind.

        If she wasn’t to be trusted, as I had hinted at earlier, I would be trapped. Tan in front, Tess behind me. My life was in their hands.

        The flash looked like someone lighting up a match to start smoking in a particularly drafty spot.

        I shot back while pulling Tess down behind me with my left hand. Tan had aimed too high in what seemed like his handicap. The bullet planted itself in the wall behind us. There was no time for thinking now. I raced forward down the stairs shooting like an amateur gone crazy.

        Even if one drip in that rain of bullets hit Tan, it would have been worthwhile. He fired two shots back before silence hit. Had I eliminated him?

        I recognized the sound. He was placing some fresh ammunition. I fired three shots while Tess rejoined me.

        I heard metal clattering on the floor somewhere to the right below me. There he was, raising the muzzle of the weapon toward me. I jumped like a tiger and kicked his gun hand askew. Before he had the time to redress the situation, I pinned him to the wall and forced my gun into his stomach.

        ‘Drop the gun or you’re butter,’ I hissed, spitting him in the face.

        He grabbed my gun hand and tried to force my other hand down so he could shoot me in the face, but I pressed harder. He guessed I wanted him alive. I resisted the pressure and fired. The bullet tore through the outside of his upper left leg.

        Tan screamed and dropped the gun.

        ‘That’s what you get if you don’t play along with us.’

        Tess had joined us, her gun pointing straight at Tan’s face. ‘Did you kill my husband?’

        ‘We don’t have time for this,’ I interjected, trying to prevent the situation from derailing into a personal vendetta. ‘Help me turn the light on.’

        I kicked Tan’s gun away and forced him down on the floor. He was sitting against the wall, holding his injuries with both his hands to try and stop the blood.

        I wasn’t really interested in helping him, I wanted answers and I wanted them right now.

        After Tess had switched on the light, I stared right into his eyes and knew he was not the kind to give in. I pulled a tube out of my pocket and forced it into his throat. He gasped but I kept him in an iron grip.

        ‘What are you doing? Poisoning him?’ Tess asked. ‘I want him to confess before he dies.’

        ‘This is one of Q’s juices, a truth serum.’

        ‘Q what?’

        ‘The quartermaster. He provides us with gadgets that sometimes have a good use.’

        I slapped Tan’s face. ‘Whom are you working for?’

        He grinned and looked at his leg. At this point, hurting him might still help me more than whatever juice he was digesting.

        ‘Talk to me.’ I hit his bad leg with my fist. He screamed.

        Tess was behind me, stretching her right arm to point the gun at Tan. ‘I can hit the other leg if you don’t talk.’

        ‘Hear that, Tan or Tu or whatever you’re calling yourself today? She wants to hurt you even more than I do, so talk.’

        He snarled at me. ‘Losers,’ he said in a strong American accent.

        ‘That’s not what it looks like from where I’m standing.’

        I hit his leg again. Another scream. He spat at me. I slapped him in the face with the Glock.

        The tube was empty. I had no more truth serum to pour into him, so I crossed my fingers hoping its effect would soon appear.

        Tess clicked the safety on her gun. I was dealing with two crises simultaneously.

        ‘Did you kill Coryn?’

        ‘I worked for him,’ Tan spat out.

        ‘You tried to kill us,’ Tess said. ‘You’re lying.’

        ‘I was his contact, I cleaned up his dirty work,’ Tan said. He looked dizzy, his head falling back against the wall as he desperately tried to stem the bleeding.

        ‘Who killed Coryn?’ I asked.

        ‘The Chinese thought he was talking too much.’

        ‘The Chinese? What did he have to do with China?’ Tess asked.

         Tan’s head fell forward. I was worried the end was near so I pulled his head up by the hair. ‘The truth, Bokey, nothing but the truth.’ I knew the serum must be working, but I still couldn’t force myself to believe every word that came out of his mouth.

        ‘If you want the truth, you need to give me something in return,’ he said.

        ‘What do you want? A Porsche, a retirement home in Marbella?’ I said. ‘Tell us the truth, and we will consider taking you to hospital and giving you a new life.’ I didn’t add that the new life I was considering for him after Dominic’s death consisted mostly of a long stay in Britain at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

        Maas worked with the Chinese. He gave them information, they paid him.’ He spat blood down his chin.

        ‘What kind of information?’ From the corner of my eye, I saw Tess shake her head in disbelief.

        ‘Anything he could find. Weapons development, names of agents, commercial information, oil exploration data. They wanted it all, he had lots to offer.’

        ‘Why did they kill him then?’

        ‘He was a socialite, he talked, he attended parties, he travelled. The Chinese found a better, more trustworthy source of information.’

        ‘Where?’

        The blood was also flowing out of his mouth now. I gave him five more minutes before he became useless.

        ‘Where, Bokey, where is the new source of information?’

        ‘He paid me to work for him.’

        ‘You betrayed Coryn to the highest bidder?’ Tess asked.

        I shut her up by putting a finger in the air. ‘Where were you going next? Who is your bidder?’

        He produced a sound like a pile of wood collapsing. The end was near.

        ‘Rouge,’ he said. His head fell forward. He would never raise it again.

        I let him sag to the floor.

        ‘I didn’t get to kill him,’ Tess said.

        ‘Yes, you did. He’s dead, so write that in your plus column.’

        ‘What was that rouge he was talking about?’

        I went through his pockets. He had the passport in the name of Toby Tu, a folding knife, a pair of batteries, a pen, a box of matches which I opened but they only contained, yes, matches.

        Down his trouser legs, he had yet another knife hidden, under his socks. The man was a walking arsenal, yet in the end he had fallen like a loser. I looked up at the door behind which I had watched Bill’s introduction of Y.

        ‘You seem to know your way around here,’ Tess said.

        ‘This is an MI6 safe house.’

        ‘How did he find this?’

        ‘This is exactly something I’d like to know too,’ I said while I searched his shoes and his jacket. I turned up no more weapons, but I did get his mobile. ‘Now I know what rouge means,’ I said as I looked at his contact list.

        ‘Is it his handler?’

        ‘It’s not rouge, it’s Bruges, and there’s a number listed here.’ Bruges, the medieval city just sixty miles or so to the west from here, closer to England.

        ‘Will you call it?’

        ‘I will have Q analyse all the numbers on the mobile. Let’s get going.’

        We left Bokey Tan’s body behind for the local MI6 station to handle. With Dominic dead, I didn’t know who would be in charge, but I would tell Beau about the corpse in the safe house. Whether they’d dispose of it themselves or call in the Belgian police was not my business. Tan’s mobile was.

        Tess wiped blood from my jacket with a tissue before we took to the street again. I texted the list of phone numbers from Tan’s mobile to Q with an urgent request to check them for ownership and call frequencies.

        By the time we reached the hotel, I called Beau to let him know about Tan and about our next destination. He told me he had called Bill to explain the situation and advised me to do the same. I never planned to heed it. Talking to Bill Tanner or to any other bureaucrat in London was the least of my concerns now.

        I would finally get to use the new machine. The short drive from the airport to the hotel had not been enough to test the Aston Martin One-77 as the power car that it was, but on the highway from Brussels to Bruges I could and I would. I checked out of the hotel.

        ‘Are you following me to Bruges?’ I asked Tess. I already knew the answer and her exact words.

        ‘I won’t rest until I find out who’s behind Coryn’s death.’

        She walked over to her Range Rover Evoque, I sat down behind the wheel of my Aston Martin. I felt bad for Tess. She had seen her husband as a victim, and now, if you had to believe Tan, he turned out to be less than clean either. Coryn Maas had worked for the CIA, but above all, he had worked for himself.

        The drive to Bruges, or Brugge as the Flemish locals called it, passed in less than an hour. I kept going above the speed limit of 120 kilometres per hour, but then so did most of my Belgian fellow motorway users, so I didn’t feel bad about pushing it to 160 now and then, that’s 100 miles per hour.

        The road from the motorway into Bruges was clogged by the onset of the evening rush hour. The tall gothic belfry tower rose in the distance before me. While it looked like the road led straight to it, it would take me a few roundabouts and a lot of winding along one-way streets to find my way to the heart of the city and to my hotel, which was on a leafy square just a short walk from the belfry on the town’s touristy central plaza.

        I parked the car underground, checked into the hotel under the name of Gareth Mallory, sales manager for Universal Trading Co. of Cambridge, and walked out in search of dinner.

        Tess was not as daredevil as I was on the road, so I gave her another half hour before she’d be able to join me. I walked across an empty plaza which the hotel staff had told me featured the city hall and a chapel where crusaders had put the blood of Jesus Christ they had found in Jerusalem, about eleven centuries after his death.

        I had seen enough blood for the day so I continued through a narrow street crowded with tourists gaping at the lace souvenirs typical for this town. The central square was the picturesque heart of Bruges, with the belfry towering above, a statue of two locals who had fought and beaten the king of France in 1302, and restaurants that gave you a perfect view of it all, even if they were tourist traps.

        Side streets were always more appealing to me, if only because it made the crowds more manageable. A watcher or an attacker would have a harder time hiding if the crowds were thinner and had to move, especially in a town like this, where the sidewalks were often so narrow no three people could walk abreast.

        Talking of breasts, I saw Tess before she saw me. I had taken a place inside a dark local restaurant but with my back toward a wall, facing the street, like a real intelligence agent would.

        ‘How did you find me so easily?’ I asked her as she joined me at my table.

        ‘I know your little world and its dark habits.’ She had changed into a sleeveless T-shirt that exposed a lot more of her tanned body than I had seen so far.

        ‘I’m having the ox tongue with Madeira sauce.’ A typical down-to-earth Belgian dish, because I didn’t want to spend all evening behind a table.

        ‘We’ll have two of those tongues,’ Tess told the waiter.

        Just as I wanted to lean over and ask her about Bruges, my mobile buzzed.

        ‘Good news?’ she asked as I was reading the message.

        ‘We’ve got something to go on to find Tan’s contact. The number marked as Bruges is registered to someone named Stanislas Blu.’

 

Chapter Eleven

Bruges, Belgium

 

        We had a Dame Blanche vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce and a Cognac before we returned to the hotel to plot our next move.

        ‘Do you know anything about this Stanislas Blu?’ Tess asked.

        ‘Q says he has double nationality, British and Italian. He’s a businessman, but little is known about his business.

        ‘That screams shady at me, doesn’t it?’

        She snuggled up to me in the lift to the fourth floor, the hotel’s top level in this city allergic to highrises.

        ‘You live not far from here, do you?’ I asked when we reached the room.

        ‘It’s just a couple of miles, but since what happened there, I haven’t been back. It’s not safe.’

        ‘We could still use it if we need it, though.’

        ‘I guess we could, but right now, I feel extremely comfortable here.’

        So did I, especially after we had locked the door behind us and were pressing each other against the wall.

        ‘Do you know what they called me in high school?’ she asked me as we tore the clothes off each other.

        ‘Do I have to know?’

        ‘Testosterone Tess.’

        We laughed. The night only got better from then on.

        The next morning, the alarm on my mobile phone woke us up at six. I had decided on an early breakfast and an early visit to Stanislas Blu, just in case we could catch him before he went to work, if there was such a thing as work for him.

        According to Q’s information, the businessman lived on a quiet street not so far from the hotel. We returned to our room after breakfast to check our gear and left on foot.

        ‘It’s nice not to have to rely on a car,’ Tess said. She took my hand and we pretended to be a couple discovering the romantic city.

        I loved cars but I wasn’t going to say anything to spoil the mood. If Mister Blu was as elusive as Tan, we might find him slipping away again, leaving us dumbfounded without wheels.

        ‘It’s the third house past the alley across the street,’ I told her as we moved forward, shooting looks at the chocolates in the windows like real tourists would. I pretended to be enthused about a house made entirely of marzipan in bright colours.

