Authors: Donald Hamilton
The police gave me a hard time, of course. They don’t like to find a man with a gun, even a man with an unfired gun, standing over a dead body. In fact they simply don’t like to find a man with a gun, period. They want the firearms concession all to themselves.
But I finally managed to get my ID looked at by a plainclothes supercop of some kind named Bannon, to whom they’d turned me over at last like a curious specimen of butterfly they’d netted and stuck on a pin for careful scientific classification. Bannon was large and red-faced and sloppy-looking; and I’d met them before, those sloppy-looking law-enforcement gents who hope you’ll assume that their brains are as dull as the creases in their pants. His small greenish eyes studied the fancy little leather folder with its impressively official-looking contents that we carry to intimidate the peasants when we’re not pretending to be somebody we aren’t and secrecy isn’t mandatory. His chest heaved in a sigh under his rumpled vest, one button of which needed his wife’s immediate attention if he wasn’t going to lose it. If he had a wife.
“Three o’clock in the morning,” he said, “and I don’t just have an old-fashioned gangland-type killing and a dead reporter-girl, I’ve got you, Mr. Helm. Well, give me the number.” I gave him the Washington number and he made the call. There was a brief conversation; then I got to talk a little. Finished, I gave the instrument back to him and he returned it to its cradle. He sat for a full minute, looking at me across his scarred desk. At last he said, “I don’t have to, you know, Mr. Helm. This is my city, not yours.”
I shrugged. “It’s my country, and yours.”
“And what’s that got to do with a young lady journalist getting herself killed?” He grinned abruptly. “Okay, we’ll do it your way. Washington’s way. I’ve got troubles enough right here without getting myself or the department involved in international politics.”
So by four in the morning we were all good friends and I had my gun back. We all agreed, for newspaper purposes, that the poor girl shouldn’t have poked her pretty little nose into the local drug business like that; the boys played rough and didn’t appreciate reporters, male or female, snooping around. This theory of the case was, of course, as I’d known it would be when I proposed it, confirmed or at least supported by the half-finished draft of the magazine article that had been found on her typewriter table.
There were fourteen people in the small classroom in the new building on the south side of Chicago’s Midway that is known as the Ransome Institute, more formally the William Putnam Ransome Institute for Pan-American Studies. As a foreigner originally hailing from the distant and ignorant state of New Mexico—people living east of the Mississippi sometimes think we need passports to enter the U.S.—I’d been patronizingly informed that the two surnames involved were real big in Chicago. The Putnams were old railroad money, and the Ransomes were right up there in the meat-packing business with the Swifts and Armours.
It was two days since Elly Brand had died. Although I’d been functioning after a fashion throughout those two days, they were not entirely clear in my mind. Now, sitting in a chair at the rear of the little room, I felt oddly fragile, as though I were convalescing from a serious illness or a bad wound; and in a sense I suppose I was. The lady at the front of the room didn’t seem quite real—well, hell, the whole room was a little unreal—although I knew exactly who she was and why she was there and why I was there. But it was an intellectual sort of knowledge only. I was an observer of the scene, not a true participant.
The lady was named Frances Dillman—Associate Professor Frances Ransome Dillman, Ph.D., to you. And to me. She was some indeterminate age between an old twenty-five and a young forty; a tall female beanpole who somehow managed a faint air of upperclass elegance while wearing a brown tweed suit that had the comfortably threadbare look the British love and some Americans like to copy, with leather patches where she’d gone through the elbows of the jacket at last. Even the best Harris tweed, and this was the very best, doesn’t last quite forever.
Mrs. Dillman, Dr. Dillman, Associate Professor Dillman, was wearing a high-necked beige cashmere sweater with her comfortable tweeds. It was obviously expensive, very fine and soft, but she didn’t really have the frontal development to do a sweater justice. Her narrow legs were encased in knee-length wool stockings, her feet in well-worn but well-polished brogues suitable for tramping a Scottish moor, if you had a Scottish moor handy.
