THE RESTAURANT of the Beautiful Beach Motel was a smallish, unpretentious room across the lobby from the bar, with six or eight tables served by a single waitress, a pretty little girl in a fullskirted cotton dress who seemed to love her work. At least, something made her happy enough to sing, and after she’d taken our orders and brought us some beer to drink while we waited, we could hear her out in the kitchen, twittering like a bird.
“But I don’t understand!” Carol said abruptly. “What in the world is chloral hydrate, anyway?”
I said, “It’s vulgarly known as a Mickey Finn. Knockout drops, to you.”
“You mean… you mean Mrs. Henderson was drugged?”
“Uhuh,” I said. “The pink polka dot men from Mars are real tricky little fellows. They apparently slid down a ventilator or something, put the lady to sleep, and planted an incendiary bomb to keep her company. Then they were teleported or rematerialized back up to their hovering space ship, the one that looked like half a marble on top of a fifty-cent piece. At least that’s what Henderson would like us to believe. Of course he undoubtedly hoped that, in a backward community like this, nobody’d spot the fact that his wife had been fed a chloral cocktail before she was incinerated.”
Carol gulped. “What you’re saying is that Henderson murdered his wife and made up the flying saucer story to cover up.”
“First being careful to get himself mildly scorched to make it look good. That’s the general idea.”
Priscilla looked bored, as if she’d had all this figured out hours ago. Maybe she had. She asked, “What put you onto it, Matt?”
“Well, the guy himself wasn’t too convincing, was he? And the camper had obviously burned from the inside. The outside, in several places at least, was bright and clean. Of course, the hypothetical UFO could have shot an intergalactic napalm missile or something down through the roof, but there wasn’t any hole that looked as if it had been made from outside. Everything had blown out, not in.”
“What about the bomb? If Henderson did it, what do you think he used?” Priscilla asked.
I said, “Well, if I were doing it, I’d just put a big saucepan of gasoline on the stove, over a low flame, and run like hell. Sooner or later-probably sooner- the fumes would reach the fire and go boom. What our Greg actually used is for the experts to decide. Probably he was fancier than that. Murderers tend to be more complicated than necessary.”
Carol said, rather tartly, “For a public relations man, you seem to know a lot about bombs and murder, darling.”
She was needling me, not entirely in fun, and I wondered what I’d done to annoy her. Then I realized that Solana must have mentioned that he’d cleared the dinner invitation with me, and no girl really likes to be passed from hand to hand, or man to man. Still, it was a childish reaction under the circumstances. She might have been bright enough to realize that I wasn’t just getting her out of the way so I could make passes at another woman.
I said, “Oh, we image-makers get around. Anyway, it looks as if Henderson felt guilty enough about something to run out.”
“But why did he do it?” Carol asked.
“You mean, why did he kill her?” I shrugged. “You heard the medical report. The lady was apparently in her late thirties, a good ten years older than her handsome husband. It makes a picture, doesn’t it? Presumably she had money, money enough to buy him a fancy boat and camper rig, anything his virile young heart desired, but he preferred to have her dough without her company. Maybe he had somebody younger in mind to share the wealth with.”
Carol shook her head dubiously. “Matt, you’re just guessing!”
“Sure, but I’d bet on most of it. And it was bound happen, with all these fatal UFO incidents being played up by the press. Somebody who wanted to get rid of somebody was bound to get the bright idea of ostensibly having them knocked off by a homicidal flying saucer. At least that’s one possibility.” I paused. “The other possibility is that he didn’t just have the idea; that it was given to him.”
There was a little silence. Carol frowned, not really getting what I was driving at. Priscilla started to speak, but was stopped by the arrival of the waitress with our food. We all waited until the little girl ‘had served us and danced away, humming to herself.
“What do you mean?” Priscilla asked then, sharply. “Given to him by whom?”
I said, “Hell, I don’t know. But it comes to mind, doesn’t it? Suppose somebody picked this guy who had a wife he could do without-picked him and helped him to come down here and do The job, on condition that he blame it on a mysterious flying machine of a certain description. Why, it’s a natural! Everybody gains, nobody loses, except Edith Henderson. Gregory gets rid of his marital encumbrance, and the Mexican-flying-saucer myth gets another boost for the benefit of whoever’s promoting it.”
