She smiled as she took the seat beside him, but her eyes were guarded. It didn’t surprise him. Many women were uncomfortable spending hours sitting beside a male stranger. She was Black - judging by her features, most likely Black American - which no doubt added to the discomfort. Times had changed certainly, but history cannot be erased, and he often sensed an undercurrent of mistrust when he encountered Black Americans - even those so young that their parents were too young to remember “Jim Crow”. It didn’t trouble him, as it was almost always unconscious and disappeared quickly after a few minutes of pleasantness.
He returned the smile and went back to his newspaper. He had seen enough for the moment to form his initial opinion of the passengers. His neighbor had the look of a clerk or a school mistress on her first vacation in years. Her clothes were well-made, but not designer and she wore thick-heeled shoes (not stilettos), and carried an extra sweater in case the plane ride grew cold. There were a pair of newlywed couples - one looking fairly wealthy, and the other as if both had put a great portion of their savings, and monetary gifts from family into this trip. Both sets grinned and giggled at one another, their new love gushing over for all to see, regardless of the number of zeros in their respective bank accounts.
There were three bored-looking businessmen for whom this was more of a chore than it should have been. Two of the businessmen were on the trip together, whispering and shuffling papers between them. The other sat beside a teenaged boy whose attention was focused down the aisle. The boy seemed to be eagerly awaiting someone's arrival, leaning forward with his foot in the aisle almost as if he wanted to run out of the plane to see what was taking so long. With about two minutes to spare before runway time, two young men dressed much like the first teen, hustled down the aisle. They sat across the aisle from the expectant teenager and began to add to the murmur of people-chatter he had become accustomed to during travel. The three teens appeared to be on a high-end “Spring Break” trip, and were discussing ways of getting alcohol without proper identification.
On the whole, a typical line-up for a small passenger plane. No one seemed suspicious, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary at all. The flight staff passed his inspection, too. He finished off the last of the front page articles, and folded up the paper to save a bit for the rest of the flight. He paid polite attention to the flight attendant’s instructions regarding proper use of the safety vest, and what to do in an emergency, even though he knew the routine by rote. He took his own mental notes, marking off the exits, the location of the airplane first aid kit, and picking out the passengers he thought likely to behave wildly in a crisis. He paused at the clerk beside him. Not so sure about that one. She seemed sensible and level-headed, but people were hardly themselves in an emergency situation.
She caught him watching her and he smiled. “Do you need to get by?” she asked. Definitely American.
“Oh no, no thank you,” he said. Her face brightened ever so slightly, and he guessed that she found something appealing in his voice.
“Yes, I am,” he said with a smile. So, she liked the accent. He kept his eyes on her and turned on the charm just a notch, settling in for a bit of flirting. She was a cute enough girl, and if he played his cards right, he’d be able to pass a pleasant journey, and he might even secure himself a little company for the slower nights during his stay. At any rate, he would be able to make the best of what was usually the dullest part of any mission: getting from Point A to Point B. “I must apologize,” he continued. “I didn’t mean to stare. I was trying to guess whether you’ve been to the Bahamas before.”
She shook her head. “This will be my first time.”
“I think you’re in for a real treat. Especially if you like to swim.”
She smiled brightly. “I’ve heard the water’s very clear and beautiful. I fully plan to spend the entire time in the ocean. Do you go there often?”
“As often as I can.”
“Lucky you! If you’re going for pleasure, that is.” She lowered her voice and pointed surreptitiously to the businessmen frowning over their paperwork. “I don’t think they’re going to have much fun.”
“No, I don’t suppose they will. It can be a wash if one doesn’t know how to have fun. I’m going for a little of both business and pleasure. One of the benefits of having a job that affords me a measure of independence.”
“What do you-” She gasped and gripped the arms of her seat. He looked around, instantly on alert, trying to discern what the problem might be. They had lifted off the runway and were now making the first steep ascent, but nothing had happened that should have caused such a reaction. He looked at her inquiringly, and she let out a nervous chuckle. “Sorry. I’m usually more prepared for that.”
“Yes.” When the plane leveled, she released the arm-rests, and shot him an embarrassed glance before fixing her eyes in front of her. “Pretty silly, I guess. I don’t mind flying, but taking off and landing always make me nervous.”
“Don’t mind it,” he said. “Everyone has something that makes them nervous.” Despite his reassurance, he had to make a conscious effort not to think less of her for behaving so skiddishly. It wasn’t fair, really. Everyone was entitled to a phobia or two, were they not? He’d certainly never seen a woven chair that he felt comfortable sitting in since Le Chiffre.
“What was I saying?”
“Hm?” The girl’s voice startled him. He’d forgotten she was there. He shook himself out of dark thoughts and back to the present. She must have noticed his sullen turn, because she didn’t repeat the question.
“Nothing,” she said quietly. “It wasn’t important.”
He frowned slightly when she turned her head and pretended to take an interest in the other passengers. She was perceptive and had no doubt picked up on his slight disdain. He took a few moments trying to decide whether it was worth it to start again, or if he should just let it lie and worry about company later. He’d settled on letting it lie for the moment when a flight attendant came and offered them drinks. The attendant looked to him first, and he glanced at his neighbor, suddenly deciding to give it another go. “Can I get you something?”
She looked at first as if she wanted to refuse, but after a moment’s hesitation, she smiled and gave him a slight nod. “Why not? I’ll take a rum and Coke, please,” she said to the attendant.
The woman nodded and looked back at him. “For you, sir?”
“Vodka, with a slice of lemon if you have it.” She nodded again and moved on to take the next orders.
“Thank you,” the young woman said to him. Much of her warmth was back, but her eyes were guarded again. There was still a little work to do yet, but it might still be worth it after all.
“Since you’ve already bought me a drink, I suppose we should introduce ourselves, don’t you think? I’m Corina Jacobs.”
“Bond,” he said. “James Bond.”
“It’s a pleasure,” she said, shaking his hand. His opinion of her gained a few of the points that it had lost when he found that her hand shake was firm and strong. “Are you staying near the airport?” she asked.
“Yes, I’ll be staying at the Marriott Resort in Nassau. And you?”
“I’m at the same hotel!” she said cheerfully. “What a coincidence.”
“Well, it’s a very popular resort,” he said, filing that away in his list of suspicions. Although the hotel was popular, it was quite convenient that he happened to be sitting next to someone who had booked the same resort as he. It was probably nothing, but he didn’t become a Double 0 by ignoring certain coincidences. His guard went up just a little, but he didn’t let it show.
