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'You know what?' said Major Dexter Smythe to the octopus. 'You're going to have a real treat today if I can manage it.'
He had spoken aloud and his breath had steamed up the glass of his Pirelli mask. He put his feet down to the sand and stood up. The water reached to his armpits. He took off the mask and spat into it, rubbed the spit round the glass, rinsed it clean and pulled the rubber band of the mask back over his head. He bent down again.
The eye in the mottled brown sack was still watching him carefully from the hole in the coral, but now the tip of a single small tentacle wavered hesitatingly an inch or two out of the shadows and quested vaguely with its pink suckers uppermost. Dexter Smythe smiled with satisfaction. Given time, perhaps one more month on top of the two during which he had been chumming up with the octopus, and he would have tamed the darling. But he wasn't going to have that month. Should he take a chance today and reach down and offer his hand, instead of the expected lump of raw meat on the end of his spear, to the tentacle - shake it by the hand, so to speak? No, Pussy, he thought. I can't quite trust you yet. Almost certainly other tentacles would whip out of the hole and up his arm. He only needed to be dragged down less than two feet, the cork valve on his mask would automatically close and he would be suffocated inside it or, if he tore it off, drowned. He might get in a quick lucky jab with his spear, but it would take more than that to kill Pussy. No. Perhaps later in the day. It would be rather like playing Russian roulette, and at about the same five-to-one-odds. It might be a quick, a whimsical way out of his troubles! But not now. It would leave the interesting question unsolved. And he had promised that nice Professor Bengry at the Institute. Dexter Smythe swam leisurely off towards the reef, his eyes questing for one shape only, the squat sinister wedge of a scorpion fish, or, as Bengry would put it, Scorpaena Plumieri.
Major Dexter Smythe, OBE, Royal Marines (Retd), was the remains of a once brave and resourceful officer and of a handsome man who had made easy sexual conquests all his military life and particularly among the Wrens and Wracs and ATS who manned the com-munications and secretariat of the very special task force to which he had been attached at the end of his service career. Now he was fifty-four, slightly bald and his belly sagged in the Jantzen trunks. And he had had two coronary thromboses. His doctor, Jimmy Greaves (who had been one of their high poker game at Queen's Club when Dexter Smythe had first come to Jamaica), had half-jocularly described the later one, only a month before, as 'the second warning'. But, in his well-chosen clothes, his varicose veins out of sight and his stomach flattened by a discreet support belt behind an immaculate cummerbund, he was still a fine figure of a man at a cocktail party or dinner on the North Shore, and it was a mystery to his friends and neighbours why, in defiance of the two ounces of whisky and ten cigarettes a day to which his doctor had rationed him, he persisted in smoking like a chimney and going to bed drunk, if amiably drunk, every night.
The truth of the matter was that Dexter Smythe had arrived at the frontier of the death-wish. The origins of this state of mind were many and not all that complex. He was irretrievably tied to Jamaica, and tropical sloth had gradually riddled him so that while outwardly he appeared a piece of fairly solid hardwood, under the varnished surface the termites of sloth, self-indulgence, guilt over an ancient sin and general disgust with himself had eroded his once hard core into dust. Since the death of Mary two years before, he had loved no one. He wasn't even sure that he had really loved her, but he knew that, every hour of the day, he missed her love of him and her gay, untidy, chiding and often irritating presence, and though he ate their canapes and drank their martinis, he had nothing but contempt for the international riff-raff with whom he consorted on the North Shore. He could perhaps have made friends with the soldier elements, the gentleman-farmers inland, or the plantation owners on the coast, the professional men and the politicians, but that would mean regaining some serious purpose in life which his sloth, his spiritual accidie, prevented, and cutting down on the bottle, which he was definitely unwilling to do. So Major Smythe was bored, bored to death, and, but for one factor in his life, he would long ago have swallowed the bottle of barbiturates he had easily acquired from a local doctor. The lifeline that kept him clinging to the edge of the cliff was a tenuous one. Heavy drinkers veer towards an exaggeration of their basic temperaments, the classic four - Sanguine, Phlegmatic, Choleric and Melancholic. The Sanguine drunk goes gay to the point of hysteria and idiocy. The Phlegmatic sinks into a morass of sullen gloom. The Choleric is the fighting drunk of the cartoonists who spends much of his life in prison for smashing people and things, and the Melancholic succumbs to self-pity, mawkishness and tears. Major Smythe was a Melancholic who had slid into a drooling fantasy woven around the birds and insects and fish that inhabited the five acres of Wavelets (the name he had given his small villa is symptomatic), its beach and the coral reef beyond. The fish were his particular favourites. He referred to them as 'people' and, since reef fish stick to their territories as closely as do most small birds, after two years he knew them all intimately, 'loved' them and believed that they loved him in return.
