Головна Murders' Row

Murders' Row

The handsome top agent Matt dies a tragic death in his bath tub – the women mourn about the loss. However it's just faked for his latest top-secret mission: He shall find Dr. Solaris, inventor of the Helium laser beam, powerful enough to destroy a whole continent. It seems Dr. Solaris has been kidnapped by a criminal organization. The trace leads to the Cote D'Azur…
Мова:
english
File:
EPUB, 231 KB
Скачати (epub, 231 KB)

Most frequently terms

 
 
You can write a book review and share your experiences. Other readers will always be interested in your opinion of the books you've read. Whether you've loved the book or not, if you give your honest and detailed thoughts then people will find new books that are right for them.
1

Not Dead Yet

Мова:
english
File:
EPUB, 507 KB
2

Mortal Causes

Мова:
english
File:
EPUB, 322 KB
Annotation


The handsome top agent Matt dies a tragic death in his bath tub – the women mourn about the loss. However it's just faked for his latest top-secret mission: He shall find Dr. Solaris, inventor of the Helium laser beam, powerful enough to destroy a whole continent. It seems Dr. Solaris has been kidnapped by a criminal organization. The trace leads to the Cote D'Azur…





* * *



Donald Hamilton



ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

TWENTY ONE

TWENTY TWO

TWENTY THREE

Donald Hamilton





* * *





Librs.net


Благодарим Вас за использование нашей библиотеки Librs.net.





Donald Hamilton



Murders' Row





The fifth book in the Matt Helm series, 1962





ONE




THE MOTEL WAS Off the left side of the highway leading from Washington, D. C., to the eastern shore of Maryland by way of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. So said the map; I’d never been there and wasn’t about to go. At least I didn’t think I was. In my line of business, you can’t ever be absolutely sure where you’ll wind up tomorrow.

As I made the turn and headed into the driveway, my watch said I was arriving precisely on schedule at a quarter-past-ten in the evening. I parked the little car that had been assigned to me among others displaying an assortment of license plates. Mine read Illinois, and I had a complete and phony identity to go with it, in case of trouble.

My real name is Helm-Matthew Helm-and certain government records have me cross-flied under the code name Eric, but for the evening I was James A. Peters, employed by Atlas Enterprises, Inc., a Chicago firm. The nature of the company, and my exact position with them, remained carefully unspecified on the identification I carried. Anyone who became really interested, however- interested enough, say, to send a set of fingerprints to the Chicago police-would be informed that I was known locally as Jimmy (the Lash) Petroni, a man with influential friends a; nd an unsavory reputation.

In other words, I wasn’t, for the record, a very nice guy. It was just as well. The job wasn’t a very nice job. In fact, one agent had already turned it down.

“Sentimentality!” Mac had snorted, in his Washington office on the second floor of a rather ancient building, never mind where. “These delicate buds we get nowadays, nurtured on beautiful thoughts of peace, security, and social adjustment! They may be brave and patriotic enough in the right situations, but the thought of violence turns them inside out. Not one of them would kill a fly, I sometimes think, to save an entire nation from dying of yellow fever.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “Yellow fever isn’t carried by flies, sir. It’s transmitted by mosquitoes.”

“Indeed?” he said. “That’s very interesting. I could have made it an order, but the young fool probably would have botched the job, feeling the way he did. It’s a damn nuisance. Being on the spot, he was the logical person. However, I remembered that you were on your way in from Cuba; and I thought you might like to spend a little time by the seashore-the bay shore, to be exact. Not that you’ll have much time for swimming, if everything goes according to plan.”

“I’m a lousy swimmer, anyway,” I said. “I lack buoyancy, or something. Besides, it’s getting a little late in the season.”

“You know the area. You took two weeks of small boat training at Annapolis during the war, according to the files.”

“Yes, sir, but there wasn’t much time for sight-seeing. I wouldn’t say I’d learned much about the area. Besides, it will have changed considerably since those days.” Subtlety wasn’t getting me anywhere, so I said bluntly, “Besides, there was some talk of a month’s leave, sir.”

“I’m sorry about that,” he said smoothly. “However, we are setting a trap. We can’t risk failure because a sentimental boy hasn’t got the stomach to prepare the bait properly.”

“No, sir.”

“I hope I’m not interfering with any plans of long standing.”

“No, sir,” I said dryly. “It was only arranged some six months ago-subject, of course, to the call of duty. I was only on my way to Texas to see a lady.”

“I see.” His voice was cool. “That one.”

“You don’t approve, sir? She helped us out once.”

“Against her will,” he said. “Very much against her will, as I recall. She is rich, irresponsible, jealous, impulsive, and totally unreliable, Eric.”

The indictment gave him away. The whole thing was beginning to make sense. I was being recalled from leave to keep me from getting further involved with a woman he considered unsuitable, as a rich college boy might be sent on a sea voyage to forget a pretty waitress. I tried not to show anger. It would be easy enough to blurt out that my private life was none of his damn business, but it wouldn’t be true. In our line of work, there’s no such thing as a private life.

I said carefully, “Gail Hendricks is all right, sir. She’s seen us at work and she knows the score. I don’t have to pretend to be a respectable car salesman, or something, when I’m with her. And she doesn’t have to pretend to be a fragile and sensitive southern beauty, either. I happen to know-and she knows I know-that she’s just about as fragile and sensitive as a female lynx. It makes for a beautiful relationship, sir, I hope you aren’t going to ask me to give it up.”

It was obviously what he’d had in mind, but the direct question, and the implied submissiveness, put him off balance, as I’d hoped it would.

“No,” he said quickly, “no, of course not, but I will have to ask you to postpone your trip West until you’ve attended to this matter. It is quite important, and it shouldn’t delay you more than a few days.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now go see Dr. Perry. I don’t want to waste time briefing you further until you know exactly what’s involved.”

I had seen Dr. Perry, a cheerfully callous young medical man in a starched white coat. I’d been briefed, and now I got out of the car and walked past the motel swimming pool, which was empty. A breeze carrying a hint of autumn dipped over the windbreak on the far side and ruffled the surface. The submerged lights made the water look blue-green, luminous, and very cold, like the pool at the foot of a mountain glacier. I didn’t have the slightest desire to try it out.

Some tourists drove up to the office, at the other end of the motel, where there was also a cocktail lounge, coffee shop, and dining room. You can still tell them from hotels, however. Hotels have elevators. The newcomers paid no attention to me, as I let myself into the unit with the right number, using the key Mac had given me.

“Jean has been one of our best female operatives,” he’d said, pushing the key across the desk to me. “Very good appearance, attractive without being conspicuous, the pleasant young suburban-matron type. It’s most unfortunate. We do encounter such breakdowns now and then, you know; and alcoholism is almost always one of the symptoms. Have you noticed how these slightly plump, pretty, smooth-faced women seem to crack up more readily than any other kind?”

“No, sir,” I said. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“It’s a fact,” he said. “That, of course, is why she was selected for the assignment originally. She could make it believable, if anyone could. When the matter suddenly became urgent…” He paused, and let that line of thought go. “As I said, she is good. In addition to drinking too much, she has been showing convincing signs of disaffection, not to say, you understand, of active disloyalty. Overtures have been made. It is very distressing. We are very much disturbed.” He looked at me across the big desk. The window behind him made his expression difficult to read. “At least that is the impression we are trying to convey-trying very hard to convey. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “It’s clear.”

It was still clear as I entered the room and closed the door behind me. I didn’t have to worry about fingerprints, since I was wearing gloves. They made me feel like a hardened criminal. All the lights in the place were on. There was the usual blond motel-modern furniture. There was also as much of a mess as one female lush could make without really straining herself, in a room that had presumably been cleaned by the management earlier in the day.

There was a full fifth of whisky on the dresser, and a half-empty one standing beside a soiled glass on the telephone stand by the big double bed, which was rumpled as if she’d taken an afternoon nap-or just passed out temporarily-on top of the covers. A stocking with a run in it had been discarded on the floor by the wastebasket, a near miss, I guess.

Other garments of an intimate nature, some flimsy, some surprisingly sturdy, were distributed about the premises, again mostly on the floor, along with some wads of Kleenex, the afternoon paper, a pair of thong sandals, a fuzzy pink sweater, and a pair of pink corduroy pants, the narrow, tapered style all women seem to have adopted lately, whether it suits their rear ends or not. Female rears being what they are, mostly it doesn’t.

I’m strictly an anti-pants man myself, where women are concerned, but with all the mad trousers you see on the street nowadays, it’s getting so even jeans look good, while a well-cut pair of Bermuda shorts is a real treat.

I sat down to wait in the big chair facing the TV set, which was turned off. I didn’t bother to look around for mikes or wires. Mac had said there’d be some, and that the phone was probably tapped as well, which figured. If the opposition was interested in our supposedly drunk and disloyal operative at all, they’d be checking up to see if she were the real thing or a plant.

I hadn’t the slightest intention of interfering with any of their electronic equipment. In fact, I hoped it was all in first-class condition and working well, since it was my job to make Jean’s act more plausible, and I wanted an audience.





TWO




“Plausible,” I’D SAID in Washington. “Yes, sir. Just how plausible can you get? Does this lady know what she’s let herself in for?”

“She knows,” Mac said. “That is, she doesn’t know the details; she preferred not to hear them, which was only natural. But she knows that it will hurt, and that she won’t be pretty to look at for a couple of weeks. Certainly she has been consulted. She has agreed.” He frowned at me across the desk. “There are two things for you to keep in mind. She has to survive, of course. She even has to be able to function after a fashion within a reasonable time, say three or four days. On the other hand, it must be convincing. Just a dramatic black eye and some spectacularly damaged clothing won’t buy her a thing except a ticket to the bottom of the Bay.”

“I see,” I said. “Do I get to know what it’s all about, sir, or would you prefer to keep me ignorant.”

“A man slipped through our fingers down there, last year,” Mac said. “We’d been after him for a long time; he was high on the removal list. He was finally spotted right here in Washington. There was no real error made, but as you know, for diplomatic reasons we do not operate within certain zones, of which metropolitan Washington is one. It is preferred that we take no action within twenty-five miles of the city.” He grimaced. “It is a reasonable requirement, I suppose, but the people who set these limits often have no idea what their regulations mean to the people who have to do the work.”

“No, sir.”

“When the subject finally departed from Washington, he made for Annapolis. From there, he soon disappeared, leaving behind our agent, dead.”

I raised my eyebrows. “No error, you say, sir? Getting killed is a serious mistake, in my book.”

Mac shrugged. “I’ll grant that, but Ames was a good operative, and he had reason to believe he was dealing with one man only. Apparently he ran into something bigger down near Chesapeake Bay.”

“ Ames?” I said. “I worked with him in California, a couple of jobs back.”

“I know.” Mac did not look up. “That is another reason I thought you might like to help out with this business, even if it means postponing your date in Texas.”

