Authors: Donald Hamilton
I sat down on the bed again, and polished off my almost-warm-enough coffee. “Sorry,
,” I said. “I’ve had a rough night, and nembutal makes me irritable. Furthermore, I’m not in a mood for jocular references to the lady in question. She happens to be dead.”
“Dead?” He frowned quickly. “The commotion in the park?” I nodded, and he said: “At whose hands? Yours?”
“Why do you say that?”
“One of my reasons for coming was to warn you against trusting her too far. It wasn’t a message we could send through her apparatus, naturally. It appears that her department is secretly investigating some derogatory reports, which they only recently got around to mentioning to us.”
“I’d say the reports were probably correct,” I said. “But it was our man who got her. At least he announced himself by name, and now I’m inclined to think it actually was Caselius. Unfortunately, he gave me no opportunity to look at him in the light, and I think he was disguising his voice… It was a cat-and-mouse act, Vance. Kind of lousy. They let her assist at her own funeral; they let her cooperate with them in making a holy spectacle of herself; they let her think until the last moment that she was just helping them to kid me along. Then they killed her. He killed her.
“It was a great joke, and whoever set it up would have wanted to be there to laugh. That’s why I think it was Caselius himself. He wouldn’t have bothered to arrange all that specialized fun for another guy. He’d have wanted to be there to finish her off himself, and see the horror in her eyes as she realized how cruelly she’d been tricked.” After a moment, I said, “I figure he killed her because she’d served her purpose and he couldn’t leave her alive to talk. That means she had something to talk about. I’ve got to go on to Kiruna in the morning with the Taylor woman. Can you check on two men for me?”
“I can try.”
I said, “One man I don’t know. But she said she was going to be married as soon as she finished her tour of duty here; and I think the bereaved fiancé deserves a little of our attention.
filled her full of fine ideals and used them to make a sucker of her. The other is a man who currently calls himself Jim Wellington. I have no evidence of a connection between him and Lundgren—he does know Taylor—but maybe you can find one. Watch out for him; he’s been through the mill.
“He wasn’t one of ours, but he made a flight with me into France from our usual field, some time in late ’44 or early ’45. Some of those people went bad later, and some even changed sides. He might be one of them. I don’t know his outfit, but I’ll give you a description and Mac can find the date I made that flight and check the official records for my companion. Tell him it was that prison-break operation at St. Alice. My job was to take the commandant out of action with a scoped-up rifle five minutes before they blew the gates. I got the damn commandant, all right, but nobody else showed up, as in most of those lousy cooperative jobs, and I had a hell of a time getting clear...
“Hell, I’m talking too much. I guess I’ve got a bit of a jag on. She wasn’t much, Vance. Just a pretty clothes horse with intellectual and moral pretensions that she didn’t have the brains to live up to—just the kind who’d be a patsy for a clever character with a humanitarian spiel. But I don’t like the way she died,
I just don’t like the lousy way she died!”
He said, “Take it easy, friend Eric. In our business, one does not work well if one lets oneself become emotionally involved.”
I said, “I’ll get over it. I’m just a little shook-up tonight. Somebody held up a mirror, and I didn’t like the looks of the fellow inside the frame. As for that guy Caselius—”
He said, “You had better get over it. You are going to have to restrain your vengeful impulses.”
“What do you mean?”
He was reaching in his coat pocket. He said, “This is ironical, Eric. It is really very ironical.”
“Maybe,” I said. “I can see that it’s a lot of things, but I haven’t spotted much irony yet.”
He said, “I had another reason for coming, a direct communication from the master of ceremonies himself.”
“The master of—”
He laughed. “MC,” he said. “Mac. It is a joke.”
“I’m not up on all the jokes yet,” I said.
“This is no joke, however,” he said. He gave me a folded sheet of paper. “Read it and you will see the irony, too. I could tell you the gist of it, but I will let you decipher it yourself so as not to miss the full flavor of Mac’s prose.”
