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Bond, fretted with indecision and the fear that he and Leiter were making majestic fools of themselves, forced himself to face one certainty---he and Leiter and the Manta were engaged on a crazy gamble. If the bomb was on board, if the Disco veered north for the Grand Bahamas and the missile station, then, by racing up the Northwest Channel, the Manta might intercept her in time.

But if this gamble came off, with all its possibilities of error, why hadn't Domino made her signal? What had happened to her?

21.

Very Softly, Very Slowly

The Disco , a dark torpedo leaving a deep, briefly creaming wake, hurtled across the indigo mirror of the sea. In the big stateroom there was silence save for the dull boom of the engines and the soft tinkle of a glass on the sideboard. Although, as a precaution, the storm shutters were battened down over the portholes, the only light inside came from a single port navigation lantern hung from the roof. The dim red light only just illuminated the faces of the twenty men sitting round the long table, and the red-and-black-shadowed features, contorting with the slight sway of the top light, gave the scene the appearance of a conspiracy in hell.

At the top of the table Largo, his face, though the cabin was air-conditioned, shining with sweat, began to speak. His voice was tense and hoarse with strain. “I have to report that we are in a state of emergency. Half an hour ago, No. 17 found Miss Vitali in the well deck. She was standing fiddling with a camera; When No. 17 came upon her she lifted the camera and pretended to take a photograph of Palmyra, although the safety cap was over the lens. No. 17 was suspicious. He reported to me. I went below and took her to her cabin. She struggled with me. Her whole attitude aroused my suspicions. I was forced to subdue her by drastic measures. I took the camera and examined it.'' Largo paused. He said quietly, ”The camera was a fake. It concealed a Geiger counter. The counter was, very naturally, registering over 500 milliroentgens. I brought her back to consciousness and questioned her. She refused to talk. In due course I shall force her to do so and then she will be eliminated. It was time to sail. I again rendered her unconscious and roped her securely to her bunk. I have now summoned this meeting to acquaint you of this occurrence, which I have already reported to No. 2.''

Largo was silent. A threatening, exasperated growl came from round the table. No. 14, one of the Germans, said through his teeth, "And what, Mister No. 1, did No. 2 have to say about this?''

"He said we were to carry on. He said the whole world is full of Geiger counters looking for us. The secret services of the whole world have been mobilized against us. Some busybody in Nassau, the police probably, was perhaps ordered to have a radiation search made of all ships in harbor. Perhaps Miss Vitali was bribed to bring the counter on board. But No. 2 said that once we have placed the weapon in the target area there will be nothing to fear. I have had the radio operator listening for unusual traffic between Nassau and the Coast. The density is quite normal. If we were suspected, Nassau would be deluged with wireless traffic from London and Washington. But all is quiet. So the operation will proceed as planned. When we are well away from the area, we will dispose of the lead casing of the weapon. The lead casing will contain Miss Vitali.''

No. 14 persisted: "But you will first obtain the truth from this woman? It is not pleasant for our future plans to think that we may be under suspicion.''

"Interrogation will begin as soon as the meeting is over. If you want my opinion, those two men who came on board yesterday---this: Bond and the man Larkin---may be involved. They may be secret agents. The so-called Larkin had a camera. I did not look at it closely, but it was similar to that in the possession of Miss Vitali. I blame myself for not having been more careful with these two men. But their story was convincing. On our return to Nassau tomorrow morning, we shall have to be circumspect. Miss Vitali will have fallen overboard. I will work out the details of the story. There will be an inquest. This will be irritating but nothing more. Our witnesses will be unshakable. It will be wise to use the coins as additional alibi for our whereabouts tonight. No. 5, is the state of erosion of the coins satisfactory?''

No. 5, Kotze the physicist, said judiciously, “It is no more than adequate. But they will pass examination, a cursory examination. They are authentic doubloons and Reals of the early seventeenth century. Sea water has no great effect on gold and silver. I have used a little acid to pit them. They will of course have to be handed to the coroner and declared as treasure trove. It would need a far greater expert than he or the court to pass judgment on them. There will be no compulsion to reveal the location of the treasure. We could perhaps give the depth of water---ten fathoms let us say, and an unspecified reef. I see no means by which our story could be upset. There is often very deep water outside reefs. Miss Vitali could have had trouble with her aqualung and could have been seen disappearing over the deep shelf where our echo-sounder gave the depth as a hundred fathoms. We did our best to dissuade her from taking part in the search. But she was an expert swimmer. The romance of the occasion was too much for her.'' No. 5 opened his hands. ”There are often accidents of this nature. Many lives are lost in this way every year. A thorough search was instituted, but there were shark. The treasure hunt was broken off and we immediately returned to Nassau to report the tragedy.'' No. 5 shook his head decisively. “I see no reason to be dismayed by this occurrence. But I am in favor of a most rigorous interrogation.'' No. 5 turned his head politely in Largo's direction. ”There are certain uses of electricity of which I have knowledge. The human body cannot resist them. If I can be of any service . . .?'' Largo's voice was equally polite. They might have been discussing remedies for a seasick passenger. “Thank you. I have means of persuasion that I have found satisfactory in the past. But I shall certainly call upon you if the case is an obstinate one.'' Largo looked down the table into the shadowed, ruby faces. ”And now we will quickly run through the final details.'' He glanced down at his watch. “It is midnight. There will be two hours' moonlight starting at three a.m. The first light of dawn will be shortly after five a.m. We thus have two hours for the operation. Our course will bring us in towards West End from the south. This is a normal entry to the islands, and even if our further progress toward the target area is noted by the missile-station radar it will only be assumed that we are a yacht that has strayed slightly off course. We shall anchor at exactly three a.m. and the swimming party will leave for the half-mile swim to the laying point. The fifteen of you who will be taking part in this swim will, as arranged, swim in arrow formation, the Chariot and the sled with the missile in the center. Formation must be strictly kept to avoid straying. The blue torch on my back should be an adequate beacon, but if any man gets lost, he returns to the ship. Is that understood? The first duty of the escort will be to watch for shark and barracuda. I will again remind you that the range of your guns is not much more than twenty feet and that fish must be hit in or behind the head. Any man who is about to fire must warn his neighbor, who will then stand by to give additional fire if required. However, one hit should be sufficient to kill if the curare is, as we have been informed, not affected by the passage through sea water. Above all''---Largo put his hands decisively down on the table before him--- ”do not forget to remove the small protective sheath from the barb before firing.'' Largo raised his hands. "You will forgive me for repeating these points. We have had many exercises in similar conditions and I have confidence that all will be well. But the underwater terrain will be unfamiliar and the effect of the dexedrine pills--- they will be issued to the swimming party after this meeting---will be to sensitize the nervous system as well as provide the extra stamina and encouragement. So we must all be prepared for the unexpected and know how to handle it. Are there any further questions?''

