Thunderball Page 28

Above their heads the radio crackled. A metallic voice said, "N/AKOI, N/AKOI. You're in a prohibited area. Can you hear me. Change course southwards immediately. N/AKOI. This is Grand Bahama Rocket Base. Keep clear. Keep clear.''

Leiter said, “Oh, hell! No use interfering with world progress. Anyway, we've seen all we want. No good getting on the Windsor Field report to add to our troubles.'' He banked the little plane sharply. ”But you see what I mean? If that little heap of iron-mongery isn't worth a quarter of a billion dollars my name's P. Rick. And it's just about a hundred miles from Nassau. Perfect for the Disco .''

The radio started again: "N/AKOI, N/AKOI. You will be reported for entering a prohibited area and for failing to acknowledge. Keep flying south and watch out for sudden turbulence. Over.'' The radio went silent.

Leiter said, "That means they're going to fire a test. Keep an eye on them and let me know when. I'll cut down the revs. No harm in watching ten million dollars of the taxpayer's money being blown off, Look! The radar scanner's turned back to the east. They'll be sweating it out in that blockhouse all right. I've seen 'em at it. Lights'11 be blinking all over the big board way down underground. The Kibitzers'11 be at their periscopes. Voices'll come down over the P.A. system---'Beacon contact . . . Warning balloons up ... Telemeter contact . . . Tank pressure okay . . . Gyros okay . . . Rocket-tank pressure correct . . . Rocket clear . . . Recorders alive . . . Lights all green . . . Ten, nine, eight, seven, six ... Fire!'''

Despite Leiter's graphic countdown, nothing happened. Then, through his glasses, Bond saw a wisp of steam coming from the base of the rocket. Then a great cloud of steam and smoke and a flash of bright light that turned red. Breathlessly, for there was something terrible in the sight, Bond gave the blow-by-blow to Leiter. “It's edging up off the pad. There's a jet of flame. It seems to be sitting on it. Now it's going up like a lift. Now it's off! God, it's going fast! Now there's nothing but a spark of fire in the sky. Now it's gone. Whew!'' Bond mopped his brow. ”Remember that Moonraker job I was on a few years back? Interesting to see what the people out front saw.''

“Yeah. You were lucky to get out of that deep fry.'' Leiter brushed aside Bond's reminiscences. ”Now then, next stop those spits in the ocean north of Bimini and then a good run down the Bimini Group. Around seventy miles southwest. Keep an eye out. If we miss those dots, we'll end up in the grounds of the Fountain Blue in Miami.''

A quarter of an hour later, the tiny necklet of cays showed up. They were barely above the water line. There was much shoal. It looked an ideal hiding-place for the plane. They came down to a hundred feet and slowly cruised in a zigzag down the group. The water was so clear that Bond could see big fish meandering around the dark clumps of coral and seaweed in the brilliant sand. A big diamond-shaped sting ray cowered and buried itself in the sand as the black shadow of the plane pursued and shot over it. There was nothing else and no possibility of concealment. The green shoal waters were as clean and innocent as if they had been open desert. The plane flew on south to North Bimini. Here there were a few houses and some small fishing hotels. Expensive-looking deep-sea fishing craft were out, their tall rods streaming. Gay people in the well-decks waved to the little plane. A girl, sunbathing naked on the roof of a smart cabin cruiser, hastily snatched at a towel. “Authentic blonde!'' commented Leiter. They flew on south to the Cat Cays that trail away south from the Biminis. Here there was still, an occasional fishing craft. Leiter groaned. ”What the hell's the good of this? These fishermen would have found it by now if it was here.'' Bond told him to keep on south. Thirty miles farther south there were little unnamed specks on the Admiralty chart. Soon the dark blue water began to shoal again to green. They passed over three sharks circling aimlessly. Then there was nothing---just dazzling sand under the glassy surface, and occasional patches of coral.

They went on carefully down to where the water turned again to blue. Leiter said dully, “Well, that's that. Fifty miles on there's Andros. Too many people there. Someone would have heard the plane---if there was a plane.'' He looked at his watch. ”Eleven-thirty. What next, Hawkshaw? I've only got fuel for another two hours' flying.''

Something was itching deep down in Bond's mind. Something, some small detail, had raised a tiny question mark. What was it? Those sharks! In about forty feet of water! Circling on the surface! What were they doing there? Three of them. There must be something---something dead that had brought them to that particular patch of sand and coral. Bond said urgently, "Just go back up once more, Felix. Over the shoals. There's something---''

The little plane made a tight turn. Felix cut down the revs and just kept flying speed about fifty feet above the surface. Bond opened the door and craned out, his glasses at short focus. Yes, there were the sharks, two on the surface with their dorsals out, and one deep down. It was nosing at something. It had its teeth into something and was pulling at it. Among the dark and pale patches, a thin straight line showed on the bottom. Bond shouted, “Get back over again!'' The plane zoomed round and back. Christ! Why did they have to go so fast? But now Bond had seen another straight line on the bottom, leading off at ninety degrees from the first. He flopped back into his seat and banged the door shut. He said quietly, ”Put her down over those sharks, Felix. I think this is it.''

