3

SOME PEOPLE HAVE A thing about fraternizing with the enemy. They seem to feel that disloyalty is something you can catch across a table, like the common cold. They act as if the only safe way to remain faithful to duty and country is to quarantine yourself with none but certified patriots in a place where no sinister bacteria of subversion can possibly reach you from the infected creeps on the other side.

Personally, I have a little more faith in my loyalty than this, and if the enemy wants to fraternize, I’m happy to be fraternized with. Why work like hell to ferret out someone’s intentions by devious methods, when you can maybe get him, or her, to tell you all about them over a cold rum Coffins?

As I settled down in a wooden chair under one of the numerous brown-thatched cabanas that sprouted like mushrooms from the sand in front of the hotel, sharing beach space with some green palms and a rustic life-guard tower, I reminded myself that Vadya undoubtedly had reasons of her own for renewing our old acquaintance. She hadn’t picked the exact moment of my arrival to go gamboling in the surf for nothing. Well, that was all right. We’d played this game before, and while the score had been very close upon occasion, I was a little ahead on points. At least I’d never had to have any of her bullets dug out of me.

I sat back and sipped my drink and listened to the surf, therefore, waiting for her to break the silence first and set the conversational mood however she pleased. Far up the beach some kids were popping firecrackers. It’s about the only thing I really have against the Mexicans. They don’t wait for the local equivalent of the Fourth of July; they’ll set the damn things off any time of the year, day or night-and in our business we tend to be kind of allergic to sudden loud noises.

Aside from the distant explosions, everything was very peaceful. A little spidery sand crab of some kind popped out of a hole not six feet away; a shore bird, perhaps a sandpiper, tripped along down where the sand was wet, daintily avoiding the waves that reached out for him. There were some islands off the point on which the hotel stood. Across the blue bay to the left was the city of Mazatlбn, spread out along the shore.

It looked like a sizeable community. I remembered that Mac had credited it with a population of seventy-five thousand. Clouds hung around the horizon as a reminder that this was the tail end of the rainy season down here, but the rest of the sky was blue and the sun was bright.

Vadya stirred and reached out to pat my hand lightly, and the sand crab, if that’s what it was, scuttled back into its miniature den.

“Darling,” Vadya said, “it is nice to see you again, even if you did almost kill me.”

I said, “That’ll teach you. When you slip a guy a Mickey, don’t stand around waiting to see him fall on his face. He might just manage to get out a gun and shoot you first.”

“I guess I was fatuous to expect an apology.” Her voice was a trifle sharp. “Or even an expression of-regret.”

I grinned. “Cut it out. Under similar circumstances, you’d have done exactly the same thing to me, if I’d been dumb enough to let you. You might even have shot straighter than I did.” This wasn’t getting us anywhere, and I asked, “Who’s handling the main job for you here, or is it a big secret?”

It was a crude, head-on approach, and she stalled automatically: “Why, I am handling the job. The whole job. Why should I need anybody else?”

I said, “Because it’s not your type of job and you know it. You’re just running interference, I figure. You’re here to make with the sex, and the guns if necessary; to take me out of play at the proper time – me, or whoever was sent. For the heavy work, the primary objective, they’d have somebody else lined up, somebody with more muscle and less finesse. Who is it?”

“Do you really expect me to tell you?”

“Sure,” I said. “Why be cagey about something I’m bound to find out pretty soon, anyway?”

Vadya shrugged. “All right. If you must know, Harsek is coming. I was handy, vacationing in Acapulco. I was just rushed up here to keep track of the subject until Harsek arrives.”

I whistled softly. “Harsek, eh? The Mad Czech?”

“He is not so mad. He is just very, very tough. Tougher than you are, darling.”

“Nobody’s tougher than me,” I said, grinning. “Except perhaps you. Certainly not a fat bully-boy with a shaved head who’s made his reputation scaring poor little Turks and Arabs with his silly Luger. A Luger, for Christ’s sake! A story-book pistol with a trigger pull that works around fifteen corners before it gets to where the gun goes off; a muzzle-light cannon that – shakes like a leaf in the breeze. I never knew a Luger-boy yet who wasn’t strictly for show.”