I looked at him, and at the paper; and I took the paper to the little writing table by the wall and went to work on it. Presently I had it lying before me in plain language. It had my code number and the usual transmission signals. The station of origin was Washington, D.C. The text read:
Representations from female agent Stockholm have led to serious case of cold feet locally. Temporarily, we hope, your orders are changed as follows: you are to make firm identification of subject if possible but do not, repeat do not, carry out remainder of original instructions. Find him, keep him in sight, but don’t hurt a hair of his cute little head. Realize difficulty of assignment, sympathize. Working hard to stiffen local backbones. Be ready for go-ahead signal, but under no circumstances take action unless you receive. Repeat, under no circumstances. This is an order. This is an order. Don’t get independent, damn you, or we’re all cooked. Love, Mac.
Lou Taylor was waiting impatiently when I arrived at the field in a taxi, having slept too long, after my session with Vance, to catch the official airport bus.
“I was beginning to think you weren’t going to make it,” she said, and gave me a second look. “My God, what happened to you?”
My cut lip didn’t show up too badly, although it felt very conspicuous, and I’d hoped my sunglasses hid the shiner, but apparently not. “You won’t believe it,” I said, “but I ran into the closet door in the dark.”
She laughed. “You were right the first time. I don’t believe it.”
I grinned. “All right, I’ll tell you the truth. I couldn’t sleep last night, so I took a walk around town, and three big bruisers came out of an alley and attacked me for no good reason. Of course, being a right-living American boy, I beat hell out of all three of them, but one got through with a lucky punch.”
“A likely story!” she said. “Well, you’d better get this paraphernalia checked in; there’s not much time left before takeoff. Here, I’ll give you a hand.”
“Take it easy with that camera bag,” I said. “Drop that and we’re out of business.”
They don’t let you take pictures from an airplane over Sweden, so I guess all the security nuts in the world don’t live in New Mexico, although sometimes when I’m home it seems that way. I took the seat by the window, nevertheless; Lou said it didn’t matter to her. All scenery looks just about the same from a plane, she said, and she’d already seen it twice getting the dope for her story, going and coming.
Presently the stewardess announced in Swedish and English that we were flying at nine hundred meters and would reach Luleå—pronounced Lulie-oh—in two and a half hours. Lou informed me that the reported altitude was equivalent to approximately twenty-seven hundred feet since, she said, a meter is only a little longer than a yard—thirty-nine and four-tenths inches, to be exact.
Already there were forests below us, and open fields, red roofs, plenty of lakes and streams, and more forests. I had a funny feeling of having seen it all before, although I’d never been closer to it than Britain and the continent of Europe. It was just something my romantic imagination was making up from knowing that my forebears had lived in this country a long time. I suppose a guy named Kelly would feel the same way flying over Ireland.
Then we swung out over the Gulf of Bothnia, that long finger of the Baltic that separates Sweden from Finland, and soon there was nothing to look at but water, roughened by a brisk cross wind. I turned to my companion and found that she was asleep. She looked all right that way, but at twenty-six, her age of record, she wasn’t quite young enough to get sentimental about, sleeping. Only the truly young look really good asleep. They get a kind of innocence about them, no matter what kind of juvenile monsters they may be when they’re awake. The rest of us haven’t that much innocence left. We can be thankful if we manage to sleep with our mouths closed and don’t snore.
She was wearing a brown wool skirt—kind of a pleasant rusty color—and a matching sweater with a neck high enough to cover the scar on her throat. The sweater was good wool but not cashmere; she wasn’t a kid who blew her roll on clothes. Her shoes had set her back something, though. They were strong British walking shoes with sturdy soles. Although I had to respect her good sense, I must say I prefer my women in high heels. Well, at least she’d had the decency to wear nylons. If there’s anything that turns my stomach, it’s a grown woman in bobby sox.
I lay back in my seat beside the sleeping girl and listened to the sound of the plane’s motors and let my thoughts wander. Mac’s little sentence had been a classic of its kind, I reflected:
Realize difficulty of assignment, sympathize.
In effect, I was being asked to locate, identify, and keep an eye on a man-eating tiger—but under no circumstances to shoot the beast.
Repeat, under no circumstances. This is an order. This is an order.
Clearly Mac was scared stiff I might try to be clever and rig up something resembling self-defense. He was in political trouble of some kind, and he didn’t want any dead bodies whatever cluttering up the landscape until he got things straightened out.
