Helm - The Shadowers Part 3

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WE GOT THE job done in a small town in Alabama, the name doesnat matter. It wasnat the fanciest wedding Iad ever had. I went the cutaway-and-white-satin route once. To be strictly accurate, it was right after the war and I was in uniform-the first time Iad worn my soldier suit in almost four years. What Iad really been doing overseas in various other costumes was an official secret, not to be revealed to anybody, not even my bride.

I was making like an army officer on terminal leave, therefore, but some of the other male partic.i.p.ants wore those streamlined tailcoats, and the bridesmaids were in tulle, if Iave got the name right, It was very formal and pretty, and everybody said the bride looked perfectly lovely, but it didnat take. She learned a little too much about me eventually, and didnat like what she learned; and now sheas married to a rancher in Nevada and the kids are growing up on horseback and calling him daddy. I guess heas better daddy material than 1 am, at that.

Olivia and I had lunch in the town afterward so anybody who wanted to check on the ceremony would have time to do so. The meal was a silent one. I suppose we both felt awkward about our new legal relations.h.i.+p. Finished, we got back into the car.

It was hers, a little foreign job with the engine behind. I guess shead felt Volkswagens were getting too commonplace with the intellectual crowd; shead got herself a French Renault, plain black with gray vinyl upholstery and all of thirty-two horsepower working through a three-speed s.h.i.+ft, which isnat enough gears to get real efficiency out of so small a mill. I got behind the wheel, started the machinery stirring in back and drove away, watching the mirror.

It was a waste of time. Nothing showed but the ordinary southern small-town traffic. Nothing followed us away from there except a Ford pickup with Alabama plates, which turned off onto a dirt road after a couple of miles.

aIt still looks like a water haul,a I reported at last.

aWhat?a aA country colloquialism, Mrs. Corcoran,a I said. aThatas what you say when youave come a long way for very little. Not that Iam running down the holy state of matrimony, you understand.a She smiled, and stopped smiling, and looked thoughtful. aCould Kroch just be giving us rope, so to speak, counting on picking us up in Pensacola?a aWhy should he think Iad take you home to Pensacola where your friends and colleagues are? As of this morning, he had no reason to believe my intentions were honorable. Having softened up the lady, wouldnat I be much more likely to take her to a lonely love nest by the seash.o.r.e?a I shook my head ruefully. aIf heas our man, he ought to be sticking with you. If he doesnat show, weave figured wrong somewhere.a aBut if he isnat our man, why was he hiding in my room?a Olivia protested. aIt doesnat make sense.

aIf he is our man, why was he hiding in your room?a I countered. aMr. Kroch seems to have a habit of not making much sense. I have a hunch, the kind you get in this business, that he was waiting there to kill me.a She looked startled. aThatas kind of farfetched, isnat it? Why would he want to kill you? And why would he think youad come here?a I said, aAfter the cozy way youad spent the night in my room, it wasnat too unlikely that Iad visit yours. If you came alone, you could be made to call me. I should have antic.i.p.ated something of the sort, but Iad seen no indications that the guy was around and Iam having kind of a hard time following his mental processes. But he was annoyed with Mooney for being there, wasnat he? Presumably head expected somebody else, me. As for his motive, heas already served notice that he doesnat like interference.a She said, aIt was my room, after all. The most likely possibility is that he was just waiting for me.a I said, aThe answer to that is that youare sitting beside me very much alive, thank G.o.d. If head wanted you, if the word had come through that it was time for him to act, head have got you. What was there to stop him, with your efficient bodyguard slurping coffee three stories below?a I made a wry face at the winds.h.i.+eld. aHe had you, but he didnat kill you. He just shot Mooney in the arm and took offa . Wait a minute! Weare overlooking something. Suppose he was waiting for just the man he got. Suppose he was waiting for Dr. Harold Mooney.a She was staring at me. aYou canat think thereas anything between Harold and Kroch!a aIam trying out the idea. It has possibilities.a aItas absolutely insane!a she protested. aI should think youad be satisfied about Harold after this morning. We agreed heas not the stuff one makes secret agents out of.a I said, aSure. He couldnat be trusted to do the work alone. Iall grant that. But that doesnat mean he isnat the stuff one makes secret agentsa accomplices out of. Suppose Kroch is our man after all, but suppose heas playing it real cagey. He hasnat shown previously, has he? Youad never seen his face before, to remember it?a aNo, but-a aItas a face you wouldnat forget if you saw it twice, even just pa.s.sing it on the street,a I said. aAnd donat think Kroch doesnat know it. Itas his handicap in this business, as my height is mine. Heall be forever figuring ways to get around it. Well, suppose heas using Mooney as his eyes, and keeping his ugly, conspicuous self under cover. Mooney isnat scheduled for any heavy work. Anybody can see he isnat up to it. He just keeps track of you, acting the romantic lover. Thatas why he followed you here in a panic, not because he was scared of a scandal, but because he couldnat afford to lose contact with you or Kroch would have his hide. His job is to keep you located in a general sort of way. When the time comes, Kroch moves in and makes the kill.a Olivia winced. I guess it wasnat a pleasant idea to have tossed at you casually.

