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Authors: Edward S. Aarons

Assignment - Lowlands

BOOK: Assignment - Lowlands
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One

Durell was with Deirdre Padgett when McFee called. The telephone rang persistently through the rose-brick Colonial house Deirdre owned in Prince John, on the shores of the Chesapeake. It was Saturday evening, and the week end was hot and sultry. He had been glad to get out of Washington. Thunder rumbled in the west, and a mist drifted over the shining reaches of the bay. They were finished with dinner and sat on the brick terrace overlooking the water; the hot summer day promised to end peacefully. Until the telephone rang.

Durell stood up at once, a little too quickly. She knew he had been waiting for the sound of it. She had been watching a hummingbird in the delphinium, and Durell had been enjoying the slim line of Deirdre’s throat, the raven black of her hair, the quiet poise and grace of her being.

He looked at the inquiry in her eyes and nodded.

“Yes, it’s for me.”

“I suppose it must be, Sam. You’ve been listening for it since last night.”

“Yes. I’m sorry, Dee.”

“It must be important,” she said hopelessly.

She knew better than to question him. All of K Section, the trouble-shooting branch of the Central Intelligence Agency of the State Department, had been alerted. She did not know this. Durell kept her as detached from the business as possible. But there were times when some of it inevitably touched her, and she could not hide the quick concern in her face, nor the way the corners of her soft mouth reflected pain.

“You’d better answer it,” she said quietly. “And I hate this, as you well know.”

He did not reply. The hummingbird had darted away from the spiked delphinium. All at once, the bay seemed gray and ominous. He went into the house and picked up the phone.

It was General Dickinson McFee himself, head of K Section, and Durell’s immediate boss. He spoke with crisp authority. “I’m sorry, Cajun. I know you were looking forward to a week at Prince John. But you’re wanted in town. Do you know Bassett’s Bar?”

“Yes.”

“You’ll be briefed there. Pack some things, Sam. You’re going abroad.”

“Can I ask where?”

There was a silence. Durell immediately regretted the question. But this was unusual. The desperate turmoil at Number 20 Annapolis Street, where K Section maintained anonymous headquarters near the diplomats’ row, meant that all routine had gone by the board. All over the world, men were standing by. Waiting. Wondering. There were men in Hong Kong, West Berlin, London, and Algeria; in planes and on ships, quietly at home or in business offices; they slept and ate and talked and laughed and made love.

And waited.

Forty-two hours ago, they had been told to wait.

Nobody knew why.

It was as if a controlling hand at the center of a vast and complicated web had suddenly pulled every wire humming taut.

No such alert had ever gone out before. No one knew what to expect.

Durell stood holding the telephone, hearing the sound of birds in the massive oak trees towering above Deirdre’s home. Last night he had made love to her, and it was as if nothing else existed but this private Eden here on the shores of the bay. He came here too often, he thought. In his business, it was better not to have any personal attachments like this.

He said: “Do you want me in town immediately, General?”

“Yes. I’m sorry, Sam.”

He saw the warm, bright light fade from the evening sky. “Can’t you tell me what it is, General?”

“It’s Operation Cassandra,” McFee said, and hung up.

And the end of the world began.

Two

Durell flew that night to London, arriving at nine in the morning, Greenwich time. London Airport was as hot and humid as Washington. It was as if the whole world were wrapped in this breathless midsummer heat. There was a haze in the normally dear blue English sky, and the morning sun seemed unnaturally swollen.

John O’Keefe met him at the airport with a folder of identification papers for the Dutch authorities and a wad of guilders. They drank coffee while Durell waited for the plane to Amsterdam.

“It’s good to see you again, Cajun,” O’Keefe said. “I get so tied up here with paper work, I miss getting together with you fellows.” O’Keefe was a redheaded Irishman with a white, flashing grin, a beautiful English wife named Claire, and four redheaded kids, all living in haphazard joy in a huge old Mayfair flat.

“How is Claire?” Durell asked, grinning involuntarily.

