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Authors: Donald Hamilton

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BOOK: The Devastators
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“Us?” I said. She glanced at me quickly. I said, “I don’t really think you ought to be contaminated by any contact with Simpson and Walling, sweetheart. You’re little Kid Innocence, remember? Let’s keep you that way.”

She hesitated, and said reluctantly, “I guess you’re right. Okay, I stay. Matt?”

“Yes?”

“You didn’t tell me what Buchanan died of.”

“Bubonic plague,” I said. “Also known as the Black Death. A fine upstanding adult disease for a change.”

She whistled softly and said, “This McRow character. He sounds kind of crazy all around. Delusions of grandeur and stuff.”

She looked cute standing there without anything on, but it was my chance to turn the tough-and-humorless treatment on her, and I wasn’t about to pass it up.

I said, “It’s not our business to psychoanalyze him, doll. All we’re required to do is kill him.”

4

After lunch, which we had served in the room, I called a car dealer on Berkeley Square; then I left Winnie to take a nap while I went over to pick up our transportation: a gaudy, bright red Triumph Spitfire sports job, the last car in the world an agent on a secret mission would choose to drive. Well, that was the idea.

It had sixty-seven horsepower, an eighty-three-inch wheelbase, a top speed of ninety-something, and a turning circle of twenty-four feet, which meant that if you got just a little gay with the wheel, you’d find yourself going back the way you came. This was why I’d picked it. In a land of fast drivers and unlimited highway speeds I wasn’t likely to be able to equip myself to outrun the opposition—considering the departmental budget—but in this little bomb, if need be, I might out-dodge it.

They sent me out to a garage at the edge of town for the actual delivery, and by the time I’d picked my way back to the hotel, creeping timidly down the left side of the street while the crazy traffic swirled around me, it was well after three. I turned my miniature hotrod over to the doorman and went up to the room. Winnie was sitting on the bed with a bunch of pillows behind her, reading the London papers provided by the management.

“Mission accomplished?” she asked.

“I got it here,” I said. “But this is no place to learn a new way of driving. I’ll be glad when we’re safely out in the country. God, what a rat-race!”

She laughed. She was wearing a sleeveless, beltless white linen dress, I noticed, that looked as if you could have made it with one hand out of an old bedsheet. I must say I prefer my women with waistlines, but the absurdly simple little tube of a garment made her look very young and innocent indeed. It was hard to keep in mind that she was well over twenty, nearer twenty-five, and that she’d killed seven men and would, we hoped, soon raise her score to eight.

She’d left her shoes off for comfort. Her knees-up reading position didn’t leave many secrets under the brief dress, but then, we were supposed to be married. I reached over the end of the bed and pinched her big toe through her stocking.

“Well, I’ll see you in an hour or so,” I said.

“You’re off again?”

“I just wanted to get rid of that damn car before I cracked it up. I’ll take a cab from here.”

She said, just a little too casually perhaps, “Well, toss me my cigarettes while you’re up.”

I grinned. “Don’t give me that while-you’re-up routine, small fry. This is a high-class joint. Around here we got manners. We say please.”

“Please.”

I dropped the cigarettes and matches in her lap and moved to the door. “Don’t be lonely while I’m gone.” She hesitated. “Matt, do you think it’s tactically okay if I go out and do a little rubbernecking and window-shopping? I’ve never seen London, you know.”

She was a funny mixture of professional ruthlessness and girlish curiosity. I didn’t like to disappoint her, and I certainly didn’t want her to think I was pulling rank and seniority on her, but I said, “I’d rather you wouldn’t. The situation could go critical on us any time. If you don’t mind, I’d like you to stay right here.”

Her blue eyes looked very cold for a moment. “And if I do mind?”

“Then go the hell out and rubberneck, but you’d better wrap up good. That’s not much dress you’ve got on and it looks like rain.”

“Aren’t you being a little stuffy? I didn’t come on this job to be kept on ice.”

“Of course you did,” I said. “You’re my delicate darling, and I wouldn’t dream of letting you go out there and get your pretty little feet wet. On a different level, I’m supposed to take real good care of you, so you’ll be in perfect condition when the time comes for you to slit a man’s throat.”

She sighed. “All right. You win again. I’ll stay, damn you. Under protest, but I’ll stay.”

