Authors: Donald Hamilton
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #General
and available from Titan Books
Death of a Citizen
The Wrecking Crew
Print edition ISBN: 9780857683373
E-book edition ISBN: 9781781162361
Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP
First edition: December 2013
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Copyright © 1964, 2013 by Donald Hamilton. All rights reserved.
Matt Helm® is the registered trademark of Integute AB.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
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When I came hurriedly out of the hotel, the car was waiting for me. It was white with letters in gold:
REDONDO BEACH—CITY POLICE
. They seem to be painting all police cars white these days. I guess it makes them easier to keep clean. The uniformed man at the wheel threw the door open and leaned over.
“I’m Corcoran,” I said.
Well, I was, as far as Redondo Beach, Florida, was concerned. The fact that I might have other names elsewhere—in Washington, D.C., for instance—was nobody’s business down here where I was spending a month’s well-earned rest in the sun. At least I hoped it wasn’t.
“Please get in, sir,” the policeman said.
I got in and he had us going before the door had closed. He switched on his flasher and cut around the block sharply.
“Where did it happen?” I asked.
“South along the Miami highway a few miles. At least that’s where they told me to take you.”
“Is she badly hurt?”
He didn’t look at me. “You talked with Headquarters, sir; you know more than I do. All I know is I’m supposed to get you there fast.”
He hit a button and the siren cut short the conversation. For a city cop in a city cop car he had highway patrol ideas. We shot through the late evening traffic like a runaway missile. Near the edge of town we picked up another red flasher ahead. That was the ambulance heading for the scene. My man cut around it and slowed a bit to stay with it, breaking trail.
It was a good try on everybody’s part, but when we got there I saw at once it hadn’t been quite good enough. There were two state cars and some other cars and a number of people; and those people had stopped caring when we’d arrive because they knew there was no longer anything for us to do. That race had been won by the gent on the pale horse. They were more interested, now, in watching the Cadillac burn.
We circled to get over to the northbound side of the highway, and parked behind the other official cars. A state policeman came up as I got out.
“Mr. Corcoran?” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Where is she?” I asked.
“Down this way,” he said. “She was thrown clear. If they won’t wear seat belts—”
I said, “I know. It’s much better to stay with the car. Particularly when it’s an open convertible that first rolls and then burns like a torch.”
He glanced around, started to get annoyed, and thought better of it. We’d reached our destination, anyway. There was a uniformed man standing by the blanket-covered form on the ground.
The man who’d brought me said, “I’d better warn you... Well, she must have been doing damn close to ninety when she missed the curve.”
I bent down and pulled the blanket back and had my look, then replaced the cover and walked off a little ways until I stood looking down at something gleaming in the rank grass. It was a silver evening pump to go with the dress she’d worn. I reflected on women’s shoes and how they never could seem to stay on in a crisis. If the final cataclysm overtakes the human race, I decided, the last trace of womankind left behind in the smoldering wreckage will be a scorched, radioactive slipper with a high, slim heel.
It was better to formulate this deep philosophy than to remember that we’d quarreled. Take a womp with money and a man without and the dialogue at a certain point in the relationship hardly needs repeating, particularly if both parties are fairly bullheaded. It had started with a party she’d wanted us to go to at the big house of some wealthy acquaintances of hers who didn’t think any more of me than I did of them. It had ended with her driving to the party alone. And driving back alone, still angry, unhappy, and probably a little tight...
“Mr. Corcoran?” It was the state cop who believed in sticking loyally with your car even if it squashed and incinerated you. “I’m sorry to bother you, sir, but we need a little information. Could you give me your wife’s full name for the report?”
I said, “She wasn’t my wife.”
He said quickly, “But we distinctly understood—”
“So I gathered,” I said. “When the police called me at the hotel, they asked first if my wife drove a white Cadillac convertible with Texas plates. Since I was more interested in learning why they were calling than in keeping my matrimonial record straight, I said yes. The lady’s name was Mrs. Gail Hendricks. She was divorced from Mr. Hendricks, whoever he may be. I never met him. She came from Midland, Texas. There are some relatives there, I believe. What made you think she was my wife?”
“She was wearing a wedding ring. She asked for you.”
“You could get into trouble, making deductions like that,” I said.
“What is your full name, Mr. Corcoran?”
“Paul,” I said. “Paul William Corcoran. Newspaperman. From Denver, Colorado.”
Well, that’s what it said on the cards in my wallet. My real name is Matthew Helm, but it figures in too many official dossiers for me to wear it carelessly, even on leave. And while I’m technically a government employee, certain people in Washington prefer that my exact duties remain unspecified, as far as the general public is concerned.
“And what was your relationship to Mrs. Hendricks?” the policeman asked.
