This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely




НазваниеThis is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely
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Chapter Ten

I lay in the dark, the memory of towers and trumpets and fountains of fire in my mind. I put up my hand, felt a coarse garment. Had I but dreamed . . . ? I stirred. Light blazed in a widening band above my face. Through narrowed eyes I saw a room, a mean chamber, dusty, littered with ill-assorted rubbish. In a wall there was a window. I went to it, stared out upon a green sward, a path that curved downward to a white strand. It was a strange scene, and yet—

A wave of vertigo swept over me, faded. I blinked, tried to remember.

I reached up, felt something clamped over my head. I pulled it off and it fell to the floor with a faint clatter: a broad-spectrum briefing device, of the type used to indoctrinate unidentified citizens who had undergone a Change unprepared . . .  

Suddenly, like water pouring down a drain, the picture in my mind faded, left me standing in my old familiar junk room, with a humming in my head and a throb in my temples. I had been about to try the briefing gimmick, and had wondered if it would work. It had—with a vengeance. For a minute there I had stumbled around the room like a stranger, yearning for dear old Vallon. I could remember the feeling—but it was gone now. I was just me, in trouble as usual.

There were a lot of tantalizing ideas floating around in my mind, right at the edge of consciousness. Later I'd have to sit down and go over them carefully. Right now, I had my hands full. Two armies had me cornered, and all the guns belonged to the opposition. That part was okay; I didn't want to fight anybody. All I wanted out of this situation was me.

A rattle of gunfire outside brought me to the window in a jump. It was the same view as a few moments before, but it made more sense now. There was the still smoking wreckage of the PT boat, sunk in ten feet of water a few yards from the end of the jetty. Somebody must have tried to make a run for it. The Russian sub was nowhere in sight; probably it had landed the men and backed out of danger from any unexpected quarter. Two or three corpses lay in view, down by the water's edge. From where I stood I couldn't say whether they were good guys or villains.

There were more shots, coming from somewhere off to the left. It looked like the boys were fighting it out old style: hand to hand, with small arms. It figured; after all, what they wanted was me and all my clever ideas intact, not a smoking ruin.

I don't know whether it was my romantic streak or my cynical one that had made me drive the architect nuts putting secret passages in the walls of my chateau and tunnels under the lawn, but I was glad now I had them. There was a narrow door in the west wall of the strong-room that gave onto a tight spiral stair. From there I could take my choice: the boathouse, the edge of the woods behind the house, or the beach a hundred yards north of the jetty. All I had to do was—

The house trembled a split second ahead of a terrific blast that slammed me to the floor. I felt blood start from my nose. Head ringing, I scrambled to my feet, groped through the dust to my escape hatch. Somebody outside was getting impatient. It wouldn't do to have my fancy getaway route fall in before I had used it. I felt another shell hit the house: mortars, I guessed, or rockets. I must have slept through the preliminaries and wakened just in time for the main bout.

My fingers were on the sensitive pressure areas that worked the concealed door. I took a last glance around the room, where the dust was just settling from the last blast. My eyes fell on a plain pewter-colored cylinder lying where I had tossed it an hour before—but now I knew what it was. In one jump I was across the room and had grabbed it up. I remembered finding it aboard the lifeboat when I tidied up; it had lain concealed among the bones of the man with the bear-tooth necklace. He must have come across it, admired its pretty colors, and tucked it away in his fur pants. And now I, with my Vallonian memories banked in my mind, could appreciate just how precious an object it was. It was Foster's memory. It would be only a copy, undoubtedly; still, I couldn't leave it behind.

A blast heavier than the last one rocked the house; a big chunk of plaster fell. It was way past time to go. Snorting and coughing from the dust, I got back to the emergency door, went through it, and started down.

At the bottom I paused to think it over, and the earth jumped again. I fell back, saw the roof of the beach tunnel collapse. That left the woods and the boathouse. I didn't have much time to decide; the tunnels might go any second. Apparently my architect had economized on the tunnel shorings. But then, he hadn't figured on any major wars happening in the front yard.

The fight was going on, as near as I could judge, to the south of the house and behind it. Probably the woods were full of skirmishers, taking advantage of the cover. The best bet was the boathouse, direct. I'd have preferred to wait until dark, but the idea didn't seem practical under the circumstances. I took a deep breath and started into the tunnel. With a little luck I'd find my boat intact. I would have to pull out under the noses of the combatants, but maybe the element of surprise would give me a few hundred yards' start. I had enough horses to beat anything afloat to the mainland—if I could make a clean break.