“Thanks.”

As I reached for the door again, she said quickly, “Matt, wait.”

I looked back. She’d swung her legs off the bed. She paused to stick her feet into her shoes, not so much for protection, I gathered—it was a deep, soft rug—as for the extra two or three inches the high heels gave her. She came over and deliberately put her arms around my neck and rose on tiptoe to kiss me on the mouth.

“There,” she said. “You can be wiping off the lipstick, husband-like, as you go down the hall.”

“Sure.”

There was a little pause. I was tempted to add something mushy to the effect that she was a pretty nice kid, after all, and working with her wasn’t going to be quite the ordeal I’d expected. While I struggled with the impulse, the telephone rang, which was just as well. I mean, this buddy-buddy stuff may be all right in the armed forces, but in our line of work you’re much better off hating your partner’s guts. Then you won’t feel so bad if he breaks a leg and you have to shoot him—and if you think that’s just a figure of speech, Buster, I envy you the happy TV world you live in.

Winnie had gone over to pick up the phone. “Hello,” she said. Her voice was suddenly thin and sweet and rather timid. “Yes, this is… this is Mrs. Helm. Yes, he’s right here. Yes, of course. Just a moment.”

She held out the phone with a little shrug to indicate that she had no idea who was calling. I took it and said, “Helm here.”

A very British voice said, “Crowe-Barham. I assumed it wasn’t undiplomatic to telephone you, old chap, since you were registered under your own name.” He waited for me to say something. When I didn’t, he went on: “If your memory falters, the given names are Leslie Alastair, and the joint operation was called Adder. Why do they have this awful compulsion to name them after reptiles, I wonder. You will recall that it was rather a sticky affair. I still owe you a drink, maybe a trifle more, depending on the going rate for slightly shopworn baronets, so I asked Colonel Stark, my current superior—I don’t think you know him—for permission to get in touch with you. Are you in our city on business, and if so can we be of assistance? Her Majesty’s troops are at your service.”

“No business,” I said, remembering my instructions. I wasn’t supposed to break cover for anybody if I could help it, certainly not an unidentified voice on the phone. The fact that I was fairly sure I recognized the voice made no real difference. The accent is easy to imitate, and there are a lot of good mimics around. I went on: “I’m on my honeymoon,
amigo
, and I don’t need any help from the troops, thanks.”

“Congratulations, old fellow. I’m sure from her voice that the lady is perfectly charming.” He hesitated, and went on with a diffident stubbornness: “You’re quite certain there’s nothing I can do.”

I said, “Under the circumstances, that could be parlayed into an off-color joke.”

“What?” He chuckled at the other end of the line. “Oh, quite. Unintentional, I assure you.”

“How did you know I was here?”

“We do try to keep track of the more prominent visitors to our fair island, old boy.”

“Sure,” I said. “Prominent.”

“I gather from your address that accommodations are no problem, but what about transportation? If you have no car, I would be happy to put one at your disposal. A small Rolls-Royce? A well-mannered 3.8 Jaguar? Take your pick, but may I be so bold as to suggest a chauffeur until you become accustomed once more to our perverse left-handed traffic?”

I hesitated, but his persistence indicated that I wasn’t going to get rid of him by phone. It seemed best to meet the situation head on, and I said, “As a matter of fact, I’ve just picked up a car and had a taste of your traffic and I don’t want any more at the moment… Okay, I never pass up a chance to travel first-class. I’ll take you up on that chauffeur-driven Rolls, if you can get it here in time to make a four-o’clock appointment across town.”

“Very good,” he said. “The auto will be in front of your hotel in ten minutes. Cheerio.”

The telephone went dead. I took it from my ear and made a face at it before putting it down. Winnie was waiting for an explanation. I said, “That claimed to be a gent known as Sir Leslie Alastair Crowe-Barham, and from the voice I think it really was. It looks as if my phone call to that genealogical character is beginning to bring in results, although so far you could hardly call them profitable results. The trouble with operating in a friendly country is getting along with their people. Well, I’ll do my best to convince him I’m just a blissful bridegroom. That’ll put the least strain on international diplomacy.”

“He’s British Intelligence?” Winnie frowned quickly. “Wait a minute. Crowe-Barham. Not Intelligence, one of the other branches. They had him working out of Hong Kong for a while, didn’t they?”

