22

FLYING MIGHT BE fun, and swimming was all right in its place, but dry land felt very good to me as I peeled off my life jacket and tucked my wet shirt into my dripping pants. Even a lonely sandspit in the desolate Gulf of California had a lot to recommend it.

I looked at Carol and grinned. She’d made it ashore without getting wet above the neck, and her smooth blonde hair, only slightly windblown, looked ridiculously neat and civilized above her sagging sweater and wetly clinging skirt.

I said, “Ditch your waterwings and let’s go.”

“Go where?” She tossed the inflated vest aside, and bent over to pull the brief safari skirt away from her legs. Wringing it out by sections, she looked around the isle, and glanced at the approaching boat. “There’s no place to hide, Matt. The whole island’s only a mile or so long and a few hundred yards across, mostly sand. They’re bound to catch us.”

“Sure,” I said. “But let’s dress it up a bit and make it look impressive. I’d like to find a picturesque spot for Helm’s Last Stand, over towards the middle there. The lower of those two sandhills, I think, so they can show their tactical genius by eventually outflanking us from the other one. We’ll hold them off bravely, though, until death stares us in the face. Can you shoot a pistol?”

“No. Matt, I-“

“So much the better. They’ve got to be healthy to show us the way, so we don’t really want to hurt them. Well, maybe just one, to make it look good. Three can handle the boat and prisoners. But by God we’ll go down with a bang. A lot of bangs.” I patted my weighted pockets. “They’ll think they’ve fought the Battle of the Bulge before they capture and disarm us.”

“Matt, be serious. If you start a lot of shooting..

Well, they’ll shoot back, won’t they? I don’t think I’m a coward, but I don’t particularly want to get killed just so you can make a dramatic gesture.”

I said, “Don’t run down dramatic gestures, doll. Dramatic gestures are absolutely essential in this business.” I hesitated, and glanced at her. I still had my orders, but the situation had changed somewhat, and I said, “I will now make a confession. I really am a secret agent of sorts. Just don’t tell anybody I told you, particularly my boss.”

Carol smiled faintly. “Well, I’d kind of begun to suspect it.”

“I even have a bit of a reputation in my line of work,” I said modestly. “In fact, I have a dossier as long as your arm in certain people’s files. What I’m trying to say in my diffident way is, I’m known from here to Moscow-and maybe even to Peking-as a hotshot spook, smart as a fox, dangerous as a wounded grizzly. At least I hope I am. Whether the reputation is deserved or not is beside the point. The fact is, I’m just not supposed to be the kind of guy you’d find sitting on a sandbar with folded arms, waiting to be taken prisoner.”

“But, Matt-“

“Let me finish. The message I am trying to convey is that if whoever’s on that boat catches me too easily, he’ll know it’s a trick. He’ll poke and pry and ask questions, trying to discover why I’m playing mouse. He may even take a good look at the weapons he’s captured with me; the weapons I was so uncharacteristically reluctant to use. We wouldn’t want that, would we? Friend Solana’s trick pistol has come this far unsuspected. Let’s try to make sure it completes the journey-even if we don’t.”

There was a little silence. Carol leaned against me to slip off her boots and empty them. For such fashionable and relatively diminutive footgear, they held a lot of water. Only when she had finished did she speak, very quietly.

“What you’re saying is that it doesn’t really matter if we’re killed, just so the pistol makes it.”

I nodded. “Well, just so somebody makes it, in this case Solana. But the pistol is our contribution, as it works out. We’ll have to take Solana’s competence on faith. We’ll have to assume that he can make it on his own, given the proper electronic guidance. He shouldn’t have too bad a hangover from that stuff I gave him. I cut the dose pretty short. By now, he’s been awake for hours.”

“But you don’t really know what’s being planned, do you?” Carol looked at me soberly. “You don’t really know that finding it and stopping it is… is important enough to die for, Matt.”

I said, “Some people have put a lot of work and thought and time-months of time-into this flying-saucer buildup. Judging by the number of deaths they’re already responsible for, what they’re working up to must be pretty spectacular. And they’ve got hold of a good idea. As Priscilla pointed out, people aren’t going to be rational about the evidence. Some, as she said, are going to believe in visitors from Alpha Centauri come hell or high water-but there are also lots of folks who are already convinced that the U.S. is covering up some big secret because of the bumbling way the Air Force has handled the whole UFO bit. Given a really gory Mexican saucer incident, presumably caused by secret American machines, piloted by conscienceless American flyers, and God knows what the international repercussions may be. We’re already in trouble in Latin America; an incident like that could make it all go the way of Cuba. Certainly we won’t come out of it smelling of roses, no matter how vigorously we deny everything. Hell, we’ve been denying everything connected with UFO’s for years. Who’s going to believe more of the same?” I shrugged. “But that’s all kind of irrelevant, as far as I’m concerned.”