“Myth?” This was Carol, sounding offended. “Matt, you keep talking as if you didn’t really believe in-S–” I said, “I know, I know. You and I saw one once, with a couple of other witnesses along, all sober and reliable. Okay, but do you believe in this one? Do you believe in Henderson’s Folly, and its whooshing weapon that sets things on fire from the inside, simultaneously pumping rich ladies full of chloral hydrate? And if this one is a phony, doesn’t that make you kind of wonder how many other of these recent ‘sightings’ have been rigged? I may believe in flying saucers as a general proposition, but these particular Latin-American UFOs are going to have to put on an air show where I can see them, if they’re going to convince me. I’m not buying any more second-hand reports from anybody.”
Priscilla frowned. “What about that red-haired girl in Mazatlбn? Do you think she actually saw-” I coughed, and glanced significantly towards Carol. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, doll. You must be thinking of that other guy you keep getting me mixed up with, the super-spook character.”
Carol grimaced. “Don’t mind me, kiddies. Just go right on playing your cute little security games. But if this is all a hoax, who’s doing it and why?”
“That,” I said, “is the big question. Or perhaps I should say those are the big questions. And I can’t answer them. Maybe Gregory can. And I find it rather suggestive that he’s no longer available, don’t you? He’s out in the dunes somewhere, being chased by Solana’s men, and ten will get you twenty they don’t bring him back alive.”
There was a little silence. Carol had a shocked look on her face. “Matt, what are you hinting at? Surely you can’t suspect Mr. Solana-“
“Shhh!” said Priscilla quickly. She was facing the door. “Shhh, here he comes now.”
We turned to watch him approach. It was dark outside by now, and he’d discarded the big sunglasses, but tonight his face looked no less remote and foreign with them off. There are times when you can kid yourself that men of all races and nationalities are basically identical; and then there are the times when the differences count for more than the similarities.
Tonight, obviously, Ramуn Solana-Ruiz was a Mexican official on Mexican soil, and we were a bunch of lousy Yankee interlopers, a different and inferior breed of cattle. But he was still Latin enough to take a moment out for courtesy.
“I apologize again for being forced to desert you, Mrs. Lujan,” he said to Carol. “I hope you had a pleasant dinner.”
“Very nice, thank you,” Carol said. “Mr. Solana, what about Gregory Henderson? Have you found him yet?”
Solana regarded her for a moment without expression. “There is a certain problem as regards Mr. Henderson. The gentleman seems to be armed. In making his escape, he shot to death the man I had left to watch him. One shot, seсora, in the back. It was careless of the guard, of course, but at the time Mr. Henderson was not technically a prisoner.”
“I was going to ask about that,” I said. “How did you happen to have a guard on him in the first place? Did you suspect him right from the start, even before you came down here?”
Solana shook his head. “No, senor. I did not suspect him, not until after we’d had our little talk with him. He is not a young man who inspires trust, would you say? Listening to him, I was fairly certain h~ was lying; the evidence at Bahia Choya pointed the same way; and the medical report confirmed it. But I had already given instructions to have him guarded, for the simple reason that these witnesses seem to be, shall we say, rather ephemeral. They do not seem to last very long. I wanted to be sure of preserving Mr. Henderson for interrogation. Unfortunately, I failed.” He paused and looked from me, to Priscilla, to Carol, and spoke deliberately: “However, there are compensations. Once I have determined which one of you gave him the gun, I may be able to learn more from that person than I could have from Mr. Henderson.”
I heard Carol gasp. Priscilla, being a pro of sorts, made no sound, and neither did I. Solana, still standing, looked down at the three of us bleakly.
“Let us understand each other, my gringo friends,” he said. “Henderson was brought into town with his clothes half burned off. Nothing was brought with him but what was on him. His clothes were removed, he was treated for his injuries, and pajamas were provided for him, also a dressing gown and sandals. In other words, the man was stripped and thoroughly examined by a doctor, after which he was given new clothing and transported to the hotel. Such possessions as he had had on his person remained behind. If there had been a gun among them, he would have had no further access to it, and there was no gun. It follows that the weapon must have been smuggled into his hotel room after he was established there, by someone who came to visit him.”
I said, “Henderson told us he was beginning to feel like a monkey in a cage. That would seem to indicate we weren’t his only visitors by a long shot.”
“True, Seсor Helm, but I have just finished investigating all others who entered that room, and while it is not possible to be legally certain they can all be eliminated, I am morally certain that is the case. Remember, it was not just a matter of slipping a message on a scrap of paper from hand to hand. A gun is a fairly bulky object, not something the hotel maid, for instance, could readily have concealed on a plate of food, or under it. But it could have been concealed in a camera case, Mrs. Lujan.”