I shrugged. “They may have. I think he mentioned being born out that way, which would make him a logical candidate. I haven’t really kept track of him. We worked together just once, several years ago. Now he claims he’s being nice to me because I saved his life.”

“Did you?”

I shrugged again. “I suppose so. So what? I’d brought him a long way, and I needed him alive, not dead; why should I let him be killed when I could prevent it by pulling a trigger? It was strictly impersonal on my part, and he knows it. He knows damn well he owes me nothing beyond a drink for good marksmanship, but right now, apparently, he thinks it advisable to profess undying gratitude. I guess he wants an excuse to keep a friendly eye on me. After all, it’s his country we’re playing games in. Did you ever meet him out East?”

Winnie shook her head. “No. You’d better give me a description, in case I should bump into him at a critical moment.”

“Sure,” I said. “Five eleven, a hundred and fifty—give or take five, reddish hair, gray eyes, a small military moustache. He’d be about thirty now, and he could have put on a little weight, but that languid British type generally doesn’t. I never saw him with a monocle, but it would suit him fine.” I grimaced. “He was really a pretty good boy—plenty of guts and stamina—but he nearly drove me crazy. I mean, he had a head full of notions about what was brave and what wasn’t, as if anybody gave a damn; and his idiot theories about sportsmanship almost got him killed and a lot of other people with him. You know the kind of dope who won’t shoot a sitting duck or a standing deer or man with his back turned—as if murder is less reprehensible if the victim is facing north rather than south, or vice versa. Of course he got a lot of that kid stuff knocked out of him on the job, and he’s probably outgrown the rest, if he’s still in the business, as he seems to be.”

“And you feel sure he got in touch with you because of your call to Simpson and Walling?”

I moved my shoulders a bit. “Well, he implied that my name just kind of popped out of a routine checklist of incoming VIP’s, but I’ve been in London three times since Adder, and he’s never felt obliged to offer me a Rolls before, or even call up and say hello. Maybe I’ll know more after I take this dry-land luxury cruise. Five will get you twenty I’ll have the most aristocratic chauffeur in town.”

Winnie was frowning dubiously. “Well, be careful,” she said. “At least until you check him out. I mean, just because a man was okay yesterday doesn’t mean he’s okay today, and the British make some funny security slips from time to time.”

I reached around to give her a slap in the appropriate place. “Yes, ma’am. Any other advice or instructions, ma’am? Us young operatives sure do appreciate experienced leadership, ma’am.”

She rubbed her behind through the little white shift and grinned at me. “All right, grandpa. Be a genius on your own. Just don’t play with any strange germs.”

“Check,” I said. “And if you see a virile virus coming your way, you run like hell.”

I walked downstairs, since we were only on the third floor—the second, by the European way of counting floors, which starts one story in the air. When I reached the front door, a taxi was just unloading a rather plump, smartly dressed woman with a lot of furs and stacks of matched airplane luggage. She swept inside without condescending to notice me standing there. I turned to look after her, keeping my glance low—just the usual, casual male appraisal of a pair of receding ankles. Although the lady was a bit too well-upholstered for my taste, the ankles weren’t half bad. In fact, they were damn good. Well, I’d known they would be. I’d met them before.

The doorman was offering me the empty cab. Even if I hadn’t been expecting more luxurious transportation, I wouldn’t have got into that particular taxi. It had pulled up just a little too coincidentally, and I knew a little too much about the woman who’d just got out of it, and maybe I wasn’t supposed to recognize her with brown hair and a padded girdle. She’d been blonde when I’d last seen her, and her figure had been considerably less generous, although she’d never been exactly what you’d call a skinny girl.

A silvery Rolls-Royce glided to the curb in front of me as the taxi pulled away. I’d guessed right about the driver. The face under the chauffeur’s cap was lean and sported a small reddish moustache. We drew away from the hotel in dignified silence. With its rich leather upholstery and velvety ride, it was an impressive vehicle, although you might have found it a little cramped if you’d been brought up on Cadillacs: the Rolls isn’t really a big car.

I said, “That cap looks real good on you,
amigo
.”

Sir Leslie Crowe-Barham said without turning his head, “You recognized the lady, of course.”

BOOK: The Devastators
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