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Authors: Donald Hamilton

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BOOK: The Devastators
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I grinned. “Maybe we’ll improve with practice. Anyway, it’s nice to lie in bed after sitting up all night on the plane. We might as well make ourselves comfortable and hold a council of war; we may not have another chance to talk freely for quite a while. Can I get you a drink or cigarette or something?”

“My cigarettes are in my purse, on the dresser… Thanks.”

Standing by the bed, I held a match for her, and set an ashtray on the little table beside her. There was something pleasantly illicit about loafing around a luxurious hotel room in pajamas in the middle of the day with a pretty girl for company, even if she did know judo and karate and could keep all her shots inside the critical ones of a man-sized target at combat ranges. I decided that our romantic interlude, for all its shortcomings, had served a useful purpose. Certainly it had averted a lot of the strains and frustrations that would inevitably have developed had we tried to fake the essential man-wife relationship indefinitely.

Standing there, I looked down at my pint-sized partner thoughtfully. Her eyes were very blue against her brown skin, which in turn looked smooth and warm against the pale hair and white nightie.

She blew smoke up at me and said, “Cut it out, Helm.”

“Cut what out?”

“Don’t be a sentimental slob. You’re standing there willing yourself to like me, aren’t you? Maybe even fall in love with me a little, for God’s sake! Just because we’ve made a little sex together—and rather badly, at that—you feel obliged to tell yourself how cute the wittle girl looks in the gweat big bed. Well, pour yourself a drink or something and stop romanticizing. Remember that any resemblance between us and a pair of lovebirds is strictly phony. We’re just a couple of hired clowns practicing our vaudeville turn.”

She was right, of course. I grinned and got back into bed beside her, pulled up the covers, and arranged some pillows behind us.

“Sure,” I said. “Now if you’re quite through putting me in my place, maybe we can discuss some matters of real importance.”

She turned to look at me, a little startled. After a moment she laughed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… well, maybe I did. Matters of importance like what?”

“Like a guy named Buchanan, who’s dead. And a guy named McRow, who isn’t, but you’re supposed to correct that unfortunate condition at your earliest convenience. Always assuming that somehow we can manage to locate Dr. McRow and bring you within effective range of him.”

She frowned. “McRow. They wouldn’t tell me. It was a big secret. They just gave me the general background of the job. McRow. I never heard of him. McRow.” She tasted the sound of it. “First name?”

“Archibald,” I said. “It doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?”

“What do you mean?”

“A poor guy saddled with a name like Archibald would seem to have troubles enough already without having nasty characters like us gunning for him.”

Winnie didn’t smile. Well, maybe it wasn’t very funny. She said curtly, “Description?”

“Forty-seven, five-seven, one-ninety.”

“A middle-aged butterball,” she murmured.

“That’s right. Short and chubby. Round face. Dark hair combed to cover a bald patch. Brown eyes, somewhat myopic, corrected with gold-rimmed glasses. Small hands and feet. Clean-shaven when he bothers to shave, but he’s apt to neglect such minor details when in the grip of scientific enthusiasm, and I gather he gets gripped fairly often. Clothes generally shabby, adorned with acid burns and other chemical decorations. Lots of brains and a terrible character, they say. He can’t get along with anybody, and nobody can get along with him. He sees himself as the only intelligent person in a world full of morons, all of whom are trying to take advantage of his genius.”

“Are they?”

“Well, sure. Isn’t that what genius is for?” I asked. “He worked for a big drug company first. They made a mint off one of his discoveries—some fancy antibiotic—and he just got his salary and a small bonus. That was the way his contract read. Then he got himself a new contract and dug up some other stuff that was interesting and potentially lucrative, only without knowing it he’d kind of crossed the fence into fields that were being cultivated by the government for military purposes. Suddenly he found himself working for the biological warfare boys under very strict security, still making no more than a lousy four-figure salary—well, maybe five by this time—and he’s a man, we’re told, who likes to dream in millions. Don’t for a minute get Archie mixed up with your idealistic, scientific dreamers, doll. His fantasies, sleeping or waking, seem to deal mainly with dough.”

“Go on.”

