“Just the ticket. I wouldn't mind the job myself on a day like this.” But Sir James Molony was determined to get his message through. He persisted mildly. “Don't think I wanted to interfere, M, but there are limits to a man's courage. I know you have to treat these men as if they were expendable, but presumably you don't want them to crack at the wrong moment. This one I've had here is tough. I'd say you'll get plenty more work out of him. But you know what Moran has to say about courage in that book of his.”

“Don't recall.”

“He says that courage is a capital sum reduced by expenditure. I agree with him. All I'm trying to say is that this particular man seems to have been spending pretty hard since before the war. I wouldn't say he's overdrawn-not yet, but there are limits.”

“Just so.” M decided that was quite enough of that. Nowadays, softness was everywhere. “That's why I'm sending him abroad. Holiday in Jamaica. Don't worry, Sir James. I'll take care of him. By the way, did you ever discover what the stuff was that Russian woman put into him?”

“Got the answer yesterday.” Sir James Molony also was glad the subject had been changed. The old man was as raw as the weather. Was there any chance that he had got his message across into what he described to himself as M's thick skull? “Taken us three months. It was a bright chap at the School of Tropical Medicine who came up with it. The drug was fugu poison. The Japanese use it for committing suicide. It comes from the sex organs of the Japanese globe-fish. Trust the Russians to use something no one's ever heard of. They might just as well have used curare. It has much the same effect-paralysis of the central nervous system. Fugu's scientific name is Tetrodotoxin. It's terrible stuff and very quick. One shot of it like your man got and in a matter of seconds the motor and respiratory muscles are paralysed. At first the chap sees double and then he can't keep his eyes open. Next he can't swallow. His head falls and he can't raise it. Dies of respiratory paralysis.”

“Lucky he got away with it.”

“Miracle. Thanks entirely to that Frenchman who was with him. Got your man on the floor and gave him artificial respiration as if he was drowning. Somehow kept his lungs going until the doctor came. Luckily the doctor had worked in South America. Diagnosed curare and treated him accordingly. But it was a chance in a million. By the same token, what happened to the Russian woman?”

M said shortly, “Oh, she died. Well, many thanks, Sir James. And don't worry about your patient. I'll see he has an easy time of it. Goodbye.”

M hung up. His face was cold and blank. He pulled over the signal file and went quickly through it. On some of the signals he scribbled a comment. Occasionally he made a brief telephone call to one of the Sections. When he had finished he tossed the pile into his Out basket and reached for his pipe and the tobacco jar made out of the base of a fourteen-pounder shell. Nothing remained in front of him except a buff folder marked with the Top Secret red star. Across the centre of the folder was written in block capitals: CARIBBEAN STATION, and underneath, in italics, Strangways and Trueblood.

A light winked on the intercom. M pressed down the switch. “Yes?”

“007's here, sir.”

“Send him in. And tell the Armourer to come up in five minutes.”

M sat back. He put his pipe in his mouth and set a match to it. Through the smoke he watched the door to his secretary's office. His eyes were very bright and watchful.

James Bond came through the door and shut it behind him.

He walked over to the chair across the desk from M and sat down.

“'Morning, 007.”

“Good morning, sir.”

There was silence in the room except for the rasping of M's pipe. It seemed to be taking a lot of matches to get it going. In the background the fingernails of the sleet slashed against the two broad windows.

It was all just as Bond had remembered it through the months of being shunted from hospital to hospital, the weeks of dreary convalescence, the hard work of getting his body back into shape. To him this represented stepping back into life. Sitting here in this room opposite M was the symbol of normality he had longed for. He looked across through the smoke clouds into the shrewd grey eyes. They were watching him. What was coming? A post-mortem on the shambles which had been his last case? A curt relegation to one of the home sections for a spell of desk work? Or some splendid new assignment M had been keeping on ice while waiting for Bond to get back to duty?

M threw the box of matches down on the red leather desk. He leant back and clasped his hands behind his head.

“How do you feel? Glad to be back?”

“Very glad, sir. And I feel fine.”

“Any final thoughts about your last case? Haven't bothered you with it till you got well. You heard I ordered an inquiry. I believe the Chief of Staff took some evidence from you. Anything to add?”

M's voice was businesslike, cold. Bond didn't like it. Something unpleasant was coming. He said, “No, sir. It was a mess. I blame myself for letting that woman get me. Shouldn't have happened.”

M took his hands from behind his neck and slowly leant forward and placed them flat on the desk in front of him. His eyes were hard. “Just so.” The voice was velvet, dangerous. “Your gun got stuck, if I recall. This Beretta of yours with the silencer. Something wrong there, 007. Can't afford that sort of mistake if you're to carry an oo number. Would you prefer to drop it and go back to normal duties?”

Bond stiffened. His eyes looked resentfully into M's. The licence to kill for the Secret Service, the double-o prefix, was a great honour. It had been earned hardly. It brought Bond the only assignments he enjoyed, the dangerous ones. “No, I wouldn't, sir.”

“Then we'll have to change your equipment. That was one of the findings of the Court of Inquiry. I agree with it. D'you understand?”