I laughed shortly. “You’re an optimist, sir. Some things don’t postpone very well. Gail is not the patient type. As for Ames, he was one of those portable-radio jerks. I came close to making him eat the thing, one transistor at a time. Goddamn a man who’ll climb an eight-thousand-foot mountain just to turn on that kind of noise. On the other hand, I’ll hand it to him, he did fry a mean flapjack, and he had a way with fresh-caught trout-” I stopped. After a moment, I said, “They got him from behind, didn’t they?”

“Yes. He was found on a beach with a broken neck. Apparently somebody slipped up on him while he was stalking the subject. How did you know?”

“He would get excited and forget to watch his back. It never seemed to occur to him that somebody might be stalking him. I warned him. Ah, hell. Scratch Ames, a good man with a skillet.”

“Yes,” Mac said. “As I was saying, after the killing, the subject disappeared completely. Some months later, he was reported in Europe, although he had not been seen leaving the country by any of the usual channels.”

“Who was it?”

“His name doesn’t matter,” Mac said. “One of our people took care of him over there. I checked with other departments, and found that this wasn’t the first mysterious disappearance from that neighborhood. They suspect the existence of a cell or organization with a way station, a cooling-off place, somewhere along the Bay, where fugitives can be hidden indefinitely until transportation is ready for them. Ships move up and down the Bay all the time, remember: big, ocean-going ships. In theory, they can be stopped and searched until they pass the Chesapeake Capes, at the mouth of the Bay, and get three miles out to sea. In practice, searching a ship of any size, under way, is an awkward proposition.”

I said, “According to what I recall from my brief association with the U. S. Navy, Chesapeake Bay is some two hundred miles long and up to twenty miles wide. The map shows rivers, swamps, bays, inlets, islands-”

“The nautical term is chart.”

“Excuse me, sir. Chart.”

“Your point is well taken, however,” Mac said. “With our limited facilities, it would be fruitless to try to search such an area for a camouflaged waterfront hideout. And we don’t even know that it’s on the water, although everything indicates that the pickups are made by boat, and it seems likely that the deliveries are made the same way. But in any case, it’s a job well beyond our resources, which is why we approached the problem from a slightly different angle.”

“I thought we were supposed to be specialists of a sort, sir. What’s the matter with all the bright government boys with college degrees and button-down collars-the clean-cut lads who can teach judo to the Japanese and shoot a silhouette target to shreds in three-fifths of a second, starting with their hands tied behind them? Can’t they manage to find this subversives’ bus stop by themselves?”

Mac looked up. “You’re forgetting Ames,” he said.

“You said the man he was after had been taken care of.”

“To be sure.” Mac’s voice was cold. “There are, however, some people in the neighborhood of Annapolis, not forty miles from here, who share in the responsibility. An organization like ours cannot afford to overlook interference, particularly when it results in the death of one of our people. That is why I asked that the job be assigned to us.” He made a little face. “The others were glad to let us have it. Apparently there are some local political considerations that make it awkward to handle. You might keep that in mind.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “So our objective is really teaching these outsiders to be careful who they bump off.”

“Let us say,” Mac said carefully, “they must learn not to monkey with the buzz saw when it is busy cutting wood.”

There was a silence. I looked past him, out the bright window and could see one of the shining white buildings in which earnest men conduct the nation’s business openly, with reporters in attendance. I thought about how nice it would be if it could all be handled like that.

I said, “Yes, sir. So we are throwing this agent of ours, Jean, down the rathole to see where she comes out. If she comes out. What makes you think they’ll fall for her alcoholic act, sir?”

“That is your job, to make them fall for it,” he said. “Don’t forget, they will want to fall for it. They do not normally get any of our senior people alive and willing to talk. They’d like to know more about us. There’s still a body of official opinion over there to the effect that no decadent democratic society could possibly support a tough agency like ours; that we’re a fiction invented by our opposite numbers over there to excuse their failures. There are people over there who would be very glad to have an agent of ours put on exhibit. I think they will take the bait if it is properly presented.”

I nodded. “And suppose they do accept Jean for what she claims to be, a potential deserter, what then?”

“Her original orders were to identify the route and the lay-over station, as well as the people involved, as far as possible. Then she was to extricate herself by any available means, and report. No other action was required of her.”

“I’d say it was plenty, sir.”

“Yes. Unfortunately, I have had to modify those orders in the light of new information.” He hesitated, then he drew a piece of paper towards him, took the ball-point desk pen out of its holder and printed a single word. He replaced the pen and pushed the paper across the desk towards me, turning it so that I could read what he had written. “Do you know what that word means, Eric?”

I looked at the paper. The word, printed in capital letters, was AUDAP. It meant nothing to me. “No, sir. They play so many games with the alphabet around here, I’ve given up trying to figure them out.”

Mac took back the piece of paper and drew an ash-stand closer. He burned the paper carefully, powdered the ashes, and tripped the trap to let them fall into the base of the stand.

“That word,” he said, “represents one of the most highly classified secrets in Washington, and you’ve never seen it, of course.”

“Of course.”

“It’s very, very secret,” he said. “Only we and the Russians know about it, nobody else.”

“I see.”

“They do not, however, know as much as they would like. Do you know anything about submarines, Eric?”

“Yes, sir. They travel under water.”

“Until recently this was not strictly true,” Mac said. “Until recently, a submarine was a surface vessel capable of submerging for short periods of time. Even so, it was a potent naval weapon. Why?”

“I suppose, because when it’s submerged, you can’t see it.”

“Precisely. And with the advent of, first the snorkel, and then nuclear power, enabling the boats to go under water and stay there, this advantage has increased tremendously. Radar doesn’t work under water. Sonar is relatively short range and unreliable; besides, the instrument has to be in the water to be effective. This makes it impractical for use from fast search airplanes; the only way large sea areas can be efficiently patrolled.” He looked at me across the desk, like a teacher in a classroom. “Do you know which weapon of ours the Russians fear most?”

I shrugged. “The big bombers, I suppose, sir. Or the Atlas missiles with nuclear warheads.”

“If they haven’t found some kind of an answer to bombers yet, after all the time they’ve had to work at it, they’re not as smart as I think. And the big intercontinental ballistic missiles still have to be fired from fixed sites which can be located by intelligence work-we don’t make it very difficult-and more or less neutralized by other missiles or by sabotage. No, the weapon they really fear is the weapon they can’t neutralize because they can’t find it. It is the weapon we operate out of Holy Loch, Scotland: the Polaris submarine.” Mac got up and walked to the window and spoke without looking around. “Of course, what I have told you is the Navy version. An Army or Air Force man might give a different picture. Still, the admiral who explained the situation to me was most persuasive.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Each Polaris submarine carries sixteen Polaris missiles,” Mac said, regarding the sunny view outside. “At present the range is about a thousand miles, but it is being extended. We have-the exact number is confidential- say, half-a-dozen of these submarines operational, but more are being built. Even the half-dozen already on patrol in northern waters give the man in the Kremlin a great deal to think about at night, I should imagine. Six times sixteen is ninety-six nuclear missiles, waiting invisibly under the ocean within range of his major cities. The submarines don’t even have to surface to shoot. There’s nothing he can do about them-unless he can locate them first.” He paused. “The word I wrote down for you, AUDAP, stands for a little gadget just invented known as an Airborne Underwater Detection Apparatus.”

There was a short silence. Mac swung from the window and returned to his chair and sat down facing me. He put the tips of his fingers together delicately, and looked at them.

“We don’t know,” he said, “the mind of the opposition. We don’t know how close they are to taking the big gamble. We do know that, even discounting Navy enthusiasm, the Polaris submarine must be a powerful deterrent. But if they should get their hands on a device that gave them some hope of neutralizing that deterrent-” I shrugged expressively.

“Have they?”

“No,” Mac said. “The device is safe. The plans are safe. However, the man who invented the device and drew up the plans has disappeared, a gentleman named Dr. Norman Michaelis.”

“I see.” I frowned thoughtfully. “Was he kidnapped or did he go under his own power?”

“He was on vacation, resting up from his labors on AUDAP. He disappeared while sailing alone on the Bay in a small boat. The wind dropped towards evening, as it does. Some people in a power boat offered him a tow, but he refused it, saying he’d work his way in under sail. Well after dark, the friends with whom he was staying went out in a motor cruiser to see how he was making out. They found the boat sailing merrily along on the evening breeze with no one on board.”

“The fact that he refused a tow might indicate something.”

“If you don’t know sailors,” Mac said, “it might. However, a real sailboat man-as Michaelis seems to be

– would rather spend all night trying to get home on a whisper of breeze, rather than be snatched into port at the end of a towline.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” I said. “This nautical kick is out of my line.”

“The details don’t matter, and the question of whether or not Michaelis absconded voluntarily is also quite irrelevant. Whatever he knows, he can be made to tell, you know that. If they once get him over there, and their experts get to work on him with the latest drugs and interrogation techniques, he will talk freely whether he wants to or not. They all do. It must not be allowed to happen. That is why we-you-have to take such drastic means to bring matters to a head where Jean is concerned. We have to sell them on her, very quickly. If we have luck, and Michaelis and she are held for the same shipment- apparently they don’t ship very often, which improves our chances. But they have to be persuaded to take her soon, while he is still within reach.”

“This is getting to be quite an order our girl is being handed. Now, not only does she have to fool these people, learn all about them and their organization, whatever it is, and make her getaway, she’s got to escape with a helpless Ph.D on her back.”

“Dr. Michaelis isn’t quite helpless. As a matter of fact, he’s well under fifty, athletic, and considered handsome in some quarters.”

“Sure. They’re all personality kids, these days, and in a tough spot I’d trade them all for one ugly old-timer with store teeth or no teeth at all.”

Mac said, as if there had been no interruption, “And I am not ordering Jean to escape with Dr. Michaelis, even if she does have the good fortune to reach him.”

I looked at him. “I’m kind of slow, sir. You have to bring me along by easy stages.”

“If she can rescue him, that will be fine,” Mac said quietly, “but as you point out, it could well turn out to be an impossible task.”

“So?”

“Jean’s orders are quite simple and specific,” Mac said. “You may as well know what they are; they apply to you if by some remote chance you should find yourself in a position to carry them out.” He looked at me over the desk. “Our instructions specify only that the knowledge in Dr. Michaelis’ head must not leave the country,” he said deliberately. “How to achieve this result is left entirely to the discretion of the agent on the spot. No questions will be asked. Do you understand?”

I drew a long breath. “Yes, sir,” I said. “I understand.”





THREE




WAITING IN THE motel room, I did not think about this. It wasn’t something you’d pick to while away the lonely minutes, and it was Jean’s problem, anyway.

Instead, I glanced at the wrinkled paper to pass the time, and learned that a hurricane named Eloise was giving Florida a tough time; it had been expected when I came through from Cuba. The paper didn’t say how far north it might be felt. Well, bad weather is usually an advantage, if anything, in our line of work; besides, I hoped to be through with the job long before the storm had time to work its way up the coast-through, and on my way to Texas.