The drinks came, and they spent the next several minutes discussing the hotel. James told her some of the features he found pleasing about the resort, and she exclaimed about almost every luxury they offered. “I can’t wait to get there.” She gave him a warm smile. “You’ll have to show me around, James. It sounds huge, and I wouldn’t want to get lost.”
He smiled back, noting the somewhat hungry gleam in her eyes. Caught. Company was secure for at least the first week of the mission. “I’d be happy to,” he said. “I know a few other things I think you would like, as well.” She gave him a laugh that was a bit more sultry than before, and he knew she’d taken both his meanings. Their conversation was interrupted again by the stewardess, come to take their lunch orders. When she had gone, James leaned a little closer to Corina. “They serve wonderful food on this line. You’re really going to-”
A sharp pop interrupted his statement. The “fasten seatbelt” light came on, and the plane began to rumble. “Oh shit,” Corina hissed. “Shit, what’s going on?”
James wondered the same thing. He fastened his seatbelt, looking about him at the nervous passengers. He could see the right wing from his window, but nothing seemed to be visibly wrong with the engine. The turbulence increased, and the voice of the pilot came over the speakers. “Ladies and gentlemen, please remain calm. We are experiencing some rough air currents, but this is not unusual at this time of year. There is no cause for alarm.”
The hell there isn’t, James thought. He’d flown this same route before at this time of year, and he’d never experienced any such turbulence. He couldn’t recall there being a storm along the path when he checked the weather that morning, either. He looked about to see if there was a flight attendant nearby who would tell him what was really happening, but they had all taken their seats.
There was another popping sound, and the plane jerked sharply leftward and down. “Fuck!” he shouted. He was nearly drowned out by the screams of the other passengers. He glanced at Corina. Her hands gripped the seats again, and she was breathing fast, her eyes wide and terrified. The oxygen masks dropped down a moment later, and James pulled the bright yellow cup over his mouth and nose, putting the strap over his head. His own fear mounted and he forced himself to breathe regularly. It wouldn’t do to hyperventilate.
He checked Corina again. She’d managed to get her mask on as well, but she was not doing so well in the hyperventilation department. He could see her chest moving up and down quickly. She would probably pass out soon, he reflected. He put a hand on hers and she switched her vice-grip from the arm rest to him, clutching his hand like a lifeline.
The plane continued to careen downward at a sickening rate. He could see smoke through the windows on the left of the plane. An engine must have blown. Rough winds indeed. The pilot made mention of an emergency landing, but no one paid him much attention. The passengers were panicking - most of them reacting as he had expected them to react. The three teenagers clutched at each other, screaming through their masks. The couples held tight to one another, women with their faces buried in their husbands’ shoulders. One of the businessmen appeared to be praying, and the other two were in a daze, staring at one another, and out the window at the burning wing.
James took all this in in a matter of seconds. When his observations were over, there was nothing left but to think about his own fears. He wasn’t ready to die. He certainly never planned to die this way - in a freak accident on an airplane on the way to a mission. Weren’t MI6 agents supposed to die on missions? Damn. M would be disappointed. He was disappointed that he wouldn’t get to see her again.
He felt the pilots trying to make adjustments - trying to save them. They may have slowed the descent, but it wasn’t enough to keep from crashing. James saw the trees come up with amazing swiftness. Quickly, he pushed Corina’s head down between her knees and assumed the same position, covering his head with his other arm. His prayer was not articulate - just thoughts jumbled together in the space of a half-second. Impressions of his life, the lives he’d taken, a feeling of regret (if it was wrong to kill bad men), and a hope for some kind of salvation. From death. From Hell. From everything.
Impact was horrible. The screaming crunch of metal, crackling of glass, his own scream drowned out by the cacophonous noise. He was battered and jerked about as the plane sped on along the ground. There was a piercing pain in his right arm at some point during the crash, and he thought he’d been impaled by something. He kept his head down and rode it out until, with a great deal of shock, he realized the plane had stopped and he was still alive.
James stayed still, despite the excruciating pain in his arm, listening for any sign that the plane might be about to slide down a hill or fall off a cliff. All he could hear was his own breathing, the creaking of metal and the tinkling of glass. Slowly, he sat up and released the girl’s head. He looked down at her, noting her violent trembling. He sighed with relief. She was alive at least.
He pulled off the oxygen mask and squeezed her shoulder. “Corina? Are you all right?”
She sat up slowly and pulled of her own mask with a shaking hand. She nodded, though she looked much the worse for wear. Her forehead was cut - perhaps something from under the seats? - and bleeding profusely down the side of her face. Her eyes were still wide with shock, and she gazed about her almost as if she couldn’t believe what she saw.
James couldn’t blame her. The plane’s interior was hardly recognizable. Part of the bulkhead had been ripped off, other parts were bent in, windows were shattered, and debris littered everything. Some of the debris had made its way to James. A large shard of PlexiGas jutted out from his arm, explaining the feeling he’d had of being impaled. He would have to deal with it later. James took his hand back from Corina and unhooked his seatbelt, grateful that it still worked. “We need to get out of here,” he said. “Are you able to move?”
She nodded, then gasped and pointed at his arm. “Oh my God, are you-”
“I’m fine. I’ll deal with it when we get out.” She unhooked her own seatbelt, hand shaking, and got carefully out of the seat. James was disturbed to note that he didn’t see anyone else moving to get up. Perhaps they’d been knocked unconscious by more flying debris. He would come back for them. There was a strong smell of petrol in the air, and he needed to get the girl out first.
Corina’s head seemed to bother her, and she had trouble keeping her balance. James put his good arm around her and guided her to the exit. She kept her eyes somewhere on his chest, perhaps unwilling to see the wreck of the plane. He managed to get the emergency door open. The stairs obviously didn’t work, and the emergency slide didn’t seem to be working either. He helped her out and lowered her carefully down the five-foot drop. “I’m going to check for other survivors,” he said. “Back a few yards away. I think there’s a petrol leak.”
She looked like she might protest, but she didn’t say anything. She backed up a few yards away from the plane, and James went back inside. He checked for each person on the plane, growing more and more doleful as he found them. Some were clearly beyond hope - one of the poor newlyweds had been beheaded by a portion of the bulkhead. The solo businessman and the teenager beside him had been crushed by a bend in the plane’s hull. Others were not so obviously deceased, and he had to check the pulse of each one.
