Bond took out his handkerchief and wiped his hands. He could imagine the scene in the projection room behind the judges’ box. Now they would be examining the film. Bell would be standing there looking hurt, and, beside him, No1’s jockey looking still more hurt. Would the owners be there? Would the sweat be running down Pissaro’s fat jowls into his collar? Would some of the other owners be there, pale and angry?
And then came the loudspeaker again and the voice saying:
“Attention please. In this race, No10, Shy Smile, has been disqualified and No3, Pray Action, has been declared the winner. The result is now official.”
Amidst the thunder of the crowd, Bond got stiffly up from his seat and walked off in the direction of the bar. And now for the payoff. Perhaps a Bourbon and branch-water would give him some ideas about getting the money to Tingaling Bell. He was uneasy about it. And yet the Acme Baths sounded an easy enough place. Nobody knew him in Saratoga. But after that he would have to stop working for Pinkertons. Call up Shady Tree and complain about not getting his five thousand. Worry him about his own payoff. It had been fun helping Leiter push these people around. Next would come Bond’s turn,
He pushed his way into the crowded bar.
ACME MUD AND SULPHUR
IN the small red bus there was only a Negress with a withered arm and, beside the driver, a girl who kept her sick hands out of sight and whose head was completely shrouded in a thick black veil which fell to her shoulders, like a bee-keeper’s hat, without touching the skin of her face.
The bus, which said ‘Acme Mud and Sulphur Baths’ on its sides and ‘Every Hour on the Hour’ above the windscreen, went through the town without picking up any more customers and turned off the main road down a badly maintained gravel track through a plantation of young firs. After half a mile, it rounded a corner and went down a short hill towards a cluster of dingy grey clapboard buildings. A tall yellow-brick chimney stuck up out of the centre of the buildings and from it a thin wisp of black smoke rose straight up into the still air.
There was no sign of life in front of the Baths, but as the bus pulled up on the weedy gravel patch near what seemed to be the entrance, two old men and a limping coloured woman emerged through the wire-screened doors at the top of the steps and waited for the passengers to alight.
Outside the bus the smell of sulphur hit Bond with sickening force. It was a horrible smell, from somewhere down in the stomach of the world. Bond moved away from the entrance and sat down on a rough bench under a group of dead-looking firs. He sat there for a few minutes to steel himself for what was going to happen to him through the screen doors and to shake off his sense of oppression and disgust. It was partly, he decided, the reaction of a healthy body to the contact with disease, and it was partly the tall grim Belsen chimney with its plume of innocent smoke. But most of all it was the prospect of going in through those doors, buying the ticket, and then stripping his clean body and giving it over to the nameless things they did in this grisly ramshackle establishment.
The bus rattled off and he was alone. It was absolutely quiet. Bond noticed that the two side windows and the entrance door made two eyes and a mouth. The place seemed to be looking at him, watching him, waiting for him. Would he come in? Would they have him?
Bond moved impatiently inside his clothes. He got to his feet and walked straight across the gravel and up the wooden steps and the frame doors banged to behind him.
He found himself in a dingy reception room. The sulphur fumes were stronger. There was a reception desk behind an iron grill. Framed testimonials hung on the walls, some of them with red paper seals below the signature, and there was a glass-fronted showcase full of packages in transparent wrapping. Above it a notice said, in badly handwritten capitals, Take Home an Acme-Pak. Treat Yourself in Privacy.’ There was a list of prices pasted on to a card advertising a cheap deodorant. The slogan still showed. It said: ‘Let your Armpits be your Charm-pits.’
A faded woman with a screw of orange hair above a face like a sad cream-puff raised her head slowly and looked at him through the bars, keeping one ringer on her place in True Love Stones.
“Can I help you?” It was the voice reserved for strangers, for people who didn’t know the ropes.
Bond looked through the bars with the cautious abhorrence she had expected. “I’d like a bath.”
“Mud or Sulphur?” She reached for the tickets with her free hand.
“Would you care for a book of tickets? They’re cheaper.”
“Just one, please.”
“Dollar-fifty.” She pushed through a mauve ticket and kept a finger on it until Bond had put his money down.
“Which way do I go?”
“Right,” she said. “Follow the passage. Better leave your valuables.” She slipped a large white envelope under the grill. “Write your name on it.” She watched sideways as Bond put his watch and the contents of his pockets into the envelope and scribbled his name on it.
The twenty hundred-dollar bills were inside Bond’s shirt. He wondered about them. He pushed the envelope back. “Thank you.”
There was a low wicket at the back of the room and two white-painted wooden hands whose drooping index fingers pointed right and left. On one hand was written MUD and on the other SULPHUR. Bond went through the wicket and turned to the right along a dank corridor with a cement floor which sloped downwards. He followed it and pushed through a swing door at the end and found himself in a long high room with a skylight in the roof and cabins along the walls.