“What do you mean?”

I said, “Deciding what’s important and what isn’t is not my job. The man said stop it, so I stop it. Or I do what I can to make sure it gets stopped by somebody, in this case Solana.”

I took her by the arm and led her towards the wider part of the island. The cruiser was standing in through the entrance now. I could see the three men on deck looking towards us, and the fourth man inside the deckhouse looking ahead to make sure he didn’t hit anything.

One of the three men in the open looked familiar: a young man with streaky blonde hair. That figured. I’d never really bought the idea that Priscilla’s pretty-boy sidekick, Tony Hartford, had died heroically trying to save me from Harsek in Mazatlбn. The idea had seemed even less plausible when I’d learned they were all on the same team. Now it appeared that Tony hadn’t died at all. Well, he wasn’t the first agent to have a phony demise staged for him so he could drop out of sight.

I recalled that some questions had been raised about his sexual attitudes, too. Administratively speaking, I suppose it made sense: if you had a number of them on the payroll, you might be better off working them together, hoping they’d understand and tolerate each other. Not that Tony’s love life made much difference here. I wasn’t planning to go to bed with the guy.

“Matt.”

I glanced towards Carol. She wasn’t looking at me; she was just watching where she put her feet as we plowed through the sand and brush and beach grass.

“Yes?” I said.

“Maybe I owe you an apology.” Her voice was low. “Maybe… maybe this work of yours isn’t all just tricks and lies and… and shooting unarmed women in cold blood.”

“What unarmed women?” I asked. “Priscilla still had that.22 derringer with one barrel loaded, and don’t think she wouldn’t have used it instantly when she saw her chance. And taking time out to disarm her wasn’t exactly practical up there, if you recall the circumstances.”

“Nevertheless, it was a pretty brutal thing you did, Matt. But… but if you’re prepared to sacrifice your own life as readily as somebody else’s, that does make you look a little better. Much better, in fact.”

“Sure,” I said sourly. “I’m a great patriot at heart, a silent soldier of the grim undercover war that never ends. Just pat me on the back and call me Horatius, Junior; the guy who holds the bright bridge of Freedom against the dark forces of Tyranny. Shit, if you’ll pardon the expression.”

She said stiffly, “I was trying to… to understand, darling.”

“Well, you’re not making much headway. How we look, to you or anybody else, is the least of our worries. But it occurs to me that while I’m pretty well constrained to be a patriotic hero right now, there’s absolutely no reason for you to be a patriotic heroine. You’ve got no reputation to live up to. In fact, it might be better for everybody if you just break free right now-I’ll hold on hard enough to make the struggle look good-and then run down there and wade out to meet them with your hands in the air. Tell them breathlessly that just because I’m a suicidal damn fool is no reason why you should-“

“Matt!”

“What’s the matter now?” I asked.

Her expression was indignant. “You don’t think much of me, do you? Just because I can’t hold my lunch down after wrestling with a corpse, you think I’m a a decorative little lightweight, or something.”

I said, “You spend more time worrying about what you think of people and they think of you! This is not the spot to brood about appearances, sweetheart! You can’t help me a damn bit by remaining faithfully at my side, so you might as well be sitting on that boat under guard, listening to the gunfire.”

She said angrily, “Stop being chivalrous! You’re not going to send me off to safety like a helpless child-” I suppose it was very brave of her, but actually the idea of having her surrender independently had interesting possibilities. She might even carry Solana’s automatic, and turn it over docilely, something Hartford would accept as natural from her but not from me. And however we worked the pistol deal, if I managed to get myself brought captive to the boat without being shot up too badly, it would be convenient to have an ally on board-an ally who wasn’t quite as closely watched as I would be.

It was a promising gambit, but I could see that I wouldn’t be able to use it, because she wouldn’t buy it. Like most amateurs, she had a lot of screwball notions about courage and loyalty, as if anybody gives a damn how brave you are as long as your work gets done..

The boat was now passing the place where a wingtip and part of the tail assembly showed where the plane had settled to the bottom, in water that was shallower than I’d expected. Apparently I’d managed to drop us closer to shore than intended by Harsek, who’d have wanted to bury the debris deeply enough that it could not be seen.

Still holding Carol’s arm, I started to run for the higher ground ahead. I picked a nice spot in the dunes overlooking the shore, and pulled out the big Luger, the one weapon in my armory that might have some effectiveness at long range “Lie down,” I said to Carol. “Keep your head down. Stick your fingers in your ears if you like. These toys are kind of noisy.”