They certainly knew him, as the denizens of zoos know their keepers, because he was a daily and a regular provider, scraping off algae and stirring up the sand and rocks for the bottom-feeders, breaking up sea eggs and urchins for the small carnivores and bringing out scraps of offal for the larger ones, and now, as he swam slowly and heavily up and down the reef and through the channels that led out to deep water, his 'people' swarmed around him fearlessly and expectantly, darting at the tip of the three-pronged spear they knew only as a prodigal spoon, flirting right up to the glass of the Pirelli and even, in the case of the fearless, pugnacious demoiselles, nipping softly at his feet and legs. Part of Major Smythe's mind took in all these brilliantly coloured little 'people', but today he had a job to do and while he greeted them in unspoken words - 'Morning, Beau Gregory' to the dark-blue demoiselle sprinkled with bright-blue spots, the 'jewel fish' that exactly resembles the starlit fashioning of a bottle of Worth's 'Vol de Nuit'; 'Sorry. Not today, sweetheart,' to a fluttering butterfly fish with false black 'eyes' on its tail and, 'You're too fat anyway, Blue Boy,' to an indigo parrot fish that must have weighed a good ten pounds - his eyes were searching for only one of his 'people' - his only enemy on the reef, the only one he killed on sight, a scorpion fish.
Scorpion fish inhabit most of the southern waters of the world, and the 'rascasse' that is the foundation of bouillabaisse belongs to the family. The West Indian variety runs up to only about twelve inches long and perhaps a pound in weight. It is by far the ugliest fish in the sea, as if nature were giving warning. It is a mottled brownish grey with a heavy, wedge-shaped shaggy head. It has fleshy pendulous 'eyebrows' that droop over angry red eyes and a coloration and broken silhouette that are perfect camouflage on the reef. Though a small fish, its heavily toothed mouth is so wide that it can swallow whole most of the smaller reef fishes, but its supreme weapon lies in its erectile dorsal fins, the first few of which, acting on contact like hypodermic needles, are fed by poison glands containing enough tetrodotoxin to kill a man if they merely graze him in a vulnerable spot - in an artery, for instance, or over the heart or in the groin. They constitute the only real danger to the reef swimmer, far more dangerous than barracuda or shark, because, supremely confident in their camouflage and armoury, they flee before nothing except the very close approach of a foot or actual contact. Then they flit only a few yards on wide and bizarrely striped pectorals and settle again watchfully either on the sand, where they look like a lump of overgrown coral, or amongst the rocks and seaweed, where they virtually disappear. And Major Smythe was determined to find one, spear it and give it to his octopus to see if it would take or spurn it, see if one of the ocean's great predators would recognize the deadliness of another, know of its poison. Would the octopus consume the belly and leave the spines? Would it eat the lot and, if so, would it suffer from the poison? These were the questions Bengry at the Institute wanted answered and today, since it was going to be the beginning of the end of Major Smythe's life at Wavelets and though it might mean the end of his darling Octopussy, Major Smythe had decided to find out the answers and leave one tiny memorial to his now futile life in some dusty corner of the Institute's marine biological files.
For, only a couple of hours earlier, Major Dexter Smythe's already dismal life had changed very much for the worse. So much for the worse that he would be lucky if, in a few weeks' time - time for the sending of cables from Government House to the Colonial Office, to be relayed to the Secret Service and thence to Scotland Yard and the Public Prosecutor, and for Major Smythe's transportation to London with a police escort - he got away with a sentence of imprisonment for life.
And all this because of a man called Bond, Commander James Bond, who had turned up at ten thirty that morning in a taxi from Kingston.
The day had started normally. Major Smythe had awoken from his Seconal sleep, swallowed a couple of Panadols (his heart condition forbade him aspirin), showered and skimped his breakfast under the umbrella-shaped sea-almonds and spent an hour feeding the remains of his breakfast to the birds. He then took his prescribed doses of anti-coagulant and blood-pressure pills and killed time with the Daily Gleaner until he could have his elevenses which, for months now, he had advanced to ten thirty. He had just poured himself the first of two stiff brandies and ginger ales, 'the drunkard's drink', when he heard the car coming up the drive.
Luna, his coloured housekeeper, came out into the garden and announced, 'Gemmun to see you, Major.'
'What's his name?'
'Him doan say. Major. Him say to tell you him come from Govment House.'
Major Smythe was wearing nothing but a pair of old khaki shorts and sandals. He said, 'All right, Luna. Put him in the living room and say I won't be a moment,' and went round the back way into his bedroom and put on a white bush shirt and trousers and brushed his hair. Government House! Now what the hell?
As soon as he had walked through into the living-room and seen the tall man in the dark-blue tropical suit standing at the picture window looking out to sea, Major Smythe had somehow sensed bad news. Then, when the man had turned slowly to look at him with watchful, serious blue-grey eyes, he had known that this was officialdom, and when his cheery smile was not returned, inimical officialdom. A chill had run down Major Smythe's spine. 'They' had somehow found out.
