Moonraker (James Bond #3)

Chapter 3

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“Well, sir,” said Bond finally. “For one thing the man’s a national hero. The public have taken to him. I suppose he’s in much the same class as Jack Hobbs or Gordon Richards. They’ve got a real feeling for him. They consider he’s one of them, but a glorified version. A sort of superman. He’s not much to look at, with all those scars from his war injuries, and he’s a bit loud-mouthed and ostentatious. But they rather like that. Makes him a sort of Lonsdale figure, but more in their class. They like his friends calling him ‘Hugger’ Drax. It makes him a bit of a card and I expect it gives the women a thrill. And then when you think what he’s doing for the country, out of his own pocket and far beyond what any government seems to be able to do, it’s really extraordinary that they don’t insist on making him Prime Minister.”

Bond saw the cold eyes getting chillier, but he was determined not to let his admiration for Drax’s achievements be dampened by the older man. “After all, sir,” he continued reasonably, “it looks as if he’s made this country safe from war for years. And he can’t be much over forty. I feel the same as most people about him. And then there’s all this mystery about his real identity. I’m not surprised people feel rather sorry for him, although he is a multi-millionaire. He seems to be a lonely sort of man in spite of his gay life.”

M. smiled drily. “All that sounds rather like a trailer for the Express story. He’s certainly an extrordinary man. But what’s your version of the facts? I don’t expect I know much more than you do. Probably less. Don’t read the papers very carefully, and there are no files on him except at the War Office and they’re not very illuminating. Now then. What’s the gist of the Express story?”

“Sorry, sir,” said Bond. “But the facts are pretty slim. Well,” he looked out of the window again and concentrated, “in the German break-through in the Ardennes in the winter of ‘44, the Germans made a lot of use of guerrillas and saboteurs. Gave them the rather spooky name of Werewolves. They did quite a lot of damage of one sort or another. Very good at camouflage and stay-behind tricks of all sorts and some of them went on operating long after Ardennes had failed and we had crossed the Rhine. They were supposed to carry on even when we had overrun the country. But they packed up pretty quickly when things got really bad.

“One of their best coups was to blow up one of the rear liaison HQs between the American and British armies. Reinforcement Holding Units I think they’re called. It was a mixed affair, all kinds of Allied personnel-American signals, British ambulance drivers-a rather shifting group from every sort of unit. The Werewolves somehow managed to mine the mess-hall and, when it blew, it took with it quite a lot of the field hospital as well. Killed or wounded over a hundred. Sorting out all the bodies was the hell of a business. One of the English bodies was Drax. Half his face was blown away. Total amnesia that lasted a year and at the end of that time they didn’t know who he was and nor did he. There were about twenty-five other unidentified bodies that neither we nor the Americans could sort out. Either not enough bits, or perhaps people in transit, or there without authorization. It was that sort of a unit. Two commanding officers, of course. Sloppy staff work. Lousy records. So after a year in various hospitals they took Drax through the War Office file of Missing Men. When they came to the papers of a no-next-of-kin called Hugo Drax, an orphan who had been working in the Liverpool docks before the war, he showed signs of interest, and the photograph and physical description seemed to tally more or less with what our man must have looked like before he was blown up. From that time he began to mend. He started to talk a bit about simple things he remembered, and the doctors got very proud of him. The War Office found a man who had served in the same Pioneer unit as this Hugo Drax and he came along to the hospital and said he was sure the man was Drax. That settled it. Advertising didn’t produce another Hugo Drax and he was finally discharged late in 1945 in that name with back pay and a full disability pension.”

“But he still says he doesn’t really know who he is,” interrupted M. “He’s a member of Blades. I’ve often played cards with him and talked to him afterwards at dinner. He says he sometimes gets a strong feeling of ‘having been there before’. Often goes to Liverpool to try and hunt up his past. Anyway, what else?”

Bond’s eyes were turned inwards, remembering. “He seems to have disappeared for about three years after the war,” he said. “Then the City started to hear about him from all over the world. The Metal Market heard about him first. Seems he’d cornered a very valuable ore called Columbite. Everybody was wanting the stuff. It’s got an extraordinarily high melting point. Jet engines can’t be made without it. There’s very little of it in the world, only a few thousand tons are produced every year, mostly as a by-product of the Nigerian tin mines. Drax must have looked at the Jet Age and somehow put his finger on its main scarcity. He must have got hold of about £10,000 from somewhere because the Express says that in 1946 he’d bought three tons of Columbite, which cost him around £3000 a ton. He got a £5000 premium on this lot from an American aircraft firm who wanted it in a hurry. Then he started buying futures in the stuff, six months, nine months, a year forward. In three years he’d made a corner. Anyone who wanted Columbite went to Drax Metals for it. All this time he’d been playing about with futures in other small commodities-Shellac, Sisal, Black Pepper-anything where you could build up a big position on margin. Of course he gambled on a rising commodity market but he had the guts to keep his foot right down on the pedal even when the pace got hot as hell. And whenever he took a profit he ploughed the money back again. For instance, he was one of the first men to buy up used ore-dumps in South Africa. Now they’re being re-mined for their uranium content. Another fortune there.”

M’s quiet eyes were fixed on Bond. He puffed at his pipe, listening.

