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I beat the first real blizzard of the season across the mountains east of Albuquerque, New Mexico. On the high plains beyond, with scattered snowflakes melting on the truck's windshield, I turned south and stopped for lunch in the small town of Carrizozo. The great gray wall of clouds was still chasing me, but here at a lower altitude it could produce nothing but rain.
It was still raining when I had my afternoon coffee and pie in Alamogordo in a joint called the Atomic Cafe. Everything is either nuclear or atomic in Alamogordo; they seem to be very proud of the fact that the first bomb was exploded in their neighborhood. Well, I suppose it's a distinction of sorts, but the bomb I want to see and survive, is the last one.
I asked the man at the cash register what he thought about the underground burst soon to be set off in the Manzanita Mountains, not too far away, now that the Russians had resumed testing. He said it was all right with him. At least he liked it better than an open-air test, with its danger of fall-out if the winds shifted, but he said the folks over in Carlsbad were still worrying about what the shock might do to the great caverns that were their main tourist attraction. He said pretty soon, of course, we wouldn't have these problems. All tests would be conducted in outer space, bothering only the Martians and Venusians. I hadn't heard of that possibility, but then, it's not exactly my field.
"That stuff doesn't bother me," he said. "It's those damn missiles over at White Sands that give me the willies. Did you know that in the early days they'd often go haywire for no reason anybody could figure out and have to be destroyed in the air? They finally realized that local radio transmissions, perfectly legitimate, were taking over control of the guidance systems in some way. Well, suppose the Russkies figured out a way to take over one of the birds and drop it right here in Alamogordo?"
I said, "I thought those things were all rigged so they could be blown up by the range officer pushing a button."
"It doesn't always work, Mister," he said. "The Air Force had to shoot one down only last year when it took off on its own and the destruct package failed to function. It was just luck they happened to have a jet in the air with its guns armed when the damn thing came by, or they'd never have caught it…
It was an interesting conversation, but I didn't have time to continue it. Besides, if I had kept asking questions, he might have thought I was a spy, or that I thought he was. I got back in the truck and kept going.
South of Alamogordo, the highway to El Paso, Texas traverses eighty-four barren miles of sand, mesquite and cactus. It's country that's good for nothing but shooting at, which is just what the government uses it for. It runs from White Sands in the north clear to Fort Bliss in the south, with all kinds of artillery and missile ranges around and between.
All you see from the road are occasional warning signs:
KEEP OUT-NO ENTRE
The Spanish translations remind you that you're nearing the Mexican Border.
The sun was shining but low on the horizon, when I reached El Paso. I stopped, according to instructions, at the Hotel Paso del Norte, a magnificent relic of the old, bold days when hotels were hotels instead of investments and cattlemen were cattlemen instead of oil magnates. The lobby was at least three stories high and boasted a great blue stained-glass dome supported by pink marble columns. The gentleman who preceded me at the desk wore a big white hat and yellow cowboy boots. His silver belt buckle was the size of a TV screen. I was in Texas.
Waiting, I had the doorman run my old pickup into the parking garage across the street. Then I registered as Mr. and Mrs. Matthew L. Helm, of Santa Rosa, California and explained that my wife would join me later, which was a lie. I'd actually had one, once, but she'd divorced me because she didn't like the kind of work I was doing these days. I couldn't really blame her. Sometimes I didn't like it much myself.
In any event, it seemed unlikely that the management would insist upon proof of matrimony. The instructions I'd received in Albuquerque, while driving east across the country after a job in the high Sierras, had been for me to get down to El Paso right away and register as man and wife, using my own name and giving Santa Rosa as my home town, since there wasn't time to construct a fancy cover for me, and since I'd just been through that redwood country and still had California plates on the truck.
"Do you remember a girl called Sarah?" Mac had asked over the long-distance phone.
"Sure," I'd said. "You mean the one who was working for one of the intelligence outfits in Sweden? Sara Lounger? A gent on the other team gunned her down in a park in Stockholm."
