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Authors: Donald Hamilton

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BOOK: The Wrecking Crew
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“Scotch will do me fine, Mrs. Taylor,” I said. “I’ll be down as soon as I put on a clean shirt.”

I hung up. Then I turned from the instrument casually. It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world to do, and I was careful to move slowly enough, I hoped, not to startle my unknown roommate into precipitate action.

I could have saved myself the trouble. She was just standing there, empty-handed and harmless—if any pretty woman can be called harmless—with her expensive tweed suit and severe silk blouse and soft blue hair. Well, I’d told myself that if she really had some reason for wanting to talk with me, she’d turn up again.

3

We paced each other for a moment in silence, while I dropped my jaw and widened my eyes to register the emotions proper to finding myself—surprise, surprise— not alone. It gave me a chance to look her over more carefully than I had hitherto done.

The hair was really blue, I saw; it had not been an optical illusion, and it was not merely that vague rinse that grayhaired women often apply for reasons incomprehensible to the male of the species. This was, as I’d judged, prematurely white hair, very fine in texture, meticulously waved and set, and dyed a pale but definite shade of blue. When you got over the initial shock, it looked smart and striking as a frame for her young-looking face and violet-blue eyes. But I can’t say I really liked it.

It was an interesting effect, but I’m not partial to women who go in for interesting, artificial, calculated effects. They arouse in me the perverted desire to dump them into the nearest swimming pool, or get them sloppy drunk, or rape them—anything to learn if there’s a real woman under all the camouflage.

Having registered surprise, I let myself grin slowly. “Well, well!” I said. “This is real nice, ma’am! I think I’m going to like Stockholm. Is there one of you for every room, or are you just a special treat for visiting Americans?” Then I hardened my voice. “All right, sister, what’s the racket? You’ve been trailing me around ever since I set foot on shore, trying for a pickup. Now you listen carefully. It would be a bad mistake for you to rip that handsome blouse and threaten to start screaming, or have your husband charge in, or whatever similar stunt you have in mind.

“You see, ma’am, all us Americans aren’t millionaires, by a long shot. I don’t have enough money to make it worth your while, and if I did have I damn well wouldn’t pay off anyway. So why don’t you just run along and find yourself another sucker?”

She flushed; then she smiled faintly. “You did that very well, Mr. Helm,” she said, rather condescendingly. “Just the slightest tension in the shoulders when you realized I was standing here, almost imperceptible. The rest was very convincing. But then, they’d be bound to send a pretty good man after so many had failed, wouldn’t they?” I said, “Ma’am, you’ve sure got your signals crossed somewhere. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

She said, “You can drop that phony drawl. I don’t think they really talk that way in Santa Fe, New Mexico. You’re Matthew Helm, age thirty-six, hair blond, eyes blue, height six-four, weight just under two hundred pounds. That’s what it says in the official description we received. But I don’t know where you hang two hundred pounds on that beanpole frame, my friend.”

She studied me for a moment. “As a matter of fact, you’re not really a very good man, are you? According to our information, you’re a retread, hauled out of retirement for this job because of your ideal qualifications with respect to background and languages. A trained agent with a genuine record of photo-journalism and a working knowledge of Swedish isn’t easy to come by. I suppose they had to do the best they could. Your department warned us that you might need a little nursemaiding, which is why I made a special trip to Gothenburg to keep an eye on you.” She frowned. “Just what is your department, anyway? The instructions we received were kind of vague on that point. I thought I knew most of the organizations we might have to work with.”

I didn’t answer her question. I was reflecting bitterly that Mac seemed to have done a fine job of giving me the reputation of a superannuated stumblebum. Perhaps it was necessary, but it certainly put me on the defensive here. The identity of my visitor was becoming fairly obvious, but it could still be a trick, and I said impatiently:

“Now, look, sister, be nice. Be smart. Go bother the guy in the next room for a while; maybe he likes mysterious female screwballs. I’ve got a date. You probably heard me make it. Will you get the hell out of here so I can wash up a little, or do I have to call the desk and have them send for a couple of husky characters in white jackets?”

She said, “The word is Aurora. Aurora Borealis. Your orders were to report to me the minute you reached Stockholm. Give me the countersign, please.”