But the lady was not unhandsome in her way. She had a fine blade of a nose, strong cheekbones, a firm jaw, and a wide if thin-lipped mouth. Her gray eyes were rather striking under her dark, unplucked eyebrows. Her brown hair was cut quite short but neatly and becomingly arranged about her well-shaped head. She stood sternly at the blackboard with a pointer in her hand, indicating the areas of interest on the map she’d drawn in chalk—not a bad job of freehand map making, I had to admit.
“For the benefit of those who’ve joined us late,” she said, with a cold look in my direction, “I will repeat that we’ll be visiting the cradle of the ancient Melmec civilization, recently discovered in the Costa Verde jungle, here.” The pointer tapped a stylized little flat-topped pyramid that she’d drawn in an otherwise particularly empty space on her map. “The existence of this lost civilization was deduced quite recently by my husband, Dr. Archibald Dillman, in much the same manner in which the existence of the planet Neptune was deduced back in 1846 by its effect upon the orbit of the neighboring planet, Uranus…”
The unseasonably warm weather in which I’d arrived had broken, and the view out the window was typically winter-in-Chicago. Big snowflakes were drifting past the windows. The sky was bleak and gray. Good funeral weather, totally miserable, I reflected; but Elly had been hastily adopted, in death, by some family members she’d had little use for alive. She’d be buried in the family plot in the small New England town from which she’d come, which she’d left as soon as she could scrape up the fare out. Well, I’d said my good-byes, such as they were. Or maybe I was still saying them and would be for some time to come.
The tall lady at the blackboard had returned from her brief interplanetary excursion. “In other words,” she said, “down here in Central America, the behavior of the Olmecs on the one hand, and of the Mayas on the other, as revealed by their surviving artifacts and records, the ones we’ve been able to decipher, indicated clearly that they had been subjected to certain influences, linguistic and otherwise, that
have originated in this previously unexplored area. My husband and I were able to make the first scientific penetration of the area, with the assistance of this institute, and with the full cooperation of the Costa Verde government.”
She had been regarding the blackboard map as she spoke. Now she turned abruptly to face us, slapping the pointer against the palm of her hand. “One thing we must have very clear before we start,” she said. “You’ve presumably joined this tour for strictly archaeological purposes. The present politics of the area do not concern you, must not concern you. Our work is totally dependent upon the good will of the current regime down there. They can close the site to us any time they wish. Therefore, I must insist: Whatever you think of conditions in Costa Verde, please keep your opinions to yourselves. Please, no public criticism of their institutions, political or economic or social. Please, no photographs that may reflect unfavorably upon the present government. Understood?”
There was a small murmur of protest, but she stared us down, waiting for the hostile sounds to stop. At last she nodded minutely as if satisfied, and spoke in milder tones:
“Now let’s get to the practical aspects of our journey. To review what’s in the printed instructions you were given: You should have stout shoes and some durable clothes. Unlike Chichen Itza and Tikal, this area has not yet been fully developed for tourism; and if you’ve visited those older sites—older in terms of the length of time we’ve known about them—you’ll know that even there a considerable amount of hiking and climbing is required. On the other hand, let me also remind you that while the flight home is direct, on the way down we’ll be staying in good hotels in Mexico City and in Santa Rosalia, the capital of Costa Verde. You’ll want to have some reasonably presentable clothes to wear there. Having already threatened your freedom of speech, I won’t attack your sartorial principles; but if the gentlemen can bear to wear jackets and neckties, and if the ladies can bring themselves to appear in dresses and stockings, I think they’ll feel more comfortable. Sports shirts and pantsuits have not yet taken Latin America by storm, at least not for polite evening wear…”
When we emerged from the building, the snow had stopped, but the sidewalk was slushy. I made my way to my rental car without paying much attention to my fellow tour-members; I’d have plenty of time to get to know them later. I drove directly to the nearby motel where I’d taken a room. I hadn’t gone back to stay in Eleanor’s apartment, of course. Not only was it a place of too many memories, it wasn’t safe. I hadn’t even returned there to pick up my suitcase. Somebody in the organization would retrieve it for me and hold it for me until I returned.