Then she said impatiently, aThatas ridiculous! Harold has no interest whatever in politics. Why would he-a aDoes Harold lead such a blameless life that you canat imagine anybody blackmailing him, Doc? Is he such a strong character head tell a blackmailer to publish and be d.a.m.ned?a She was silent for a moment, then she said quickly: aBut Kroch shot him! Doesnat that prove-a aIn the arm?a I said. aA neat, small-caliber flesh wound with a doctor available-two doctors if you count Mooney himself-if anything went wrong, like a severed artery? Itas been done before by people with complicated motives and mentalities. Why did Mooney come around this morning to apologize? Heas hardly the apologetic type. If you hadnat invited him to your room, maybe head have invited himself on some pretext.a aTo get shot? Harold would never agree to that. You saw the way he reacted.a aHe didnat have to know what was going to happen. He could just have had orders to make an appearance there with you at a certain time. Krochas acting surprised and annoyed by his presence could have been just a cover up. And after the shooting, Mooney didnat dare squawk.a I drew a long breath. aLook, Kroch knows I have him spotted. He can guess Iam also suspicious of Harold, the way heas been hanging around you. This could be Krochas way of whitewas.h.i.+ng Harold and taking all the suspicion on himself. That would leave the handsome doctor, pale and romantic-looking, with his arm in a sling, free to keep up the surveillance unsuspected. Meanwhile Kroch crawls back into his hole, wherever it is, gets regular reports on you from Mooney, cleans his little popgun, and waits for Der Tag.a Olivia shook her head. aI donat believe it!a There was a little pause. She gave a short laugh. aI guess I just donat want to believe it, Paul. It was bad enough thinking Harold at least found me a well, attractive enough at the start. If he did the whole thing under orders, that doesnat leave me any pride at all.a I said, aIt could be that Kroch found the situation between you and Mooney already established when he came on the job, and simply looked around for a way to take advantage of it.a aItas a nice thought,a she said wryly. aIt makes everything much better. Now all I have to face is the fact that Harold is willing to help another man murder me to save his own skina .a The little car buzzed on down the black highway between the trees of one of those dry-looking southern pine forests. When you come from the West, as I do, youare apt to think everything east of the Mississippi is built up solidly like suburban New York, but it isnat true. There are still some good big forests there, and some bleak lonely island beaches that havenat yet been turned into replicas of Coney Island.

I had one of those offsh.o.r.e strips of white sand near Pensacola in mind as I drove. Iad seen it from the air, returning from the carrier with Lt. (jg) Braithwaite, and Iad talked it over with Olivia, whoad been out there in the summer. Shead agreed that at this time of year, too cold for swimming or picnicking, you could commit murder at leisure there, or any other crime you happened to have in mind. The difficulty would come in getting our subject out there, particularly if he was using another man as a front.

I noticed that Olivia was twisting her new wedding ring on her finger. aItas a funny feeling,a she said.

aWhat is?a aBeing married. Like this. In cold blood, so to speak. Paul?a aYes?a She didnat look at me. aPlease remember that in spite of last night itas purely a business proposition.a I said, rather stiffly, aIf you mean Iam not to presume on the wedding license-a aNo, thatas not what I mean,a she said quickly. aBut itas not as if we were in love with each other or trusted each other, really. Itas not as if we really knew each other and expected to spend a lifetime together.a aWhat are you trying to say, Doc?a She didnat look up. aJust that Iam not really a very nice person. I used to think I was. Nicey-nice. Prissy, even. A very high-minded and moral citizen. But Iam just not, thatas all. The last few days-the last few weeks-have shown me things about myself that are rather frightening. But youare not marrying me for my character or personality, or my looks or money or background, or anything like that, are you? You picked me out for this job, or your chief did. It wasnat my idea. Please remember that. So if you should learn something about me one day, something not very pleasant, youall have no right to complain that I tricked or deceived you. Will you?a I said, aIs this another of those little personal matters you donat care to discuss, Doc? The last one got me a sock on the jaw, as I recall. l hope you donat have any more pugilistic boy friends hanging around.a aNo,a she said. aNo, itas nothing like that. Itas just. No, I canat say any more. Itas not my secret.a I looked at her for a moment longer, looked ahead, and straightened the little car out at the edge of the pavement. For some reason I found myself remembering that Maria.s.sy was a Hungarian name, and that Emil Taussig had once pulled a big, murderous job in Budapest, or tried. It would be a h.e.l.l of a coincidence if there was any connection, and if there was one, I couldnat think what it would be, but it made me uneasy just the same.

aYou pick the d.a.m.ndest times to go into your mystery-woman act,a I said irritably. aThe secret life of Olivia Maria.s.sy. Nuts!a aI shouldnat have said anything. I was just trying to keep the record straight, for my conscienceas sake. Itas really completely irrelevant.a aSure,a I said. aSo was Mooney, you said. If itas not your secret, whose is it?a I looked at her again. She shook her head minutely; she wasnat telling. I said, aDoc, if youad heard that darling-never-trust-me line as often as I have-a aAnd always from a beautiful female agent, I suppose.a Oliviaas voice was dry. aAnd usually in bed, no doubt. It must be a fascinating life.a aYouall have an opportunity to judge it for yourself in just a moment,a I said. aIam going to give it a try while weare still on the road. If somebodyas tailing us, theyare very good, and theyare obviously not going to give us a look at them, driving. I think wead better disappear from the highway temporarily. Get the guy worrying about losing us, if there is a guy, and maybe heall show himself while we lie in the woods, watching. He may even come in after us, if we arrange it right.a She looked at me, and touched her tongue to her lips. aAnd if he does?a aIf he does,a I said, aweave got orders to take him.a aYou mean right now? Right here? I thought you said you were going to wait and lure him out to one of the beaches-a aWeall keep the beaches in reserve,a I said. aThis piney country looks pretty good. Iam pretty good in the woods, if I do say so myself.a Olivia s.h.i.+vered slightly. aAll right,a she breathed. aAll right. You donat mind if Iam a little frightened, do you? But it will be nice to have it over, if it works. if there is someone.a She hesitated. aYouall have to tell me what to do.a I told her.

XIV.

THE ROAD I PICKED to turn off on was just two ruts among the trees. It ran straight back into a patch of timber that promised adequate cover. I drove off the highway a reasonable distance but not so far that the Renault couldnat be spotted by someone with sharp eyes driving by.

Stopping, I took Olivia into my arms. It was supposed to look very pa.s.sionate from a distance-after all, wead just got married, and a little private clinch was in order-but the French, for all their s.e.xy reputation, must not go in for that stuff much or they wouldnat put the handbrake and gears.h.i.+ft lever where they do.