After checking each passenger, as well as the flight attendants, James sighed heavily and made his way to the captain’s cabin. The pilot and co-pilot had much the worse of it. It was a grim task locating the pilot’s weapon. James checked it quickly and shoved it into the back of his belt. It would be tricky to use it left-handed, but he didn’t feel comfortable roaming about the Everglades without a firearm. The smell of petrol was getting stronger, but he risked a few more seconds to look for extra ammunition. He managed to find one extra clip, and slipped it into his pocket.
He left the cabin and located his carry-on bag, still firmly lodged under his seat. He wrenched it out with some difficulty, wincing when the backlash jarred his right arm. He dumped the non-essentials - his overnight wear, shaving gear and leisure reading material - kept his notes on the mission in their zipped compartment, and checked for his special knife, compass and cigarette lighter. He swiftly filled the rest of the space with water bottles and as many tiny sacks of airplane-grade peanuts and pretzels as would fit in the spaces. He zipped the bag and tossed it outside, along with the first aid kit and a few of the packaged blankets used for long trips, so that his good arm would be free for the climb out of the plane.
James took one last glance inside the cabin to be sure none of the passengers had miraculously come back to life since he’d checked them. With a heavy heart, he lowered himself out of the plane, grimacing when he hit the ground. Excruciating pain shot through his wounded arm and he was unable to move for a moment. He could smell the gas strongly outside the plane, and the left wing was still on fire. Time to get going before the crash claimed two more lives.
James could hear footsteps coming toward him, and in a moment, Corina was in front of him, hand reaching out as if to steady him, eyes concerned. “Are you all right? Do you need help getting someone out?”
He looked down at her, his expression grim. “No.” She stared at him for a split second, before her eyes widened, and she stared past him at the plane in disbelief. He didn’t give her any more time to think about it. “Take the blankets and start running.” To her credit, she didn’t waste a moment more. She grabbed the four plastic packets, turned and ran swiftly away from the plane. James slung the heavy bag over his head so that it wouldn’t slide off, snatched up the first aid kit and ran after her.
He caught up to her quickly and would have surpassed her were he not the consummate gentleman. He gritted his teeth through the sharp, screaming pain and grabbed her with his right hand. He pulled her along with him - ripping God only knew what tendons in his wounded arm - until the anticipated blast came. He dragged her in front of him, and when, two seconds after the sound of the explosion, the hot wind knocked them off their feet, he landed on top of her. The first aid kit flew from his fingers and he braced himself against the ground with his left hand to keep from crushing her.
James noted with satisfaction that while the air was hot, he was not scalded. They’d run far enough to avoid burning, but not quite far enough to escape some of the debris from the blast. He could feel several shards of hot metal raining down on him. He was grateful none of the shrapnel had pierced his skin before they were knocked flat. Still, he didn’t move until the last of the debris had finished falling.
After a few moments, all he could hear was the faint sound of the fire behind him, and the quick, ragged breathing of the girl beneath him. He eased slowly off he girl and sat on his haunches, knowing it wouldn’t be prudent to stand just yet. He pulled his bag off and let it drop onto the moist grass. He was pleased that the grass was wet. The air smelt of a recent rain, and the sky was still dark with clouds, which meant there would be less danger of a flash fire from the crash.
James took a moment just to breathe and enjoy the fact that he was alive against some very hefty odds. He looked over at the girl, ready to congratulate her as well, and frowned slightly. She had made no attempt to move. James knew she was conscious - her breathing was still jagged and irregular, and she trembled all over - but she seemed unable, or unwilling to sit up.
“It’s safe now,” he said to her.
Slowly, she sat up and looked at him, her eyes wide and almost vacant. She turned almost mechanically toward the remains of the airplane and stared for several moments at the flaming wreck. James glanced at it for a moment too, again feeling a swell of gratitude that he had managed to survive. He heard a gasp from Corina, and he turned his attention back to her face. Her body was shaking more violently now, and her breaths were coming in uneven, sharp gasps. James recognized the beginnings of hysteria, and he moved quickly to block her view of the plane.
Corina didn’t seem to notice him. She stared, wide eyed at his chest, as if she were still looking at the wreck, and her gasps grew faster. James gripped her arm tightly and shook her once. “Corina!” he snapped. She started, and her eyes focused on his face. “It’s all right now. We’re alive.”
She shook her head. “We’re… dead,” she said through her sharp breaths. “We’ll die… out h-here. N-no f-food… n-no shelt-ter. We’re… going to-”
“Listen to me,” James said firmly, squeezing her arm a little. She stopped speaking, but her eyes lost focus again. James took hold of her chin and forced her to look up at him. “Look at me, Corina,” he said sternly. Her eyes focused on his face, and he kept his hand on her face to help her focus. “We are alive, and we are not going to die,” he said, speaking slowly and with confidence.
“No,” he said. “We will not die, do you understand me? I will see to that. But I must have your help. Do you understand, Corina? I can keep us alive, but I will need your help. You cannot help me if you’re panicking.”
She stared at him for a moment before nodding slowly. James could see her making a conscious effort to calm down. Gradually, her breathing slowed, and her eyes lost their wild vacancy. He smiled at her, pleased that she’d managed to bring herself down so quickly. “Good, Corina,” he said softly. “Very good. Okay now?”
She nodded, responding more quickly now. “I’m sorry,” she said tremulously.
“It’s all right,” he said. “Perfectly understandable.”
She managed a faint smile, but it disappeared immediately when she saw his arm. “God, you must be dying! We have to do something about that.”
“The first aid kit is over there. I’ll-”
“No,” she said sharply, holding up her hand to keep him from standing up. She retrieved the first aid kit and sat down on the ground on his right side. She quickly located the small scissors and carefully cut away his sleeve. She hissed at the sight of the wound. Bond grimaced. A shard of acrylic from the broken aircraft windows, about six inches long and a centimeter thick, had pierced his arm, bare millimeters from the bone. Now that the sleeve was off, he could see that the shard had indeed impaled him. The bloody tip protruded about three centimeters out the back of his arm. If the entry and exit wounds had been clean, the weren’t any longer. Running, pulling Corina and the painful dive had jarred the shard so that the skin around it was jagged and inflamed.
