His voice said he had a gun, too. Everybody had guns in Puerto Peflasco tonight. I tossed mine on the faded coverlet-well, Vadya’s: the little 9mm Browning I was still carrying. After a brief pause, it was joined there by Priscilla’s.38 Colt.
Priscilla scrambled to her feet, and I moved over to join her, since it makes a man nervous to try to cover two people standing apart, and I had no designs on Solana’s nerves at the moment. Later,. a little psychological warfare might be indicated, but right now it was more important to learn what the man knew, and what he was planning to do about what he knew. It looked to me as if he had just made a great big mistake, moving in too soon when there was no reason for haste, but perhaps I was doing him an injustice.
He entered the room cautiously, holding a pocket automatic very much like my Browning, except that the workmanship looked Spanish or Italian rather than Belgian. It’s hard to say what makes the difference, but it’s there. Behind Solana was Carol, her blue eyes wide at the sight of death-her second such view that day.
Solana gestured us aside, and came forward to take the guns from the bed. Pocketing them, he stepped, back again, and spoke to Carol without looking around.
“Come in and close the door, Mrs. Lujan. Wait over in that corner, please. If anything should happen, lie down on the floor; you will be safer there.” His dark eyes seemed to be focused on a point halfway between Priscilla and me. “I sincerely hope that nothing will happen. There has been enough violence in this room tonight, don’t you think?” His glance touched the dead man on the floor for an instant, and swung back to us.
Priscilla said quickly, “He was lying in wait for us, Ramуn. He was going to shoot. We had no choice!”
“We, Miss Decker? I heard only one shot. Did you fire, Mr. Helm?”
I said, carefully, “Maybe I’ve had a little more experience along these lines than Miss Decker. I had a hunch he wasn’t quite ready to throw the big, black dice. Besides, with that derringer, there was a good chance he’d miss if he did shoot. Those little things won’t hit a manhole cover at ten feet unless the shooter’s had lots of practice. I didn’t think Henderson had.”
That was a mistake. It’s always a mistake to show any intelligence in a situation like that; it’s much safer to act totally dumb.
Solana pounced: “What made you think so? I thought you did not know the man, except for your brief encounter with him at the hotel. How could you know anything about his marksmanship? After all, he did manage to kill a policeman ‘with one shot.”
“It must have been a lucky shot,” I said. I indicated the derringer on the floor. “If he’d known anything about guns, to amount to anything, would he have come here with that?”
Solana frowned. “I do not understand. If that was the weapon that was smuggled to him-” I said irritably, “Hell, amigo, use your brains. Your man, the one who got himself killed, had a great big.45 auto on his’ hip, didn’t he? It was probably loaded with eight 230-grain slugs, seal firepower. So why was this character running around with a lousy little.22 derringer holding two lousy little 40-grain loads, one of which he’d already fired? Why didn’t he throw the toy away and grab a real weapon from the dead man’s holster?”
Solana said, “I see your point, but-” I went on without letting him finish: “It’s only movie and TV actors who run off leaving effective firearms behind so they can have their rousing fistfights without being hampered by a lot of embarrassing hardware- actors with bad scripts, and people with very little experience, who don’t think in terms of guns at all. When I saw that derringer, I knew that, murderer or no, he was just a scared duffer who didn’t really want to shoot anybody else. If he’d had more killing in mind, he’d never have passed up the.45.”
“I see your point, my gringo friend,” said Solana. “But am I to believe that you reasoned all this out the instant you found yourself facing an armed murderer? That is very quick thinking indeed, Seсor.”
I shrugged modestly. “And is it a crime to think fast in Mexico, Mr. Solana?”
He smiled thinly and didn’t answer the question. Instead he said, “Very well. To sum up: you thought Henderson wouldn’t shoot; Miss Decker thought he would. If he did shoot, you thought he’d miss; Miss Decker thought he’d Mt.”
I grinned. “Or you could say that I was willing to gamble a bit with my life and Miss Decker wasn’t.”
“Very humanitarian of Miss Decker,” said Solana dryly. “If true. However, there is still another explanation for this difference in behavior. There is the possibility that you, Mr. Helm, were simply anxious to keep Henderson alive so he could talk; and Miss Decker was anxious to have him dead so he couldn’t. The question then becomes: why should two U.S. agents have such different attitudes towards the same situation?”
I didn’t glance at the girl beside me, who hadn’t moved or spoken. Behind Solana, in the corner, Carol looked pale and scared. The door and windows rattled under the impact of the wind, but there was no other sound for a second or two.
Then Solana went on deliberately: “I must confess that I was not quite honest, back there in the restaurant. I did not spend the past hours investigating suspects. That is routine police work, and I am certain it is being handled quite competently by the proper authorities, who are also, I am sure, conducting the search for Mr. Henderson with great efficiency. Unfortunately, they do not have quite as much information as I have. They think they are dealing with an ordinary murderer. They do not realize that they are dealing with a man being used as a pawn in a game of international intrigue- a pawn that has just been sacrificed to protect a more valuable piece on the board. A queen, perhaps?”