The tunnel was dark but that didn't bother me. It ran dead straight to the boathouse. I came to the wooden slat door and stood for a moment, listening; everything was quiet. I eased it open and stepped on to the ramp inside the building. In the gloom polished mahogany and chrome-work threw back muted highlights. I circled, slipped the mooring rope, and was about to step into the cockpit when I heard the bolt of a rifle smack home. I whirled, threw myself flat. The deafening bam! of a .30 caliber fired at close quarters laid a pattern of fine ripples on the black water. I rolled, hit with a splash that drowned a second shot, and dove deep. Three strokes took me under the door, out into the green gloom of open water. I hugged the yellowish sand of the bottom, angled off to the right, and kept going.

I had to get out of my jacket, and somehow I managed it, almost without losing a stroke. And there were all the goodies I'd stashed away in the pockets, down to the bottom of the drink. I still had Foster's memory-trace; it was in my slacks and there wasn't time to get out of them nor to kick off my tennis shoes. Ten strokes, fifteen, twenty. I knew my limit: twenty-five good strokes on a full load of air; but I had dived in a hurry . . . 

Twenty-five . . . and another . . . and one more. And up above a man was waiting, rifle aimed, for my head to break the surface.

Thirty strokes, and here I come, ready or not. I rolled on my back, got my face above the surface. I got half a gulp of fresh air before the shot slapped spray into my face and echoed off across the water. I sank like a stone, kicked off, and made another twenty-five yards before I had to come up. The rifleman was faster this time. The bullet crossed my shoulder like a hot iron, and I was under water again. My kick-work was weak now; the strength was draining from my arms fast. I had to have air—but I could almost feel the solid smack of a steel-jacketed bullet against my skull. I had to keep going. My chest was on fire and there was a whirling blackness all around me. I felt consciousness fading, but maybe just one more stroke . . . 

* * *

As from a distance I observed the clumsy efforts of the swimmer, watched the flounderings of the poor, untrained creature . . . 

It was apparent that an override of the autonomic system was required. With dispatch I activated cortical area omicron, re-routed the blood supply, drew an emergency oxygen source from stored fats, diverting the necessary energy to break the molecular bonds.

Now, with the body drawing on internal sources, ample for six hundred seconds at maximum demand, I stimulated areas upsilon and mu. I channeled full survival-level energy to the muscle complexes involved, increased power output to full skeletal tolerance, eliminated waste motion.

The body drove through the water with the fluid grace of a sea-denizen . . .  

* * *

I floated on my back, breathing in great surges of cool air and blinking at the crimson sky. I had been under water, a few yards from shore, drowning. Then there was an awareness, like a voice, telling me what to do. From out of the mass of Vallonian knowledge I had acquired, I had drawn what I needed. And now I was here, half a mile from the beach, winded but intact. But there was no time now to wonder at miracles . . . 

I raised my head and glanced toward the house. A column of smoke rose from a gaping cavity where the bedroom windows used to be. A man jumped up, darted across the lawn, fell. I heard a shot a few seconds later, floating lazily across the still sunset water. There was no visible activity at the water's edge; the rifleman was gone. He probably thought he'd finished me, especially if he had noticed blood in the water.

I thought about sharks. I hadn't heard of any in this neighborhood, but a little blood was just the thing to bait them in. I twisted, got a look at the throbbing burn across my left shoulder where the rifleman's bullet had grazed; it was nothing much, just a skin gouge. It didn't seem to be bleeding. If it had been, there wasn't much I could do about it. It was no time for worrying. I had to keep my mind on the problem of getting to the mainland. It was a fifteen-mile swim, but if the boys on shore could keep each other occupied, I ought to be able to make it. I thought again about pulling off my pants and shoes but decided against it; I'd be in awkward shape without them—if I made it.

I felt beat: as though I hadn't eaten all day—which wasn't too strange, because I hadn't. Well, at least I wouldn't get stomach cramps while circling the island. From there I'd strike out for shore. And the first thing I would do when I got out of this would be to order the biggest, rarest steak in South America.

I took a last look toward the house. I could see fire inside it now. I guessed each side was rationalizing the destruction as denial to the enemy. It had been a nice place and I'd miss it. Some day somebody was going to pay for it.

Chapter Eleven

I sat at the kitchen table in Margareta's Lima apartment and gnawed the last few shreds off the stripped T-bone, while my girl poured me another cup of coffee.

"Now tell me about it," she said. "Why did they burn your house? And how did you succeed in getting here?"

"They got so interested in the fight, they lost their heads," I said. "That's the only explanation I can think of. I thought I'd be as safe as a two-dollar watch at a pickpockets' convention: I figured they'd go to some pains to avoid damaging me. I guessed wrong."

"But your own people . . ."

"Maybe they were right: they couldn't afford to let the Ruskis get me. Funny—if they'd just thought to write me a letter and ask for my co-operation . . ."