Carol looked startled and indignant. “Really, Mr. Solana-” He went on as if she hadn’t spoken. “And it could easily have been transferred to Mr. Henderson, seсora, by you or one of your companions, while he was being posed for your pictures-the pictures he was so strangely eager to have taken despite his recent, sad bereavement.”
I said, “Hell, that guy was a lens louse from the day he was born. You can’t prove anything by that.”
“Perhaps not, but the fact remains that of all the people who entered that room, you three were best equipped to smuggle in a pistol, and you had the best opportunity to deliver it to Henderson unseen.” He looked down at Carol. “I regret this very much, seсora, but I must ask you to consider yourself under arrest.”
Carol’s eyes were wide and shocked. “But you can’t be serious! Why-“
“I am very serious.”
“But why me?”
Solana sighed. “It has to be you, Mrs. Lujan, by a process of elimination. Whether or not you are aware of it, Miss Decker and Mr. Helm are both U.S. agents. Both were introduced to me by their superiors; there can be no possibility of mistaken identity. Treason is always possible, of course, even among the most carefully screened operatives, but in this case it seems unlikely. Both were given the highest recommendations. You, on the other hand, are an unknown quantity. Who vouches for you, seсora? Does Mr. Helm?”
Carol turned quickly towards me. “Matt, for heaven’s sake tell the man-” I said, “You’re making a mistake, Solana. I’ve known this lady a good many years. I’m sure she’s okay.”
Solana had turned to look at me intently. I had a hunch he was trying to tell me something. He said, “You speak in your private capacity, Seсor. Are you not willing to vouch for her officially?”
I looked at him for a moment, trying to read his expression. Then I glanced towards Carol, but turned back to Solana, since that was the more comfortable direction. Actually, of course, there was no real problem. Mac’s instructions could have been tailored specifically for this situation. You will maintain your cover story, he’d said, with a perfectly straight face even if circumstances conspire to render it totally ridiculous.
Whether he’d been right or wrong in saying it, he’d said it,. and he was the boss. I’d acted on my own in Mazatlбn and he’d backed me up. Now it was my turn to back him up by following his orders to the letter, silly though they might seem-and as a matter of fact, they kind of fit in with the vague plan to which I was working. Maybe they even fit in with the plan to which Solana was working, which seemed to involve getting Carol away from us, either by buying her a dinner or arresting her. What he had in mind, I couldn’t guess, but I could try to find out.
I drew a long, harassed breath, therefore. “Here we go again,” I said to Solana. “I’ve been telling the lady for more than a thousand miles, and now I’m telling you: I have no official capacity. I don’t know who’s supposed to have vouched for me-” I looked him in the eye as I said it. “-and I don’t know why the hell you all want to turn me into a secret agent. I’m perfectly willing to give Mrs. Lujan the best character reference in the world, she’s a wonderful girl, but when it comes to providing her with a security clearance…
“Matt, really! You’re running the gag into the ground. But if that’s the way you want it…!” Carol got abruptly to her feet. She spoke stiffly to Solana: “Will you let me get a few things from my room before you take me away?”
“Of course, seсora.”
“Then let’s go right now, if you don’t mind!”
She marched to the door, very straight and dignified in her jaunty skirt and jacket, before Solana could respond either way. He glanced at us, shrugged, and followed her out. I heard Priscilla laugh a trifle maliciously.
“I don’t think she likes you any more, Matt.”
I said sourly, “Hell, even if I’d wanted to break cover, I couldn’t have given her a clearance because she hasn’t got one. Washington’s still checking her out.”
“Okay, but you could have said so. And what’s with this cover bit, anyway? If you had a scrap of it left after my loudmouthed performance this afternoon, Solana just blew it for you. Who are you trying to fool?”
I said, “You, sweetheart.”
She looked at me sharply. “What do you mean by that?”
I grinned. “Honey, I’m under strict orders not to give Mr. Leonard’s people one single thing they can use against me in a security way. That means you, doesn’t it?”
“Matt, you’re being ridic-“
“Am I? My chief doesn’t think so. Anyway, ridiculous or not, you will not catch me revealing secrets in front of any person unauthorized to hear them, even if they’re secrets everybody knows, like the identity of one M. Helm. You can spill them, Solana can spill them, but my lips remain firmly sealed. I am a harmless publicity gent on vacation until I’m told otherwise.”
Priscilla laughed and put her hand on my arm. “So that’s the reason for the comedy routine! Well, maybe you’re right, at that. Mr. Leonard would certainly like us to get something on you, after what you did to us in Mazatlбn. Just between you and me, he’s a vindictive, stupid little pipsqueak with an ego as big as a house.”
I grinned at her. “What a way to talk about your employer!”
