Authors: Donald Hamilton
But they checked me out thoroughly. That was, of course, why I’d been hauled out here where there was some light to see by—to shoot by, if necessary. I was to be knocked around, humiliated, goaded beyond endurance, in the hope that if I was putting on an act I could be made to lose my temper and reveal myself as something more dangerous than I seemed. In that case, presumably, my attackers would dive for cover and the man among the trees would take care of things permanently with the chopper he held.
They were treating me to choice insults in Swedish now, testing my linguistic abilities, as we milled around flailing at each other breathlessly. At least the words I recognized weren’t very nice. However, you have to know a language very well to appreciate its more esoteric blasphemies. These weren’t expressions I’d normally have encountered as a nice little boy in Minnesota, and they hadn’t been on the vocabulary lists I’d had to memorize more recently, either, although you’d think a practical language course would give some attention to such details…
Suddenly it was over, and they were just hanging onto me. Dead game to the end, as the British would say, I threw myself around some more and tried to jerk my arms free and ignored an invitation to break the shin of the guy to my right with the hard heel of my shoe.
“You bastards,” I gasped, “you yellow bastards, what the hell do you think you’re doing, anyway? I’m an American citizen—” Well, you can fill in the rest of my angry monologue for yourself. I take no pride in it. At last my breath ran out and we all stood there panting.
The man among the trees spoke.
“Fösök med kvinna,”
I jerked around to look at him, as if aware of his presence for the first time. What he’d said was,
“Try with the woman
.” It was time to toss them a bone, and I gasped, “You leave her alone, whoever you are! She’s got nothing to do with—”
“With what, Mr. Helm? With taking innocent photographs for American publications?” The sniper laughed. “Please, Mr. Helm! Give us credit. We know who she is. And we know who you are, and why you’re here... So you
understand some Swedish, after all?”
I said angrily, “You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you? So help me, if I get my hands on you—”
The man to my left hit me across the mouth. The man in the trees said, “Not likely, Mr. Helm. Not even though I understand you’ve come a long way to find me. I assure you, if you did get your clumsy hands on Caselius, it would do you very little good. Quite the contrary, in fact.”
It was my cue to struggle madly to break free and reach him, although just what I expected to accomplish barehanded against his machine pistol wasn’t quite clear. But it was good TV stuff and it went over big. Actually, I hadn’t the slightest hope of getting near him tonight, and I didn’t even intend to make a serious attempt. For one thing, I had no assurance that the man among the trees was really the man I wanted, and I wasn’t going to get myself killed or badly hurt trying for a decoy.
“You wait!” I cried, allowing myself to be subdued. “You just wait, Mister Caselius! It’s your trick tonight, but you’d better stop horsing around now and kill me, or some day when you haven’t got that gun and an army to help you—”
One of them clipped me alongside the head. The sniper in the trees snapped an order in a language I didn’t understand. One man detached himself from the group about me, leaving two holding me. The single man started toward Sara, who drew back apprehensively, but was seized again by the two men flanking her. As the lone man approached, the other two gave her a sudden shove, propelling her toward the third. He stepped quickly aside and thrust out a foot, so that she tripped and hit the grass full length, with a nice display of legs and lingerie. I shouted something incoherent and appropriate and, lunging free—they made it easy for me this time— charged in to protect her from further abuse.
Two men came to meet me, offering the usual opportunities for scientific mayhem, which I ignored, sticking to my windmill, wild-western attack. I suppose there are people who can accomplish something with their fists—Joe Louis for one—but I’d as soon go into a brawl armed with nothing but a fresh-baked roll and a well-done hamburger. You can’t do any real, disabling damage with a fist—at least I can’t—and when you hit a guy with one, damn it, it hurts. But I was a red-blooded, fist-fighting American boy tonight, and we had a fine slugging match over and around the prostrate form of Sara Lundgren. In the middle of it she scrambled to her feet and tried to run, limping from the loss of one of her high-heeled pumps, only to be caught by a man waiting outside the meleé.
