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Authors: Edward S. Aarons

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“Are you tapped?”

“No."

“Sure?”

“I’m sure,” Durell said.

“But you’re not alone?”

“No. You’re late, Mr. Meecham.”

“Much too late. They surprised us. Bad news. Maybe you’d
better meet us outside. Inside the gate, in the gardens."

Durell looked at the rain-dappled windows with distaste. He
looked at Maggie, snug and warm and bountiful in the bed. She smiled at him.
Her pale eyes looked silvery, reflecting the rain.

“Twenty minutes,” he said.

“Now.”

“Ten, then.”

“All right.”

Durell hung up.

 

15

HE HAD bought Italian boots, a raincoat, a
Borsalino
hat, a
Santini
sportcoat
of nubby brown-gold material, and dark green
slacks. He ignored the hat and did not bother with a necktie. Maggie asked if
he would be gone long. He scarcely heard her, but shook his head negatively.

“Keep the door locked.”

“Sam?”

“It’s business,” he said.

He did not kiss her goodbye. It was as if he had suddenly
opened a door and stepped into another place, another dimension, distant and
separate from her. She felt a sudden fear for him. She watched soberly as he
thrust his snub-barreled .38 into the elastic waistband of his slacks.

“Don’t leave the room,” he said.

“All right.”

“I mean it.”

“Yes, Sam.”

He went out, waited until he heard her bare feet pad to the
door, listened to her throw the bolts and click the lock shut. Then he went
down in the elevator, nodded from the small lobby floor into the bar
where the bartender was mixing drinks for some September tourists, and stepped
out into the rain. It was a short walk to the Via Veneto. The misty rain had
hardened into a steady downpour. He turned right, threaded his way through the
metal chairs and tables under a canopy that Stretched to the curb. In a few
moments, striding beside the hissing, turbulent traffic, he went through
the old Roman gate into the comparative serenity of the Borghese Gardens. The
trees dripped, and there were puddles on the pedestrian walks. He turned right
again, inside the thick walls, and saw John Meecham and two other men standing
in the shelter of a small wooden summer house, like a tiny bandstand, amid a
copse of towering beech trees. There were no other pedestrians. Lights began to
twinkle here and there through the landscaped shrubbery. The flowers in
their immaculate beds drooped and nodded their bright autumnal heads under the
beating of the rain.

“Hello, Cajun,” Meecham said, as Durell mounted the wooden
steps to meet them. “This is Wolfe. And Andrews.”

They shook hands. Durell kept his attention on Meecham. He
said, “What did you mean, we‘re too late? How did they surprise us?”

“They took over at Da Vinci. The airport. Killed four
people, including the pilot. Got the money. We thought they’d try en route from
the airport, or at the Fremont House. Before we got it to the bank. But they
took us at the airport instead. So we were too late.”

“Four people killed?” Durell repeated.

“Bystanders.”

“And they took the money?”

“Three hundred thousand.”

“How did they get into the case‘? The attaché case?” Durell
sounded angry. “It was chained to the courier’s wrist.”

“They just cut off his hand. Zap. Took the case, the money,
the chain, and poor George’s hand with them.”

The younger man Meecham had introduced as Andrews walked to
the wooden rail at the edge of the shelter and began to vomit into the
shrubbery below.

 

It was a question of who watched the watchmen.

Durell accepted John Meecham’s branch of K Section, the
Internal Security Bureau, as a necessary evil, perhaps. But he did not like it,
and rarely agreed to work with the shadowy men within ISB, regarding them as a
form of Judases, pariahs, and snoops whose secretive surveillance of K
Section’s own men was often dubious and always a prickly subject with General
Dickinson McFee.

He supposed it was in proper conformation with the
government’s basic system of checks and balances. The problem of who spied on
the spies was a fact of life. Even the best of men were subject to human
frailties and weaknesses. The work in Durell’s shadow world was subject to
abnormal stresses and strains, loneliness, fatigue, constant terror.

Durell had rarely encountered Meecham's security teams, and
while he felt he had nothing to fear for himself, he knew of abuses and
personal vendettas reaching scandalous proportions, especially during the time
when Enoch Wilderman, an old pro in the business, had run the ISB as a small
bureaucratic empire unto itself. The ISB men knew they were outcasts from the
small, tightly knit groups of men dedicated to the defensive work of K
Section’s troubleshooting teams.