"But how did you get covered with mud? And the blood stains on your back?"

"I had a nice long swim: five hours' worth. Then another hour getting through a mangrove swamp. Lucky I had a moon. Then a three-hour hike . . . and here I am."

"I hope you're feeling better now that you've had something to eat. You looked terrible."

"Another block and I wouldn't have made it. I felt sucked dry. The scratch on my back is nothing, but maybe the shock . . . I don't know."

"Lie down now and sleep," said Margareta. "What do you want me to do?"

"Get me some clothes," I said. "A grey suit, white shirt, black tie and shoes. And go to my bank and draw some money, say five thousand. Oh yeah, see if there's anything in the papers. If you see anybody hanging around the lobby when you come back, don't come up; give me a call and I'll meet you."

She stood up. "This is really awful," she said. "Can't your embassy—"

"Didn't I mention it? A Mr. Pruffy, of the embassy, came along to hold Smale's hand . . . not to mention a Colonel Sanchez. I wouldn't be surprised if the local cops weren't in the act by now . . . unless they all think I'm dead. That impression won't last long after you show up with a nice fresh check on my account and spend part of it on a man's suit. I'll get some sleep and light out as soon as you get back."

"Where will you go?"

"I'll get to the airport and play it by ear. I don't think they've alerted everybody. It was a hush-hush deal, until it went sour; now they're still picking up the pieces."

"The bank won't be open for hours yet," said Margareta. "Go to sleep and don't worry. I'll take care of everything."

I made it to the bedroom and slid out on the big wide bed, and consciousness slipped away like a silk curtain falling.

* * *

I knew I wasn't alone as soon as I opened my eyes. I hadn't heard anything, but I could feel someone in the room. I sat up slowly, looked around.

He was sitting in the embroidered chair by the window: an ordinary-looking fellow in a tan tropical suit, with an unlighted cigarette in his mouth and no particular expression on his face.

"Go ahead, light up," I said. "Don't mind me."

"Thanks," he said, in a thin voice. He took a lighter from an inner pocket, flipped it, held it to the cigarette.

I stood up. There was a blur of motion from my visitor, and the lighter was gone and a short-nosed revolver was in its place.

"You've got the wrong scoop, mister," I said. "I don't bite."

"I'd rather you wouldn't move suddenly, Mr. Legion," he said. He coughed, his eyes on mine. "My nerves aren't what they used to be." The gun was still on me.

"Which side are you working for?" I said. "And can I put my shoes on, or are you afraid I'll pull a gun out of my sock?"

He rested the pistol on his knee. "Get completely dressed, Mr. Legion."

"Sorry," I said. "No can do. No clothes."

He frowned slightly. "My jacket will be a little small for you," he said. "But I think you can manage."

I was sitting on the bed again. "I'm going to get out a cigarette," I said. "Try not to shoot me." I reached for a package on the table, lit up. His eyes stayed on mine.

"How come you didn't figure I was dead?" I asked, blowing smoke at him.

"We checked the house," he said. "No body."

"Why, you incompetent asses. You were supposed to think I drowned."

"That possibility was considered. But we made the routine checks anyway."

"Nice of you to let me sleep it out. How long have you been here?"

"Only a few minutes," he said. He glanced at his watch. "We'll have to be going in another fifteen."

"What do you want with me?" I said. "You blew up everything you were interested in."

"The Department wants to ask you a few questions."

"Look, I'm just a dumb guy," I whined. "I don't know nothing about all that stuff. I was just the guy that peddled it, see?"

He took a drag on his cigarette, squinted at me through the smoke. "You ran up an A average in college," he said, "including English."

"You boys really do your homework." I looked at the pistol. "I wonder if you'd really shoot me," I mused.

"I'll try to make the position clear," he said. "Just to avoid any unfortunate misunderstanding. My instructions are to bring you in, alive—if possible. If it appears that you may evade arrest . . . or fall into the wrong hands, I'll be forced to use the gun."

I pulled my shoes on, thinking it over. My best chance to make a break was now, while there was only one watchdog. But I had a feeling he was telling the truth about shooting me. I had already seen the boys in action at the house.

He got up. "Let's step into the living room, Mr. Legion." I moved past him through the door. In the living room the clock on the mantel said eleven. I'd been asleep for five or six hours. Margareta ought to be getting back any minute . . . 

"Put this on," he said. I took the light jacket, wedged myself into it, looked at my reflection in the big rectangular mirror that occupied most of a wall above the low divan.

"It's not the real me," I said. "I usually—"

The telephone rang.

I looked at my watchdog. He shook his head. We stood and listened to it ring. After a while it stopped.

