4

IT WAS A motel-style room entered directly from outdoors, pretty much like mine and, I suppose, like all the others in the place with the exception of a few larger suites or apartments. Two beds were arranged sofa-fashion along the left-hand wall, facing a closet, bathroom, and built-in dresser. A couple of chairs, a low cocktail table, and a luggage stand with a green vinyl suitcase on it, completed the list of furnishings.

There were doors and windows at both ends of the room. From the parking lot, you could walk right through to the beach-and see right through, too, if the curtains were pulled back. It wasn’t an arrangement that made for a great deal of privacy if you had to leave things open and depend on the sea breeze for ventilation.

However, with the air-conditioner on, the doors and windows closed, and the draperies drawn, the outside world moved off into the remote distance. Even the usual hotel noises were pretty well masked by the soft hum of the cooling machinery. All that could really be heard from outside was the slow beat of the surf.

Priscilla Decker stopped inside the door and turned to face me, saying, “Well, Mr. Helm?”

I let her question, if that’s what it was, hang in the air temporarily. I had other things, and people, to engage my attention. I looked first at the young man standing near the door by which we had entered, because he was holding a gun and aiming it at me.

Priscilla said, “It’s all right, Tony… Mr. Helm, Tony Hartford.”

It didn’t seem like a very convincing name. It sounded like something somebody clever had put together, picking the Tony for youthful charm and the Hartford for confidence-inspiring respectability. Of course, there was no reason why it should be his real name, under the circumstances-just as there was no real reason why Priscilla Decker should be hers. Both could have been, and probably had been, picked to suit the characters they were playing.

I watched Tony put the gun away. His face didn’t break into a smile of greeting, nor did his hand present itself eagerly for a warm handshake. Well, I could live without his friendship. He was what I’d classify as low-grade, pretty-boy help. To be specific, the guy was a lean, tanned, sulky young male specimen with long wavy brown hair that had blondish streaks in it put there either by the sun or by Tony himself with the aid of peroxide or whatever they use for -the purpose nowadays. He was wearing very close-fitting light slacks, and a knitted white sports shirt hanging loose about his narrow hips.

One of these days, the House Un-American Activities Committee is going to discover a significant sign of communist penetration, hitherto overlooked by the subversion experts. It used to be that the chief sartorial difference between a Russian and the rest of humanity was that the Russian wore his shirttail out. Now they’ve got us all doing it, obviously a sinister plot against American decency, neatness, and self-respect. – Having seen the gun safely stored away, I could afford to look, at last, from Tony Hartford to the fourth person in the room-which was where I’d really wanted to look all the time. I understood, now, why Vadya had found my conversation on the beach mildly amusing. She’d obviously known, as I had not, that O’Leary was a lady. At least the person watching me from the big chair by the far window was a girl, and a red-haired girl at that-a red-haired girl with a bandaged arm and a bruised cheek.

After the damage, the long, straight hair was what one noticed first. It wasn’t any of those sissy shades of reddish gold they put into bottles nowadays and sell to blondes and other interlopers. This was red hair the way red hair used to be before the chemists got into the act: brick-red, carrot-red, unmistakably genuine, since nobody would go out deliberately and pick such a violent color to live with.

As is often the case with real redheads, as opposed to the bottled variety, the girl was less striking than the hair. One expected a truly spectacular female to go with the fiery coiffure, but all there was a slim, pale, faintly freckled young lady, wearing a short white skirt of the slick material called sharkskin, and a pale green jersey top that looked as if somebody had started out to make a turtle-necked sweater but had tired of the project before tackling the sleeves.

“Helm?” she said, giving me a hard look across the room. “So this is the sinister character we’ve all been waiting for!”

Priscilla said, “Mrs. Annette O’Leary, Mr. Matthew Helm.”

Annette O’Leary pursed her lips thoughtfully, looking me up and down. When she spoke, it was with a deliberate country accent. “He’s not much for wide, is he?” she said to nobody in particular, “but he’s sure hell for tall.” Her voice reverted to normal. “So this is the imported strong-arm man who’s going to drag me back to the States whether I want to go or not! Where does he pack his little whip and gun?”

Nobody answered her. I asked, “If she’s Mrs. O’Leary, who’s Mr. O’Leary?”

There was a rather embarrassed silence from my two associates, so-caned. It was the girl herself who answered: “If you must know, my husband, Jim O’Leary, died in Vietnam last year, being patriotic. It runs in the family, I guess. Look what I’m getting for being patriotic right here in Mexico!”

I grinned. “Is that what you’re being, Mrs. O’Leary?” The red-haired girl said angrily, “Well, I could have kept quiet about what I saw out there on the water and stayed out of trouble, couldn’t I? Or I could have sold it to somebody who was interested-that woman your friends, here, claim to be a communist agent- for quite a bit of money. Don’t think the offer wasn’t made, and don’t think I can’t use the stuff. But instead of cashing in on what I’d seen, I got in touch with the representatives of my native land, like a good little girl, and had them send somebody to take it all down on tape for free. So what happens? So I’m cooped up in a hotel room under guard for days, waiting for a high-powered secret agent type to either escort me north across the border against my will or, I suppose, kill me if I object.”

She gave me a quick, questioning glance to see if she’d guessed right. I said, “Smart girl. I’m glad you realize that if you object, or if other people object, you’re dead.” I looked from her to Priscilla and her good-looking male partner-well, good-looking if you like that kind of looks. I said, “You heard, I hope. I don’t know what instructions you’ve been operating under, but as of now, that’s the official word. This lady goes to Los Alamos. She goes nowhere else in the world-at least not in this world. If anything happens, if the situation looks the least bit doubtful, put a bullet right between her eyes. Do I make myself clear?”

