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Authors: Donald Hamilton

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BOOK: The Wrecking Crew
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“Mr. Helm,” the girl with the cigarette holder said, “I want you to meet Mr. Wellington. Jim, Matt Helm.”

We shook hands. His grip was surprisingly gentle, the grip of a man who knows his own strength and guards it carefully. It was a point in his favor, to weigh against his virile good looks.

“Lou tells me you’re a photographer,” he said.

“That’s right,” I said.

“Used to take pictures myself for a hobby,” he said. “Won half a dozen prizes at our camera club back home in Baltimore, but I guess that’s small stuff to you pros… Well, I’ll leave you to your business. See you, Lou.”

He released my hand and wheeled toward the door, and in that moment I placed him. It had been during the war, at night. They’d brought this big kid up to me on the airfield saying that since I was lone-wolfing it this trip there was plenty of room, and if I didn’t mind, it would save their making an extra run. He wasn’t one of ours—he was OSS or something—and I wasn’t crazy about having any outsiders knowing where I’d been dropped, but there wasn’t much I could do about it.

Nobody bothered to introduce us. We didn’t have names around that place, anyway; we were just cargo to be delivered. I shook hands with the boy, that was all. He’d been a knuckle grinder back in those days; apparently he’d learned better manners since. Then they called that the plane was ready and he wheeled toward it with that same aggressive football readiness of a big man who expects to be hit hard and intends to stay on his feet nevertheless...

I remembered the rest of that night clearly. We hadn’t talked on the way across the Channel. We’d been just two young guys with different destinations, sharing a taxi for a few blocks, and I’d been wondering, as always, if this was the night my chute wouldn’t open or I’d land in some hot wires and fry to death. He’d had his own thoughts, of a similar nature, probably. He didn’t even wish me good luck when it was time for me to drop, but I didn’t hold that against him. We had no sentimental traditions or customs in our organization, but in some outfits, I knew, just as among some hunters, it was considered bad form to wish anybody luck at parting.

“So long, fella,” was all he said.

I never have liked people who call me fella, so I just gave him a nod as I went out. The hell with him. If you want to make buddies, join the infantry. The umbrella opened fine, and I landed in an open field, and I never saw the guy again until now.

He turned briefly at the door, waggled his hand in a half salute and looked at me casually, and I knew that he was double-checking, studying me from this new angle to make quite sure. After all, some time had passed. A horse born that night would be a pretty old nag by now. It was a wife and three kids ago for me. But he had a good eye, a trained eye, and he knew me, all right, and he went out without saying a word, which was the significant thing. He had recognized me, but he kept his mouth shut. It could mean a lot of things. After all, I wasn’t joyously recalling auld lang syne, either.

“Who’s he?” I asked, when he was gone.

“Jim?” Lou Taylor shrugged her shoulders. “Just a friend. He’s kind of nice, actually. He’s the Stockholm representative for a U.S. plastics firm, if it makes a difference… Scotch or gin? I recommend the Scotch. The gin you get here isn’t fit to drink.”

“In that case, Scotch,” I said.

“I just want to get one thing straight, Helm,” she said, turning to face me with the glass in her hand. “On the phone, you sounded as if you were planning to go up to Kiruna all alone. Well, don’t kid yourself. This is my article, and I’m going to be right beside you when you shoot the pictures. I don’t know much about photography, but I know the stuff I want, and I’m at least going to see that you get it down on film, whether or not it gets used later.”


It came so easily and naturally that it caught me by surprise. I’d expected to have to work for it. I’d thought she’d at least try to be cute about it. It was such a simple and obvious test.

“Try her,” Mac had said. “If she’s willing to let you go up to the Arctic and shoot these mining pictures all by yourself, her article is probably as innocent as it seems, and you’re wasting your time. In that case, you’ll have to dig up another lead somewhere. But if she insists on coming with you, you may be in business.” He hesitated. “Eric.”


“Strictly speaking, the sex of your quarry has not yet been determined. I speak of him as a man only because Taylor’s article refers to him as a man. But Taylor’s information should not be accepted uncritically. We don’t know where he got it or how reliable it is. He may even have had reasons for being deliberately misleading. As for the wife, nobody seems to know too much about her. Apparently she’s just an American kid he met in Rome a few years back; everybody was rather surprised when they got married, since he hadn’t been considered good matrimonial material.” Mac smiled thinly. “Anyway, just because a suspect is female doesn’t mean that she can be safely disregarded. Keep it in mind.”

