"James Bond was born in the Tropics, you know," I said when the spotlight fell on me. "Well, sort of. Ian Fleming did most of his writing in Jamaica. Of course, he might have been able to knock out an entertaining yarn or two, but his ideas of routine intelligence work were well wide of the mark. Takes me back to my own days in the service."
The expressions around me are sceptical, but I've seen worse.
"Oh, all those tuxedos and fast cars and implausibly glamorous women old Fleming was always banging on about were diverting enough. I was more often to be found in a tiny office with a window the size of an envelope and a floor that was more hole than carpet. There was one mission though..."
By this time, the expressions are frankly incredulous, but it's too late; I'm back in Ecuador.
* * *
The sun was sinking faster than my boat as I struggled with the scuba gear. Dashed unfriendly of them, I thought, mining the inlet. They would certainly have heard the explosion and would be on their way down to the bay. I wrestled the oxygen tanks onto my back, grabbed my kit and dived for the sea bed. Looked like I'd have to find another way in. It never crossed my mind that there might not be one. Ah, the folly of youth.
They hauled me out of the water ten minutes later. By this time the sun had completely disappeared and they paraded me up to the house by torchlight. They'd stripped my wetsuit away and I felt almost naked in just my shorts.
* * *
"You've probably seen that bit where Sean Connery comes out of the sea, takes off his wetsuit and he's got a white dinner jacket on underneath? I tried that once - got my snorkel caught in my bow tie. Horribly embarrassing."
* * *
The light got brighter as we approached the house. Heavy-duty floodlights were strategically positioned, illuminating the pool, the tennis courts and, ominously, a lot of men with guns. I tried to maintain an air of bravado, but the evening was turning cool and with my bare, wet skin it was all I could do to keep from shivering. There was a splash from the pool, and I realised that my entrance had barely disturbed the vespertine activities of the inhabitants. The sight of a spy being dragged past to undergo interrogation and a slow death was clearly an everyday occurrence, not worth interrupting one's tennis game for.
My captors stopped in the middle of an open area in front of the house, and my bag was thrown roughly at my feet. We stood for a moment, them watching me; me watching their trigger fingers. There were too many guns for my liking, 'too many' being defined as 'any at all pointed in my direction'. I felt a pain between my shoulder blades and sank to my knees with a groan. I was struck a second time before the man stepped back into position, waiting with the others. I knew who we were waiting for, and I could understand their tension. Señor Elizalde would not appreciate being dragged away from dinner to deal with a minor intruder such as myself. I could almost see the guards wondering if it would be better to kill me without waiting for orders.
My salvation, when it came, was in the form of a tennis ball. A wildly miscued shot from one of the bikini-clad señoritas hit one of the guards and he, already on edge, fired his weapon wildly into the night. In the ensuing confusion, I managed to wrest control of a rifle from the guard who had hit me and took out the two nearest floodlights. I grabbed my bag and dived for the trees, listing to the bullets whistle past my head.
The guards clearly believed that no-one would be stupid enough to hang around after such a lucky escape, and assumed I would make for the beach. I didn't. I reached into my bag and pulled out a pair of trousers and a dinner jacket. There was still a chance I could reach Señor Elizalde as he tried to bribe and intimidate his way through the local dignitaries. I'd probably missed the canapés by now, and I could live without the tronquito that was to start the main meal, but I quite fancied getting there before dessert. I had just slipped the jacket over my shoulders and was tying my shoelaces when I head a footfall close by. I judged the moment and then sprang, pinning my would-be assailant against a tree by the throat. I should probably have snapped the neck there and then, but something stopped me. The skin was too soft; the neck too slender.
"It was I who hit the tennis ball," she whispered urgently. I relaxed the pressure on her throat a fraction. "I am with the Ecuadorian government. I have been watching Señor Elizalde for three months now."
I nodded slowly. I wasn't yet ready to let her go, but I needed time to think. With my free hand I reached into the pocket of the jacket, pulled out a bow tie and, one-handed, fastened it around my neck.
* * *
"A useful little trick I picked up at Cambridge. Quite possibly the only worthwhile skill I acquired in my three years there."
* * *
"How do I get in?" I asked her.
"There is a fire escape at the rear of the house. The servants use it to go outside for cigarettes. Señor Elizalde does not let them smoke inside."
"Well, what do you know... I'm almost starting to like the man," I said grimly. "What are you going to do?"
"I will join the other girls before I am missed. My cover is still secure." She kissed me on the cheek and melted into the darkness. I heard sounds from the beach. The men had, not surprisingly, failed to find me there and were returning to the house.
I made my way around to the rear of the house where, tucked away on one side of a small courtyard, was a door, slightly ajar. I nudged it open and peered in. The stairwell it opened onto was dark, but sounds of cocktails and chat drifted down the stairs and I cautiously made my way up. I'd reached the next floor and was about to slip casually into the party when I was seized by both arms and dragged bodily into the room.
"Good evening," said a voice I recognised from hours spent studying surveillance tapes. "I knew my parties were popular, but you are going to remarkable lengths to secure an invitation."
"Good evening, Señor Elizalde." I looked around the room. There were no tennis balls to come to my aid this time.
"I will probably kill you, Mr B., but I am a sporting man. I like to play games. You will join me." It wasn't a question. My assailants dragged me over to a large card table, where I was forced into a chair.
"We will play one hand, Mr B. If you win, I will let you live. If you lose... well, you lose."
I looked back at him. Back at the office I still had the little cup I'd won in the inter-departmental cribbage competition, but I didn't think that was what he had in mind.
"You will pick up the rules soon enough," he said, "if you wish to leave here." He nodded at the croupier, who dealt each of us a hand of cards. Elizalde played a card. I played a card. He stared appraisingly at me for a moment, then played again. I played again. Did his eyebrow flicker? He played. I played. He played. I played. The cards stacked up on the table, the eyes of the onlookers darting between us as the game swung back and forth. And then it happened. There was only one chance. One card left in the pack to seal my fate. I watched as, almost as though it were slow motion, Elizalde dropped his last card onto the baize. He was a powerful man, but a life of decadence in his beachside villa had left him slow. He had barely opened his mouth before I was out of my seat and, with my nose millimetres from his, I shouted, 'snap'.
* * *
"Vodka Martinis, anyone?"