“Gee, Milt,” she said half laughing, “you nearly squashed me. You don't know your strength. But do let's celebrate. I think that would be lots of fun. And that Paris idea sounds grand. Let's do that, shall we? What shall I order for dinner?”

“Hell - caviar of course.” Mr Krest held his hands apart. “One of those two-pound tins from Hammacher Schlemmer - the grade ten shot size, and all the trimmings. And that pink champagne.” He turned to Bond. “That suit you, feller?”

“Sounds like a square meal.” Bond changed the subject. “What have you done with the prize?”

“Formalin. Up on the boat-deck with some other jars of stuff we've picked up here and there - fish, shells. All safe in our home morgue. That's how we were told to keep the specimens. We'll airmail that damned fish when we get back to civilization. Give a Press conference first. Should make a big play in the papers back home. I've already radioed the Smithsonian and the news agencies. My accountants'll sure be glad of some Press cuttings to show those darned revenue boys.”

Mr Krest got very drunk that night. It did not show greatly. The soft Bogart voice became softer and slower. The round, hard head turned more deliberately on the shoulders. The lighter's flame took increasingly long to relight the cigar, and one glass was swept off the table. But it showed in the things Mr Krest said. There was a violent cruelty, a pathological desire to wound, quite near the surface in the man. That night, after dinner, the first target was James Bond. He was treated to a soft-spoken explanation as to why Europe, with England and France in the van, was a rapidly diminishing asset to the world. Nowadays, said Mr Krest, there were only three powers - America, Russia and China. That was the big poker game and no other country had either the chips or the cards to come into it. Occasionally some pleasant little country - and he admitted they'd been pretty big league in the past - like England would be lent some money so that they could take a hand with the grown-ups. But that was just being polite like one sometimes had to be - to a chum in one's club who'd gone broke. No. England - nice people, mind you, good sports - was a place to see the old buildings and the Queen and so on. France? They only counted for good food and easy women. Italy? Sunshine and spaghetti. Sanatorium, sort of. Germany? Well, they still had some spunk, but two lost wars had knocked the heart out of them. Mr Krest dismissed the rest of the world with a few similar tags and then asked Bond for his comments.

Bond was thoroughly tired of Mr Krest. He said he found Mr Krest's point of view oversimplified - he might even say naive. He said: “Your argument reminds me of a rather sharp aphorism I once heard about America. Care to hear it?”

“Sure, sure.”

“It's to the effect that America has progressed from infancy to senility without having passed through a period of maturity.”

Mr Krest looked thoughtfully at Bond. Finally he said: “Why, say, Jim, that's pretty neat.” His eyes hooded slightly as they turned towards his wife. “Guess you'd kinda go along with that remark of Jim's, eh, treasure? I recall you saying once you reckoned there was something pretty childish about the Americans. Remember?”

“Oh Milt.” Liz Krest's eyes were anxious. She had read the signs. “How can you bring that up? You know it was only something casual I said about the comic sections of the papers. Of course I don't agree with what James says. Anyway, it was only a joke, wasn't it, James?”

“That's right,” said Bond. “Like when Mr Krest said England had nothing but ruins and a queen.”

Mr Krest's eyes were still on the girl. He said softly: “Shucks, treasure. Why are you looking so nervous? Course it was a joke.” He paused. “And one I'll remember, treasure. One I'll sure remember.”

Bond estimated that by now Mr Krest had just about one whole bottle of various alcohols, mostly whisky, inside him. It looked to Bond as if, unless Mr Krest passed out, the time was not far off when Bond would have to hit Mr Krest just once very hard on the jaw. Fidele Barbey was now being given the treatment. “These islands of yours, Fido. When I first looked them up on the map I thought it was just some specks of fly-dirt on the page.” Mr Krest chuckled. “Even tried to brush them off with the back of my hand. Then I read a bit about them and it seemed to me my first thoughts had just about hit the nail on the head. Not much good for anything, are they, Fido? I wonder an intelligent guy like you doesn't get the hell out of there. Beach-combing ain't any kind of a life. Though I did hear one of your family had logged over a hundred illegitimate children. Mebbe that's the attraction, eh, feller?” Mr Krest grinned knowingly.

Fidele Barbey said equably: “That's my uncle, Gaston. The rest of the family doesn't approve. It's made quite a hole in the family fortune.”

“Family fortune, eh?” Mr Krest winked at Bond. “What's it in? Cowrie-shells?”

“Not exactly.” Fidele Barbey was not used to Mr Krest's brand of rudeness. He looked mildly embarrassed. “Though we made quite a lot out of tortoise-shell and mother-of-pearl about a hundred years ago when there was a rage for these things. Copra's always been our main business.”

“Using the family bastards as labour, I guess. Good idea. Wish I could fix something like that in my home circle.” He looked across at his wife. The rubber lips turned still further down. Before the next gibe could be uttered, Bond had pushed his chair back and had gone out into the well-deck and pulled the door shut behind him.

Ten minutes later, Bond heard feet coming softly down the ladder from the boat-deck. He turned. It was Liz Krest. She came over to where he was standing in the stern. She said in a strained voice: “I said I'd go to bed. But then I thought I'd come back here and see if you'd got everything you want. I'm not a very good hostess, I'm afraid. Are you sure you don't mind sleeping out here?”