I was keeping it in mind as I faced Mrs. Taylor in her hotel room. It wasn’t hard to do. She had no appeal for me at the moment. I’ve never had much use for women in pants. When I mentioned this idiosyncrasy to a psychiatrist friend, he said it was a subconscious defense mechanism against my incipient homosexual tendencies. He had me worried for a while, until I discovered that he explained all human behavior on the grounds of incipient homosexual tendencies. He was even writing a book about his theory, but I don’t think he ever finished it. Somebody else beat him to it. The competition in the field of psychiatric theories is fierce these days.

Anyway, a woman in pants has very little interest for me, as a woman, and that goes double for all the strange britches women have taken to parading around in lately. Mrs. Taylor’s snugly fitting nether garments—I wouldn’t know precisely what to call them—came to an arbitrary end just below her calves, so that they looked like slacks badly shrunk in the wash. She was wearing soft black slippers. Her hair was dark, cut off short, and brushed back over her ears boyishly.

I couldn’t help remembering that this was, or had been, a married woman, and wondering what her husband had thought of this get-up. It must have been kind of like going to bed with your kid brother.

I said, “Don’t bite me, Mrs. Taylor. If you want to go north with me, there’s certainly no objection on my part. But you’ll have to take up the matter of expenses with the magazine. I have no authority to put you on the payroll.”

She said, “Oh, I’ll pay my own way. I won’t even try to stick them for it. But I do want to go along.” Then she smiled at me, half apologetically. “I’ve lived this story for months, Helm. Can you blame me for wanting to see how you handle your end of it?”

When she smiled, her face got a kind of pixie look, half wistful and half mischievous. It wasn’t a bad face, as faces go. It had the proper features in the proper sizes in the proper places, and there were no visible defects or blemishes—but I did notice an odd, round little scar, relatively fresh, on her throat. Seeing this made a tingling sensation go down my spine; I had a few similar scars myself. I waited until she’d handed me my drink and turned to tap her cigarette ashes into a nearby bowl, and sure enough, on the other side and quite far back—you couldn’t see how it had missed the spine—was the small exit mark.

I remembered Mac’s telling me she was supposed to have been wounded. There could be little doubt of that part of the story. This girl had been shot through the neck, not too long ago, with a jacketed bullet from a military weapon. You might say she was lucky. An expanding bullet in the same place would damn near have torn her head off.

“Yes,” she said, swinging back to face me abruptly, “That’s why I croak like a frog, Helm. Not that I ever had much of a voice.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Didn’t mean to stare.”

“I was lucky, you know,” she said dryly. “I’m alive. Hal—my husband—was killed.”

“Yes,” I said. “I was told about that in New York.” It wasn’t much of a lie. At this distance, the four hundred miles separating New York from Washington dwindled to insignificance.

“One of those damn little machine pistols,” she said. “It must have been nice being a foreign correspondent back in the old days when sentries had nothing but bolt-action rifles and you could run a long way between shots. We were over in East Germany. Hal had wangled it somehow; he was a great wangler. He was on the track of a story, or the follow-up of a story—maybe they told you about that at the magazine, too. He did quite a bit of work for them, from time to time. That’s why I submitted my piece there. Anyway, the man at the barricade signaled us to stop, looked at the license plate, and cut loose without a word. Hal saw it coming and threw himself on top of me, so I just got the one bullet… It was a deplorable accident, of course. The sentry had been drinking and the weapon was defective and ran wild when he brushed the trigger by mistake—and everybody was just as sorry as they could be, in several languages.” She made a face. “The fact is that Hal was on to something, or somebody, so they got him. They let me go only after they’d made sure he hadn’t told me anything of real importance.”

“Somebody?” I said, keeping my voice casual. “Who?”

“A man named Caselius,” she said, readily enough. “‘The Man Nobody Knows,’ to quote the title of my husband’s last published work—not exactly original with him, I’m afraid. The master spy of the Kremlin, if you believe in that sort of stuff. You’d be surprised how many supposedly intelligent people seem to. At least they use the word ‘intelligence’ in describing their activities. I may be slightly prejudiced, but I don’t think it fits very well.”

I said, “You sound bitter.”

