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Authors: Donald Hamilton

The Frighteners

BOOK: The Frighteners
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CHAPTER 1

They picked me up with a floatplane, which must have taken some arranging. It wasn’t as if I’d backpacked into remote Alaska. Amphibian aircraft are common up there; but they’re scarce down in arid New Mexico where, except for the high mountain lakes like the one on which I was camped, we’ve hardly got enough water to drink, let alone land a plane on. I was never told why they didn’t use a helicopter; and I never asked. Foolish questions are not encouraged in our outfit.

Anyway, there was the plane, roaring in low over the ridge to the east where the sun was just about to appear, slipping in neatly, and undoubtedly giving every trout in the lake a nervous breakdown as it taxied close to the rock from which I’d been trying to catch my breakfast. When it turned into the wind, a lean young man in jeans, a blue windbreaker, and a blue baseball cap descended to the nearer float.

“Mr. Helm?” he called.

I wanted to ask whom he’d expected to find by this lost lake up in the Sangre de Cristos, Ronald Reagan? But we were both, presumably, slaves of the same cruel master, tyrannical old Uncle Sam, and there was a certain protocol to be followed. I confessed that I was indeed Mr. Matthew Helm, code name Eric. He threw a corny ID phrase at me, the flavor of the month; and I threw an equally corny response back at him. Identification confirmed, I opened a couple of buttons of my wool shirt, the thick, red-and-black-checked, scratchy kind—I was wearing jeans and hip boots at the other end—and returned to its armpit holster the short-barreled .38 Special I’d been holding out of sight behind my leg. I mean, in my line of work you don’t just assume that all approaching aircraft are friendlies.

If it had been a hostile, my big, yellow Labrador pup would have been no help at all. He was a hunting dog, not an attack dog. He just stood beside me, watching with interest, his thick tail waving gently. He’d already made his professional estimate of the situation and let me know that it was a hell of a big bird, and he was under the impression that the season was closed, but if I shot it down he’d be glad to retrieve it for me.

“I’m Greer,” called the young man on the float. “You’re wanted in El Paso, soonest.”

It was no time to protest that I still had eleven days of my month’s leave coming. We’re better trained than the pup is. When the whistle blows, we come. He doesn’t always.

I said, “It won’t take long to strike camp if you give me a hand. It’s over that way a couple of hundred yards. Well, you must have seen it from the air. In front of it, I think you can bring that thing right up to the shore if your flyboy is careful.”

“You’ll take off with him immediately,” Greer said. “I’ll stay and bring out your gear and your dog. Just show me the trail down to your car, give me the keys, and tell me where in Santa Fe you want it stored and what boarding kennel you use. ”

I started to voice a protest but strangled it. I said instead, “So we’ve got another goddamn panic party.”

“When don’t we? Let’s get moving.”

Hurrying back to my little camp with the pup trotting beside me, I drew deep breaths of the cool, spring air, quite thin at this altitude—a little over nine thousand feet, if it matters. There was still snow on the surrounding peaks. There were even some snowbanks along the shores of the lake, although they’d shrunk considerably in the time I’d been there. Spring was finding its way up here; it would be well advanced down in El Paso, Texas. Well, I’d had good luck with the weather, I’d had the lake to myself this early in the season, and the fishing had been great after I’d got it through my young retriever’s skull that I was capable of landing the trout I hooked all by myself, they weren’t ducks, and he didn’t have time to dive in to fetch them for me.

It had been a good, peaceful time, even if it had ended early. I looked around, fixing the place in my memory. In the business you never know which good, peaceful time is going to be your last.

Getting airborne was a bit hairy at that altitude, and we used up most of the lake before we broke loose, but the pilot knew his stuff and made it with a few inches to spare. Apart from such moments of suspense, I find the little planes more restful than the big ones. You know that one of those giant, jet-propelled monsters will go in like an overgrown artillery shell if anything goes wrong, but you kid yourself that you’ll just flutter gently to earth like a falling leaf in one of the little ones if the fan up front should quit.