Still, it wasnat exactly a mechanical performance. I mean, we were both human and wead spent some time in the same bed the night before. She still knew where the noses went. I was aware of traffic on the highway, but I wonat claim I kept an accurate count of every car that went past. We were both a bit breathless when the time came to break.

aOne of these days,a I said, releasing her, aone of these days weall have to do that just for fun, Doc. Scene Two coming up. Do you have a blanket on board?a aBlanket?a She had her hands to her hair. She wasnat looking at me. There was color in her cheeks, and she looked just like a woman whoad been kissed and not at all like a scientific inst.i.tution. aNo, Iam afraid thereas no blanket. Why?a aDonat be innocent,a I said. aBecause of what would follow naturally between two newlyweds in a secluded spot like this, thatas why. Because of what obviously canat be done in a car this size by a man my size. Well, my topcoat will have to do. Leave your d.a.m.n hair alone and come on.a I grabbed the coat from the rear seat, got out, and joined her on the other side of the car, putting my arm around her to make it look good if somebody was watching. A vehicle went past on the highway doing at least eighty; that one wasnat looking out for anything but cops. I led her toward a patch of brush that offered privacy. Inside there was enough s.p.a.ce at the foot of a big pine to spread my coat. Olivia sat down and checked her stockings for snags, then looked up smiling.

aIam not supposed to be thinking of my appearance, am I?a Her voice was cool and steady now, and I found myself wondering if that was really what shead been thinking. It wasnat my idea, shead said. Youall have no right to complain that I tricked or deceived you. It was as clear a warning as I could expect.

It was a h.e.l.l of a case, I reflected. n.o.body was really acting right, not Kroch, not the woman who was supposed to be my partner in the a.s.signment, the woman who was now, according to law, my wife. Even Mooney, the lightweight, couldnat seem to stay in character either as a sincere lover or a panicky seducer or a cowardly accomplice. And in some respects I wasnat being very consistent myself, although I preferred not to examine that idea too closely.

I said, businesslike: aIf anybodyas shadowing us, heas had plenty of time to go past. Weall a.s.sume he spotted us smooching in the car.a aKroch knows what you are,a Olivia interrupted. aThe pa.s.sionate love scene isnat likely to have fooled him, is it? Any more than our hasty marriage?a I said, watching her, aLetas not go overboard on this Kroch theory, Doc. Heas our best bet, true, but heas acting very oddly. And if there should be somebody else, neither Kroch nor Mooney-a She frowned quickly. aWho?a aI donat know,a I said. aBut thereas something in this d.a.m.n case that Iam overlooking, and until I find it Iam not going to settle on Herr Kroch to the exclusion of everything else. And if itas Kroch following us, no harm is done. Heall naturally have some doubts about the sincerity of our display of pa.s.sion; heall wonder just who the h.e.l.l we think weare fooling. Heall be puzzled. So much the better. Heall have all the more reason to want to find out what weare really up to in here. Letas hope he parks up ahead and comes sneaking back for a look. If he does, your job is to make him think weare both right here in this thicket. I leave the details to your imagination.a I paused, and took my compact .38 Special out of my pocket. aOne more thing. Have you ever been checked out on one of these, Doc?a She shook her head. aNo. Do I have to-a aSomething could go wrong. I was told you were valuable government property out on loan to us, to be returned in good condition. If thereas trouble, I want you to have this.a aWhat about you?a ah.e.l.l, I canat use a gun on him. I have to take him alive. But heas tough and experienced and he could get away from me and come for you. Thatas what the gun is for. It sounds like the crack of doom and it kicks like Tennessee white lightning, so hold it with both hands and donat let the uproar scare you. It holds five shots. Point it where you want to shoot and pull the trigger five times and once more for luck. Donat sit around waiting to see what the first shot will do. Just keep shooting till it clicks empty. Okay?a She licked her lips, took the gun gingerly, and looked it over. aOkay, Paul. Whereas the safety?a I said, aYouave been reading too many books, Doc. This is a revolver. If it had a safety Iad have told you. All you have to do is pull the trigger. Donat talk, donat threaten, donat warn, donat hesitate, just shove the thing out ahead of you and open up. If he comes in here after you. Thatall mean I wasnat as good in the woods as I thought. You canat take him alone so donat try. But remember, we want him alive if it can possibly be arranged so donat shoot unless heas really coming for you.a I started to turn away and stopped. aJust one more thing. We also want me alive if it can be arranged. At least I do. Iall sing out before I get too close. The pa.s.sword is still aflattop.a Donat get nervous and blow my head off by mistake.a aI a Iall be careful.a Her voice was a little shaky.

aScared?a I asked.

She smiled faintly. aJust a little. Do you think heall really come?a aIf there is a shadow-Kroch or somebody else-and if he gets curious enough, heall come,a I said. aIf. Thatas one question. How far heall come is another. Weall give it a full hour. Go into your act if you hear somebody out here.a I looked at her sitting on my spread-out coat, looking lost and out of place in the woods in her smart jersey dress-her wedding dress, as things had turned out-and her nylons and high heels, with the murderous little revolver in her hands. I found myself remembering, for some reason, Harold Mooney, the man she claimed to love, screaming silently into the twisted towel as she went into his arm without anesthetic. Iam not a very nice person, shead said.

aWell, take it easy, Doc,a I said, and slipped away.

He took forty-seven minutes to make up his mind, counting from the moment I left her. Lying in damp pine needles with a downed tree for shelter, I saw him coming, moving silently through the woods at the edge of the highway. It was Kroch, all right. So much for my fancy theories.

Anyway, he thought he was moving silently, but he didnat really like it and wasnat very good at it. Basically, I could see, he was a city man, a street man, a dark-alley man. He liked traffic, he liked cars, he liked shadowy doorways and narrow stairs. He liked abusing little girls in attic studios.

He didnat like trees and brush and pine needles and the soft uneasy murmur of the wind and the nervous chattering of a squirrel somewhere in the distance. The cawing of a lone crow cruising by at treetop height made him freeze and wait until head identified the sound by spotting the flying bird. A crow, for G.o.das sake. Youad think anybodyad know a crow.

