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On His Majesty's Secret Service (18)
Bond cracked his eyes open and pain seeped in. Everything was too bright and washed-out for him to focus on anything; there was a luminescent rectangle made of agony that had to be an un-shuttered window, and the hateful bubble of torture to his right must be a lamp, while under his head…

Pillows? Soft, down-stuffed pillows. The coverlet he was under was full of feathers as well, too white and bright to be looked at directly. Everything smelled like sunshine and fresh air, with just a hint of lilac.

Bond felt his skull; it seemed to be in one piece, with a kind of crown made of bandaging holding everything together. He probed a little, and the pain made him grit his teeth. Bond felt lower, under the covers; his inspection by touch revealed him to be otherwise uninjured. Naked, but uninjured.

“You’ve been out for a long time,” said a feminine, accented voice. Frau Erma Duessler, Bond was sure of it. He blinked at the white form standing at the foot of the bed. He couldn’t focus properly. Drugs, or concussion? Either way, Bond was sure he wasn’t thinking straight.

“How long?” he croaked, his throat dry.

“Almost three days,” said Erma, crossing to the table where the vengeful lamp stood. Bond heard the sound of water pouring into a cup. Erma held it to his lips and Bond drank until the cup was empty.

“Where’s Susan?” asked Bond. Erma ignored the question.

“I’m instructed to take care of you,” she said. “Herr Zoeller would like to have a word with you when you’re feeling all better.”

“Would he?” said Bond, thinking as rapidly as he could in his degraded condition. If Zoeller wanted to interrogate him, he would do it when he was weak. He wouldn’t wait until he had regained his strength. A member of the Nazi High Command would know that much.

“And are you feeling better yet?” Fraulein Duessler asked. Bond marveled at her voice. It wasn’t the mature tones of a middle-aged woman; this was the laughing, playful voice of a young girl. She touched Bond’s face; her hand was warm and smooth.

“Oh,” said Bond, smiling impishly, “with the right nursing I’m sure I’ll improve dramatically.”

Erma pulled the covers up and slipped inside next to Bond. She was naked too, which, Bond considered, explained her apparent whiteness. The rest of her body was also warm, and also very smooth.

“As I said,” Erma purred, “I’m to take care of you.”

“Impeccable bedside manner,” Bond said. It was the last thing he said for quite a while.

Several days later, Bond was feeling much improved. He had been fed well, had interrupted his rest only for lovemaking with Erma (which meant he actually hadn’t slept much), and most importantly, Zoeller’s thugs had not shown up to beat him senseless again. Bond was unsure why his enemy had given him this respite, but that didn’t mean he would refuse it – at least until mended.

Clothes had been provided. Bond wore a white linen suit that seemed to have been tailored to fit him, likely while he was unconscious. Erma Duessler wore a canary-yellow evening gown that left little to the imagination. She flirted constantly with Bond, and gorgeous though she was, Erma’s vamping was beginning to pall. Erma was like a cartoon of a sex kitten, playing up all the looks and moves seen in the movies. It was a transparently silly game – an older woman play-acting at being a young girl.

After lunch, Erma told Bond that Zoeller wanted to see him. They walked up a dramatic spiral staircase and down an arched corridor lit by sunlight through a hundred stained-glass windows.

“Where’s Susan?” Bond asked for the thirtieth time.

“You really must stop asking me that,” pouted Erma. “A girl could get jealous.”

“You’d think less of me if I weren’t concerned for a lady’s welfare, darling,” said Bond.

“Hmm,” said Erma coyly. “Well, you don’t need to worry about that skinny tomboy; she’s just fine.”

“Oh good,” said Bond, putting an arm around Erma’s waist as they walked. “Can I see her?”

“You don’t need another girl,” said Erma. “You have me.”

“And you have me, my darling,” said Bond into Erma’s ear. She preened.

“Ah, Mister Bond!” said Zoeller. An enormous hall opened off the corridor, lit by a stained glass skylight. Zoeller stood alone in the room, wearing a white smock. He was surrounded by paintings. Zoeller smiled broadly.

“So glad you could join me in my atelier,” said Zoeller warmly, extending a hand. Bond shook it cautiously. “I take it you are feeling better?”

“I have been expertly looked after,” Bond said.

“One does what one can,” said Erma, giving Bond a sultry look under lowered eyelashes.

“Erma, my dear,” said Zoeller, “Mister Bond and I have some business to discuss. Could you grant us a bit of privacy?” Erma retreated and pulled the doors to the room shut, leaving Bond and Zoeller eyeing each other shrewdly.

“Herr Zoeller, I take it you create art as well as appreciate it?” asked Bond. Zoeller’s expression melted instantly, and he bowed his head.

“I fancy myself to be a dabbler, yes,” he said modestly. “Later I must show you some of my work. But first, let us talk frankly with each other, so there will be no bad blood between us.”

“I thought you might get around to asking me some questions,” said Bond. Zoeller laughed.

“Oh, my dear naïve boy,” said Zoeller. “I have no questions to ask of you. Questions imply that there are things I do not know. And I know everything about you that is of interest to me.”