I tossed the paper aside and thought about Gail Hendricks. To be sure, our date had been very tentative-as tentative as the leave that had been promised me after the last assignment-but I’d made the mistake of wiring that things looked promising when I first hit Washington, and now I’d had to wire again. She wasn’t any Penelope to wait years for her Ulysses…

I heard my people coming well before they reached the door. There were two of them, as I’d been told there would be. The man was delivering Jean right on the dot of ten-thirty, as he was supposed to. She was giving him a loud, drunken argument, as she was supposed to. They paused outside long enough to let me rise and take shelter in the bathroom. Then the door opened.

“I’m all right, I tell you!” Jean was protesting. Her voice was slurred. “Won’t you please, please, please leave me the hell alone? The way you hang around watching me, anybody’d think I was sick or something-or that somebody didn’t trust me!”

The man sounded reasonably sober. He had a young, embarrassed voice. “It’s not that, Jean. It’s just, well, I’m supposed to stick around and, well, help you through this phase.”

“Just because some snoop saw me taking a little drinkie, I’ve got to have a guardian!” she complained. “What’s the matter, is somebody afraid I’m going to talk too much, or something? What I do to my liver is my own damn business!”

“Please, Jean. Not so loud. Here, let me-”

“Keep your cotton-picking hands off me!” Her footsteps came across the room unsteadily. I heard the bottle rattle against the glass as she poured herself a drink. “Not so loud!” she mimicked. “You’re always telling me not so loud! Don’t drink so much, don’t talk so loud. Like a nice little boy saying please Mama don’t make another scene. How old are you, anyway, honey? I swear you make me feel like Mrs. Methuselah!”

The young male voice was stiffly self-conscious. “I don’t really think my age is pertinent to the discussion.”

“Pertinent!” She laughed. “Well, I’ll talk as loud as I damn please, hear? And I’ll talk about what I please! I’ll even talk about- Do you know what folks in the know call that house in Washington we operate out of? They call it Murderers’ Row, that’s what they call it, and a damn good name, too! But we’re not supposed to talk about that, are we? Not even in whispers, heavens no! We’re not supposed to talk about the house, and if we go there, we can’t drive straight to the door even if it’s raining. Oh, no, we’ve got to get out blocks away and make sure nobody’s following-”

“Please, Jean‘ This room hasn’t been checked. It may be wired for all we know!”

She paid him no attention. “-and we mustn’t ever, ever tell anybody what we really do, not on your life! And of course we mustn’t say a word about the horrible gray man who sits in that upstairs office in front of that bright window and sends us out to-no, I won’t shut up! If people only knew the dreadful things that are done in the name of peace and democracy! Horrible things!”

I heard her gulp at her drink. The man said hastily, “All right, Jean. All right. We’ll talk about it when you’re not

– when you’re feeling better. I’ll be going now, but I’ll be right next door as soon as I’ve had a cup of coffee. Call me if you need me. Remember, we’re all trying to help you. Just don’t make it too hard for us.”

“If thatsh a threat,” she said thickly, “if that’s a threat, to hell with you, honey! You don’t scare me a bit. You don’t scare me one little bitty bit, hear?”

“I didn’t mean-good night, Jean.” He seemed to hesitate. “I-er, good night.”

He moved away. The door opened and closed behind him. I glanced at my watch. It read ten-forty. His timing was good and he’d delivered his lines pretty well. But Mac had been right. This was, of course, the kid with the weak stomach-code name Alan-who’d refused to do the job; and I was ready to agree that he’d have botched it. It wasn’t a job for a sentimental kid; particularly not a sentimental kid who, by his voice, was desperately in love with the somewhat older agent he’d been assigned to watch.

I now had twenty minutes while he drank his coffee, before witnesses. I pushed the bathroom door aside and went in there. She was standing by the big bed, swaying slightly. From the information I’d been given, the appearance of her room, and the sound of her voice, I’d expected a sodden female bum, but she looked surprisingly good, considering.

She was wearing a simple, long-sleeved black dress with a lot of pearls at the throat-the kind of standard dress-up outfit in which they can look reasonably well-groomed as long as they can stay on their feet and keep their stockings up. She was obviously loaded, sure, but at first glance she looked just like an attractive suburban housewife who’d overestimated her capacity at somebody’s cocktail party and would be dreadfully embarrassed in the morning, wondering if anybody’d noticed.

Upon further examination, of course, I could see that the attractive picture was terribly out of focus in a very fundamental way. This wasn’t just a pretty woman who’d had one too many, slightly rumpled, apologetic, and appealing. This was-or seemed to be-a real lush, going downhill fast.

“Hello, Jean,” I said, coming forward.

She waited for me to reach her, and looked up. Most women have to, even the tall ones, and she wasn’t very tall. She had soft, light-brown hair, a little mussed now, and bright, baby-blue eyes, a little bloodshot. Her hands made a clumsy, mechanical gesture towards tidying the hair, while the eyes searched my face.

I guess she’d been wondering what kind of a guy would be sent to do the job friend Alan had turned down. She’d agreed to have the operation, but she wanted to know that the surgeon was a capable man. It was a reasonable attitude; but she looked hard enough and long enough for me to wonder if she’d forgotten her lines. Then she moistened her lips with her tongue, and said, as she was supposed to, “Who-who are you?”

“Never mind names,” I said. “You can call me Eric if you like. A man in Washington asked me to look you up. He’s disappointed in you, Jean, very disappointed indeed.”

“What-what do you want?”

There was a nice note of drunken apprehension in her voice, but she shouldn’t have worn those pearls. Close up, I could see that they were too big and perfect to be real, just costume jewelry; nevertheless their luster made her skin look gray and tired. Well, maybe that was the idea.

I felt very sorry for her. The worst assignments aren’t the ones requiring you to do something nasty; the worst assignments are the ones demanding that you be something nasty, maybe for weeks or months at a time. I’d been through it myself, and I knew the humiliation she must be feeling, seeing herself through a sober stranger’s eyes: a sloppy, swaying figure of disintegration and decay. One day, she’d be thinking, one day I’ll show this supercilious jerk what I’m really like-that is if I can ever be human again.

It was hard to remember that this unpleasant playacting had a purpose, that it was necessary because a certain man was thought to be held somewhere for eventual transport overseas, with knowledge in his head that threatened the national security. It was hard to remember that this woman, who looked hardly capable of putting herself to bed, was supposed to reach Dr. Norman Michaelis, somehow, and either rescue or destroy him before he could be made to talk about an invention with the unlikely name of AUDAP.

I didn’t have any faith in her chances of effecting a rescue single-handed, and I doubted that she did. That left her pretty well committed to the unpleasant alternative, after which she was supposed to get away-extricate herself, as Mac had put it-to tell us all about it. If she couldn’t make it, she knew what to do. In the armed forces, you’re supposed to be brave, if captured, and tell nothing under any circumstances but your name, rank, and serial number. We’re not required to be that brave, thank God. We’re merely required to kill ourselves.

It wasn’t a future to which anyone would look forward with joy, and I could understand the resignation in her blue eyes. I spoke the lines I had been given to memorize.

“I think you know what I want, Jean. I’m sorry, I really am. Everybody goes through bad periods. It’s a lousy, dirty business, and we understand and sympathize, up to a point.”

“A point?” she whispered. “What point?”

I said, “It wasn’t nice of you to fool the kid who just left. It wasn’t nice, Jean, and it wasn’t smart. Why do you think we sent a green youngster to keep an eye on an experienced operative like you? When you seduced him and tricked him-and made contact with certain other people right under his nose-when you did that, you crossed a line. You gave yourself away. We’d been wondering about you. You told us what we needed to know.”

She gasped, “But I haven’t really done-I haven’t really told them-I never meant to go through with-” She swallowed hard. “I was just-a little crazy, I guess.”

“It is,” I said, deliberately, “a form of insanity that we can’t afford to tolerate. I’m sorry.”

Don’t blame us for the dialogue. Somebody wrote it for us in Washington. Jean stared at me for a moment longer. Her eyes were that china-blue color that never looks real in anyone’s but a child’s face. They disturbed me, and I saw another disturbing thing: the glass, which she’d kept hidden from me, was full to within an inch of the top with straight whisky-it had to be that, since there was no water nearer than the bathroom, and she hadn’t gone in there.

She looked at me, with those odd, blue, child’s eyes staring out of the pretty, plump, dissipated woman’s face. Then she ducked her head abruptly, and drank down the contents of the glass, shuddered, and set the glass aside. It took her a moment to catch her breath after that massive slug. Well, if she wanted to anesthetize herself at this point, having said almost everything she was supposed to say, I couldn’t really blame her.

She licked her lips, and got out her final line with difficulty, “I know-I know, you’re going to-to kill me!”

“Not kill, Jean,” I said. “Not kill.”

As I went to work, I was glad for her sake that she had all that alcohol inside her, but I wished she’d stuck to those corduroy pants. She was still kind of attractive in spite of everything. Nicely dressed as she was, it was kind of like taking an axe to the Mona Lisa.

I wasn’t halfway through the scientifically brutal roughing-up program Dr. Perry had laid out for me when she died.





FOUR




IT WASN’T THE worst moment of my life. After all, I’ve been responsible for the deaths of people I knew and liked: it happens in the business. Although we’d worked for the same outfit, this woman had been a stranger to me. Still, she’d trusted me to know what I was doing, and it’s no fun to find yourself holding a corpse and wondering what the hell went wrong.

I caught her as she collapsed, and I felt her fight for breath-for life-and fail to make it. It took only a moment. Then she was dead. I was clumsy about easing her to the floor; I got my watch strap tangled in her necklace. Maybe I was just a bit rattled, too. Anyway, suddenly there were artificial pearls all over the rug. Several strands had been broken by the time I’d managed to lay her down and disentangle myself. The damn beads kept slipping off the broken strings by twos and threes, and rolling about in a nasty alive way while she lay among them, absolutely still. Edgar Allen Poe would have thought it was swell.

I straightened up and took a couple of long breaths and listened. She’d died practically in silence, but it had been a very loud silence, if you know what I mean; and there had been a bit of scuffling before that. It seemed as if somebody outside must have noticed something, but apparently nobody had.

I took another long breath, and knelt down and made a brief examination. There was nothing fundamentally wrong, that I could see, except that she was dead. She was kind of a mess by this time, of course. She was supposed to be. That was what I was there for. The idea had been for her to look spectacularly beat-up-to show how seriously we took her disloyalty-without having anything really broken except a certain bone in the forearm. As Mac had said, she had to have at least one broken bone or they wouldn’t buy it. Besides, a nice big cast makes a person look very harmless and helpless, while at the same time it affords concealment for a number of small emergency tools and weapons, properly designed. The surgeon at the local hospital had his instructions…

But I hadn’t got that far when she keeled over; and a woman doesn’t die from a bruised eye or a cut lip. She doesn’t die from a split dress seam or a laddered stocking. I’d been following instructions carefully. Except for the incidental damage to her clothes and necklace, nothing was broken, and she’d lost no significant amounts of blood. She was just dead, lying there.

I rose and went over and sniffed the glass she’d set aside. It smelled of whisky and nothing else. I uncapped the bottle she’d used and tasted the contents cautiously. If there was an adulterant, it had the flavor of whisky, or no flavor at all. Of course, she could have been given something slow-acting in a drink before she came in here, or in her food, if she’d eaten. Or she could have been shot with a poisoned dart, or stuck with a hypo, or bitten by a black widow spider. Or she could simply have died of heart failure.