I lay behind my log and watched him and knew it wasnat going to work. He was acting too wary; he wasnat going to come in far enough to let me deal with him without risking interference from the highway. Head seen the empty car but he was too smart to go near it. He was Karl Kroch and head had traps set for him before. He knew I was somewhere around, waiting.

Head thrown me a challenge in New Orleans, to be sure; head sent me his name and a vainglorious message via Antoinette Vail. It was kid stuff, but it didnat mean he was going to give me any careless breaks in the showdown. He knew this wasnat the right place for him. Iad picked the terrain, therefore I must like it. He didnat. To h.e.l.l with Olivia Maria.s.sy and the shadowing job, for the time being. To h.e.l.l with me.

He turned and went back the way head come. Well, it had been a lot to hope for. Presently I heard a car start up in the distance and drive away. I was supposed to hear that. I didnat think head be going far.

I got up and brushed myself off and went back to the patch of bushes with the pine tree growing out of it. Olivia must have heard me coming because her voice reached me, low but audible: aDarling, please! How do you expect me to get my dress back on if youa . Ah, donat, that tickles!a She laughed softly.

aComing in,a I said. aFlattop, like in aircraft carrier.a She was silent. I went in through the brush and found her sitting on my coat as Iad left her, fully dressed of course, holding the gun with both hands. It was aimed right at my chest. I stood quite still until the muzzle dropped.

She laughed again, a little embarra.s.sed. aI thought it might bea . You told me to go into my act if I heard somebody.a aSure.a aDid youa what happened? Did you see anybody?a aYes, I saw him.a She looked up quickly. aWho?a aIt was Kroch after all,a I said. aMaybe weave proved something. But he didnat like the setup. He sensed something wrong and flared off like a duck.a aSo itas still left to be done.a She drew a long breath and rose and looked down at the gun in her hand. aYouad better carry this, hadnat you?a she said, giving it to me. She watched me start to put it away. aPaul?a aYes?a aIad like you to show me how to open it.a I hesitated. She was watching me with an odd kind of intentness. I said, aSure,a and brought the weapon out again. aYou just use your thumb on the latch like this and the cylinder swings outa like this.a There was a little silence. She looked down at the weapon, open in my hand. She said quietly, aIt isnat loaded, is it?a aNo,a I said. aIt isnat loaded, Doc.a I took the cartridges from my pocket and started feeding them into the empty chambers.

aYou werenat really trying to trap him, were you?a I said, aI wanted to see if he was there. If head come in close, Iad have taken him if I could. I didnat really expect him to come in. It was too obvious a trap to catch a pro.a aBut you were really testing me.a Her voice was quite even. aWerenat you?a I looked up from the gun. Her eyes met mine steadily. Even with the gla.s.ses on, they were pretty nice eyes. She was rather an attractive person, when she didnat have that grim, haggard, arrogant look, I reflected. Or maybe I was just getting used to her.

aYou raised some disturbing possibilities with that last mysterious speech you made,a I said. aI had to check them. Sooner or later I may have to turn my back on a loaded gun held by you, Doc, and I probably wonat have time to worry about you then.a I expected her to be angry, or at least moderately resentful. To my surprise, she laughed, took a step forward and rose on tiptoe to kiss me on the mouth.

aYou know, I could get quite fond of you, Corcoran or whatever your name is,a she said, smiling. aYou havenat an ounce of romance or chivalry in your makeup, and you donat know how refres.h.i.+ng that is to a lady whoas been a sucker for moonlight and roses. Come on, letas go home. Iam going to make you carry me over the threshold for the benefit of the neighbors.a She did, too. It was a small, standardized house with a picture window in a development with winding streets laid out with a French curve by an architect whoad read in a magazine that straight streets were pa.s.s. Nevertheless, for a development, it didnat look too bad; and the house didnat look too bad, either, although Iam not really a picture-window man at heart. When we got inside, the phone was ringing.

XV.

I SET HER DOWN inside the door and kicked it shut behind me. There wasnat anybody in here we needed to put on an act for, and the jangling telephone bell would have killed romance in any case, so I just stepped back and glanced at my watch. It read two oaclock. The little Renault was no sports machine and there had been some delays and detours so we hadnat made nearly the time covering the distance between New Orleans and Pensacola that young Braithwaite had managed in his racing Healey.

Olivia smoothed down her dress and went to the phone while I went back out for the suitcases. When I returned, she held the instrument out to me. I put my load down and took it.

aHowas the honeymoon coming?a It was the familiar voice of the New Orleans contact Iad never met.

aWell,a I said, athereas an old saw about three being a crowd, if you know what I mean.a.

aWhoas your shadow, the great stone face?a aThatas right.a aGood. That just about clinches it. His being in New Orleans could have been some kind of coincidence, I suppose, but his trailing the lady across four states didnat happen by accident. Heas our man, all right.a There was a pause. aIs he around right now?a aWell, heas not standing beside me,a I said, abut Iad guess heas not too far away.a aThatas nice,a the man in New Orleans said. aThatas nice because youare going to have to pick him up, it says here.a I didnat like the way he put it. I said carefully, aSure, I know. As a matter of fact, I gave it half a try this afternoon, but Krochas very cagey. Iam going to have to wait and set it up more carefully. Besides, the way the guy is acting bothers me. Half the time heas an experienced old pro and the other half heas a reckless, boastful punk. Iad like to find out whatas behind his corny melodrama before I take him.a aYou can ask him all the questions you want after you take him,a said the voice on the phone. aBut he followed Maria.s.sy and n.o.body else did. Or did they?a aThen heas the man you take, and you take him now. The Taussig matter is becoming urgent. Immediate action is requested, not to say commanded. Got it?a I drew a long breath. aSure. I got it.a aYou take him. Thatas the word. Iave got more good news for you. That little artist girl, the one with the attic studio and the black eye, came to the Montclair Hotel about half an hour after you left. She was looking for you.a aAntoinette Vail? What did she want?a aShe had a letter for you. When she was told at the desk that youad checked out, she wanted to have it sent after you, but youad left no forwarding address and we hadnat antic.i.p.ated this possibility and tipped off the desk clerk, so he wouldnat take it. So we still donat know what the communication was, but by the looks of things youall soon have an opportunity to find out.a aI will?a I said. aHow?a aWhile she was trying to learn how to reach you, who should appear but a certain Dr. Mooney, looking pale and favoring his left arm. Whoas responsible? Your report is eagerly awaited. Anyway, he heard her asking questions about you. He had an idea. He approached her. She started to brush him off, but something he said caught her interest and they went up to his room to talk. A little later, very friendly, they drove off together in his car-a light blue Chrysler convertible, if it matters. She was driving, presumably because of his arm. Time of departure, ten-fifteen. Course, due east, Pensacola-wards. Speed, excessive. So you can expect company soon, you lucky boy.a aI see.a I frowned. aAnd you have no idea what it is the girl wants to tell me.a aNot any.a ad.a.m.n,a I said. aCan you have her picked up?a aFor what reason? On what charge?a ah.e.l.l, have the cops pick them both up on the Mann Act or something. Theyall be crossing plenty of state lines between there and here.a aAnd this will accomplish what?a aIt will get the fool kid off the street before she gets herself clobbered again,a I said.

