Bond dropped off into an uneasy, watchful sleep that was once again peopled by things and creatures out of nightmare-land.

18

OUBLIETTE

AT SIX O'CLOCKinthe evening, the deep bell tolled briefly from the castle and dusk came like the slow drawing of a violet blind over the day. Crickets began to zing in a loud chorus and geckos chuckled in the shrubbery. The pink dragonflies disappeared and large horned toads appeared in quantities from their mud holes on the edge of the lake and, so far as Bond could see through his spy-hole, seemed to be catching gnats attracted by the shining pools of their eyes. Then the four guards reappeared, and there came the fragrant smell of a bonfire they had presumably lit to consume the refuse they had collected during the day. They went to the edge of the lake and raked in the tattered scraps of blue clothing and, amidst delighted laughter, emptied long bones out of the fragments into the water. One of them ran off with the rags, presumably to add them to the bonfire, and Bond got under cover as the others pushed their wheelbarrows up the slope and stowed them away in the hut. They stood chattering happily in the dusk until the fourth arrived and then, without noticing the slashed and disarrayed sacks in the shadows, they filed off in the direction of the castle.

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After an interval, Bond got up and stretched and shook the dust out of his hair and clothes. His back still ached, but his overwhelming sensation was the desperate urge for a cigarette. All right. It might be his last. He sat down and drank a little water and munched a large wedge of the highly-flavoured pemmican, then took another swig at the water-bottle. He took out his single packet of Shinsei and lit up, holding the cigarette between cupped hands and quickly blowing out the match. He dragged the smoke deep down into his lungs. It was bliss! Another drag and the prospect of the night seemed less daunting. It was surely going to be all right! He thought briefly of Kissy who would now be eating her bean curd and fish and preparing the night's swim in her mind. A few hours more and she would be near him. But what would have happened in those few hours? Bond smoked the cigarette until it burned his fingers, then crushed out the stub and pushed the dead fragments down through a crack in the floor. It was seven thirty and already some of the insect noises of sundown had ceased. Bond went meticulously about his preparations.

At nine o'clock he left the hideout. Again the moon blazed down and there was total silence except for the distant burping and bubbling of the fumaroles and the occasional sinister chuckle of a gecko from the shrubbery. He took the same route as the night before, came through the same belt of trees and stood looking up at the great bat-winged donjon that towered up to the sky. He noticed for the first time that the warning balloon with its advertisement of danger was tethered to a pole on the corner of the balustrade surrounding what appeared to be the main floor - the third, or centre one of the five. Here, from several windows, yellow light shone faintly, and Bond guessed that this would be his target area. He let out a deep sigh and strode quietly off across the gravel and came without incident to the tiny entrance under the wooden bridge.

The black ninja suit was as full of concealed pockets as a conjurer's tail coat. Bond took out a pencil flashlight and a small steel file and set to work on a link of the chain. Occasionally he paused to spit into the deepening groove to lessen the rasp of metal on metal, but then there came the final crack of parting steel and, using the file as a lever, he bent the link open and quietly removed the padlock and chain from its stanchions. He pressed lightly and the door gave inwards. He took out his flashlight and pushed farther, probing the darkness ahead with his thin beam. It was as well he did so. On the stone floor where his first step past the open door would have taken him, lay a yawning man-trap, its rusty iron jaws, perhaps a yard across, waiting for him to step on the thin covering of straw that partially concealed it. Bond winced as, in his imagination, he heard the iron clang as the saw-teeth bit into his leg below the knee. There would be other such booby-traps - he must keep every sense on the alert!

Bond closed the door softly behind him, stepped round the trap and swept the beam of his torch ahead and around him. Nothing but velvety blackness. He was in some vast underground cellar where no doubt the food supplies for a small army had once been stored. A shadow swept across the thin beam of light and another and another, and there was a shrill squeaking from all around him. Bond didn't mind bats or believe the Victorian myth that they got caught in your hair. Their radar was too good. He crept slowly forward, watching only the rough stone flags ahead of him. He passed one or two bulky arched pillars, and now the great cellar seemed to narrow because he could just see walls to right and left of him and above him an arched, cobwebby roof. Yes, here were the stone steps leading upwards! He climbed them softly and counted twenty of them before he came to the entrance, a wide double door with no lock on his side. He pushed gently and could feel and hear the resistance of a rickety-sounding lock. He took out a heavy jemmy and probed. Its sharp jaws notched round some sort of a cross-bolt, and Bond levered hard sideways until there came the tearing sound of old metal and the tinkle of nails or screws on stone. He pushed softly on the crack and, with a hideously loud report, the rest of the lock came away and half the door swung open with a screech of old hinges. Beyond Was more darkness.

Bond stepped through and listened, his torch doused. But he was still deep in the bowels of the castle and there was no sound. He switched on again. More stone stairs leading up to a modern door of polished timber. He went up them and carefully turned the metal door handle. No lock this time! He softly pushed the door open and found himself in a long stone corridor that sloped on upwards. At the end was yet another modern door, and beneath it showed a thin strip of light!

Bond walked noiselessly up the incline and then held his breath and put his ear to the keyhole. Dead silence! He grasped the handle and inched the door open and then, satisfied, went through and closed the door behind him, leaving it on the latch. He was in the main hall of the castle. The big entrance door was on his left, and a well-used strip of red carpet stretched away from it and across the fifty feet of hall into the shadows that were not reached by the single large oil lamp over the entrance. The hall was not embellished in any way, save for the strip of carpet, and its roof was a maze of longitudinal and cross beams interspersed with latticed bamboo over the same rough plaster-work as covered the walls. There was still the same castle-smell of cold stone.