“We’d known each other for a couple of years,” I said. “We were staying at the same hotel by prearrangement. The Redondo Towers. If that’s a relationship, you name it.”
He hesitated, a little embarrassed by my candor. “I’ll say the identification was made by a friend of the deceased,” he said, and that’s the way it went down in the record.
There was no reason to think the accident was anything but what it seemed, except that accidents are always suspect in my line of business. I hung around long enough, therefore, to make the routine checks, trying not to show any more interest, however, than would be expected from a friend of the deceased who was also a reporter. When they could move in on the car, they found no indication that it had been gimmicked in any way. The body, said the doctor, displayed no signs of violence. I couldn’t help wondering just what he called being hurled from a car at ninety miles per hour—I mean, how violent can you get?—but his general drift was clear.
When I got back to my hotel room at last, I took the little knife from my pocket. You could call it a large pocket knife or a small folding hunting knife. It was more or less a duplicate of one I had broken in the line of duty. I’d happened to complain about the loss, and Gail had secretly given the description to a well-known and expensive knife-maker and surprised me with the handsome result.
She’d been trying to give me things ever since we came down here together. It isn’t smart to accept presents from people—particularly women—who have more money than you have, but I hadn’t been able to turn down this particular gift without seeming stuffy and unappreciative. I mean, a wealthy woman can give a man a watch or even a car without signifying much more than that she’s got money to throw away; but when a woman gives a man in my line of work a weapon, knowing how it’s apt to be used, it means something special. It means she has faced and accepted certain things about him. That was before we’d quarreled, of course.
I shoved the knife back in my pocket, went downstairs, and called Washington from a pay phone in the lobby. There was nothing I could do here that would make any difference now, and I don’t like hanging around to bury people. I said I was tired of being lazy and asked if they could use me. The answer was yes.
Two hours later I was flying kitty-corner across the Gulf of Mexico on my way to New Orleans, Louisiana.
I’d been told to maintain my cover as Paul Corcoran, Denver newspaperman, for the time being, and to register at the Montclair Hotel in New Orleans under this name. Since I’d requested immediate work, I was being shoved late into a going operation, and there wasn’t time to build me a new identity.
After getting a room at the hotel, I made contact according to instructions, never mind with whom. I wouldn’t know him if I saw him on the street, myself. He was just a voice on the phone. He told me—it was morning by this time—to spend the day sight-seeing, which is a technical term for making damn sure you’re not being watched.
Reporting back in the evening with the all-clear signal, I was told to leave the hotel casually, on foot, a certain exact number of minutes before midnight. I was to walk in a certain direction at a certain pace. If a red Austin-Healey sports job pulled up beside me, and the driver wore a Navy uniform and uttered a certain phrase, I was to answer him with another phrase and get into the car.
The upshot of these Hollywood maneuvers was that just before dawn I found myself on a motor launch crossing Pensacola Bay, which put me back in Florida again after a wild night drive, but near the top of the state instead of the bottom. There was an aircraft carrier anchored out in the bay. It loomed over the still water massive and motionless, as if set on permanent concrete foundations. It was as easy to imagine the Pentagon putting out to sea.
I glanced at the lights of the Naval Air Station from which we’d come, bid terra firma a silent farewell, and scrambled onto the platform at the foot of the long, flimsy stairway suspended from ropes—a ladder, in Navy terminology—that ran slantingly up the ship’s side to a lighted opening far above. My escort was beside me, ready to keep me from falling in the drink.
He was a trim young fellow with a shiny gold stripe-and-a-half on each shoulder of his immaculate khaki gabardine uniform, and a shiny Naval Academy ring on his left hand. There were shiny gold wings on his chest, and a neat little plastic name plate, white on black, reading
. He waved the launch away. This left us stranded on the rickety platform just a few feet above the water, with no place to go but up.
“After you, sir,” he said. “Remember, you salute the quarterdeck first, then the O.O.D.”
“Quarterdeck,” I said. “I thought quarterdecks went out with sail.” I glanced at the two-and-a-half stripes on the shoulder of the uniform I had been supplied for the occasion. The change of costume had been made in an empty apartment in town.
“You’re a lieutenant commander, sir,” he said. “The quarterdeck is aft, that way.” He pointed.
I started climbing, trying to fight off the sense of unreality that came of switching location and identity too fast. I saluted the quarterdeck and the O.O.D., as Braithwaite had called him—the Officer of the Deck— who wore a pair of binoculars hung around his neck and looked sleepy and bored. I guess the early-morning watch is a bitch in any service, uniformed or otherwise. I followed my guide along a vast empty hangar space to a stairway—excuse me, ladder—leading down. Presently, after negotiating a maze of narrow passages below, I found myself in a white-painted cabin with a single bunk.