“Just blooming. Asking for a fifth offspring, but I don’t know. We’re hoping for a little rest pretty soon—bought a cottage out in Devon, the most beautiful spot you ever saw—” O’Keefe smiled ruefully and limped to the table, carrying his coffee. He had lost a leg in Korea, which kept him from active field work. But his brain was quick, incisive, and analytical, and his work for K Section’s London branch was invaluable. His blue eyes were serious as he maneuvered his artifical leg around to sit in a chair opposite Durell. “You’re here about Cassandra, of course. But that doesn’t mean anything to us laborers in the vineyard, Sam. Just what
is
Cassandra?” O’Keefe frowned now. “It’s got everyone over here going balmy. Is it that bad?”

“Bad enough.”

“Let’s see,” O’Keefe mused. “Cassandra—something out of Greek legend, right? A Trojan princess, daughter of Priam and Hecuba, a prophetess who warned of coming destruction and whose knowledge became a curse, I believe, until she was enslaved by Agamemnon and killed by his wife. Somebody surely chose the code name for some meaning and purpose, Sam.”

“Don’t try to figure it out,” Durell said. “It’s a code name that was stuck in the files long ago, and everyone hoped it would never be pulled out for use.”

“It’s made quite a flap. I can’t help my curiosity.” “You’d better help it. It might kill you.”

O’Keefe was persistent. “Cassandra was a prophetess of evil and doom, whose prophecies were not believed, right?” Durell said, “Let’s hope the operation doesn’t end like that. When were you planning your vacation in Devon?” O’Keefe grimaced. “Day after tomorrow, Claire says.” “You’ll have to hold it off. I’m sorry, Johnny, but I’ll need you on a standby basis. I want to be able to reach you at any moment, and I may need you in Holland. Do you know Piet Van Horn, by the way?”

“Sure. I’ve talked to him once or twice on the scramble phone. A sober, diligent little guy. Antique dealer in Amsterdam.”

“That’s one of his jobs,” Durell said. “He’s my first contact. He’s been sent up North by the Dutch to act as emissary in the Cassandra deal. I meet him today for his report. You’ll hear later from either Piet or me.”

“Good enough.”

Durell stood up and shook hands with O’Keefe. “Thanks for meeting me. I’ll see you and Claire again soon, I think.” “You know your papers only take you as far as Holland, don’t you?” O’Keefe asked.

“If I’m lucky, that’s as far as I’ll have to go.”

He took the next plane to Amsterdam—there were eleven daily flights from London—and landed at Schiphol Aerodrome a little before noon. There was no one familiar on the plane. Nobody who had flown overseas with him during the night was on the Amsterdam flight. Nevertheless, when Durell debarked at Schiphol, with its modem terminal buildings, elegant shopping areas, playgrounds, and miniature sightseeing train for tourists, he was still careful, and used varied evasive tactics to make sure he was not followed. Not that it mattered. If there was any mistake, the whole world would know soon enough about Operation Cassandra. And then it would be impossible to control.

Durell was a tall man, in his early thirties, solidly muscled, with a harsh face and black hair tinged with premature gray. He walked lightly, alertly. He was always careful. You learned to be careful early in his business, but if you did not learn this at once, there was no time to learn it later. You died. You died in various ways—a garrote in a Marseilles alley, a shove from the platform of the London Underground, a knife in a Bangkok hotel. His business was the silent and ruthless war of secret defense, and he had been in it a long time. His survival factor, he sometimes reflected, must long ago have run out. He felt somewhat like the old fox he had often hunted in the Louisiana bayous, in his boyhood days. That fox was a wise animal who had learned all the tricks for staying alive. He had never managed to get the animal, and he was secretly glad that the fox had managed to outwit him. With a gambler’s skill, Durell too kept spinning out the odds in his favor.

He took a taxi into Amsterdam, and because he was early, he detoured through Aalsmeer, wanting to be reminded, by a glimpse of the town’s green little islands banked with flowers for its auctions, of his former pleasure in Holland. He was fond of the country, with its picture-postcard windmills, sandy beaches, long narrow canals and tree-bordered meadows, its old, medieval architecture. He had almost forgotten about the preponderance of cyclists skimming along on the
rijwielpads
beside the motor lanes.

