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Blofeld's soft, even voice broke the silence. He looked down the table at No. 7. He noted that the stanch, impassive stance had not quavered. This was a good man with good nerves. Blofeld said, “Sit down, No. 7. I am satisfied with your conduct.'' (Satisfaction was Blofeld's highest expression of praise.) ”It was necessary to distract the attention of No. 12. He knew that he was under suspicion. There might have been an untidy scene.''

Some of the men round the table nodded their understanding. As usual, Blofeld's reasoning made good sense. No one was greatly perturbed or surprised by what he had witnessed. Blofeld always exercised his authority, meted out justice, in full view of the members. There had been two previous occasions of this nature, both at similar meetings and both on security or disciplinary grounds which affected the cohesion, the inner strength, of the whole team. In one, the offender had been shot by Blofeld through the heart with a thick needle fired from a compressed-air pistol---no mean feat at around twelve paces. In the other, the guilty man, who had been seated next to Blofeld on his left hand, had been garroted with a wire noose casually flicked over his head and then, with two swift steps by Blofeld, pulled tight over the back of the man's chair. Those two deaths had been just, necessary. So had this death, the third. Now, the members, ignoring the heap of death at the end of the table, settled in their chairs. It was time to get back to business.

Blofeld snapped shut the gold vinaigrette and slipped it into a waistcoat pocket. “The Corsican section,'' he said softly, ”will put forward recommendations for a replacement for No. 12. But that can wait until after completion of Plan Omega. On this matter, there are certain details to be discussed. Sub-operator G, recruited by the German section, has made an error, a serious error which radically affects our time table. This man, whose membership of the Red Lightning Tong in Macao should have made him expert in conspiracy, was instructed to make his headquarters at a certain clinic in the south of England, an admirable refuge for his purposes. His instructions were to keep intermittent contact with the airman Petacchi at the not-far-distant Boscombe Downs airfield where the bomber squadron is under training. He was to report at intervals on the airman's fitness and morale. His reports have been satisfactory, and the airman, by the way, continues to be willing. But Sub-operator G was also required to post the Letter on D plus One, or three days from now. Unfortunately this foolish man took it upon himself to become embroiled in a hotheaded fashion with some fellow patient at the clinic, as a result of which, and I need not go into details, he is now in Brighton Central Hospital suffering from second-degree burns. He is thus out of action for at least a week. This will involve an irritating but fortunately not a serious delay in Plan Omega. Fresh instructions have been issued. The airman Petacchi has been provided with a phial of influenza virus of sufficient strength for him to remain on the sick list for one week, during which he will be unable to accept his test flight. He will take the first flight after his recovery and alert us accordingly. The date of his flight will be communicated to Sub-operator G and he will by that time be recovered and will post the Letter according to plan. The Special Executive''--- Blofeld glanced round the table---“will readjust their flight schedules to Area Zeta in accordance with the new operational schedule. As for Sub-operator G''---Blofeld bent his gaze, one by one, on the three ex-Gestapo men---”this is an unreliable agent. The German section will make arrangements for his elimination within twenty-four hours of the posting of the Letter. Is that understood?''

The three German faces stood unanimously to attention, "Yes, sir.''

“For the rest,'' continued Blofeld, ”all is in order. No. 1 has solidly established his cover in Area Zeta. The treasure-hunting myth continues to be built up and has already gained full credence. The crew of the yacht, all hand-picked sub-operators, are accepting the discipline and the security regulations better than had been expected. A suitable land base has been secured. It is remote and not easily accessible. It belongs to an eccentric Englishman the nature of whose friends and personal habits demands seclusion. Your arrival in Area Zeta continues to be minutely planned. Your wardrobe awaits you in Areas F and D, according to your various flight plans. This wardrobe, down to the smallest detail, will be in accordance with your identities as financial backers of the treasure hunt who have demanded to visit the scene and take part in the adventure. You are not gullible millionaires. You are the kind of rich, middle-class rentiers and businessmen who might be expected to be taken in by such a scheme. You are all shrewd, so you have come to watch over your investment and ensure that not one doubloon goes astray.'' (Nobody smiled.) "You are all aware of the part you have to play and I trust that you have studied your respective roles with close attention.''

There was a careful nodding of heads round the table. These men were all satisfied that not too much had been asked of them in the matter of their cover. This one was a rich cafe proprietor from Marseilles. (He had been one. He could talk to anyone about the business.) That one had vineyards in Yugoslavia. (He had been brought up in Bled. He could talk vintages and crop sprays with a Calvet from Bordeaux.) That one had smuggled cigarettes from Tangier. (He had done so and would be just sufficiently discreet about it.) All of them had been given covers that would stand up at least to second-degree inspection.

“In the matter of aqualung training,'' continued Blofeld, ”I would like reports from each section.'' Blofeld looked at the Yugoslav section on his left.

“Satisfactory.'' ”Satisfactory,'' echoed the German section, and the Word was repeated round the table.

Blofeld commented, “The safety factor is paramount in all underwater operations. Has this factor received sufficient attention in your respective training schedules?'' Affirmative. ”And exercises with the new CO2 underwater gun?'' Again all sections reported favorably. “And now,'' continued Blofeld, ”I would like a report from the Sicilian section on the preparations for the bullion drop.''

