Bond ate silently and when they had finished Leiter made a determined effort to be cheerful.
'Come and get drunk,' he said. 'This is the bad end to a worse day. Or do you want to play bingo with the oldsters? It says there's a bingo tournament in the “romp room” this evening.'
Bond shrugged his shoulders and they went back to their sitting-room and sat gloomily for a while, drinking and staring out across the sand, bonewhite in the light of the moon, towards the endless dark sea.
When Bond had drunk enough to drown his thoughts he said good night and went off to Solitaire's room, which he had now taken over as his bedroom. He climbed between the sheets where her warm body had lain and, before he slept, he had made up his mind. He would go after The Robber as soon as it was light and strangle the truth out of him. He had been too preoccupied to discuss the .case with Leiter but he was certain that The Robber must have had a big hand in the kidnapping of Solitaire. He thought of the man's little cruel eyes and the pale thin lips. Then “he thought of the scrawny neck rising like a turtle's out of the dirty sweat-shirt. Under the bedclothes the muscles of his arms went taut. Then, his mind made up, he relaxed his body into sleep.
He slept until eight. When he saw the time on his watch he cursed. He quickly took a shower, holding his eyes open into the needles of water until they smarted. Then he put a towel round his waist and went into Leiter's room. The slats of the jalousies were still down but there was light enough to see that neither bed had been slept in.
He smiled, thinking that Leiter had probably finished the bottle of whisky and fallen asleep on the couch in the living-room. He walked through. The room was empty. The bottle of whisky, still half full, was on the table and a pile of cigarette butts overflowed the ash-tray.
Bond went to the window, pulled up the jalousies and opened it. He caught a glimpse of a beautiful clear morning before he turned back into the room.
Then he saw the envelope. It was on a chair in front of the door through which he had come. He picked it up. It contained a note scribbled in pencil.
Got to thinking and don't feel like sleep. It's about five a.m.
Going to visit the worm-and-bait store. All same early bird. Odd that trick-shot artist was sitting there while S. was being snatched. As if he knew we were in town and was ready for trouble in case the snatch went wrong. If I'm not back by ten, call out the militia. Tampa 88. FELIX
Bond didn't wait. While he shaved and dressed he ordered some coffee and rolls and a cab. In just over ten minutes he had got them all and had scalded himself with the coffee. He was leaving the cottage when he heard the telephone ring in the living-room. He ran back.
Mound Park Hospital speaking,' said a voice. 'Emergency ward. Doctor Roberts. We have a Mr. Leiter here who's asking for you. Can you come right over?'
'God Almighty,' said Bond, gripped with fear. 'What's the matter with him. Is he bad?'
'Nothing to worry about,' said the voice. 'Automobile accident. Looks like a hit-and-run job. Slight concussion. Can you come over? He seems to want you.'
'Of course,' said Bond, relieved. 'Be there right away.'
Now what the hell, he wondered as he hurried across the lawn. Must have been beaten up and left in the road. On the whole, Bond was glad it was no worse.
As they turned across Treasure Island Causeway an ambulance passed them, its bell clanging.
More trouble, thought Bond. Don't seem to be able to move without running into it.
They crossed St. Petersburg by Central Avenue and turned right down the road he and Leiter had taken the day before. Bond's suspicions seemed to be confirmed when he found the hospital was only a couple of blocks from Ourobouros Inc.
Bond paid off the cab and ran up the steps of the impressive building. There was a reception desk in the spacious entrance hall. A pretty nurse sat at the desk reading the ads in the St. Petersburg Times.
'Dr. Roberts?' inquired Bond.
'Dr. which?' asked the girl looking at him with approval.
'Dr. Roberts, Emergency ward,' said Bond impatiently. 'Patient called Leiter, Felix Leiter. Brought in this morning.'
'No doctor called Roberts here,' said the girl. She ran a finger down a list on the desk. 'And no patient called Leiter. Just a moment and I'll call the ward. What did you say your name was?'
'Bryce,' said Bond. 'John Bryce.' He started to sweat profusely although it was quite cool in the hall. He wiped his wet hands on his trousers, fighting to keep from panic. The damn girl just didn't know her job. Too pretty to be a nurse. Ought to have someone competent on the desk. He ground his teeth as she talked cheerfully into the telephone.
She put down the receiver. 'I'm sorry, Mr. Bryce. Must be some mistake. No cases during the night and they've never heard of a Dr. Roberts or a Mr. Leiter. Sure you've got the right hospital?'
Bond turned away without answering her. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, he made for the exit.
The girl made a face at his back and picked up her paper.
Mercifully, a cab was just drawing up with some other visitors. Bond took it and told the driver to get him back quick to The Everglades. All he knew was that they had got Leiter and had wanted to draw Bond away from the cottage. Bond couldn't make it out, but he knew that suddenly everything was going bad on them and that the initiative was back in the hands of Mr. Big and his machine.
Mrs. Stuyvesant hurried out when she saw him leave the cab.
'Your poor friend,' she said without sympathy. 'Really he should be more careful.'
'Yes, Mrs. Stuyvesant. What is it?' said Bond impatiently.
'The ambulance came just after you left.' The woman's eyes were gleaming with the bad news. 'Seems Mr. Leiter was in an accident with his car. They had to carry him to the cottage on a stretcher. Such a nice coloured man was in charge. He said Mr. Leiter would be quite all right but he mustn't be disturbed on any account. Poor boy! Face all covered with bandages. They said they'd make him comfortable and a doctor would be coming later. If there's anything I can…'
Bond didn't wait for more. He ran down the lawn to the cottage and dashed through the lobby into Leiter's room.