There was an embarrassed little silence, as if I’d said something vulgar or obscene. After a moment, Priscilla spoke in her prim way: “Well, it’s your problem now, isn’t it, Mr. Helm?”

“Not quite yet,” I said. “Don’t be so quick to hand over the baby, Decker. You two are off the hook when Mrs. O’Leary and I are on the plane and it’s airborne, not before. Have you got some airline schedules and a map of Mexico?”

Without speaking, Priscilla went over to the dresser, picked up several gaudy folders, and held them out for me to take.

“You know your own business, I suppose,” she said when I came over and took them. “But is it wise to announce your intentions quite so loudly, Mr. Helm? I can’t guarantee that we’re not being overheard. There are too many ways of bugging a hotel room, and I’m sure the glamorous lady for whom you just bought a drink, down there on the beach, knows most of them.”

Her voice had a strongly disapproving note. As I say, some people have a thing about fraternizing with the enemy, particularly when the enemy is female and attractive.

“She does at that,” I said cheerfully. “Incidentally, her code name is Vadya. I mention it in case you haven’t got around to identifying her yet. What name is she using around here?”

“She calls herself Baum. Valerie Baum.”

“What, if anything, do you have on her?”

“Not much to date. Now that you’ve given us the code name, maybe we’ll have more.”

“Have you spotted any helpers hanging around?”

“No. She seems to be working alone.”

“Not according to her,” I said. “At least she says she’s expecting reinforcements-a gent named Harsek. About forty, about five ten, about two twenty, substantial but not flabby. Customarily shaves his head and packs a Luger. Have you spotted anybody like that?”

I put the question to Hartford, to keep him in the conversation. He shook his head, as did Priscilla, who asked rather tartly: “Did Mrs. Baum-Vadya tell you an this?”

“She gave me the name. I study the dossiers occasionally, and I’ve got a good memory. Of course, if Vadya says she’s waiting patiently for Harsek to get here, it probably means one of three things: he’s here already, or he isn’t coming here at all but expects to do the job somewhere else, or she’s waiting for some other guy entirely. I mean, Vadya is not a gal whose word I want to rely on very heavily. But we’ll keep our eyes open for Harsek just the same.” I grimaced. “Haven’t you any dope on Vadya at all?”

“Well, we think she was sent to Acapulco to kill a man, a British agent who died there last week under suspicious circumstances.” Priscilla glanced towards Annette O’Leary. “But I don’t really think we should discuss confidential matters here, if you know what I mean.”

I said, “Hell, give your security a rest. We’re giving Mrs. O’Leary a tough time; we can at least let her have the fun of watching some real secret agents in action. One more question. That woman you were chatting with at the airport. The blonde with the boyish bob and the football player figure. Where’d you meet her and who is she?”

Priscilla laughed. “Laura Waterman? Oh, she’s all right, just a physical education teacher from California, on vacation. We met in the bar, and it seemed a good idea to cultivate her for company, since Tony was tied up in here when 1 wasn’t, and a woman sitting around alone looks kind of conspicuous. I checked her out first, of course. She’s harmless. We have nothing on her, nothing at all.”

After a few years in the business, you can generally tell where truth ends and prevarication begins, particularly among the younger members of the profession. The laugh had been wrong and the voice had been wrong: the girl was lying to me. It startled me a little. It opened up, shall we say, vistas of deceit that I hadn’t expected to find here.

I said, as if I’d noticed nothing: “Sure. You had nothing on Vadya, either, and you’ll seldom meet a more dangerous lady.” I went on before Priscilla could think up a suitable retort: “For that reason I’m going to leave the two of you to stand watch in here tonight, while I go out to dinner with her. Maybe I can get a hint of what she and Harsek have in mind. Okay?”

Priscilla said, “I suppose so, but what do you expect to learn from Mrs. Baum?”

“Not much,” I admitted, “but she could let something slip, and maybe I can teach her something. Maybe I can convince her that I really mean business. Which brings us back to the question of whether or not she’s got this room bugged: the answer is, it doesn’t matter. I see that the next plane out of here is the Mexicana jet to Los Angeles tomorrow morning, which makes a reasonable connection with a TWA jet to Albuquerque, New Mexico. From Albuquerque, I shouldn’t have too much trouble reaching Los Alamos; it’s only a hundred miles and the roads are good. And I hope Vadya’s receiving me loud and clear, because I don’t want any misunderstandings. I’m using no tricks and no subterfuges. I’m not going to run, I’m not going to dodge, I’m not going to fight. All I’ll do is put a bullet through Mrs. O’Leary at the first sign of trouble, wherever it happens along the way. I hope everybody’s got that perfectly straight, including Mrs. O’Leary.”

I looked at the red-haired girl as I said it. She licked her lips and didn’t speak. I looked back to Priscilla Decker, wanting to ask some further questions: for in-stance, exactly why she’d been sneaking around watching Vadya and me on the beach, and just what it was that Annette O’Leary had seen out on the water that had got me sent here with such drastic instructions. But the last was very hush-hush information that even Mac hadn’t been given, and our Miss Priss was obviously a security nut from way back. On top of that, she didn’t like me, and I don’t believe in asking questions of people just so they can have the fun of refusing to answer.

I went out and took a taxi to the airport, where I bought a couple of tickets to Los Angeles without any trouble. It took me longer to put a call through to Mexico City, but I finally managed that, too.

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