'Yassuh, Boss.' Tee-Hee came and stood beside the desk.
Mr. Big looked across at Bond.
'Which finger do you use least, Mister Bond?'
Bond was startled by the question. His mind raced.
'On reflection, I expect you will say the little finger of the left hand,' continued the soft voice. 'Tee-Hee, break the little finger of Mr. Bond's left hand.'
The negro showed the reason for his nickname.
'Hee-hee,' he gave a falsetto giggle. 'Hee-hee.'
He walked jauntily over to Bond. Bond clutched madly at the arms of his chair. Sweat started to break out on his forehead. He tried to imagine the pain so that he could control it.
The negro slowly unhinged the little finger of Bond's left hand, immovably bound to the arm of his chair.
He held the tip between finger and thumb and very deliberately started to bend it back, giggling inanely to himself.
Bond rolled and heaved, trying to upset the chair, but Tee-Hee put his other hand on the chair-back and held it there. The sweat poured off Bond's face. His teeth started to bare in an involuntary rictus. Through the increasing pain he could just see the girl's eyes wide upon him, her red lips slightly parted.
The finger stood upright, away from the hand. Started to bend slowly backwards towards his wrist. Suddenly it gave. There was a sharp crack.
'That will do,' said Mr. Big.
Tee-Hee released the mangled ringer with reluctance.
Bond uttered a soft animal groan and fainted.
'Da guy ain't got no sensayuma,' commented Tee-Hee.
Solitaire sat limply back in her chair and closed her eyes.
'Did he have a gun?' asked Mr. Big.
'Yassuh.' Tee-Hee took Bond's Beretta out of his pocket and slipped it across the desk. The Big Man picked it up and looked at it expertly. He weighed it in his hand, testing the feel of the skeleton grip. Then he pumped the shells out on to the desk, verified that he had also emptied the chamber and slid it over towards Bond.
'Wake him up,' he said, looking at his watch. It said three o'clock. Tee-Hee went behind Bond's chair and dug his nails into the lobes of Bond's ears.
Bond groaned and lifted his head.
His eyes focused on Mr. Big and he uttered a string of obscenities.
'Be thankful you're not dead,' said Mr. Big without emotion. 'Any pain is preferable to death. Here is your gun. I have the shells. Tee-Hee, give it back to him.'
Tee-Hee took it off the desk and slipped it back into Bond's holster.
'I will explain to you briefly,' continued The Big Man, 'why it is that you are not dead; why you have been permitted to enjoy the sensation of pain instead of adding to the pollution of the Harlem River from the folds of what is jocularly known as a cement overcoat.'
He paused for a moment and then spoke.
'Mister Bond, I suffer from boredom. I am a prey to what the early Christians called “accidie”, the deadly lethargy that envelops those who are sated, those who have no more desires. I am absolutely pre-eminent in my chosen profession, trusted by those who occasionally employ my talents, feared and instantly obeyed by those whom I myself employ. I have, literally, no more worlds to conquer within my chosen orbit. Alas, it is too late in my life to change that orbit for another one, and since power is the goal of all ambition, it is unlikely that I could possibly acquire more power in another sphere than I already possess in this one.'
Bond listened with part of his mind. With the other half he was already planning. He sensed the presence of
Solitaire, but he kept his eyes off her. He gazed steadily across the table at the great grey face with its unwinking golden eyes.
The soft voice continued.
'Mister Bond, I take pleasure now only in artistry, in the polish and finesse which I can bring to my operations. It has become almost a mania with me to impart an absolute rightness, a high elegance, to the execution of my affairs. Each day, Mister Bond, I try and set myself still higher standards of subtlety and technical polish so that each of my proceedings may be a work of art, bearing my signature as clearly as the creations of, let us say, Benvenuto Cellini. I am content, for the time being, to be my only judge, but I sincerely believe, Mister Bond, that the approach to perfection which I am steadily achieving in my operations will ultimately win recognition in the history of our times.'
Mr. Big paused. Bond saw that his great yellow eyes were wide, as if he saw visions. He's a raving megalomaniac, thought Bond. And all the more dangerous because of it. The fault in most criminal minds was that greed was their only impulse. A dedicated mind was quite another matter. This man was no gangster. He was a menace. Bond was fascinated and slightly awestruck.
'I accept anonymity for two reasons,' continued the low voice. 'Because the nature of my operations demands it and because I admire the self-negation of the anonymous artist. If you will allow the conceit, I see myself sometimes as one of those great Egyptian fresco painters who devoted their lives to producing masterpieces in the tombs of kings, knowing that no living eye would ever see them.'
The great eyes closed for a moment.
'However, let us return to the particular. The reason, Mister Bond, why I have not killed you this morning is because it would give me no aesthetic pleasure to blow a hole in your stomach. With this engine,' he gestured towards the gun trained on Bond through the desk drawer, 'I have already blown many holes in many stomachs, so I am quite satisfied that my little mechanical toy is a sound technical achievement. Moreover, as no doubt you rightly surmise, it would be a nuisance for me to have a lot of busy-bodies around here asking questions about the disappearance of yourself and your friend Mr. Leiter. Not more than a nuisance; but for various reasons I wish to concentrate on other matters at the present time.