There was the shape of a body on Leiter's bed. It was covered with a sheet. Over the face, the sheet seemed to be motionless.
Bond gritted his teeth as he leant over the bed. Was there a tiny flutter of movement?
Bond snatched the shroud down from the face. There was no face. Just something wrapped round and round with dirty bandages, like a white wasps' nest.
He softly pulled the sheet down further. More bandages, still more roughly wound, with wet blood seeping through. Then the top of a sack which covered the lower half of the body. Everything soaked in blood.
There was a piece of paper protruding from a gap in the bandages where the mouth should have been.
Bond pulled it away and leant down. There was the faintest whisper of breath against his cheek. He snatched up the bedside telephone. It took minutes before he could make Tampa understand. Then the urgency in his voice got through. They would get to him in twenty minutes.
He put down the receiver and looked vaguely at the paper in his hand. It was a rough piece of white wrapping paper. Scrawled in pencil in ragged block letters were the words:
HE DISAGREED WITH SOMETHING THAT ATE HIM
And underneath in brackets :
(P.S. WE HAVE PLENTY MORE JOKES AS GOOD AS THIS)
With the movements of a sleep-walker, Bond put the piece of paper down on the bedside table. Then he turned back to the body on the bed. He hardly dared touch it for fear that the tiny fluttering breath would suddenly cease. But he had to find out something. His fingers worked softly at the bandages on top of the head. Soon he uncovered some of the strands of hair. The hair was wet and he put his fingers to his mouth. There was a salt taste. He pulled out some strands of hair and looked closely at them. There was no more doubt.
He saw again the pale straw-coloured mop that used to hang down in disarray over the right eye, grey and humorous, and below it the wry, hawk-like face of the Texan with whom he had shared so many adventures. He thought of him for a moment, as he had been. Then he tucked the lock of hair back into the bandages and sat on the edge of the other bed and quietly watched over the body of his friend and wondered how much of it could be saved.
When the two detectives and the police surgeon arrived he told them all he knew in a quiet flat voice. Acting on what Bond had already told them on the telephone they had sent a squad car down to The Robber's place and they waited for a report while the surgeon worked next door.
He was finished first. He came back into the sitting-room looking anxious. Bond jumped to his feet. The police surgeon slumped into a chair and looked up at him.
'I think he'll live,' he said. 'But it's fifty-fifty. They certainly did a job on the poor guy. One arm gone. Half the left leg. Face in a mess, but only superficial. Darned if I know what did it. Only thing I can think of is an animal or a big fish. Something's been tearing at him. Know a bit more when I can get him to the hospital. There'll be traces left from the teeth of whatever it was. Ambulance should be along any time.'
They sat in gloomy silence. The telephone rang intermittently. New York , Washington . The St. Petersburg Police Department wanted to know what the hell was going on down at the wharf and were told to keep out of the case. It was a Federal job. Finally, from a call-box, there was the lieutenant in charge of the squad car reporting.
They had been over The Robber's place with a tooth-comb. Nothing but tanks of fish and bait and cases of coral and shells. The Robber and two men who were down there in charge of the pumps and the water-heating had been taken in custody and grilled for an hour. Their alibis had been checked and found to be solid as the Empire State. The Robber had angrily demanded his mouthpiece and when the lawyer had finally been allowed to get to them they had been automatically sprung. No charge and no evidence to base one on. Dead-ends everywhere except that Leiter's car had been found the other side of the yacht basin, a mile away from the wharf. A mass of fingerprints, but none that fitted the three men. Any suggestions?
'Keep with it,' said the senior man in the cottage who had introduced himself as Captain Franks. 'Be along presently. Washington says we've got to get these men if it's the last thing we do. Two top operatives flying down tonight. Time to get co-operation from the Police. I'll tell 'em to get their stoolies working in Tampa . This isn't only a St. Petersburg job. 'Bye now.'
It was three o'clock. The police ambulance came and left again with the surgeon and the body that was so near to death. The two men left. They promised to keep in touch. They were anxious to know Bond's plans. Bond was evasive. Said he'd have to talk to Washington . Meanwhile, could he have Leiter's car? Yes, it would be brought round directly Records had finished with it.
When they had gone, Bond sat lost in thought. They had made sandwiches from the well-stocked pantry and Bond now finished these and had a stiff drink.
The telephone rang. Long-distance. Bond found himself speaking to the head of Leiter's Section of the Central Intelligence Agency. The gist of it was that they'd be very glad if Bond would move on to Jamaica at once. All very polite. They had spoken to London , who had agreed. When should they tell London that Bond would arrive in Jamaica?
Bond knew there was a Transcarib plane via Nassau due out next day. He said he'd be taking it. Any other news? Oh yes, said the CIA. The gentleman from Harlem and his girl friend had left by plane for Havana, Cuba , during the night. Private charter from a little place up the East coast called Vero Beach. Papers were in order and charter company was such a small one the FBI had not bothered to include them when they put the watch on all airports. Arrival had been reported by the c i A man in Cuba . Yes, too bad. Yes, the Secatur was still there. No sailing date. Well, too bad about Leiter. Fine man. Hope he makes out. So Bond would be hi Jamaica tomorrow? Okay. Sorry things been so hectic. 'Bye.