Vadya laughed. “You are just talking to make yourself brave.”

“Who needs courage against Harsek?” I asked flamboyantly. “All I’ll need is a fly-swatter. There’ll be nothing left but a spot of grease. When is he coming?”

“I have told you all I’m going to,” she said, smiling. “And you have given me nothing in return but boasts and ballistics.”

“Harsek,” I said thoughtfully. “I thought he functioned strictly in the Near East. They must want whatever we’ve got-or whoever we’ve got-pretty badly to pry Harsek loose from his favorite stamping grounds and send him all the way over here. How much manpower does he plan to use?”

“Really, darling! You want a great deal of information in exchange for none at all.”

“Exchange?” I said. “Why, I thought we were just having a pleasant chat. Two old Mends-well, enemies – meeting again after so many months. You make it sound like bargaining day at the local mercado. What do you want to know?” She didn’t answer at once. I watched a white seabird commit apparent suicide out there, hurling itself deliberately into the waves. A moment later it was airborne again, presumably with something in its beak or claws, but that was a detail I couldn’t make out at the distance. Of course, it could have missed its target. This happens, even among birds. I said, casually, “It’s a screwball deal, isn’t it?”

“What is?” Vadya’s voice had a cautious sound.

“A bunch of grown people getting all stirred up about some kook’s psychedelic visions.” Regardless of my own beliefs, I had a hunch that a skeptical attitude would be more profitable here. I asked, “What’s Spanish for flying saucer, anyway?”

She glanced at me warily. “Plato volante, I believe,” she said. “Or disco volante. Why?”

I grinned at her. “All right, play it close to the chest if you like. But I must say I’m starting to wonder about those guys in Washington. I’ve had a lot of weirdies sprung on me in the way of assignments, but this is the first time they’ve put me to chasing imaginary spacecraft, or even the screwball who imagined them.”

She permitted herself a small laugh. “Yes, it is rather lurid, is it not? I must say I had the same feeling when the mission was explained to me.” She moved her bare shoulders ruefully. “Of course, one asks no questions. One has one’s orders.”

She wasn’t giving much away, not even her true feelings on the subject-but at least the UFO gambit hadn’t come as a total surprise to her. Whatever wild notions were going around, they apparently weren’t confined to Washington.

“That’s right,” I said. “One does.”

“Well, how are you going to obey yours, darling? Now that you know with whom you have to deal. Do you really think you can get your prisoner past Harsek and me, and across the border into the United States?” She glanced at me. “What is your plan, darling? It must be very good.”

I laughed. “Now we come to it. A straight question at last. Well, in return for Harsek’s name, I’ll give you a straight answer. Pay close attention, doll, because this is important.”

“I am listening. Tell me what you plan to do to outwit us, two of the best agents in the business if I may flatter myself as well as Harsek. Tell me. Then maybe I will tell you if it will work.”

“Outwit you, hell,” I said. “Why should I bother? My orders are simple and straightforward. I have explicit instructions to shoot this character with the vivid imagination-to shoot him stone dead-if you or Harsek so much as crook a finger or lift a voice in his direction. What did you think they sent a guy like me down here for, baby, to make sure he got his two A.M. feeding on schedule?”

There was a little silence. Vadya was looking down at her glass so that I could not see her eyes, but I knew her pretty well, and I had an uneasy hunch that I’d just said something that amused her-and something that she’d wanted to hear, as well, although this did not really make sense, in the light of what I knew about the situation. Of course, I didn’t know everything, and some of what I did know could be wrong.

Vadya raised her glass, and drained it. “I see,” she said. “I wondered. This explains things.”

I said, “Of course, your names weren’t specifically mentioned in the orders, but the principle laid down was clear. I intend to follow it. And then I’ll go back to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I left a drink waiting – a drink and a lady named Carol-when I rushed off to chase little green men in the sky. The drink’s probably warm by now, but liquor and ice are plentiful up there. The lady’s another matter. She’s kind of special, you might say unique. She was quite warm when I left her. I hope she hasn’t cooled.”

