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Authors: Donald Hamilton

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BOOK: The Devastators
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“Vadya? Hell, no,” I said. “That is, I don’t believe I scared her nearly as badly as she pretended. I mean, that on-the-knees please-kill-me-now routine was pretty corny. On the other hand, she could be telling the truth for reasons of her own. Like she just figured we’d played enough sadistic games for one night, at her expense, and it was time to toss me a bone. Or like she’d wanted to point me in the direction of this comic-strip Dragon Lady character all along, but figured she’d first better take enough of a beating to make it look as if I’d forced the information out of her. Which still leaves the question of whether a Madame Ling really took Winnie, or Vadya just decided to frame her for the job. Do we know Madame Ling?”

“We should.” Mac’s voice was dry. “I do. And you would, if you’d done the required amount of work in the recognition room.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “I confess my negligence, sir. I may have concentrated on the nationalities I expected to have to deal with here in Britain. Besides, I don’t have a very good memory for Asiatic names or Asiatic faces, even good-looking female ones. Vadya says this one works out of Peking.”

“Yes. That is another reason I assigned Claire to you. There had been some unconfirmed rumors of Chinese involvement, and I thought her experience out there might be useful to you.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “In the future, I’d be flattered if you’d share your unconfirmed rumors with me, sir. The British seem to have heard the same rumor, judging by the fact that they apparently hauled Crowe-Barham in from Hong Kong to work on the case. And there’s no doubt that the knife-man working with Basil was Oriental, which seems to make a link between Basil and Madame Ling. Do we have any further evidence along those lines? Is there any suggestion, for instance, that when Basil escaped that Moscow firing squad, he headed east?”

“Not that I know of. He was supposed to be dead, remember. But it’s certainly a possibility, and it would explain how he managed to drop out of sight so completely for so long. I will check our Far Eastern sources.”

I said, “Vadya says Ling, female, is one of Peking’s top agents, a very handsome, intelligent, and nasty wench of indeterminate age, unprintable character, and no scruples at all. That’s just one woman’s opinion of another, of course. The point is that Madame Ling seems to be fairly high-echelon material, maybe high enough to be given this whole McRow show to run, with Basil hired as a kind of field assistant. And if we make the wild assumption that Vadya was telling the truth for once in her life, these are the people who have Winnie.”

Mac said, “Let us hope so. With a little luck, that could work out very well. At least it would put one of you in the enemy camp, so to speak.”

Sometimes he seems a bit cold-blooded even for this business. “Sure, it’s great, sir,” I said sourly. “Always assuming, of course, that Winnie’s still alive and doesn’t wind up full of super-streptococci or something before I can find her and give her a hand. I haven’t got a lead worth mentioning unless…” I stopped, frowning.

“Unless what, Eric?”

“Unless they’re still interested in grabbing me, too. If so, their obvious move is to use Winnie as bait, particularly if they’re inclined to believe our marriage is genuine. The note they left hints at some such intention. I mean, it warns me not to try to find her. Now, they know damn well I’m going to try to find her—unless I have some hope of making a deal for her. I think that’s what they’re hinting at here. What they’re saying is, in effect: don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

“Maybe, but you could be reading too much into that note, Eric. And even if you aren’t, it could be merely a way of trying to keep you quiet while they get far away with Claire. But if they should get in touch with you, what do you propose to do?”

I said, “Why, in that case, sir, my anxiety for my bride will of course be so great that I will eagerly obey any instructions given me, forgetting the most elementary precautions. I’ll be caught with my pants down. It will be most humiliating, for an operative of my age and experience. That will put two of us in the enemy camp. Between us, we ought to get the job done somehow.”

He hesitated briefly. “It’s a risky plan, with both of you in their hands. And it depends entirely on their making contact with you. We can’t wait too long for that. There are indications that Dr. McRow considers his work almost finished. Various friendly governments have reported feelers from underground sources. There have been hints of demands soon to be made—financial demands—coupled with veiled threats.”

“We’ve got it from the other side of the fence, too, sir,” I said. “Vadya intimated that her government was expecting some kind of international blackmail. Do we have any idea of just what we’re all being threatened with?”