I grimaced. Matt Helm, boy detective. It didn’t matter what she’d died of, for the moment: she was dead. Scratch Jean, agent, female, five feet four, a hundred and thirty pounds. I went to the door and paused to check my watch band for telltale fibers, and my pockets and pants cuffs for beads. I kicked a slim black shoe out of the way, reflecting absently that I’d never yet met a woman, pro or amateur, who could stay in her pumps when the going got rough.

I looked back. If you can do it, you can damn well look at it, no matter how badly you’ve loused it up. I never trust these delicate chaps who are hell behind a telescopic sight at five hundred yards but can’t bear to come up close and see the blood. I gave her a long look, lying there among her spilled pearls. What did I think about-besides wondering, again, what the hell went wrong? Well, if you must know, I thought it would be nice to be in Texas, which is a hell of an attitude for a good New Mexican.

I went out, pulled the door closed behind me, removed my gloves and put them in my pocket. I turned and walked casually towards my parked car. As I did so, I realized there were people at the pool.

We’d counted on the pool being empty after dark, this time of year. I’d gone too far to turn back without attracting attention; so I sauntered by in a leisurely way, and even allowed myself to glance in that direction, like any man curious about what kind of fools would want to go swimming this late on a cool fall night. An athletic male was doing a racing crawl down the pool. On shore there was another man and two girls. These three were making a funny, funny thing of how cold the air was, how cold the water was, and how cold they were.

Maybe I shouldn’t have looked at all, though it seemed like the natural thing to do. Maybe I just looked too long. Anyway, the smaller of the two girls glanced around and, seeing me, gestured for me to stop. I couldn’t very well pretend I hadn’t noticed. I stopped, like any man flagged down by a pretty girl. I waited. She came up to the low fence that separated the tiled pool area from the concrete walk.

“M-mister, have you g-got a m-m-match?”

The cigarette between her blue-cold lips bobbed as she spoke. She had good reason to be cold; she didn’t have enough on to warm a newborn kitten. Personally, I applaud the return of the reasonably discreet one-piece bathing suit, such as the other girl was wearing. It has brought a little suspense back into our lives. For a while, there was hardly a thing a girl could reveal to you in private that you hadn’t already seen in public-you and every other man on the beach.

But this kid was still on the Bikini kick. The scanty bra and G-string might have looked very sexy in July, but they didn’t go well with goose-bumps. They just looked ridiculous and a bit indecent. I got a folder of matches from my pocket and held it out. She waved her hands to indicate that they were wet. She leaned forward, sticking her face, and the cigarette, over the railing.

I struck a match and stepped up to hold it for her, having no choice. This close, I realized how small she was: no more than five feet and maybe ninety pounds of toy blonde. Her hair, cut boyishly short, was that pale color that doesn’t even darken much when wet. It was plastered unbecomingly to her small head. Even so, soaked, shivering and practically naked, she was cute. You wanted to drop a handkerchief over her when nobody was looking, and slip her into your pocket, and take her home for a pet.

“Thanks!” she said, throwing back her head and blowing smoke at the night sky. “I go-guess you think we’re d-drunk or c-crazy. Funny thing is, you’re p-perfectly right!”

I grinned at her, in response, and walked away. I got into the car and took out a handkerchief and wiped my hands, which were slightly damp with perspiration-I’d half-expected somebody to start yelling murder while I stood there being polite and helpful. I started the little blue Ford they’d given me. Lash Petroni would drive something flashy on his own time, but he’d want an inconspicuous heap when he was working. I backed out of the slot and started towards the highway. I had to remind myself not to attract attention by hurrying.

The little blonde, wrapping herself in a striped beach towel under the pool lights, paused to wave at me as I drove past. She wasn’t only cute, she was friendly, too. Under the circumstances, I may be forgiven for preferring the attitude of the other girl, the lean, dark, reserved one, who wouldn’t demean herself by bumming matches from strangers. Well, time would tell how much damage had been done, if any.

It didn’t take much time. I didn’t even get halfway to Washington before I was picked up.





FIVE




WHEN I HEARD the siren and saw the red flasher coming up in the mirror, I glanced at the speedometer to make sure I was operating within the law and held on, hoping they’d go past to bother somebody else. They didn’t. I pulled over onto the shoulder, therefore, like a docile citizen, and cranked down the window, waiting for the first policeman to come up.

“What’s the matter, officer?” I asked.

Then I saw the revolver in his hand, and I knew I was in real trouble. They don’t unlimber the firearms for a simple traffic offense. I’d been hoping to make Washington, where I’d have turned in the car for burial, along with everything else connected with the fictitious Lash Petroni, who’d have ceased to exist. That was the first line of defense, if things went wrong. The second was to stick to my Petroni cover and hope for the best.

The one thing I had no authority to do was to reveal myself publicly as a government agent who went around beating up people-not to mention leaving them dead on the floor. That decision was Mac’s to make, not mine.

I had no choice. I drew a long breath and became Lash Petroni until further notice. “I asked you a question, buddy,” I said harshly as the state policeman reached me. “What’s the big idea, stopping me like this? I wasn’t doing over fifty-five, and what’s with the crummy artillery, anyway? Here’s my license-”

“Please keep your hands on the steering wheel, sir.” He was very polite and businesslike. He waited until his partner was in position to back him up before he waved me out with the gun. “Now get out slowly-”

They drove me back the way I’d come. Presently they left the big highway and took me by smaller roads to a building equipped with a tall radio mast, where they turned me over to the county police, with a sigh of relief. They were state cops. Their primary job was seeing that people didn’t kill themselves, or each other, on the public highways. Suspected criminals, even loud-mouthed ones, were just a sideline with them.

The county officers searched me and put me through the fingerprint routine. They also searched the little Ford, which had been brought around by somebody. At least I deducted that was what a couple of them had been doing outside when they came back in with my suitcase-Lash Petroni’s suitcase, to be exact. Mine reposed in a Washington hotel room that was beginning to seem more remote every minute. As for Texas, it was already as unattainable as paradise.

They went through the bag and discovered the switchblade knife hidden in the lining. That had been Mac’s idea. When helping an agent build a cover for a particular assignment, he’s apt to get carried away by creative enthusiasm. I’d thought the knife unnecessary as a prop, but it’s always reassuring to have some weapon along, so I hadn’t fought it very hard. Maybe I should have. It certainly didn’t make the police feel more kindly towards me now, although it did convince them of my low character.

Then we waited. I offered my blustering Petroni act again, got no takers, and subsided on a bench in sullen silence. After a while, the door opened, and a man came in. He was stocky and white-haired, with a heavy, impassive cop face. His uniform was neat enough, but it had seen lots of wear.

“Here you are, Tom,” one of the office help said. “Name: James A. Peters, Chicago. About six-four, about two hundred, dark suit and hat-well, look for yourself. Picked up at eleven-seventeen about twenty miles west on U.S. 50, driving a blue Falcon two-door, Illinois plates.”

“That checks right down the line.” Neither policeman ~: looked at me, but I didn’t think it was accidental that I was present to overhear the conversation. I was being informed, I gathered, that they had the goods on me and I might as well confess. “What’s this?” the white-haired man asked, touching the knife on the counter.

“We found it in his luggage, hidden behind the lining.”

The white-haired one picked up the knife and carried it over to me. He stood over me for a moment without speaking, tossing the knife contemptuously into the air and catching it again-closed, of course, or he’d have cut himself badly. He was probably pretty good with his police revolver, and maybe even with his bare hands, but knives were out of his line and he was proud of it.

So many of them are, these days. Jim Bowie would be startled to hear it, as would Jim Bridger and Kit Carson and all the rest of those rugged old-timers who opened up a wilderness with their Arkansas toothpicks and Green River blades; but nowadays there’s supposed to be something very underhanded and un-American about a knife.

“I’m Sergeant Crowell,” the white-haired man said. “Tom Crowell.”

“If you drop that,” I said, “and damage it, you’ll buy me a new one.”

He caught the knife and looked at it again, raising his eyebrows. “You admit it’s yours?”

“Damn right it’s mine,” I said. “And I want it back, along with my cuff links and cigarette case and all the rest of the stuff those jerks have been pawing through like they owned it.”

“A knife like this is illegal,” he said.

“Be your age, Sergeant,” I said. “Wearing it may be illegal in certain places, but you know as well as I do that in my suitcase, locked in the car trunk-hell, I could carry a Samurai sword back there if I wanted. Legally.”

He sighed. “I guess that’s true, Mr. Peters. But it’s kind of a specialized weapon. Do you mind telling me why you have it?”

“I’m interested in specialized weapons; it’s a hobby of mine.” I got to my feet, which gave me a sudden height advantage of several inches. He was heavier, though. But he wouldn’t be hard to take. Nobody is who kids himself that one deadly weapon is morally better, or worse, than another. I said, “Did you have the state boys flag me down and bring me here just because you heard I was packing a shiv in my suitcase? What’s the matter, did some local taxpayer get cut? Send it to your lab, if you’ve got one. They won’t find any blood on it.”

He looked at me sharply. We both knew that knife was irrelevant-that it had nothing whatever to do with the case-but I wasn’t supposed to know it, yet. He tried to decide whether or not my attitude indicated guilty information. Then he shook his head, dismissing the subject.

“Would you mind telling me where you’ve spent the day, Mr. Peters?”

I said, “I was a day early for an appointment in Washington, so I took a drive over your big bridge and down the peninsula a ways, just sight-seeing. I was coming back to Washington to spend the night when I was stopped.” Saying it, I wondered if there were some way he could check if I’d crossed the toll bridge twice. Usually there isn’t; but I took a step forward and said harshly, to get us off the subject, “What the hell is this all about, anyway? Who do you think you’re pushing around? You hick cops are all alike when you get hold of somebody with an out-of-state license-”

I could have saved my indignation. He had stopped listening. Another policeman had stuck his head in the door. When Crowell looked in his direction, the newcomer nodded briefly and withdrew as silently as he had appeared. Crowell tossed the knife into my open suitcase and turned’t~ me.

“Let’s go in the other office, Mr. Peters.”

“I’m not going anywhere until somebody tells me what-”

He took my arm. “If you please. This way.”

I jerked free and started to speak. Then the door opened and stayed that way, held by the young policeman who had looked in a moment ago. Two people came in. The woman stopped abruptly, staring at me.

“That’s him!” she said. “That’s the murderer!”





SIX




IT WASN’T EXACTLY a shattering surprise. The police had been too sure of themselves not to have what they considered positive identification.

The surprise was that it wasn’t the diminutive Bikini blonde whose cigarette I’d lit. This was the taller female member of the Polar Bear Club; the one who’d seemed to pay me no attention at the pool. She’d exchanged her bathing suit for a casually expensive-looking sweater-and-skirt outfit, and she looked older and more dignified with clothes on, but she still looked quite tall: a brown, handsome woman with dark hair brought back smoothly to a big knot at the nape of her neck.