If he had been a man of a weaker constitution, James might have fainted at the sight. As it was, he was somewhat sickened by the knowledge that he would soon have to pull the thing out of his arm. He was also very impressed by Corina’s fortitude. After her initial reaction, she seemed more sympathetic to his pain than weakened by the sight of such a nasty wound.
“My God,” she whispered. “It must have been torture dragging me along.” He gave a noncommittal shrug (with the good arm), and she looked at him with grave intensity. “Thank you, James.” He nodded slightly, a little uncomfortable under her gaze. She shook herself and returned to the task at hand. “This stupid thing doesn’t have pincers,” she muttered, riffling through the kit.
“It’ll have to be done manually,” he said with a frown.
She looked horrified by the idea, but didn’t protest. She pulled out a pair of latex gloves and got to her feet. “Do you want to take something first?”
James shook his head. “Won’t work fast enough,” he said tightly. “Let’s get it over with.”
She nodded, and he prepared himself for the agony ahead. She apologized to him with her eyes, took a firm hold of the shard and pulled it out at a steady, even pace so as to minimize further damage as much as possible. James gritted his teeth until his jaw hurt, but was unable to hold back a sharp grunt of pain when the shard was finally pulled out. The shard had left a hole about ten centimeters long on the front of his arm. He couldn't see the exit wound, but he assumed it was the same size, or perhaps slightly smaller. Corina pressed a sterile pad to the front of the wound, placed his other hand on top of it and lightly touched his face. “The worst is over,” she said softly. James forgave her completely for fearing airplane liftoffs.
He held the compress over the wound, pressing firmly to staunch the blood. The pad darkened quickly, and James raised his arm to try to control the flow of blood. Corina pressed a second compress to the exit wound and helped support his arm while they waited for the blood to slow. He was relieved when it began to congeal. Wouldn’t do for him to pass out now. When they were certain the flow had abated, Corina dressed and bandaged the wound. She worked quickly, but with care and precision - traits that James always admired, even in his enemies. She fashioned a sling out of his former sleeve, and helped him put it on so that his arm could remain fairly still.
When she finished, he inspected the bandage and gave a slight nod of approval. The work was neat and firm, and even though he was still in pain, his arm felt measurably better. “Thank you,” he said. She smiled and he beckoned for her to come closer. “Your turn now.” He helped her clean the wound on her forehead - a gash about four or five centimeters long. It had bled profusely, and the blood had already dried on the side of her face and neck. He wiped it completely away before placing a large, rectangular adhesive bandage over the wound.
“Thank you,” she said. She looked about her, shuddering a bit when her eyes passed over the plane wreck. She quickly turned back to him. “What now?”
“Now,” James said, getting to his feet. “Now, we move.” He pulled out his cell phone and glanced at the red “x” over his reception tower. He was not surprised. If they were fairly deep in the Everglades, as he assumed they were, it was natural for his reception to be non-existent. There was no reason to build cell phone towers so that pythons and alligators could get phone service.
James shrugged off the shade that clouded his spirits by the thought of the sinister creatures that lurked in the region. He touched the pistol nestled against his spine and felt a little better. He wasn’t sure how familiar Corina was with the wildlife in this part of the country, but if she wasn’t thinking about it, he certainly wasn’t going to remind her. No sense panicking her again when they were doing so well.
James slipped the phone back into its pouch, fished his compass out of his bag and tried to get his bearings. He’d been through the Everglades by hydrocraft perhaps three times, but buzzing along at upwards of 50 kph was far different from trudging along on foot. He focused his mind and energy on recalling those three trips - the paths he’d taken, and the layout of the area. He looked about him, catching sight of a clump of trees perhaps five or six kilometers distant. It was raised well above ground level, and James thought he recognized the jutting arm of the small island.
“We’ll head for that” he announced, pointing it out to Corina. “I hope you’re prepared to get wet. We were lucky enough to have crash landed on a solid patch, but we may be knee-deep in swamp grass before long.” She wrinkled her nose in distaste, but nodded. “Better take something for your head, and I’ll take something to help with this arm. It’s a long walk and I want to make it to the island before dark.”
He gave her one of the water bottles, and she stared at it in utter amazement. “You brought this from the plane?”
“Yes, and five more. There are pretzels and peanuts in here, too, though not many. You should have a few of those as well.” He handed her a package of peanuts and fished out the pain killers. He held them out to her, and she took them, but her eyes were focused on his face. She gazed at him with an expression of awe and respect.
“You kept your head in there as if you do this every day or something,” she said in wonder.
“Oh heavens no,” he said, smiling at her. “But I have had some experience dealing with emergency situations.”
“I see.” She looked thoughtfully at him, but before she could ask the question he could tell was on the tip of her tongue, James counseled her to take the pain pills and eat a few of the nuts before they began their walk. She did as he suggested, eating five of the peanuts and giving him the other half. James took the strong pain medication, then ate the rest of the peanuts. He put his phone inside the waterproof bag, then slung it over his shoulder. Corina took the first aid kit and the blankets and they headed toward the island.
The semi-firm area they’d crashed on soon disappeared and they were forced to wade through grassy waters. The water reached Bond’s shins, but came up to the girl’s knees. He could tell the walk was difficult for her. Her pace slowed gradually, and after about twenty minutes, her breathing began to sound labored. James kept moving for another ten minutes, then stopped so that she could rest.
James kept his eyes moving, watching the grasses for any movement that didn’t seem to be connected to a breeze. “What are you looking for?” the girl asked, sounding slightly breathless still.
He glanced at her, debating whether he should bring up anything that might cause her to go back into shock. “I’m just checking our position. We’re making fairly good time.”
“We’d be getting there faster if I’d spent more time in the gym, though,” she said ruefully. “You’re hardly even out of breath.”
“Don’t mind it. I have something of an obsession with exercise. You’re actually doing very well considering the circumstances.”
Her eyes brightened at the minor compliment. “Thanks. But I’m still hitting the gym as soon as we get out of here.”
James chuckled. “Here. Have a bit of this.” He gave her the open water bottle, and she took a few swallows. James had a quick swallow, then quickly stowed the water back in his bag. He was ready to move again. Standing still with his goal in sight made him edgy. She caught his restlessness and started walking before he had the chance to ask her if she was ready to start.
