'God forbid,' said Bond fervently. 'It sounds rather like Bournemouth or Torquay. But a million times worse. I hope we don't get into a shooting match with “The Robber” and his friends. We'd probably hurry a few hundred oldsters off to the cemetery with heart-failure. But isn't there anyone young in this place?'
'Oh yes,' laughed Solitaire. 'Plenty of them. All the local inhabitants who take the money off the oldsters, for instance. The people who own the motels and the trailer-camps. You could make plenty of money running the bingo tournaments. I'll be your “barker” — the girl outside who gets the suckers in. Dear Mr. Bond,' she reached over and pressed his hand, 'will you settle down with me and grow old gracefully in St. Petersburg ?'
Bond sat back and looked at her critically. 'I want a long time of disgraceful living with you first,' he said with a grin. 'I'm probably better at that. But it suits me that they go to bed at nine down there.'
Her eyes smiled back at him. She took her hand away from his as their breakfast arrived. 'Yes,' she said. 'You go to bed at nine. Then I shall slip out by the back door and go on the tiles with the Kids and the Kubs.'
The breakfast was as bad as Bond had prophesied.
When they had paid they wandered over to the station waiting-room.
The sun had risen and the light swarmed in dusty bars into the vaulted, empty hall. They sat together in a corner and until the Silver Meteor came in Bond plied her with questions about The Big Man and all she could tell him about his operations.
Occasionally he made a note of a date or a name but there was little she could add to what he knew. She had an apartment to herself in the same Harlem block as Mr. Big and she had been kept virtually a prisoner there for the past year. She had two tough negresses as 'companions' and was never allowed out without a guard.
From time to time Mr. Big would have her brought over to the room where Bond had seen him. There she would be told to divine whether some man or woman, generally bound to the chair, was lying or not. She varied her replies according to whether she sensed these people were good or evil. She knew that her verdict might often be a death sentence but she felt indifferent to the fate of those she judged to be evil. Very few of them were white.
Bond jotted down the dates and details of all these occasions.
Everything she told him added to the picture of a very powerful and active man, ruthless and cruel, commanding a huge network of operations.
All she knew of the gold coins was that she had several times had to question men on how many they had passed and the price they had been paid for them. Very often, she said, they were lying on both counts.
Bond was careful to divulge-very little of what he himself knew or guessed. His growing warmth towards Solitaire and his desire for her body were in a compartment which had no communicating door with his professional life.
The Silver Meteor came in on time and they were both relieved to be on their way again and to get away from the dreary world of the big junction.
The train sped on down through Florida , through the forests and swamps, stark and bewitched with Spanish moss, and through the mile upon mile of citrus groves.
All through the centre of the state the moss lent a dead, spectral feeling to the landscape. Even the little townships through which they passed had a grey skeletal aspect with their dried-up, sun-sucked clapboard houses. Only the citrus groves laden with fruit looked green and alive. Everything else seemed baked and desiccated with the heat.
Looking out at the gloomy silent withered forests, Bond thought that nothing could be living in them except bats and scorpions, horned toads and black widow spiders.
They had lunch and then suddenly the train was running along the Gulf of Mexico, through the mangrove swamps and palm groves, endless motels and caravan sites, and Bond caught the smell of the other Florida , the Florida of the advertisements, the land of 'Miss Orange Blossom I954′.
They left the train at Clearwater , the last station before St. Petersburg. Bond took a cab and gave the address on Treasure Island , half an hour's drive away. It was two o'clock and the sun blazed down out of a cloudless sky. Solitaire insisted on taking off her hat and veil. 'It's sticking to my face,' she said. 'Hardly a soul has ever seen me down here.'
A big negro with a face pitted with ancient smallpox was held up in his cab at the same time as they were checked at the intersection of Park Street and Central Avenue, where the Avenue runs on to the long Treasure Island causeway across the shallow waters of Boca Ciega Bay.
When the negro saw Solitaire's profile his mouth fell open. He pulled his cab into the kerb and dived into a drugstore. He called a St. Petersburg number.
'Dis is Poxy,' he said urgently into the mouthpiece. 'Gimme da Robber'n step on it. Dat you, Robber? Lissen, Da Big Man muss be n'town. Whaddya mean yuh jes talked wit him 'n New York ? Ah jes seen his gal 'n a Clear-water cab, one of da Stassen Company's. Headin' over da Causeway. Sho Ahm sartin. Cross ma heart. Couldn mistake dat eyeful. Wid a man 'n a blue suit, grey Stetson. Seemed like a scar down his face. Whaddya mean, follow 'em? Ah jes couldn believe yuh wouldn tell me da Big Man wuz 'n town ef he wuz. Thought mebbe Ahd better check 'n make sho. Okay, okay. Ah'll ketch da cab when he comes back over da Causeway, else at Clearwater . Okay, okay. Keep yo shirt on. Ah ain't done nuthen wrong.'
The man called 'The Robber' was through to New York in five minutes. He had been warned about Bond but he couldn't understand where Solitaire tied in to the picture. When he had finished talking to The Big Man he still didn't know, but his instructions were quite definite.
He rang off and sat for a while drumming his fingers on his desk. Ten Grand for the job. He'd need two men. That would leave eight Grand for him. He licked his lips and called a poolroom in a downtown bar in Tampa .