"Not that one," Mac said. "Sarah with an h'. One of our own people. You encountered her in San Antonio, Texas a couple of years ago. There was a misunderstanding about identity, and you got the drop on her and searched her for weapons-quite thoroughly." He cleared his throat. "Very thoroughly indeed, she informed me afterwards, with some heat. I should think you'd recall the incident. She certainly does."
I nodded, forgetting that he could hardly see the gesture
– way off in Washington, D.C. "Yes, sir," I said. "I remember now. A tall girl, not bad looking, in a tailored sort of way. She was going under the name of Mary Jane Chatham at the time, I think. Mrs. Roger Chatham. Her code name didn't figure much in the proceedings, which is why I didn't place her at once."
"Do you remember her well enough to recognize her?"
"I think so," I said. "Brown hair, gray eyes, a good figure, if you like them long and lean, and a trained walk. Said she'd been a model once, and I believed her. Nice long legs. Shy, like a lot of tall girls." I laughed. "Sure, I remember Sarah, the big kid who could blush all over."
"You seem to have the right person in mind," Mac said, "but that last information is not part of her record."
"Make a note of it, then," I said. "She had a thing about taking off her clothes; the only female operative I ever met who'd managed to get through training with her modesty intact. Potentially good stuff, I thought, but a little on the amateur side. What's the matter, has she got herself into something she can't handle?"
"Well, you might say that," Mac said. "She seems to have run into an awkward situation in Juarez, Mexico, just across the river from El Paso. We want to extricate her before any more harm is done. You will therefore…" He told me what I would do.
"Yes, sir," I said when he'd finished. "Question, sir."
"Yes, Eric?" he said, using my code name formally, almost reprovingly. He likes to think his presentations are complete and no questions are necessary.
"What if she doesn't want to come?" I asked.
He hesitated, and I could hear the singing of miles of wire running across mountains and plains and mountains again clear to the east coast. When he spoke, his voice sounded reluctant.
"There's no reason to think she'll be difficult. I'm sure, when she sees you, she'll cooperate fully."
"Yes, sir," I said. "But not fully enough, apparently, that I can count on her giving me a recognition signal voluntarily. I have to be able to recognize her, you said. I can't just walk by with a carnation in my buttonhole and wait for her to fall upon me, her rescuer, with delight. It seems odd."
He said coldly, "Don't be too clever, Eric. I have told you all you really need to know."
"I'm sure you're the best judge of that, sir. But you haven't answered my question."
He said, "Very well. I want her back in this country. Get her out."
"How far do I go?" I persisted. He tends to be hard to pin down, when it's a question of giving explicit, unpleasant instructions concerning one of our own people. I wanted the record perfectly clear. "Do you want her badly enough to take her dead or alive?" I asked.
He hesitated again. Then he said, "Let's hope it won't come to that."
"But if it should?"
I heard him draw a long breath, two thousand miles away. "Get her out," he said. "Goodbye, Eric."
My room in El Paso had the kind of spontaneity you get in an old hotel where the bathrooms were added, in any available space, long after the building itself was constructed. I tipped the bellboy, locked the door and sat down to open an envelope with my name on it that had been handed to me at the desk downstairs.
It turned out to contain an official-looking report, ostensibly the fourth and last on this particular job, from an outfit calling itself Private Investigations, Inc. It dealt with the daily activities of a subject calling herself Lila Martinez, now definitely established to be the same person as a certain Mary Jane Helm (Mrs. Matthew L. Helm), born Mary Jane Springer, whom I had asked them to locate. The subject was, it seemed, currently residing in Juarez and working in a place called the Club Chihuahua.
The document ended with the notation that this written report would summarize for my benefit information already submitted by phone. There was also a note to the effect that Private Investigations, Inc. appreciated my patronage and my check, just received. They hoped I had found their work satisfactory, and that I would call upon them again if necessary and recommend them to any of my friends who might be in need of similar discreet assistance. They reminded me that their services were not limited to tracing missing persons, but also included industrial investigations and divorce work. Signed, P. LeBaron, Manager.