IT WAS getting close on three a.m., and Jessamy was close on exhausted, when it happened. That turning point when adrenalin flowed back in, a decision made to change a personal world for good or for worse.
The roll of the dice, as it were.
“Dix-sept noir” she heard the croupier sing out. “Dix-sept noir”.
She felt rather than heard the low murmurs of the crowd around the table. She closed her eyes, and listened hard.
“It’s extraordinary… he just cannot lose! I’ve never seen anything like it!”
“Encroyable – il est un maître de la table!”
“Es muss Betrügereien — wohin aber?” rumbled out softly, and with an edge of malicious enjoyment.
The last comment was the one she had been waiting for, and she opened her eyes again.
“That may well be the case, but if he is cheating the system, the croupier and the boys in security are yet to pick it.” This said calmly, and she sensed the interest from the man standing casually and suddenly at her left shoulder.
“Really? That is – aber, what is your word for it? Surprising. Yes. It is surprising to me that this is the case.”
She nodded agreement, almost imperceptibly, and spoke again, with little movement of her lips, and no emotion on her face other than a pleasant, vague smile.
“I agree. It is surprising. What is not surprising, my dear Berndt, is yet again, you are late. Four hours late, in this instance. And I am forced to ask myself whether this is acceptable behaviour.”
In a surface glance, anyone looking at the pair of them would have seen nothing but two elegantly and formally dressed, attractive people, champagne glasses held casually, watching the croupier’s hands as he in turn dealt yet another hand. Anyone looking very closely indeed would have seen the tall, blonde, tanned gentleman blanch slightly and wonder why he had paled, when there was such a beautiful woman beside him.
“It was not intentional, Fräulein. I apologise most sincerely. I was following the other lead we have been examining, and there was an incident. It will not happen again.”
“Rien ne va plus” the croupier at their table called. Jessamy smiled, sweetly and vaguely, at croupier and Berndt both, as she again spoke with emphasis, but without any change of expression beyond the smile.
“Oh? And the outcome?”
“Nothing. It was a false lead. I believe in English it would be called a red fish.”
“Vingt-et-un” said the croupier, and the table applauded as he pushed another pile of chips towards Jessamy. She smiled, radiantly, and they collectively smiled back. Who could begrudge such a stunning woman yet more winnings?
“A red herring, Berndt. Honestly, if you must use idioms, and stupid ones at that, learn to use them properly.”
She pushed back her stool and rose gracefully, scooping her winnings up with a practiced hand, and throwing a thousand franc chip casually to the croupier with a murmured “Merci, monsieur”, acknowledging his nodded thanks with a return dip of her head, and again that vague, all-encompassing smile.
“Well then”, she said cheerfully, “let us go collect my money, and find out whether this paragon of the wheel is indeed cheating, or whether he is just lucky.” Berndt nodded respectfully, and taking her arm in a gesture of chivalry, escorted her towards the cashier.
They stood, watching unobtrusively, as the croupier running the high stakes roulette spun the wheel expertly. Spin, spin, stutter, the rattle of the ball as it danced from slot to slot, taking with it the concentration of the entire table.
“Numéro dix-rouge” he called, and they both saw the resulting frowns and excited smiles alike, as a few players scooped chips towards them.
The man they had come to observe was not one of them.
“Interesting”, was Jessamy’s comment.
“I agree”, said Berndt, watching the mood of the table change as bets were placed again. “Only a few chips placed, and no reaction to the loss other than a small shrug. He is very calm, this fellow.”
“I know. Which means one of two things.”
She turned, and looked at Berndt squarely.
“He is either a very good player, or he is, as you said, cheating the system. I think we need to find out which, don’t you?”
They moved forward, and Jessamy took a seat at the table, the croupier acknowledging her presence with a small nod, and an even smaller smile; the latter an involuntary response to a woman who greeted him with such charm and respect – an unusual occurrence here, where most approaching the table were too rich to be polite – or too desperate.
She pushed forward ten chips.
“Numéro dix-huit rouge, merci”. The croupier acknowledged her bet briskly, and called the wheel shut.
She raised her eyes from her chips, and looked straight across the table to where their target was sitting. He looked back, smiled, and dipped his head to her.
A faint challenge showed in his eyes.