        ‘Shall we just ring the bell and ask for him?’ Tess asked.

        ‘Or we could lie low and observe his house.’

        ‘How are we going to do that if we don’t have a car? There’s no parking space here.’

        ‘The kind of cars we drive would draw too much attention,’ I admitted. Plant an Aston Martin in a narrow street full of tourists and you become the attraction.

        Our dilemma was solved when a man in a sharp suit left the house.

        ‘Would that be our Mister Blu?’ Tess asked.

        ‘We don’t have a picture, until now,’ I replied as I took a photo with my mobile, ostensibly pointing it at the protected late-medieval house next door.

        ‘Let’s follow him.’ Tess pulled me in the other direction with a smile and a quick kiss. I wished we were back at the hotel.

        Blu, if that was him, took us back to the central square. He crossed it and seemed to be heading toward our hotel.

        ‘You think he’s planning to pay us a visit?’ Tess asked.

        ‘If he is, I’m glad we’re aware of it before his arrival. If we had slept in, he would have caught us.’

        Blu was not heading for the hotel. He turned right before he got there, into an alley next to city hall. There was a structure suspended above the alley which looked a lot like the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. During the Middle Ages, this must have served as some kind of passageway between the two buildings, allowing people to stay dry and unobserved by the masses.

        Up ahead was a flat bridge crossing one of the canals or ‘reien’ which had allowed locals to nickname their hometown the ‘Venice of the North.’ The bridge, which was pedestrians only, led to more souvenir shops and to a fish market which this morning stood empty.

        I slowed down as Blu didn’t seem to be in a hurry. He was a tall man with a light complexion and a dapper suit. I wondered which side he was on and why a man looking like a respectable businessman would be involved in anything as sordid as killings from Croatia to Brussels.

        I didn’t really have to, for I’d met more than my share of respectable-looking people who turned out to be anything but. Not all scumbags looked like scumbags, apart from Retep Vane.

        Blu seemed to have an eye on his back or a particularly sensitive mind. He turned around and stared us in the face. Our first instinct was to stop and stare back. We needed to be pretending we were just walking ahead regardless of what he was doing, but we committed the most stupid error in the book.

        He understood the situation and ran. ‘Let’s catch him,’ I told Tess. I took out my gun and pointed it at Blu, who had reached the bridge. ‘Stop, we want to talk to you,’ I shouted at him.

        He stopped. For a moment, I was wondering whether he was going to talk, or whether he was preparing to fire at us. So far, he had produced no weapon.

        Blu then did the completely unexpected. He looked at us and swung one leg over the stone wall on the side of the bridge. He jumped over before we reached him.

        We ran to see where he was swimming. He wasn’t. A boat loaded with tourists had just passed under the bridge and Blu had smartly jumped right in the middle of it. The tourists screamed, the boat wobbled, the guide entrusted with explaining the history of Bruges in four languages was angry at this non-paying extra passenger, but the boat continued course, away from the bridge.

        Leaping into the water made no sense. I could never swim fast enough to catch up with him.

        ‘Follow him on land,’ I shouted at Tess. She ran off across the bridge and ran on the street parallel to the canal.

        I waited for the next boat to appear from under the bridge and jumped in, only I wasn’t as experienced as Blu. I landed right on top of a camera-wielding Chinese tourist who spat out insults at me and fell sideways against the edge of the boat, causing a shudder that nearly knocked the vessel against the side of the canal.

        ‘Just passing by,’ I told the guide. ‘Can you speed up the tour?’

        He didn’t, so I shoved him aside, told him to continue the commentary but leave the steering over to me. Blu’s boat had picked up the speed and turned left around a bend. I had worked boats before, so this wasn’t exactly tough work.

        I smiled when one of the passengers took a picture of me, but for the rest I concentrated on keeping the vessel away from the houses lining each side of the canal and from the boats coming at us from the other direction. This was basically a two-way dead-end street, with boats eventually having to turn back and return to their point of origin.

        I sped up the pace until I had Blu within my sights again. He was not steering, he was just sitting tight among the tourists on his boat. He pretended to be listening to the guide, but I could tell he saw me approach and was working out a way to escape. There were only two ways. Either jump into the water and swim away, and I wondered if Blu wanted to get his suit wet, or force the boat to head for the side and run off. Either method would not slow me down, but only cut the distance between the two of us.

        I had to lower my head as we passed under a particularly low bridge into a narrow stretch but I didn’t slow down. My boat forced waves to slam into a vessel coming the other way, earning me angry looks from its guide.

        There was commotion on Blu’s boat. I saw it go to the right. There was a staircase leading down to the edge of the water from the shade of a church. Once, churchgoers must have landed here to go to mass, I suspected, but I wasn’t listening to our guide’s explanations.

        I rammed my boat right into Blu’s just before he reached the stairway. Tourists screamed and my guide tried to wrest control back over his boat from me. I pushed him away and jumped across to Blu’s boat. He leaped over the scared tourists and reached land. He bounded up the stairs while I pulled my weapon, provoking even worse panic than the collision had.

        Blu reached the top of the stairs but fell back right into my arms. Tess stood in front of us. She had slapped Blu in the face with her gun.

        I pulled him back on his feet and up the staircase. There was a bench under the trees where I took Blu. He had not spoken a word yet.

        ‘You are Stanislas Blu?’ I asked.

        He was bleeding from being smashed in the face by Tess. He wiped off the blood with a handkerchief but didn’t say anything. While Tess kept an eye on his movements, I searched him. No weapons, not even a hidden knife, but he was carrying a mobile phone, which I confiscated. Tan’s number had been erased.

        ‘Why did you pay off Tan?’

        He sniffed but didn’t say a word.

        ‘Do you know who we are?’ Tess asked.

        Again, he didn’t say a word, but I guessed he knew. He also knew we could hardly interrogate him seriously in public, in a park with the tourists below us still wondering who we were and the guides no doubt ready to call police and file complaints against their hijackers.

        We needed to take Blu off the streets and fast. The only place we had in this foreign town was our hotel room, but I wasn’t sure whether he was the kind of person to walk gently through a crowded city and into a busy hotel.

        I stood up and knocked him unconscious.

        ‘What are you doing?’ Tess shouted.

        ‘If somebody asks, I’ll just say he was not feeling too well and we’re waiting for an ambulance or something. Go get the car.’

        ‘Where will you take him?’

        ‘Into the hotel through the underground parking. That way we might avoid too much attention, unless you have a better suggestion.’

        She hadn’t. I waited for her to bring around the car. She had the foresight to drive the SUV, not my Aston Martin. We bundled Blu into the floor space between the front and the back row seats. I sat with him while Tess drove us back to the hotel.

        ‘He can’t die and he can’t escape,’ I said, more to myself than to her.

        ‘He didn’t seem talkative to me,’ she said as she drove into the underground carpark.

        We lifted him out of the car and I slung his arm around my neck. An elderly Spanish couple entering the lift on the ground floor looked at us like we were a couple of early morning drunks, but otherwise the ride went smoothly.

        I threw Blu on our floor.

        ‘What are you going to do now? Torture him?’

        ‘Get your laptop going.’

        ‘I beg your pardon.’

        ‘You’ve never told me what was that thing you found inside that vase in Tan’s room.’

        The black plastic object from Brussels. She thought I had completely forgotten about it.

        ‘It was a usb wasn’t it, a computer flash drive.’

        She reached into her pocket and showed it to me.

        ‘Don’t you think it’s time to be honest with me?’

        ‘I just forgot all about it after Tan nearly killed us and we chased him into that safe house of yours.’

        ‘It wasn’t my safe house.’

        ‘It was your company’s.’

        ‘Maybe this gentleman will be able to provide us with some answers when I wake him up one minute from now, but you first need to get your computer going and look at that flash drive.’

        Tess threw her arms up in surrender and slammed her laptop down on the desk table. Before I questioned Blu, I needed more information to push him into a corner. We more or less knew he had been pulling the strings behind Tan, but why had he wanted Coryn Maas killed? And Retep Vane? Dominic must have been collateral damage for having entered Tan’s room.

        ‘There are passwords here that will defeat us.’

        ‘That’s not what I want to hear,’ I said.

        Tess made a phone call on her mobile.

        ‘Whom are you calling?’

        ‘Either you want me to solve this or you don’t. Sit tight and enjoy the show.’

        I had no idea what she was talking about but I trusted she wouldn’t do anything stupid. It turned out she was calling an old acquaintance of hers whose hobby was hacking into secure banking web sites all across Europe.

        The hacker, whose name she didn’t want to reveal, was an expert. At least, he did what he had to do. Tess managed to bypass the obstacles and enter the file on Tan’s flash drive.

        ‘So what do you have for me?’ I asked her as I kept my eyes on Blu’s face for any signs he was waking up. I held the Beretta in my hands, ready to pounce if he tried any tricks on me.

        ‘Lists of coded names and numbers. They look like overseas bank accounts to me,’ Tess said.

        ‘Anything familiar? Could anything be tied to Coryn?’

        ‘You are still desperate to paint him into the villain of the piece, aren’t you?’

        ‘There are no villains and there are no good guys in this game, Tess.’

        ‘This is not a game. This is my husband’s life and death.’

        Blu stirred.

        ‘Go on. What else do you have that we can put under Mister Blu’s nose when he’s ready.’

        ‘Don’t you have more of that truth serum you gave to Tan?’

        ‘I used all of it on him because we needed results quickly before he died.’

        ‘He’s got addresses,’ Tess said.

        ‘Addresses of what? Where?’

        ‘This one looks a lot like the safe house where we caught Tan.’

        I rushed over to her side to look at the screen. The Brussels address was not the only that looked familiar. The names of the cities were abbreviated, like airport codes, but still recognizable. I looked down the row and visualized some more places. A brownstone mansion on the outskirts of Cologne. A modest bungalow near Hamburg. There were more addresses, VAL for Valencia, MIL for Milan, ATH for Athens.

        Safe houses for MI6 across Europe.

        ‘Somebody was selling this information,’ I concluded.

        ‘Who says it was Coryn?’

        I didn’t want to offend her, so I remained silent, but I still pretty much thought it was Coryn. I didn’t know how he did it, but he must have had the information hidden at his holiday home in Dubrovnik, and Bokey Tan found it just before we arrived.

        I looked back at Stanislas Blu to find him stirring. His eyelids trembled, his lips shook. Then he opened his eyes and smiled.

        Whatever I had expected him to say, it wasn’t this.

        ‘Bond, James Bond,’ he said as if he were introducing himself. A manic laugh followed.

        ‘How do you know my name?’

        He laughed again but obviously didn’t deem my question worthy of an answer.

        I showed him my gun. ‘You don’t want to play any games with me, Blu.’

        He looked away, at Tess working through the laptop.

        ‘What are you going to do with me? Take me in chains back to MI5?’

        ‘It’s MI6,’ I corrected him.

        ‘Who is she?’

        ‘The wife of the man you had murdered.’

        ‘Don’t jump to conclusions, Bond. You have no evidence, and even at MI6, that’s still the main cause for any action.’

        ‘Why did Coryn Maas have to die?’

        ‘From what I heard, he got greedy.’

        I saw Tess back away from the computer. She got up, stormed at Blu and delivered him a blow to the face that made him wince. I put him up, back against a sofa.

        ‘You’ll be getting more of that if you don’t tell us the truth,’ I told him.

        ‘Your training in being able to tell lies from the truth wasn’t all that successful, was it, Bond?’

