Donald Hamilton: The Devastators

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Donald Hamilton The Devastators
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    The Devastators
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Donald Hamilton

The Devastators

chapter ONE

I made my bride's acquaintance at Kennedy Airport, formerly Idlewild, just in time for us to commence our honeymoon by catching the ten P.M. jet to London. It wasn't the first time I'd acquired a wife in the line of duty, but it was the first time I'd done it sight unseen.

I'd been informed that the girl's code name was Claire, and that she was small-five-two, one-oh-five-and blonde and tanned and competent. It had been explained to me that they were hauling her back from the Far East somewhere to do this job with me, and that she was coming straight through, briefed and costumed and inoculated on the way, so there would be no opportunity for advance introductions.

"We needed a female agent who had never operated in Europe," Mac had told me in his Washington office on the second floor of an obscure building in an obscure street, never mind the name. "I do not think she will be recognized there. I hope not."

"I've operated in Europe, sir," I said.

He looked at me across the desk. It was hard to read his expression for the sunlit window behind him-not that his expression is ever easy to read, whatever the direction of the light. I'd known him a long time, and if his hair was gray, it was no grayer now than when I'd first met him. His eyebrows were still startlingly black. Maybe he dyed them for effect. It was, I knew, a matter for speculation among the younger members of the outfit. As far as I was concerned, his eyebrows were his own business. I wasn't about to ask. I'll buck him on something important, but not on eyebrows.

"You are supposed to be recognized, Eric," he said, using my code name for emphasis.

"I see," I said, although that was a slight exaggeration.

"You are the stalking-horse," he said. "You will travel under your own name, openly. You are Matthew Helm, a U.S. undercover agent-but ostensibly you are off duty for the moment. You have just married a lovely young girl after a whirlwind romance, and you've been given a month's leave for honeymoon purposes."

It was more or less what I'd expected after the buildup he'd given the unknown girl-he doesn't pass out words like 'competent' lightly-but that didn't make me like it any better.

"All right, I'm a horse," I said. "Who're we stalking and how, playing the honeymoon couple seeing the sights of Europe. It doesn't seem like a very promising gambit to me."

What I really meant, I suppose, was that the matrimonial approach, while it has certain advantages, also has certain drawbacks for the personnel involved. Playing house with a fellow agent of the opposite sex, even a good-looking one, isn't my idea of fun and games. It's hard to act appropriately tender toward a little lady you know can throw you across the room; and I kind of like to have some say about whom I sleep with. However, I didn't tell him this directly. Where a job is concerned, our likes and dislikes are considered quite irrelevant.

Mac ignored my indirect protest, if you could call it that. He said, "Well, there's a casual visit you will make in London. Your motivation will ostensibly be quite innocent, in line with your bridegroom cover, but the mere fact of your contact with a man who is under surveillance will call you to the attention of the other team, or teams. After they have identified you as one of our people, I think we can safely count on nature taking its more or less violent course."

"Teams, plural?" I grimaced. "You sound as if you expected a battle royal over there, sir. How many other outfits do you figure we'll be taking on?"

"At least three, maybe more," he said. "The man in whom we're really interested-not the subsidiary figure you'll see in London-has a fairly large and efficient organization of his own, or it has him. We don't quite know the relationship there. Of course the British are interested, since he is using their country for a base of operations. And of course the Russians are trying to turn the situation to their own advantage."

"Sure," I said. "This base of operations you mentioned, sir. Do we know where it is?"

"If we did, your play-acting would not be necessary. We think we have the area narrowed down to Scotland, probably northwestern Scotland. Your itinerary has been arranged accordingly."

"I'm under the impression that's a rugged country for a honeymoon," I said. "At a hundred and five pounds, my bride's a little light for real tough going."

"Don't worry about Claire. If she can survive the jungles of southeast Asia, she can presumably survive the Scottish Highlands."

"Well, it's not quite the same thing, sir, but I see your point."

"Of course, you can expect to be under very close observation, by one party or another, from the moment you make your first contact in London. You will govern yourselves accordingly."

"Yes, sir," I said. "Once we've tripped the trigger, so to speak, we'll assume we're getting the full treatment: mike in the room, bugs on the phone, electronic gadgets stuck to the car with Alnico magnets, and little lipreading men with big binoculars hiding in the bushes. We'll even keep up the act in the john, if you like." I made a face. "Not to mention, I suppose, in bed."

"That will be fine," he said calmly. The facts of life are pretty much taken for granted around that office. He went on: "There is really no doubt that you will be spotted, Eric. You are in their files, and in a sense you are expected-you, or someone like you."

I said, "I won't thank you for the compliment, sir, until I'm sure it is one."

"What I mean is," he said, "that it's a matter of record that we've used you as a troubleshooter before, when a job went sour on us. We've just lost the man who was handling this assignment. Actually, he wasn't ours, but we've been asked to replace him. The British authorities are delaying public identification of the body for reasons of their own, but they passed the word in private."

I frowned thoughtfully. "Which brings up a ticklish point, sir. The British authorities. What is the official line?"

Mac said without expression, "Officially, you will cooperate with the British authorities, and give them full respect and consideration."

"Yes, sir," I said. "And unofficially?"

He sighed. "Eric, you are being tiresome. Unofficially, you will of course do the job assigned to you the way it was assigned, regardless of who may attempt to interfere. The British still, apparently, have hopes of accomplishing this mission in a genteel and civilized way. After a number of failures, we have given up such hopes. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, sir," I said. "Does this man I'm replacing have a name? I mean, did he have a name?"

"His real name doesn't matter. You didn't know him. He was calling himself Paul Buchanan, posing as an American tourist interested in tracing his Scottish forebears. That is the only lead we have, at present, to the person we are seeking-I'll give you the details in a moment-and Buchanan was working on it. He started, as you will, in London, traveled north to Scotland, and disappeared into the Highlands. He was found dead near a small town called Ullapool, on an inlet of the west coast, pretty far up."

"Dead how?" I asked.

"The preliminary report we have, courtesy of the British, states only that he seems to have died of natural causes." Mac's voice was toneless.

"Sure," I said. "And just what was friend Buchanan doing way to hell and gone up there?"

"We don't know." After a moment Mac frowned.

"What do you mean, Eric?"

I said, "To the best of my recollection, that's Mackenzie and MacDonnell territory up there, sir. The Buchanans come from farther south, not much above Glasgow. Why would anyone tracing them take off into the remote western Highlands?"

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