She felt Berndt shift restlessly behind her, and put back a hand to his face, caressing his cheek, which to the outside world looked loving, but which he knew meant ‘move again, draw more attention to yourself, and the consequences will not be pleasant.’ He stilled immediately.
The ball rattled, humming, and everyone looked forward expectantly.
Clink, clink, clink… stop.
“Numéro dix-huit rouge”. Yet again, a pile of chips was pushed her way, and the crowd shifted, as they saw another contender for Lady Luck’s hand, and a pretty one at that. She nodded to the croupier, and asked for the chips to be replaced on red 18 again. There were a few mutters, but the croupier showed nothing but a blank mask as he obeyed her unspoken order.
She looked across the table again. This time, there was more amusement in the smile that came back, but also a small lift of one eyebrow in challenge, which went unnoticed by everyone around her.
She sucked in a mental breath. Oh, whoever he was – he was bloody good at this game.
Not to mention the roulette in front of them, which had now closed bets, and was spinning once more.
Spin, whirr, rattle, rattle… and again, the stop, and fate (or was it luck?) deciding the next move. There was a collective hush, and the croupier actually cleared his throat before calling the resulting position of the ball.
“Numéro dix-huit rouge”, he said, a little indistinctly, as the increasing crowd around the table cheered and applauded, especially those who had backed Jessamy’s bet. Berndt’s hand on her shoulder trembled, as the croupier shovelled what looked like the collected annual income of Switzerland towards her.
The man across the table stood up, scooped up his own Mt Eiger of chips, bowed mockingly towards her, threw 5,000 francs worth of his winnings towards the croupier – who looked at him stolidly even as he said a quiet “merci, monsieur” – turned, and left the table at an easy amble.
Jessamy looked up at Berndt.
“I think we have our answer, now, don’t you, my dear Berndt?” He nodded a quick agreement, and, leaving behind her own rather hefty tip (to which the croupier unbent and smiled), she got up unhurriedly, fluidly, and the two of them strolled away in the direction the man had gone, arm in arm, and seemingly intent on celebrating their win.
TEN minutes later, they were following the man down the promenade towards the harbour, watching, waiting for him to react, chatting about everything and nothing, Jessamy’s voice occasionally rising to a laugh, which rang through the still early morning with crystal clarity.
Suddenly he turned, and came back towards them. Jessamy felt Berndt tense, and put her hand over his crooked arm, bent through her own. Behave.
He felt the silent authority, and forced himself to relax.
The man stopped in front of them, forcing a halt to their progress.
“Why are you following me?”
No preamble, just the question. In English, and very pukka English at that. How interesting, purred Jessamy mentally, and flicked the thought to her memory.
He repeated the question, this time in French. Strange, thought Berndt, considering their location, he had not gone for the language first.
He repeated it again, looking unnerved (or was it angry?) at their silence. This time in German, and Berndt jerked in his skin without meaning to. ‘Scheissen’ he cursed bitterly in his head, for he knew that jerk would be paid for with remonstrances of the painful kind.
Jessamy spoke, her voice neutral, unaffected, but with enough natural command in it to make the man blink.
“Now why would you assume we were following you, Monsieur…?” leaving the question of his identity hanging in the still air.
As a jumble of over-dressed drunken partygoers stumbled past on the way back to their yacht, Jessamy locked gazes with him, and said, in a tone which combined innocence with nastiness, “why on earth would you assume we were following you? That’s very presumptuous. Isn’t it presumptuous, Berndt, my darling?”
Berndt nodded. “It’s very presumptuous, liebchen.”
The man looked at them, sharply, and shook his head. “Come now”, he said, and this time there was nastiness in his tone, too, “let’s not pretend any further. You are following me, you know you are following me, and I am asking – quite civilly, under the circumstances – why.”
Jessamy seemed to ponder the question seriously for a moment. Then she smiled, and it was the smile of someone who knew something nobody else did.
“You’re quite right, Mr – I’m sorry, you didn’t give your name – Mr…?”
“Black” the man ground out between his teeth.
Jessamy opened her eyes wide. “How dreadfully dull and unimaginative, Mr Black. And yet –” here she hesitated, and without intending to, both Berndt and the possible Mr Black leant in, wanting to hear the continuation of her thought, and both feeling a trifle dazed when she smiled, smiled a real smile, which lit up her whole face –
“How very pleasing.”