I sat down on the edge of the hollow, dug my heels firmly into the sand, and rested my elbows on my knees, holding the Luger with both hands. It’s a comfortable weapon to hold but, because of the skinny, light barrel, a hard one to hold steady. The boat slid past the plane wreckage without pausing, aiming straight for the head of the bay, and me. About thirty yards from shore, I saw the propellers go into reverse. Hartford and his two pals were up forward, preparing to jump. I counted two rifles and one squirt-gun-submachinegun to you.

I waited until they were in the water; then I started to peck at them with the Luger as they waded shorewards holding their weapons high. They must have seen movies of an amphibious operation somewhere, they had the assault style down pat.

My first shot was low. I saw the splash about halfway between the nearest man and shore. I let the front sight ride up in the rear sight notch and tried again, keeping my fire well away from Hartford. The fact that he was carrying the submachine gun kind of confirmed that he was in authority here, and I didn’t want to lose him. He might be the only one of them who knew all I needed to find out.

My second shot either nicked the guy on the right, or came close enough that he changed his mind about going ashore. He turned, waving frantically for the boat, which was backing away. The man at the controls threw the engines ahead again. I put a bullet through his windshield but he was brave; he kept coming to the rescue of his embattled comrades. I threw a shot at the man on the left, missing by about three feet, but he didn’t like the sound of it ricocheting off the water; he turned back, too.

Hartford was yelling at them angrily. He might be a fairy-although that wasn’t proved-but he had guts enough to keep coming until it became obvious that he was also a general without an army. Then he stood there and gave me a burst from his weapon for effect, before he turned back and waded out and was hauled aboard the boat by his friends, who’d negotiated the cruiser’s high bow faster than you’d believe it could be done. The steersman threw his engines into reverse again, and the boat slid back out of pistol range.

I said to Carol, “We’d better find a place to make ourselves comfortable. Having tried a head-on assault and been driven back, the enemy will now regroup his forces and advance systematically from the flanks..

There they go. One guy on the point to the right, two on the point to the left, converging towards the middle, us. That’s what we call strategy, sweetheart. How do you feel?”

“Scared,” she said frankly. She stood up, brushing at her clothes. “Do bullets always make that horrible screaming noise?”

“Wait till you hear one really close,” I said. “That guy on the right, now. I feel he’s superfluous. I don’t want to have to watch him, sneaking up behind me. He’s apt to shoot me in the back while I’m putting on my act for the other two. Let’s pull back a little- there’s a better foxhole up behind us-and you keep an eye on them. Here. Try an occasional shot with this.380; it doesn’t kick much. Keep them under fire and tell me what they’re doing while I get rid of this lone-wolf character…”

I built up his confidence, first. I used Priscilla’s gun, which I had no faith in; it had too short a barrel for long-range accuracy, and she hadn’t looked like the kind to be careful with her firearms, anyway. I was right, the.38 shot way low and left, but I managed to put them close enough that they guy knew he was being shot at, while still staying far enough away that he soon lost respect for my marksmanship. I heard Carol fire, and gasp.

“I thought you said this gun didn’t kick!”

“Wait till you work up to a.44 Magnum,” I said. “How are they doing?”

“They’re taking it very slowly. I think they must want your man to get into position first.”

“Well, he’s coming right along,” I said. “He’s Sergeant York taking on the whole German army single-handed. Ouch!” I ducked, as my man put a rifle bullet a couple of feet away, stinging my face with sand. “So my amigo knows how to shoot. That means he’d better not get much closer.”

I fired the last shot in the.38 as the man darted from a clump of brush to the shelter of a dune. The bullet came only close enough to encourage him in the notion that he was invulnerable, at least to my lousy marksmanship. I dropped the revolver, and took out Harsek’s big German automatic once more, and made myself a steady rest for my hands, lying there.

He came out of hiding fast, and dove for cover again after a weaving ten-yard sprint. I didn’t shoot. This made him feel neglected, I guess, because after a little he looked out. I put the sights on him, taking a coarse bead to allow for the range, but I held my fire. He wasn’t presenting quite enough target for a certain hit.

He slipped back into hiding, gathering himself for another dash; this time, however, overconfident, he ran straight when he emerged and not so fast. Maybe he was getting tired. I led him by roughly two feet and pressed the trigger of the Luger. He fell headlong and pushed himself to hands and knees. I took careful aim and fired again, and once more, and a third time. There was nothing to be gained by saving ammunition. After all, the guns should be pretty well empty when the time came to surrender-all the guns but one.

The man just stayed there on hands and knees, head down, unmoving. I was reaching back for the gun I’d lent to Carol when he finally collapsed and lay still. Well, no pistol has the instant knock-down power of a good rifle.

