8

IN THE MORNING, I got up stiffly from the chair in which I’d spent the night-what had been left of it after Netta had passed out on the bed. I went into the bathroom and shaved without closing the door.

I’ve heard of men who have great ideas while shaving, but it’s never happened to me, and it didn’t now. Even after a wakeful night to work on it, I couldn’t decide what to think about what the girl had told me. Of course, it did explain certain things, for instance why I’d been sent here to bring her back or shut her up permanently.

Obviously somebody in Washington, after hearing the taped interview, had panicked at the possibility that she might blab her story around. The idea that the U.S. was operating strange and dangerous flying machines over friendly foreign territory, and blasting friendly foreign boats and citizens with death rays in the interest of total secrecy, was one that the image-conscious gents in the nation’s capital would feel must be kept from spreading by any means, no matter how drastic. This could well apply whether the idea was true or false.

But the main questions remained unanswered: was the kid actually telling the truth, or what she thought was the truth, and if so, just what had she really seen?

On the one hand, I knew of no reason for her to lie – which didn’t mean that none existed. On the other hand, her story wasn’t very plausible, at least not to a patriotic American who loyally endorsed his Air Force’s scoffing attitude towards pies in the skies. To such a steadfast citizen, the thought that the U.S.A.F. might have had something up its sleeve an the time it was dismissing various odd celestial phenomena as marsh gas or the planet Venus, would of course be unthinkable.

Unfortunately, many people in the world had always been sadly skeptical about our flyboys’ pronouncements concerning UFO’s. This included even Americans who, like me, had seen things in the heavens they couldn’t explain. And the disturbing fact was that the events the girl had described could easily have taken place pretty much the way she’d described them. You didn’t even have to subscribe to her “death ray” to believe the rest of the story.

Say that a secret, experimental U.S. aircraft, crippled and on fire, had descended into the sea, shedding some flaming debris that just happened to land on top of an innocent Mexican fishing vessel. To a girl in the water, dazed and scared, the half-submerged wreckage of the plane-whatever its original appearance-could easily have looked like one of the much-publicized saucers of which she’d doubtless seen photos and sketches galore..

Well, it wasn’t my problem. I had troubles of my own. First I had to get a hungover and disheveled young lady in shape to appear in public. She groaned when I first shook her, peeked at me resentfully on the second shake, and sat up groggily on the third, swinging her bare feet to the floor and pushing the tangled hair out of her face.

“Oh, God,” she said. “What do you want, dad?”

“Not you,” I said. “But you might pull down your skirt a bit just the same. It isn’t fair to tease the animals.” – She tugged ineffectually at the crumpled garment and looked down at herself with distaste.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “You might have undressed me. You didn’t have to let me sleep it off in my clothes.”

“You’ve got others in your suitcase,” I said. “Use them. But first take a couple of these.”

She looked suspiciously at the white pills I held out to her. “What’s that?”

“Cyanide,” I said. “What else? We always carry cyanide pills in our aspirin bottles. You never know when they may come in handy.”

She grinned weakly. “I hope you’re not kidding. Right now, cyanide sounds swell.” She took the aspirin, swallowed it, and washed it down with water from the glass I handed her. She gave me a funny, almost shy little glance. “Did I… I mean, did we… I mean, what the hell happened last night, anyway?”

“You’ve still got your panties on,” I said. “If that’s what you mean.”

Her grin was stronger this time. “What a waste of good liquor. Do I get to take a shower?”

“If you don’t close the bathroom door. I don’t think you can make it out through the little window they’ve got in there, but I don’t intend to give you a chance to try. Leave the door open, and answer at once when I speak to you, and I won’t peek around the corners. Okay?”

Half an hour later, she presented herself for inspection, slim and boyish in a natty ensemble-pants and jacket-that reminded me unpleasantly of the costume of the woman I’d shot the night before, except that this suit was constructed of some thin printed material featuring a lot of tiny pink-and-green flowers.

Netta read my expression and said, “No like, dad?” I shrugged. “I once knew a woman who got shot for wearing an outfit like that. Somebody took her for a man and put three bullets into her. But if that’s the way you like to look, it’s okay with me.”

Netta laughed. “You’re a funny, old-fashioned kind of character, aren’t you?”