The next two hours passed in much the same way. They trudged along without speaking. James was too intent on their surroundings to speak, and Corina was too tired. A couple of times, they had sunk down to the waist, and had to struggle to find higher footing. As the day wore on, James allowed fewer and shorter rest stops. Because of the tricky path, getting to the island was taking longer than he had hoped. He took the first aid kit from Corina to make it easier for her, but he was merciless about the rest stops. She only asked for a rest once before he was ready. He had firmly but gently declined, encouraging her, and pushing her on for a few more minutes. She was tired, but he could tell when she really couldn’t go any further without a stop. He would not be caught in the open with no shelter when darkness fell.
The island was only about a kilometer away when they saw their fist alligator. James heard a gasp from Corina, and she grasped his shirt. He followed the direction of her gaze, and caught sight of the beast fairly far off. “Come on,” he said softly. “We need to move faster.”
James picked up the pace, and Corina kept up with him, though he could tell she was struggling. He paused for about ten seconds to take the blankets from her and shove them into his bag so that she would have her hands free for balance. Only two of the four would fit, but it was a hot day, and would almost certainly be a warm night. He discarded the other two, and reassured Corina that it was more important for her to be able to move quickly than for her to “help” when she expressed guilt about not carrying anything. “All you need to do to help me is keep up.”
After that, there were no more breaks. They made good headway, and the closer they came to the high island the better James felt. He saw at least three more alligators - fortunately still far off, and none between them and the island. When they were about three meters from their goal, James saw the dark, cragged head of an alligator only a few meters from him to the left. He froze, muscles tensing. He knew instinctively when he was being idly watched by a curious creature, and when he was being hunted.
Corina stopped moving as well - he could hear her panting beside him. He could almost feel her wanting to ask him what was wrong. “Go,” he said in a low voice, slowly passing her the first aid kit. “Go now and don’t stop no matter what happens.” He heard her whimper, and almost immediately, the sounds of her wading quickly through. The alligator’s eye moved with her and James reached back and slowly pulled out his weapon. Corina made quite a bit of noise as she moved, and the gator edged slowly in her direction. He gave her no warning. It would only serve to heighten her panic and draw attention to himself.
His weapon was drawn, cocked and trained on the gator’s head in a matter of moments. James kept his feet still - he wanted no vibrations in the water to attract the alligator to himself. He hadn’t necessarily intended for Corina to become bait, but if the alligator had chosen to ignore the larger, perhaps more difficult prey, so be it. It would prove advantageous for both of them.
With a suddenness that startled him, even though he hadn’t moved his eyes from the alligator, it ended its stealthy prowl and sped toward Corina. He heard her sharp cry, but kept his eyes on the reptile. There was no time to waste, no margin for error. He fired, adjusting for the speed and direction of the beast. The bullet reached the alligator’s skull and it let out a sickening scream. It thrashed about, and James reflected dolefully that the pistol was too weak to have killed the creature instantly. He advanced quickly, moved toward its head and fired again at point blank range. The alligator lay still.
James stared at it for several moments. He hated killing animals. He did it when he had to, but he was not a sport hunter by any stretch of the imagination. The humans he killed brought harm to others from a conscious desire to do evil. Animals only wanted to get fed and live their lives.
James pulled his eyes away from the animal and looked at Corina. She stood with her back to the island, her hand against the green mound. Her skin had a decidedly grey tone and she was trembling hard. Her wide, terrified eyes looked alternately from his face to the alligator to the gun in his hand. When he got close enough to block her view of the alligator, she focused on the gun alone. “Are you all right?” he asked.
She jumped slightly and looked into his face. “Thank you,” she said hoarsely.
He nodded. He clicked the safety back on and put the gun back into his belt. “It’s from the pilot’s cabin,” he said, answering her unspoken question. She seemed to relax slightly and he jerked his head toward the island. “Up you go.” She shook herself and began to climb up onto the firm ground, tossing the first aid kit up ahead of her. She had to climb up a two meter drop at a nearly 90 degree angle, tangled with the exposed roots of trees in order to get onto the island. The topography pleased Bond, because it meant other alligators couldn’t climb up onto the island.
Bond helped Corina as much as he could with one hand. When she was up, he passed her the bag, and hefted himself up. He had to use his wounded arm to climb up, and by the time he reached level ground, the pain had come back full force. Corina helped him up the last bit of the way, bracing herself against a tree and straining to help pull him up. He collapsed on the grass for a few moments, just breathing. Corina lay down beside him, still shaking - perhaps now from exhaustion rather than fear.
James stood up after catching his breath for a moment and Corina sat up and looked expectantly at him. “Wait here,” he said. “I’m going to look about.” He quickly rounded the miniaturized island. The ground was solid at almost every point, and there was a drop around the entire thing, which meant no unexpected visitors could get up from other parts of the land mass, either. Slightly relieved, James returned to Corina, who was sitting with her back against a tree, sifting through the first aid kit. He sat beside her and pulled his bag over. She gave him another packet of pain pills, and he gave her a bottle of water. Medicated again, James took out a packet of peanuts and pretzels for each of them, and took out an extra bottle of water.
“I’ve made dinner,” he said with a grin.
Corina giggled uncontrollably for several moments. James laughed with her, feeling the touch of hysteria reach his voice, and knowing that their laughter was more a result of intense stress than amusement at his little joke. When they got themselves under control, they ate “dinner” in silence, each lost in thought.
“What will we do now?” she asked.
“Try to get a ride home.” James pulled out his phone and checked the service again. There was no more red “x”, but no bars, either. Promising. He stood up, moving the phone slowly about to see if he could coax more reception out. After a moment, he caught a single bar and smiled. Good enough. He began to dial, but before he got the full number out, the phone rang. He smiled as he answered. “Hello, M.”
“Bond! The tower in Nassau lost contact with your plane. We’ve been trying to reach you for hours! Where are you? Are you hurt?”
“I’m a bit scuffed but it’s nothing a little stitching won’t cure.” There was an incredulous cry from Corina, and Bond grinned at her.
“Who’s that?” M asked sharply.
“Corina Jacobs, the only survivor besides myself. The plane came down over the Everglades. Fourteen casualties.”
There was a pause, and James pictured the expression he knew M would be making - pursed lips, eyes narrowed slightly - the minute signs of an internal marshaling of her sorrow and intense relief. When she spoke again, her voice was even and calm, as if he’d just told her he had a flat tire. “Are you in a safe place?”
“As safe as possible, but I would be grateful for a lift out.”