John Meecham had cleaned house somewhat when he had been
appointed to head the ISB some time ago. But Wilderman remained as second in
command, too powerfully entrenched in the private bureaucracy he had

built to be totally dismissed. No one knew who the strings
of men he ran might be, or what they were doing. Their funding was separate
from K Section’s, which gave ISB an independence of command and activity.

Durell never knew the exact parameters under which the
Internal Security Bureau functioned. John Meecham was an extraordinary man, a
walking encyclopedia of data which often seemed pointless and random, but which
always correlated in the end toward problem solutions. He was perhaps the
ugliest man Durell had ever known. Short and squat, he was built like a beer
keg, and every inch of him was spring steel. His general appearance was
toadlike
; he had bulging, pale-green eyes, a fiat
brow, a lumpy jaw, straight small teeth usually clamped around an unlit cigar.
His thick black hair grew low on his brow. His ears were too big. His shoulders
were out of proportion, like a wrestler’s. Ugly. But the green eyes were
brilliant, and his proficiency and encyclopedic mind could not be denied.

 

The rain drummed steadily on the roof of the pergola. The
man named Andrews stopped vomiting up over the rail. The man named Wolfe just
kept watching Durell with a steady, dark stare.

Andrews was a Foreign Service man attached to the American
Embassy, and Durell did not pay much attention to him. Wolfe was another
matter, with his steady, unwinking stare. He was a big man, burly in the
shoulders, and under his salt-and-pepper suit, Durell suspected solid muscles
and any amount of weaponry. Wolfe was Meecham’s man. His pale-gray eyes seemed
to be taking Durell apart piece by piece, with unwarranted hostility, and
Durell finally said, “What’s the matter with him John?”

Meecham said, “Wolfe is taking Charley Lee’s place. Why did
you do that to Lee, Sam?”

“He was your man, wasn’t he?”

“You must have known that.”

“Well, I didn’t want him around anymore.”

“You didn’t have to batter him that way,” Meecham grunted.
“He won’t be useful for two more weeks.”

Wolfe said, “Don’t try that on me, Durell.”

“I don‘t want you around, either,” Durell said.

Meecham said, “It’s something we can‘t do anything about,
Cajun. You have to take him.”

“Only if he stays out of my sight,” Durell said.

Wolfe said, “I won’t get in your way, but I’ll be
 
around when you need me. Because you’re going
to need me. You can count on it.” He had a deep gravelly voice and his nose had
been broken more than once. So someone had put a fist to him at least one
time. He went on flatly, “It’s not the job I asked for, but I’ve got my
orders from Mr. Meecham, no matter what you say, and I’m not responsible to you
and I don’t take any shit from you, either. You’re going to stay alive, as long
as you’re in this for the General, and I’m going to see to it that you do.”

Durell said, “Your concern is not very touching.”

“Fuck you.”

Durell turned to Meecham. “Can we talk somewhere? Alone?”

Meecham looked at his cigar. “We’ll go to
Parigi’s
trattoria
. All right? Let’s get out of this rain. Mr.
Andrews? Abner? Can you make it back to the Embassy okay?”

“Yes,” Andrews said.

“Wolfe?”

The big man stared at Durell. “I’ll be out of sight.

But not far away, sir.”

Meecham transferred his cigar to his left hand and dug into
his raincoat pocket. “This is for you, Cajun. One of the assassins at the
airport lost it.”

Meecham handed Durell a rather large gold coin, with a small
hole drilled close to the outer rim, as if for a chain. The coin was very old
and worn. Durell looked at it closely. It was an old Scottish gold piece, and
he would have placed its date, although it had no date on it, at about the
sixteenth century. It carried the Scottish coat of arms on one face.

A unicorn.

 

16

WOLFE sat near the door of the
trattoria
, his heavy frame
slumped, only his eyes alert on the street outside, with its sheets of sullen
rain spattering on the blackened cobblestones. Then his glance swung to survey
the few other patrons and the back door to the kitchen.