I already had reason not to be fond of the lady-even with justification, nobody likes to be called a murderer- but seeing her at close range for the first time, I couldn’t help that special feeling of respect and admiration reserved for something unique. I mean, one gets tired of the sexy young carbon copies of Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot; one even gets bored with all the nice girls who used to be more or less Grace Kelly and are now more or less Jacqueline Kennedy, attractive though the prototypes may be.

This woman wasn’t outstandingly beautiful or strikingly seductive, but there was only one of her. She’d never look like anybody else. She had a real nose in her face, instead of something cute and indeterminate. She had a real mouth with real teeth-strong, white ones-and real eyes with real eyebrows. She was herself. It takes a certain amount of guts, these days. But it was no time to stand gawking at handsome ladies.

“Murderer?” I said sharply. “Who’s a murderer? You can’t pin anything like that on me!” I whirled on Crowell. “Listen, what kind of an identification do you call this? I’ve got a right to a proper line-up-”

“I’m trying very hard to protect your rights, Mr. Peters,” the white-haired man told me. “I asked you to go into the other office, remember? You refused.” He turned to the newcomers. “You’re sure, Mrs. Rosten?”

“Quite sure.”

“And you, Mr. Rosten?”

The man hesitated. He’d been at the pool, too; a dark, well-built chap with gray at the temples, very distinguished in appearance. Like the woman, he had the smooth rich tan you get by working at that and not much else. He also had the air of a man who’d achieved nothing in life except marrying money.

“I-I don’t really know,” he said.

“Of course you do, Louis,” he was told by his wife. “Why, there’s no possible doubt. That’s the man!”

“I was looking the other way,” he said uncertainly. “Also, I was freezing. I was just vaguely aware that Teddy had gone over to get a light from somebody walking by-”

“Vaguely!” she snapped. “Well, that’s typical!”

He flushed, drew himself up, and turned stiffly to Crowell. “I’m afraid I can’t help you, officer. As I told you before, I never got a good look at him. I don’t think Billy did, either. He was still in the pool, showing off the stroke that brought victory to dear old Whatsis only a few years back.”

“Billy?” Crowell consulted a notebook. “That would be Mr. William Orcutt, the other lady’s escort?”

“Yes, I told you. He’s a local boy-the Annapolis Orcutts, you know. As a matter of fact, he’s my wife’s nephew. We drafted him to entertain our little visitor for the evening. We had dinner at home, and then some vigorous person suggested a swim-”

“You did, Louis,” Mrs. Rosten said.

“I did not, my dear. I thought it was a ridiculous idea, considering the weather, but I was out-voted- Anyway, Sergeant, our pool has been drained, so we came to the motel, changed in Teddy’s room, and exposed ourselves to the elements briefly. Then the kids jumped into their clothes and went on to some fascinating place Billy knew about-unfortunately, I’ve forgotten the name. We dressed more slowly and called home for a car, but if it ever arrived, it got lost in the confusion. Maybe you know something about it?”

“I’ll check. Don’t worry about it, sir. We’ll see that you get home all right.”

Mrs. Rosten said, “I suppose you’ll want a statement or something. I’ll be glad to sign it; but would you mind terribly if we got started on it?”

“Right away, ma’am. I-” He stopped, as the young policeman who’d brought in the Rostens came back into the office. “What is it, Egan?”

Egan stepped up and whispered something in Crowell’s ear. Crowell nodded.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said to Mrs. Rosten, and he turned to me. “This way-”

I trotted out my Petroni act. He paid no attention to it, but marched me back down a hail to a smaller room that looked like a waiting room with wooden chairs set along the walls. The room was empty, which surprised me. I’d expected another confrontation. Crowell gestured towards a chair and we sat down facing a door that had opaque glass in the upper half. At least it was opaque from our side. This made more sense.

I said, “Who the hell do you think you’re fooling, Crowell? One-way glass, yet? Wait till my lawyer gets up in court and tells how you cops tried to railroad me!”

“Policemen,” he said.

“What?”

“We don’t like that other word,” he said. “We prefer to be called policemen, particularly by goons like you, Petroni.”

I’d been Mr. Peters up to now. I said sullenly, “So you’ve got word from Chi. So what?”

“You’re Jimmy Petroni, known as Jimmy the Lash. You’re pretty small time, but you sometimes run errands for the big boys”

“Who’s small time?” I asked angrily. “Let me tell you-”

“Later,” he said. “Later, you’re going to tell me lots of things, Petroni. Right now you’re going to shut up. When I tell you, you’re going to get up and walk around. AU right. Up. Walk.”

I rose sullenly. There was a sound in the hall outside, the rapping sound of high heels. A man’s voice spoke out there.

“Don’t be afraid, miss. He can’t see you.”

“Who’s afraid?” It was the voice of the girl who’d asked me for a match; it seemed like a long time ago. I drew a long breath. It had been too much to hope that they’d get drunk and hit a culvert at ninety miles an hour before the police could find them and bring them here. Anyway, one dead woman was enough for one night. The clear, high voice spoke again. “Well, he does look sort of familiar, but I can’t really see-”

The doorknob rattled. The man’s voice said quickly, “No, miss, you’re not supposed to go in!”

Then she was in. She looked just as small as I remembered her, in a light, summery, full-skirted dress, predominantly blue, and tiny, white, high-heeled shoes. Her short, blonde hair, dry now, was a silvery cap on her small head. She looked child-sized in front of the big policeman who followed her in-without looking the least bit like a child, if you know what I mean.

She came forward. The policeman reached for her clumsily, but Crowell waved him back. The little girl looked up at me. Her eyes were as blue as Jean’s had been, I noticed. It didn’t seem like a happy omen. She stared at me for quite a long time. I didn’t know why she bothered to go through the motions. There was no doubt in my mind that she’d recognized me as easily as I’d recognized her.

Crowell spoke. “Well, Miss Michaelis? Is this the man who lit your cigarette at the swimming pool?”

She gave me a final look and turned away. “Oh, no,” she said. “No, I’ve never seen this man before in my life.”

That was far from being the end of it, of course. They had Mrs. Rosten in and she said yes. The little girl said no. Mr. Rosten said maybe, maybe not. A plump collegiate type with a crew cut was dragged in and addressed variously as Billy and Mr. Orcutt, depending upon who was speaking. He was no help. He hadn’t seen anything but water, he said-damn cold, green, chlorinated water.

I didn’t get to listen to all of this at close range. They moved me into another room so they could discuss me more freely, but I guess the forces of law and order were shaken by the unexpected turn of events. A door got left open, and I heard most of it, and filed it for reference. It was too early to try to figure out why a perfectly strange young lady-with a very interesting last name-should get up and lie for me, plausibly and stubbornly. At the moment, I was more interested in learning whether or not her efforts in my behalf would be successful. They were.

When I came outside at last, having been told that I could leave but that I’d better keep myself available, there was a cold wind blowing from the direction of the Bay. At least it seemed cold to me, after the time I’d spent in Cuba. My car was parked in front of the building, along with an empty police car and a white Thunderbird convertible with the top up. There were people in the Thunderbird. The engine was turning over quietly.

Under other circumstances, seeing a car waiting like that, ready to go, I might have looked for a murderous blast from an automatic weapon and a tire-ripping getaway, but this seemed hardly the time and place for such goings-on. Anyway, the only man with a current reason to wish me dead, as far as I was aware, was waiting in Washington to cut me into small, squirming strips with his tongue. Mac doesn’t like having his operations fouled up and his people killed.

I got the keys out of the Falcon’s ignition and opened the trunk and threw my suitcase in. Coming back around the car, I almost stepped on the little blonde, who’d come over from the Thunderbird.

“So your name is Petroni,” she said, looking up at me. “Jim Petroni.”

“There’s no law against it,” I said.

She laughed softly. “Those policemen certainly wished there was, didn’t they?” She continued to speak in the same light tone of voice. “Teddy Michaelis,” she said. “The Tidewater Motel. Room seventeen. You know where it is.”

“I know the motel,” I said. “I can find the room.”

“Don’t be long.’ she said.

The college type behind the wheel tapped the horn impatiently. She stared at me for a moment longer, as if fixing my face in her memory to brighten the long, dark, lonely winter nights to come. At least that was the most flattering explanation of her scrutiny; I don’t claim it was the right one. Then she ran lightly to the convertible and slid across the seat, reaching back to slam the big door shut. The window was down. 1 heard her voice clearly.

”Sorry to keep you all waiting; I wanted to be absolutely sure. But you’re wrong, Mrs. Rosten; he isn’t the one, I’d swear it. And I saw him lots closer than you did.“

I heard Mrs. Rosten say from the rear seat, ”I still think-“

That was no surprise. She’d keep right on thinking it, too. But her word didn’t carry the weight of that of the girl who’d actually spoken to the murderer, which was just as well for me.

I watched them drive away. Then I got into the Falcon and drove in the other direction. It would have been poor technique to appear to be following; and I needed some information and advice before I accepted the little lady’s invitation, anyway. Things were looking up. At least I had something with which to draw Mac’s attention from my many and serious shortcomings.

It took me a while to get my bearings on the country roads on which I found myself, and a little longer to decide I was being followed. I didn’t think it was the police. They’d have managed it less obviously. This was a one-man tailing job, and the guy was damn well not going to lose me whether I spotted him or not.

I sighed, and led him out on a sandy back road, and stopped to see if he wanted to talk. He didn’t want to talk. He drove past without slacking speed, as if I was nothing to him but an obstruction by the roadside. I got out and opened up the hood of the Ford. The compact six-cylinder engine looked as if it would have been easy to fix, had there been anything wrong with it. I went back to the trunk and opened that, and fussed around in there for a while. I might have been looking for tools. The guy out in the dark could make up his own story.

He was out there, all right. He wasn’t just interested in learning where I was going. He’d parked up ahead and circled back on foot, stalking me. I took a chance on a gun and let him come in. He made the last ten yards in a rush. I pressed the button of the instrument with which I had provided myself, ducked as I turned, and put out my arm.

It worked very nicely. He ran right onto the long, thin blade of the switch-blade knife, held low. The club he was swinging passed over my head. I pulled out the knife and stepped back and clear of the car, ready to thrust again. A blade hasn’t got the shocking power of a bullet. I might still have a fight on my hands.

I needn’t have worried. He was through for the night. He dropped the club and put both hands to his stomach and looked down fearfully, as if expecting a horrible display of gushing blood and torn entrails. There was, of course, nothing of the sort. I’d done a clean, tidy job. After making sure of this, he looked up reproachfully. The light from the sky caught his face. I’d never met him before, although we’d come close earlier in the evening; but I’d seen his picture and read his official description in Washington. It just wasn’t my night for being right. On top of my other goofs, I’d miscalculated badly when I figured there was only one man around who’d like me to drop dead because of the way I’d loused up the night’s work. I’d forgotten Alan, our tender-hearted, lovesick young man in Maryland.





SEVEN




HE WAS A good-looking kid, if you like them with dark, wavy hair and soulful expressions. Well, agents are needed in all shapes and sizes, and I suppose Mac had use for a pretty boy when he took this one on.