They got me pinioned again—it took two of them to hold me; I was a real tiger that night—and Sara’s captor sent her stumbling into the arms of the other two, who tossed her right back at him. He missed the catch, and she tripped on the edge of the walk and sat down hard on the unyielding pavement. They were laughing now, jeering at me and challenging me to come to her aid as they picked her up and passed her back and forth some more before dumping her again, sobbing and disheveled, at my feet.
I struggled with the men who held me. I cursed them in English and dipped into border Spanish. I threw some of their Swedish expressions back at them. Then I went back to my wartime French and German for some really descriptive terminology. I was giving myself away badly now. As a hick photographer, I wasn’t supposed to know all these languages. But my cover was shot to hell, anyway, and the dreadful spectacle before me was driving me mad…
Actually, of course, the woman was nothing to me. I owed her nothing; I had no reason to be fond of her, and some to dislike her. Oh, if I’d thought she was likely to wind up crippled or disfigured or dead, it would have been different. But we were still playing games, and it was obviously just a mussing-up job like I’d got myself— gentler, if anything. They were shoving her around a lot, and it looked brutal, but I noticed that nobody’d really hauled off and hit her—and between bouts of swearing and struggling I watched her disintegration with clinical interest and, I suspect, a trace of mean satisfaction.
I mean, these righteous people give me a pain, anyway; and while a shabby, humble martyr can be quite admirable in adversity, there’s always something a little comical about a proud and well-dressed idealist caught off base. To watch Sara Lundgren, the fastidious morality kid who’d have no truck with violence—hatless and shoeless now, grass-stained and dirty, with her expensive suit popping its buttons and bursting its seams and her skinned knees emerging through her ripped stockings—to watch her pantingly trying to evade her male tormentors didn’t arouse in me much feeling of pity or indignation, particularly since I was fairly sure she’d helped plan the evening’s entertainment herself.
As I said earlier, after checking I’d been prepared to trust her as much as anybody, but on a job like this I don’t trust anybody much. She’d pointed me out by trailing me across the country. She was the one who’d arranged for us to meet here; and she’d given the close-in signal with her cigarette when I started to leave. For an attractive and well-dressed woman deliberately to arrange for her own transformation into a female scarecrow seemed fairly cold-blooded, to be sure; but having fingered me, she’d naturally want to stage a very plausible scene to allay my suspicions.
I didn’t know her motives, but she’d undoubtedly convinced herself it was for the good of mankind—they all do, ever since Judas caught hell for doing if for cash— and all it was really costing her was a few scratches and bruises, a little dignity, and a fall outfit she’d probably got at a discount through her own dress shop…
It stopped with a single word from the man among the trees, in the language I didn’t know. The three men stepped back, leaving Sara sprawled on the grass where she’d last been spilled, crying weakly, a dramatic figure of exhaustion and despair. Her clothing seemed to have divided itself into two parts, bunched about her hips and armpits, so that she looked half naked lying there, and suddenly her dishevelment wasn’t funny any longer. She was a woman and we were men, and I wished she’d stop the foolishness and sit up, button her damn blouse and jacket, and pull her damn skirt down where it belonged.
The man among the trees spoke another command. I was dragged back a couple of steps by the men who held me; and the ones out in the open hurried toward us. Sara stopped crying and scrambled to her feet, so quickly that even if I’d never had a suspicion of her, I’d have known then that the whole act was phony.
“No,” she said.
She was looking toward the trees. Everything had changed. We’d had a lot of fun kidding each other and knocking each other around playfully, but you can’t play games forever. You’ve got to grow up some time.
I became aware again of the distant murmur of Stockholm traffic. The stars seemed farther away than ever. The slender woman in the center of the open space made a hasty, breathless, very feminine gesture toward pushing back her disordered hair and smoothing down her ruined clothes; she moved in stocking feet toward the shadow in the woods, her hands outstretched pleadingly.
“Please… no! You can’t!”
The weapon answered her.
As the gun went off, I threw myself flat, tearing myself loose from the men who held me. There was nothing I could do for her. He wouldn’t miss at that range. I fully expected to be the next target. I rolled toward one of the park benches for such shelter as it could give. No bullets came near me. Presently I sat up, foolish and alone except for the still figure on the grass. Everyone else had departed the scene.