Bond paid off the cab at The Everglades, a group of neat white-and-yellow clapboard cottages set on three sides of a square of Bahama grass which ran fifty yards down to a bone-white beach and then to the sea. From there, the whole Gulf of Mexico stretched away, as calm as a mirror, until the heat-haze on the horizon married it into the cloudless sky.
After London , after New York , after Jacksonville , it was a sparkling transition.
Bond went through a door marked 'Office' with Solitaire demurely at his heels. He rang a bell that said, 'Manageress : Mrs. Stuyvesant', and a withered shrimp of a woman with blue-rinsed hair appeared and smiled with her pinched lips. 'Yes?'
'Oh yes, you're Mr. Bryce. Cabana Number One, right down on the beach. Mr. Leiter's been expecting you since lunchtime. And…?' She heliographed with her pince-nez towards Solitaire.
'Mrs. Bryce,' said Bond.
'Ah yes,' said Mrs. Stuyvesant, wishing to disbelieve. 'Well, if you'd care to sign the register, I'm sure you and Mrs. Bryce would like to freshen up after the journey. The full address, please. Thank you.'
She led them out and down the cement path to the end cottage on the left. She knocked and Leiter appeared. Bond had looked forward to a warm welcome,-but Leiter seemed staggered to see him. His mouth hung open. His straw-coloured hair, still faintly black at the roots, looked like a haystack.
'You haven't met my wife, I think,' said Bond.
'No, no, I mean, yes. How do you do?'
The whole situation was beyond him. Forgetting Solitaire, he almost dragged Bond through the door. At the last moment he remembered the girl and seized her with his other hand and pulled her in too, banging the door shut with his heel so that Mrs. Stuyvesant's 'I hope you have a happy…' was guillotined before the'stay'.
Once inside, Leiter could still not take them in. He stood and gaped from one to the other.
Bond dropped his suitcase on the floor of the little lobby. There were two doors. He pushed open the one on his right and held it for Solitaire. It was a small living-room that ran the width of the cottage and faced across the beach to the sea. It was pleasantly furnished with bamboo beach chairs upholstered in foam rubber covered with a red-and-green hibiscus chintz. Palrn-leaf matting covered the floor. The walls were duck's-egg blue and in the centre of each was a colour print of tropical flowers in a bamboo frame. There was a large drum-shaped table in bamboo with a glass top. It held a bowl of flowers and a white telephone. There were broad windows facing the sea and to the right of them a door leading on to the beach. White plastic jalousies were drawn half up the windows to cut the glare from the sand.
Bond and Solitaire sat down. Bond lit a cigarette and threw the pack and his lighter on to the table.
Suddenly the telephone rang. Leiter came out of his trance and walked over from the door and picked up the receiver.
'Speaking,' he said. 'Put the Lieutenant on. That you, Lieutenant? He's here. Just walked in. No, all in one piece.' He listened for a moment, then turned to Bond. 'Where did you leave the Phantom?' he asked. Bond told him. ' Jacksonville ,' said Leiter into the telephone. 'Yeah, I'll say. Sure. I'll get the details from him and call you back. Will you call off Homicide? I'd sure appreciate it. And New York . Much obliged, Lieutenant. Orlando 9000. Okay. And thanks again. 'Bye.' He put down the receiver. He wiped the sweat off his forehead and sat down opposite Bond.
Suddenly he looked at Solitaire and grinned apologetically. 'I guess you're Solitaire,' he said. 'Sorry for the rough welcome. It's been quite a day. For the second time in around twenty-four hours I didn't expect to see this guy again.' He turned back to Bond. 'Okay to go ahead?' he asked.
'Yes,' said Bond. 'Solitaire's on our side now.'
'That's a break,' said Leiter. 'Well, you won't have seen the papers or heard the radio, so I'll give you the headlines first. The Phantom was stopped soon after Jacksonville . Between Waldo and Ocala . Your compartment was tommy-gunned and bombed. Blown to bits. Killed the Pullman porter who was in the corridor at the time. No other casualties. Bloody uproar going on. Who did it? Who's Mr. Bryce and who's Mrs. Bryce? Where are they? Of course we were sure you'd been snatched. The police at Orlando are in charge. Traced the bookings back to New York . Found the FBI had made them. Everyone comes down on me like a load of bricks. Then you walk in with a pretty girl on your arm looking as happy as a clam.'
Leiter burst out laughing. 'Boy! You should have heard Washington a while back. Anybody would have thought it was me that bombed the goddam train.'
He reached for one of Bond's cigarettes and lit it.
'Well,' he said. 'That's the synopsis. I'll hand over the shooting script when I've heard your end. Give.'
Bond described in detail what had happened since he had spoken to Leiter from the St. Regis. When he came to the night on the train he took the piece of paper out of his pocket-book and pushed it across the table.
Leiter whistled. 'Voodoo,' he said. 'This was meant to be found on the corpse, I guess. Ritual murder by friends of the men you bumped in Harlem . That's how it was supposed to look. Take the heat right away from The Big Man. They certainly think out all the angles. We'll get after that thug they had on the train. Probably one of the help in the diner. He must have been the man who put the finger on your compartment. You finish. Then I'll tell you how he did it.'
'Let me see,' said Solitaire. She reached across for the paper.
'Yes,' she said quietly. 'It's an ouanga, a Voodoo fetish. It's the invocation to the Drum Witch. It's used by the Ashanti tribe in Africa when they want to kill someone. They use something like it in Haiti.' She handed it back to Bond. 'It was lucky you didn't tell me about it,' she said seriously. 'I would still be having hysterics.'