I got a gun off him: the standard little sawed-off, aluminum-framed, five-shot Smith and Wesson.38 that’s issued to us whenever the job doesn’t require anything esoteric in the way of firearms. You can get the equivalent Colt if you insist. It shoots six times but is a little harder to hide, being that much thicker. The general feeling is, if you can’t do it with five shots, you probably can’t do it at all.

Then I picked up the club he’d tried to use on me. It was a kendo stick, a kind of overgrown policeman’s billy, with a leather wrist loop, only you don’t use it around the wrist. You just loop it over your thumb a certain way, easy to release, so that the man who grabs the stick hasn’t got you, too. Of course, taking a stick away from a good Japanese-trained kendo man doesn’t come under the heading of healthful exercise. The karate and judo experts, who’ll cheerfully go up against a knife, will back off from a thirty-inch stick in the hands of a man who knows how to use it.

I tossed it into the car. It was kind of pitiful, actually. They come out of training having learned a few miraculous chops with the edge of the hand, a few blows with a magic stick, and they think they’re invulnerable and invincible.

I said, ”Very poor technique, Alan. You sounded like a bull elk coming through the brush, and your attack was lousy. Why didn’t you use the gun?“

He didn’t answer. He just stood there holding his stomach with both hands, staring at me sullenly.

I asked, ”How were you planning to explain all the weapons to the cops?“

He licked his lips. ”I have a license for the gun. I was supposed to have brought it along to protect Jean-she was going under the name of Ellington, Mrs. Laura Ellington. She was supposed to have been threatened by somebody, somebody in her past. She wouldn’t tell me the details; she pleaded with me not to ask questions, just help her hide out in a safe place until-“ He shrugged imperceptibly. ”That was the cover story I was supposed to give out after I discovered that she’d been-attacked.“

”But you didn’t give out?“

He spoke dully. ”When I came in, she was dead. I-I guess I lost my head. There were some people from one of the units who’d seen you leave. I told them to call the police. I started after you. When I caught up with you, you’d already been arrested by the state troopers. I just – followed, hoping for a chance-“ He stopped.

”Sure,“ I said. ”Well, get in the car.“

He was still holding himself. He didn’t want to move. He was afraid he’d fall apart if he moved. I shrugged, closed the trunk and the hood, got in and started the motor.

”Make up your mind,“ I said. ”Stay here if you like. I’m leaving now.“

He came around the car, walking very gingerly. I opened the door for him. He eased himself to the seat. 1 didn’t really like reaching across him to close the door-he could have been shamming-but he didn’t take advantage of the opening. I started the car.

”Where-“ He licked his lips and started over. ”Where are you taking me?“

”To the nearest phone. For advice and assistance. Watch the roads so you can tell them how to pick up your car.“ I glanced at him. ”It might help if you told me precisely what’s bugging you, to use the vernacular.“

”Why,“ he said, surprised, ”why, you killed her!“ He turned to look at me. ”Didn’t you?“

”Well,“ I said, ”she died.“

”She wasn’t supposed to die! You killed her!“

I started to speak again, and stopped. There was no point in arguing about it. What he thought didn’t really matter any more, anyway. He was hospital-bound and out of it. There were other people whose opinions were of more importance to me, one person in particular. I hoped he’d be more open-minded on the subject, but I wasn’t really counting on it.

I found an all-night filling station with a phone booth. I parked the Falcon by the booth, since there was no reason to be coy.

”Don’t move,“ I said to Alan, ”don’t talk, and don’t think-there’s no really good evidence that you know how. If you have to die, do it quietly.“

He gave me a look full of hate, sitting there holding himself. That was all right. He was mad enough to stay alive if he could manage, which was the way I wanted to keep him. I glanced at my watch as I got out of the car, and saw that he’d already made it for seventeen minutes. Wounded there, they go pretty fast if they go at all. Apparently none of the major abdominal blood vessels had been damaged, which gave him a good chance of surviving, properly cared for.

I closed the door of the booth behind me. The light came on, making me feel like an illuminated target at the end of a long, dark rifle range. I couldn’t help wondering how many other dangerous characters I’d casually overlooked, with hatred in their hearts for one M. Helm. Well, they’d just have to line up and await their turns.

I put my coin into the slot, got the operator, and told her the number. A minute or so later I had Mac on the wire.

There’s a rumor to the effect that he does sleep, but nobody’s ever caught him at it, to my knowledge.

”Eric here,“ I said. ”Is Dr. Perry just our beating-up specialist, or does he know about belly wounds, too?“

He didn’t ask any foolish questions. He just gave me the answer. ”Dr. Perry is a capable all-around surgeon.“

I said, ”Well, you’d better load him into a fast car with a good driver. Send them east out of Washington on U.S. 50. Tell Perry it’s a puncture wound a few inches below the navel. The weapon was approximately half an inch wide by six inches long, clean and sharp. It went in most of the way. I have some other things to report, but as soon as I hang up here, I’ll head for the big highway and come west towards Washington at the legal speed- considering the state of my passenger, I don’t want to attract attention by driving faster. Give them a description of my car and tell them to flash their lights twice when they see me in the other lane. Okay. I’ll wait while you get them going, sir.“

”Very well.“

I stood at the silent phone, looking out through the glass of the booth. The filling station wasn’t doing much business at this hour. In the little Ford, Alan sat motionless, staring straight ahead. Presently Mac came back on the line.

”It’s a 3.8 Jaguar sedan,“ he said. ”The parking lights burn when the headlights are on, European fashion: two small lights below and slightly outside two large ones. They will be coming fast, so they want you to keep your car’s interior light on for easier identification.“

”That’ll cut my vision down,“ I said. ”They’ll have to do the spotting.“

”They are prepared to,“ he said. ”The description of the weapon corresponds with a knife recently issued to you. I gather you didn’t fall on it yourself.“

I said, ”Hell, I haven’t cut myself on one of my own knives since I was a kid. It’s Alan, sir. He came for me with a club. I gather he calls it love.“

There was a little pause. ”Couldn’t you have handled him with less damage, Eric?“

I could see my face in the glass of the booth. It looked lean and hard and ugly-that is to say, it looked pretty much as usual. ”I told you, he was trying to scramble my brains with a shillelagh, sir.“

”Even so, it seems a little drastic.“ Mac hesitated briefly. ”You seem to have had a busy evening, Eric. I’ve had a call from Chicago. They, in turn, have had a call from the county authorities near Annapolis, Maryland. About a certain Mr. Peters, alias Petroni. The word murder was mentioned. Perhaps you’d care to explain.“

I said, ”The patient died on the operating table, sir.“

”So I gathered, after making cautious inquiries. You were arrested, I understand?“

”Yes, sir, but they turned me loose.“

”Well, that’s something.“ His voice was dry. ”What’s Alan’s condition?“

”Pretty good, I’d say. No signs of excessive internal hemorrhage. With surgery and antibiotics, he ought to make it.“

”Yes. Nevertheless, he will be incapacitated for weeks, maybe months. And Jean is dead. What happened there? Did your hand slip?“

”I don’t think so, sir. She just gave a little gasp and folded up. By the time I’d caught her and eased her to the floor, she was dead.“

”There was no heart condition. Dr. Perry checked her thoroughly. Jean was physically sound.“

”And psychologically?“

”What do you mean?“

”She was scared,“ I said. ”She didn’t like what she had to face, either at my hands or the opposition’s. She’d bad it, sir. She was sick of looking in the mirror and seeing a drunken slob. She could hardly face the thought of looking in the mirror and seeing a beat-up drunken slob. As for the rest of the job-well, I have a hunch she was simply trying not to think of it at all.“

”Dr. Klein examined her, too, and passed her.“

”Who’s Klein, our new psychiatrist? They come and they go, don’t they? Well, I have no degree in any branch of medicine, but I know a scared and fed-up female when I see one, sir.“

Mac said coldly, ”Jean was a good agent and an excellent actress. She was supposed to act frightened and shaky. What are you trying to say, Eric? That it wasn’t your fault that she died? That she simply died of fright?“

I gripped the telephone hard. It was no time to get mad. It never is. ”No, sir,“ I said. ”It was my job and my responsibility, sure. I simply don’t believe I killed her by hitting her too hard. I don’t think my hand slipped. I’d like an investigation.“

”It will certainly be investigated, as soon as we can confer with the local authorities without the risk of publicity. I’m told an autopsy will be performed. I’ll try to get a copy of the findings. But in the meantime we have Jean dead and Alan seriously injured, at your hands. That is two agents put out of commission in one night, Eric. The enemy seldom does better.“

”No, sir,“ I said. ”Maybe I should have gone to Texas.“

The minute I said it, meaning only to say something suitably humble and rueful, I knew it was a mistake. I knew it by the quality of the silence that followed.

”I see,“ Mac said slowly, at last. ”I see. That is how you feel, Eric? That was Dr. Klein’s theory. When an agent makes a serious error, as you know, we review his record immediately. I called up Klein at once, when Chicago called me.“

I said, ”I grant the error. I’ve got to; Jean’s dead. But there’s nothing wrong with my record, sir.“

”No, except the sheer quantity of it. Since you came back to us, after your wife left you a few years ago, you’ve had no real time off at all. Fatigue, was Klein’s immediate diagnosis.“

”The hell with Klein,“ I said. ”We fought the whole damn war without a headshrinker in attendance. And the hell with fatigue, too. I haven’t asked for any leave, have I? Not until this time-“

”Precisely,“ Mac said. ”Fatigue and subconscious resentment, Klein said. And, probably, what he referred to as a mild superman complex. I don’t like the term, Eric, but I have seen it happen before in men whose occupation allows them to kill and get away with it. After a while, their judgment becomes impaired, since human life has ceased to have much value for them.“

I laughed shortly. ”Sir, if you’re suggesting that I went out and murdered a woman, a fellow agent, simply because I was mad at you for interfering with my lovelife-“

”I said the resentment was subconscious, Eric.“

”Sure,“ I said. ”Thanks. I love being a subconscious murderer, sir. Let’s just skip the analysis, if you don’t mind. Right now, I’d better get Alan on the road; but first I’d like to know if Dr. Norman Michaelis, our missing genius, has a sister or daughter-Miss Michaelis was the form of address used. Age twenty plus, height five feet minus, say ninety pounds after a heavy meal, silver-blonde hair, blue eyes.“

Mac hesitated. ”There is a daughter. Theodora. But, Eric-“

”Theodora,“ I said. ”That’s a lot of name for a little bit of girl. What’s the family picture? Is there a wife and mother?“

”The wife and mother died in childbirth. Eric-“

”The daughter is here, sir,“ I said. ”In fact, she got me out of jail by lying her pretty little head off. I have a date to find out why, as soon as I get Alan off my hands. I’ll report by phone as soon as-“

”You will,“ Mac said, ”report to me in person, at once.“

I frowned at the phone. ”But, sir-“

His voice was curt. ”Any leads you have will be followed up, you may be sure.“

I said slowly, ”The invitation was issued to me, as Jim Petroni, alias Jimmy the Lash. The lady has just told the police a great big fib, remember? She’s not likely to open her door and her mouth to any old government gumshoe, sir.“

”We’ll have to risk that. I want you to come in immediately, Eric.“

”What’s the matter, sir?“ I asked. ”Are you afraid I’ll go completely berserk and give the outfit a bad reputation?“

Saying it, I expected any answer except the little embarrassed silence that followed, that said more plainly than words that that was exactly what he was afraid of. I’d murdered Jean with my subconscious resentment; I’d stuck a hole in Alan. I’d flipped. I was a menace on the loose.

