Bond had a Champion harpoon-gun with double rubbers. The harpoon was tipped with a needle-sharp trident - a short-range weapon, but the best for reef work. Bond pushed up the safe and moved slowly forward, his fins pulsing softly just below the surface so as to make no sound. He looked around him, trying to pierce the misty horizons of the great hail of the lagoon. He was looking for any big lurking shape. It would not do to have a shark or a large barracuda as witness of the kill. Fish sometimes scream when they are hurt, and even when they do not the turbulence and blood caused by a sharp struggle bring the scavengers. But there was not a living thing in sight and the sand stretched away into the smoky wings like the bare boards of a stage. Now Bond could see the faint outline on the bottom. He swam directly over it and lay motionless on the surface looking down. There was a tiny movement in the sand. Two minute fountains of sand were dancing above the nostril-like holes of the spiracles. Behind the holes was the slight swelling of the thing's body. That was the target. An inch behind the holes. Bond estimated the possible upward lash of the tail and slowly reached his gun down and pulled the trigger.

Below him the sand erupted and for an anxious moment Bond could see nothing. Then the harpoon line came taut and the ray showed, pulling away from him while its tail, in reflex aggression, lashed again and again over the body. At the base of the tail Bond could see the jagged poison-spines standing up from the trunk. These were the spines that were supposed to have killed Ulysses, that Pliny said would destroy a tree. In the Indian Ocean, where the sea poisons are at their most virulent, one scratch from the ray's sting would mean certain death. Cautiously, keeping the ray on a taut line, Bond trudged after the furiously wrestling fish. He swam to one side to keep the line away from the lashing tail which could easily sever it. This tail was the old slave-drivers' whip of the Indian Ocean. Today it is illegal even to possess one in the Seychelles, but they are handed down in the families for use on faithless wives, and if the word goes round that this or that woman a eu la crapule, the Proven‡al name for the sting ray, it is as good as saying that that woman will not be about again for at least a week. Now the lashes of the tall were getting weaker and Bond swam round and ahead of the ray, pulling it after him towards the shore. In the shallows the ray went limp and Bond pulled it out of the water and well up on the beach. But he still kept away from it. It was as well he did so. Suddenly, at some move from Bond and perhaps in the hope of catching its enemy unawares, the giant ray leapt clean into the air. Bond sprang aside and the ray fell on its back and lay with its white underbelly to the sun and the great ugly sickle of the mouth sucking and panting.

Bond stood and looked at the sting-ray and wondered what to do next.

A short, fat white man in khaki, shirt and trousers came out from under the palm trees and walked towards Bond through the scattering of sea-grape and sun-dried wrack above highwater mark. When he was near enough he called out in a laughing voice: “The Old Man and the Sea! Who caught who?”

Bond turned. “It would be the only man on the island who doesn't carry a machete. Fidele, be a good chap and call one of your men. This animal won't die, and he's got my spear stuck in him.”

Fidele Barbey, the youngest of the innumerable Barbeys who own nearly everything in the Seychelles, came up and stood looking down at the ray. “That's a good one. Lucky you hit the right spot or he'd have towed you over the reef and you'd have had to let go your gun. They take the hell of a time to die. But come on. I've got to get you back to Victoria. Something's come up. Something good. I'll send one of my men for the gun. Do you want the tail?”

Bond smiled. “I haven't got a wife. But what about some raie au beurre noir tonight?”

“Not tonight, my friend. Come. Where are your clothes?”

On their way down the coast road in the station wagon Fidele said: “Ever hear of an American called Milton Krest? Well, apparently he owns the Krest hotels and a thing called the Krest Foundation. One thing I can tell you for sure. He owns the finest damned yacht in the Indian Ocean. Put in yesterday. The Wawekrest. Nearly two hundred tons. Hundred feet long. Everything in her from a beautiful wife down to a big transistor gramophone on gimbals so the waves won't jerk the needle. Wall-to-wall carpeting an inch deep. Air-conditioned throughout. The only dry cigarettes this side of the African continent, and the best after-breakfast bottle of champagne, since the last time I saw Paris.” Fidele Barbey laughed delightedly. “My friend, that is one hell of a bloody fine ship, and if Mr Krest is a grand slam redoubled in bastards, who the hell cares?”

“Who cares anyway? What's it got to do with you - or me for the matter of that?”

“Just this, my friend. We are going to spend a few days sailing with Mr Krest - and Mrs Krest, the beautiful Mrs Krest. I have agreed to take the ship to Chagrin - the island I have spoken to you about. It is bloody miles from here - off the African Banks, and my family have never found any use for it except for collecting boobies' eggs. It's only about three feet above sea-level. I haven't been to the damned place for five years. Any way, this man Krest wants to go there. He s collecting marine specimens, something to do with his Foundation, and there's some blasted little fish that's supposed to exist only around Chagrin Island. At least Krest says the only specimen in the world came from there.”

“Sounds rather fun. Where do I come in?”

“I knew you were bored and that you'd got a week before you sail, so I said that you were the local under water ace and that you'd soon find the fish if it was there, and anyway that I wouldn't go without you. Mr Krest was willing. And that's that. I knew, you'd be fooling around somewhere down the coast, so I just drove along until one of the fishermen told me there was a crazy white man trying to commit suicide alone at Belle Anse and I knew that would be you.”