“I’ve got Villiers tracking your position as we speak. Someone will be there as soon as possible. The mission will have to be postponed, of course.”
“Pick up in Morocco, then?”
“That will be fine,” she said. “Did we lose anything?”
“No, ma’am. I have all the essentials.”
“Good. Ring me when you get to civilization.”
“And Bond?” she said before he rang off.
“I’m very glad you made it.”
James smiled. “Me, too. Thank you, M.” He rang off and sat down beside Corina feeling quite satisfied with himself. She added to that feeling by again giving him the awed, somewhat wide-eyed expression she seemed to give every time he did something she found amazing.
“You must have some friends in seriously high places,” she said.
He shrugged. “My boss does,” he said casually. “Someone will be along to fetch us, but it may be several hours. Are you tired?”
“Exhausted,” she said.
“Let’s get some rest, shall we?” He pulled out the blankets and chose a relatively secure spot nestled in a crook between several trees. the opening would be too small and awkward for an alligator to do them harm, even if one should manage to get up to them. He set one blanket down on the ground in the little alcove and beckoned to Corina. She seemed suddenly quite self conscious, but she came and sat stiffly beside him. He guessed the reason of her discomfiture and gave her an encouraging smile. “No need to be shy. We’ve both been through a lot, and I’m sure we both smell strongly of sweaty swamp muck.”
She laughed, and her posture lost much of its stiffness. James kicked off his wet shoes and trouser socks, which had suddenly begun to drive him mad. Corina had already lost her shoes in her flight from the alligator. He leaned back, then winced and removed the gun from his belt. He sat it beside him (on the opposite side from Corina), and settled himself against the tree. She leaned back against the tree, trying to find a comfortable position. On a whim, James reached behind her and drew her to him. She leaned against his chest with a contented sigh, and in only a few moments, her breathing slowed, and he knew she was asleep. James took another cursory glance around, and when he was certain that they were as safe as they could be, he closed his eyes and fell into a dreamless slumber.
James opened his eyes a few hours later. Exhausted as he was, he couldn’t remain asleep for very long while they were still somewhat exposed to danger. He gently eased Corina off his shoulder and leaned her against the tree. She didn’t even murmur when he moved her. He picked up his gun, left the alcove and took a look at his phone. Nearly four hours had passed. The land was dark, but the nearly-full moon proved to be enough light to keep his footing. He decided to make a round of the island, and walked slowly toward the opposite end. He had reached the far end of the island without finding anything amiss. He was on his way back when he heard his name, shrill and harsh across the night air.
He ran back to their camp-site as fast as he could. He stopped abruptly when he reached her. Her legs were enveloped in the deadly embrace of a giant python. The serpent was probably upwards of 5 meters long, and thicker than the span of his hand in the middle. Bond’s stomach turned at the sight, but he shoved his feelings of disgust aside and raised his weapon. “Corina, don’t struggle. It makes his job easier.” In the time it took for him to warn Corina and raise his weapon, the snake had wound itself up to her chest, pinning her arms to her sides. Corina let out a strangled cry of despair. She panted for breath, the snake already starting to constrict.
James took careful aim. He couldn’t afford for the bullet to go through the snake and into its victim. He positioned himself quickly, took aim and fired. Even left-handed, in the wan moonlight, he managed to take the creature in the head, still somewhat upset by his experience with the alligator. The beast went slack and James holstered the weapon and pulled Corina away from its remains.
She rolled over and vomited, shuddering violently. When she stopped retching, her body still shook uncontrollably. She was crying, and taking in great heaving breaths. James sat beside her and pulled her to his chest, holding her tightly. “Okay,” he said. “Okay, it’s all over. It’s all over, Corina.” She continued to shiver, but gradually, her breathing slowed and she clutched him tightly.
“Th-thank you,” she said when she was able to speak. “Thank you, th-thank you. God, how many ways do I owe you my life?”
“Shhhhh.” He gave her a slight squeeze. “Hush now. Just try to relax.” It was easier said than done, he knew. He had never been attacked by a python, but he had seen a small chunk of his arm go to feed a carnivorous beast. The bite hadn’t left any lasting physical scars - their physicians and cosmetic surgeons were far too good for that - but he had never forgotten the experience.
He continued to hold her until he heard the faint sound of the helicopter coming to greet them. He gave her another slight squeeze and smiled. “Cavalry has arrived,” he said. She sat up quickly, and James kept his hand on her to steady her. He helped her to stand, and they watched while the helicopter grew larger and larger, eventually almost blocking out the sky. The pilot cast about for a few moments, trying to find a place to land. The island wasn’t large enough, and a safe landing wasn’t an option. A moment later, the side door opened, and a metal ladder was rolled out.
James donned the precious bag and guided Corina to the ladder. She was still shaking violently, and he didn’t want to risk her falling half way up the ladder. He pulled her close to his chest and put her arms around his waist. “Hold me tight,” he said, loud enough to be heard over the noise of the vehicle. “Don’t let go.” She tightened her grip on him, and he held his wounded arm around her, ready to use it if she lost balance. Then he wrapped his left arm around one of the rungs of the ladder and tugged hard. Almost immediately, the ladder was pulled upward, bringing them ever closer to safety.
The whip of the wind created by the propeller gave James a warm, comfortable feeling. He was back in his element - moving away from wild beasts and deadly, murky waters. He didn’t even expect to have to encounter such things on most dangerous missions, but certainly not on his way to something that should have been fairly routine.
James looked down at Corina to be sure she was all right. She was huddled against him, arms wrapped around his chest in an almost painful grip. Her eyes were on him and she smiled when he looked down at her. He gave her a smile, then looked back up toward their rescuers.
He was surprised to see Villiers with his hand on one side of the ladder, helping another fellow - a serviceman he remembered seeing on the training field. Villiers was M’s right hand in the office, just as Bond was her right hand in the field. It was no small thing for her to do without Villiers so that he could come personally to rescue them.
Villiers and the other man, Deats, pulled Corina up and into the cabin. They hoisted James in next and pulled up the rest of the ladder. Deats shut the helicopter door while Villiers made them comfortable. He took James’ bag and placed it carefully on one of the bucket seats near the front. He wrapped blankets around each of them, gave them headsets to protect their ears and make talking less strenuous and gestured for them to sit on the bench across from the door.
