Donald Hamilton: The Ravagers

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Donald Hamilton The Ravagers
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    The Ravagers
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Donald Hamilton

The Ravagers


IT WAS an acid job, and they're never pleasant to come upon, even when you're more or less prepared to find something wrong, as I'd been. One of our people had failed to call in when he was supposed to, and I'd been pulled off another job nearby-well, five hundred miles south in the Black Hills of South Dakota-and sent up to investigate. I'd crossed the border into Canada well after dark, I'd found the right motel, named The Plainsman, in the right town, named Regina, in the right province, named Saskatchewan, and I'd given the right knock on the door and received no answer.

Following instructions, I had then circumvented the lock with a special piece of plastic disguised as a credit card, slipped inside, and waited in the dark for a reasonable length of time, to see if anybody cared to jump me or shoot at me. Nobody had. Hearing nothing breathe or move in the room, I'd turned on the light and seen him lying on the floor at the foot of the bed.

It wasn't pretty. I don't monkey with the stuff myself. Not many professionals do, although I have met a few-on both sides-who felt there was nothing like a splash of nice corrosive chemical reagent to make the most stubborn subject forget his principles and talk, if that was needed. For quick information, they'd claimed, it beat the thumbscrews and hot pokers all hollow. And as a distraction in a tight spot it was a natural, since people weren't apt to give much trouble while being painfully consumed alive.

On the other hand, acid is messy, risky to keep around, and hard to use without getting some on yourself; and the resulting burns, on flesh or clothing, are distinctive and hard to explain away. So we generally leave it to the jealous ladies who want to spoil their rivals' looks. But it had been used here, liberally and viciously. It had made brownish charred splotches on the pale motel carpet, and it had pretty well destroyed the face of the man I'd come here to check up on.

At least I thought he was the man I'd come to find, but it was a little hard to tell. He wasn't a colleague I'd ever known well, although we'd worked together briefly a couple of times, and the visible part of his face bore little resemblance to what I recalled of the agent we knew as Gregory, normally a wavy-haired, clean-cut, American-boy type who specialized in the gigolo bit and other techniques requiring youthful masculine charm. The hands, which had presumably gone up in a vain attempt to shield the face, were also seared and blistered almost beyond recognition.

He lay half across his own suitcase, which he'd pulled off the stand at the foot of the bed-or somebody had arranged things to look that way. His belongings were scattered about the floor, as if he'd flung them aside crazily, feeling for something in the bag with his burning hands. Or maybe, blinded and in agony, he'd simply lost his way, fallen over the luggage stand, and thrashed around deliriously, trying to make the bathroom to wash the fiery stuff off.

I'd stepped away from the switch, crouching, after getting light into the room. Now I straightened up slowly, but I didn't really relax, nor did I put away the little.38 Special revolver I'd neglected to declare at customs when crossing the border. First I made quite sure the room was uninhabited except by me and the motionless figure on the rug. Then I checked the closet and found it unoccupied. That left the bathroom. I stepped over Greg and made my entry in the manner recommended by the training manual. I determined that this cubicle was also empty except for the shiny new US-style plumbing. I drew a long breath, put the gun away, made sure the door to the outside world had latched properly, and returned to kneel beside Greg.

He'd been dead long enough to feel cold to the touch. Well, it takes a certain amount of time to drive five hundred miles, even with your foot flat on the floor. The acid used had been sulfuric-oil of vitriol-I judged from the fact that it gave off no seriously annoying fumes. Most of the others will set you coughing when they're concentrated enough to do that much damage.

There was a small prescription bottle by his right hand. The name on the label was Michael Green, the name he'd been using. The directions read: Take one (1) at bedtime if needed for sleep. The cap was off and the contents were missing except for a couple of yellow capsules that had got spilled among the tumbled clothing: probably the sedative known as nembutal. If you want to sound hep, you can call them yellow-jackets.

I frowned at the dead man. Apparently I-or the Canadian policeman who'd investigate this-was supposed to think that after the acid attack Greg had gone groping for his sleeping pills to kill himself, as an escape from blindness, disfigurement, and intolerable agony. I didn't believe it for a moment. Not that Greg might not have reacted in this general way-he'd been vain about his good looks-but it takes a lot of barbiturate to kill and quite a lot of time, and we carry much more effective tickets to oblivion. I made a quick search and found his, never mind where. That's a business secret, but the significant thing was that, having handy on his person a little pill that would give him death in a few seconds, if that was what he wanted, he'd hardly have gone to the trouble of tearing apart his suitcase for a clumsy substitute.

It followed that, since acid burns don't generally bring death-and then only slowly-unless very large skin areas are affected, and since making a man dripping with acid swallow a large quantity of sedative capsules isn't really practical, the vitriol thrower must have finished the job by other means. I could see no signs of direct physical violence, so he'd probably used something poisonous, tricky, hard to detect, and impossible to trace. To hell with that. I'd been sent to check on Greg, not to get caught here playing detective around his dead body.

I got up and looked around. Washington would want me to clean up as much as possible, I decided, to make the cover-up easy if it was to be handled that way. I already had the little death pill that, if discovered at the autopsy, would have revealed that Greg was something other than the innocent U.S. tourist he'd been pretending to be. There was nothing else in the room that wasn't strictly in character. Well, there wouldn't be. He'd been a little too cocky to be one of my favorite people, but there had never been any doubt that Greg was a pro, which made it all the more peculiar, his getting caught like this.

As I moved toward the door, I saw something white under a chair close by, and picked it up: a woman's white kid glove. At least it had been nice and white once. Now it was stained with brown and some other odd colors where the acid had reacted only partially with the soft, expensive leather.

I put the glove into my pocket, hoping it wouldn't eat a hole there, and slipped out into the night, silent and, I hoped, unseen.


REGINA IS a goodsized Canadian town on the great plains some hundred miles north of the border. You couldn't tell it from a U.S. prairie city if it weren't for the billboards advertising Canadian brands you never heard of-that is, in addition to such international commodities as Coke and Chevrolet. The money, I had already discovered, is Canadian dollars and cents, currently worth between five and ten per cent less than the equivalent U.S. currency; and the filling stations sell gasoline by the imperial gallon, which has five quarts instead of four. It makes your car's gas mileage look terrific until you catch on.

The night was dark and starless, with a misty promise of rain that put haloes around the neon lights of the motel and the street lights beyond. I strolled away casually, like a man with nothing on his mind and time on his hands. The little Volkswagen I'd been using in the Black Hills was parked a couple of blocks away. It was apparently the car you got these days if you were west of the Mississippi and east of California and needed four wheels for official purposes. We're not a big government agency and the budget is limited, so they can't keep the latest airconditioned Cadillacs and racing Ferraris spotted around the world for our convenience, although it would be nice.

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