Bond kept away from the carpet and hugged the shadows of the walls. He guessed that he was now on the main floor and that somewhere straight ahead was his quarry. He was well inside the citadel. So far so good!

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The next door, obviously the entrance to one of the public rooms, had a simple latch to it. Bond bent and put his eye to the keyhole. Another dimly lit interior. No sound! He eased up the latch, inched the door ajar, and then open, and went through. It was a second vast chamber, but this time one of baronial splendour - the main reception room, Bond guessed, where Blofeld would receive visitors. Between tall red curtains, edged with gold, fine set-pieces of armour and weapons hung on the white plaster walls, and there was much heavy antique furniture arranged in conventional groupings on a vast central carpet in royal blue. The rest of the floor was of highly polished boards, which reflected back the lights from two great oil lanterns that hung from the high, timbered roof, similar to that of the entrance hall, but here with the main beams decorated in a zigzag motif of dark red. Bond, looking for places of concealment, chose the widely spaced curtains and, slipping softly from one refuge to the next, reached the small door at the end of the chamber that would, he guessed, lead to the private apartments.

He bent down to listen, but immediately' leaped for cover behind the nearest curtains. Steps were approaching! Bond undid the thin chain from around his waist, wrapped it round his left fist and took the jemmy in his right hand and waited, his eyes glued to a chink in the dusty-smelling material.

The small door opened halfway to show the back of one of the guards. He wore a black belt with a holster. Would this be Kono, the man who translated for Blofeld? He had probably had some job with the Germans during the war -in the Kempeitai, perhaps. What was he doing? He appeared to be riddling with some piece of apparatus behind the door. A light switch? No, there was no electric light. Apparently satisfied, the man backed out, bowed deeply to the interior and closed the door. He wore no masko and Bond caught a brief glimpse of a surly, slit-eyed brownish face as he passed Bond's place of concealment and walked on across the reception chamber. Bond heard the click of the far door and then there was silence. He waited a good five minutes before gently shifting the curtain so that he could see down the room. He was alone.

And now for the last lap!

Bond kept his weapons in his hands and crept back to the door. This time no sound came from behind it. But the guard had bowed. Oh well! Probably out of respect for the aura of The Master. Bond quietly but firmly thrust the door open and leaped through, ready for the attacking sprint.

A totally empty, totally featureless length of passageway yawned at his dramatics. It stretched perhaps twenty feet in front of him. It was dimly lit by a central oil lamp and its floor was of the usual highly polished boards. A 'nightingale floor'? No. The guard's footsteps had uttered no warning creaks. But from behind the facing door at the end came the sound of music. It was Wagner, the 'Ride of the Valkyries', being played at medium pitch. Thank you, Blofeld! thought Bond. Most helpful cover! And he crept softly forward down the centre of the passage.

When it came, there was absolutely no warning. One step across the exact halfway point of the flooring and, like a seesaw, the whole twenty feet of boards swivelled noiselessly on some central axis and Bond, arms and legs flailing and hands scrabbling desperately for a grip, found himself hurtling down into a black void. The guard! The fiddling about behind the door! He had been adjusting the lever that set the trap, the traditional oubliette of ancient castles! And Bond had forgotten! As his body plunged off the end of the inclined platform into space, an alarm bell, triggered by the mechanism of the trap, brayed hysterically. Bond had a fractional impression of the platform, relieved of his weight, swinging back into position above him, then he crashed shatteringly into unconsciousness.

Bond swam reluctantly up through the dark tunnel towards the blinding pinpoint of light. Why wouldn't someone stop hitting him? What had he done to deserve it? He had got two awabis. He could feel them in his hands, sharp-edged and rough. That was as much as Kissy could expect of him. 'Kissy,' he mumbled,'stop it! Stop it, Kissy!'

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The pinpoint of light expanded, became an expanse of straw-covered floor on which he was crouching while the open hand crashed sideways into his face. Piff! Paff! With each slap the splitting pain in his head exploded into a thousand separate pain fragments. Bond saw the edge of the boat above him and desperately raised himself to grasp at it. He held up the awabis to show that he had done his duty. He opened his hands to drop them into the tub. Consciousness flooded back and he saw the two handfuls of straw dribble to the ground. But the blows had stopped. And now he could see, indistinctly, through a mist of pain. That brown face! Those slit eyes! Kono, the guard. And someone else was holding a torch for him. Then it all came back. No awabis! No Kissy! Something dreadful had happened! Everything had gone wrong! Shimata! I have made a mistake! Tiger! The clue clicked and total realization swept through Bond's mind. Careful, now. You're deaf and dumb. You're a Japanese miner from Fukuoka. Get the record straight. To hell with the pain in your head. Nothing's broken. Play it cool. Bond put his hands down to his sides. He realized for the first time that he was naked save for the brief vee of the black cotton ninja underpants. He bowed deeply and straightened himself. Kono, his hand at his open holster, fired furious Japanese at him. Bond licked at the blood that was trickling down his face and looked blank, stupid. Kono took out his small automatic, gestured. Bond bowed again, got to his feet, and, with a brief glance round the straw-strewn oubliette into which he had fallen, followed the unseen guard with the torch out of the cell.

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