“Really?” said Bond. “Such as?”

“Well,” said Zoeller, “you are definitely with British Secret Service. However, you are not a double-oh agent. Mister Prentiss Weir’s ego would not permit him to be teamed with another agent of equal stature. So, you are an apprentice, if you will.”

“Go on,” said Bond genially.

“You are a trained assassin with superior skills and abilities,” said Zoeller. The admiration on his face was genuine. “You have killed twenty of my men this week, including Guk-Guk, an individual I did not believe could be bested in hand-to-hand combat.”

“Don’t forget Doctor Stemmer,” said Bond.

“That impresses me less,” said Zoeller. “That weasel Stemmer was always two sarcastic words away from a bullet in the brain. As soon as we find the body, however, I shall credit you for twenty-one.”

“Thank you,” said Bond.

“The kind of men I employ are not easy to recruit,” said Zoeller. “I shall come straight to the point: in Guk-Guk I lost a highly effective enforcer and killer. I wish to make a business proposition. Come to work for me, Mister Bond. I can offer you things that your government cannot.”

“I confess I’m interested,” said Bond. “Make your case.”

“Very good,” said Zoeller. “No beating around the bush. I like that. First, I am enormously wealthy. I now am the sole controller of a vast stockpile of gold from the Third Reich. I am so wealthy that I can afford to give you a trifling fraction of a percentile of my wealth, and this will be enough to make you an absurdly wealthy man yourself.”

“Just a moment,” said Bond. “Your gold is at this very moment at the bottom of the Spree River.”

Zoeller waved a hand dismissively. “That loss, while most assuredly annoying, represented only about ten percent of my fortune,” he said. “It was enough to whet the appetites of the Soviets so they would be willing to expose the remaining members of Gruppe L.”

“Gruppe L?” asked Bond.

“Those members of the High Command who knew about my amassing of the Reich’s gold, when it became obvious that we would lose,” Zoeller explained. “I have systematically assassinated all those other members who were not killed by Nazi-hunters. Those captured by the Soviets, however, were out of my reach. Now that they are dead, not only do I have no rivals for the control of this wealth, but only I know of its very existence. I am free to act, Mister Bond.” Zoeller raised a finger.

“Speaking of which,” said Zoeller. “Another point in my favor: with me, you can be free to be what you are naturally.”

“Oh?” said Bond. “And what is that?”

“A killer!” Zoeller slammed a fist into an open palm. “It is what you do naturally! You have, if I may be so bold, a God-given talent for it. Do you think that MI-6 will have you killing people regularly? Oh, perhaps a rogue dictator here and there; maybe silencing an informant. But in my service, Bond, you will have much work to do. In my line of work, the routine taking of life is a necessity!”

“And what is that line of work, if I may ask?” said Bond.

“The acquisition of more money,” Zoeller said matter-of-factly.

“I thought you already had an absurd amount of that,” Bond countered.

“There are scales of absurdity,” Zoeller said. “There are challenging peaks of wealth out there, and I mean to scale them all. Money is power, Mister Bond, and it is my intention to have as much power as I can gather together.”

Zoeller’s smile turned improbably shy. “Come, Mister Bond,” he urged. “Let me show you my hobby. It is the sort of hobby that only a very powerful man could have.” Zoeller took Bond’s arm and led him to a corner of the atelier. An oil painting stood on an easel. It was a seascape, featuring a small boat tossed on white-capped waves. To Bond’s unseasoned eye, it looked terribly ordinary.

“What do you see about this painting?” asked Zoeller eagerly. “What do you notice?”

Bond studied the painting. “I shall give you a hint,” said Zoeller. “You are looking for patterns of texture, not of color or image.”

Bond shook his head. “I beg your pardon, Herr Zoeller,” he began. Zoeller raised a hand in benediction.

“Tut tut tut, young man,” he said. “You can be forgiven for not seeing the extraordinary subtlety of my genius. Here, I shall lift the veil just ever so slightly.” Zoeller pulled a narrow blade of the sort used to create the heavy oil smears. Working at the corner of the painting, he carefully scraped up a layer of the oils, baring a patch an inch across. Under the blues and greys of the sea were smears of white. The pebbled complexion of the paint evoked images of snow by the side of a river. Bond gasped.

“The Seine in Winter by Claude Monet,” he said. “You’ve painted over it.”

Zoeller waved a triumphant hand to sweep the entire atelier. “Every canvas here is a masterpiece,” he said. “A casual viewer will not know it when they view my paintings. But I shall know. I know what lies beneath all of them. Here, under my horse carriage, I know there are lilies. There, just visible if you know where to look, under my windmills, there is the outline of a smiling woman. These paintings, the images I have created, are worth nothing. But the images I have destroyed!”

Zoeller made a fist. “THAT is power, Mister Bond. Work for me, and share in that power.”

Bond nodded. “And Erma?” he asked.

Zoeller smiled. “She, too, can be yours.”

“Then you have yourself a deal,” Bond said.