"We'd better be going now," he said. "Walk ahead of me, please. We'll take the elevator to the basement and leave by the service entrance—"

He stopped talking, eyes on the door. There was the rattle of a key. The gun came up.

"Hold it," I snapped. "It's the girl who owns the apartment." I moved to face him, my back to the door.

"That was foolish of you, Legion," he said. "Don't move again."

I watched the door in the big mirror on the opposite wall. The knob turned, the door swung in . . . and a thin brown man in white shirt and white pants slipped into the room. As he pushed the door back he transferred a small automatic to his left hand. My keeper threw a lever on the revolver that was aimed at my belt buckle.

"Stand absolutely still, Legion," he said. "If you have a chance, that's it." He moved aside slightly, looked past me to the newcomer. I watched in the mirror as the man in white behind me swiveled to keep both of us covered.

"This is a fail-safe weapon," said my first owner to the new man. "I think you know about them. We leaked the information to you. I'm holding the trigger back; if my hand relaxes, it fires, so I'd be a little careful about shooting, if I were you."

The thin man swallowed, a black leather bow tie bobbing against his Adam's apple. He didn't say anything. He was having to make some tough decisions. His instructions would be the same as my other friend's: to bring me in alive, if possible.

"Who does this bird represent?" I asked my man. I noticed my voice was pitched half an octave higher than usual.

"He's a Russian agent."

I looked in the mirror at the man again. "Nuts," I said. "He looks like a waiter in a chili joint. He probably came up to take our order."

"You talk too much when you're nervous," said my keeper between his teeth. He held the gun on me steadily. I watched his trigger finger to see if it looked like relaxing.

"I'd say it's a stalemate," I said. "Let's take it once more from the top. Both of you go out and—"

"Shut up, Legion." My man licked his lips, glanced at my face. "I'm sorry. It looks as though—"

"You don't want to shoot me," I blurted out loudly. In the mirror I had seen the door, which was standing ajar, ease open an inch, two inches. "You'll spoil this nice coat . . ." I kept on talking: "And anyway it would be a big mistake, because everybody knows Russian agents are stubby men with wide cheekbones and tight hats—"

Silently Margareta slipped into the room, took two quick steps, and slammed a heavy handbag down on the slicked-back pompadour that went with the Adam's apple. The man in white stumbled and fired a round into the rug. The automatic dropped from his hand, and my pal in tan stepped to him and hit him hard on the back of the head with his pistol. He whirled toward me, hissed "Play it smart" just loud enough for me to hear, then turned to Margareta. He slipped the gun into his pocket, but I knew he could get it out again in a hurry.

"Very nicely done, Miss," he said. "I'll have this person removed from your apartment. Mr. Legion and I were just going."

Margareta looked at me. I thought over two or three remarks but none of them seemed to fit. I didn't intend to see her get hurt—or involved. Apparently my FBI type was willing to leave her out of it, if I went quietly. On the other hand, this was my last chance to get out of the net before it closed for good. My keeper was watching, waiting for me to try something, tip Margareta off . . . 

"It's okay, honey," I said. "This is Mr. Smith . . . of our Embassy. We're old friends." I stepped past her, headed for the door. My hand was on the knob when I heard a solid thunk behind me. I whirled in time to clip the FBI on the jaw as he fell forward. Margareta looked at me, wide-eyed.

"That handbag packs a wallop," I said. "Nice work, Maggie." I knelt, pulled off the fellow's belt, and cinched his hands behind his back with it. Margareta got the idea, did the same for the other man, who was beginning to groan now.

"Who are these men?" she said. "What—"

"I'll tell you all about it later. Right now, I have to get to some people I know, get this story on the wires, out in the open. State'll be a little shy about gunning me down or locking me up without trial, if I give the show enough publicity."

I reached in my pocket, handed her the black-and-gold-marked cylinder. "Just to be on the safe side," I said, "mail this to me: John Jones—at Itzenca, general delivery."

"All right," said Margareta. "And I have your things." She stepped into the hall, came back with a shopping bag and a suit carton. She took a wad of bills from her handbag and handed it to me.

I went to her and put my arms around her. "Listen, honey: as soon as I leave, go to the bank and draw fifty grand. Get out of the country. They haven't got anything on you except that you beaned a couple of intruders in your apartment, but it'll be better if you disappear. Leave an address care of Poste Restante, Basel, Switzerland. I'll get in touch when I can."

She put up an argument but I made my point. Twenty minutes later I was pushing through the big glass doors onto the sidewalk, clean-shaven, dressed to the teeth, with five grand on one hip and a .32 on the other. I'd had a good meal and a fair sleep, and against me the secret services of two or three countries didn't have a chance.

I got as far as the corner before they nailed me.

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