Moonraker (James Bond #3)

Chapter 4

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“Sounds a bit too professional for our man,” commented M. “That sort of work needs hours of practice every day, or an accomplice, and I can’t believe he’d find that at Blades. No, there’s nothing sensational about his cheating and for all

I know it might be a fantastic run of luck. It’s odd. He’s not a particularly good player-he only plays bridge by the way-but quite often he brings off bids or doubles or finesses that are absolutely phenomenal-quite against the odds. Or the conventions. But they come off. He’s always a big winner and they play high at Blades. He hasn’t lost on a weekly settlement since he joined a year ago. We’ve got two or three of the finest players in the world in the Club and none of them has ever had a record like that over twelve months. It’s getting talked about in a sort of joking way and I think Basil-don’s right to do something about it. What system do you suppose Drax has got?”

Bond was longing for his lunch. The Chief of Staff must have given him up half an hour ago. He could have talked to M. about cheating for hours, and M., who never seemed to be interested in food or sleep, would have listened to everything and remembered it afterwards. But Bond was hungry.

“Assuming he’s not a professional, sir, and can’t doctor the cards in any way, there are only two answers. He’s either looking, or else he’s got a system of signals with his partner. Does he often play with the same man?”

“We always cut for partners after each rubber,” said M. “Unless there’s a challenge. And on guest nights, Mondays and Thursdays, you stick to your guest. Drax nearly always brings a man called Meyer, his metal broker. Nice chap. Jew. Very fine player.”

“I might be able to tell if I watched,” said Bond.

“That’s what I was going to say,” said M. “How about coming along tonight? At any rate you’ll get a good dinner. Meet you there about six. I’ll take some money off you at piquet and we’ll watch the bridge for a little. After dinner we’ll have a rubber or two with Drax and his friend. They’re always there on Monday. All right? Sure I’m not taking you away from your work?”

“No, sir,” said Bond with a grin. “And I’d like to come very much. Bit of a busman’s holiday. And if Drax is cheating, I’ll show him I’ve spotted it and that should be enough to warn him off. I wouldn’t like to see him get into a mess. That all, sir?”

“Yes, James,” said M. “And thank you for your help. Drax must be a bloody fool. Obviously a bit of a crank. But it isn’t the man I’m worried about. I wouldn’t like to chance anything going wrong with this rocket of his. And Drax more or less is the Moonraker. Well, see you at six. Don’t bother about dressing. Some of us do for dinner and some of us don’t. Tonight we won’t. Better go along now and sandpaper your fingertips or whatever you sharpers do.”

Bond smiled back at M. and got to his feet. It sounded a promising evening. As he walked over to the door and let himself out he reflected that here at last was an interview with M. that didn’t cast a shadow.

M’s secretary was still at her desk. There was a plate of sandwiches and a glass of milk beside her typewriter. She looked sharply at Bond, but there was nothing to be read in his expression.

“I suppose he gave up,” said Bond.

“Nearly an hour ago,” said Miss Moneypenny reproachfully. “It’s half-past two. He’ll be back any minute now.”

“I’ll go down to the canteen before it closes,” he said. “Tell him I’ll pay for his lunch next time.” He smiled at her and walked out into the corridor and along to the lift.

There were only a few people left in the officers’ canteen. Bond sat by himself and ate a grilled sole, a large mixed salad with his own dressing laced with mustard, some Brie cheese and toast, and half a carafe of white Bordeaux. He had two cups of black coffee and was back in his office by three. With half his mind preoccupied with M.’s problem, he hurried through the rest of the NATO file, said goodbye to his secretary after telling her where he would be that evening, and at four-thirty was collecting his car from the staff garage at the back of the building.

“Supercharger’s whining a bit, sir,” said the ex-RAF mechanic who regarded Bond’s Bentley as his own property. “Take it down tomorrow if you won’t be needing her at lunch-time.”

“Thanks,” said Bond, “that’ll be fine.” He took the car quietly out into the park and over to Baker Street, the two-inch exhaust bubbling fatly in his wake.

He was home in fifteen minutes. He left the car under the plane trees in the little square and let himself into the ground floor of the converted Regency house, went into the book-lined sitting-room and, after a moment’s search, pulled Scarne on Cards out of its shelf and dropped it on the ornate Empire desk near the broad window.

He walked through into the smallish bedroom with the white and gold Cole wallpaper and the deep red curtains, undressed and threw his clothes, more or less tidily, on the dark blue counterpane of the double bed. Then he went into the bathroom and had a quick shower. Before leaving the bathroom he examined his face in the glass and decided that he had no intention of sacrificing a lifetime prejudice by shaving twice in one day.