“Am I supposed to love him just because I work for him? Do you love the man you work for?”
I said, “Not exactly, but he’s not a pipsqueak.”
“So I hear. Incidentally, I don’t quite get your strategy, partner. Me you really throwing the Lujan to the Solana, or are you by any chance throwing the Solana to the Lujan? Personally I never trust those healthy-looking, clean-looking, pure-looking blondes. Is she really a professional photographer? She looks- and acts-like a movie star just playing the part.”
I said, carefully, “She’s sold a few pictures over the years. Quite a few.”
“But maybe that’s not all she’s sold, you mean?” I laughed. “Don’t put words in my mouth. Frankly, I’m betting Solana’s the one to watch, but I wouldn’t make the bet very big. We’ll just have to let them sort it out between them and see what happens.”
“Well, we don’t have to do it here,” Priscilla said, rising. “I’ve got some mescal in my room. That’s the bottle with the pickled bug in it-the maguey worm, to show the stuff is made from the genuine maguey plant, whatever that may be. I haven’t been brave enough to sample it yet, but with a little moral support from you-” She paused as I helped her on with her ski jacket, and glanced up at me over her shoulder. “Or even a little immoral support,” she murmured.
I laughed, holding her lightly. “What do you think I am, Decker, just a butterfly flitting from flower to flower, from blonde to brunette? Hell, the love of my life has just stalked out that door, presumably forever. Give a man time to catch his breath.”
She smiled. “You don’t need much time. A few days ago the love of your life was lying dead on a hotel room floor, but you seem to have made a pretty good recovery from that passion. If we walk real slow, maybe you’ll have caught your breath from this one by the time we reach my room. It’s way up near the end of the compound.”
I said, “You’re a callous, disrespectful bitch. Just give me a minute to pay the bill…
I left a generous tip for the little Mexican girl with the ready song. Outside, the wind still blew cold and sharp off the Sea of Cortez, carrying fine grains of beach sand with it. The leaves of the scattered palm trees in the parking lot rattled and clashed over our heads as we made our way towards the waterfront units in the dark, avoiding the black shapes of occasional parked cars.
Priscilla slipped a hand under my arm for support, as we fought our way along the buildings, buffeted by the wind. The other hand was trying to preserve her elaborate hairdo from total destruction. She stopped at a door and fumbled in her jacket pocket for a key, checked herself, and laughed.
“That’s right, the lock doesn’t work, like most things around here. Just open it, Matt.”
As I opened the door, I had the sudden feeling I’d seen this show before. There had been rain in that other scene and not so much wind, but this wasn’t the first time recently I’d come to a woman’s door by invitation on a stormy night.
“Just a minute. I’ll get the light,” Priscilla said, stepping past me to find the switch. I saw her recoil abruptly as the light came on to show the interior of the shabby room; then she’d thrown herself aside and down, shouting: “Matt, look out, he’s got a gun!”
It was Henderson, in badly fitting work shirt and pants he must have stolen somewhere; and he had a gun all right, one of those tiny derringers that are just about as low as you can get on the firearms ladder. Still, they are compact, and as one U.S. president found out the hard way, they will kill. The one Lincoln met was, as I recall, a single-shot job; this one had two stubby barrels, one above the other. That was about all that could be seen of it. The rest was pretty well covered by Gregory Henderson’s bandaged hand.
Well, I had a gun, too. After years of this work, you learn it’s bad business to ignore your hunches. I’d been slow in Mazatlбn under similar circumstances, but I wasn’t making the same mistake here. I’d had the weapon drawn before Priscilla switched on the light- but another thing you get from experience is a ‘feeling for when a man is going to shoot and when he isn’t.
Henderson didn’t have that cocked-and-ready, here-goes-everything aura. It was a dangerous gamble – my instincts aren’t infallible-but we wanted the man alive and talking, so I held my fire, and he didn’t shoot. We faced each other like that, at point-blank range, for a second that seemed much longer; then a gun crashed to my left and Henderson’s knees buckled and he fell.
I looked at Priscilla, crouching in the corner, holding a short-barrele4.38 revolver from which trickled a wisp of white smoke. Her face was white, too.
“Were you paralyzed or something?” she snapped. “He was going to shoot, couldn’t you see it? Another second and you’d have been dead!”
I said grimly, “Considering the way your boss feels about me, I think it’s wonderful the way you people keep saving my life.”
“Well, that’s a fine way to talk after-“
“That will do!” It was Solana’s voice, behind me. “You will please throw your guns on the bed, both of you, and raise your hands!”