        I leaned over him and stabbed my finger into his cheek to make him feel as uncomfortable as possible. ‘Lose the snarky attitude and you might survive this. If not, we are going to put you in the bathroom and really start working on you.’ I didn’t intend to tow him into the bathroom, since those places are not soundproofed as well as they should be. If you have someone preparing to take a shower just one floor lower, he might hear what was going on and alert the hotel staff or the authorities. We didn’t want anybody to come and intervene, because that would only help Mister Blu here evade our efforts.

        ‘What’s in it for me?’ he asked after I released my grip.

        ‘Now you’re talking like a man. For a start, you’re leaving this room alive.’

        ‘Don’t fool me, Bond. Even you can’t get away with murdering people in hotel rooms overseas.’

       ‘I had plenty of practice, believe me.’ His way of frequently using my name was beginning to get under my skin. It was like he was gaining some power over me by mentioning it all the time.

        He kept his eyes on the laptop where Tess was hard at work again, going through all the files. ‘Aren’t you going to show me what’s in those files and ask me what they mean?’

        ‘We don’t need your commentary. All we need is where you got the information and what you were planning on doing with it.’

        ‘You seem to be forgetting I had no such information. I don’t even know where you found the flash drive.’

        ‘In Tan’s room in Brussels.’

        ‘Who’s Tan?’

        That witless remark earned him a punch in the gut. He folded, I grabbed him by the chin and pushed him back until I thought I could break his neck.

        ‘I hope the Bruges cemetery has a stone with your name on it, because you might land there sooner than you think,’ I hissed. ‘Stop the child’s play and say something meaningful.’

        ‘Something like you reached the end of your Latin.’

        ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

        Before he could reply, I heard Tess suppress a shout of joy.

        ‘What did you find?’ I kept my grip on Blu while looking at her.

        ‘Names of people and addresses, locations, numbers, lots of code words.’

        ‘Anything helpful for our case?’

        ‘What do you think SB-BB means?’

        ‘Let me think. Stanislas Blu, Bruges, Belgium?’ I tightened my grip on Blu’s chin. His face showed pain for the first time since we had caught him. ‘So what’s your name doing on that list?’ I relaxed my grip just enough for him to talk.

        ‘I wouldn’t be stupid enough to put my own name on some mystery list, would I? This is your Mister Tan playing games with you, that’s what it is.’

        ‘He’s not my Tan and he isn’t a mister, not anymore, and likely never has been. Neither are you. You feature on his client list. You wanted him to steal the list from Coryn’s house in Croatia and deliver it to you in Brussels, but he never got the chance because Dominic Ronson searched his room.’

        ‘Who’s Dominic Ronson?’

        ‘James.’ There was tension in her voice.

        ‘What?’

        ‘There’s a DR-BB on this list.’

        Dominic Ronson, Brussels, Belgium.

        ‘The plot is getting thicker,’ Blu sneered.

        ‘You shut up unless I ask you a question.’ I was ready to pop. What was Dominic doing on the same list as this creature?

        ‘You need to take this case upstairs,’ Tess said. She meant I needed to talk to Bill Tanner and get his opinion on whether Dominic Ronson had been playing dirty.

        ‘Is Coryn on the list?’

        She shot me an unsympathetic look but did what I asked.

        ‘I have about two dozen names here, but no CM.’

        ‘Send the whole lot over to London for analysis.’ I walked over to her, my gun trained on Blu, while I whispered the secure e-mail address in her ear.

        When I returned to Blu’s side, he had that cocky look on his face again.

        ‘I really can’t help you with any of that. I’ve never seen those files before.’

        ‘Because Dominic intercepted the usb before Tan could deliver it to you.’

        ‘Maybe he had good reason to do so considering his name was on that list.’

        Blu winced when I hit him in the face with the weapon. ‘Don’t you take other people’s names in vain. Focus on your own role in this.’

        ‘I’m just a middleman.’

        ‘Who are you working for and why?’

        ‘For the money, of course.’

        ‘Why did Coryn Maas have to die?’

        Blu looked at Tess and hesitated, as if fearing she would come over and beat him up again. ‘Why again should I tell you?’

        I slammed my fist into his cheek. He spat blood and what looked like teeth.

        ‘If you keep going like this, you’ll have no teeth left by the time we’re done with you. Can I offer you some waterboarding to rinse the blood away?’ I was only half joking.

        Blu pulled himself back together again to address my question, at least I hoped that’s why he was making those throat noises.

        ‘Why did Coryn Maas have to die? Remember, this is the last time I’m asking. You don’t give me an answer I can live with, and I take you into the bathroom where we have a nice chat outside of this lady’s earshot.’

        ‘From what I heard from my sources, Maas got too talkative. He started bragging about his connections, his big deals, his money.’

        ‘Coryn was not like that,’ Tess interjected.

        I wanted her to stay focused on the laptop and told her so.

        ‘I mailed everything to London. They should be analysing this right now, not me. I want to hear what this leech has to say about Coryn.’

        ‘Who was behind the killing?’

        ‘It had nothing to do with me. It’s just hearsay.’

        ‘We want to hear you say it.’

        He wiped the blood from his mouth on the sleeve of his shirt. A good sign he was losing his inhibitions.

        ‘The Chinese.’

        ‘What? Why? Coryn never dealt with anything Chinese,’ Tess said.

        ‘That’s not what I heard. He worked in Hong Kong before, about a decade ago, before he set up shop in Europe.’

        ‘Why did the Chinese want to kill him?’ I asked, trying to bring the conversation back on the right track.

        ‘I told you, because he talked too much. He must have mentioned one of his deals with them to the wrong people, so the Chinese thought they needed to act before it was too late. They paid some of his regular customers to remove him from the chessboard.’

        ‘Tell us something we don’t know.’ I put my face so close to his he could’ve bitten me, but I didn’t think he was the type to try that.

        ‘Retep Vane was the main operator behind the kill. He hired Tan to do the dirty work on China’s behalf. That’s what I heard.’

        ‘Why do I keep thinking you’re more involved in all of this than you say you are?’

        ‘All of this is what I heard from contacts. They knew all the players, so they had information I didn’t have.’

        ‘You’re a player too. Tan called you.’

        Blu sighed as if he was giving up. ‘He wanted to sell me that list your woman friend is looking at.’

        ‘I’m not his woman friend. I’m just an angry widow.’

        ‘What would you have done with that list?’

        ‘I would have looked at it to check whether it was as useful as he said it was.’

        ‘What did he promise you?’

        ‘Names and addresses and other interesting data, like you just saw.’

        ‘Why was this useful to you?’

        ‘Blackmail, extortion. If you get a look at other people’s money, you want some of it for yourself.’

        ‘Did you ever blackmail Coryn?’

        I saw Blu stir. ‘You don’t look to me like an ordinary sleazy blackmailer. You go much deeper than that.’

        ‘I never had any business with Coryn, but we met several times, in the context of cocktail parties and business meetings.’

        ‘You’re lying,’ Tess said.

        ‘I might have spoken to him a few times, but I never really got social with him. I would have remembered you,’ Blu told Tess.

        ‘Now you will, especially if you don’t tell us the truth.’

        ‘If you want revenge, you need to seek out the Chinese.’

        ‘Which Chinese? Tan?’

        ‘He’s Taiwanese American. He never dealt with China directly. I told you Vane was the one who arranged everything. He directed Tan toward Maas, collected the necessary information and gave the killer an advance and a date. Stop trying to pin this on me.’

        ‘There is something seriously missing from your story,’ I told Blu. ‘Are you still online?’ I asked Tess. She nodded. ‘Look him up.’

        ‘You’re going to google me to find out if I have any business connections with Maas? That’s hilarious. That’s what a ten-year-old would do.’

        ‘A ten-year-old doesn’t have MI6 resources at his disposal.’

        ‘I told you. I collect information and make money out of it. Blackmail, extortion, buying and selling. It’s all just business, it’s just that my products are not ball bearings or wheat biscuits, but lists and names.’

        ‘Did you sell my husband’s name to Vane and to Tan?’

        ‘They knew him, they did business with him, not with me. There was nothing I could tell them about Maas that they didn’t already know for themselves.’

        ‘What was his business with the Chinese?’

        ‘I don’t know. All I know is, you don’t want to anger one billion people.’

        ‘Was he going to sell them this? The list of names?’

        ‘What I heard, and again, don’t take this as evidence, it’s just hearsay – but what I heard, is that he promised something and didn’t deliver, or he did, but asked for too much.’

        ‘If you did business with the Chinese, whom would you talk to?’

        Blu pretended he was thinking hard, but I suspected him of playing a game with us. ‘Don’t you have Chinese names on your lists?’

        I gave Tess a light nod. She searched the files on the laptop. Was Blu playing for time?

        ‘Where are you from?’ The question upset him, as I knew it would. His name was strange, artificial almost, but he spoke English just like anybody with an Oxbridge education would.

        ‘I’m from Switzerland, like your mother,’ he said, leering at me like he knew all my secrets.

        ‘How do you know so much about me?’

        ‘Who was it who said, keep your friends close but your enemies closer? It must have been some psychopathic dictator, but I don’t really remember.’

        ‘Spare me your history lessons and give replies to my questions, or I might squeeze you again.’ I really had had it with his games.

        ‘I was born in Switzerland to British and Italian parents, educated in Britain, worked in Europe,’ he said. ‘I thought you’d be well informed about people you picked off the streets and tortured.’

        ‘Tortured? That wasn’t torture, that was child’s play.’ I smacked him in the face just for the sake of it.

        ‘No Chinese,’ Tess said.

        ‘Now, you are going to give us names or I’ll throw you back into those canals.’

        ‘I’ve never done business with the Chinese, so I can’t tell you anything from experience, but I heard who was approachable.’

        From the corner of my eye, I saw Tess stand up and move across the room.

        ‘Stay away from the windows,’ I said. The tone of my voice was so grave even Blu sat up and noticed.

        ‘You’re paranoid,’ he said.

        ‘Dealing with people like you, you have to be.’

        ‘May I remind you that it was you, Bond, who killed Tan.’

        ‘Give me the names of the Chinese who dealt with Coryn.’

       ‘First let me know when you’re going to release me and how my lawyer figures in all of this little game of yours, Bond.’

        He didn’t see the slap coming. My hand threw him back against the sofa. I grabbed his throat again and pushed him to the floor. His throat made some worrying gargling noises.

        ‘You were talking about torture just now? If you want to feel what torture is like, just continue like you’re doing right now. You’re doing fine. No lawyer will ever hear about you again.’

        ‘I know a fine couple of human rights lawyers who would bite their teeth into this like in a smooth piece of butter.’ His voice sounded hoarser by the minute.

        ‘Give me the Chinese names, or you’ll never see a piece of butter again, let alone a lawyer.’ Hell, I was fed up with all of this.

        ‘Amanda Hu,’ he said, before letting his head drop back. He was lying flat on the floor and closed his eyes.

        ‘Amanda who?’ Tess asked.

 

Chapter Twelve

Bruges, Belgium

 

        ‘Do you know her?’ I asked.

        ‘I have a vague impression I heard that name before.’

        My mobile rang. I looked at the screen and found the information Blu had not wanted to supply me. He was a trader, as I had suspected, of everything from weapons to secret information, and had on occasion also purveyed documents to the CIA. There was no reference to MI6 in his background, though he had been put on a watch list of possible suppliers to terrorists.

        ‘You work with terrorists,’ I said.

        He opened his eyes to grin in my face. ‘I work with customers who might or might not have dishonourable intentions, Bond.’

        ‘What is Amanda Hu like and where can I find her?’

        ‘Why don’t you consult your people back in London so they can google her?’

        ‘Did Coryn know Amanda Hu? Tess asked.

        ‘Since he dealt with the Chinese, he must have gone through her, like everybody else.’

        ‘Who is she? Don’t tell us to google her again or I shoot you in the leg.’

