"Quite good?" Hellebore opened his eyes wide in mock amazement: "Quite good? I'm the best, Bond. Care to have a race?"
"Not now, Hellebore."
"But that's the test you have to pass, Bond, old boy. You have to win a swimming race."
"I'm not racing you, Hellebore . . ."
"Who said anything about racing me? You couldn't beat me in a thousand years. No, you're not racing me." Hellebore whistled and a boy in swimming trunks shuffled reluctantly over from the bushes where he'd been sheltering. It was Leo Butcher, a robust, cheerful, round boy who played in the school brass band. Bond had seen him puffing away at a recent concert given by the Musical Society in School Hall.
"Hello, Bond," he said sheepishly. It was obvious that he had no more desire to be here than James.
'Hello, Butcher,' said James.
"The deal is . . ." said Hellebore. "You get to race Butcher."
Bond frowned. Butcher didn't look like much of a swimmer. What was the catch?
"What do you say, Bond?" Hellebore slapped Butcher hard across the shoulders, and Bond saw him wince with the pain. "A race against fatty Butcher here. The loser gives me . . ." Hellebore paused for dramatic effect, "let's say, their hat."
Bond glanced at Butcher, who was staring at the ground.
"It should be a fun race," said Hellebore. "But I'll warn you, Bond, Butcher's good. He's the best." The older boys laughed.
"If it's all the same to you," said James, "I'd rather not . . ."
Hellebore suddenly grabbed James by the hair and forced his head under the surface. Taken by surprise, James swallowed a mouthful of muddy water. He came up, coughing and retching.
"You race Butcher, Bond. Or me and my good friends are going to play football with your head. Understand?" Hellebore grabbed him and pulled him on to the bank. "So, what's it to be?"
James stood up; George's hands had left red marks on his arms.
"All right," he said quietly.
Hellebore clapped his hands. "Good fellow," he said. "May the best man win."
James and Butcher arranged themselves at the edge of the Mead. Butcher was shivering madly and his knees were knocking together. James wondered what threats Hellebore had used to get him to cooperate.
"Are you all set?" Hellebore called out. "Two widths, loser pays out the forfeit."
Try as he might, James couldn't understand what Hellebore was up to. He could beat Butcher easily -- the blond American must be planning some kind of trick. But what?
"On your marks, get set . . ." Hellebore stopped suddenly. Butcher was caught off guard and toppled into the water. Hellebore's pals laughed.
"Oh, I forgot, Bond," said Hellebore as Butcher clambered back out again. "One more thing."
James looked over at him. Here it came.
"You have to stay under the water."
"You heard me. It's an underwater race. As soon as you come up for air, you're out of the running. If you don't make it back, then whoever gets the furthest is the winner."
James looked over at Butcher, who looked away.
Oh, well. It wasn't the end of the world. James still had a chance. Butcher couldn't be that good, and James was pretty confident that he could hold his breath for quite a while.
"Set! Go!" shouted Hellebore quickly, and they dived in.
James was ready for the coldness this time, but it was worse having to swim underwater. He could only see about three inches in front of him; it was like trying to peer through a particularly vile, greenish-brown fog. Indefinable scraps and dross floated past in the gloom and he thought he glimpsed a pale shape far off that could have been Butcher, but it was gone before he could see it clearly. Slimy weeds brushed against his belly and the thought of the eels waiting below in the mud made him shudder.
From SilverFin by Charlie Higson, pages 33-40 of the hardcover edition. Copyright © 2005 by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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