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Authors: Donald Hamilton

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BOOK: The Wrecking Crew
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Soon the stewardess announced that we were crossing the Arctic Circle; shortly thereafter she came to the seat and pointed out to us—I guess we looked like tourists— an impressive, snowcapped mountain range ahead, the backbone of the Scandinavian peninsula. Beyond was Norway. Off to the right was Finland and, not too far away, Russia. She was particularly proud of a peak called Kebnekaise, which she said was the highest point in Sweden, some seven thousand feet by our barbaric way of reckoning, two thousand meters by more civilized measurement.

Having already been briefed on the metric system once that day by Lou—as if I hadn’t had it in college and used it in the darkroom ever since—I was getting a little tired of being educated by well-informed young ladies. I was tempted to tell this stately blonde girl that, approaching my home town of Santa Fe, New Mexico, you pass the six-thousand-foot mark several miles out of town, hit seven thousand at the Plaza—and there’s nothing in the world to prevent your taking a pleasant little drive up to ten thousand in the nearby Sangre de Cristos. From there you can still keep going up a ways, if you don’t mind walking. I kept my mouth shut, however. No good New Mexican wants to be heard boasting like a Texan, even in a foreign country.

At two o’clock we landed at the Kiruna airport. This seemed to consist mainly of a bleak open field and a wind sock, which was working hard. Three taxis were waiting at the fence. We all climbed in—pilots, stewardess, passengers, everybody—and were driven in to town, leaving the plane standing alone in the arctic wasteland with only the cold wind for company.

When I knocked on the door of her hotel room half an hour later, Lou called, “Come in, it isn’t locked.”

I stepped inside and closed the door behind me. She was sitting at the dresser in her slip, energetically brushing her short, dark, boyish hair. Her slip was a plain and practical white garment, about as sexy as a T-shirt, but her bare arms were quite nice and feminine. It occurred to me that she’d probably photograph well. That was convenient, since photogenic models might be scarce up here in the frozen north, and there are times when a human figure is almost a necessity in a picture, for scale if nothing else.

“Sit down somewhere,” she said. “Let me tell you the schedule. The rest of the afternoon you’re on your own. Tomorrow the company is sending a guide and a car to take us through the mine. They’ll pick us up after breakfast. You’ll want some views of the town, of course—maybe you can get some this afternoon—and of the railroads, particularly the one west into Norway, the spectacular one they use sending the ore over the mountains to Narvik, on the Atlantic. It’s the only way of getting there except on foot; they’ve never managed to get a road built over those mountains… But the mine’s the main thing, as we agreed in Stockholm, and I’ve fixed it so you can get started on it tomorrow. Tomorrow night, we’re going to dinner at a company bigshot’s, some people named Ridderswärd. I’ve lied and told them we’re both traveling light, so they won’t expect a dinner jacket, but I hope you brought along your suit and a clean white shirt in that mountain of junk.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “Shoes and everything.” I stood behind her chair and grinned at her reflection in the mirror. “You’re taking over, is that it, Lou?”

She swung around to look at me directly. Her expression was startled and innocent. “Don’t be silly!” she said quickly. “I just thought…” She checked herself, got up, and wrapped herself in a plain robe of blue flannel that had been lying on the bed; then she swung back to face me. “I’m terribly sorry,” she said. “I didn’t realize how it would look... I always used to make the routine arrangements for Hal. It just… well, it just seemed natural to get on the phone downstairs and… well, I met all these people the last time I was up here and…”

“All right,” I said. “All right, Lou. Relax.”

She said, “I really didn’t mean to be officious. I was just trying to help. If I bend over, will you give me a swift kick to put me in my place?”

I said, “Forget it. As a matter of fact, it sounds pretty good the way you have it arranged, except for the damn dinner, and I don’t suppose we can avoid that.” I laughed. “Hell, you’ve got yourself a job, if you want to keep at it. I’ve never worked with an executive assistant before, but it seems like a nice deal. I just want to warn you, there’s no money in it.”

She smiled. “Just shoot a good set of pictures, that’s all I ask.”