        ‘She runs Chinese groceries and evening schools in Brussels and some other cities, but she’s really a front for the Beijing government. She helps them with information on friends and enemies. Maybe it was her who coined the phrase about keeping your enemies closer.’

        ‘What kind of enemies does she have?’

        ‘The obvious ones. Business rivals, enemies of China. Taiwan, Tibet, the Uyghur minority, the CIA, you name them, you know who they are.’

        ‘Where does she live?’

        ‘Most of the time, she’s at her offices above one of her shops in Brussels.’

        ‘So it looks like we’ll have to go back there,’ Tess said.

        ‘We first need to get rid of this parasite,’ I said, looking down at Blu.

        ‘I want to call my lawyer,’ he said.

        I pulled him up before knocking him unconscious.

        It wasn’t exactly rendition the American way, but it was good enough to contain Blu. We drove him to the nearest airport, in Ostend on the Belgian coast, where an unmarked plane picked him up for a flight up the coast to a small island in the Netherlands. He would stay there until London decided what to do with him. Even if he didn’t know much about Tan and Maas, he might still have other information MI6 would be interested in. We would squeeze him like a lemon and probably throw him away just the same.

        From Ostend it was an hour’s drive back to Brussels, me in my Aston, Tess in her Evoque staying just three cars behind me so I couldn’t really go too fast.

        On the way I received the information from Q about the contents of the black plastic flash drive Tess had found in Tan’s room. Q’s minions had been more successful in cracking the codes and researching the names and other data.

        Coryn Maas had been mentioned five times in all of the files still present on the usb. Twice he had been singled out to receive significant amounts of money in accounts based in Singapore, the British Virgin Islands and Jersey. Twice more he had been listed as paying significant amounts out of the same accounts to companies in Liechtenstein and Bermuda. Finding out who was behind those companies and what the payments were for would take more time, Q wrote.

        The fifth mention of Maas named him as CN-BB, but put him in East Asia. In Hong Kong, Taiwan, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia. As soon as I saw that list, I called Tess and looked into the rear-view mirror to see her car. I couldn’t see the expression on her face, she was too far away and locked behind two cars.

        ‘What did Coryn do in Asia?’

        ‘I don’t know. We didn’t meet until we were both working in Europe.’

        ‘You never worked in Asia?’

        ‘I travelled there as a tourist, to China, Japan, Thailand, but never with him. I didn’t know him at the time. Why?’

        I told her about the information from London about the flash drive.

        ‘Do you think he already had links with the Chinese back then, back there? I don’t believe that for a moment. He would have mentioned that to me.’

        Would he? I thought Coryn Maas held a lot of secrets from his wife. Secrets people like Stanislas Blu and Bokey Tan might have known more about.

        ‘Do you think it’s possible that he might have met Amanda Hu in Asia?’ I asked, hoping not to stir up the hot pot of jealousy.

        ‘Coryn hated communism,’ Tess said.

        That was not the kind of answer I was looking for. ‘Amanda Hu might be Chinese, but she’s probably more a businesswoman than a communist,’ I said as I saw the motorway reach Brussels. I cut the conversation to slow down and manoeuvre myself into the right lane.

        An hour had elapsed since we had put Stanislas Blu on the plane, and here we were about to enter another person’s life. Amanda Hu often stayed at an office above a modest grocery store just to the west of central Brussels, near the Bourse in a neighbourhood known as the city’s Asian area.

        We walked in pretending we were a couple looking to prepare our first Asian meal for our friends. One private security man was standing at the exit to intercept shoplifters, but he wouldn’t be too much trouble.

        Tess asked a shop assistant for Amanda Hu. She was upstairs doing the bookkeeping and couldn’t be disturbed. No time for visitors, as the assistant put it bluntly.

        ‘We’re friends of Bokey Tan,’ I said.

        The name didn’t ring a bell but I was sure it would with Amanda Hu, if she was who everybody believed she was.

        I didn’t have to wait too long to see the consequences of my fraud. An Asian woman in expensive brand clothing exited from a doorway next to the shop and took place behind the wheel of a dark grey Mercedes CLS.

        ‘Tess, let’s go,’ I shouted at her. We jumped from behind the rows of instant noodles and rice cookers to leap into the street just as Hu was leaving with screeching tires.

        ‘My car,’ I said. ‘We can’t afford to lose her.’

        Would Amanda Hu send the whole Chinese army after me if we didn’t catch her? Of course not, but she might be on the next flight to Shanghai or Beijing and we’d never see her again.

        We had parked our cars just an alley away, so all I needed to do was to fire up mine and leave its space before we were blocked by a garbage truck doing the rounds of the neighbourhood.

        The shop was in the middle of a maze of narrow one-way streets populated by restaurants, modest snackbars, grocery stores and shops selling second-hand cartoon albums.

        Some of the cartoons had been turned into huge murals symbolizing the country’s animation culture. Tintin and the Thomson Brothers – or was it the Thompson Brothers – stared at us from their three-storey-high perches.

        Amanda Hu was an experienced driver. She knew her way around this area, and she wasn’t afraid of taking risks, like flying through intersections without stopping. She counted on traffic in this neighbourhood being slow and she was right. The only speed devils were the two of us.

        ‘Would she make a sprint for the Chinese embassy?’ Tess asked.

        ‘I don’t think she’s that afraid. She doesn’t know who we are and probably wants to shake us off. Maybe she just thinks we’re coming to collect debts.’

        ‘Coryn dealt with her, and look where he is now.’

        There was nothing I could say to that. If anything, Amanda Hu would be leading us away from the embassy or from any place she thought would link her up to her past evil deeds. We didn’t even now how far her involvement went. Maybe she was just the middlewoman, the contact person who led potential clients on to the real mastermind inside the embassy.

        We were losing her.

        ‘Too bad you couldn’t have her laser-painted like you had Tan,’ Tess said.

        ‘Phone her description and her car and license plates to this number.’ I threw her my mobile phone. ‘It’s a CLS.’

        ‘I know my way around cars, thank you, Bond.’

        I looked for the intersection where she had disappeared. Turned right and then left again, I assumed, that’s how I went too.

        I saw her tail lights go red when she had to stop behind a slow driver. She honked and overtook the poor chap from the right in the middle of the intersection. Now we were stuck with him.

        In order to avoid him, I turned left on the intersection, then right again, and I just caught a glimpse of her car. She had turned right, so she had succeeded in putting more distance between us.

        Luckily for me, there was a main road coming up. A proper street, with traffic lights, but also with more space to overtake slow vehicles. I slammed a hard right onto the street, and came immediately face to face with a tram. Tess screamed and pulled at the steering wheel. I pushed her aside and tore the wheel to the right. My left rear-view mirror flew away on impact, but otherwise we were safe.

        The tram stopped after the accident, but I couldn’t afford to. I stepped up the pace, flew through a yellow light and crossed the six-lane ring road.

        ‘You’re crazy,’ Tess said.

        ‘Whatever you do, don’t panic, we’ll get her.’

        ‘Even if we have to die in the process?’

        ‘You know what car chases are like.’

        I ripped uphill, throwing quick looks into every street we crossed before I gleaned the grey Mercedes on a circular road going round the statue of a king on horseback. I turned right and went up the street against the traffic. I drove to impress.

        Within a few seconds, the situation had completely changed. We were just behind her now, and she knew it. She put out all the stops, charging into a space to the right, drifting past the next intersection, turning back into another maze of alleys. I wasn’t going to let her go this time.

        Amanda Hu suddenly backed to the right into a parking space. I drove to her left, blocking her exit.

        Her driver’s side window was down. As we came level with her, she held a Glock up to cover both of us.

        ‘Out of the car with your hands in the air, both of you,’ she shouted in perfect English.

        ‘There must be some misunderstanding,’ Tess tried.

        ‘None of the kind,’ she bit back.

        I evaluated the possibilities and came to the conclusion that whatever I tried, either I or Tess might be dead within a few seconds.

        We left the car to stand in the street with our hands in the air. Hu also came out, unafraid of being seen wielding a gun in the street.

        ‘You’re going to need me to drive away my car if you want to leave this place,’ I told her. My car was still blocking her exit, but she had nothing but disdain in her eyes.

        ‘We’re going for a short walk,’ Hu said. Now that she was level with us, I noted how tall she was. She must be in her late or middle thirties, long black hair, a shapely silhouette. Tess noted my interest.

        We hadn’t reached the end of the street yet, or she told us to enter the garage of a dilapidated house. There was a van waiting. She told us to get in. There were handcuffs in the glove compartment. Hu threw them at us and told us to cuff ourselves to the metal bars inside the back of the van. We sat facing each other in the dark. No tricks were possible because Hu checked up on us. She threw the doors shut, then opened the garage doors before driving out the van herself.

        ‘Don’t you think of doing anything foolish,’ she said. She had taken away our guns and mobiles before driving off.

        The journey lasted all of an hour and was conducted in silence. If I had wanted to, I could have pulled the bar off the wall, kicked open the back door and jumped out, but Tess would have had a harder time.

        At least, Hu hadn’t blindfolded us, so I could still take a look at the scenery ahead of the van, past the front seat.

        We left the city and headed for the kind of leafy suburb even the ugliest of European capitals had. She turned left to face a tall wooden gate. She stepped out of the vehicle.

        ‘Do something now,’ Tess whispered.

        ‘We need to go inside to find out what her game is.’

        We shut up as Hu returned and drove us into the property. All we could see now were trees. This was some kind of forested domain. As expected, a castle showed up in front of us.

        Hu braked hard, the rear doors swung open, and a couple of men hit us unconscious.

        When I woke up, I was hanging from a wooden beam, my feet just touching the ground.

        ‘Where is Tess?’

        To my surprise, the two men in front of me were not Chinese. Hu must have hired some local muscle in order to draw attention away from her diplomatic connections.

        Neither of the thugs paid any attention to my question.

        ‘I want to speak to your boss, Amanda Hu.’

        Neither of them budged, but the door flew open and Hu entered, the Glock still in her hands.

        ‘Do you know who I am?’ I asked her.

        ‘You’re Bond, James Bond. Your woman friend was cooperative in giving me all the details.’

        ‘Where is she?’

        ‘Safe and sound, somewhere close by, if that can lighten your pain.’

        ‘Aren’t you going to give me a tour of the chateau?’

        ‘If that’s your last wish, I’m sure I can arrange that. Right now, I want answers to my questions.’

        ‘We seem to have a lot in common.’

        One of the thugs punched me in the face. I spat out blood but he was too far away.

        ‘Charm will get you nowhere, Mister Bond.’

        ‘There’s not much charm to go by around here.’

        ‘How did you find me?’

        ‘Ever heard of Stanislas Blu?’ I didn’t care whether Blu would get into trouble because of my mentioning him. We had him safely away in Holland anyway.

        ‘He told you about me.’

        ‘And about Bokey Tan and Coryn Maas.’

        ‘Thanks for putting all your cards on the table. I don’t know any of those people.’

        ‘Don’t fool me, Amanda. Blu told me the embassy had Maas killed because he knew too much, and you arranged the hit with Retep Vane.’

        ‘Another name you fling at me that I don’t know anything about. Your game is too transparent, Bond.’

        ‘I want to see Tess before I answer any questions.’

        The bloke who had punched me approached me again, so I instinctively drew back. Hu said something I didn’t get and the guy stopped, like somebody had pushed a button to cut off the power.

        ‘Thanks,’ I smiled at Hu.

        ‘You make no requests, you give no orders, you ask no questions. I am the one in control.’

        ‘Control freaks make bad conversation partners.’

        I was sure that was going to earn me another punch, but the bloke didn’t as much bat an eyelid. I was safe for the time being.

        ‘How much do you know about me, Bond?’