I mean, my threats would have been reported to Hector Jimenez by his daughter, and while the girl might discount them, I knew that the colonel himself, knowing me, would take them seriously. He might even get the bright idea of striking first—a preemptive strike, in military terms. So I’d broken clean; and even though circumstances had made it necessary for me to remain in Chicago a few days longer, it’s a big city, and I didn’t think the homicidal Costa Verde patriots, self-styled, were likely to stumble upon me way down here at the other end of town, the south end, the university end. I parked the car in front of my room and went inside to call Washington.
“I’ll put you through,” the girl said after I’d identified myself properly.
“Just a minute,” I said. “Note this down, please. Information required: Frances Dillman, Ph.D., Archibald Dillman, Ph.D., both on the faculty of the University of Chicago. I’d like everything I can get on them, including the husband’s current whereabouts. And brace yourself; here are some more names for Research to play with. Ready?” I got out the mimeographed stuff I’d been given when I signed up for the tour—pulling a good many strings to get myself admitted so long after the official deadline—and read off the list of participants, and had her read it back to me for accuracy. I said, “All these people are taking an archaeological safari to the newly discovered Copalque ruins in Central America, sponsored by the Ransome Institute of Pan-American Studies. What I particularly want to know is if any of them could be using this tour to get them into Costa Verde for purposes totally unscientific. As I just found out, what with the unsettled political conditions down there, there are no regular pleasure tours available, and individual tourists are apparently eyed with considerable suspicion. That’s why I joined the group, and I’m wondering if any of my fellow explorers could have had the same idea. So please have Research find out for me if any of them has ever been associated with Costa Verde in any way that might give them a motive for sneaking back unobtrusively. I’ll try to phone in for the preliminary data tomorrow before we take off; but we’re leaving here at the crack of dawn, so somebody’ll have to get the full report to me later, either at the Hotel El Paseo in Mexico City, or at the Hotel Gobemador, Santa Rosalia, Costa Verde. Now put me through, please.”
Mac was apparently already on the line, listening, because his voice came immediately: “Yes, Eric?”
“How are they doing with my new passport and my camera gear, sir? There’ll be a bus at the institute to take us to O’Hare at seven-thirty tomorrow morning; and the bosslady was very definite about us having all necessary documents before takeoff.”
“The courier should be knocking on your door,” Mac said. “In addition to the items mentioned, he has the rifle you requested, with ammunition.”
I said, “The armorer must have worked around the clock. Thank him for me, and apologize, please. Actually, I ordered it made ready mainly to impress somebody who didn’t impress; and while I’m glad to have it handy, I don’t think I’ll be using it immediately.”
There was a little pause. At last Mac said, “You have not told me the reason for the delay, Eric. I have acceded to your various requests since time was too short for argument—besides, you were not in a highly rational condition—but now I think you had better explain yourself. Why wait? Instant retribution is essential as a deterrent to others with similar notions.”
It’s the one crime that, after all his years in the business, is still capable of arousing him to a state of cold, unreasoning fury. He once told me that if it were left to him, he would solve the skyjacking problem very simply: He’d merely send up a couple of fighter planes to blast any hijacked airliner out of the sky and to hell with the passengers and crew. To be sure, he’d said, it would cost, maybe a few hundred innocent lives; but it wouldn’t take more than one or two such object lessons to discourage this vicious type of extortion permanently, probably saving more lives in the long run.
I said, “Jimenez and his family and his political hangers-on are pretty well forted up in that estate he’s got out in Lake Park. Maybe we could blast them out, but a gory massacre attributed to this agency, with whatever justification, isn’t the kind of publicity we need, sir. When it happens, the people who count will know who was behind it and why; but give me time to set it up discreetly.”
I said honestly, “I don’t know yet, sir.”
He said coldly, “Let me remind you that we have always operated on the principle of quick retaliation. They
learn that this kind of blackmail will earn them nothing but instant death. That is the basis for the instructions I have formulated to deal with such contingencies.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, and took a big chance: “But with all due respect, sir, you’re not giving the orders here. She is.”