aI donat think Was.h.i.+ngton is interested in getting fool kids off the street, friend,a said the man in New Orleans. aNot enough to risk the publicity involved in pulling in a respectable Pensacola physician for a.s.sociating with a pretty New Orleans artist. Canat you see the papers? And the girl has kept her mouth shut so far, but who knows what sheall do if we put her face to face with a lot of policemen and reporters asking questions. No, better let her come through. You handle her when she gets there. And find out what her urgent message is. After all, if itas important enough for her to write you a letter, itas important enough for us to know. Maybe sheas remembered something about Kroch from last night, something she forgot to tell you.a He was right, of course. I said, aAll right. But itas going to be a h.e.l.l of a honeymoon.a The man in New Orleans laughed. aYour wife will understand. Thatas more than mine does. Well, youare out of my territory now. Iam switching you over to local control. Youall make contact at the Flamingo Lounge. Your bride can tell you where, or consult the city directory. Use the menas room routine. The urge to wash your hands will strike you at five-thirty sharp. The time is now two-oh-four.a I checked my watch. aDescription?a aYouall know him when you see him,a said the voice on the phone. aThereas an I-team standing by. Your contact will tell you how to whistle them up when you have the patient ready for the operation. Or you can do the work yourself, but rockface is to be captured, taken apart, and made to talk, soon. Thatas the word marked final.a There was nothing for me to say except, aTransmission received and acknowledged.a I heard a click and put the phone down, wondering if Iad ever met the man whoad called. Probably not. I looked up to see Olivia watching me, obviously puzzled and disturbed by what shead heard.

aThe Flamingo Lounge,a I said.

aItas in the middle of town,a she said.

aDriving time?a aYouad better give yourself at least half an hour. Pensacola is bigger than it looks from the road we arrived on.,a aDo you know the place?a aWell a yes, I know it,a she said after a brief hesitation. aItas right around the corner from Haroldas office. We sometimes used to meet there for lunch or a drink before dinner.a aCan you tell me where the menas room is located?a She glanced at me sharply to see if I was joking. She said, aBoth rest rooms are to the left as you come in, back in the corner. Youare going to meet somebody there?a When I nodded, she asked, aAm I going with you?a aNot to the final rendezvous,a I said. aIt might cause comment. But as far as the lounge itself, yes. I wouldnat leave my bride home alone on our wedding night, would I? Besides, the last time we separated you wound up facing a man with a gun.a I shook my head irritably. a. wish I knew for sure that Kroch is really as c.o.c.ky am irresponsible and erratic as he acts.a Olivia was watching me steadily. aWhatas wrong, Paula What did that man tell you on the phone?a aEverythingas wrong,a I said. aTime seems to be running out on us, for one thing. Was.h.i.+ngton is jittery and screaming for immediate action; Iave got orders to pick up Kroch at once, regardless. Well, as soon as Iave conferred with some local guy Iam to meet at five-thirty. And just to make things real complicated, Antoinette Vail, the girl who got mussed up last night because I bought her dinner, is heading this way with a mysterious letter in her hot little hand, intended for me. Sheas driving your friend Mooneyas car, and heas right beside her. What he thinks heas doing, G.o.d only knows, but Iam sure itas clever as h.e.l.l. Iam getting d.a.m.n sick and tired of devious and clever people, Doc. I wish I could meet just one direct, stupid slob on this job-besides me, I mean.a Olivia laughed. aI donat recognize you from the description, Paul.a After a moment she went on, aYouare worried about the girl, arenat you? I gathered that much from what you said on the phone.a aWell, I dragged her into this,a I said. aSheas just a kid. Sheas probably still got some kind of glamorous, juvenile notions about this business. Well, to h.e.l.l with her. I canat be responsible for every crazy little girl who wants to play Mata Hari or something.a After a moment, Olivia turned away. I followed her into the next room, a living room. It had books along the walls-lots of books, a record player and records, and some furniture that looked comfortable but not particularly new or expensive. The only intriguing piece was a nice little table with a built-in chessboard upon which the men were set up, ready for a game. I remembered that I hadnat got very far into Capabalanca.