'So,' Mr. Big looked at his watch, 'I decided to leave my card upon each of you and to give you one more solemn warning. You must leave the country today, and Mr. Leiter must transfer to another assignment. I have quite enough to bother me without having a lot of agents from Europe added to the considerable strength of local busybodies with which I have to contend.
'That is all,' he concluded. 'If I see you again, you will die in a manner as ingenious and appropriate as I can devise on that day.
'Tee-Hee, take Mister Bond to the garage. Tell two of the men to take him to Central Park and throw him in the ornamental water. He may be damaged but not killed if he resists. Understood?'
'Yassuh, Boss,' said Tee-Hee, giggling in a high falsetto.
He undid Bond's ankles, then his wrists. He took Bond's injured hand and twisted it right up his back. Then with his other hand he undid the strap round his waist. He yanked Bond to his feet.
'Giddap,' said Tee-Hee.
Bond gazed once more into the great grey face.
'Those who deserve to die,' he paused,' die the death they deserve. Write that down,' he added. 'It's an original thought.”
Then he glanced at Solitaire. Her eyes were bent on the hands in her lap. She didn't look up.
'Git goin,' said Tee-Hee. He turned Bond round towards the wall and pushed him forward, twisting Bond's wrist up his back until his forearm was almost dislocated. Bond uttered a realistic groan and his footsteps faltered. He wanted Tee-Hee to believe that he was cowed and docile. He wanted the torturing grip to ease just a little on his left arm. As it was, any sudden movement would only result in his arm being broken.
Tee-Hee reached over Bond's shoulder and pressed on one of the books in the serried shelves. A large section opened on a central pivot. Bond was pushed through and the negro kicked the heavy section back into place. It closed with a double click. From the thickness of the door, Bond guessed it would be sound-proof. They were faced by a short carpeted passage ending in some stairs that led downwards. Bond groaned.
'You're breaking my arm,' he said. 'Look out. I'm going to faint.'
He stumbled again, trying to measure exactly the negro's position behind him. He remembered Leiter's injunction: 'Shins, groin, stomach, throat. Hit 'em anywhere else and you'll just break your hand.'
'Shut yo mouf,' said the negro, but he pulled Bond's hand an inch or two down his back.
This was all Bond needed.
They were half way down the passage with only a few feet more to the top of the stairs. Bond faltered again, so that the negro's body bumped into his. This gave him all the range and direction he needed.
He bent a little and his right hand, straight and flat as a board, whipped round and inwards. He felt it thud hard into the target. The negro screamed shrilly like a wounded rabbit. Bond felt his left arm come free. He whirled round, pulling out his empty gun with his right hand. The negro was bent double, his hands between his legs, uttering little panting screams. Bond whipped the gun down hard on the back of the woolly skull. It gave back a dull klonk as if he had hammered on a door, but the negro groaned and fell forward on his knees, throwing out his hands for support. Bond got behind him and with all the force he could put behind the steel-capped shoe, he gave one mighty kick below the lavender-coloured seat of the negro's pants.
A final short scream was driven out of the man as he sailed the few feet to the stairs. His head hit the side of the iron banisters and then, a twisting wheel of arms and legs, he disappeared over the edge, down into the well. There was a short crash as he caromed off some obstacle, then a pause, then a mingled thud and crack as he hit the ground. Then silence.
Bond wiped the sweat out of his eyes and stood listening. He thrust his wounded left hand into his coat. It was throbbing with pain and swollen to almost twice its normal size. Holding his gun in his right hand, he walked to the head of the stairs and slowly down, moving softly on the balls of his feet.
There was only one floor between him and the spread-eagled body below. When he reached the landing, he stopped again and listened. Quite close, he could hear the high-pitched whine of some form of fast wireless transmitter. He verified that it came from behind one of the two doors on the landing. This must be Mr. Big's'communications centre. He longed to carry out a quick raid. But his gun was empty and he had no idea how many men he would find in the room. It could only have been the earphones on their ears that had prevented the operators from hearing the sounds of Tee-Hee's fall. He crept on down.
Tee-Hee was either dead or dying. He lay spread-eagled on his back. His striped tie lay across his face like a squashed adder. Bond felt no remorse. He frisked the body for a gun and found one stuck in the waistband of the lavender trousers, now stained with blood. It was a Colt .38 Detective Special with a sawn barrel. All chambers were loaded. Bond slipped the useless Beretta back in its holster. He nestled the big gun into his palm and smiled grimly.
A small door faced him, bolted on the inside. Bond put his ear to it. The muffled sound of an engine reached him. This must be the garage. But the running engine? At that time of the morning? Bond ground his teeth. Of course. Mr. Big would have spoken on the intercom and warned them that Tee-Hee was bringing him down. They must be wondering what was holding him. They were probably watching the door for the negro to emerge.
Bond thought for a moment. He had the advantage of surprise. If only the bolts were well-oiled.
His left hand was almost useless. With the Colt in his right, he' tested the first bolt with the edge of his damaged hand. It slipped easily back. So did the second. There remained only a press-down handle. He eased it down and pulled the door softly towards him.
It was a thick door and the noise of the engine got louder as the crack widened. The car must be just outside. Any further movement of the door would betray him. He whipped it open and stood facing sideways like a fencer so as to offer as small a target as possible. The hammer lay back on his gun.