That placed her. She was the Stockholm agent I was supposed to notify of my arrival. I said, “The Northern Lights burn brightly in the Land of the Midnight Sun.” I must have memorized half a thousand passwords and countersigns in my time, but I still feel like a damn fool when it comes time to give them. This specimen should tell you why—and at that, it isn’t half as silly as some I’ve had to deliver with a straight face.

“Very well,” said the woman before me, crisply. She gestured toward the telephone I had recently put down. “Now explain, if you please, why you chose to approach the subject before contacting me as instructed.”

She was pushing her authority very hard, and she didn’t really have much to push, but Mac had been explicit about what my attitude should be. “You’ll just have to grin and bear it,” he’d said. “Remember this is peace, God bless it. Be polite, be humble. That’s an order. Don’t get our dear, dedicated intelligence people all upset or they might wet their cute little lace panties.”

Mac didn’t ordinarily go in for scatological humor; it was a sign that he felt strongly about the kind of people we had to work with these days. He grimaced. “We’ve been asked to lend a hand, Eric, but if there’s a strong protest locally, we could also be asked to withdraw. There’s even a possibility, if you make yourself too unpopular, that some tender soul might get all wrought up and pull strings to embarrass us here in Washington. Every agent must be a public relations man these days.” He gave me his thin smile. “Do the best you can, and if you should haul off and clip one of them, please, please be careful not to kill him.”

So I held my temper in check, and refrained from pointing out that I was, technically, quite independent of her authority or anybody else’s except Mac’s. I didn’t even bother to tell her that her nursemaiding of me from Gothenburg to Stockholm—as she’d called it—and her presence in my room now, had probably left me with just about as much of my carefully constructed cover as a shelled Texas pecan. She wasn’t exactly inconspicuous, with that hair. Nobody watching me could have missed her. Her opposite number on the other team, here in Stockholm, would be bound to know who she was. Any hint of communication between us would make everybody I was to deal with very suspicious indeed.

I was supposed to have got in touch with her by telephone, when I judged it safe. By barging in like this, she’d knocked hell out of most of my plans. Well, it was done, and there was nothing to be gained by squawking about it. I’d just have to refigure my calculations to allow for it, if possible.

I said humbly, “I’m very sorry, Aurora—or should I say Miss Borealis. I didn’t mean to—”

She said, “My name is Sara. Sara Lundgren.”

“A Svenska girl, eh?”

She said stiffly, “My parents were of Swedish extraction, yes. Just like yours, according to the records. I happen to have been born in New York City, if it’s any business of yours.”

“None at all,” I said. “And I’m truly sorry if I’ve fouled things up in any way by calling the Taylor woman, but I’d sent her a radiogram from the boat saying I’d be here by three, and the train was late, so I thought I’d better get in touch with her before she got tired of waiting and left the hotel. I’d have checked with you tonight, Miss Lundgren, you may be sure.”

“Oh,” she said, slightly mollified. “Well, we might have had some important last-minute instructions for you; and I do think orders are made to be obeyed, don’t you? In any case I should think you’d want to hear what I know about the situation before you go barging into it like a bull buffalo. After all, this isn’t a ladies’ tea, you know. The man we’re after has already cost us three good agents dead, and one crippled and permanently insane from torture he wasn’t supposed to survive—not to mention the Taylor woman’s husband. We don’t really know what happened to him, except from her story, which may be the truth but probably isn’t. I know you were well-briefed before you left the States, but I should think you’d want the viewpoint of the agent on the spot as well.”

“Naturally,” I said. “I was hoping you could give me a lot of details that weren’t in the official reports, Miss Lundgren.”

She smiled abruptly. “I suppose I should apologize. I didn’t really mean to throw my weight around, but I do like things to be done according to the rules… and you did hurt my feelings, you know.”

“Hurt your feelings?” I said, surprised. “How? When?”

She laughed. “When a strange lady addresses you in a public place, Mr. Helm, like a railroad station, and smiles her prettiest, you’re not supposed to turn on your heel and walk away. It makes her feel… well, unattractive. I
was
trying to pick you up; I thought that would be the most convincing way of making contact. Instead, you left me standing there with my mouth open, looking like a fool.” She laughed again. “Well, the subject is waiting for you; we’ll have to talk later. I run a little dress shop on Johannesgatan
—gata
means street, you know. I live in the apartment above the shop. The stairs are at the side... No, that won’t do, will it? You’d better not come there.”