Olivia wasnat in sight, but she soon came back through a swinging door that apparently led to the kitchen. A nook at that end of the room served as a dining alcove. She had a gla.s.s in each hand. I took one and raised it to her.

aTo Mr. and Mrs. Corcoran,a I said. We drank, and I looked at her for a moment. It was quiet and peaceful in the little house, and she was kind of a pleasant person to have around, and I was tired of thinking about Kroch and Antoinette Vail and my orders. Thinking wasnat getting me anywhere, and I said, aWe have a couple of hours to kill, Doc, before we head for the Flamingo. I have a suggestion to make. Itas subject to veto; Iam not pus.h.i.+ng it; but I have a sudden urge to lock the doors and windows of the bridal cottage and consummate this crazy marriage. What do you say?a She was silent. I saw that I had shocked her. aYou put it crudely, Paul,a she murmured at last. aI mean well, we had the excuse of being rather drunk last night, but weare not drunk now.a I said, aIt was just a suggestion. We can play chess instead. That was your original idea, remember?a She smiled faintly, but the smile died at once. aIa I donat think I want to be made love to just to kill time. Besides, itas broad daylight and Iave nevera . I donat know if I really could. No, Iad rather not.a aSure,a I said. aWell, if youare going to change clothes for this evening excursion, put on something dark, not too tight in the skirt, not too high in the heels.a She said, aI donat mean to be difficult or overly finicky. But there should be something more to it, shouldnat there? Not love necessarily, I donat mean that. Just so thereas something.a I said, aYouall need this,a and took the .38 Smith and Wesson out of my pocket. aThat is to say, you may need it.a After a moment she reached for the gun. I flicked it open and laid it in her hand that way.

aAs you can see, this time itas loaded,a I said. aThose round bra.s.s things are the cartridge heads. You can kill five men with that, Doc, more if you line them up and shoot through two or three at a time, and donat think it wonat. The bra.s.siere is supposed to be a good place, or the top of the stocking. The purse is not so good; you may lay it down somewhere or have it s.n.a.t.c.hed from you. Use your imagination. Whatever happens from now on, donat go anywhere without this gun, not even to the john. And remember what I told you, if you have to use it.a aIall do my best if itas necessary,a she said, rather uncertainly. aBut youall forgive my hoping I wonat have to.a aSure. Thereas another possibility,a I said. aWe donat know just how this will break. In the juvenile gangs, I understand, the girl generally carries the rod so the boy will be clean if heas frisked by the fuzz-police to you. If we should get in a bind together, I might want this back, very secretly and suddenly. Your signal is when I wiggle my ears like thisa . Whatas so funny?a She was smiling. She looked down at the blunt, businesslike little revolver and stopped smiling. aAll right. When you wiggle your ears aa She broke up again.

aIt may be funny now,a I said severely. aIt wonat be when and if the time comes.a aI know,a she murmured. aIam just being silly.a I grinned. aYouare a pretty good soldier, Doc.a aYou donat know that yet,a she said.

aIam sorry if I stepped out of line,a I said.

She hesitated for as long as a couple of seconds. Then she looked up at me. aBut it wasnat out of line,a she said in an even tone. aI was the one who was out of line, Paul. I forfeited all right to be prudish last night-and after all, weare married. Your request was perfectly legitimate.a I said, aDoc-a aNo,a she said. aIave been protesting very loudly that Iave had enough of romance and sentimentality and that I approved your lack of it. Why should I expect you to dress up your very sensible suggestion with tinsel flowers, like a lovesick boy? Just put my suitcase in the big bedroom and give me five minutes, Paul.a She started to turn away. I caught her arm and swung her back to face me. I said, aIf youare trying to make me feel like a d.a.m.n lechera"a Then I stopped, because there were tears in her eyes. We looked at each other for a moment. I reached out and took the gun she was holding and put it on a nearby table. I took off her gla.s.ses and laid them beside the gun. She stood quite still while I was doing this. I kissed her carefully. Her arms went around my neck, and I kissed her again with less restraint.

Wead both been under strain of one kind of another for quite a while; we were both fed up with one thing and another, including ourselves, I guess. There comes a time when you need another human being for reasons that have very little to do with love.

She freed herself breathlessly at last. aNo, darling, leave my dress alone. Maybe some other time you can rape me on the living room sofa. Today weall use the bedroom like respectable married folks. Just a just wait here a minute, like a good boy, while I slip into something nice and s.e.xy.a aWell, Iall wait,a I said.

XVI.

THE FLAMINGO LOUNGE was located in the base of a tall new building on a wide boulevard with palms down the middle. Even after all the times Iave been in California and Florida, not to mention the great Southwest, I can never quite get used to the idea of palm trees growing in the United States of America. They still look exotic and foreign to me, and I expect to hear natives beating on drums at night and lions growling in the bush. There was a parking lot across the street. I put the Renault into a vacant slot and went around to help my bride out.

There was some constraint between us. This business was no longer all play-acting, but neither was it all for real. It was an uneasy, artificial relations.h.i.+p and I guess we were both aware that there would be a good deal to straighten out once the job was over, a.s.suming we were both around to straighten it out afterward, and that it could be straightened.

She was wearing another good, smart, reasonably expensive dress that might have upped the circulation of Vogue slightly but did nothing much for her. It was dark brown wool, a tunic job. I looked her over for bulges and spotted none that werenat natural.

aWhere is it?a I asked.

She laughed and touched her side where the tunic was loose. aItas tucked into the top of my skirt,a she said. aIam praying it doesnat fall through and go clattering on the floor at an inopportune moment.a She made a face. aYou can tell your information that the bra.s.siere is a highly overrated place of concealment for anybody who isnat built like a Jersey cow; and I ruined a perfectly good stocking trying to hide it down there.a I said, aSure. Well, weare in good time, but we might as well go overa . d.a.m.n!a aWhatas the matter?a We were walking out of the lot. Iad been checking the parked cars routinely. Now I stopped, looking down at a low, racy, red topless job with big wire wheels. I knew it, of course. Iad ridden in it to New Orleans and back. Youall know him when you see him, the man on the phone had told me cryptically.

aWhat is it, Paul?a Olivia asked.

aNothing,a I said. aNothing, but I wish theyad just let the kids play with their d.a.m.n marbles and leave the dirty work to us grownups. Come on.a At five-twenty, it was still daylight outside, but in the Flamingo it was a cloudy and moonless midnight. We had to pause for a moment to let our eyes get used to the blackness.

aNo,a Olivia said suddenly. Her fingers tightened on my arm.