        ‘I know about your shops, and how you front bad deals coming out of the Chinese embassy in Brussels. In other words, you’re a spy.’

        ‘You are the spy here, Bond. I am a dealmaker.’

        ‘Is that what Coryn Maas was, a dealmaker? Why did the deal go wrong?’

        ‘Don’t count on me telling you things you don’t know already. Maas was a dealmaker, yes, but he couldn’t guarantee essential elements of the deal.’

        ‘Confidentiality?’

        ‘I see you know more than you want to let on.’

        ‘Just provoking you into telling me more.’

        She laughed. A short, mean laugh that told me I was in trouble.

        ‘What is the embassy telling you to do with me? I’m not an amateur like Maas, I’m an agent of Her Majesty’s Government. And I know people within the Chinese hierarchy.’

        ‘You’re going to impress me with your connections in Beijing now? As far as I know, you never set foot in China.’

        ‘I came close a few times. North Korea, Vietnam. Does the name Wai Lin ring a bell?’

        I watched her mouth harden. She turned back and left the room without a further word. One of her minions put a jute bag over my head and fastened it so hard I thought his intention was to suffocate me.

        I heard doors slam. Someone had entered the room, but I couldn’t tell who it was, until Hu spoke.

        ‘You stay alive for the time being, Bond. Just don’t get the illusion you’ll get out of here alive. You might be disappointed.’

        ‘Where is Tess?’

        ‘I promise you she’s alive. She’s still alive, because she’s as talkative as her late husband. Especially when it comes to you and what you’ve done to get you here.’

        She slapped me and I heard her walk out. To my surprise, the two goons also left. I closed my eyes, not just to recover from my ordeal, but also to try and hear signs that Tess was nearby.

        Once I breathed regularly again, I began the task of getting out of here. I moved my arms but they were linked tightly to the beam by a rope. I moved my feet until half my soles were on the floor.

        My next move was to pull as hard as I could. It hurt, and I want to spare you the story of how long it took me to get things to improve. To cut a long story short, I ripped the rope on my right hand to pieces first. I removed the bag from my head, breathed in deeply, and then went to work on my left hand.

        Nothing was going to stop me now. I looked around the dark room and found a piece of chain in the dust under a wooden table.

        I listened at the door for any signs of life on the other side. There were none. I pulled and pushed at the wooden door, but of course it was locked and wouldn’t budge. I tried making noises to attract attention from outside.

        One of the blokes who had been guarding me, not the one who punched me but the other one, obliged and came in to look what was going on. Stupid thing to do, because I put the chain around his neck, and after some pushing and shoving he was no longer able to stop me.

        I walked out with the man’s Glock, Blackberry and the chain dangling from my shoulder. I wasn’t one for needlessly wasting a weapon.

        Outside the room I had been kept, I found a hallway. To the right was a dead end, to the left, light shone from the windows in a wide door. These had been the horse stables of whatever wealthy person used to live here.

        Even MI6 agents had to pee, so I took care of that first. For the first time, I thought I heard some noise penetrating from outside. I needed to find Tess before they hurt her irreparably.

        I tried to pull open the door without making a sound. Your worst enemy in those old houses were the creaks and shrieks of wooden stairs, floors and doors. I saw two towers outside. A small reddish tower which I suspected had once housed chickens or pigeons or birds of some kind. The other tower was the size of a church bell tower but stood apart from the main building, about 30 feet away in the forest.

        Two options were before me. Either I entered the main house, which was a 19th century villa with a size that warranted it being called a castle, or I went over to the tower on the hunch that Tess might be kept there, away from the house and away from my place of captivity.

        Whatever I did, I needed to do it fast. If the bloke I had given a hammering did not return, Hu and her friend might come and check out the situation. I couldn’t stay around the stables, and wandering outside in the open also made me extra vulnerable if someone looked out of a window.

        The Blackberry shook in my pocket but I decided not to pay it any attention until I knew they knew I had escaped. Instead, I pressed my right side against the wall of the castle and ventured in the direction of the front door. The van now stood on the space in front, but there was nobody guarding it.

        I bent my back to pass under the windows, but I couldn’t hear a sound. Maybe Hu and her henchman had already knocked out Tess. I couldn’t let negativity spin its way around my brain, so I decided to do the next best thing. Go in with all guns blazing. Right through the front door. Stupid? Maybe, but in an emergency situation, the rashest approach might bear fruit because of its brazenness.

        I crouched on the blocks of granite leading up to the front door. I pushed. The door didn’t budge. Instead, I moved to the closest window, smashed it to pieces with my elbow, threw it open and jumped inside.

        My stupid move made me stumble across a sofa that had been placed just inside the window and fall to the floor with the chain hitting my own face. Smart stuff.

        I was standing up in no time and covering the room with the Glock. There had been no need to fear anything because the room looked like it hadn’t been dusted in a decade.

        There were no sounds but for my footsteps crackling on the broken glass. I poked my head into the main hallway and came to the conclusion that my first hunch had been the right one. Since the house was so quiet, they must have taken Tess to the tower.

        I checked the inside of the front door for alarm systems, but there were none apparent. I had come in through the window, I was leaving through the front door. The sky had turned grey and I was expecting a drizzle to start falling any minute now.

        I ran across to the van which I used as cover before running behind a pair of huge rhododendron plants. Botanics had never been my forte, but I knew enough about plant life to discern beauty from danger. Plants were a bit like humans.

        Barely a second after reaching my cover in the bushes, I heard steps, so I dropped even lower. Through the leaves, I saw the bloke who had punched me marching through the forest. I knew immediately where he was going.

        If the Glock I had taken from his mate had had a suppressor attached to it, I wouldn’t have hesitated one second and downed him right there on the spot, but I didn’t want to make any noise to alert Hu to the fact I had escaped and would be over to free Tess in a minute.

        I just let him live and walk over to the stable to find what was left of his mate. In the meantime, I rushed ahead to the tower, waiting outside its door, listening. The only sounds were of birds flying up and around the domain.

        The door was open but hard to push open without a sound. I put my shoulders against it and it moved, inch by inch.

        The ground floor obviously functioned as a shed for unnecessary agricultural implements. The only thing I noticed was the value of these rakes and shovels as potential weapons of attack and defence should I need them.

        Just as I put my foot on the first step of the spiral staircase, I heard a muffled sound somewhere above me. I checked the Glock once again and moved up at one side of the stairs, my left shoulder against the railing, both hands on the gun.

        The Blackberry buzzed again. Either Hu or her henchman was trying to reach the bloke I had removed from the game. The thing was turning out to be a liability rather than an asset.

        As I set foot on the first floor, the narrow window to my left caught my attention. I threw a look out and that was a terrible mistake. A shape flew out of the dark space on my right and knocked me against the railing of the staircase. I swung the gun in its direction but the attacker struck it out my hands and slammed into me.

        Just before we both were about to roll down the stairs, we recognized each other and held on to the railing.

        ‘You don’t want to be my damsel in distress?’ I asked Tess.

        ‘Stop living in the Middle Ages, James.’

        She was wielding a knife that might have damaged me more with its rust than with its blade.

        ‘Where are they?’ she asked.

        ‘That’s exactly what I wanted to know. The big guy is off to where they kept me locked up, and I thought she was torturing you.’

        Tess showed me the bruises on her arms. ‘She was, but she got a phone call and walked out.’

        ‘Did you hear what they discussed?’

        ‘It was something about you. ‘Keep Bond out of the loop,’ were the words I thought I heard.’

        ‘It’s too late for that. Both of us are already deep inside the loop. We need to find Hu before she leaves the property.’

        ‘She won’t leave until she’s killed both of us.’

        I brushed the dust off my clothes and took her hand to lead her back to the ground floor. ‘Remember, we can kill her obnoxious companion, but we need her alive. If not, I want to look at her mobile phone.’

        There went the Blackberry again. This time I took it.

        It was Amanda Hu but she didn’t know whom she was talking to. Her first words were ‘How much longer is it going to take?’

        ‘That depends on you, Amanda,’ I replied.

        There were three seconds of total silence before she replied.

        ‘You’ll never get out of this alive, Bond.’

        ‘Too late for that. I’m already slipping out of your grip and guess what? I’m coming after you.’

        ‘Now I’m really scared.’ She was taunting me to go after her and fall into a trap. ‘I’ll be out of this country in a while and you won’t be able to follow me.’

        ‘I wouldn’t count on that.’ I finished the conversation because my own mobile was singing like wild.

        Bill Tanner hadn’t called me in a while, but the news he brought was not what I wanted to hear. ‘Blu has gone.’

        I wished he were less cryptic. ‘What’s the story?’

        ‘Someone knew the location of our safe house in the Netherlands. They launched a full attack. According to Dutch police reports, a dozen armed men in full combat gear just torched the place.’

        ‘Are you sure Blu didn’t die in the incident?’

        ‘My first idea was also that they might have wanted to silence Blu by just finishing everybody off inside that place, but no, his remains were nowhere to be found.’

        ‘Do we know if Blu was a victim or a perpetrator?’

        ‘I thought you’d be better placed to answer that question, James.’

        Blu as a victim? If he was important enough to launch a military-style attack on an MI6 safe house, he must have been more involved than I had thought he was. I believed his story about being an outside dealmaker, but it now turned out he must have been right in the middle of things.

        I suppressed the urge to call Hu and ask her about the level of his involvement, but I knew she wasn’t the sharing type.

        Tess raised her hand, pointing at the sky. I looked up but there was nothing to see.

 

Chapter Thirteen

A Castle in Belgium

 

Tess was referring to a sound. The familiar chopping of metal blades through the air. We couldn’t see it, but a helicopter was approaching the grounds.

        ‘She’s going to escape by air,’ I hissed. I was angry at myself for letting a target slip out of my fingers once again, but maybe, if we ran, the situation might yet still be salvaged.

        Tess had been disarmed so all we could rely on was the thug’s Glock. It was a good thing I hadn’t been forced to waste any bullets so far.

        We ran across the forest, no longer worried about making any noise as the sound of the helicopter grew louder by the second. Before we hit the spot where we could see the aircraft, a shot rang out from our right, just loud enough to warn us to duck. Tess squealed. The bullet had hit the back of her neck. I crouched, swung my arm with the Glock to the right and fired off a volley into the bushes hiding our view.

        Someone had counted on us heading for the sound of the helicopter and had prepared an ambush for us. I couldn’t see a thing. Our assailant had a panoply of vegetation to choose from as a hiding place.

        I kept one eye on the target area and one eye to diagnose Tess’s injury. The bulled had only grazed her, so apart from some blood there was no damage. She was still able to help me out, even if she had no weapon.

        The next moments would change all that. I whispered to her to keep still while I crawled on the forest floor away to the right in a movement that brought me to the side of our attacker.

        Too bad it wasn’t Amanda Hu. I recognized the bloke who had punched me. This time, I wouldn’t let him get away. As I raised my arm to fire off the fatal shot, I hit a branch which cracked. That was enough to warn him so he swung around and fired. I pulled the trigger almost simultaneously, pressing my chin against the humid soil.

        I felt his bullet pass right above my hair, but he wouldn’t be able to tell anyone what he felt. The bullet from his colleague’s gun planted itself in the centre of his forehead with a red dot to mark it.

        As soon as I saw I had done my work, I ran over to him and prized the gun out of his hands. This was my present for Tess. She was still lying where I had left her, a painful grimace on her face.

        ‘I can’t relieve your hurt, but here is something to make sure it won’t happen again,’ I said, handing her the other Glock.

        The sound of the helicopter had grown to deafening proportions.

        As we rushed off in the direction of where we thought it was about to land, I snuck off a text message to our communications man, Henry Willows. I told him I wanted satellite surveillance of the spot I was messaging him from, wherever that was. I knew we were still in Belgium, though I didn’t have a clue where. I also told Willows to keep an eye on a helicopter for me and to detail the position of its next landing.

