'Then that is all for the present, Sair Hilary? The post leaves at midday. We have radio telephone communications if you wish to use them. May I convey any message to the Count?'

'Please say that I look forward greatly to meeting him tomorrow. Until six o'clock then.' Bond suddenly wanted to be alone with his thoughts. He gestured towards his suitcase. ' I must get myself unpacked.'

'Of course, of course, Sair Hilary. Forgive me for detaining you.' And, on this gracious note, Irma Bunt closed the door, with its decisive click, behind her.

Bond stood still in the middle of the room. He let out his breath with a quiet hiss. What the hell of a kettle of fish! He would have liked to kick one of the dainty bits of furniture very hard indeed. But he had noticed that, of the four electric light prisms in the ceiling, one was a blank, protruding eye ball. Closed-circuit television? If so, what would be its range? Not much more than a wide circle covering the centre of the room. Microphones? Probably the whole expanse of ceiling was one. That was the war-time gimmick. He must, he simply must assume that he was under constant supervision.

James Bond, his thoughts racing, proceeded to unpack, take a shower, and make himself presentable for 'my girls'.

10

Ten Gorgeous Girls

IT WAS one of those leather-padded bars, bogus-masculine, and still, because of its newness, smelling like the inside of a new motor-car. It was made to look like a Tyrolean Stube by a big stone fire-place with a roaring log fire and cartwheel chandeliers with red-stemmed electric 'candles'. There were many wrought-iron gimmicks - wall-light brackets, ashtrays, table lamps - and the bar itself was 'gay' with small flags and miniature liqueur bottles. Attractive zither music tripped out from a hidden loud-speaker. It was not, Bond decided, a place to get seriously drunk in.

When he closed the leather-padded, brass-studded door behind him, there was a moment's hush, then a mounting of decibels to hide the covert glances, the swift summing-up. Bond got a fleeting impression of one of the most beautiful groups of girls he had ever seen, when Irma Bunt, hideous in some kind of home-made, homespun 'apres-ski', in which orange and black predominated, waddled out from among the galaxy and took him in charge.' Sair Hilary.' She grasped his hand with a dry, monkey grip. 'How delightful, isn't it? Come please, and meet my girls.'

It was tremendously hot in the room and Bond felt the sweat bead on his forehead as he was led from table to table and shook this cool, this warm, this languid hand. Names like Ruby, Violet, Pearl, Anne, Elizabeth, Beryl, sounded in his ears, but all he saw was a sea of beautiful, sunburned faces and a succession of splendid, sweatered young bosoms. It was like being at home to the Tiller or the Bluebell Girls. At last he got to the seat that had been kept for him, between Irma Bunt and a gorgeous, bosomy blonde with large blue eyes. He sat down, overcome. The barman hovered. Bond pulled himself together. 'Whisky and soda, please,' he said, and heard his voice from far away. He took some time lighting a cigarette while sham, stage conversation broke out among the four tables in the semicircular embrasure that must, during the day, be the great lookout point. Ten girls and Irma. All English. No surnames. No other man. Girls in their twenties. Working girls probably. Sort of air-hostess type. Excited at having a man among them - a personable man and a baronet to boot - if that was what one did to a baronet. Pleased with his private joke, Bond turned to the blonde. 'I'm terribly sorry, but I didn't catch your name.'

'I'm Ruby.' The voice was friendly but refined. 'It must be quite an ordeal being the only chap - among all us girls, I mean.'

'Well, it was rather a surprise. But a very pleasant one. It's going to be difficult getting all your names right.' He lowered his voice conspiratorially. 'Be an angel and run through the field, so to speak.'

Bond's drink came and he was glad to find it strong. He took a long but discreet pull at it. He had noticed that the girls were drinking Colas and squashes with a sprinkling of feminine cocktails - Orange Blossoms, Daiquiris. Ruby was one of the ones with a Daiquiri. It was apparently OK to drink, but he would be careful to show a gentlemanly moderation.