“Of course,” continued Bond, lost in his story, “all this made the City wonder what the hell was going on. The commodity brokers kept on coming across the name of Drax. Whatever they wanted Drax had got it and was holding out for a much higher price than they were prepared to pay. He operated from Tangier-free port, no taxes, no currency restrictions. By 1950 he was a multi-millionaire. Then he came back to England and started spending it. He simply threw it about. Best houses, best cars, best women. Boxes at the Opera, at Goodwood. Prize-winning Jersey herds. Prize-winning carnations. Prize-winning-two-year-olds. Two yachts; money for the Walker Cup team; £100,000 for the Flood Disaster Fund; Coronation Ball for Nurses at the Albert Hall-there wasn’t a week when he wasn’t hitting the headlines with some splash or other. And all the time he went on getting richer and the people simply loved it. It was the Arabian Nights. It lit up their lives. If a wounded soldier from Liverpool could get there in five years, why shouldn’t they or their sons? It sounded almost as easy as winning a gigantic football pool.

“And then came his astonishing letter to the Queen: “Your Majesty, may I have the temerity…’ and the typical genius of the single banner-line across the Express next day : TEMERITY DRAX, and the story of how he had given to Britain his entire holding in Columbite to build a super atomic rocket with a range that would cover nearly every capital in Europe-the immediate answer to anyone who tried to atom-bomb London. £ 10,000,000 he was going to put up out of his own pocket, and he had the design of the thing and was prepared to find the staff to build it.

“And then there were months of delay and everyone got impatient. Questions in the House. The Opposition nearly forced a vote of Confidence. And then the announcement by the Prime Minister that the design had been approved by the Woomera Range experts of the Ministry of Supply, and that the Queen had been graciously pleased to accept the gift on behalf of the people of Britain and had conferred a knighthood on the donor.”

Bond paused, almost carried away by the story of this extraordinary man.

“Yes,” said M. “Peace in Our Time-This Time. I remember the headline. A year ago. And now the rocket’s nearly ready. ‘The Moonraker”. And from all I hear it really should do what he says. It’s very odd.” He relapsed into silence, gazing out of the window.

He turned back and faced Bond across the desk.

“That’s about it,” he said slowly. “I don’t know much more than you do. A wonderful story. Extraordinary man.” He paused, reflecting. “There’s only one thing…” M. tapped the stem of his pipe against his teeth.

“What’s that, sir?” asked Bond.

M. seemed to make up his mind. He looked mildly across at Bond.

“Sir Hugo Drax cheats at cards.”

CHAPTER III

‘BELLY STRIPPERS’, ETC.

“CHEATS AT cards?”

M. frowned. “That’s what I said,” he commented drily. “It doesn’t seem to you odd that a multi-millionaire should cheat at cards?”

Bond grinned apologetically. “Not as odd as all that, sir,” he said. “I’ve known very rich people cheat themselves at Patience. But it just didn’t fit in with my picture of Drax. Bit of an anti-climax.”

“That’s the point,” said M. “Why does he do it? And don’t forget that cheating at cards can still smash a man. In so-called Society, it’s about the only crime that can still finish you, whoever you are. Drax does it so well that nobody’s caught him yet. As a matter of fact I doubt if anyone has begun to suspect him except Basildon. He’s the Chairman of Blades. He came to me. He’s got a vague idea I’ve got some thing to do with Intelligence and I’ve given him a hand over one or two little troubles in the past. Asked my advice. Said he didn’t want a fuss at the club, of course, but above all he wants to save Drax from making a fool of himself. He admires him as much as we all do and he’s terrified of an incident. You couldn’t stop a scandal like that getting out. A lot of MPs are members and it would soon get talked about in the Lobby. Then the gossip-writers would get hold of it. Drax would have to resign from Blades and the next thing there’d be a libel action brought in his defence by one of his friends. Tranby Croft all over again. At least, that’s how Basildon’s mind is working and I must say I can see it that way too. Anyway,” said M. with finality, “I’ve agreed to help and”, he looked levelly at Bond, “that’s where you come in. You’re the best card-player in the Service, or,” he smiled ironically, “you should be after the casino jobs you’ve been on, and I remembered that we’d spent quite a lot of money putting you through a course in card-sharping before you went after those Roumanians in Monte Carlo before the war.”

Bond smiled grimly. “Steffi Esposito,” he said softly. “That was the chap. American. Made me work ten hours a day for a week learning a thing called the Riffle Stack and how to deal Seconds and Bottoms and Middles. I wrote a long report about it at the time. Must be buried in Records. He knew every trick in the game. How to wax the aces so that the pack will break at them; Edge Work and Line Work with a razor on the backs of the high cards; Trimming; Arm Pressure Holdouts-mechanical gadgets up your sleeve that feed you cards. Belly Strippers-trimming a whole pack less than a millimetre down both sides, but leaving a slight belly on the cards you’re interested in-the aces, for instance. Shiners, tiny mirrors built into rings, or fitted into the bottom of a pipe-bowl. Actually,” Bond admitted, “it was his tip about Luminous Readers that helped me on that Monte Carlo job. A croupier was using an invisible ink the team could pick out with special glasses. But Steffi was a wonderful chap. Scotland Yard found him for us. He could shuffle the pack once and then cut the four aces out of it. Absolute magic.”

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