“I like it. I like this kind of air better than the canned stuff inside. And it's rather wonderful to have all those stars to look at. I've never seen so many before.”

She said eagerly, grasping at a friendly topic: “I like Orion's Belt and the Southern Cross the best. You know, when I was young, I used to think the stars were really holes in the sky. I thought the world was surrounded by a great big black sort of envelope, and that outside it the universe was full of bright light. The stars were just holes in the envelope that let little sparks of light through. One gets terribly silly ideas when one's young.” She looked up at him, wanting him not to snub her.

Bond said: “You're probably quite right. One shouldn't believe all the scientists say. They want to make everything dull. Where did you live then?”

“At Ringwood in the New Forest. It was a good place to be brought up. A good place for children. I'd like to go there again one day.”

Bond said: “You've certainly come a long way since then. You'd probably find it pretty dull.”

She reached out and touched his sleeve. “Please don't say that. You don't understand - ” there was an edge of desperation in the soft voice - “I can't bear to go on missing what other people have - ordinary people. I mean,” she laughed nervously, “you won't believe me, but just to talk like this for a few minutes, to have someone like you to talk to, is something I'd almost forgotten.” She suddenly reached for his hand and held it hard. “I'm sorry. I just wanted to do that. Now I'll go to bed.”

The soft voice came from behind them. The speech had slurred, but each word was carefully separated from the next. “Well, well. Whadya know? Necking with the underwater help!”

Mr Krest stood framed in the hatch to the saloon. He stood with his legs apart and his arms upstretched to the lintel above his head. With the light behind him he had the silhouette of a baboon. The cold, imprisoned breath of the saloon rushed out past him and for a moment chilled the warm night air in the well-deck. Mr Krest stepped out and softly pulled the door to behind him.

Bond took a step towards him, his hands held loosely at his sides. He measured the distance to Mr Krest's solar plexus. He said: “Don't jump to conclusions, Mr Krest. And watch your tongue. You're lucky not to have got hurt so far tonight. Don't press your luck. You're drunk. Go to bed.”

“Oho! Listen to the cheeky feller.” Mr Krest's moon-burned face turned slowly from Bond to his wife. He made a contemptuous, Hapsburg-lip grimace. He took a silver whistle out of his pocket and whirled it round on its string. “He sure don't get the picture, does he, treasure? You ain't told him that those Heinies up front ain't just for ornament?” He turned back to Bond. “Feller, you move any closer and I blow this just once. And you know what? It'll be the old heave-ho for Mr goddam Bond” - he made a gesture towards the sea - “over the side. Man overboard. Too bad. We back up to make a search and you know what, feller? Just by chance we back up into you with those twin screws. Would you believe it! What lousy bad luck for that nice feller Jim we were all getting so fond of!” Mr Krest swayed on his feet. “Dya get the photo, Jim? Okay, so let's all be friends again and get some shut eye.” He reached for the lintel of the hatch and turned to his wife. He lifted his free hand and slowly crooked a finger. “Move, treasure. Time for bed.”

“Yes, Milt.” The wide, frightened eyes turned side ways. “Goodnight, James.” Without waiting for an answer, she ducked under Mr Krest's arm and almost ran through the saloon.

Mr Krest lifted a hand. “Take it easy, feller. No hard feelings, eh?”

Bond said nothing. He went on looking hard at Mr Krest.

Mr Krest laughed uncertainly. He said: “Okay then.” He stepped into the saloon and slid the door shut. Through the window Bond watched him walk unsteadily across the saloon and turn out the lights. He went into the corridor and there was a momentary gleam from the stateroom door, and then that too went dark.

Bond shrugged his shoulders. God, what a man! He leant against the stern rail and watched the stars and the flashes of phosphorescence in the creaming wake, and set about washing his mind clear and relaxing the coiled tensions in his body

Half an hour later, after taking a shower in the crew's bathroom forrard, Bond was making a bed for himself among the piled Dunlopillo cushions when he heard a single, heartrending scream. It tore briefly into the night and was smothered. It was the girl. Bond ran through the saloon and down the passage. With his hand on the stateroom door, he stopped. He could hear her sobs and, above them, the soft even drone of Mr Krest's voice. He took his hand away from the latch, Hell! What was it to do with him? They were man and wife. If she was prepared to stand this sort of thing and not kill her husband, or leave him, it was no good Bond playing Sir Galahad. Bond walked slowly back down the passage. As he was crossing the saloon the scream, this time less piercing, rang out again. Bond cursed fluently and went out and lay down on his bed and tried to focus his mind on the soft thud of the diesels. How could a girl have so little guts? Or was it that women could take almost anything from a man? Anything except indifference? Bond's mind refused to unwind. Sleep got further and further away.

An hour later Bond had reached the edge of unconsciousness when, up above him on the boat-deck, Mr Krest began to snore. On the second night out from Port Victoria, Mr Krest had left his cabin in the middle of the night and had gone up to the hammock that was kept slung for him between the speedboat and the dinghy. But that night he had not snored. Now he was snoring with those deep, rattling, utterly lost snores that come from big blue sleeping-pills on top of too much alcohol.

P/S: Copyright -->www_Novel12_Com

***