”Let us say,“ he said carefully, ”that Dr. Klein’s advice is that you be recalled for examination and possible treatment-probably only rest. It is quite possible that you’ll be on your way to Texas tomorrow or the next day. How would you like that?“

”Thanks,“ I said, ”for the lollipop, sir.“

”I want you to turn Alan over to Dr. Perry and follow them in. That’s an order.“

”Yes, sir,“ I said.





EIGHT




I SPOTTED THEIR Jag well ahead of time and flashed an answer to their signal, but they were coming right along, and it took them a while to fire the retro-rockets and get the flaps down and find a place to cross the median to the west-bound lane. In the meantime, I’d pulled the little sedan out to the shoulder to wait for them.

”We were going to be married after she finished this job,“ Alan said suddenly. It was his first conversational effort in a long time. ”Jean’s professional pride wouldn’t let her quit in the middle of it, but afterwards we were going to get out of this dirty business and be normal human beings for a change. We’d never had a real home, either of us. We were going to make one together.“

”Sure,“ I said. ”She’d have been the mother you’d always wanted, and you’d have been the baby she’d yearned for all her life.“

His head came around sharply. ”You callous beast! Just because she was a little older-“

”Cut it out, Alan,“ I said.

”I loved her,“ he said.

”Cut it out,“ I said. ”Go away. Die. Or just shut up.“ He started to speak again, but I cut in, ”The one thing you could have done for her, you didn’t do. You let a stranger do it. Then you got mad because it turned out wrong and went for him with a club. And now, by God, you start talking about love!“ I grimaced. ”Do me a favor. Hemorrhage.“

He was staring at me. ”You think-you think I should have done that? To her?“

”Somebody was going to have to do the stinking job if she was to carry out her assignment. Why not you? What makes you so damn special?“ I looked at him. ”If I loved a woman enough to talk about it, if something like that simply had to be done, if she really wanted it done, I’d damn well do it myself and see it was done right by somebody she knew and trusted. At least I wouldn’t sit across the way wringing my hands while it was happening, and then take it out on the guy who got stuck with the lousy operation I was too damn delicate to perform. Now stay here and brood, while I discuss your survival problems with the medical profession.“

The Jaguar had pulled up behind us. I liked the sound of it, even idling. They don’t put the full-race mill into the sedan, but it’s no truck engine, either. Dr. Perry got out of the bucket seat beside the driver and came to meet me as I went back there. The driver, a big man, got out and went around to get something out of the trunk, presently disappearing into the darkness. I thought this a little peculiar, but maybe I was not supposed to notice. The car had a buggy-whip antenna for radio-telephone communication. I thought it was probably Mac’s personal vehicle.

”How’s the patient?“ Dr. Perry asked.

”Alive,“ I said. ”Bitter.“

”With some justification, I would say.“

”I know,“ I said. ”I’ve already been told I should have treated him more gently. Wait till it’s your head he’s swinging a stick at from behind.“

”I wasn’t referring to that,“ Perry said. ”The female agent who died at your hands-I understand there was some emotional involvement.“

I looked at him for a moment. The headlights bounced enough light our way that I could see him clearly: a clean-cut young professional man with horn-rimmed glasses, neatly dressed, in good physical condition. I wondered what quirk of psychology or fortune had brought him to us-the Foreign Legion of the undercover services-but it isn’t something one asks. Maybe he was just getting himself a wide range of medical experience before settling down to a profitable society practice.

I asked, ”Why did Jean die, Dr. Perry?“

He blinked. Obviously, he thought it was a strange question for me to ask. After all, I was the guy who’d killed her, wasn’t I?

”Why, I don’t know,“ he said. ”I wasn’t there, how could I say? I rather assumed-“ He stopped, embarrassed.

”That my hand slipped? It seems to be a common assumption in these parts,“ I said. ”And a convenient one, for some people.“

”If you’re implying there was something wrong with Jean-“

I said, ”Obviously, there was something wrong. With Jean, or you, or me, or somebody else. She’s dead. Maybe you should have examined my hands before clearing me for the job, Doctor. You might have prevented the slip, if there was a slip.“

His voice was stiff. ”Maybe I should have.“

”Maybe,“ I said, ”you should examine them now.“

He didn’t get it at once. He said impatiently, ”Really, I’d better see to my patient-“

”Look at them,“ I said gently. ”The right one is of special interest, Doctor.“ There was a little silence, as he saw what I was driving at. I said, ”Note the weapon. It uses the.38 Special cartridge firing a one-hundred-and-fifty-grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of eleven hundred and fifty feet per second and a muzzle energy of three hundred and sixty-five foot pounds. Now note what happens when I exert pressure on the trigger-“

”Eric.“ His voice was professionally calm and soothing. ”Eric, put the gun away. There’s no need for hostility. I am certainly not trying to duck my share of the responsibility for your unfortunate mishap. Careful!“

”Don’t panic, Doc,“ I said. ”It’s a double-action revolver. Not much happens immediately as the trigger moves back, except that the cylinder rotates, bringing a new cartridge into line and the hammer rises, so. This being a pocket pistol, the hammer has no conventional spur, just a little grooved cocking piece that won’t hang up in the clothing. Now I catch it with my thumb before the hammer can drop, so.“

He couldn’t help a sharp intake of breath as the hammer fell a fraction of an inch before being arrested by my thumb.

”Eric-“

I said, ”Let us review the situation, Doctor. There is now a loaded cartridge lined up with the firing pin and, of course, with the gun barrel. The trigger is back as far as it will go, rendering all safety devices inoperative. The hammer is fully cocked, held only by my thumb. The muzzle is aimed at your abdomen. The range is about three feet. I ask for your prognosis, Doctor. What will happen when your driver, sneaking up behind me, clouts me alongside the head with a blackjack or gives me a karate chop to the neck-and the hammer slips out from under my nerveless thumb? I think the matter deserves our most careful consideration don’t you?“

There was a space of complete silence. The big man behind me, belatedly aware of the situation, had stopped moving. Dr. Perry licked his lips, watching the gun with fascination.

I said, ”There is a time element involved, of course. It’s quite a strain, holding a gun like this. When my thumb gets tired, and maybe a little slippery with sweat- Don’t forget, I’m the guy whose hand keeps slipping and killing people.“

”Eric,“ he said. ”Eric, don’t be hasty. I can understand the resentment you feel towards me, but I swear the instructions I gave you seemed perfectly safe, well within the bounds of what the subject could tolerate-“

I laughed. ”Doctor, you flatter yourself. I’m not mad at you, although I do think you might at least wait for the autopsy results before talking as if it were all my fault. After all, you had a hand in it, too. But the hell with that. I’m not pointing a gun at you for personal reasons.“

”Then what-“

I said, ”You got a call from Washington while you were driving here, didn’t you? You were told that my attitude seemed to be somewhat uncertain, and that it might be a good idea to make absolutely sure that I came in as ordered. Am I correct?“

He hesitated. Then he nodded reluctantly.

”All right,“ I said. ”Well, here’s a message to take back. Tell the man upstairs that limited measures have failed and the full mad-dog treatment may be indicated. Tell him that I recommend a silenced rifle with a telescopic sight. A shotgun could do the job, but it would be pretty damn noisy and messy. A good man with a pistol might deliver, but he’d be taking chances. I may have a superman complex, Doctor, but I’m not laboring under the delusion that I’m bullet-proof.“

”Eric, you’re talking wildly-“

”Shut up,“ I said, ”and listen carefully. The one thing I want you to impress on him is that he must not make the mistake of trying to take me alive a second time. You’re getting away with it tonight. No one else will. Do you understand? I may not be the best man he’s got, but I’m pretty damn good; plenty good enough to handle anybody he sends after me with orders not to kill. Tell him not to waste trained men by ordering out to get me handicapped by silly instructions like that. They simply won’t come back. Is that clear?“

Perry licked his lips again, watching the cocked revolver in my hand. ”It’s clear.“

”I’ve been a member of this organization a long time, off and on,“ I said. ”I know how it works. I know that if he really wants me, he can get me-dead. I’ll even make it easy for him. I’m sticking to my cover as Lash Petroni, hoodlum. If I’m mowed down one dark night, it’ll just go down in the records as another syndicate kill. If that’s what he wants, tell him to go ahead. I won’t even duck. I’ve got other things to do besides watching the bushes for hidden guns.“

Perry asked quickly, ”Other things? What other things do you have to do, Eric?“

”Never mind,“ I said. ”He’ll know. Just tell him the choice. He can have me killed. That’s all he can do without risking a massacre that’ll hit front pages clear across the country. I won’t stand still for the dog-catcher with the net. I won’t stand still for interference of any kind. If I bump into one of the boys, I’ll go for him without asking questions. A savage battle to the death between agents of a super-secret government organization wouldn’t look very nice in the headlines, would it? The publicity would put him out of business, and he knows it. And it’s just what I’ll give him if he tries any more of this horsing around. Tell him to send out the elimination squads or forget it. I’ll be in touch when I have something to report.“

”Eric,“ Perry said, ”Eric, I want you to consider carefully the consequences of-“

”Never mind the consequences,“ I said. ”He’ll know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. If he wants it done, tell him, leave me alone. If he doesn’t, shoot me. That’s his choice. And now you can tell your driver to get your patient the hell out of my car, but don’t you move until I give the word-“

It was a tricky business, but not as bad as it might have been. He was just an expert on medical matters; I didn’t have to worry about him. Pretty boy Alan wouldn’t have worried me under any circumstances, certainly not with his mind on his tummy. The driver was my only real concern. He was probably an old pro, but I gave him no chance to prove it. While he was helping the walking wounded from one car to the other, I stepped into the little Ford and took off.

The mirror showed me an argument behind me. The driver obviously wanted to drop everything and come after me. In a 3.8 Jag sedan he could have run circles around what I was driving. But Dr. Perry had sworn an oath to Aesculapus, and his primary concern, after all, was Alan, not me. When last seen, they were loading the patient carefully into the imported sedan with the buggy-whip antenna.

Driving away, I tried to guess what Mac would do when he got my message. He’d get mad, of course, but that didn’t matter; he wasn’t a man to let temper affect his course of action. On the other hand, if he really thought I’d flipped and was an active menace- Come to think of it, I had been kind of casual about slipping that knife into Alan without even waiting for identification.