During the planning stages, months before in Paris, Blofeld had warned Largo that if trouble was caused by any members of his team it was to be expected from the two Russians, the ex-members of SMERSH, No. 10 and No. 11. “Conspiracy,'' Blofeld had said, ”is their life blood. Hand in hand with conspiracy walks suspicion. These two men will always be wondering if they are not the object of some subsidiary plot---to give them the most dangerous work, to make them fall-guys for the police, to kill them and steal their share of the profits. They will be inclined to inform against their colleagues and always to have reservations about the plans that are agreed upon. For them, the obvious plan, the right way to do a thing, will have been chosen for some ulterior reason which is being kept hidden from them. They will need constant reassurance that nothing is being kept hidden from them, but, once they have accepted their orders, they will carry them out meticulously and without regard for their personal safety. Such men, apart from their special talents, are worth having. But you will please remember what I have said and, should there be trouble, should they try and sow mistrust within the team, you must act quickly and with utter ruthlessness. The maggots of mistrust and disloyalty must not be allowed to get a hold in your team. They are the enemies within that can destroy even the most meticulous planning.''

Now No. 10, a once-famous SMERSH terrorist called Strelik, began talking. He was sitting two places away from Largo, on his left. He did not address Largo, but the meeting. He said, “Comrades, I am thinking of the interesting matters recounted by No. 1, and I am telling myself that everything has been excellently arranged. I am also thinking that this operation will be a very fine one and that it will certainly not be necessary to explode the second weapon on Target No. 2. I have some documentations on these islands and I am learning from the Yachtsman's '' (No. 10 had trouble with the word) ” Guide to the Bahamas that there is a big new hotel within a few miles of our target site, also a scattered township. I am therefore estimating that the explosion of Weapon No. 1 will destroy perhaps two thousand persons. Two thousand persons is not very many in my country and their death, compared with the devastation of this important missile station, would not, in the Soviet Union, be considered of great importance. I am thinking that it will be otherwise in the West and that the destruction of these people and the rescuing of the survivors will be considered a grave matter that will act decisively towards immediate agreement with our terms and the saving of Target No. 2 from destruction. This being so, Comrades''---the dull, flat voice gained a trace of animation---“I am saying to myself that within as little as twenty-four hours our labors will have been completed and the great prize will be within our grasp. Now Comrades''---the red and black shadows turned the taut little smile into a dark grimace---”with so much money so near at hand, a most unworthy thought has come into my mind.'' (Largo put his hand in his coat pocket and put up the safe on the little Colt .25.) “And I would not be performing my duty to my Russian comrade, No. 11, nor to the other members of our team, if I did not share this thought with you, at the same time requesting forbearance for what may be unfounded suspicions.'' The meeting was very quiet, ominously so. These men had all been secret agents or conspirators. They recognized the smell of insurrection, the shadow of approaching disloyalty. What did No. 10 know? What was he going to divulge? Each man got ready to decide very quickly which way to jump when the cat was let out of the bag. Largo slipped the gun out of his pocket and held it along his thigh. ”There will come a moment,'' continued No. 10, watching the faces of the men opposite for a quick gauge of their reactions, “very shortly, when fifteen of us, leaving five members and six sub-agents on board this ship, will be out there''---he waved a hand at the cabin wall---”in the darkness, at least half an hour's swim from this ship. At that moment, Comrades''---the voice became sly---“what a thing it would be if those remaining on board were to sail the ship away and leave us in the water.'' There was a shifting and muttering round the table. No. 10 held up a hand. ”Ridiculous I am thinking, and so no doubt are you, Comrades. But we are men of a feather. We recognize the unworthy urges that can come upon even the best of friends and comrades when fortunes are at stake. And Comrades, with fifteen of us gone, how much more of a fortune would there be for those remaining, with their story for No. 2 of a great fight with sharks in which we all succumbed?''

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