Fidelio Sciacca was a gaunt, cadaverous Sicilian with a closed face. He might have been, and had been, a schoolmaster with communist leanings. He spoke for the section because his English, the compulsory language of the Special Executive, was the best. He said, in a careful, expository tone of voice, “The chosen area has been carefully reconnoitered. It is satisfactory. I have here''---he touched the briefcase on his lap---”the plans and detailed time table for the information of the Chairman and members. Briefly, the designated area, Area T, is on the northwest slopes of Mount Etna, above the tree line---that is to say between the altitudes of two thousand and three thousand meters. This is an uninhabited and uncultivated area of black lava on the upper slopes of the volcano more or less above the small town of Bronte. For the purpose of the drop, an area approximately two kilometers square will be marked out by the torches of the recovery team. In the center of this area will be positioned a Decca Aircraft Homing Signal as an additional navigational aid. The bullion flight, which I estimate conservatively will consist of five Mark IV Transport Comets, should make their run in at ten thousand feet at an air speed of three hundred miles per hour. Having regard to the weight of each consignment, multiple parachutes will be needed, and, owing to the harsh nature of the terrain, very careful packing in foam rubber will be essential. The parachutes and the packings should be coated in Dayglo or some phosphorescent paint to assist recovery. No doubt''--- the man opened his hands---"the SPECTRE memorandum of dropping instructions will include these and other details, but very careful planning and coordination by those responsible for the flight will be necessary.''

"And the recovery team?'' Blofeld's voice probed softly but with an urgent edge to it.

"The Capo Mafiosi of the district is my uncle. He has eight grandchildren, to whom he is devoted. I have made it clear that the whereabouts of these children is known to my associates. The man understood. At the same time, as instructed, I made him the offer of one million pounds for total recovery and safe delivery to the depot at Catania. This is a most important sum for the funds of the Unione. The Capo Mafiosi agreed to these terms. He understands that the robbery of a bank is in question. He wishes to know no more. The delay that has been announced will not affect the arrangements. It will still be within the full-moon period. Sub-operator 52, is a most capable man. He has been provided with the Hallicraftor set issued to me for the purpose and he will listen on 18 megacycles in accordance with the schedule. Meanwhile he remains in touch with the Capo Mafiosi, to whom he is related by marriage.''

Blofeld was silent for a long two minutes. He slowly nodded. “I am satisfied. So far as the next step is concerned, the disposal of the bullion, this will be in the hands of Sub-operator 201, of whom we have had full experience. He is a man to be trusted. The M.V. Mercurial will load at Catania and proceed through the Suez Canal to Goa, in Portuguese India. En route, at a designated cross-bearing in the Arabian Gulf, she will rendezvous with a merchant ship owned by a consortium of the chief Bombay bullion brokers. The bullion will be transferred to this ship in exchange for the equivalent value, at the ruling gold bullion price, in used Swiss francs, dollars, and bolivars. These large amounts of currency will be broken up into the allotted percentages and will then be transferred from Goa by chartered plane to twenty-two different Swiss banks in Zurich, where they will be placed in deposit boxes. The keys to these numbered boxes will be distributed to members after this meeting. From that moment on, and subject of course to the usual security regulations regarding injudicious spending and display, these deposits will be entirely at the disposal of members.'' Blofeld's slow, calm eyes surveyed the meeting. ”Is this procedure considered satisfactory?''

There were cautious nods. No. 18, Kandinsky, the Polish electronics expert, spoke up. He spoke without diffidence. There was no diffidence between these men. “This is not my province,'' he said seriously. ”But is there not danger that one of the navies concerned will intercept this ship, the Mercurial , and remove the bullion? It will be clear to the Western powers that the bullion will have to be removed from Sicily. Various patrols of the air and sea would be an easy matter.''

“You forget''---Blofeld's voice was patient---”that neither the first, nor if need be the second, bomb will be rendered safe until the money is in the Swiss banks. There will be no risk on that score. Nor, another possibility that I had envisaged, is there likely to be danger of our ship being pirated on the high seas by some independent operator. I envisage that complete secrecy will be enforced by the Western powers. Any leakage would result in panic. Any other questions?''

Bruno Bayer, one of the German Section, said stiffly, "It is fully understood that No. 1 will be in immediate control in Area Zeta. Is it correct that he will have full powers delegated by yourself? Is it that he will, so to speak, be Supreme Commander in the field?''

How typical, thought Blofeld. The Germans will always obey orders, but they wish to be quite clear where final authority resides. The German generals would only obey the Supreme Command if they knew Hitler approved the Supreme Command. He said firmly, "I have made it clear to the Special Executive, and I repeat: No. 1 is already, by your unanimous vote, my successor in case of my death or incapacity. So far as Plan Omega is concerned, he is deputy Supreme Commander of SPECTRE, and since I shall remain at Headquarters to keep watch over reactions to the Letter, No. 1 will be Supreme Commander in the field. His orders will be obeyed as if they were my own. I hope we are fully agreed in this matter.'' Blofeld's eyes, sharply focused, swept the meeting. Everyone signified his agreement.

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