aWhatas your problem?a I asked.

aThat blonde. At the bar.a I didnat rubberneck. aSo thereas a blonde at the bar. Think Iam going to start chasing her?a aSheas Haroldas nurse. Receptionist. You know the one. I told you. The one who laughed.a aWell, you said it was right around the corner from the office. Maybe sheas stopping for a quick one on her way home. Maybe she needs it after answering the phone all day and telling the yearning ladies Dr. Kildareas out of town.a Olivia was gripping my arm hard. aI donat think I can stay in the same room with her, Paul. Iall either get deathly sick or attack her.a aOnly men attack women,a I said. aIn one sense of the word, at least. And youare faking, Doc. n.o.body hates n.o.body so much they canat keep their lunch down.a After a moment, she laughed. aOh, dear. Canat I even exaggerate a little?a aNot on duty,a I said. aTell me more.a aShe must have stopped on her way home, as you say. Sheas still in her uniform.a aThe transparent white nylon one?a aWith the pink undies showing through. Not to mention where the undies arenat. Sheas got a good-looking boy with her, standard TV model, nicely tanned, with wavy brown hair and flas.h.i.+ng white teeth. Heas in civilian clothes, sport coat and slacks, but he wears them like a uniform: I think heas Navy, from the base, off duty, probably an aviator. The airplane sailors have a slightly different look from the s.h.i.+p sailors. After a while at Pensacola you can distinguish them pretty well. Harold would be green with jealousy if he knew his little office queen was stepping out with a younger man.a I turned my head casually. It was Braithwaite, of course. It figured. After all, I had requested further information on Mooney. Put somebody to really digging for dirt, Iad said. Cover his background, his home, his officea . How the Navy boy had got the job of approaching Mooneyas nurse wasnat immediately clear, but it wasnat likely theyad met by accident.

She was young and quite pretty, I saw. Well, she would be. With Mooneyas record for philandering, head hardly pick a hag to share his office hours. I remembered being told the turnover was considerable.

The current inc.u.mbent had her nurseas cap perched on a piled-up ma.s.s of pale hair that made her look a little top-heavy. It seemed like a lot of hairdo to take to work every day. She was slightly plump for my taste, sticking out rather obviously and spectacularly in front, but the waist was small and the arms seemed to be nicely proportioned inside the semitransparent sleeves of her uniform. The white stockings and st.u.r.dy, low-heeled, white shoes couldnat hide the fact that the round calves and trim ankles would pa.s.s inspection anywhere.

aYouave got a good eye, Doc,a I said. aHe is Navy and he is a fly-boy.a aThatas not where youare looking,a Olivia said dryly. aBut since you know him, I suppose heas the one you came here to meet.a aMaybe. Heas obviously got one job already. Weall see if he has two.a I glanced surrept.i.tiously at my watch. aLetas grab a booth. You donat want to be left standing when nature calls me, a hundred and forty-three seconds from now.a I seated her at the side of the room. She started pulling off her gloves, glancing toward the young couple at the bar.

aI donat understanda . Oh. Heas trying to get her to tell him things about Harold for you, I suppose. Well, heas come to the right person. She should have a lot of fascinating information on the subject.a aLetas hope she does,a I said, and then it was time to go. I rose and said in clear, husbandly tones: aOrder me a bourbon and water, dear, if you can catch a waiter. Iall be right back.a I didnat look toward the bar as I went off, but I was aware that Braithwaite was still engrossed in his conversation with the blonde girl in medical white. Either head forgotten, or he wasnat my man after all, or our watches were out of sync, or his time had been set a minute or two later than mine. I entered the tiled precincts and stalled a little in the obvious way. When I turned to wash my hands, he was there, was.h.i.+ng his hands. We were alone in the place.

I said, aGo ahead.a aThe interrogation team is in town. I have the address and telephone number written down-a aNever write anything down. Give it here.a He tore a leaf from a small notebook and pa.s.sed it over. I memorized the information and flushed the paper down the nearest john.

aHow much do you know?a I asked the boy.

aEnough, I think, sir. Have you spotted your man yet?a aI have a man spotted. Orders are to take him. Never mind that. You saw the lady with me? Well, you probably recognized her from the s.h.i.+p. Dr. Maria.s.sy.a aYes, sir.a aIf I get busy and things look rough, I may have to unload her on you. As far as youare concerned, she is not expendable. You will keep her alive and unhurt if you have to stop the bullets and knives with your own head or heart, whichever you consider more impenetrable. Communication understood?a aYes, sir.a aAre you armed?a aYes, sir.a aCan you shoot?a aYes, sir.a That probably meant he wasnat very good, I reflected, looking at him sourly; and if he was good at all it was probably only on paper targets. The Navy doesnat go in for small arms much-they figure on the Marines doing the shooting-and there are all degrees and kinds of marksmans.h.i.+p. No man who really knows how to shoot is going to answer that question without qualification. Well, it was the best arrangement I could make at the moment.

aWhere can I reach you if I need you tonight?a I asked. aYouare not still living aboard the training carrier, I hope.a aNo, sir. Iam staying temporarily at the BOO on the base.a aPhone?a aWell, thereas no room phone, but if you call the building-a ah.e.l.l, I canat go through all that,a I said impatiently. aAnd I canat send a lady to visit you in the Bachelor Officersa Quarters, either.a I frowned. aWhat about this nurse? Does she live alone?a aI believe so, sir.a aHow far have you got with her? Do you think she may ask you to her place if you play it right? Since you obviously canat ask her to yours?a He flushed slightly. aWell, sir, I a I think so. Sheas very friendly. I was going to ask you. I mean, Iam not a kid or anything, but I didnat know how fara I mean, they didnat tell me if I was really supposed toaa I said, aI want you to spend the night with her, so I know where I have you if I need you. That will also give you an opportunity to carry out your primary mission, which I presume is gathering information about her employer. Whatever else you do or donat do is up to you, as long as you keep her friendly and unsuspicious.a He hesitated. aYes, sir,a he said reluctantly.