The pilot was one of the taciturn plane jockeys. He didn’t ask me about my business, and I didn’t ask him what he was doing with a seaplane a thousand miles from the sea. I spent most of the flight worrying about the pup I’d left behind, whose name was Happy: worrying that he’d run off and get lost looking for me, worrying that Greer would let him tangle with a porcupine. I didn’t worry about his settling down well in the kennel once he got that far. He was a good, relaxed young dog, and he was getting used to being left here and there while the boss tended to business. Another thing I didn’t worry about was the mission ahead of me, whatever it might be. When you start worrying about that, it’s time to get a job as a night watchman while you’re still in one piece.

Coming out of the mountains, we picked up the Rio Grande and followed it south down its great valley, leaving Santa Fe nestling in the foothills behind us, and passing Albuquerque under its dome of smog. I recognized a couple of places along the river where I’d hunted ducks and geese in the past; and Elephant Butte Lake and Caballo Lake. Those impoundments were pretty full this spring, I noted; our chronic water shortage wasn’t quite as short as usual. Then we were settling onto another, smaller reservoir that was new to me—in that country, you can go to sleep by a running stream and wake up in the morning to find it dammed by the government’s industrious human beavers. A gent I didn’t know was waiting on the ramp. I went through the recognition routine again, and he led me across the parking lot to a shiny blue American sedan styled like a slippery bar of soap with all sharp comers and edges washed away. The Palmolive school of automotive design. I suppose they call it aerodynamics.

Three-quarters of an hour later I was in a hotel room in El Paso on the Mexican border being restyled myself. The little man with the dye and scissors had me take a shower first because he didn’t like the way I smelled—that lake water had been too cold for frequent bathing. He didn’t like my face much either; but he was pleased with my backwoods whiskers. Apparently he’d been afraid that he’d have to fit me with somebody else’s chin hairs. He got to work, referring occasionally to a set of color photographs spread out on the small table nearby. They showed an older gent with a cropped gray beard and not too much hair who didn’t resemble me very closely. At least I hoped he didn’t.

While the makeup artist was doing his stuff, Mac came in. He does turn up out in the field occasionally, but it’s always a surprise. He was carrying a white linen suit on a hanger, a big white Stetson or the equivalent, and a pair of white—-truly—cowboy boots. There was a white Westem-style shirt, also on a hanger, with snaps instead of buttons, and a bolo tie with an overgrown turquoise that wasn’t quite as handsome as some that size, but what can you expect with a government disguise, the Kohinoor diamond? There were also socks and underwear.

“That’s quite an outfit,” I said. “You could put some sequins on it and bill me as the new cowboy Liberace. Those boots look like real toe-squashers. ”

“Wardrobe assures me they’ll be a good fit.”

“Wardrobe doesn’t have to wear them.”

For his own costume, Mac was sporting one of his customary gray business suits. He has them in every weight from tropical to arctic; this was kind of a medium number. A lean, grayhaired man of medium height, he looked as cold and ageless as ever. There’s a theory floating around the Washington office to the effect that he sold his soul to the devil in return for eternal life. I don’t believe a word of it. No devil with a proper sense of self-preservation would deal with Mac for fear of being conned out of his pitchfork. He laid the clothes on the bed and studied me for a moment.

“Well, Eric,” he said by way of greeting. It let me know that the makeup man was cleared, and we could talk normally. Otherwise Mac would have used my real name instead of my code name.

“Eric at the moment, sir,” I said, “but who’ll I be when this guy gets through with me?”

“You’ll be a wealthy Texas oilman named Horace Hosmer Cody, known as Buffalo Bill Cody, or just plain Buff.”

“Wealthy sounds good,” I said. “Do I get an expense account to match?”

Mac ignored that as frivolous. “Mr. Cody, sixty-four, is just about to be married in the Little Chapel of the Bells, a few blocks from here. The bride is Gloria Henrietta Pierce, twenty-two, a very lovely young lady and reasonably wealthy in her own right.”

“December and May,” I said. “Do I gather that I’m being groomed to stand in for Mr. Cody at the altar when his child bride comes up the aisle all done up in a veil and white satin? How many people will I be expected to fool besides the girl herself? It doesn’t sound very practical.”

“It’s an informal wedding,” Mac said. “The bride will be wearing a suit and, as you see, the bridegroom’s attire, although spectacular, will not be formal. No, we didn’t feel you could carry off the impersonation in front of a chapel full of Mr. Cody’s friends and acquaintances. The substitution will take place afterwards. The honeymoon car will be stopped in a quiet place, the real Horace Hosmer Cody will be arrested and spirited away, and you will slip into the driver’s seat beside the blushing bride.”