I shook my head quickly. Whether my brain was running smoothly on six cylinders or limping along on five, it was all the brain I had available. And there’s a kind of unwritten rule in the organization that goes: nobody dies for nothing. It doesn’t apply to sentimental schnooks like Alan, who get perforated making like damn fools on their own time. But Jean had been on duty when she died, grimly sticking out a lousy assignment.

And I’d been there. She’s got to survive, of course, Mac had said. Those had been my orders. Exactly why she had died wasn’t very important, in this connection. It had been my job to see that she didn’t. The least I could do was take over where she’d left off, so her death wouldn’t be, let’s say, wasted. it was very quiet at the Tidewater Motel when I reached it. The pool was deserted again. The water still looked blue-green and cold. The window of unit seventeen was dark. I knocked softly. The light came on, footsteps approached the door and it opened to show me the small face of Teddy Michaelis, yawning.

”You took long enough,“ she said. ”Come in.“





NINE




SFIE WAS A pajama girl, which, if I’d come for pleasure instead of business, I’d have found disappointing: nighties are much nicer. With her short, blonde hair, in her loose blue-flowered silk coat and tapering blue trousers, she looked like a small, sleepy, barefoot boy.

”Well, get inside before somebody sees you, stupid,“ she snapped when I didn’t move at once. I moved past her. She closed the door and locked it, saying, ”I hope you had sense enough to make sure you weren’t followed.“

The room had unpleasant associations for me. It was almost an exact duplicate of Jean’s, a few doors down. There was the same beige wall-to-wall carpet, the same blond furniture, and the same TV set on the same revolving stand. Only the feminine debris was different; Teddy Michaelis would never take any prizes for immaculate housekeeping, either.

I walked to the closet and looked inside. I inspected the bathroom and found it empty. I turned to look at the small, boyish figure standing by the door, watching me warily. Despite the aggressive attitude with which she’d greeted me, she was obviously scared. I could hardly blame her. From her point of view, it must have been kind of like inviting a man-eating tiger to tea.

”Let’s not play cowboys and Indians, doll,“ I said. ”Every cop in the state knows my car after the alarm that went out. What was I supposed to do, take it out in the woods and paint it pink, just for you?“ She looked disconcerted, and I went on, ”As far as I know, I came here clean. But I’m not guaranteeing how long it will last.“

”Now,“ I said, ”say something that makes it worth my trouble.“ I glanced around once more, and decided to take a chance on a mike. It didn’t seem likely, under the circumstances, that she was in league with the police; and if anybody else was setting traps for me, I might as well take the bait and see what happened next. ”Let’s start with why you lied to the cops for me, doll,“ I said.

”Don’t call me that.“

I made her a sweeping bow. ”I humbly apologize for the familiarity, Miss Michaelis, ma’am.“

”Papa used to call me doll,“ she said, still standing there watching me, unmoving. ”That’s why-“ She stopped.

”That’s why you don’t want to hear it from my degenerate lips?“

She smiled slowly. She was gaining confidence, I saw. She hadn’t known just what to expect when I first came in: a hoodlum, a murderer. Now she was realizing that, depraved and wicked though Petroni might be, he was fundamentally just another male.

”You said that,“ she murmured. ”I didn’t.“

”Your meaning got through, honey,“ I said. ”Loud and clear. Any objection to honey?“

Her smile remained. ”If you have to call me something, why not try Teddy?“

”Teddy,“ I said. ”Like in bear. Okay, Teddy.“ I frowned at her. ”So Papa used to call you doll?“ She nodded. I said, ”And Papa is Dr. Norman Michaelis, scientist, electronics expert, and Washington bigshot. Widower. One daughter and a private income from his inventions. I like that private income, Teddy. Folks with private incomes can afford to pay for their notions, even the crazy ones. What’s your notion in getting me out of jail and asking me here?“

She didn’t answer the direct question. She was frowning right back at me. ”You checked up on me?“

”Did you think I wouldn’t? A mouse I’ve never seen before saves me from the cops and asks me to a conference in her motel room. Would I walk in cold?“

She hesitated, and asked curiously, ”What’s a mouse, Jim?“

”Don’t act dumb. A mouse is a broad.“

”I mean,“ she persisted, ”is it good or bad? Like dream-boat? Or like bitch?“

”A mouse,“ I said, ”is something small and cuddly. Like a doll, which is what your daddy used to call you. Let’s stick with that. Let’s brush it hard and see where the dandruff falls. Used to? What made him stop?“ She looked at me and didn’t answer. I said, as if quoting from memory, which I was, ”Dr. Norman Michaelis is currently resting and relaxing aboard a seagoing yacht belonging to friends. That’s the official scoop. Don’t ask me how I got it. I’ve got connections.“

Actually, I’d got it from the dope given me by Mac during the preliminary briefing. Michaelis’ disappearance had been temporarily covered up, to avoid embarrassing questions while the search was in progress.

The little girl said quickly, ”It isn’t true. I suppose they mean the Freya, but she’s anchored up a creek not twenty miles from here, where she can’t be seen unless you’re right on top of her. Nobody’s aboard except Nick, the paid hand. They’ve painted out the name and home port, but how many jib-headed, eighty-foot schooners are there on the Bay? I got that much for my money, anyway, before somebody got to the man I’d hired and bought him off. Or scared him off. Anyway, he turned in one report and quit.“

I said, ”You’re throwing it at me fast. Is it supposed to make sense? What’s a jib-headed schooner?“

”A schooner is a two-masted sailing vessel, fore-and-aft rigged, with the taller mast aft. If it has a Marconi mainsail, it’s jib-headed. Because it comes to a point at the top like a jib, get it? Or do I have to tell you what a jib is, Jim?“

I hadn’t reacted the first time she used my name, so this time she called attention to it with a little smile; she was treating me just like a human being. She wasn’t scared a bit, even if I did go around killing people, her smile said. She found a cigarette on the dresser, lit it, and sat down on the bed facing me, smoking bravely.

”The jib’s the little triangular sail up front. I know that much,“ I said. ”And Freya was the Norse goddess of love and beauty. And an eighty-footer is a lot of boat, for a private yacht. And who did you hire to do what, Teddy?“

”A private detective from a New York agency. I’ve been working in New York. When Papa disappeared-“

”Disappeared?“

”His letters stopped coming. I called his lab in Washington and they said he was taking a vacation, but he hadn’t written me anything about it. They said he’d come down here. They sounded-well, funny. So I called her long distance-“

”Who?“

”You know. You met her. The horsy aristocratic lady with the sharp, sharp eye.“

”Mrs. Rosten?“

Teddy nodded. ”And she said he was off cruising somewhere, like you just told me. She’d lent him the schooner, she said.“

”I see. Well, I wish I had a handsome lady friend who lent me eighty-foot yachts. So your daddy used to call you doll, but he doesn’t any more, because he’s off cruising the seven seas in a schooner that’s tied up in a creek twenty miles from here with the name painted out. An4 you sent a New York private eye to investigate, and he came back with his tail between his legs. And just where the hell does this Rosten dame come into the act, anyway?“

Teddy hesitated. ”Papa-well, Papa was crazy about her,“ she said reluctantly.

”Tsk, tsk,“ I said. ”A married woman? How did she feel about it?“

”Feel?“ There was sudden viciousness in the little girl’s voice. ”What makes you think she’s got feelings, that female vampire? Don’t flatter her, Jim!“

”In other words,“ I said, ”you don’t like her very much.“

”She’s a monster!“ the girl said fiercely. ”Who was that ancient character who turned men into swine?“

”Circe, I think,“ I said. ”She wasn’t ancient at the time, as I recall.“

”Well, this one is,“ Teddy said. ”God, she must be almost forty, and she had Papa making a fool of himself like they were both kids in their teens!“

”Think of it,“ I said, ”an old hag like that. Almost forty!“

She glanced up quickly. I don’t exactly qualify as a dewy juvenile myself. She had the grace to look embarrassed.

”I didn’t mean-anyway, it’s different with a man.“

”Sure. Men age better.“

”Well, they do. I-I just couldn’t understand it. What he saw in her, I mean. It wasn’t as if she were pretty or anything, or even very bright. I mean, all she can talk about is horses and dogs and boats, real sexy conversation. The only thing I can figure is, she must be good in bed, but she doesn’t look it.“

I said, ”And you don’t like the idea of her being good in bed with your papa, anyway.“

”Well, should I?“ she snapped. ”I tried to tell him, to warn him. Somebody had to tell him he was making himself utterly ridiculous! We had a terrible fight about it, and I packed my things and moved to New York and said I wasn’t going to set foot in the house again until he’d made a clean break with that woman.“

”That’s known as polite blackmail,“ I said. ”Impolite blackmail is when you ask for money.“

She flushed. ”I had to do something! I couldn’t just stand by and let him ruin everything. I didn’t even answer his letters. He made me so mad! He kept writing to me as if I were a child who just didn’t understand. I understood, all right. I just thought it was disgusting!“ She drew a long, ragged breath. ”And now-and now he’s gone.“ She paused. ”I think he’s dead, Jim. Murdered!“

”Murdered?“

”Yes, and it’s her fault. I know it is!“

”Mrs. Rosten? Why would she kill him?“

”I didn’t say she killed him. I said it was her fault.“ Teddy glanced at me, somewhat hesitantly, and went on, ”I think-I think her husband killed him in a fit of jealousy. Don’t laugh. That’s the way it must have happened!“ She drew on her cigarette defiantly.

I studied her for a moment. I was realizing, rather belatedly, that I was dealing with a screwball. It changed the situation somewhat.

”I’m not laughing,“ I said. ”I’m just panting, trying to catch up. You’re leaving me way behind.“

She said, ”Well, it’s logical, isn’t it? She’s beat on that poor man for years. He’s definitely unstable, anyway. Anybody can see that. She’s flaunted her lovers in his face, time and again. Everybody knows it around here. I think it finally just got too much for him and he went off his trolley.“

”Have you got any evidence for all this?“ I asked. ”Or are you making it up as you go along? Half freshman psychology and half TV?“

She said, ”Well, if Papa isn’t dead, where is he? I think there was a dreadful scene of some kind, and Louis Rosten went haywire and killed him. Then she helped her husband cover up to avoid the scandal of a murder trial that would have crucified her. Why is the Freya hidden in that creek? Why is Louis absolutely terrified of his wife? Why did that private detective drop the case after coming down here? She either bought him off or threatened him with political influence; her family’s been big stuff in this state since Lord Calvert founded Baltimore.“

”Lord who?“ I asked.

”Calvert,“ she said. ”They pronounce it Caulvert around here.“

”So you came down to get the goods on her?“

”What else could I do?“ Teddy shrugged her small shoulders under the silk pajama coat. ”1 hoped they’d invite me to stay at the house out on Long Point, but I guess they knew I meant trouble. They gave me some story about remodeling the guest wing and got me a room here. Then they had me to dinner with this creepy Thunderbird character. One of them was watching me every minute I was in the house, either Louis or her, and I wasn’t too sure about Thunderbird. He’s some kind of relative. And then we came back here to go swimming- swimming, with the temperature nudging absolute zero! They just had to dream up some excuse to get me out of there and back to the motel.“

”And you saw me,“ I said, ”and after you’d