It was a typical Ritz sitting-room, extremely elegant, with good Empire furniture. The walls were white and the curtains and chair covers were of a small patterned chintz of red roses on white. The carpet was wine-red and close-fitted.
In a pool of sunshine, in a low armed chair beside a Directoire writing desk, a little old woman sat knitting.
The tinkle of the steel needles continued. The eyes behind light-blue tinted bi-focals examined Bond with polite curiosity.
‘Oui, Monsieur?’ The voice was deep and hoarse. The thickly powdered, rather puffy face under the white hair showed nothing but well-bred interest.
Bond’s hand on the gun under his coat was taut as a steel spring. His half-closed eyes flickered round the room and back to the little old woman in the chair.
Had he made a mistake? Was this the wrong room? Should he apologize and get out? Could this woman possibly belong to SMERSH? She looked so exactly like the sort of respectable rich widow one would expect to find sitting by herself in the Ritz, whiling the time away with her knitting. The sort of woman who would have her own table, and her favourite waiter, in a corner of the restaurant downstairs–not, of course, the grill room. The sort of woman who would doze after lunch and then be fetched by an elegant black limousine with white side-walled tyres and be driven to the tea-room in the rue de Berri to meet some other rich crone. The old-fashioned black dress with the touch of lace at the throat and wrists, the thin gold chain that hung down over the shapeless bosom and ended in a folding lorgnette, the neat little feet in the sensible black-buttoned boots that barely touched the floor. It couldn’t be Klebb! Bond had got the number of the room wrong. He could feel the perspiration under his arms. But now he would have to play the scene through.
‘My name is Bond, James Bond.’
‘And I, Monsieur, am the Comtesse Metterstein. What can I do for you?’ The French was rather thick. She might be German Swiss. The needles tinkled busily.
‘I am afraid Captain Nash has met with an accident. He won’t be coming today. So I came instead.’
Did the eyes narrow a fraction behind the pale blue spectacles?
‘I have not the pleasure of the Captain’s acquaintance, Monsieur. Nor of yours. Please sit down and state your business.’ The woman inclined her head an inch towards the high-backed chair beside the writing desk.
One couldn’t fault her. The graciousness of it all was devastating. Bond walked across the room and sat down. Now he was about six feet away from her. The desk held nothing but a tall old-fashioned telephone with a receiver on a hook, and, within reach of her hand, an ivory-buttoned bellpush. The black mouth of the telephone yawned at Bond politely.
Bond stared rudely into the woman’s face, examining it. It was an ugly face, toadlike, under the powder and under the tight cottage-loaf of white hair. The eyes were so light brown as to be almost yellow. The pale lips were wet and blubbery below the fringe of nicotine-stained moustache. Nicotine? Where were her cigarettes? There was no ashtray–no smell of smoke in the room.
Bond’s hand tightened again on his gun. He glanced down at the bag of knitting, at the shapeless length of small-denier beige wool the woman was working on. The steel needles. What was there odd about them? The ends were discoloured as if they had been held in fire. Did knitting needles ever look like that?
‘Eh bien, Monsieur’ Was there an edge to the voice? Had she read something in his face?
Bond smiled. His muscles were tense, waiting for any movement, any trick. ‘It’s no use,’ he said cheerfully, gambling. You are Rosa Klebb. And you are Head of Otdyel II of SMERSH. You are a torturer and a murderer. You wanted to kill me and the Romanov girl. I am very glad to meet you at last.’
The eyes had not changed. The harsh voice was patient and polite. The woman reached out her left hand towards the bell-push. ‘Monsieur, I am afraid you are deranged. I must ring for the valet de chambre and have you shown to the door.’
Bond never knew what saved his life. Perhaps it was the flash of realization that no wires led from the bellpush to the wall or into the carpet. Perhaps it was the sudden memory of the English ‘Come in’ when the expected knock came on the door. But, as her finger reached the ivory knob, he hurled himself sideways out of the chair.
As Bond hit the ground there was a sharp noise of tearing calico. Splinters from the back of his chair sprayed around him. The chair crashed to the floor.
Bond twisted over, tugging at his gun. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed a curl of blue smoke coming from the mouth of the ‘telephone’. Then the woman was on him, the knitting needles glinting in her clenched fists.
She stabbed downwards at his legs. Bond lashed out with his feet and hurled her sideways. She had aimed at his legs! As he got to one knee, Bond knew what the coloured tips of the needles meant. It was poison. Probably one of those German nerve poisons. All she had to do was scratch him, even through his clothes.
Bond was on his feet. She was coming at him again. He tugged furiously at his gun. The silencer had caught. There was a flash of light. Bond dodged. One of the needles rattled against the wall behind him and the dreadful chunk of woman, the white bun of wig askew on her head, the slimy lips drawn back from her teeth, was on top of him.
Bond, not daring to use his naked fists against the needles, vaulted sideways over the desk.