Leiter took a quick glance at Bond's face. He said, “Christ!'' Then, ”Well, I hope I can make it. Damned difficult to get a true horizon. This water's like glass.'' He pulled away, curved back, and slowly put the nose down. There was a slight jerk and then the hiss of the water under the skids. Leiter cut his engines and the plane came to a quick stop, rocking in the water about ten yards from where Bond wanted. The two sharks on the surface paid no attention. They completed their circle and came slowly back. They passed so close to the plane that Bond could see the incurious, pink button eyes. He peered down through the small ripples cast by the two dorsal fins. Yes! Those “rocks'' on the bottom were bogus. They were painted patches. So were the areas of ”sand.'' Now Bond could clearly see the straight edges of the giant tarpaulin. The third shark had nosed back a big section. Now it was shoveling with its flat head trying to get underneath.

Bond sat back. He turned to Leiter. He nodded. "That's it, all right. Big camouflaged tarpaulin over her. Take a look.''

While Leiter leaned across Bond and stared down, Bond's mind was racing furiously. Get the Police Commissioner on the police wavelength and report? Get signals sent off to London? No! If the radio operation on the Disco was doing his job, he would be keeping watch on the police frequency. So go on down and have a look. See if the bombs were still there. Bring up a piece of evidence. The sharks? Kill one and the others would go for the corpse.

Leiter sat back. His face was shining with excitement. “Well, I'll be goddammed! Boy oh boy!'' He clapped Bond on the back. ”We've found it! We've found the goddam plane. Whaddya know? Jesus Kerist!''

Bond had taken out the Walther PPK. He checked to see there was a round in the chamber, rested it on his left forearm, and waited for the two sharks to come round again. The first was the bigger, a hammerhead, nearly twelve feet long. Its hideously distorted head moved slowly from side to side as it nuzzled through the water, watching what went on below, waiting for a sign of meat. Bond aimed for the base of the dorsal fin that cut through the water like a dark sail. It was fully erect, a sign of tension and awareness in the big fish. Just below it was the spine, unassailable except with a nickel-plated bullet. He pulled the trigger. There was a phut as the bullet hit the surface just behind the dorsal. The boom of the heavy gun rolled away over the sea. The shark paid no attention. Bond fired again. The water foamed as the fish reared itself above the surface, dived shallowly, and came up thrashing sideways like a broken snake. It was a brief flurry. The bullet must have severed the spinal cord. Now the great brown shape began moving sluggishly in circles that grew ever wider. The hideous snout came briefly out of the water to show the sickle mouth gasping. For a moment it rolled over on its back, its stomach white to the sun. Then it righted itself and, dead probably, continued its mechanical, disjointed swim.

The following shark had watched all this. Now it approached cautiously. It made a short snapping run and swerved away. Feeling safe, it darted in again, seemed to nuzzle at the dying fish, and then lifted its snout above the surface and came down with all its force, scything into the flank of the hammerhead. It got hold, but the flesh was tough. It shook its great brown head like a dog, worrying at the mouthful, and then tore itself away. A cloud of blood poured over the sea. Now the other shark appeared from below and both fish, in a frenzy, tore and tore again at the still moving hulk whose nervous system refused to die.

The dreadful feast moved away on the current and was soon only a distant splashing on the surface of the quiet sea.

Bond handed Leiter the gun. "I'll get on down. May be rather a long job. They've got enough to keep them busy for half an hour, but if they come back, wing one of them. And if for any reason you Want me back on the surface, fire straight down at the water and go on firing. The shock wave should just about reach me.''

Bond began to struggle out of his clothes and, with Leiter's help, into his aqualung. It was a cramped, difficult business. It would be still worse getting back into the plane and it occurred to Bond that he would have to jettison the underwater gear. Leiter said angrily, "I wish to God I could get down there with you. Trouble with this damned hook, it just won't swim like a hand. Have to think up some rubber webbing gadget. Never occurred to me before.''

Bond said, "You'll have to keep steam up on this crate. We've already drifted a hundred yards. Get her back up, like a good chap. I don't know who I'm going to find sharing the wreck with me. It's been here a good five days and other visitors may have moved in first.''

Leiter pressed the starter and taxied back into position. He said, “You know the design of the Vindicator? You know where to look for the bombs and these detonator things the pilot has charge of?'' ”Yes. Full briefing in London. Well, so long. Tell Mother I died game!'' Bond scrambled onto the edge of the cockpit and jumped. He got his head under and swam leisurely down through the brilliant water. Now he could see that there were swarms of fish over the whole area below him---bill fish, small barracuda, jacks of various types---the carnivores. They parted grudgingly to make room for their big, pale competitor. Bond touched down and made for the edge of the tarpaulin that had been dislodged by the shark. He pulled out a couple of the long corkscrew skewers that secured it to the sand, switched on his waterproof torch and, his other hand on his knife, slipped under the edge.

He had been expecting it, but the foulness of the water made him retch. He clamped his lips more tightly round the mouthpiece and squirmed on to where the bulk of the plane raised the tarpaulin into a domed tent. He stood up. His torch glittered on the underside of a polished wing and then, below it, on something that lay under a scrabbling mass of crabs, langoustes, sea caterpillars and starfish. This also Bond had been prepared for. He knelt down to his grisly work. It didn't take long. He undipped the gold identification disk and unlatched the gold wrist watch from the horrible wrists and noted the gaping wound under the chin that could not have been caused by sea creatures. He turned his torch on the gold disk. It said, "Giuseppe Petacchi. No. 15932.'' He strapped the two bits of evidence to his own wrists and went on toward the fuselage that loomed in the darkness like a huge silver submarine. He inspected the exterior, noted the rent where the hull had been broken on impact, and then climbed up through the open safety hatch into the interior.

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