'Well, well. I'm Smythe. I gather you're from Government House. How's Sir Kenneth?'
There was somehow no question of shaking hands. The man said, 'I haven't met him. I only arrived a couple of days ago. I've been out round the island most of the time. My name's Bond, James Bond. I'm from the Ministry of Defence.'
Major Smythe remembered the hoary euphemism for the Secret Service. He said, with forced cheerfulness, 'Oh. The old firm?'
The question had been ignored. 'Is there somewhere we can talk?'
'Rather. Anywhere you like. Here or in the garden? What about a drink?' Major Smythe clinked the ice in the glass he still held in his hand.' Rum and ginger's the local poison. I prefer the ginger by itself. 'The lie came out with the automatic smoothness of the alcoholic.
' No thanks. And here would be fine.' The man leaned 5negligently against the wide mahogany windowsill.
Major Smythe sat down and threw a jaunty leg over the low arm of one of the comfortable planters' chairs he had had copied from an original by the local cabinet-maker. He pulled out the drink coaster from the other 1arm, took a deep pull at his glass and slid it, with a consciously steady hand, down into the hole in the wood. 'Well,' he said cheerily, looking the other man straight in the eyes,'what can I do for you? Somebody been up to some dirty work on the North Shore and you need a spare hand? Be glad to get into harness again. It's been a long time since those days, but I can still remember some of the old routines.'
'Do you mind if I smoke?' The man had already got his cigarette case in his hand. It was a flat gun-metal one that would hold a round fifty. Somehow this small sign of a shared weakness comforted Major Smythe.
'Of course, my dear fellow.' He made a move to get up, his lighter ready. 'It's all right, thanks.' James Bond had already lit his cigarette. 'No, it's nothing local. I want to, I've been sent out to ask you to recall your work for the Service at the end of the war.' James Bond paused and looked down at Major Smythe carefully. 'Particularly the time when you were working with the Miscellaneous Objectives Bureau.'
Major Smythe laughed sharply. He had known it. He had known it for absolutely sure. But when it came out of this man's mouth, the laugh had been forced out of Major Smythe like the scream of a hit man. 'Oh Lord, yes. Good old MOB. That was a lark all right.' He laughed again. He felt the anginal pain, brought on by the pressure of what he knew was coming, build up across his chest. He dipped his hand into his trouser pocket, tilted the little bottle into the palm of his hand and slipped the white TNT pill under his tongue. He was amused to see the tension coil up in the other man, the way the eyes narrowed watchfully. It's all right, my dear fellow. This isn't a death pill. He said, 'You troubled with acidosis? No? It slays me when I go on a bender. Last night. Party at Jamaica Inn. One really ought to stop thinking one's always twenty-five. Anyway, let's get back to MOB Force. Not many of us left, I suppose.' He felt the pain across his chest withdraw into its lair. 'Something to do with the Official History?'
James Bond looked down at the tip of his cigarette. 'Not exactly.'
'I expect you know I wrote most of the chapter on the Force for the War Book. It's a long time ago now. Doubt if I'd have much to add today.'
'Nothing more about that operation in the Tyrol - place called Ober Aurach, about a mile east of Kitzbuhel?'
One of the names he had been living with for all these years forced another harsh laugh out of Major Smythe. 'That was a piece of cake! You've never seen such a shambles. All those Gestapo toughs with their doxies. All of 'em hog-drunk. They'd kept their files all tickety-boo. Handed them over without a murmur. Hoped that'd earn 'em easy treatment, I suppose. We gave the stuff a first going-over and shipped all the bods off to the Munich camp. Last I heard of them. Most of them hanged for war crimes, I expect. We handed the bumph over to HO. at Salzburg. Then we went on up the Mittersill valley after another hideout.' Major Smythe took a good pull at his drink and lit a cigarette. He looked up. 'That's the long and the short of it.'
'You were Number 2 at the time, I think. The CO was an American, a Colonel King from Patton's army.'
'That's right. Nice fellow. Wore a moustache, which isn't like an American. Knew his way among the local wines. Quite a civilised chap.'
'In his report about the operation he wrote that he handed you all the documents for a preliminary run-through as you were the German expert with the unit. Then you gave them all back to him with your comments?' James Bond paused. 'Every single one of them?'
Major Smythe ignored the innuendo. 'That's right. Mostly lists of names. Counter-intelligence dope. The CI people in Salzburg were very pleased with the stuff. I Gave them plenty of new leads. I expect the originals are lying about somewhere. They'll have been used for the Nuremberg Trials. Yes, by Jove!' Major Smythe was reminiscent, pally. 'Those were some of the jolliest months of my life, haring around the country with MOB Force. Wine, women and song! And you can say that again!'