        ‘Any idea where we are?’ I asked Tess. After all, she had lived in or near this country for a couple of years already.

        ‘Just north or northwest of Brussels,’ she said.

        We ran forward, guns drawn just in case we suddenly came up against Hu or any of her minions we hadn’t met yet. I guesses the whole crowd was now resigned to having lost us and would be standing by to evacuate by air.

        We needed Amanda Hu but she didn’t need us, except dead perhaps.

        ‘There’s the chopper,’ Tess shouted at me.

        It was flying low over the trees, hanging still for a while as if looking for a prey, and then descending. We rushed ahead to find a clearing, a shallow field in the middle of the forest. The spot looked like it had been prepared especially for the comings and goings of a helicopter, so Hu and the Chinese must have used it before.

        The chopper was a relatively light make, seating a total of four people. I could see there was a European man seated behind the pilot, and I was wondering whether it was Stanislas Blu, fresh from his escape in the Netherlands. A helicopter could’ve been the dream way for him to get out of his prickly situation. Up in the air and out of the country in no time, ready to make mischief elsewhere.

        ‘Do we fire at the chopper?’ Tess asked.

        ‘Not if you want to find out what happened to Coryn.’ An exploding helicopter might look good on film, but it didn’t do us any good to kill Hu right now. Talking of film, I took a picture of the scene with my victim’s Blackberry and also sent it to Willows.

        As soon as the aircraft touched the ground, Hu emerged from under the tree cover to run toward the helicopter. Contrary to what I expected, the pilot cut off the engine, allowing the blades to slow down.

        That’s the moment I had been waiting for.

        ‘Cover me,’ I told Tess.

        I ran forward from the right rear side of the chopper, where Hu would not be able to see me. She was coming from the left and heading for the cockpit.

        That plot didn’t work, because somebody from inside the helicopter, I don’t know whether it was the pilot or the passenger, fired three shots at me. None of them hit me, but they were enough to make me realize I needed to keep a low profile.

        Rapid firing followed from inside the bushes where I had left Tess. Countermanding my orders, she was shooting at the helicopter directly and giving me cover. I got up and sprinted toward the engine’s back, out of sight from the cockpit.

        Just as Hu came into view, the pilot started up the craft again. The blades went chopping as I fired a warning shot in front of the Chinese woman’s feet. She hesitated just enough to allow the helicopter to pull up. She jumped up to put her feet on the undercarriage. I ran at her, pulled at her leg, but she gave me a mean kick she could only have picked up in martial arts class.

        I nearly dropped the gun but I held on to the undercarriage. She was standing on it while trying to clamber inside through the open door. I couldn’t see anybody helping her.

        From my precarious position, I still tried some bravado. ‘Tell the pilot to put the helicopter down,’ I shouted at Hu, pointing my gun at her. I don’t know if she could hear me over the noise of the engine and the blades. I could see the castle and the tower looming in the background.

        A bullet hit the side window, the shards of glass spouting around Hu like a fountain. She screamed but held on to the craft. Finally, an arm reached from inside to haul her in, but I fired at it. Now the scream came from the passenger, because my bullet had pierced his tailored coat and lodged itself into his right arm, which vanished inside the craft again, leaving Hu struggling to hang on.

        To be fair, I was struggling my own struggle too. We were flying low over the trees, and I suspected the pilot was using this stratagem to try and shake me off. With the gun in my hand, I wouldn’t be able to hold on much longer, but it was my only weapon against Hu. I let myself hang from one hand just long enough to stuff the gun between the front opening of my shirt and then grabbed tight on to the undercarriage, pulling myself up to become level with Hu.

        She was still doing her utmost to climb inside while shaking the glass out of her hair and face. My luck she was so busy, because I could come to within an arms’ length of her. I didn’t want to shove her off the helicopter, but a bit of intimidation might do the trick with the pilot.

        In the end, if the man inside was giving the orders, he could tell the pilot to ditch both Hu and me as excess baggage, but I counted on their humanity and their curiosity to allow at least the woman to live.

        ‘If you’re a dealmaker, prove it to me and make a deal with me,’ I shouted at her.

        She shook her head. I didn’t know whether she meant she couldn’t hear me or whether there was no deal. Maybe it was both because this was a preposterous location to be making a deal.

        The helicopter had lowered speed and was still hovering over the castle area. I imagined the pilot was pondering whether it was wise to fly over populated areas with two people standing outside. People on the ground would look up at the rare noise of a helicopter and see there was something wrong, I thought.

        Inch by inch, I moved closer to Hu. I wasn’t so much interested in grabbing her, which would a dangerous game at this altitude anyway, as in seeing who the passenger was. If it was Blu, he would no longer be able to play the outsider card with me. It also meant he was not a victim in this plot but one of the main perpetrators. It must have been Blu who had been working with the Chinese and with Retep Vane to kill Coryn.

        As I came within touching distance of Hu, she reached out and tried to push me away with her left. I didn’t vacillate, but the gun fell out of my shirt and dropped to the ground between the trees. Goodbye, gun.

        I still had my fists and my feet, but in my current position, they were pretty much useless. I moved closer to Hu again. ‘Stop this game. They don’t want you anymore. They’re going to kill you just like they want to kill me.’

        She spat the word ‘liar’ at me.

        This wasn’t the optimal start to a decent exchange of ideas.

        Just as I wanted to ask her why she didn’t climb inside, the chopper began to veer sharply to the right, making us lose our footing. Both of us were strong enough to hang on.

        At first, I had suspected a change of direction, but the pilot was playing games with us. He was trying to shake us off, thereby proving that whoever was inside had decided that Hu was no longer worth the trouble of keeping alive.

        ‘Give me your last words,’ I shouted at Hu as we both struggled to hang on to the helicopter. ‘Who is behind this?’

        She leered at me like I had made an indecent proposal.

        ‘You tell me everything and we give you protection.’ I needed at least to consult Bill Tanner before making such promises, but I didn’t have many other cards left to play.

        ‘You’re a fool, Bond. You’re the last person able to protect me. I need protection against you and your kind.’

        The helicopter pulled forward with a shock while still hanging over to the right. It made a brutal turn to the left. For a while, I thought the blades would chop off the top of the trees, but the pilot proved to be an expert at this game. He moved left and right, up and down just enough to stay clear of any danger.

        The only danger was to us, as we fought to cling on to the undercarriage. If the passenger had wanted, he would have let Hu climb inside long ago, but his shooting injury might have made him decide to cut his losses and run.

        The next jolt was fatal. Amanda Hu lost her footing. I reached out for her to help her, she thought I was trying to finish the job. She waved her right hand trying to lift herself up but it was too late. The helicopter changed course again, prying her left hand loose. ‘Who?’ I shouted after her, but she was long past caring about my questions.

        I don’t know where Tess was. If she could recover Hu’s mobile and enough of it was still salvageable, we would still have a view of whom she had called, where she had gotten the helicopter from.

        I wondered if Willows had positioned the satellite in the right place to view my predicament. Either the techs were still fiddling, or the whole MI6 command was admiring my dangling from a helicopter above a Belgian forest. It was always all or nothing.

        I wasn’t expecting them to mobilize the Belgian Air Force and send in F-16s to force the helicopter down, but at least, I was expecting some kind of practical help before I smashed off to the ground.

        After losing Hu, the pilot tried increasingly crazy moves to try and get rid of me. I felt like an ant clinging to the body of a ballet dancer in the middle of The Nutcracker.

        The pilot wanted to throw me off, but I couldn’t fly so I wrapped my arms and legs around the sidebar of the undercarriage. If they wanted to get rid of me, they would have to land, and then I would be back in my element and ready to take them on.

        When I saw the helicopter head straight for the castle, I was contemplating the possibility of the pilot trying a suicide mission. He would crash into the building, leave me dead, but him as well, his passenger most likely too. Was the secret worth that much?

        The chopper drew up to the roof of the building until the undercarriage nearly touched a chimney. Would I take the hint and get off? Either I refused to, and he would continue to try and shake me off, succeeding sometime before he reached his destination, or I would leap off. He would get rid of me, but I would still be alive, so this was kind of a win-win situation.

        Jumping on to the roof also meant I would not find out the identity of the passenger in the back seat, whose injury would force him to seek medical care.

        I made the only decision humanly possible. I jumped on to the roof, sliding down one yard before coming to a stop just before reaching the edge. The helicopter pulled up and left.

        I found my way down and went looking for Hu’s body. Before I found it, Tess ran from the forest and embraced me.

        ‘You’re alive,’ she said.

        ‘Barely. We need to look at Hu’s body.’

        She had found it and took me to see it. As I reached for her mobile, it suddenly dawned on me that I should be asking Willows about his surveillance of the helicopter.

        ‘Where is the chopper?’

        It took him several seconds to formulate a reply.

        ‘We called off the search.’

        ‘Why? Who?’

        ‘You know how it works, James. Orders from above.’ Willows had never called me James.

        ‘Did you at least get satellite coverage of the helicopter’s route?’

        ‘We stopped following it when it left the area you’re in now.’

        While I carried out this brutally insane conversation, Tess and I moved back to the castle to get our hands on the only vehicle left. The van Hu had brought us here in. Tess took control while I sat down next to her while trying to subdue a rising tide of anger and hate.

        ‘Are you saying Bill ordered this operation shut down?’

        ‘It came from even higher.’

        ‘I want to talk to him.’

        ‘Call Bill, he’s somewhere around here.’

        I wondered if that meant he was standing right behind Willows listening in to the conversation. I called Bill, as he suggested.

        ‘James. Let me explain,’ he said even before I uttered a single word.

        ‘How can you explain leaving me hanging out to dry like this? Amanda Hu is dead, so whoever is in that helicopter is the only chance of us capturing Blu and whoever else might be behind this plot.’

        ‘James, do you even have any idea what the plot is?’

        ‘Coryn did things for the Chinese but started bragging about to others, so they went through this whole row of middlemen to call on Vane to finish him off.’ I regretted my rough language where Tess was present.

        ‘The problem is, what did he do?’

        ‘Thanks to you, we’re not going to find out, are we?’ I snapped.

        A less generous man than Bill Tanner could have me fired for that kind of insubordinate language.

        ‘James, turn the thermostat down a few notches. We want to reassess the implications of this operation. If the Chinese are involved, it might take us to a whole different level.’

        ‘Who is we? I’m not used to you being so careful on my previous operations, never mind Russians, Americans or Chinese.’

        ‘Times have changed, Bond. We need to exert caution. One loose wire some place might send another part of the equation crashing down in a most unpleasant manner.’

        That definitely did not sound like Bill Tanner.

        ‘I’m calling you back to London. I can give you the address of the tow-away garage in Brussels where you can pick up your car.’

        ‘Can I talk to Y about this?’ If Tanner acted so out of turn, the new chief of MI6 must be the reason behind it.

        ‘He’s not in the country right now.’

        That surprised me. He had only just taken over the leadership, and he was already off jetsetting or holidaying. ‘Don’t tell me he’s gone off on a holiday with some rich mates on a yacht?’

        ‘It’s nothing like that, James. He is rounding off some business before he returns to take the lead on our operations.’

        That sounded like he was packing up his luggage to move into new quarters, though why would that involve an overseas trip?

        ‘I need to talk to him as soon as he’s back in the country, Bill. We need to complete this operation.’

        ‘You need to return to London and we can evaluate the situation together, around the table with Y,’ Bill said.

        There was nothing more left to say. Bill had changed. I had always counted on him to back me up 100 percent, but now the environment was changing and I was being marginalized.

        ‘Did they find the helicopter?’

