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“All right, all right.” M's voice was testy. “Take it as read. If you say it's the best I'll believe you. So it's the Walther and the Smith & -Wesson. Send up one of each to 007. With the harness. And arrange for him to fire them in. Starting today. He's got to be expert in a week. All right? Then thank you very much, Armourer. I won't detain you.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Major Boothroyd. He turned and marched stiffly out of the room.

There was a moment's silence. The sleet tore at the windows. M swivelled his chair and watched the streaming panes. Bond took the opportunity to glance at his watch. Ten o'clock. His eyes slid to the gun and holster on the desk. He thought of his fifteen years' marriage to the ugly bit of metal. He remembered the times its single word had saved his life-and the times when its threat alone had been enough. He thought of the days when he had literally dressed to kill-when he had dismantled the gun and oiled it and packed the bullets carefully into the springloaded magazine and tried the action once or twice, pumping the cartridges out on to the bedspread in some hotel bedroom somewhere round the world. Then the last wipe of a dry rag and the gun into the little holster and a pause in front of the mirror to see that nothing showed. And then out of the door and on his way to the rendezvous that was to end with either darkness or light. How many times had it saved his life? How many death sentences had it signed? Bond felt unreasonably sad. How could one have such ties with an inanimate object, an ugly one at that, and, he had to admit it, with a weapon that was not in the same class as the ones chosen by the Armourer? But he had the ties and M was going to cut them.

M swivelled back to face him. “Sorry, James,” he said, and there was no sympathy in his voice. “I know how you like that bit of iron. But I'm afraid it's got to go. Never give a weapon a second chance-any more than a man. I can't afford to gamble with the double-o section. They've got to be properly equipped. You understand that? A gun's more important than a hand or a foot in your job.”

Bond smiled thinly. “I know, sir. I shan't argue. I'm just sorry to see it go.”

“All right then. We'll say no more about it. Now I've got some more news for you. There's a job come up. In Jamaica. Personnel problem. Or that's what it looks like. Routine investigation and report. The sunshine'll do you good and you can practise your new guns on the turtles or whatever they have down there. You can do with a bit of holiday. Like to take it on?”

Bond thought: He's got it in for me over the last job. Feels I let him down. Won't trust me with anything tough. Wants to see. Oh well! He said: “Sounds rather like the soft life, sir. I've had almost too much of that lately. But if it's got to be done... If you say so, sir...”

“Yes,” said M. “I say so.”

III

HOLIDAY TASK

It was getting dark. Outside the weather was thickening. M reached over and switched on the green-shaded desklight. The centre of the room became a warm yellow pool in which the leather top of the desk glowed blood-red.

M pulled the thick file towards him. Bond noticed it for the first time. He read the reversed lettering without difficulty. What had Strangways been up to? Who was Trueblood?

M pressed a button on his desk. “I'll get the Chief of Staff in on this,” he said. “I know the bones of the case, but he can fill in the flesh. It's a drab little story, I'm afraid.”

The Chief of Staff came in. He was a colonel in the Sappers, a man of about Bond's age, but his hair was prematurely grey at the temples from the endless grind of work and responsibility. He was saved from a nervous breakdown by physical toughness and a sense of humour. He was Bond's best friend at headquarters. They smiled at each other.

“Bring up a chair, Chief of Staff. I've given 007 the Strangways case. Got to get the mess cleared up before we make a new appointment there. 007 can be acting Head of Station in the meantime. I want him to leave in a week. Would you fix that with the Colonial Office and the Governor? And now let's go over the case.” He turned to Bond. “I think you knew Strangways, 007. See you worked with him on that treasure business about five years ago. What did you think of him?”

“Good man, sir. Bit highly strung. I'd have thought he'd have been relieved by now. Five years is a long time in the tropics.”

M ignored the comment. “And his number two, this girl Trueblood, Mary Trueblood. Ever come across her?”

“No, sir.”

“I see she's got a good record. Chief Officer WRNS and then came to us. Nothing against her on her Confidential Record. Good-looker to judge from her photographs. That probably explains it. Would you say Strangways was a bit of a womanizer?”

“Could have been,” said Bond carefully, not wanting to say anything against Strangways, but remembering the dashing good looks. “But what's happened to them, sir?”

“That's what we want to find out,” said M. “They've gone, vanished into thin air. Both went on the same evening about three weeks ago. Left Strangways's bungalow burned to the ground-radio, codebooks, files. Nothing left but a few charred scraps. The girl left all her thingsantact. Must have taken only what she stood up in. Even her passport was in her room. But it would have been easy for Strangways to cook up two passports. He had plenty of blanks. He was Passport Control Officer for the island. Any number of planes they could have taken-to Florida or South America or one of the other islands in his area. Police are still checking the passenger lists. Nothing's come up yet, but they could always have gone to ground for a day or two and then done a bunk. Dyed the girl's hair and so forth. Airport security doesn't amount to much in that part of the world. Isn't that so, Chief of Staff?”