Vadya smiled. “You are trying to make me jealous. That’s childish.”

“Maybe.”

“And also you are giving me a warning, are you not, Matt? One might even call it an ultimatum, mightn’t one?”

“One might,” I said. I still had the nagging feeling that I was playing into her hands somehow, but I’d already started on this heavy-menace routine and it was too late to switch to another approach. I made my voice hard. “Pass the word, doll. I’m not here to fool around, and guarding the body is not my sport. I flunked my Red Cross lifesaving course, but I did real well in Practical Pistolry. I am taking this imaginative specimen north alive if you leave me alone. But if you make one move, one half a move, all we’ll have is a corpse to share-and don’t try calling my bluff, doll, because it’s not a bluff. My instructions are to consider this crackpot strictly expendable, and rather than lose him to you, or Harsek, I’ll expend him right now.” I got to my feet abruptly. “How do you sign for the drinks around here?”

“Take that chit to the bar.” Vadya’s voice was expressionless. “They’ll give you a slip to fill out. Incidentally, there’s a space for propina, which means tip, and fifteen percent seems to be customary.”

I looked down at her for a moment, feeling baffled and uncomfortable, the way a man always feels in the presence of a woman who knows more than he does and is smart enough to take full advantage of her knowledge.

“Thanks,” I said sourly. “I’ve only lived along the Mexican border for about half my life, but thanks anyway. It’s nice to know what propina means after all these years.”

Vadya shrugged. “You were so stupid about disco volante. I am aware that you know some Spanish- it’s in the dossier-but I thought if that is the way you want to play it, I would oblige you. Matthew?”

“I really bear no hard feelings for what you did to me. And I really expected no apologies. You know that, don’t you?”

“Sure,” I said.

“We do not have to play tough and make faces at each other, do we? Will you take me to dinner? Seven-thirty in the lobby. We will go to the Copa de Leche, which means glass of milk, and is the closest thing to a first-class restaurant to be found in this town. It is air-conditioned, too. Seven-thirty is early for dinner in Mexico, very early, but you will be tired from all your traveling.” She smiled up at me. “I am not luring you away from the action, darling. Nothing is planned for tonight. However, if you are suspicious and want to eat right here instead, that is all right, too. The food is quite passable and the dining room is up on that balcony and reasonably cool. But do wear a coat and tie in either case. One gets so tired of seeing grown men in romper suits, like superannuated schoolboys.”

I grinned. “Seven thirty. Coat and tie. Check.”

I walked up the sand, leaving her there, and signed for the drinks in the bar that was a sort of half-open veranda adjoining the lobby. As I came past the desk afterwards, I caught a glimpse of Priscilla Decker watching me through the glass wall of the nearby souvenir shop. I went quickly in there and found her studying a rack of magazines, predominantly in English, and with a surprisingly large percentage of U.S. girlie publications, for a respectable hotel newsstand in a foreign land.

Well, the Mexican male really goes for this literature, I’m told; and if he doesn’t he can’t afford to admit it. It is part of his image, part of what is known as the cult of machismo, or rampant maleness. He’s supposed to be so damn virile he comes on like a bull at the mere sight of a female photographed in a mildly suggestive pose with a minimum of clothing. Personally, I prefer to save myself for real live women. I can’t seem to get much satisfaction from photographs, but I guess it’s all a matter of taste.

I saw my contact holding one of the magazines vaguely, only pretending to examine it. She put it back hastily, flushing pink, when she got around to actually looking at the bosomy lingerie lady on the cover.

“Tsk, tsk,” I said in her ear. “That’s man-stuff. What you want is a health magazine featuring a muscle-bound weight lifter flexing his oiled biceps. Where can we talk?”

“Go away!” she whispered urgently. “Go away! We’re not supposed to be seen together. We haven’t been authorized to break cover-” I said, “For God’s sake stop playing Sally Spy, girl agent. We’ve been made and you know it, so let’s just skip the cute undercover stuff for the time being. Is that your key?” I took it from her fingers. “Room 116? Let’s go.”

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