        ‘They’re ordering me back to London.’

        ‘What?’ Tess braked hard which was not a wise thing to do on a busy road to Brussels. ‘What about the helicopter?’

        ‘They cut off surveillance as soon as it left the castle’s airspace.’

        ‘That’s so stupid in a million ways. I should have called in the CIA.’

        ‘To accomplish what the stupid Brits are unable to do? Would they have listened to you, mobilized a satellite for you?’

        ‘There’s always Echelon.’ The National Security Agency eavesdropping programme which apparently was able to overhear any phone conversation and look in on any e-mail correspondence in the world, if you had to believe our American cousins.

        ‘Do you really have connections that high up, from the CIA to the NSA?’ My disbelief was written large.

        ‘If I could convince them the Chinese are involved, they will at least sit up and take notice.’

        ‘I never stopped you from trying.’

        ‘I need an encrypted phone and right now, all we have is Hu’s cell.’

        That reminded me. I needed to go through Hu’s calls and find out if she had been in touch with Blu or with any other suspicious characters. I was lucky the Chinese woman had believed in storing as many information in her mobile as possible. That was one thing I would never get over. If you’re into crime or confidential intelligence, do not leave anything where it could be seen by others. Not on a piece of paper in the garbage can, not on a computer or a mobile phone. That was more than a habit or a rule, it was a commandment.

        ‘You keep driving, I’m going to phone all Hu’s numbers,’ I told Tess.

        ‘Is that wise? You will alert people we’re on to them.’

        ‘At this stage, I don’t really care. Do you want to get Coryn’s murderer or not?’

        ‘You keep reminding me you’re doing everything for a good cause. Are you really that much into self-confirmation, James?’

        I wanted to explain how I just did what came instinctively. Hu’s phone was all we had left, and if we wanted to move this case forward before Y or Bill stopped us, this was what we had to do. It was not about choices, it was about the only way out of a mess. ‘This is my last game, Tess. Do you really want to continue on your own?’

        She shook her head. ‘Go ahead, James. Do what you have to do.’ She smashed her foot down and we surged forward.

        I made the first call. A man’s voice replied in Mandarin Chinese. My knowledge of that language was limited, so I hung up.

        ‘Do you speak Chinese?’ I asked Tess.

        ‘Coryn did.’

        ‘Why?’

        ‘I told you, he worked in several Asian countries before we met.’

        ‘Could he have been in touch with the Communists then? Making deals with China?’

        ‘The country’s been open for business for more than two decades, James. Don’t they teach you that at MI6?’

        Four calls out of the first five were either responded to in Chinese or ended with an answering machine in that language. The odd one out was the call where I heard a familiar voice.

 

Chapter Fourteen

Brussels, Belgium

 

        ‘Bond. So glad to hear you’re alive,’ Blu said.

        I noted there was no helicopter sound in the background. They must have landed already or it wasn’t him at the castle.

        ‘The feeling might not be mutual. I wished you hadn’t escaped from your safe house.’

        ‘It wasn’t all that safe after all so I decided to upgrade to a better standard. Why are you calling me?’

        ‘You probably saw this was Amanda Hu’s phone I used. You’re aware she’s no longer with us.’

        ‘As I told you, I didn’t really have any business with her.’

        ‘Enough to feature on her list of recent calls. We’ll catch you again soon, Blu.’

        ‘Did you have something to talk to me about or are you just playing around to try and locate me? I can spare you the effort and tell you right now I’m neither in Holland nor in Britain and you’ll probably never find me again, so drop it.’

        ‘I will find you, Blu.’

        I switched off the connection and turned to Tess. ‘Do you know a hacker we can trust?’

        ‘Give me the phone,’ she told me. She called someone she referred to as ‘Champ,’ asked for a trace on Blu’s mobile and threw the phone back at me.

        ‘Let’s hope he really is a champ with electronic gear.’

        ‘He’s a champ in so many ways, James.’

        She was making me jealous, on purpose.

        The next five numbers were again less than helpful.

        ‘We could make a run at the Chinese embassy,’ Tess suggested.

        ‘And get us all shot or carted off to the police station as invaders or terrorists. Nice try, but subtlety has never been the CIA’s forte, has it?’

        Before she had the time to make any further unrealistic suggestions, Hu’s phone made a sound like water gurgling. I took the call without saying a word.

        It was Champ. Tess put him on speaker phone and told him to talk to me. The hacker, who sounded to me like an obese greasy guy sitting somewhere in a basement with a supersized portion of fried chicken on his lap, had more information than I had ever hoped for.

        ‘The target’s phone was located on the North Sea coast, in a town called Knockie or Knock in Belgium. Do you know of a place called Knockie?’

        ‘It’s called Knokke and you have to pronounce the k in front. I know it,’ Tess said.

        ‘One more thing. His cell number is registered to one Sebastian Brookes, also with an e between the k and the s.’

        ‘Can you help us find out who that is? We don’t have a computer right here.’

        ‘Thought so. Be with you in a while, governor.’

        The connection was cut. Governor?

        ‘Should we change course for Knokke?’ Tess asked.

        ‘If we have to head over there, we’ll do it in my car, not in this.’ We had reached the outskirts of the Belgian capital, but Knokke was again back in the direction of Bruges, at least 60 miles away. I wasn’t looking forward to another crazy drive.

        Champ was back on the phone within two minutes.

        ‘Sebastian Brookes is officially registered as a business consultant with a London outfit known as Huffington, Loude & Parkinson, like the disease.’

        I shook my head. Never heard of them, but the London connection to Blu was new. ‘What exactly is the link between Stanislas Blu and Sebastian Brookes?’

        ‘They are one and the same person,’ Champ said. ‘Brookes moved out of Britain after 9-11 and took on a new identity to work on the continent, but his old registration with the company is still valid.’

        ‘What did you find out about the company? Where does it fit in and what is Blu or Brookes exactly doing for them?’

        I told Tess with a hand signal to keep her eyes on the road. Traffic was busy and undisciplined.

        ‘As I said, he’s a consultant. He arranges deals for them. Trade, export, import, construction projects and so on all over the world. He’s at home in Brussels with multinationals, the European Parliament and all the other organizations they have down here.’

        ‘Any links to Coryn?’ Tess interjected.

        ‘Are you still with that schmuck?’ Champ fired off, sounding like a jealous boyfriend.

        ‘Answer my question,’ Tess said.

        ‘No official links that I can see, but those guys would probably use pseudonyms, wouldn’t they?’

        ‘Do you have other names for me, the company’s board members and shareholders?’ I interjected.

        ‘Sir, I’m not working for the Wall Street Journal here.’

        ‘You don’t have to sir me but how long would it take before you get the information I ask for?’

        ‘One second. I’ve got it all saved in a special file here, with compliments of several friends I strong-armed over the past few minutes.’

        Why didn’t you say so from the start, I thought. Champ started off reading a list of names and titles that didn’t mean anything to me at all. Until he came to one name that did sound familiar.

        ‘Can you repeat that one?’

        Champ did. And he gave me the title of the person. Special consultant international relations.

        ‘All this information is up to date?’ I just had to make sure. Champ confirmed my suspicions.

        By the time our three-way conversation ended, Tess had driven us to the police compound where the car was ready for me. MI6 – I supposed Beau Bradwick – had already called ahead to tell them about our arrival.

        The Aston was in a perfect condition. I checked all the gadgets and they were present, even though I didn’t have the time to find out whether they still worked. We raced off.

        ‘Where are we headed, James?’

        England and Knokke are more or less in the same direction.’

        ‘So you’re pretending to be driving back to London but in fact we‘re off to the Belgian coast to grab Blu again?’

        ‘That’s the general idea.’

        ‘How are you going to find Blu? I know Knokke, our home – my home – is just a couple of miles away. You can’t expect to just walk along main street and hope to see Blu there.’

        ‘That’s where I thought your connections might come in handy.’

        ‘Send in the Marines?’

        ‘Something like that.’ We smiled at each other. ‘If you have someone like Champ in your arsenal, you must have friends who can have Blu located as well.’

        ‘How are you going to do that?’ she asked while I steered the Aston out of Brussels at 80 miles an hour.

        I showed her the mobile phone, Hu’s phone.

        When we were approaching Bruges at 95 miles an hour, I made the call. It rang five times before Blu accepted.

        ‘Bond. What kind of trick are you up to now? Ran out of ideas, have you?’

        ‘We can talk about a deal.’

        ‘The only deal I’m interested in, is the one keeping you away from me. Whatever your deal is, the present works fine for me.’

        ‘You cannot say the same about your future.’

        ‘Did Q equip you with a crystal ball now?’

        ‘How do you know so much about me? You’re really full of surprises, Blu.’ I didn’t want him to know that I knew his real identity.

        ‘Stop annoying me or I’ll cut the connection and throw this mobile away into the water.’

        I grinned because he had just revealed his whereabouts.

        ‘Nothing like a weekend on the coast to pick up the mood, is there?’

        ‘Tell me about that deal of yours. I guess it’ll have some amusement value for a few more seconds.’

        ‘Asylum in Britain and a new identity if you can tell us the full truth about this case and finger the main culprits on the Chinese and the European side.’

        ‘Why would I want to live in Britain? One of the Caribbean islands would be a lot more fun.’

        ‘It’s the intention that counts.’

        ‘I told you, Bond, I don’t know what the Chinese were up to with Coryn Maas. He was dealing with them, I wasn’t.’

        ‘You and I both know that isn’t true. Amanda Hu had you on her call list and I bet she wasn’t providing you with advice on what Ming vase to buy for your holiday villa in Brighton. You tell us who did what to whom and I promise you, MI6 will look favourably on your requests, even though I don’t know which Caribbean island you’ll end up on.’

        ‘Not Haiti or Cuba, that’s for sure. I can give you all the information over the phone but you will have me dragged off in chains to one of your dark sites and tortured before you throw me away.’

        ‘That sounds more like the CIA. You’ve been watching the wrong movies, Blu.’

        Tess pointed at the exit for Knokke. We were fewer than 20 minutes away from our target but I still had to keep talking.

        ‘The deal is not on, whatever you say, Bond. You talk rubbish and you know I’m not believing one word of it. You’re just trying to gain time but I can tell you again right now. The fish isn’t biting. Goodbye.’

        He cut the connection and I swore under my breath. I looked at Tess to see what her reaction was. She mumbled something unintelligible. I gave her the phone and she called her connection, whoever it was.

        ‘Do you have a location?’ she asked. Whatever the reply was, Tess smiled.

        ‘Got him,’ she told me and gave me directions. This had been part of her world for the past several years.

        Knokke was on the far north of the 40-mile-long Belgian coast, right on the border with the Netherlands and a short drive from Bruges. Despite its relatively modest size, it was the most expensive location on the coast, and every wealthy Belgian from politicians and business leaders to celebrities had to have a villa or a luxury apartment there. Even the muscles from Brussels, actor Jean-Claude Van Damme, had bought his parents a flat there, rumour had it.

        I had never visited Knokke before because the Belgian weather had a reputation only marginally better than Britain’s. It made no sense to cross the Channel and find the same kind of environment, even if the food must be a lot better, especially the chocolates and beers.

        As we drove into Knokke, I felt more at ease. Even though my Aston still caused some heads to turn, the local car population was certainly more in tune with my vehicle. We didn’t see any Astons or Rolls Royces yet, but there was a Maserati and a Bentley Continental, designed by a Belgian, by sheer coincidence.

        Our destination was not the centre of Knokke, so I turned right into a side street in the direction of what Tess told me was the most expensive part of this expensive town. We drove past hotels with sunny terraces full of pensioners and boutiques selling brand-name handbags that were not available in Bruges.