“With this attitude, it was only natural,” I said, “that when somebody came along and waved some real cash under his nose, he grabbed it and vanished. He left behind a note saying that the Fourteenth Amendment had abolished slavery and nobody had the right to tell him where to work or for how much. He also intimated that there was no need for the U.S. authorities to worry about his compromising their silly security in any way, since neither he nor his new sponsors had the slightest interest in the childish and obsolete stuff the government people had had him on. He had much more fascinating projects in mind. Under the circumstances, he wrote, he saw no reason why his departure should be the subject of any official concern whatever, and he would resent, strongly, any further interference in his affairs.” I shrugged. “In a way, you can see his point. After all, it’s his brain and it seems to be a pretty good one. You can hardly blame him for wanting to cash in on it.”

Winnie said coolly, “It isn’t our business to see people’s points, Mr. Helm.”

I glanced at her sideways, and moved my shoulders slightly. There had been a few moments when we’d been practically human together; perhaps it was just as well we were getting away from that. If she wanted to take a tough and humorless attitude toward the work—well, it’s generally considered pretty tough and humorless work.

I said, “You may call me Matt. Incredible though it may seem, wives do address their husbands with such disrespectful familiarity these decadent days.”

She said, still unsmiling, “I don’t suppose the government paid much attention to Dr. McRow’s warning, Matt.”

I said, “Hell, you know those Washington bureaucrats, Winnie. They didn’t even realize it was a serious warning. They were so impressed with their own importance that it simply didn’t occur to them that one chubby little man with glasses would have the nerve to warn them off—them, and the United States of America. They went after him.” I grimaced. “That is to say, they sent people after him. Despite the note, they decided that he was endangering the national security, or something.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing much,” I said, “at first. They had a hell of a time locating him. Then, after several months, an agent picked up some kind of a trail out west in the California mountains. Shortly thereafter, said agent disappeared. A little while later he reappeared, dead. He’d apparently contracted a severe case of measles while he was missing.”

“Measles? You don’t die of measles.”

I said dryly, “It kind of depends on the measles. And on the natural immunity of the subject. There are cases on record of primitive tribes wiped out by ordinary measles, when they made contact with civilization. Apparently, since he vanished, Archie has developed a private brand that affects civilized people the same way. He was thoughtful enough to have a warning sign pinned to the infected body, or California might have had a nasty epidemic.”

Winnie said, “That sounds like grandstanding to me.”

“Not only to you,” I said. “The idea has occurred to others. Anyway, investigation of the area turned up a deserted building that had been used as a lab—quite an elaborate setup, as a matter of fact—but it was stripped and deserted. McRow’s sponsors, whoever they are, had had time to move their genius and his operation elsewhere. The next time he was spotted, he had a place up in the Andes, but again the agent who picked up the trail managed to stick his neck in a noose before he could pinpoint the location. This one died of chicken pox. And don’t tell me you don’t die of chicken pox, doll. The agent’s health record even showed he’d had a severe case as a child, but Archie’s trained bugs paid no attention to his built-in immunity. They killed him dead.”

Winnie frowned thoughtfully. “In other words, the man has found a way of increasing the virulence somehow.”

“In non-technical terms, that’s about it,” I said. “Which brings up the interesting question: What happens when he stops playing around with children’s diseases and applies his method to something really gruesome, like smallpox or cholera. He’s building up to something, obviously. He could have had those agents shot or tossed off a cliff. Instead, he’s been passing out samples, deliberately showing us and the rest of the world what he can do. Where does he go from here? And just who are the people helping him and what are their motives? Those are the questions bugging the big boys in Washington. The fact that the same questions are probably being considered in Moscow and elsewhere doesn’t help their peace of mind one little bit.”

“Are we sure it isn’t Moscow that’s giving McRow aid and comfort?”

“Sure?” I said. “Who’s sure of anything? All we know is that they seem to be just as baffled as we are. And that whoever is sheltering Archie has plenty of money and manpower, but he doesn’t seem particularly anxious to take up residence in the workers’ homeland.”

Winnie hesitated. “If this were a movie, I’d suggest an international mastermind of crime who was hoping to blackmail the world with the ultimate biological weapon.”