It was a nice scene, with all the warm sincerity of two sharpies dickering over a used car. As she turned away, in the mannish robe, I kept hearing her strange, husky voice in my head and comparing it with another voice I’d heard recently: a harsh, rasping voice that I’d assumed to be masculine, since it had come from a shadowy figure in pants…


When I left her, nothing had been said about our seeing the sights together, or even meeting for dinner. Perhaps she’d been waiting for me to do the asking, but I hadn’t. For one thing, coming to a new place, I always like to wander around alone, equipped with nothing but one camera and a standard lens, to get the feel of the location, before I break out the whole elaborate four-camera, nine-lens outfit and get to work. This wasn’t primarily a picture-taking jaunt, of course, and my photographic disguise didn’t seem to be fooling many people, but I’d been given the part and I intended to play it out. Besides, I kind of like taking pictures.

I had another reason for playing it cool where the girl was concerned. I wanted to see what would happen if I continued to maintain a pose of polite disinterest. If she was what she claimed to be, she’d presumably be relieved not to have to fight off my wolfish advances—although I don’t suppose any woman really likes to be ignored. If she was something else, however, she might take certain obvious steps toward insuring my cooperation and lulling my suspicions...

Despite its location ninety miles above the Arctic Circle, Kiruna turned out to be no frontier mining camp, but a solid community of brick and stone. I explored and photographed until the light began to fade and turn yellow with evening; then I had dinner in a place that served excellent food but no hard liquor, certainly no American whiskey or cocktails.

They did have beer, however, and I learned that Nordic beer comes in three grades of potency. The lowest grade is apparently a kind of beer-flavored soft drink that can safely be fed to babies; the highest is, to hear them tell it, loaded with atom juice. It sounded worth investigating, but when I asked for it I was regretfully informed that the place couldn’t supply it, since their license didn’t extend to such violent stuff.

I had to settle for Grade Two, known as ordinary pilsener. Afterward, following directions previously given me at the hotel, I located the residence of a man named Kjellström, and rented a little black Volvo, the newest of three he had parked at the side of the house. The company might be providing a car in the morning, but I like to have transportation of my own available.

Driving away, I found myself in temporary possession of a fairly gutless little heap, far different in performance from the souped-up jobs of the same name we’ve been getting in the States. But it had the same nice, ugly, uncompromising lines. I understand they’ve gone and ruined it now, and come out with a new model looking like every other car on the road. The uninspired performance was good enough for me, under the circumstances. The gear shift didn’t bother me—I keep an old pickup truck at home for back-country exploring that also has a good solid stick growing out of the floor boards—but the lefthanded traffic took some getting used to, particularly with darkness coming on.

Driving slowly and cautiously, I spent half an hour locating an address on a street called Torpvägen where, according to the poop sent me by the efficient outfit in Stockholm that was arranging my hunting, I should be able to find a competent guide to take me bird-shooting. When I got there, nobody was home.

I went back to the car, turned it around, and started in the direction that seemed most likely to lead to the hotel. I was feeling pretty good, on the whole. I’d had a pleasant afternoon with my camera, and I like getting acquainted with a new type of car, and learning to drive in a new place, even a place where everybody insists on driving on the wrong side of the street. I’d relaxed; the thought of intrigue and conspiracy hadn’t crossed my mind for a couple of hours. This happy feeling lasted exactly two blocks farther. Then I became aware of headlights following me. At the same time, I realized that I’d taken a wrong turn somewhere and was heading out of town.

The transition from civilization to arctic wilderness was almost instantaneous. The road turned from pavement to gravel. The last city lights died behind us. There were low, scrubby trees on both sides of the road, and I remembered the endless forests I’d seen from the plane. I stepped the accelerator down and got only a feeble response from the scant forty horsepower under the hood. Whatever was behind me had much greater reserves to call upon; it was coming up fast. At the last moment, I stood the little car on its nose, hitting the brake hard and sliding far down in the seat to give support to my head and neck in case of a rear-end collision.

There was considerable screeching and sliding from the two cars involved. I caught a glimpse of a tremendous vehicle slewing past—anyway, it looked big from where I sat in my toy Volvo. When my lights hit it, I realized it was nothing but an ordinary American Ford, the model in which somebody went taillight crazy. This was the time for me to swing my little bus around and head back for town and lights and safety, before the other guy could get his longer wheelbase reversed on that narrow road.