        Once past the luxury villas with views of the sea, the scenery changed to complete countryside. Grass fields, low hard trees, hillocks, ditches and canals. We had entered a different world.

        Tess went all quiet. I put my hand on her arm.

        ‘Our home is in just such a place. All rustic and quiet. Why did he have to leave and do all those things?’

        The roads became narrower and the scenery flatter and emptier. It felt like we had left civilization, and the glitter and glamour of the city had moved to another world.

        Tess signalled me to stop by the side of the road, where she got out of the car and made a few last-minute calls while I kept the engine running.

        We moved on until we reached a huge, mostly empty car park.

        ‘Is this it?’ I noticed about five sedans, one minibus and one SUV. I imagined the last vehicle might be Blu’s, unless he had arrived here by helicopter.

        ‘You bet. We’ll find him here.’

        ‘Do we need to buy a ticket?’

        There was a ticket booth to our right. This was the Zwin, Belgium’s top nature reserve, where sea birds lived on a patch of land temporarily inundated by the North Sea’s high tides.

        I was worried about its status as a destination for tourists and school outings, because that meant both cover and collateral damage if we had to get rough with Blu.

        We checked the guns. I had a new Walther from the glove compartment of the car, while Tess would use one from Hu’s thugs. I also took some complementary gear with me from the Aston.

        We behaved like an ordinary couple of tourists and bought the tickets with a smile.

        In front of us, we had a square flat area with wet and muddy patches, the sea off to the left, and all around the other sides sand dunes covered in vegetation.

        ‘It’s low tide,’ Tess remarked.

        ‘Where do we find him?’

        ‘He could be anywhere, strolling in between the bird cages, hiding in the dunes, walking around the outer perimeter.’

        There was a group of families and children wading through the central low area with a guide. I checked to see whether Blu hadn’t mingled in with them to look less conspicuous, but I saw nobody who matched his description.

        ‘If he’s not here, where is he?’

        A large white cloud passed before the sun. It made our job easier.

        ‘If I’m not mistaken, there’s a man walking alone in the dunes at two o’clock.’

        I saw him too. A shape in a dark blue overcoat, stomping through the sand on his way out. One of the items I had picked up in the car was a miniature pair of binoculars. They confirmed our suspicions. It was Blu and he was far ahead of us.

        ‘Let’s go,’ Tess said. She was eager for revenge.

        ‘We need to take him alive,’ I reminded her.

        We ploughed to the right, but I was barely able to catch up with her.

        ‘I often came to Knokke for my morning jog,’ she told me. ‘Looks like more sea air could do you a lot of good too, James.’

        As if that needed saying. Just because she was off like a rocket didn’t mean I couldn’t follow. I may be a slow starter, but it’s the permanence and continuity that were my strong points.

        We saw Blu vanish behind the dunes.

        ‘What’s on the other side?’

        ‘More of the same. A couple of dunes, then grassy hills, then the grass plains we saw driving here.’

        ‘What on earth is he doing there? Looking for a buried treasure?’

        ‘He’s the treasure. And before you tell me again. Don’t worry, I won’t kill him. I want to see him suffer for what he did to Coryn.’

        ‘You don’t know if he’s the mastermind behind all this. It might be the Chinese ambassador in Brussels who ordered the explosion.’

        ‘It was you who said he’s the key figure,’ Tess said.

        ‘I did, but I could be wrong.’

        ‘Whatever the truth, we need to catch up or we’ll lose him again. God forbid, he has a helicopter waiting for him behind that dune. I don’t want to go half around the world again to find him, James.’

        Neither did I, but I didn’t think Blu came here to board a helicopter.

        As we climbed the dune, I looked back over the nature reserve. The guide and his followers had moved on in the direction of the sea. A couple was sunbathing on the side of a dune, sheltered from the wind.

        Near the top, Tess crouched and looked across to the other side. There was no helicopter, but there was something far more interesting.

 

Chapter Fifteen

Knokke, Belgium

 

        Blu had arrived by a chunk of concrete that stuck out of the sand. He slipped through a narrow slit to disappear inside.

        We had been spared that kind of construction on our side of the Channel, but I knew what it was. Part of the Atlantikwall the Nazis built all along the coast of occupied Western Europe to prevent the Allies from landing. It hadn’t worked, but some parts of it were still standing, mainly in France.

        ‘He can see us from in there, but we can’t see him,’ Tess whispered, as if he could overhear us.

        We lied still in the sand. ‘Don’t worry, I brought something from the car.’

        The object looked like your average smartphone but Q had made sure its capabilities went much beyond chatting, messaging and taking pictures. If you went into its option lists, which was what I was doing right now, you found a microphone icon. The recording however was not just for sounds and voices right next to the device, but could eavesdrop on goings-on up to half a mile away. At least, that was what the manual had said.

        I pointed the top side of the device at the bunker and plugged a wire into my left ear. I gave the other wire to Tess so she could listen in as well.

        Unless Blu had entered the bunker to dig up something or to hide a piece of evidence, I suspected it was a perfect meeting place, out of the way of prying eyes. The tour groups that stomped around the nature reserve would never think of heading so far into the dunes, and only the most morbid of visitors would ever want to enter a remainder of the Second World War.

        We waited precisely one minute until my suspicions were proven right. There was somebody else inside the structure.

        ‘Bond called me,’ we heard Blu say without introduction.

        The other voice was a man’s, resonating in the hollow of the bunker. ‘Does he know where you are?’

        ‘I told him I was far away from Britain, Holland and Belgium. He must believe I’m off to Southern or Eastern Europe by now.’

        ‘If his mind is set on something, he’ll follow you everywhere, Sebastian.’

        This was the first mention I had ever heard of Blu’s real name. The other man must be a good acquaintance of him.

        ‘He was using Amanda’s phone,’ Blu said.

        ‘The end of a beautiful friendship. This was for the best. Sooner or later, our deals with the Chinese would have landed us into hot water. Having Amanda leave now is an early realization of something that would have had to happen anyway.’

        ‘You sent her to her death?’

        ‘She tried to leave with me, but I had Bond to shake off. I couldn’t have one or the other, so she fell to her death.’

        ‘But you let Bond go.’

        ‘He has his uses. I can control him better from where I am now.’

        ‘They’re going to be all over Amanda’s organization.’

        ‘The worst they can do is expelling the Chinese ambassador, but the Belgians need to agree first, and there is no sign they will bow down to MI6.’

        ‘So our deal is safe?’

        ‘The Taiwanese have their submarines, the Chinese have the specifications, and Maas is dead. Most of those involved are dead. Except you and me.’

        I knew where this was going, but I wondered whether Blu was not too involved to figure all of this out. When the man mentioned Coryn, I looked sideways at Tess and I saw her go all tense. I was worried she would shoot up and run toward the bunker to kill Blu’s conversation partner.

        ‘Where do we go from here?’ Blu asked.

        ‘This is our final meeting. We can’t afford to be seen together anymore. The consultancy should be disbanded, I start my new life, my new job.’

        ‘I wished I had a new job to start.’

        ‘It’s too late for that now.’

        The pop was meant to be silent, but the hollowness of the room and the strength of the listening device made it still sound like someone had dropped a tonne of bricks. We knew it was a suppressor. The man had shot Blu and we heard his body fall to the ground.

        Tess was already half way up when I pulled her arm and signalled her to get down behind the dune instead of exposing herself.

        I left her behind and rushed toward the opening in the bunker.

        The moment must have blinded me, because just before I reached the slit, a voice called out to me to throw my weapon down.

        ‘Stop right there where you are, Bond.’

        ‘What are you going to do, stay inside the bunker all day? There is no other exit, you are caught.’

        ‘I fought off the mastermind behind this case, and he didn’t survive it. We are allies, Bond. Throw down your gun before there is any mindless violence.’

        I nearly laughed at the expression but I still put down my gun. I watched him crawl out of the split. He wiped the sand off his perfectly tailored suit and stood upright, holding the Walther PPK in his left hand, because his right arm was still in a sling.

        ‘Embarrassing, a small accident on the ski slopes in the middle of summer.’

        ‘You’re responsible for her death as well, Benedict.’ I addressed Y with his real first name, unaware if it would make any impression on him.

        ‘You and I can work together as the perfect boss and the perfect employee, or you can die here in a shootout with the evil mastermind inside this German bunker.’

        I moved around until I was to his right. His eyes, his gun, his stance, they all followed me around. Don’t kill him, I thought.

        The shot was perfect. It hit his left arm just like the shot on the helicopter had hit his right. Y gritted his teeth but had to let the gun go. It all happened in a split second, but it was like a slow motion scene in a bad action movie. Tess came running, her gun in her outstretched hand. I dived for Y’s gun first, for mine second.

        The widow of Coryn Maas stood over Y, who had dropped into the sand, blood flowing out of his left arm while his right arm was unable to do anything about it.

        ‘Don’t kill him.’ I didn’t hear myself, but it must have been like a scream.

        Tess had her gun pointing straight at the top of Y’s head, ready to avenge the death of her husband.

        ‘If we keep him, he’ll rot in jail after we get all the information about his bad deals. If you shoot him, we lose all that and you are finished. What do you want?’

        I wasn’t a praying man, but this time, I really wanted inspiration from above to help her make the right choice.

        She kicked him in the leg to relieve her energy and put away the gun. I called Bill for assistance.

        ‘You should have chosen M as your name,’ I told Benedict Yarborough.

 

Epilogue

 

        I took leave of Tess the next morning. We had spent the night at one of those fancy hotels we had driven by in the centre of Knokke. English breakfast, the menu said. It almost felt like home.

        After the shootout in the dunes, I had asked if she was alright.

‘I’m shaken, but not stirred,’ she had said.

Good catch phrase, I might use it myself.

        I didn’t know anything about her future. Would she be my new Felix Leiter? A person I bumped into from time to time, who helped me when I needed it most, who I could trust to go against authority out of pure friendship. I sincerely hoped so.

        The Chinese ambassador was expelled from Belgium. I couldn’t care less, I never met him, so there was never a high-level incident or anything of the kind. MI6 passed on our concerns about the case. The Belgians, being scared of China’s economic might, first tried to avoid or to downplay the importance of what had happened. After a while and with considerable inspiration from London, they found the heart to devise a story that would stand up. The ambassador packed his bags and was replaced by another.

        What was the inheritance of Coryn Maas? He had sold secrets about the purchase of submarines by Taiwan to its archrivals in China. On the way between Maas and Beijing, Blu, Y and Amanda Hu had lined their pockets. When Coryn had become too talkative, someone – I didn’t know whether it was Hu or Y – mobilized Retep Vane and had him killed. Bokey Tan was the blunt instrument who turned against Vane.

        We would never find out all the details about who did what to whom, but the main story was enough. Tess did not have a clean husband. She would remember him, but the bad sides would keep intruding.

        Y and Blu – or Benedict Yarborough and Sebastian Brookes – had been close since Eton. One stayed in Britain, one moved his career offshore, but they stayed in touch and passed each other vital information which led to major money-making deals.

        Huffington, Loude & Parkinson, the consultancy bureau in London, became a front for their operations. Yarborough invested a part of his fortune to become the major shareholder, and exerted his influence to recruit Brookes as a consultant.

        When Yarborough became Y, major riches were ahead. Were it not for Coryn Maas who had to be removed, the duo would have been looking forward to using confidential MI6 information from all over the world for their deals.

        Coryn Maas threw a spanner in the works, and I stopped the works altogether.

        Yarborough had now moved to an island to live a life at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, but not the Caribbean island Blu had had in mind. The government was loath to admit it had made a major mistake by picking Benedict Yarborough so the selection process would last longer this time around. I didn’t mind having Bill Tanner around for some time.

 

THE END

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1 Comments:

Blogger Ramesh Stitche said...

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