Ruby seemed pleased to be able to break the ice. 'Well, I'll start on your right. That's Miss Bunt, the sort of matron, so to speak. You've met her. Then, in the violet camelot sweater, well, that's Violet of course. Then at the next table. The one in the green and gold Pucci shirt is Anne and next to her in green is Pearl. She's my sort of best friend here.' And so it went on, from one glorious golden girl to the next. Bond heard scraps of their conversation. ' Fritz says I'm not getting enough Vorlage. My skis keep on running away from me.' 'It's the same with me' - a giggle - 'my sit-upon's black and blue.' 'The Count says I'm getting on very well. Won't it be awful when we have to go?' 'I wonder how Polly's doing? She's been out a month now.' 'I think Skol's the only stuff for sunburn. All those oils and creams are nothing but frying-fat.' And so on - mostly the chatter you would expect from a group of cheerful, healthy girls learning to ski, except for the occasional rather awed reference to the Count and the covert glances at Irma Bunt and Bond to make sure that they were behaving properly, not making too much noise.

While Ruby continued her discreet roll-call, Bond tried to fix the names to the faces and otherwise add to his comprehension of this lovely but bizarre group locked up on top of a very high Alp indeed. The girls all seemed to share a certain basic, girl-guidish simplicity of manners and language, the sort of girls who, in an English pub, you would find sitting demurely with a boy friend sipping a Babycham, puffing rather clumsily at a cigarette and occasionally saying 'pardon'. Good girls, girls who, if you made a pass at them, would say, 'Please don't spoil it all', 'Men only want one thing' or, huffily, 'Please take your hand away'. And there were traces of many accents, accents from all over Britain -the broad vowels of Lancashire, the hit of Wales, the burr of Scotland, the adenoids of refined Cockney.

Yours truly foxed, concluded Bond as Ruby finished with 'And that's Beryl in the pearls and twin-set. Now do you think you've got us all straight?'

Bond looked into the round blue eyes that now held a spark of animation. 'Frankly no. And I feel like one of those comic film stars who get snarled up in a girls' school. You know. Sort of St Trinian's.'

She giggled. (Bond was to discover that she was a chronic giggler. She was too'dainty' to open her lovely lips and laugh. He was also to find that she couldn't sneeze like a human, but let out a muffled, demure squeak into her scrap of lace handkerchief, and that she took very small mouthfuls at meals and barely masticated with the tips of her teeth before swallowing with hardly a ripple of her throat. She had been 'well brought up'.) 'Oh, but we're not at all like St Trinian's. Those awful girls! How could you ever say such a thing!'

'Just a thought,' said Bond airily. 'Now then, how about another drink?'

'Oh, thenks awfully.'

Bond turned to Fraulein Bunt. 'And you, Miss Bunt?'

'Thank you, Sair Hilary. An apple-juice, if you please."

Violet, the fourth at their table, said demurely that she wouldn't have another Coke. 'They give me wind,' she explained.

'Oh Violet!' Ruby's sense of the proprieties was outraged. 'How can you say such a thing!'

'Well, anyway, they do,' said Violet obstinately. 'They make me hiccup. No harm in saying that, is there?'

Good old Manchester, thought Bond. He got up and went to the bar, wondering how he was going to plough on through this and other evenings. He ordered the drinks and had a brain-wave. He would break the ice! By hook or by crook he would become the life and soul of the party! He asked for a tumbler and that its run should be dipped in water. Then he picked up a paper cocktail napkin and went back to the table. He sat down. 'Now,' he said as eyes goggled at him, 'if we were paying for our drinks, I'll show you how we'd decide who should pay. I learned this in the Army.' He placed the tumbler in the middle of the table, opened the paper napkin and spread the centre tightly over the top so that it clung to the moist edge of the glass. He took his small change out of his pocket, selected a five-centime piece, and dropped it gently on to the centre of the stretched tissue. 'Now then,' he announced, remembering that the last time he had played this game had been in the dirtiest bar in Singapore. 'Who else smokes? We need three others with lighted cigarettes.' Violet was the only one at their table. Irma clapped her hands with authority. 'Elizabeth, Beryl, come over here. And come and watch, girls, Sair Hilary is making the joke game.' The girls clustered round, chattering happily at the diversion. 'What's he doing?' 'What's going to happen?' 'How do you play?'