I said, “So she’s in on it.”

Mac nodded. “She is cooperating.”

“Is he?”

“You will be given a general briefing shortly; later you can have the young lady herself fill in the details.”

Clearly he hadn’t come clear from Washington to answer a lot of questions. I said, “I suppose those are shots of the groom on the table. Do we have a picture of the bride?”

“Here.”

I studied the glamorous wedding photograph. The girl was beautiful. Well, all brides are.

“Well, I’ve had worse-looking wives in the line of business,” I said. ‘ ‘But why is a walking young dream like that, with money of her own, marrying a man almost three times her age? You’d think all she’d have to do was stand on a street comer and blow a whistle and take her choice.”

“I repeat, she will tell you everything you need to know.”

I said, “At least explain this arrest nonsense, sir. Since when do we go around arresting people?”

We’re known, by the few who know about us, as a counterassassination agency. When a homicidal individual or organization proves too much for the other fine, high-principled agencies of our government to cope with and still keep their hands clean, they send for us because we don’t mind getting our hands dirty. Legally I suppose we’re empowered to arrest people—under the proper circumstances, any citizen is—but it’s not something we make a habit of. If you want somebody arrested, call a cop. Our methods are slightly more drastic.

Mac said dryly, “We won’t be doing the arresting. We are involved simply because we just happened to have a man available who’s the right size and shape for the job. Sometimes I think the rest of our government must be staffed entirely by short, fat men. When they need a tall, thin one, they invariably come knocking on our door.”

I said, “Oh, God, not another beautiful friendship deal!”

“We call it interdepartmental cooperation.” He picked up the phone between the beds, punched a number, and said, “He’s almost ready for you, Warren. Five minutes. Room 512.” Then he put the instrument down and spoke to me; “You will be under the orders of the gentleman to whom I just spoke, Mr. Warren Somerset, or whomever he may deputize as your control.”

“Control!” I said. “Jesus Christ, what is this, a TV superspy caper?”

The only control with whom we work is Mac himself. Sometimes it gets a little complicated, and he must feel like a juggler with a dozen airborne plates; but most of our operations are pretty straightforward, and he just points us in the right direction, gives us a gun and shove, and lets us run.

The makeup man stepped back, gave me a professional scrutiny, and said, “It is finished. As well as it can be done in so short a time. You wish to see yourself?”

I said, “I wish to see myself.”

The hand mirror he gave me showed that I’d gained some years, turned as gray as Mac, and lost some hair.

“Very distinguished, no?” the makeup man said.

He was a nice enough little man and good at his job. I guess my only objection to what he’d done was that I seemed to age quite fast enough without help; I didn’t need a hair-dye expert pushing me towards senility.

“Swell,” I said. “Looking in the mirror, I could almost believe my name was Buffalo Bill, and I went in for cowboy boots and bolo ties.”

“A fine job, Arthur,” Mac said. “That’s all.” He watched the little man pick up his tools and bottles and hurry out; then he smiled faintly. “Mr. Somerset is going to complain that the resemblance is not really very great. I did not want Arthur to hear it. He’s a very sensitive artist.”

‘‘Yes, sir.’’ I couldn’t help thinking that I’d never noticed him worrying about my sensitivity. Well, maybe I’m not an artist.

Mac spoke in a different tone, and I knew we were getting down to the business for which he’d come here. “You will do whatever Mr. Somerset requires, Eric, in the manner in which he requires it done, with one reservation. You will keep in mind that we want a man who calls himself Sabádo, no description available. The reason for Señr Sabádo’s unpopularity does not concern you. You’re about to be sent into Mexico. While you’re down there impersonating a loving bridegroom, keep your ears open for that name. We have reason to think that Sabádo is closely involved in the problem with which you’ll be asked to deal there; I’ll let Warren Somerset brief you on that. However, when you have determined the identity of Señor Sabádo, you are to find the man and make the touch even if it has to be done at the expense of Mr. Somerset and his operation. If you act with reasonable discretion, the Mexican authorities will be careful to look the other way. Do I make myself clear?”

BOOK: The Frighteners
11.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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