I looked at her for a moment. “I may be old-fashioned, doll,” I said, “but I’m not funny. Don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m just a great big warmhearted daddyo, just because I left your lily-white body alone and didn’t peek while you were in the shower. We’re going out there now, to pay the hotel bill, take a taxi to the airport, and board the plane. If it’s late, as they tell me it often is, we’ll wait for it. There may be some opportunities for you to make a break, O’Leary. At least you may think they’re opportunities. But on second thought I think you’ll see that I didn’t get where I am in my line of work by letting little pipsqueak girls run away from me.”

She licked her lips. “You don’t have to be insulting, Matt.”

“Oh, yes, I do,” I said. “Because I have to pound something into the space between your ears, whatever it may contain. I’ve got to make you understand that there are two people in the world who can get you killed in the next ten hours or so. One is ~ guy named Harsek. The other is you. If either of those people get out of line, you’re dead. Well, you can’t do anything about Harsek, but you can certainly do something about you, and I advise you to do it.”

“All right,” she said. “All right, I get the message. I read you loud and clear. I’ll be good. What about what about this Harsek? What do you think he’ll do?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t even know that the man is around. There’s been no sign of him. But he was mentioned, and I have to assume he’s waiting somewhere along our route, or that somebody is. As for what he’ll do, I’m betting on a rifle with a telescopic sight. If he’s got a man good enough to drop me instantly with a long-range brain or neck shot…”

Netta shivered. “Don’t!”

I grinned. “What’s the matter, would you miss me, Carrots? Anyway, whatever he does, it’ll have to be fast and effective, if he wants you alive, and he knows it. So if you find me walking and sitting real close to you, it’s not just my lecherous nature. I’m doing my best to avoid presenting a clear target to friend Harsek’s rifleman, if any. And for this reason I’m afraid we’ll have to pass up breakfast. That balcony dining room is a little too exposed. You’ll have to settle for a cup of coffee at the airport.” I looked at her. “Ready? Okay, here we go.”

I let her carry her own bag so that, using one hand for mine, I’d have one free. We got the financial transactions at the desk completed without incident. A bellboy carried the two bags out to the drive and whistled up a cab. I gave him some pesos for his trouble and got in right behind Netta and settled down beside her. Only ‘then did I take time to notice that it was a bright clear morning after the rain.

“The airport, please,” I said to the driver. “Aeropuerto, por favor.”

“Si, Seсor.”

The taxi was a big old American car that could once have been a pretty fancy town car or limousine. Like all Mazatlбn taxis I’d encountered, it had well-worn upholstery and some missing hardware: for instance, the door handle on my side had got lost somewhere. Then, as we drove away, I realized that all the handles had got lost, for doors and windows both.

I brought out the gun, on which my hand had been resting right along. Netta’s eyes widened as she saw the blunt, blue muzzle move into line. There was a whirring sound up front, and I was aware that a glass partition was rising from the back of the driver’s seat, separating his compartment from ours.

The back of the driver’s head caught my attention. He was wearing a dirty khaki cap, but the nape of his neck was clean shaven, something you don’t often see down there where haircuts are scarce and skimpy. It was a thick, powerful neck that would suit a strong, chunky man-say a man named Harsek.

I pressed down the safety catch of the Browning. “Sorry, kid,” I said, and I meant it.

Netta licked her lips and didn’t speak. As I put pressure on the trigger, I heard a small hissing noise. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some kind of vapor curling from a hole under the front seat.

The whole business was strictly TV. It was so idiotically corny I couldn’t quite make myself believe it was happening. I mean, the stuff couldn’t be lethal or it would kill the girl as well as me, and in any case it had to reach my lungs to do its work-and any man who’s ever pulled a trigger once and knows the way can certainly hold his breath long enough to do it again. Even tear gas wouldn’t save the girl, at contact range.

The whole performance was so ridiculous that I hesitated, wondering if I was overlooking something important. I remembered, suddenly, the odd look I’d seen on Vadya’s face when I described my orders, a look, almost, of satisfaction. I remembered some other things..

Harsek, up front-if it was Harsek-hadn’t looked around, but the tension of the heavy neck muscles proclaimed that he was waiting for the shot. Of course, I could try shooting him, but under the circumstances the seat between us was undoubtedly bullet-proof; and so was the glass and firing at bullet-proof glass at close range is no fun, unless you like picking glass splinters and reflected bullet fragments out of your anatomy. Anyway, nobody’d ordered me to shoot Harsek. My instructions concerned only the girl.

I grinned at Netta, whose eyelids were already drooping from the effects of the gas.

“Next time, doll,” I said.

I put the safety back on and returned the gun to my belt. I drew a long, deliberate breath. I mean, why fight it? The sleepy-stuff didn’t smell bad at all…

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