Meecham and Durell sat at a corner table, their backs to the
ocherous
-yellow wall, where ancient posters pasted to
the plaster were peeling back and down. The
Frascati
wine was untouched on the table between them.

“Sir, may I ask a question?” Durell said.

“All you like, Sam.”

Durell said, “All right, then. What are you doing in Rome in
the first place? You didn’t fly in on the TWA plane, did you?”

“No. Wolfe and I were on the observation deck watching the
plane’s arrival. We saw it all. From a distance, of course. Nothing we could do
about it.”

“You flew in earlier, then?”

“The previous scheduled flight.” Meecham’s wide mouth twitched;
it might have been a smile. “I know what you’re getting at. In your report from
Singapore on Hugh Donaldson’s murder—for General McFee’s eyes only, but I got a
copy—when you left Palingpon, you implied a theory that these attacks were
basically aimed at K Section money transfers, They’re all arranged, by the way,
through Joshua Strawbridge, our Finance officer. As you undoubtedly know. I
have no doubt in my mind now that the men involved in these affairs are under
some extraordinary influence, as you suggested, either hypnotized or
drugged. And no doubt that it’s a vendetta against K Section. Aimed at
disrupting our financial affairs, so to speak. As head of Internal
Security, it comes under my province, Sam. There were two previous episodes you
don’t know about. They were
 
minor and
did not involve any killings. One was in Santiago. The other was in Helsinki.
In both cases, extraordinary acrobatics took place. In Chile, they came in from
the roof, atop a new skyscraper, and it required a high-wire act from the
adjacent building. In Finland, they swam through near-freezing water to reach a
villa where your K Section people had some money for transfer into the Soviet
Union. In both cases, they took sizable sums of money.”

“Nothing else?” Durell asked.

“Nothing else.” Meecham shrugged his thick shoulders. “It’s
a worldwide thing, it seems. But then, the world is a small place these days.”

“But you knew that George Donatti was being flown in here to
Rome with a bundle of laundered cash, right? And you came on ahead to greet him
and make sure that nothing happened this time?”

“Yes, Sam. But Security hasn’t done much good, it seems.”

“But you know about these transfers in advance, don’t you?”
Durell insisted.

“Naturally.”

“And you’ve traced for a leak somewhere?”

“We’re looking,” Meecham agreed. He eyed Durell curiously.
“No luck, so far.”

“And where is the next transfer of funds to take place?”

“That’s not for you to know.”

“I’ve been told to check out Hugh Donaldson’s murder,”
Durell persisted. “If it’s tied to these events—and you know it is—I ought to
be informed.”

“I may have to take you off this thing.”

Durell leaned forward over the round metal table.

“Why is that?”

Meecham looked at Wolfe, seated across the small
trattoria
from
them, detached and remote and somehow sullen, yet intimately aware of them and
everything around them.

Meecham said, “This thing is about to break into the news
media like shit hitting the fan. You work in a different field, Cajun.
This is an internal problem. It’s a job for Internal Security. Your attitude
toward us is only too well known. I can understand it, but it’s not helpful to
us. Witness what you did to Charley Lee in Palingpon. If it breaks in the
press, and you’re in it, your usefulness in your branch as field agent
comes to an end. General Dickinson McFee suggested the risk isn‘t worth it.”

“I’m just getting my teeth into this thing,” Durell
protested. He was angry now. “Hugh Donaldson was an old friend.”

“I’m sorry.” Meecham’s gravelly voice was sincere.

“You’re going home.”

“No, sir.”

“What is it? Is it that girl, Maggie Donaldson, you’ve got
up in your room?”

“She’s part of it,” Durell said.

Meecham was silent. His thick dark hair, salted with gray, gleamed
with droplets of the rain they had walked through. His wide mouth opened and
closed twice before he finally replied. “I’ll tell you what. Go see
Wilderman.”

“That son of a bitch,” Durell said.

“Speak politely about my Assistant Director. He’s my right-hand
man.”

“He’s a potbellied old tomcat,“ Durell said.

“If you want to stay on the job, see Enoch. He‘s at Station
Four. You know it?”

BOOK: Assignment Unicorn
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