Bond laughed. “Extraordinary the way these island people are afraid of the sea. You'd think they'd have got on terms with it by now. Damned few of the Seychellois can even swim.”

“Roman Catholic Church. Doesn't like them taking their clothes off. Bloody nonsense, but there it is. And as for being afraid, don't forget you've only been here for a month. Shark, barracuda - you just haven't met a hungry one. And stone-fish. Ever seen a man that's stepped on a stone-fish? His body bends backwards like a bow with the pain. Sometimes it's so frightful his eyes literally fall out of their sockets. They very seldom live.”

Bond said unsympathetically: “They ought to wear shoes or bind their feet up when they go on the reef. They've got these fish in the Pacific and the giant clam into the bargain. It's damned silly. Everybody moans about how poor they are here, although the sea's absolutely paved with fish. And there are fifty varieties of cowrie under those rocks. They could make another good living selling those round the world.”

Fidele Barbey laughed boisterously. “Bond for Governor! That's the ticket. Next meeting of LegCo I'll put the idea up. You're just the man for the job far-sighted, full of ideas, plenty of drive. Cowries! That's splendid. They'll balance the budget for the first time since the patchouli boom after the War. 'We sell sea-shells from the Seychelles.' That'll be our slogan. I'll see you get the credit. You'll be Sir James in no time.”

“Make more money that way than trying to grow vanilla at a loss.” They continued to wrangle with light-hearted violence until the palm groves gave way to the giant sangdragon trees on the outskirts of the ramshackle capital of Mahe.

It had been nearly a month before when M had told Bond he was sending him to the Seychelles. Admiralty are having trouble with their new fleet base in the Maldives. Communists creeping in from Ceylon. Strikes, sabotage - the usual picture. May have to cut their losses and fall back on the Seychelles. A thousand miles farther south, but at least they look pretty secure. But they don't want to be caught again. Colonial Office say it's safe as houses. All the same I've agreed to send someone to give an independent view. When Makarios was locked up there a few years ago there were quite a few Security scares. Japanese fishing-boats hanging about, one or two refugee crooks from England, strong ties with France. Just go and have a good look.“ M glanced out of the window at the driving March sleet. ”Don't get sunstroke."

Bond's report, which concluded that the only conceivable security hazard in the Seychelles lay in the beauty and ready availability of the Seychelloises, had been finished a week before and then he had nothing to do but wait for the ss Kampala to take him to Mombasa. He was thoroughly sick of the heat and the drooping palm trees and the plaintive cry of the terns and the interminable conversations about copra. The prospect of a change delighted him.

Bond was spending his last week in the Barbey house, and after calling there to pick up their bags, they drove out to the end of Long Pier and left the car in the Customs shed. The gleaming white yacht lay half a mile out in the roadstead. They took a pirogue with an outboard motor across the glassy bay and through the opening in the reef. The Wawekrest was not beautiful - the breadth of beam and cluttered superstructure stunted her lines - but Bond could see at once that she was a real ship, built to cruise the world and not just the Florida Keys. She seemed deserted, but as they came alongside two smart-looking sailors in white shorts and singlets appeared and stood by the ladder with boat-hooks ready to fend the shabby pirogue off the yacht's gleaming paint. They took the two bags and one of them slid back an aluminium hatch and gestured for them to go down. A breath of what seemed to Bond to be almost freezing air struck him as he went through and down a few steps into the lounge.

The lounge was empty. It was not a cabin. It was a room of solid richness and comfort with nothing to associate it with the interior of a ship. The windows behind the half-closed venetian blinds were full size, as were the deep armchairs round the low central table. The carpet was the deepest pile in pale blue. The walls were panelled in a silvery wood and the ceiling was off-white. There was a desk with the usual writing-materials and a telephone. Next to the big gramophone was a sideboard laden with drinks. Above the sideboard was what looked like an extremely good Renoir - the head and shoulders of a pretty dark-haired girl in a black and white striped blouse. The impression of a luxurious living-room in a town house was completed by a large bowl of white and blue hyacinths on the central table and by the tidy range of magazines to one side of the desk.

“What did I tell you, James?”

Bond shook his head admiringly. “This is certainly the way to treat the sea - as if it damned well didn't exist.” He breathed in deeply. “What a relief to get a mouthful of fresh air. I'd almost forgotten what it tastes like.”

“It's the stuff outside that's fresh, feller. This is canned.” Mr Milton Krest had come quietly into the room and was standing looking at them. He was a tough, leathery man in his early fifties. He looked hard and fit, and the faded blue jeans, military-cut shirt and wide leather belt suggested that he made a fetish of doing so - looking tough. The pale brown eyes in the weather-beaten face were slightly hooded and their gaze was sleepy and contemptuous. The mouth had a downward twist that might be humorous or disdainful - probably the latter - and the words he had tossed into the room, innocuous in themselves except for the patronizing 'feller' had been tossed like small coin to a couple of coolies. To Bond the oddest thing about Mr Krest was his voice. It was a soft, most attractive lisping through the teeth. It was exactly the voice of the late Humphrey Bogart. Bond ran his eyes down the man from the sparse close-cropped black and grey hair, like iron filings sprinkled over the bullet head, to the tattooed eagle above a fouled anchor on the right forearm, and then down to the naked leathery feet that stood nautically square on the carpet. He thought: this man likes to be thought a Hemingway hero. I'm not going to get on with him.