When they were all seated and buckled in, Villiers poured them each a mug of hot liquid from a large thermos. James took a sip. Mmmm. Hot cider, with a hefty amount of spiced rum. “You’re a godsend,” he said, reveling in the feel of the warm liquid coursing through his body.
“It’s good to have you back,” Villiers said. “And you must be Miss Jacobs. Pleasure to meet you.”
“And you,” she said, shaking his proferred hand. “Thank you very much for coming.”
“You’re welcome,” he said warmly.
“I am surprised she sent you all the way out here,” James said. “Won’t she miss you?”
Villiers shook his head. “She requested that I come and personally oversee this.”
James’ eyes widened slightly. “I’m flattered,” he said. And he was. He felt privileged, and he was certain that M meant for him to feel that way. It was no small matter, sending Villiers into the field, when he was essential to many extremely important office functions back at HQ - not least of which was keeping M in a good mood, and ensuring a pleasant environment all around by doing so.
At the moment, it was his responsibility to keep them happy and make sure they were as comfortable as possible. James had finished his drink already, and Villiers poured him another. Corina finished hers off and sat looking somewhat drowsy. James let her lean on him, and she was again fast asleep within seconds. While she slept, James filled Villiers in on the details of their harrowing journey.
When James had finished his tale, he gave his mug to the duly impressed Villiers, leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes. He opened them again when the helicopter touched down at the hospital in Nassau. Corina awoke with a start when they landed. She seemed disoriented and nervous at first, but when she saw James, she relaxed immediately. James was amused and endeared to her by her faith in him and he smiled and helped her up. The door was opened, and they were greeted by the hospital staff.
Orderlies waited at the landing with wheelchairs ready. James would have preferred to walk, but he decided not to be difficult. At least someone had made sure not to order stretchers. He was wheeled into the hospital, and to a different room from Corina. She watched him nervously, looking very much as if she did not want to be separated from him. He wouldn’t have minded sharing a room with her, but only because he was certain that she would be asleep as soon as the doctors finished their examination. He liked her, but he needed to think about his mission and the myriad adjustments that would need to be made now that Nassau had fallen through.
James was examined by a doctor, his arm was cleaned, stitched and rebandaged. He had several minor cuts and abrasions which were also expertly tended to. He was hooked to an IV due to a mild case of dehydration, asked if he required anything else, and left alone after his answer in the negative. What he wanted was a cigarette. Or perhaps twenty of them, to make up for the ones he hadn’t been able to smoke while they had been fighting for their lives in the Everglades.
He forced himself to focus on the job and spent several minutes rearranging the mission to account for healing time, the anticipated movements of the target, and the precautions he would need to take in Morocco as opposed to his beloved, familiar Bahamas. Eventually, his mind calmed, and he fell into a deep slumber.
When he awoke, James immediately located his cell phone and rang M. He felt quite guilty having failed to call the moment he arrived at the hospital, even though he knew Villiers would have given her a full report. She brushed aside his apology, approved of his plans for adjusting the mission, and gave him a few weeks’ leave to mend.
Soon after he rang off with M, a nurse came in and checked on him. She looked him over, asked a few questions about how he felt, and left the room. The doctor came in soon after and updated him on his condition. He had damaged his arm badly, and it would take quite some time to heal. However, with careful management, the damage would not be permanent.
James was relieved to know that his dominant arm would not suffer any lasting damage, but the prospect of weeks of inactivity galled him. He knew precisely what was meant by “careful management”. Fortunately, he wouldn’t be forced to spend his lengthy recovery confined to a hospital bed. He would be confined to a hotel bed, instead. He was to be discharged after one more night of observation, and he would most likely stay in his hotel room at the Radisson until he was up to traveling.
Villiers visited him rather early that morning and let James know that he was at his disposal until he was discharged from the hospital. James was again touched by M’s kindness. Villiers had already been away from his sacred post for longer than ever before, and M had offered to go without him for at least twenty-four hours more. James expressed his gratitude, requested some reading material and a package of cigarettes, and eased back into the hospital bed, prepared to spend another day and night in the forced relaxation hospital stays provided.
Villiers returned no more than thirty minutes later with the newspapers James requested, and not one, but three packs of his favorite brand of cigarettes (second only to the specialty ones that were made by his tobacconist at home). He also brought a lighter, and a small box to keep everything in. “Bless you, Villiers,” James said smiling.
Villiers grinned. “Just don’t let the staff know I’m encouraging your addiction. They’ll chase me out of here.”
“With a stern scolding for both of us, no doubt,” James said, slipping the box of contraband under his newspapers. “Your secret is safe with me. Would you mind sending a nurse ’round? I feel up to a short walk.”
“Right. Will do.” He left, and within a few moments, he was replaced by one of the nurses. James let her know his desire of stretching his legs. She looked dubious, but he turned the unbeatable charm up a few notches and solemnly promised not to over extend himself. She gave her approval, making sure he had a robe and slippers from the cabinet on one side of the wall, and counseling him to keep the IV with him.
A thought occurred to him as he was pulling off the thin covers, and he stopped the nurse just before she left the room. “The young woman I came in with - Jacobs. Is she still here?”
“Yes, sir. She’s in room 207. She may be sleeping, though, sir. The night nurse said he had to give her a sedative to rest.” James frowned slightly at that, but thanked the nurse and snuck a pack of cigarette’s and the lighter into the pocket of his robe when her back was turned. He put on his hospital slippers, wheeled his IV stand along with him out of the room and set off in search of #207.
He the room with relative ease, and stepped slowly inside. Apparently, Corina’s health insurance did not cover the extravagance of a private room. She shared a room with a woman who must have been in her late 60’s, recuperating from a broken leg. The woman glanced at him, then went back to her television program playing softly overhead.
Corina’s head had been re-bandaged, and she wore a hospital shift identical to his own. Her eyes were closed, but she was not enjoying a peaceful slumber. There was a frown on her face, and she had shifted in the bed several times by the time he walked from the door to her bedside. She grew more and more agitated as the seconds passed, and a whimpering started in the back of her throat.
The old woman sighed heavily and glared in their direction. “There she goes again,” she muttered.
James resisted the urge to swear at the old woman and touched Corina’s shoulder. He gave her a firm shake. “Corina. Come on, wake up.” He shook her again, and she awoke with a start, eyes wide with fear. “Hey,” James said, touching her face to help bring her back to reality. “You’re okay now. That’s over.”