“The Black Death has now apparently been mentioned officially. You will recall that’s what killed Buchanan, in a super-virulent form. In the fourteenth century, I am told, the old-fashioned brand wiped out twenty-five per cent of the population of Europe in a relatively short time.”

“Well, I guess we’ve still got enough rats and fleas to pass the new version around, if somebody gets it started,” I said.

“Precisely,” Mac said. “Which brings us to Vadya’s suggestion that our two nations cooperate for the good of humanity. Do you think there is any possibility that she could be sincere?”

“Vadya could never be sincere, she doesn’t know how,” I said. “But I think she means it up to a point, sir. I think her people are just as much in the dark as we are, but they’d like to know for sure how much that is, hence the frank and earnest approach. Anything they learn from us, under the circumstances, is gravy. Naturally, the minute Vadya and I, working together, turn up a good lead, she’ll put a knife in my back, a bullet in my head, or a Mickey in my drink, and proceed, alone, to carry out her instructions concerning McRow, whatever they really are. Assuming I’m silly enough to let her.”

“Precisely,” Mac said. “Well, with that understanding, if she’s still willing after tonight’s experience at your hands, you have permission to make whatever deals with her you see fit, and keep them or not as you see fit.”

I said, “She’ll be willing. She’s a pro, sir. She’s not going to hold a little strangulation against me, any more than I hold a little toasting against her. She’s already invited me to breakfast in her room.”

“Very well. Of course you will keep in mind that the lady does not have to survive after she ceases to be useful to us. As for Madame Ling, and also Basil, I’ll try to have some more information when you call in next.”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “Of course, that could be quite a while, if somebody does get in touch with me about my vanished bride. Well, I’d better get back to the hotel and start chewing my fingernails in public.”

“Don’t wait too long for a contact. If you haven’t been approached by, say, noon tomorrow, you had better leave the inside angles to Claire, and head for Scotland and see if you can’t turn up something around Ullapool. If they don’t intend using her to trap you, we can hope they’ll transport her up there. Dr. McRow seems to frown on the ordinary methods of homicide. He apparently prefers to have his enemies taken alive, so he can use them for experimental purposes.”

I said, “I’m sure that makes Winnie feel real great, wherever she is.”

I walked back to Claridge’s. It was raining a little, the pavements were wet and shiny, and everybody was still driving on the wrong side of the street. You get used to it eventually, but I hadn’t yet. I was pretty certain that nobody followed me, which was a little discouraging. I would have preferred some sign of active interest. Well, maybe they figured they knew where to find me when they wanted me.

Reaching the hotel, I climbed the stairs and let myself into the room. I must have had some kind of foolish hope that Winnie might have returned in my absence, because it was a disappointment to find the place as empty as when I’d left it. I tossed my hat on a chair, tossed the black belt back in the drawer where I’d found it, and was about to head back downstairs to drown my sorrows where people could see me, when the phone began to ring. I grabbed it quickly.

“Mr. Helm?”

“This is Mr. Helm,” I said.

“There is a lady here to see you, sir,” said the voice of the switchboard girl. “She is waiting in the lounge. A Miss Glenmore, from America.”

It took me a while to remember where I’d heard the name, even though it was, in a sense, my own.


I spotted her by the tartan. I mean, I hadn’t stopped at the desk for a guide to lead me to her, wanting to look her over unseen, if possible, before she saw me, but there were quite a few people in the lounge to complicate the identification. But I knew the slim, brown-haired girl sitting alone near the piano was the one I wanted when I saw the plaid.

She was wearing a buttoned-up cardigan sweater and one of those pleated kilt-skirts that close with a big safetypin, and it was the Glenmore all right: not the dress tartan, which is chiefly red, but the hunting, which is light blue and green. Unfortunately, they’re doing all kinds of sissy things to the brave old plaids these days—I guess some people feel they’re too garish for good modern taste—and these were no longer the honest, bold Highland colors, but the sneaky muted shades so dear to the hearts of the butterfly boys. Still, it was the right pattern and, I was sure, the right girl. At least it was the girl I was looking for. Whether or not she was legally entitled to the name and plaid was another matter.