Panting and talking to herself in Russian, Rosa Klebb scuttled round the desk, the remaining needle held forward like a rapier. Bond backed away, working at the stuck gun. The back of his legs came against a small chair. He let go the gun and reached behind him and snatched it up. Holding it by the back, with its legs pointing like horns, he went round the desk to meet her. But she was beside the bogus telephone. She swept it up and aimed it. Her hand went to the button. Bond leapt forward. He crashed the chair down. Bullets sprayed into the ceiling and plaster pattered down on his head.
Bond lunged again. The legs of the chair clutched the woman round the waist and over her shoulders. God she was strong! She gave way, but only to the wall. There she held her ground, spitting at Bond over the top of the chair, while the knitting needle quested towards him like a long scorpion’s sting.
Bond stood back a little, holding the chair at arms’ length. He took aim and high-kicked at the probing wrist. The needle sailed away into the room and pinged down behind him.
Bond came in closer. He examined the position. Yes, the woman was held firmly against the wall by the four legs of the chair. There was no way she could get out of the cage except by brute force. Her arms and legs and head were free, but the body was pinned to the wall.
The woman hissed something in Russian. She spat at him over the chair. Bond bent his head and wiped his face against his sleeve. He looked up and into the mottled face.
‘That’s all, Rosa,’ he said. ‘The Deuxième will be here in a minute. In an hour or so you’ll be in London. You won’t be seen leaving the hotel. You won’t be seen going into England. In fact very few people will see you again. From now on you’re just a number on a secret file. By the time we’ve finished with you you’ll be ready for the lunatic asylum.’
The face, a few feet away, was changing. Now the blood had drained out of it, and it was yellow. But not, thought Bond, with fear. The pale eyes looked levelly into his. They were not defeated.
The wet, shapeless mouth lengthened in a grin.
‘And where will you be when I am in the asylum, Mister Bond?’
‘Oh, getting on with my life.’
‘I think not, Angliski spion.’
Bond hardly noticed the words. He had heard the click of the door opening. A burst of laughter came from the room behind him.
‘Eh bien’ it was the voice of delight that Bond remembered so well. ‘The 70th position! Now, at last, I have seen everything. And invented by an Englishman! James, this really is an insult to my countrymen.’
‘I don’t recommend it,’ said Bond over his shoulder. ‘It’s too strenuous. Anyway, you can take over now. I’ll introduce you. Her name’s Rosa. You’ll like her. She’s a big noise in SMERSH–she looks after the murdering, as a matter of fact.’
Mathis came up. There were two laundry-men with him. The three of them stood and looked respectfully into the dreadful face.
‘Rosa,’ said Mathis thoughtfully. ‘But, this time, a Rosa Malheur. Well, well! But I am sure she is uncomfortable in that position. You two, bring along the panier de fleurs–she will be more comfortable lying down.
The two men walked to the door. Bond heard the creak of the laundry basket.
The woman’s eyes were still locked in Bond’s. She moved a little, shifting her weight. Out of Bond’s sight, and not noticed by Mathis, who was still examining her face, the toe of one shiny buttoned boot pressed under the instep of the other. From the point of its toe there slid forward half an inch of thin knife blade. Like the knitting needles, the steel had a dirty bluish tinge.
The two men came up and put the big square basket down beside Mathis.
‘Take her,’ said Mathis. He bowed slightly to the woman. ‘It has been an honour.’
‘Au revoir, Rosa,’ said Bond.
The yellow eyes blazed briefly.
‘Farewell, Mister Bond.’
The boot, with its tiny steel tongue, flashed out.
Bond felt a sharp pain in his right calf. It was only the sort of pain you would get from a kick. He flinched and stepped back. The two men seized Rosa Klebb by the arms.
Mathis laughed. ‘My poor James,’ he said. ‘Count on SMERSH to have the last word.’
The tongue of dirty steel had withdrawn into the leather. Now it was only a harmless bundle of old woman that was being lifted into the basket.
Mathis watched the lid being secured. He turned to Bond. ‘It is a good day’s work you have done, my friend,’ he said. ‘But you look tired. Go back to the Embassy and have a rest because this evening we must have dinner together. The best dinner in Paris. And I will find the loveliest girl to go with it.’
Numbness was creeping up Bond’s body. He felt very cold. He lifted his hand to brush back the comma of hair over his right eyebrow. There was no feeling in his fingers. They seemed as big as cucumbers. His hand fell heavily to his side.
Breathing became difficult. Bond sighed to the depth of his lungs. He clenched his jaws and half closed his eyes, as people do when they want to hide their drunkenness.
Through his eyelashes he watched the basket being carried to the door. He prised his eyes open. Desperately he focused Mathis.
‘I shan’t need a girl, René,’ he said thickly.
Now he had to gasp for breath. Again his hand moved up towards his cold face. He had an impression of Mathis starting towards him.
Bond felt his knees begin to buckle.
He said, or thought he said, ‘I’ve already got the loveliest. . . .’ Bond pivoted slowly on his heel and crashed headlong to the wine-red floor.