The wild look slowly left her eyes, and she smiled at him. “Thank you,” she said, her voice tremulous. The gratitude behind the words was so strong that he felt as if he’d just saved her from the mouth of the snake again. Knowing the nature of most nightmares, perhaps he had.
“Come on,” he said, with a quick glance at her roommate. “Are you up for a walk?”
“Do you think I’m allowed?”
“Why not? As long as you feel strong enough, I see nothing wrong with it.”
“Okay,” she said, sitting up. “I’d love a walk.” She still looked a little shaken, but she would come out of it, James felt sure. He got her a robe and slippers from the cabinet that corresponded to the one in his own room, and helped her up. She was fairly steady on her feet, but he kept his pace slow and easy to be sure not to tax her strength. He found a quiet spot where they could sit by themselves. The day was a beautiful one - warm and bright with hardly a cloud in the sky. It was a day that could dispel the worst of shadows, and Corina looked much more at ease than she had while they made their way through the stark halls of the hospital.
James sat down slowly on a park-style bench and pulled out his box of cigarettes. He offered the box to her, but she shook her head. “No thank you, I don’t smoke.”
He frowned slightly, facing the prospect of his long-awaited indulgence being ruined. “Will it bother you if I do?”
“Oh not at all,” she said, almost horrified that he’d suggested the idea.
James smiled warmly at her reaction. He liked her. “Here, I’ll sit on the other side of you,” he said. He changed his seat so that the breeze would carry the smoke away from her. They sat in a companionable silece while James enjoyed his first cigarette in over fourteen hours. “What are your plans now,” he asked when he’d all but finished. “I don’t suppose you’ll be finishing out your vacation?”
“Oh no,” she said, with a shake of her head. “I can’t. I have to spend the rest of my time off putting my life back together. I lost my ID, passport, credit cards.” She sighed heavily. “I’ve got to replace everything now.” She shook her head slightly and smiled at him. “Could be worse, though,” she said. “At least I’m alive.”
“Indeed,” he said. “That’s an excellent point.”
They sat quietly for a while longer. James offered her the pick of the newspaper, and read what she left behind. Eventually, they began to feel that breakfast was in order, and they headed back into the hospital. A few nurses had apparently been looking frantically for Corina. Her roommate had neglected to tell anyone that they had just gone for a walk, and James was forced to defend Corina against the scolding of several nurses. James insisted on their being allowed to eat together in his own room, and while Corina washed up in his private bathroom, he made a quick call to Villiers and asked him for another favor.
He was just thanking Villiers when Corina came into the room. She looked inquisitively at him, but didn’t ask any questions about the call. They shared a light lunch of bland hospital fare, and James spent most of the time discussing the many delicacies he would rather be eating, and what he would have ordered for them from the superb room service menu at the hotel in Nassau. Corina told him some of her own favorite meals, seeming just a little self consious because she wasn’t well-versed in gourmet quisine. James refused to let her feel embarrassed, telling her some of the “regular” food that he enjoyed when he wasn’t in the mood for a rich palette.
When lunch was over, a nurse came back to check on them, and flatly refused to let either of them stay up any longer. If they were going to get better, they needed to rest. James reluctantly climbed back into his own bed, and the nurse asked Corina to follow her to her room. James waved good-bye, and tried to relax. He hated to admit it, but he was tired. He allowed himself to relax, pleased with the idea of what Corina’s face would look like when she was shown to her new room.
James didn’t see Corina again until the end of his hospital stay. He had a small dinner alone in his room. He was checked on by the doctor, and by Villiers, before bed, and the next morning, he was up early, ready to get out of the hospital and into a nice hotel room to spend the rest of his recovery in luxury and comfort. Villiers stood by with his briefcase, and James’ bag from the plane while James signed his release forms. He was on the verge of asking where Corina was so that he could tell her goodbye when she came trotting toward him from the direction of the observation rooms.
“Thank goodness I caught you!” she said, slightly out of breath. “I was so afraid you’d be gone! I’m leaving the hospital today, and I… I would hate to have missed my chance to thank you for what you did yesterday. That old woman kept me awake half the night with her television. Cranky old ogre.”
James laughed. “I was glad to do it. Villiers made the arrangements for me.” She flashed a bright smile at the clerk. “But I would have known you were grateful even if you hadn’t said anything,” James said, glad that she’d found him all the same.
She blushed and waved a hand nervously. “Still, I… thank you so much. For everything. I…” she faltered, and lowered her eyes, suddenly looking extremely embarrassed. “I’d like to… if you think you’d have time, maybe we could exchange addresses? I’d…” She cleared her throat. “I would ask for your phone number, but international calling can be kind of tricky, with time differences, and cost, and… so…”
“I know exactly what you mean,” he said, not adding to that list the fact that he couldn’t very well give her his mobile number - a private line to be used only on official MI-6 business. He also failed to mention the fact that he wasn’t in the habit of giving out his home number, either - far too personal for a man trained to protect his own security with almost as much vehemence as he protected the secrets of his nation. He touched Corina’s shoulder, wanting to reassure her and calm her nerves. “I’d love to take your address,” he said.
She beamed at him, then searched frantically for a pen and paper. She borrowed something from the nurse’s station and wrote in a bold, even hand, her full name and address. He slipped the paper into his jacket pocket, smiling when she started to pass him the pen. “I think you’d better let me dictate,” he said, looking down at his wounded arm. She blushed deeply, but he cut off the apology he could see on her lips. “Don’t mind it. I’d ask Villiers to write it down for me, but I don’t want to try his patience. He’ll send a bad report about me to my superiors,” he whispered conspiratorially.
Corina giggled, and held the pen ready. James gave her his official mailbox number, and advised her to address it care of Mr. Villiers, and it would be sure to reach him. She nodded at his instructions and gave the pad and pen back to the nurse at the desk. “Well,” she said. “I suppose I should let you get going.” James could tell it was the last thing she wanted to do.
James gave her a hug, and she squeezed him almost tight enough to hurt. “Good bye, Corina,” he said. “I’ll look forward to your letter.”
She smiled, and James turned and walked toward the hospital exit. He glanced back at her, smiling at the picturesque image of Corina - a smile on her lips, but her eyes glistening with tears, clutching the card with his address as if it were the most precious thing in the world. He gave a slight wave, and turned away. Villiers handed him a pair of sunglasses as they stepped into the warm, southern sun, and he got into the waiting car, wondering if he would ever really hear from her again.