“You’d be bitter, too, if… Look, I’ve lost my husband and I’ve barely recovered from this—” she touched her throat— “and all I want is to be left alone, and instead I can’t move for falling over these creeps. I’ve been questioned till I’m ready to vomit. Where did Hal get his information about this Caselius character? Why was I kept so long in the hospital over there? Why was Hal’s body cremated? Did I really see him dead…
See him
?” she breathed. “I was on the floor of the car, strangling on my own blood, feeling the bullets smash into him as he shielded me…”

She shivered, drew a long breath, then let her glance drop to the camera suspended from my shoulder, and spoke in a totally different tone of voice. “I certainly hope that little thing isn’t what you’re planning to work with when we get up to Kiruna.”

I said, “That and three others like it.”

“Dear God,” she said flatly, “I ask for an industrial photographer, and they send me a cowboy with a candid camera!”

I looked at her for a moment, and grinned. “Don’t take it out on me just because you’ve been heckled by a bunch of morons. And don’t squawk about the pix until you’ve seen the proofs.”

She said, still sharply, “I did get some money out of it, insurance and compensation and stuff, but Hal was kind of casual about paying his debts and I had to clean up after him. I want this story to be good enough so they’ll let me do another one. Frankly, Helm, I need the dough.”

“Who doesn’t?” I said. “Have you got anything to wear besides those pants?”

She glanced down. “What’s wrong with my pants?”

I said, “I’d rather not say. But if you’ve got a dress around the place, I’ll buy you a dinner. Pick a restaurant that’s got some light, and bring a copy of your article. The one I read in New York I had to give back to the editor.”

She hesitated, and looked me over from head to foot, and smiled faintly. “I’ve got a dress,” she said. “Have you got a dark suit, a white shirt, and a tie? They don’t go in for sports clothes much here in Stockholm.”

“Sounds almost like dressing for a funeral,” I said. “Do I got to wear shoes, too, ma’am, or is it okay if I come barefoot?”

She looked a little startled; then she laughed. When she laughed she was quite a good-looking girl, in spite of the pants and whacked-off hair.


I brought her back to the hotel a little before ten, took her as far as the door of her room, and put the manuscript, which I was carrying, into her hands.

“Well, I think we’ve got it pretty well worked out, at least for the first couple of days,” I said. “Now all we have to do is shoot it. Good night, Lou.”

A hint of surprise showed in her eyes. She’d obviously been prepared to put up at least a token resistance to a token pass. For me not to test her defenses at all was disconcerting. Well, that was a good way to leave her: disconcerted.

“The plane leaves at ten,” I said. “I’ve got some errands to run in the morning, so I’ll just meet you at the airport, if it’s all right with you.” I smiled down at her innocently from my six feet four. “I didn’t know I was going to have company on this jaunt or I’d have planned it differently. But I guess you can find your own way out there.”

“I’ll manage,” she said, a little stiffly. “It’s perfectly all right. Don’t worry about me. Hal trained me well. I won’t be any trouble to you. I may even be some help, since I know the country and the people you’ll be dealing with. Good night, Matt.”

I watched her unlock the door. She didn’t look bad at all. I’d been afraid, from the outfit in which she’d greeted me, that she’d turn out to be one of the dirndl girls—at least that was what those peasant costumes used to be called, I think. Maybe they’ve got a new name for them now: the ones that went with bare legs and thong sandals and artsy conversations.

However, she’d surprised me by appearing in a simple, long-sleeved cocktail dress of thin wool jersey—if that’s the proper name for that clinging, knitted-looking material—dead black and quite plain except for a shiny black satin gash or belt done up in a kind of large bow or knot at her hip. Architecturally speaking, she wasn’t exactly from Sexville, as the cats back home would put it. But the smoothly fitting black dress indicated that she wasn’t hopelessly deformed, either, while at the same time it gave her a nice, smart, covered-up look that went well with her clipped, brushed hair.

She gave me a final glance and a brief smile and vanished from sight. I hoped she was feeling slightly disappointed, even if she was a respectable widow determined to be loyal to the memory of her dead husband. If I’d given her a chance to rebuff me, even in a gentle and friendly way, the advantage would have been hers. Now it was mine. I’d probably have worked it this way, being a diabolical soul, even if I hadn’t had a date in the park.

BOOK: The Wrecking Crew
13.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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