'Now then,' said Bond, feeling like the games director on a cruise ship,'this is for who pays for the drinks. One by one, you take a puff at your cigarette, knock off the ash, like this, and touch the top of the paper with the lighted end - just enough to burn a tiny hole, like this.' The paper sparkled briefly. 'Now Violet, then Elizabeth, then Beryl. The point is, the paper gets like a sort of cobweb with the coin just supported in the middle. The person who burns the last hole and makes the coin drop has to pay for the drinks. See? Now then, Violet.'

There were squeaks of excitement. 'What a lovely game!' ' Oh Beryl, look out!' Lovely heads craned over Bond. Lovely hair brushed his cheek. Quickly the three girls got the trick of very delicately touching a space that would not collapse the cobweb until Bond, who considered himself an expert at the game, decided to be chivalrous and purposely burned a vital strand. With the chink of the coin falling into the glass there was a burst of excited laughter and applause.

'So, you see, girls.' It was as if Irma Bunt had invented the game. 'Sair Hilary pays, isn't it? A most delightful pastime. And now' - she looked at her mannish wrist-watch -'we must finish our drinks. It is five minutes to supper time.'

There were cries of 'Oh, one more game, Miss Bunt!' But Bond politely rose with his whisky in his hand. 'We will play again tomorrow. I hope it's not going to start you all off smoking. I'm sure it was invented by the tobacco companies!'

There was laughter. But the girls stood admiringly round Bond. What a sport he was! And they had all expected a stuffed shirt! Bond felt justifiably proud of himself. The ice had been broken. He had got them all minutely on his side. Now they were all chums together. From now on he would be able to get to talk to them without frightening them. Feeling reasonably pleased with his gambit, he followed the tight pants of Irma Bunt into the dining-room next door.

It was seven-thirty. Bond suddenly felt exhausted, exhausted with the prospect of boredom, exhausted with playing the most difficult role of his career, exhausted with the enigma of Blofeld and the Piz Gloria. What in hell was the bastard up to? He sat down on the right of Irma Bunt in the same placing as for drinks, with Ruby on his right and Violet, dark, demure, self-effacing, opposite him, and glumly opened his napkin. Blofeld had certainly spent money on his eyrie. Their three tables, in a remote corner by the long, curved, curtained window, occupied only a fraction of the space in the big, low, luxuriously appointed, mock-German baroque room, ornate with candelabra suspended from the stomachs of flying cherubs, festooned with heavy gilt plaster-work, solemnized by the dark portraits of anonymous noblemen. Blofeld must be pretty certain he was here to stay. What was the investment? Certainly not less than a million sterling, even assuming a fat mortgage from Swiss banks on the cost of the cable railway. To lease an alp, put up a cable railway on mortgage, with the engineers and the local district council participating - that, Bond knew, was one of the latest havens for fugitive funds. If you were successful, if you and the council could bribe or bully the local farmers to allow right-of-way through their pastures, cut swaths through the tree-line for the cable pylons and the ski-runs, the rest was publicity and amenities for the public to eat their sandwiches. Add to that the snob-appeal of a posh, heavily restricted club such as Bond imagined this, during the daytime, to be, the coroneted G, and the mystique of a research institute run by a Count, and you were off to the races. skiing today, Bond had read, was the most widely practised sport in the world. It sounded unlikely, but then one reckoned the others largely by spectators. Skiers were participants, and bigger spenders on equipment than in other sports. Clothes, boots, skis, bindings, and now the whole 'apres-ski' routine which took care of the day from four o'clock, when the sun went, onwards, were a tremendous industry. If you could lay your hands on a good alp, which Blofeld had somehow managed to do, you really had it good. Mortgages paid off - snow was the joker, but in the Engadine, at this height, you would be all right for that - in three or four years, and then jam for ever! One certainly had to hand it to him!

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