Sara Lundgren had hinted that she was doing more than merely refusing to help me. What she’d meant, apparently, was that she’d lodged a stiff protest in Washington against my assignment. As Vance had said, it was ironical. I wondered how she’d have felt if she’d known that her action would prevent us, at least temporarily, from avenging her death. Of course, some of those idealists are pretty stubborn, and it was quite possible that she’d have been in favor of turning the other cheek.
Mac’s worst enemies had always been the gentle folks back home. As he’d said himself once during the war, there wasn’t much danger of the Nazis breaking us up, but one soft-hearted U.S. Senator could do it with a few words. Nowadays it seems to be all right to plan on, and create the machines for, exterminating millions of human beings at a crack, but just to send out the guy to rub out another who’s getting to be an active menace, that’s still considered very immoral and reprehensible.
I’ll admit that I found the idea a little startling myself, even in wartime, when Mac first explained to me exactly what this group was that I’d been picked to join. It was in that office of his in London, with a view of wrecked buildings through the single dusty window, and I’d just been through the first phase of my training—the one you got while they were still evaluating your possibilities and deciding whether they wanted you, after all. Mac had looked up at me for a moment as I stood before his desk.
“Hunter, aren’t you?” he’d said, and then he’d asked me some questions about Western hunting. Finally he said, “Doesn’t seem as if you’re very particular about what you hunt, Lieutenant.” That was before I’d been assigned the code name Eric, that had been mine ever since.
“No, sir,” I said.
“Well, I think we can find you some game, if you don’t mind stalking a quarry that can shoot back.”
Anyway, that’s approximately the way the conversation went. It’s a long time ago, now, and I won’t vouch for the exact words. He always did like to get men who’d done some hunting; it was the first thing he looked for in a prospective candidate. It wasn’t that you couldn’t train city boys to be just as efficient, as far as the mechanics of the job were concerned, he explained to me once, but they tended to lack the balance of men who were accustomed to going out once a year to shoot something specific, under definite legal restrictions. A city kid, turned loose with a gun, either took death too seriously and made a great moral issue of the whole business—and generally finished by cracking up under a load of self-imposed guilt—or, finding himself free of restraint for the first time in his life, turned into a crazy butcher.
What criterion Mac used for the women—yes, we had some then and still do—I don’t know.
I’ve never been ashamed of it. On the other hand, I’ve never talked about it, if only because I was under orders not to. Even my wife, until quite recently, thought I’d spent the war at a desk, doing public relations work for the Army. When she stumbled onto the truth, she couldn’t stand it. I supposed it changed her whole picture of me, herself, and our marriage. Instead of having for a husband a staid, respectable, kindly man with literary inclinations, she suddenly found herself bound to an unpredictable and potentially violent character, capable of deeds she could barely imagine.
Well, we’re all capable of deeds we can barely imagine. Beth’s attitude still had the power to annoy me a little, because I was quite sure she’d never have dreamed of breaking up our home if she’d merely discovered, say, that I was the bombardier who’d pushed the button over Hiroshima. I must say that I don’t get it. Why honor and respect a guy who drops a great indiscriminate bomb, and recoil in horror from a guy who shoots a small, selective bullet? Sara Lundgren had had the same attitude. She’d been perfectly willing, presumably, to collect data, as part of her job, for the use of the Strategic Air Command— that might lead to the eventual obliteration of a city or two—but she’d balked violently at the idea of feeding information to a lone man with a gun.
To be perfectly honest, even before I rejoined, more or less as a reaction to Beth’s leaving me, I’d always been just a little proud of having been a member of Mac’s outfit. After all, it was an elite organization: the wrecking crew—the
as the Nazis had called us—the last resort of the lace-pants boys. When they came up against someone too tough for them to handle, they called on us. The M-Group…
Lou Taylor awoke when we landed at Luleå. There were gray-green military planes on the field marked with three gold crowns, presumably the insignia of the Swedish air force. From Luleå, the airlines map showed, we had to make a hitch due west first, before bearing up to the northwest for Kiruna. I asked the stewardess about this when we were airborne again, and was told that we had to make a little detour because the Swedish Army didn’t like people flying over its great fortress at Boden. It was the first I’d heard of it, and I couldn’t help wondering what a fortress looked like these atomic days, and who was kidding whom.