Bond said obstinately, “I'm used to that gun, sir. I like working with it. What happened could have happened to anyone. With any kind of gun.”

“I don't agree. Nor did the Court of Inquiry. So that's final. The only question is what you're to use instead.” M bent forward to the intercom. “Is the Armourer there? Send him in.”

M sat back. “You may not know it, 007, but Major Booth-royd's the greatest small-arms expert in the world. He wouldn't be here if he wasn't. We'll hear what he has to say.”

The door opened. A short slim man with sandy hair came in and walked over to the desk and stood beside Bond's chair. Bond looked up into his face. He hadn't often seen the man before, but he remembered the very wide apart clear grey eyes that never seemed to flicker. With a non-committal glance down at Bond, the man stood relaxed, looking across at M. He said “Good morning, sir,” in a flat, unemotional voice.

“Morning, Armourer. Now I want to ask you some questions.” M's voice was casual. “First of all, what do you think of the Beretta, the -25?”

“Ladies' gun, sir.”

M raised ironic eyebrows at Bond. Bond smiled thinly.

“Really! And why do you say that?”

“No stopping power, sir. But it's easy to operate. A bit fancy looking too, if you know what I mean, sir. Appeals to the ladies.”

“How would it be with a silencer?”

“Still less stopping power, sir. And I don't like silencers. They're heavy and get stuck in your clothing when you're in a hurry. I wouldn't recommend anyone to try a combination like that, sir. Not if they were meaning business.”

M said pleasantly to Bond, “Any comment, 007?”

Bond shrugged his shoulders. “I don't agree. I've used the .25 Beretta for fifteen years. Never had a stoppage and I haven't missed with it yet. Not a bad record for a gun. It just happens that I'm used to it and I can point it straight. I've used bigger guns when I've had to-the .45 Colt with the long barrel, for instance. But for close-up work and concealment I like the Beretta.” Bond paused. He felt he should give way somewhere. “I'd' agree about the silencer, sir. They're a nuisance. But sometimes you have to use them.”

“We've seen what happens when you do,” said M drily. “And as for changing your gun, it's only a question of practice. You'll soon get the feel of a new one.” M allowed a trace of sympathy to enter his voice. “Sorry, 007. But I've decided. Just stand up a moment. I want the Armourer to get a look at your build.”

Bond stood up and faced the other man. There was no warmth in the two pairs of eyes. Bond's showed irritation. Major Boothroyd's were indifferent, clinical. He walked round Bond. He said “Excuse me” and felt Bond's biceps and forearms. He came back in front of him and said, “Might I see your gun?”

Bond's hand went slowly into his coat. He handed over the taped Beretta with the sawn barrel. Boothroyd examined the gun and weighed it in his hand. He put it down on the desk. “And your holster?”

Bond took off his coat and slipped off the chamois leather holster and harness. He put his coat on again.

With a glance at the lips of the holster, perhaps to see if they showed traces of snagging. Boothroyd tossed the holster down beside the gun with a motion that sneered. He looked across at M. “I think we can do better than this, sir.” It was the sort of voice Bond's first expensive tailor had used.

Bond sat down. He just stopped himself gazing rudely at the ceiling. Instead he looked impassively across at M.

“Well, Armourer, what do you recommend?”

Major Boothroyd put on the expert's voice. “As a matter of fact, sir,” he said modestly, “I've just been testing most of the small automatics. Five thousand rounds each at twenty-five yards. Of all of them, I'd choose the Walther PPK 7.65 mm. It only came fourth after the Japanese M-14, the Russian Tokarev and the Sauer M-38. But I like its light trigger pull and the extension spur of the magazine gives a grip that should suit 007. It's a real stopping gun. Of course it's about a .32 calibre as compared with the Beretta's .25, but I wouldn't recommend anything lighter. And you can get ammunition for the Walther anywhere in the world. That gives it an edge on the Japanese and the Russian guns.” M turned to Bond. “Any comments?”

“It's a good gun, sir,” Bond admitted. “Bit more bulky than the Beretta. How does the Armourer suggest I carry it?”

“Berns Martin Triple-draw holster,” said Major Boothroyd succinctly. “Best worn inside the trouser band to the left. But it's all right below the shoulder. Stiff saddle leather. Holds the gun in with a spring. Should make for a quicker draw than that,” he gestured towards the desk. “Three-fifths of a second to hit a man at twenty feet would be about right.”

“That's settled then.” M's voice was final. “And what about something bigger?”

“There's only one gun for that, sir,” said Major Boothroyd stolidly. “Smith & Wesson Centennial Airweight. Revolver. •38 calibre. Hammerless, so it won't catch in clothing. Overall length of six and a half inches and it only weighs thirteen ounces. To keep down the weight, the cylinder holds only five cartridges. But by the time they're gone,” Major Boothroyd allowed himself a wintry smile, “somebody's been killed. Fires the -38 S & W Special. Very accurate cartridge indeed. With standard loading it has a .muzzle velocity of eight hundred and sixty feet per second and muzzle energy of two hundred and sixty foot-pounds. There are various barrel lengths, three and a half inch, five inch...”

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