A musical character in a tailcoat was beating out a Strauss waltz on the piano, using as much body English as if he was battling Tchaikovsky to a draw in Carnegie Hall. The girl was watching and listening, puffing industriously on a cigarette. Her health was her own problem, but I couldn’t help thinking that if she had to smoke, she ought to learn to do a better job.

There was some green stuff in a glass on the table. It’s been my experience that ladies who go for sweet minty drinks after dinner are apt to be somewhat more objectionable, in a prissy and hypocritical way, than those who slug down a good honest highball, but I won’t propose it as an ironclad rule. Nevertheless, my first impression wasn’t favorable, and the thought of after-dinner drinks reminded me that I hadn’t eaten since noon. Sleep, as opposed to merely employing a bed for its fringe benefits, so to speak, was something that had happened so long ago and far away that I’d forgotten the exact circumstances.

I got rid of a yawn while I could still do it without being rude, and moved forward. The girl looked around and saw me—and knew me, which was interesting. Well, sinister-looking gents six-feet-four aren’t too common, and she could have been given a thumbnail sketch at the hotel desk. Or she could have been exposed to a more detailed dossier elsewhere.

“Miss Glenmore?” I said, stopping before her.

The piano player had finished sweeping Strauss under the rug, and was taking a break, so I didn’t have to shout. The girl looked at me warily.

“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I’m Nancy Glenmore. Are you… are you Mr. Helm?”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, and waited.

She hesitated, and said in a sudden, breathless way, “You’ll probably think I’m crazy coming here like this, Mr. Helm—” She stopped.

“So who’s prejudiced against insanity?” I said.

It threw her for a moment. Then she licked her lips and said, “Well, I saw a Mr. Walling early this afternoon. I wanted him to do some work for me, but he wouldn’t take the job, he just told me a lot of stuff, and then he said he’d already made arrangements to see another member of the family later in the day, and why the devil didn’t we all get together? He acted very funny, almost rude, as if… as if he thought I was trying to play some kind of a trick on him, but he did give me your name and London address—” She’d got all this stuff off very fast. Now she seemed to run down abruptly. Her big, greenish eyes watched me for a second or two. Then she went on in the same rapid-fire way: “Well, I just had a wild idea that you might be able to help me. I mean, that we might be able to help each other. You may have something I could use, while I… I may have something you want.” Still staring up at me unblinkingly, she added, “To trace the family, I mean.”

“Sure,” I said. “To trace the family.”

There was a little silence. I met her wide-eyed stare with a hard look of my own, and presently her glance dropped, but I didn’t really need that token of guilt. Her double-talk spoke for itself.
I may have something you want
, could hardly be anything but a prelude to negotiations for Winnie’s release. I felt reassured. Mac had ordered me not to wait too long for contact to be made, not beyond tomorrow noon, but here was my contact already, fiddling nervously with her cigarette and sipping at her crème de menthe frappé. She spoke without looking up.

“It’s quite a coincidence, isn’t it? I mean, both of us calling on Mr. Walling the same day.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Coincidence.”

“Well… well, it looks as if we’re kind of related, Mr. Helm, even if it is a long way back.”

I remembered another girl in another country who’d claimed a distant kinship with me once, on another job, and almost got me killed. These ancient family ties, much too remote to bring up any inconvenient questions of incest, can come in very handy for a girl in our line of work—but maybe I was being overly cynical. Maybe she really was Nancy Glenmore, on a sentimental pilgrimage to our ancient Scottish stamping grounds, wearing the tartan as the Crusaders wore the cross. Maybe, but I didn’t really believe it.

I said, “That’s swell. As a stranger, I’d remain standing politely. As a relative, I’ll sit, if you don’t mind. I just got in from New York this morning, and it’s been a long day.”

“Oh, I am sorry!” she said quickly. “Please do sit down.”

I sat down. We got the drinks question settled and got a waiter to make it official. I lit another cigarette for her, the first having got itself stubbed out half-smoked, and we sat back and looked at each other with a kind of cautious interest. She was really quite a good-looking girl, in a jumpy and high-strung way. Her face displayed a little too much bone, but it was pretty good bone. Having once used a camera professionally, I couldn’t help thinking that she’d photograph well, with her big eyes, strong cheekbones, and clean jawline.

BOOK: The Devastators
9.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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