I said, “Okay here. How are your people coming?” I got no answer, and turned to see Carol staring at me, very pale. “What’s the matter?” I asked.

“You… you killed him!”

“Wasn’t that the idea?”

“But you deliberately kept shooting even after he was wounded! He was just crouching there, and you kept shooting!”

I looked at her and knew I’d done it at last. She’d forgiven the brutal murder in the sky, perhaps because of the harrowing circumstances, but this was too much for her sensitive nature to bear. It was all right, presumably, to kill a man with one powerful rifle shot, but to do the same thing with four feeble pistol shots was not to be tolerated.

I said, “Do we have to go into all that again, doll? Wounded men have been known to fire guns, but it has never happened with a dead man. I’m not going to get myself shot in the back by a guy I forgot to finish off, like a sentimental TV hero, or something. Okay?”

“No!” She licked her lips. “No, it’s not okay! I-” I was getting a bit fed up with her moral judgments, not to mention her incessant gasps of surprise or dismay. I said, “Damn it, if you don’t like it, go out there and surrender like I told you in the first place… Down!”

I threw myself on top of her, as Tony Hartford opened up with his squirter from a nearby sandpile. The submachine gun burst threw sand all over us.

I said, “Goddamn all amateurs! You were supposed to be watching them, not me! Give me that Browning!”

I rolled to the side, and tossed some sand back at friend Tony with Vadya’s.380. There was a man missing, and that worried me, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it, pinned down by the rapid-fire weapon across the way. Then Carol screamed, and I saw a man aiming a rifle down at us from the knoll that was the highest point of the island.

I rolled aside again, and emptied the.380 fast enough to make him take cover temporarily. This gave us a chance to wriggle farther down into the hollow we occupied, but there was obviously nowhere to go from there, except into the path of somebody’s bullet. Well, that was exactly the way I’d wanted it, wasn’t it?

I looked at Vadya’s empty automatic, and tossed it aside. I’d once had some notion of keeping it for a sentimental memento, or something, but it was a silly idea. I took out Solana’s pistol, and glanced at Carol, huddled down beside me.

“Forgive the imprecations,” I said. “Everything’s working out fine, just fine. We hope.”

Tony Hartford’s voice called: “Helm!”

“Right here,” I said. “Where would I be going?”

“I think you see the situation. If you raise your head, my man will shoot it off. Throw out your gun.”

I hesitated long enough to make it seem as if I were having a big struggle with myself. At last I called back, “It’s empty. They’re all empty.”

“Toss them out anyway.”

I reached for the Browning and lobbed it over the crest of the dune. I pitched the.38 Colt after it, and waited.

“Harsek carried a Luger,” Hartford called. “Let’s see it.” I tossed out the Luger, and he said: “And one more.”

He was trying it on for size; he couldn’t know I had a fourth weapon. I let him wait some more. Then I picked up the Solana gun, kissed it once for good luck, and threw it after the rest. I heard sounds of movement on the other side of the dune.

“So they were all empty!” Hartford’s voice said sarcastically. “Not a bullet in the lot-except for one automatic fully loaded! I ought to shoot you, Helm, just for that!”

I winked at Carol. Our electronic baby had found a home.

“All right,” Hartford called, “all right, send the girl out.” I nodded at Carol, and she got to her feet and walked out there, slipping in the sand. Hartford’s voice came again: “Now you, Helm. Hands up, remember. Way up!”

I stuck my arms into the air and climbed over the ridge. Carol was standing in front of Hartford, looking small and disheveled and scared, with sand clinging to her soggy sweater and skirt. The rifleman was coming down the hill to join us. Hartford swung his ugly little squirt-gun to cover me.

I saw him smile slowly, and I knew.he was going to shoot. I could hardly complain. It was the logical thing for him to do; it was exactly what I’d done to Priscilla, for exactly the same reasons. They were still valid. There was nothing he needed me for. Any questions he had to ask, he could ask Carol.

I was just a threat, a potential danger to him and his operation as long as I was alive. Any sensible man would kill me now, and young Hartford, whatever his real name was, whatever his sexual attitudes might be, undoubtedly prided himself on being eminently sensible.

I saw the submachinegun swing and steady, and I braced myself for a last-minute dive to somewhere, not that there was any hope of escape, but I might as well take it moving as standing still. Then there was a single sharp report from down near the shore, and Tony Hartford went to his knees and pitched forward on top of his weapon. The man, with the rifle stopped and looked in the direction of the shot. He dropped his gun and raised his hands.

We turned to watch Seсor Ramуn Solana-Ruiz approach, accompanied by a couple of Mexican soldiers in khakis, one carrying a rifle with a telescopic sight.

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