After the way she’d already compromised my act, it didn’t make much difference. But I said, “It doesn’t seem advisable. Although it would be pleasant.”

Her smile died. “You can stop
that
right now, my friend. I’ve been in this work quite a while; and when I make a midnight appointment for business, I assure you that’s all it is—business. Anyway, I’m engaged to be married as soon as I’ve put in my time here. Please understand clearly that just because I don’t like a man to walk away from me as you did doesn’t mean I want to go to bed with him!”

I said, “It’s understood. Sorry.”

She said curtly, “You’ll probably have dinner with the woman if you can manage, won’t you? You’ll have lots of technical matters to discuss with her, but please try to keep the conversation out of the boudoir. You seem to fancy yourself as a fast worker, and that may be the way to handle it, all right. But you’ll have plenty of time later, if things work out, and I don’t want to have to wait all night for you.

“As soon as you can get rid of her, after dinner, go out for a walk. It won’t surprise anybody. Everybody walks in this country. You never saw such a bunch of energetic people. When you come out of the hotel, cross the street to the seawall and turn left. Follow the water. There’s a kind of park along the shore. After fifty yards of that, there’s a phone booth. You’ve seen their phone booths? On stilts, kind of, with a luminous white globe on top and illuminated advertising on all four sides, under glass. Very gaudy, particularly at night. You can’t miss it.”

“I’ll try not to.”

“When you get there, pretend to make a call, and wait,” she said. “I’ll be somewhere around. I’ll contact you as soon as I’m sure you’re not being followed.” She smiled at me. “I’m sorry if I was unpleasant. I think we’re going to get along.”

As I watched her leave the room, walking with a restrained and decorous motion of the narrow hips under the tweed skirt, I wasn’t a bit sure of that. I’ve never managed to get along well with any woman who had that kind of a prissy behind.

4

When I knocked on the door of Room 311, it was opened for me by a lean dark girl in tight black pants. She was also wearing a loose bulky black sweater and a long cigarette holder. Despite the beatnik get-up, or maybe because of it, she looked much too young to be the woman I’d spoken with on the phone, and I said:

“I’m Matthew Helm. Is Mrs. Taylor here?”

“I’m Lou Taylor,” she said, and there was that deep, hoarse voice again. She held out her hand. “Glad to meet you, Helm.” I’m always a bit taken aback when a woman shoves her mitt at me like a man, and I guess my face showed it, because the girl laughed huskily and said, “You’ll be doing it, too, after you’ve been here a week. These damn Swedes shake hands at the drop of a hat, males and females both… Well, don’t just stand there, come on in. What kind of a crossing did you have?”

“Smooth,” I said. “A bit foggy in spots.”

“You can count yourself lucky,” she said. “The Atlantic can get pretty sloppy at this time of year.”

She had closed the door. I followed her deeper into the room. It wasn’t laid out quite like mine, but there was a family resemblance. A man was perched on the arm of the only comfortable chair in the place, a big, overstuffed piece by the window. He rose and came forward.

He was tall and big-shouldered and some years my junior, with a handsome boyish face and tightly curling chestnut hair cut quite close to his head as if he was ashamed of it. He was wearing narrow Ivy League gray flannels—coat and pants—a white shirt with a button-down collar, and a bow tie. The tie had been tied by him, not by a machine. I was told by my dad once that a man who tied his own ties was much more likely to be a gentleman than one who did not. Just what constitutes a gentleman in this day and age, the old man didn’t bother to say. To him, the distinction was clear. It must have been nice.

The man facing me, gentleman or not, was the kind of guy who makes you wonder instinctively if you can take him barehanded or if you’ll need a club. I don’t mean that he looked particularly objectionable. He merely oozed that aggressive masculinity that makes such thoughts come into other men’s minds. The funny thing was, I’d met him somewhere before. Even if I hadn’t vaguely remembered his features, I’d have known by the look of surprised recognition that showed for an instant in his yellowish eyes.

BOOK: The Wrecking Crew
11.95Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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