“Yes, sir.” The Chief of Staff sounded dubious. “But I still can't understand that last radio contact.” He turned to Bond. “You see, they began to make their routine contact at eighteen-thirty Jamaican time. Someone, Radio Security thinks it was the girl, acknowledged our WWW and then went off the air. We tried to regain contact but there was obviously something fishy and we broke off. No answer to the Blue Call, or to the Red. So that was that. Next day Section III sent 258 down from Washington. By that time the police had taken over and the Governor had already made up his mind and was trying to get the case hushed up. It all seemed pretty obvious to him. Strangways has had occasional girl trouble down there. Can't blame the chap myself. It's a quiet station. Not much to occupy his time. The Governor jumped to the obvious conclusions. So, of course, did the local police. Sex and machete fights are about all they understand. 258 spent a week down there and couldn't turn up a scrap of contrary evidence. He reported accordingly and we sent him back to Washington. Since then the police have been scraping around rather ineffectually and getting nowhere.” The Chief of Staff paused. He looked apologetically at M. “I know you're inclined to agree with the Governor, sir, but that radio contact sticks in my throat. I just can't see where it fits into the runaway-couple picture. And Strangways's friends at his club say he was perfectly normal. Left in the middle of a rubber of bridge-always did, when he was getting close to his deadline. Said he'd be back in twenty minutes. Ordered drinks all round-again just as he always did-and left the club dead on six-fifteen, exactly to schedule. Then he vanished into thin air. Even left his car in front of the club. Now, why should he set the rest of his bridge four looking for him if he Wanted to skip with the girl? Why not leave in the morning, or better still, late at night, after they'd made their radio call and tidied up their lives? It just doesn't make sense to me.”

M grunted non-committally. “People in-er-love do stupid things,” he said gruffly. “Act like lunatics sometimes. And anyway, what other explanation is there? Absolutely no trace of foul play-no reason for it that anyone can see. It's a quiet station down there. Same routines every month-an occasional communist trying to get into the island from Cuba, crooks from England thinking they can hide away just because Jamaica's so far from London. I don't suppose Strangways has had a big case since 007 was there.” He turned to Bond. “On what you've heard, what do you think, 007? There's not much else to tell you.”

Bond was definite. “I just can't see Strangways flying off the handle like that, sir. I daresay he was having an affair with the girl, though I wouldn't have thought he was a man to mix business with pleasure. But the Service was his whole life. He'd never have let it down. I can see him handing in his papers, and the girl doing the same, and then going off with her after you'd sent out reliefs. But I don't believe it was in him to leave us in the air like this. And from what you say of the girl, I'd say it would be much the same with her. Chief Officers WRNS don't go out of their senses.”

“Thank you, 007.” M's voice was controlled. “These considerations had also crossed my mind. No one's been jumping to conclusions without weighing all the possibilities. Perhaps you can suggest another solution.”

M sat back and waited. He reached for his pipe and began filling it. The case bored him. He didn't like personnel problems, least of all messy ones like this. There were plenty of other worries waiting to be coped with round the world. It was only to give Bond the pretence of a job, mixed with a good rest, that he had decided to send him out to Jamaica to close the case. He put the pipe in his mouth and reached for the matches. “Well?”

Bond wasn't going to be put off his stride. He had liked Strangways and he was impressed by the points the Chief of Staff had made. He said: “Well, sir. For instance, what was the last case Strangways was working on? Had he reported anything, or was there anything Section III had asked him to look into. Anything at all in the last few months?”

“Nothing whatsoever.” M was definite. He took the pipe out of his mouth and cocked it at the Chief of Staff. “Right?”

“Right, sir,” said the Chief of Staff. “Only that damned business about the birds.”

“Oh that,” said M contemptuously. “Some rot from the Zoo or somebody. Got wished on us by the Colonial Office. About six weeks ago, wasn't it?”

“That's right, sir. But it wasn't the Zoo. It was some people in America called the Audubon Society. They protect rare birds from extinction or something like that. Got on to our Ambassador in Washington, and the FO passed the buck to the Colonial Office. They shoved it on to us. Seems these bird people are pretty powerful in America. They even got an atom bombing range shifted on the West Coast because it interfered with some birds' nests.”

M snorted. “Damned thing called a Whooping Crane. Read about in the papers.”

Bond persisted. “Could you tell me about it, sir? What did the Audub.on people want us to do?”

M waved his pipe impatiently. He picked up the Strangways file and tossed it down in front of the Chief of Staff. “You tell him, Chief of Staff,” he said wearily. “It's all in there.”

The Chief of Staff took the file and riffled through the pages towards the back. He found what he wanted and bent the file in half. There was silence in the room while he ran his eye over three pages of typescript which Bond could see were headed with the blue and white cipher of the Colonial Office. Bond sat quietly, trying not to feel M's coiled impatience radiating across the desk.

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