There had been no gaudy farewell speeches, no threats or promises, no blood-curdling ultimatums, just that single, short, accurate burst of automatic fire and some quick footsteps among the trees. I heard a car start up somewhere and drive away. I got up and walked forward. She was quite dead, of course. It was time for me to get out of there before the shooting brought the police, but I stood looking down at her for a moment. It wasn’t a very nice moment.
Not that her death changed my opinion about her part in the night’s events. I still thought she’d betrayed me. She’d merely been double-crossed in her turn. But that didn’t matter now. What mattered was that I’d stood by, gleefully watching her being mauled and humiliated, taking satisfaction in the sight. I’d let her get my goat with her high-flown talk of murder and moral distinctions…
The Stockholm police carry sabers three feet long. So help me, I saw one. They are courageous men. They’ll charge into a dark wood toward the sound of submachine-gun fire, armed with nothing but a yard of cold steel. Well, the world is full of brave men. My experience has been that the cowards are in the minority. I’ve been brave myself upon occasion, but that night wasn’t one of the occasions. There wasn’t anything left to be brave about. I’d have loved to find something.
After the sword-bearing officer had run by, I slipped out of my hiding place in the bushes and made my way back to the hotel. Various official vehicles were converging on the park. They didn’t use sirens. Instead they made a kind of braying, hee-haw noise, like musical donkeys. I recalled reading somewhere that over here sirens were reserved for air raid warnings and such. It’s not a bad idea, come to think of it. Back home, hearing a wailing in the distance, you never know whether you’re dealing with a brush fire in a vacant lot, a kid snatching a purse, or an intercontinental missile with a hydrogen warhead zeroed in on your home town.
I made it to my room without encountering anybody who might have noticed my torn pants, my battered face, and my grim and fearsome expression—at least it felt grim and fearsome. I didn’t take a drink. I didn’t have anything to celebrate. I just took a hot bath and two sleeping pills, and went to bed. I was just a retread, too old to be much use. If someone wanted to kill me in my sleep, he was welcome.
I didn’t sleep very well, in spite of the pills. I kept seeing a slender, disheveled woman with bright hair that looked blonde in the dusk, stretching out her hands toward a shape in the woods, pleading for mercy. Then the dream changed. I was being attacked from all sides. I was overwhelmed, pinned to the ground; they were all over me and I was being slowly smothered by the weight of them… I opened my eyes abruptly to see light in the room. A man was bending over me. His hand was across my mouth.
We, stared at each other in silence, our faces less than a foot apart. He was quite a handsome and distinguished-looking man, with thick, black, well-combed hair, grayed at the temples. He had a little black moustache. He hadn’t been wearing a moustache when I’d seen him last, there’d been no gray in his hair, and his arm had been in a cast up to the shoulder.
“You are careless, Eric,” he murmured, taking his hand away. “You sleep too heavy. And you still have bad dreams.”
“I don’t know why they bother with a key for this room, the way people wander in and out at will,” I said. “Roll up your left sleeve.”
He laughed. “Ah, we play tricks. It was the right one, don’t you recall?” He started to take off his coat.
“Hi, Vance,” I said. “Never mind stripping. I remember you.”
I got up, shook my head to clear it, went into the bathroom and started the hot water running. I got a jar of instant coffee and a plastic cup out of my suitcase. I loaded the cup with the powder and went back to the bathroom to fill it. The water was almost hot enough. I sat down on the bed to drink, without offering any to Vance. I hadn’t invited him. If he was thirsty, he could supply is own coffee, or at least his own cup.
“Don’t smoke,” I said to him as he produced cigarettes. “I don’t, and somebody might wonder who stunk up the curtains.”
He chuckled and lit the cigarette. “They will think it was just your lady friend. The one with the strange hair.”
I rose and knocked the cigarette from his fingers and stepped on it. “I said don’t do it!”
He looked up at me. “Careful, Eric!”
I said, “I could take you, Vance. I could always take you.”
He said calmly, “It was never proved. Some time we must try. But not here and now.”