Berndt knew that smile, those anodyne words and their underlying meaning, and was instantly aroused; knowing he should be ashamed, but not able to control his body’s reaction.
The man looked genuinely confused for the first time that night.
“I’m sure you saw my win, Mr Black” she went on, not pausing, stroking Berndt’s dinner jacket lapel as she spoke. “Do you know the odds of two consecutive wins in roulette?”
“1368 to one against” he replied automatically, looking surprised at his own words.
“Oh, well done, Mr Black”, Jessamy said sweetly.
“In that case… you may not be surprised at the offer I have for you.”
He stared at her.
“Offer? What offer?”
“Oh, it’s very simple” she replied, cheerfully. “Double or nothing on your winnings.”
She nodded, absently, and started to rummage around in her tiny evening bag. “Oh yes. It’s so easy, a child could figure it out. A stupid child at that. And you, Mr Black” – as she finished rummaging and drew a Glock G43 from her bag, its dull metal looking somehow heavy and cold – “are anything but stupid. Double or nothing. You win – and I merely take you in. Because despite that wonderful accent, with its beautifully rounded vowels, we both know you are not remotely English, and that your name is probably far more likely to be Gospodin Chernyy than Mr Black.”
She rummaged again, and this time drew out a silencer, which she screwed onto the pistol with such swiftness that it took even Berndt aback, and he had seen it all before. Too many times, perhaps.
“So – if you lose, of course, I shoot you. Here, and now. Because one thing I cannot abide, Mr Black” and her voice took on the steel of the Glock –
“Is someone who is willing to betray their country for the sake of a few million francs, roubles, or dollars. If you are going to go rogue, do it for principles, not cash.”
The man, now pale and sweating, all remnants of his former braggadocio gone, looked at her, stammering that he was not a traitor, he did not know what she could possibly mean.
“Oh I think you do, comrade”, she said, her voice still quiet, but razor-sharp in its scorn. “But it’s of no import at the moment, because you have a choice to make.”
Her voice whipped at him, at them both.
“Double, or nothing.”
The man stared at her, his adam’s apple bobbing convulsively in his throat.
“Alright. Let’s go back to the casino, and I will –”
Jessamy laughed, quietly.
“Oh that won’t be necessary. After all, we know what you can do with cards. So we choose a simpler method, yes?” She gestured to Berndt, still standing close behind her, so close she must surely have been able to feel him growing hard against her back, and yet showing no trace of the knowledge on her face.
“My lovely assistant here will provide the means. Berndt, be a dear and reach into your pocket, will you?”
Berndt smiled, nodded, and started to reach into his inside pocket. The man cried out, shoved at them, and ran, with a hissed “screw you, you English bitch” low and hard, thrust at them in Russian.
Jessamy sighed, and snake-quick, drew the gun up, sighted, and shot.
Apart from a slight pfffutt, there was no noise in the empty half-light other than the man going down with a surprised “ooofff”. Then nothing, as she unscrewed the silencer, and just as swiftly put the Glock away.
“How very annoying. Oh well, his decision.” And with that, she nodded, reached up to caress Berndt’s cheek again, said “I’m in Suite 5601, if you feel like” – and she looked hard at his crotch, which was looking back at her, twice as hard – and bit her lip – “er, relaxing a little, after you have this mess cleaned up.”
She started to walk towards L’Hermitage, and then stopped, turning, to call over her shoulder “I do wonder though, what exactly he believed you were going to pull out of your pocket, Berndt darling?”
Berndt shrugged, and getting out his phone, started to text in the details to the clean-up crew. He looked at the dice, sitting in the palm of his hand, and put them back in his pocket.
“I’m not sure,” he called back, “but I think I need to change my tactics.
“This is the third one in six months who has run rather than take their chances.”
She laughed, and kept walking. Berndt threw the dice onto the pavement, out of habit, as he walked to the still-warm body, the approaching sound of the clean-up ambulance starting to whine through the empty dawn.
“Snake eyes. Oh well, there we are” and closed his mind, thinking only of the outcome awaiting him in that suite, as the ambulance doors opened, and Mr Black was pulled quickly inside, his roulette game forever unrolling, his uses to the Ministry never to be fulfilled.