It was hot and steamy and sulphurous in the room. Two youngish, soft-looking men, naked except for grey towels round their waists, were playing gin rummy at a deal table near the entrance. On the table were two ashtrays full of cigarette butts, and a kitchen plate piled with keys. The men looked up as Bond entered and one of them picked up a key from the plate and held it out. Bond walked over and took it.
“Twelve,” said the man. “Got ya ticket?”
Bond handed it over and the man made a gesture towards the cabins behind him. He jerked his head towards a door at the end of the room. “Baths through there.” The two men went back to their game.
There was nothing in the frowzy cabin but a folded towel from which constant washing had removed all the nap. Bond undressed and tied the towel round his waist. He folded the bulky packet of notes and stuffed them into the breast pocket of his coat under his handkerchief. He hoped it would be the last place that a petty thief would look in a quick search. He hung up his gun in the shoulder holster on a prominent hook and walked out and locked the door behind him.
Bond had no idea what he would see through the door at the end of the room. His first reaction was that he had walked into a morgue. Before he could collect his impressions, a fat bald Negro with a down-turned straggling moustache came over and looked him up and down. “What’s wrong with you, Mister?” he asked indifferently.
“Nothing,” said Bond shortly. “Just want to try a mud bath.”
“Okay,” said the Negro. “Any heart trouble?”
“Okay. Over here.” Bond followed the Negro across the slippery concrete floor to a wooden bench alongside a pair of dilapidated shower cubicles in one of which a naked body hung with mud was being hosed down by a man with a cauliflower ear,
“Be right with you,” said the Negro casually, his big feet slapping against the wet floor as he sauntered off about his business. Bond watched the huge rubbery man, and his skin cringed at the thought of putting his body into the dangling pudgy hands with their lined pink palms.
Bond had a natural affection for coloured people, but he reflected how lucky England was compared with America where you had to live with the colour problem from your schooldays up. He smiled as he remembered something Felix Leiter had said to him on their last assignment together in America. Bond had referred to Mr Big, the famous Harlem criminal, as’that damned nigger’. Leiter had picked him up. “Careful now, James,” he had said. “People are so dam’ sensitive about colour around here that you can’t even ask a barman for a jigger of rum. You have to ask for a jegro.”
The memory of Leiter’s wisecrack cheered Bond up. He took his eyes off the Negro and looked over the rest of the Acme Mud Bath.
It was a square grey concrete room. From the ceiling, four naked electric light bulbs, spotted with fly droppings, threw an ugly glare on the dripping walls and floor. Against the walls were trestle tables. Bond automatically counted them. Twenty. On each table was a heavy wooden coffin with a three-quarter lid. In most of the coffins the profile of a sweating face showed above the wooden sides and pointed up at the ceiling. A few eyes were rolled inquisitively towards Bond, but most of the congested red faces looked asleep.
One coffin stood open, its lid up against the wall and its side hinged down. This seemed to be the one destined for Bond.
The Negro was draping a heavy, unclean-looking sheet over it and smoothing it down to form a lining to the box. When he had finished, he went to the middle of the room and chose two from a line of pails filled to the top with steaming dark brown mud, and dropped them with a double clang beside the open box. Then he dug his huge hand into one of them and smeared the thick viscous stuff along the bottom of the shroud and went on doing this until the whole bottom of it was two inches thick with mud. He then left it-to cool, Bond supposed-and went to a dented hip-bath full of ice blocks and groped around and extracted several dripping hand towels. He put these over his arm and made a round of the occupied coffins, stopping every now and then to wrap a cool towel round the sweating forehead of one of the occupants.
Nothing else was happening, and the room was quite silent except for the hiss of the hose close to Bond. This stopped and a voice said, “All right, Mr Weiss. That should fix you for today,” and a fat naked man with a great deal of black body-hair tottered weakly out of the shower cubicle and waited while the man with the cauliflower ear helped him into a terrycloth bath robe, gave him a quick rub down inside it, and led him to the door through which Bond had come.
Then the man with the cauliflower ear walked over to a door in the far corner of the room and went out. For a few moments light streamed through the door, and Bond saw grass outside and a blessed glimpse of blue sky, and then the man came back with two more steaming buckets of mud. He kicked the door shut behind him and added to the line of buckets in the middle of the room.
The Negro went over to Bond’s coffin and touched the mud with the flat of his hand. He turned and beckoned to Bond. “Okay, Mister,” he said.
Bond walked over and the man took his towel and hung his key on a hook above the box.
Bond stood naked in front of him.
“You ever had one of these before?”
“Thought mebbe not, so I’m giving you the mud at no. If you’re acclimated, you can take 120 or even 130. Lie down there.”
Bond gingerly climbed into the box and lay down, his skin smarting at its first contact with the hot mud. He slowly stretched himself out full length and lowered his head on to the clean towel that had been placed over the kapok pillow.