“Don’t think that possibility isn’t being considered quite seriously,” I said. “But in the absence of any clues to the identity of McRow’s current patrons, Washington is just assuming they aren’t driven by philanthropic motives. And after three abortive tries to take McRow undamaged, including Buchanan’s, well, much as they’d like to have the big brain back working for democracy… Anyway, it was decided as a last resort to give us the job. We’re supposed to take care of it before Archie finishes whatever it is he’s really working on; also before anybody else gets hold of him, including our friends the British. The only trouble is, nobody has any notion what his target date may be. It could be tomorrow. Or it could be yesterday.” I sighed regretfully and reached for the phone. “Well, this has been real pleasant, ma’am, but we’ve got work to do.”

“Who’re you calling?”

“I’m supposed to start the ball rolling, so to speak, by making a date with a certain genealogist.”

“A certain what?”

“A gent who draws family trees,” I said. “Dr. McRow, fortunately, has two weaknesses. One, as I’ve said, is money. The other is ancestors. He apparently started life without any, except the usual connection with Adam and Eve. In the U.S. he was born on the wrong side of the tracks, socially as well as financially, but after coming to Scotland he apparently got the notion that his family had once been big and important there. That’s how the trail was picked up again after being lost over in South America. He’d sent in his name—it had to be his real name, of course—to an ancestor-hunting outfit here in London. He’d hired them to prove a connection, however dim and distant, between his branch of the McRow family and some fine old Highland clan. For a man in hiding, it was a crazy breach of security, but then there’s no real proof the guy’s rational outside the laboratory. Anyway, this is where Buchanan started, and we’re supposed to kind of follow in his footsteps until we hit a better lead… Shhh, here we go.”

The switchboard had got me the number. A man who identified himself as Ernest Walling, of Simpson and Walling, was asking my identity and business. I gave the true name and the false story—the yarn about wanting to trace my own ancestors that we’d cooked up for the purpose. After I’d finished, Walling was silent for a little, presumably digesting the information.

“Ah, I see,” he said presently. “Would it be convenient for you to come here at four o’clock, Mr. Helm? That will give me time to do a little preliminary research, and I will be able to say more definitely whether or not I can help you.”

“Four would be fine.”

He hesitated again. “Ah, you say you are staying at Claridge’s? And you are from America?”

“That’s right.”

“You wouldn’t happen to know an American gentleman named Buchanan, Paul Buchanan?”

I laughed. “America is a big place, Mr. Walling. I’m afraid I don’t know any Buchanans.”

“No, of course not. He called on us recently and I just wondered… I will be glad to see you at four, Mr. Helm. Thank you for calling.”

I put down the phone, frowning. “He mentioned Buchanan,” I said to Winnie. “That could mean something, but I’ll be damned if I know what.”

“At this stage of the game, one hardly ever knows what,” she said. “Damn it, I’m stuck. Give me a hand, will you?”

She’d got out of bed, and she’d started pulling her nightie off over her head, forgetting to untie the flowing sash beforehand, and now she couldn’t reach it. I yanked one end of the bow and it came loose. She emerged from the lingerie quite unselfconsciously, revealing a nice little body, brown practically all over—but I noticed that she had got too much sun on the back and shoulders. They had peeled badly, not too long ago. Subsequent careful exposure to sun or a sunlamp had almost restored the uniform brown pigmentation, but not quite. Looking closely at her face as she turned, I now saw similar traces in her nose, masked by makeup.

It happens to lots of girls who try to do all their tanning on the first day of vacation. It wasn’t out of character for the role she was playing, but I had a hunch the burns had not been the result of loafing too long on a South Seas beach, drink in hand. She’d apparently had a rough time out there. Well, it was none of my business.

“Well, we’re committed,” I said. “If the Simpson-Walling phone is tapped, or the office is wired for sound, as Washington seems to think, somebody’s already checking on a gent named Helm, staying at Claridge’s. We can expect the hostile eyes and ears to focus on us any minute.”

She grimaced. “You don’t have to tell me. I hope you’re not one of the men in whom sex is followed by acute starvation. I’d like to try out that oversized bathtub before we have lunch.” She slipped off her tiny wristwatch and looked at it before putting it on the dresser. “The date’s for four? It’s only noon now. That gives us plenty of time.”

BOOK: The Devastators
5.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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