aObjection?a aThereas hardly any alternative, is there, sir? And, well, it just seems a little cold-blooded.a I was reminded of Oliviaas att.i.tude of a couple of hours ago. I suppose it should have given me a warm and sentimental feeling to know there were still people around for whom s.e.x had a symbolic significance, but Iall have to admit that it merely made me impatient.

aJesus,a I said, aa Navy man with a conscience about dames? I thought you fellows had girls in every port.a He drew himself up. aIave had plenty of girls, sir! Itas not that. Only, well, she seems like a nice kid-a The d.a.m.n case seemed to be crawling with nice kids. aYou think sheas a nice kid but you think sheall go to bed with you,a I said. aWell, Iall give you a hint. If you simply canat bear to lay the young lady under false pretenses, just make like youare drunk and pa.s.s out on the floor. If sheas really a nice kid, and even if she isnat, sheall probably just drag you to the couch and leave you to sleep it off. She may even make coffee for you in the morning. Okay?a aYes, sir. Iam sorry, I didnat mean-a aHas she come out with any information of interest about Dr. Mooney?a aNot much. I havenat really dared try to pump her yet. After all, I only picked her upa made contact with her at lunch. From what she says, the doctor is kind of an amorous slob and keeps her dodging. The previous girl quit, Dottie says, because shead worn out her track shoes; that kind of stuff. Mooney tells Dottie about his affairs with other women and hints that she could share the bliss if she wanted. So far, she says, she hasnat wanted, but itas hard work. Sheas considering getting another job, but he pays well.a I said, aThat corresponds with information received, up to a point. My dope is that she isnat quite as innocent, Mooney-wise, as you make her sound. But my informant was prejudiced.a Braithwaite shook his head quickly. aI think Dottieas telling the truth. Sheas a well, she really seems like a swell kid, sir. Iad hate to think I was dragging her into anythinga .a He stopped.

I looked at him, and thought for some reason of a swell kid Iad dragged into the case, sobbing into a damp pillow. I asked, aWhatas your first name, Mr. Braithwaite?a aWhy a why, itas Jack, sir.a aWell, Jack,a I said, asome day you may have to fire off those big Navy guns of yours, or drop those big bombs, and some people are going to get hurt who maybe arenat as guilty as some other people. Maybe thereall be some who arenat guilty at all. And do you know, itall be just too d.a.m.n bad, Jack.a He said stiffly, aYes, sir.a aHowad you get roped into this?a I asked.

aI wasnat roped in,a he protested. aI volunteered, sir, as you told me I could. I called the number you gave me in Was.h.i.+ngton. They called me back almost immediately. Theyare going to put me through some special training-you know more about that than I do, sir-but this thing was breaking fast and they had n.o.body else available locally. Besides, Iad already been in on it, a little. I knew you by sight.a aSure,a I said. aIn the Army we used to distinguish between three cla.s.ses of fools: the plain fools, the d.a.m.n fools, and the volunteers.a Staring at him coldly, I saw his jaw muscles work a little, but head been hazed before. He had discipline. He didnat talk back. He was a pretty good boy, but I wasnat about to let him know I thought so. Head work better under strain. I went on, aThe nurseas name is Darden, isnat it? Where does she live?a He brought out the notebook again. I ripped the page out and disposed of it as before, after memorizing the data written on it.

aIf shead seen that,a I said, ashead have thought it was mighty d.a.m.n funny your having it written down before shead ever told you.a aYes, sir.a aI donat really mean to give you a hard time, Jack.a aNo, sir.a aI wouldnat expect to fly an airplane without plenty of training, but thatas just about what youare going to have to do here. And a mistake in this business can be just as -fatal to just as many people, or more.a aYes, sir.a aAll right,a I said. aGive me a minute before you come out.a I straightened my tie at the mirror and went out, leaving him there. As I emerged from the corner devoted to the rest rooms I saw Dottie Darden standing at the booth talking earnestly to Olivia, whose face looked pale and hostile. The kid was obviously trying to sell her something and she just as obviously wasnat buying.

aPlease,a Dottie was saying as I came up. aIad like you to understand, Dr. Maria.s.sy. I know you think Iam terrible and I donat blame you, but after all, he is my employer. I have to listen to his stories and pretend to laugh. I have to keep him happy.a ayes, Iam sure youare very good at that,a Olivia said. aIam sure you keep him very happy.a The nurse winced. aIf it makes you feel better to be jealous of me, go right ahead,a she said. aYouave got lots of company. Half the women in town would like to scratch my eyes out; and the funny thing is, I wouldnat touch that creep with rubber gloves on. Honest.a She drew a sharp breath. aBut you wonat believe that. n.o.bodyall believe that. Iam sorry. I just wanted to apologize.a She turned quickly and almost ran me down. I had to catch her to keep her from falling. She looked up at me, startled, looking very soft and young in the dimly lighted lounge, with her ridiculously formal coiffure contrasting oddly with her plain white uniform.

aOh, Iam sorry,a she gasped, freeing herself.

Braithwaite was returning. She went to him quickly, pulled herself together, and answered his puzzled question with a laugh and a shake of the head. I sat down. Olivia was staring grimly at her gla.s.s.

I took a drink from mine, standing there untouched, and said, aYou were a little tough on the kid, werenat you?a aKid?a she snapped. aTheyare all kids to you, arenat they, Paul? But if sheas really the innocent child she pretends, would she flaunt her pectoral development like that? If itas really hers, and particularly if it isnat.a aPectoral,a I said. aIall have to remember that. When I was a boy, we simply called them b.o.o.bs. Pectoral development sounds much more refined.a Olivia looked up. After a moment she laughed. Braithwaite was leaving, taking with him the nurse and his tender conscience. Iad had one once, I remembered-a conscience, I mean-but Iad managed to lose it somewhere. At least Iad done my best to. In this business a conscience buys you nothing but trouble.

XVII.

Helm - The Shadowers Part 3

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Helm - The Shadowers Part 3 summary

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