It was a pleasure to greet Amsterdam again, with its cool, brick-paved streets and tree-lined concentric canals. He told the taxi driver to cross in front of the Royal Palace in Dam Square and go down Kalverstraat, with its magnificent shops, before turning out again from the center of the immaculate city to the hotel where he usually stayed.

The Spaanjager was small and residential, on a quiet little dead end called Meerhofplein. His room, arranged for by O’Keefe, was ready for him when he checked in, although he could see that Amsterdam was bursting with tourists.

He gave the room an automatic check when he deposited his bags there. Two casement windows overlooked a beech-bordered canal where children played. Several bicyclists pedaled by on the street below, and a glass-topped motor launch, filled with sightseers, moved down the curving canal.

He turned back into the room, drew a deep breath, and decided it would do.

He put on a dark blue summer-weight suit, a white shirt, and a solid necktie. His clothes were Continental enough in cut and style to let him blend unnoticed with the crowds in downtown Amsterdam. He spoke and understood Dutch well enough to be accepted.

At two o’clock he walked to a caf
é
 just off busy Liedse-straat and ordered
koffietafel
, although it was a little late for lunch by Dutch standards. He sat and waited for his contact, and watched the crowds. He wished he could have called Deirdre before taking the plane for London; but McFee had vetoed all further contacts. Most of this work, he reflected, was as lonely as a dead-broke gambler playing his last dollar on a final turn of the card.

Long ago, Durell’s grandfather Jonathan had taught him every trick, honest and dirty, of the art of gambling. Old Jon was one of the last of the Mississippi riverboat gamblers, and Durell’s boyhood in the delta had been spent in learning the old man’s wisdom in sun-dappled Bayou Peche Rouge. The old man taught him all there was to knovr about calculated risks, ruthless hunting and trapping, and especially the vagaries and deceptions of man himself.

Durell smiled as he sipped the strong Dutch gin and waited for his lunch. Nothing ever changes, he thought, except yourself. Years ago, he was going to be a lawyer, when his grandfather sent him north out of the bayou country to Yale, in New Haven. He would be a judge, he thought—perhaps in the Supreme Court. But the war came along and changed everything. There was the OSS and G2, and later an invitation to train at The Farm in Maryland for the newly formed K Section of the CIA. The business had became a way of life for him, with a dedicated purpose that ruled all else.

At The Farm he learned to kill with a roll of newspaper, or with the edge of his palm driven against a vital neural center. You were taught to trust no one, man or woman, friend or enemy. You considered no place on earth as safe. After a time, these things became a matter of reflex and conditioning. You always looked over your shoulder. And you avoided emotional entanglements, since they could be lethal. When emotion—pity, love, sentiment—took over, the odds dropped on your chances for survival. . . .

Durell looked at his watch. It was two-thirty. Piet Van Horn was half an hour late, according to the Washington timetable.

He ordered another coffee and considered the crowded, tree-shaded street. Bicycles and scooters and small European cars swarmed in a steady, interlocking flow of traffic around the corner from the cafe. Beyond the corner, where the tall brick buildings of gabled Dutch Renaissance architecture overlooked a canal, he could see the slow gliding motion of motor barges headed for the port area on the Ijsselmeer, with now and then the gawking faces of tourists peering from a sightseeing bus. Pigeons moved slowly around the open tiled floor of the cafe, seeking shade from the August sun.

At two-thirty-five Durell dropped several guilder notes on the round coffee table and left the caf
é
.

There was no reason that Durell knew for Piet to be late.

No good reason, that is.

Piet Van Horn ran a safe house for the CIA above his small antique shop off Kalverstraat, at Cuypplein 45. It was used as an occasional drop for couriers; a storage depot for documents, clothing, and weapons for agents moving east and west from England to the Continent; and it contained a highly refined short-wave radio that operated under an amateur license and sent code messages directly to the monitor station in Washington, under the pretext of mundane conversations with an American ham.

BOOK: Assignment - Lowlands
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