Being full of courage and pilsener, I climbed out and went after him instead. It wasn’t quite as reckless as it sounds; in fact it was necessary. I was still, I figured, in a position where the most dangerous thing was to be smart: the dumber I looked, the safer I was. The Ford had pulled up at the side of the road ahead. Its enormous taillights cast a wicked red glow far into the trees on either hand. A man got out and came toward me, carrying something long and slender. For a moment I thought he was armed with a rifle; then I saw that it was a cane.

“Murderer!” he said. “Murderer!”

He took the cane in both hands, twisted, and pulled. There was a strange, whispering, metallic sound, and a long blade came free, slender and needle sharp, edged with red from the great, glowing lights behind him...


I had time enough—and illumination enough from the Volvo’s headlights—to get a good look at him as he approached. He wasn’t very big, and he had a dapper, Continental air. He was wearing a Homburg hat, required headgear for the European businessman, and his suit was dark and conservatively cut, even by local standards. There was a glint of light from a pin in his rich, glossy, flowing tie. He was wearing pearl-gray gloves. You could probably have seen your face in the mirror surface of his shoes, had the light been a little better. Having separated his sword-cane into two parts, he discarded the half he had no further use for, and come for me with the business section.

“Murderer!” he hissed.
“Förbannade mördaret!”

I wasn’t with him at all, having no idea who he was or what was eating him, but a needle-pointed sword speaks a language all its own, and I ducked his first lunge and got the Solingen knife from my pocket. I flicked it open one-handed without taking my eyes from him. You grasp the blade and the weight of the handle carries it open when you snap your wrist a certain way—a show-off trick mostly, but convenient when you want to leave one hand free for attack or defense.

I had the situation figured now. His sticker was, as they often are, a three-cornered, fluted blade with no cutting edge whatever. All I had to worry about was the point. Just tease him into overreaching himself a little on the next lunge, dodge, grab the sword as he tried to recover, step inside, and use the knife, edge up, to open him up like a zipper bag from crotch to breastbone...

I was a little mad, in other words. I don’t like being scared, almost wrecked, and nearly skewered like a marshmallow on a toasting stick. I wasn’t thinking clearly; I wasn’t remembering my orders. This could be another test, like the phony beating I’d ran into in Stockholm: it was fairly essential for me to remain unperforated, but I couldn’t be too quick or clever at it, or too drastic.
Under no circumstances take action,
Mac had written. The instructions could be said to apply only to Caselius, but I had a hunch, if there was trouble in Washington, that any other dead bodies wouldn’t be greatly appreciated. And for all I knew, this irate little fashion plate with his bodkin
Caselius, improbable though it might seem.

The homicidal impulse passed before any harm was done. I evaded the next lunge, all right, but my grab was deliberately clumsy, and the sword slipped through my hand. Unfortunately, the damn thing wasn’t quite as dull as I’d thought. Near the point, all three edges had been honed—for better penetration, I suppose—and I got a couple of sliced fingers before I could let go.

It hurt, and I found it a little hard to remember, dodging around on the gravel with that point coming at me, just who I was supposed to be and which act I was supposed to be putting on. Well, I wasn’t Matt, the innocent photographer, that was for sure. Whoever my assailant might be, he wouldn’t be trying to kill me— or test me, if that was his goal—if he thought so. And I obviously wasn’t Matthew, the respectable husband of Elizabeth Helm and the father of three little Helms; that part of my life was over for good, or would be as soon as the decree was final. And I wasn’t Mac’s boy Eric, the cold and efficient stalker of men; it wasn’t time to pull that joker out of the deck, since I hadn’t even identified my quarry yet, and was forbidden to act even if I had.

That left me only the character of Secret Agent Helm, the fist-fighting hero who absorbed punishment like a sponge, the defender of democracy whose attractive female associates got beat up and shot right under his nose—a slightly wised-up operative now, packing a silly little knife instead of trusting entirely to his feeble fists. Well, it was time that he showed some kind of skill with some kind of a weapon, since he wouldn’t have been sent out on a job if he was completely useless. I wasn’t very fond of this guy, he was pretty much a moron, but I did have a certain interest in keeping him alive.

BOOK: The Wrecking Crew
5.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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