In the glass, the grey-blue eyes looked back at him with the extra light they held when his mind was focused on a problem that interested him. The lean, hard face had a hungry, competitive edge to it. There was something swift and intent in the way he ran his fingers along his jaw and in the impatient stroke of the hairbrush to put back the comma of black hair that fell down an inch above his right eyebrow. It crossed his mind that, with the fading of his sunburn, the scar down the right cheek that had shown so white was beginning to be less prominent, and automatically he glanced down his naked body and registered that the almost indecent white area left by his bathing trunks was less sharply defined. He smiled at some memory and went through into the bedroom.

Ten minutes later, in a heavy white silk shirt, dark blue trousers of Navy serge, dark blue socks, and well-polished black moccasin shoes, he was sitting at his desk with a pack of cards in one hand and Scarne’s wonderful guide to cheating open in front of him.

For half an hour, as he ran quickly through the section on Methods, he practised the vital Mechanic’s Grip (three fingers curled round the long edge of the cards, and the index finger at the short upper edge away from him), Palming and Nullifying the Cut. His hands worked automatically at these basic manoeuvres, while his eyes read, and he was glad to find that his fingers were supple and assured and that there was no noise from the cards even with the very difficult single-handed Annulment.

At five-thirty he slapped the cards on the table and shut the book.

He went into his bedroom, filled the wide black case with cigarettes and slipped it into his hip pocket, put on a black knitted silk tie and his coat and verified that his cheque book was in his notecase.

He stood for a moment, thinking. Then he selected two white silk handkerchiefs, carefully rumpled them, and put one into each side-pocket of his coat.

He lit a cigarette and walked back into the sitting-room and sat down at his desk again and relaxed for ten minutes, gazing out of the window at the empty square and thinking about the evening that was just going to begin and about Blades, probably the most famous private card club in the world.

The exact date of the foundation of Blades in uncertain. The second half of the eighteenth century saw the opening of many coffee houses and gaming rooms, and premises and proprietors shifted often with changing fashions and fortunes. White’s was founded in 1755, Almack’s in 1764, and Brooks’s in 1774, and it was in that year that the Scavoir Vivre, which was to be the cradle of Blades, opened its doors on to Park Street, a quiet backwater off St James’s.

The Scavoir Vivre was too exclusive to live and it blackballed itself to death within a year. Then, in 1776, Horace Walpole wrote: ‘A new club is opened off St James’s Street that piques itself in surpassing all its predecessors’ and in 1778 ‘Blades’ first occurs in a letter from Gibbon, the historian, who coupled it with the name of its founder, a German called Longchamp at that time conducting the Jockey Club at Newmarket.

From the outset Blades seems to have been a success, and in 1782 we find the Duke of Wirtemberg writing excitedly home to his younger brother: ‘This is indeed the “Ace of Clubs”! There have been four or five quinze tables going in the room at the same time, with whist and piquet, after which a full Hazard table. I have known two at the same time. Two chests each containing 4000 guinea rouleaus were scarce sufficient for the night’s circulation.’

Mention of Hazard perhaps provides a clue to the club’s prosperity. Permission to play this dangerous but popular game must have been given by the Committee in contravention of its own rules which laid down that ‘No game is to be admitted to the House of the Society but Chess, Whist, Picket, Cribbage, Quadrille, Ombre and Tredville’.

In any event the club continued to flourish, and remains to this day the home of some of the highest ‘polite’ gambling in the world. It is not as aristocratic as it was, the redistribution of wealth has seen to that, but it is still the most exclusive club in London. The membership is restricted to two hundred and each candidate must have two qualifications for election; he must behave like a gentleman and he must be able to’show’ £ 100,000 in cash or gilt-edged securities.

The amenities of Blades, apart from the gambling, are so’ desirable that the Committee has had to rule that every member is required to win or lose £500 a year on the club premises, or pay an annual fine of £250. The food and wine are the best in London and no bills are presented, the cost of all meals being deducted at the end of each week pro rata from the profits of the winners. Seeing that about £5,000 changes hands each week at the tables the impost is not too painful and the losers have the satisfaction of saving something from the wreck; and the custom explains the fairness of the levy on infrequent gamblers.

Club servants are the making or breaking of any club and the servants of Blades have no equal. The half-dozen waitresses in the dining-room are of such a high standard of beauty that some of the younger members have been known to smuggle them undetected into debutante balls, and if, at night, one or other of the girls is persuaded to stray into one of the twelve members’ bedrooms at the back of the club, that is regarded as the members’ private concern.

There are one or two other small refinements which contribute to the luxury of the place. Only brand-new currency notes and silver are paid out on the premises and, if a member is staying overnight, his notes and small change are taken away by the valet who brings the early morning tea and The Times and are replaced with new money. No newspaper comes to the reading room before it has been ironed. Floris provides the soaps and lotions in the lavatories and bedrooms; there is a direct wire to Ladbroke’s from the porter’s lodge; the club has the finest tents and boxes at the principal race-meetings, at Lords, Henley, and Wimbledon, and members travelling abroad have automatic membership of the leading club in every foreign capital.

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