Priscilla stirred at last. “I don’t know what you’re driving at-” Solana ignored her. “Instead of assisting the police investigation, I have spent the past hours out in the dunes with a pair of night glasses, watching this room, assigned to Miss Decker, and the one in the next building assigned to you, Mr. Helm, and Mrs. Lujan. I wanted to learn to which one of you Henderson would come for help, when it became dark enough that he thought he could not be seen. He came here.”
Priscilla said sharply: “That doesn’t prove-” Solana recognized her existence at last, looking straight at her. “No, Miss Decker, it does not prove that you were the one who gave him the gun, and presumably at the same time instructed him, by voice or written message, to make his escape and meet you here after dark. At least it does not prove that you were acting alone. Two United States agents in the same small Mexican town might well be working together, might they not. As a matter of fact I had reason to believe you were; I attended a conference at which both your superiors were present. However, I always like to confirm my suspicions before taking action.”
He glanced at me, as if expecting me to comment; when I did not, he shrugged and went on: “If Mr. Helm were involved, he would not have wanted the murderer to appear at the room he shared with Mrs. Lujan, who apparently does not also share his secrets. He would undoubtedly have used this one for the rendezvous-Mr. Henderson’s rendezvous with death.”
Priscilla licked her lips. “But-” “But if Mr. Helm had wanted Henderson dead,” Solana went on remorselessly, “he would have fired the instant he was certain of his target. Instead, he refrained from shooting at some risk to himself. You are the one who fired, Miss Decker, to silence the man who could have betrayed you. I believe you invited Mr. Helm to your room just now, on one pretext or another-I won’t ask what it was-hoping you could maneuver him into doing your grim work for you. When he balked, you did it yourself.”
I glanced at Priscilla and she looked away. It occurred to me that I was getting a little tired of the legend of Triggerhappy Helm. So maybe I’d shot a little too soon once, in Mazatlбn, did that mean I was going to commit everybody’s homicides for them? First Harsek had tried to cash in on my hasty reputation, and now this kid had come up with the same tired idea…
Solana was looking at me again. He said, “I have already apologized to Mrs. Lujan for accusing her and pretending to arrest her. It was a necessary subterfuge to get her away from you and Miss Decker. I now apologize to you for my suspicions. I am satisfied that you are not involved in this scheme, although your country obviously is. I hope, since your superiors have seen fit not to give you a part in it, you will abide by their judgment and not interfere… Yes, Miss Decker?”
Priscilla had looked up. “How could I have smuggled a gun to Henderson?” she demanded. “I didn’t have any camera cases _” Solana’s laughter cut her short. “My dear, it would be unchivalrous of me to suggest that your visible attributes are not entirely your own. However-” His glance touched the front of her lavender ski jacket. “However when we get a matron to search you, I think we will find that certain improvements on nature were designed to serve a practical as well as an aesthetic function. It was a very small gun.”
Priscilla flushed. She turned to me. “Matt, are you going to let this supercilious bastard-” Solana said sharply, “Miss Decker, there is absolutely no point in your trying to draw Mr. Helm into your troubles. You are obviously a U.S. agent on a mission so secret that even your colleagues in other agencies have not been informed. Having met your chief, I can understand: he is a man who would want to keep the credit for his own organization. Well, let him keep the blame, too.” He cleared his throat. “I admit I do not wholly understand the clandestine operation in which you are involved, seсorita. I was deceived; I thought these flying objects were genuine, at least to the extent that they did exist and fly. Now it appears that some of them-perhaps all of them-existed only in the imaginations of the observers, and of Mr. Leonard’s agents who hired or persuaded the observers to make their false reports. As the late Mr. Henderson was persuaded.”
I said, “Look, you’re jumping to conclusions, Solana. A lot of those reports mentioned U.S. insignia and uniforms, didn’t they?”
“That was clever,” Solana said coldly. “That seemed to indicate that the United States was being victimized – framed, I believe is the word. But now that I learn who is behind the plot, I wonder if these identifications were not part of a deliberate plan to create an atmosphere of menace throughout the northern part of my country, in preparation for a political or military move on the part of our great neighbor to the north.”
I said, “Hell, man, you can’t think we’re going to invade you!”
Solana shrugged gracefully. “American troops have invaded Mexico before, Seсor. Exactly what demands will be made, I cannot guess, but it would be a cheap victory, would it not, if my government were to yield to the threat of a new U.S. weapon that did not actually exist?” He shrugged again. “In any case, the trial will bring out the details, I am sure. The fact is that a U.S. agent has been captured in the act of conspiring against a friendly neighboring government. Please observe, Mr. Helm, that I am being scrupulously fair.
“I could arrest you as well, and make my case stronger by presenting two American conspirators-” Carol moved. It was totally unexpected, at least by me, but obviously I’d underestimated her. She gave no warning, she made no speeches, she committed none of the usual beginner’s errors; she simply stepped out of her corner and threw her arms around Solana from behind.
“Get his gun!” she gasped. “Oh, please, Matt, get his gun, quickly!”