***

He came through the sitting-room door with a gun in his hand-a middle-sized, neatly dressed man with wispy hair receding from a freckled forehead. He had quick eyes. An inch of clean, white cuff showed at his wrist.

'I was supposed to be gone when you got here,' he said quietly. 'The boys downstairs slipped up.'

'Sure,' I said. 'They slipped up-and I'm dancing tonight with the Ballet Russe.' I looked at the gun. 'What was I supposed to do, fall down and cry when I saw that?'

His ears turned pink. 'It was merely a precaution in the event you panicked.' He pocketed the gun, flipped back a lapel to flash some sort of badge. 'UN Police,' he stated, as though I had asked. 'Regulations require all military observers to report to UN Headquarters on arrival-as I'm sure you're aware. You're to come along with me, Mr. Bravais. General Julius wants to interview you personally.'

'When did the UN start hiring gun-punks?'

He looked angry. 'You can't make me mad, Mr. Bravais.'

'I could try. You don't shoot anybody without orders from the boss, do you?' I advanced on him, giving him the kind of grin tri-D villains practice in front of a mirror.

'I could make an exception.' His nostrils were white.

'Oh, to hell with it,' I said in a careless tone, relaxing. 'How about a drink?'

He hesitated. 'All right, Mr. Bravais. You understand that there's… nothing personal in this.'

'I guess you've got a job to do like the rest of us. You're pretty good with that holding-the-breath bit.' I grinned happily, demonstrating that I was satisfied, now that I'd shown the opposition that I was nobody's dummy.

'I planned to see the General this afternoon anyway,' I said. We had a short one and left together.

***

Brigadier General Julius was a vigorous-looking, square-jawed, blond-crew-cut type, with an almost unbelievably smooth complexion that might have earned him the nickname Baby-face, if two fierce, coal-black eyes hadn't dominated the composition. The gray UN uniform he wore had been tailored by an artist, and the three rows of service ribbons on his chest indicated that, in spite of his youthful appearance, he had been at the scene of most of the shooting wars of the past twenty years.

He was wearing the old-fashioned Sam Browne belt and engineers' boots that the UN High command liked to affect, but the hand-gun protruding from the holster at his hip wasn't a pearl-handled six-shooter; it was the latest thing in pulse-energy weapons, stark and ugly, meant for murder, not show.

'American Defense Department, eh?' He glanced at the copy of the orders Felix had managed for me, laid them to one side on the bare, highly polished desk-top. He looked me over thoughtfully. It was quiet in the office. Faraway, a voice spoke sing-song Arabic. A fly buzzed at a window.

'I just arrived this afternoon, General,' I offered. 'I took a room at the King Faisal-'

'Room 4567,' Julius said sharply. 'You were aboard BWA flight 87. I'm aware of your movements, Mr. Bravais. As UN Monitor General, I make it my business to keep informed of everything that occurs within my command.' He had a flat, unpleasant voice, at variance with the wholesome, nationally-advertised look of him.

I nodded, looking impressed. I thought about the death penalty attached to the papers in my pocket, and wondered how much more he knew. 'By golly, that's remarkable, General.'

He narrowed his eyes. I had to be careful not to overdo the act, I reminded myself.

'Makes a man wonder how you can find time for your other duties,' I added, letting a small gleam of insolence temper the bland smile I was showing him.

His eyes narrowed even further; I had the feeling that if he squeezed any harder, they would pop out like watermelon seeds.

'I manage, Mr. Bravais,' he said, holding his voice smooth. 'Just how long can we expect your visit to last?'

'Oh, I wouldn't call it a visit, General. I'm here on PCS, an indefinite tour.'

'In that case, I hope you find Tamboula to your liking. You've come at a fortunate time of year. The racing is starting next week, and of course our grouse season is in full swing.'

'I've heard a great deal about the ecological projects here,' I said. 'Quite remarkable to see woodlands springing up from the desert. But I'm afraid I'll have little time to devote to sports. My particular interest is close-support infantry tactics.'

'Mr. Bravais.' Julius raised a hand. 'The feeling seems to have gained wide currency in some quarters that conflicts such as the present one are spectacles carried out for the diversion of the curious. Such is far from the case. A political question is being resolved on the battlefield. UN control will, we trust, limit the scope of the hostilities. Undue attention by representatives of major powers is not likely to assist in that effort. I suggest you consult the official History-'

'I believe the principle of the right of observation has been too well established to require any assertion by me,' I stated.

'That is a matter quite outside my cognizance,' the General broke in. 'My responsibility is to insure that the provisions of the Manhattan Convention are adhered to. You'll understand that the presence of outsiders in the theater unduly complicates that task.' He spoke with a curious, flat intensity, watching me with an unwinking gaze, like a gunfighter waiting for the signal to go for his hip.

'General, I'm an accredited official observer; I hope you don't intend to deny me access to my subject?'

'Just what is it you wish to observe?'

'Action-at close range.'

Julius shook his head. 'That will not be possible tonight-' He stopped abruptly. I permitted myself the liberty of a grin.

'Tonight, eh?'

Julius leaned toward me. He was holding his temper pretty well, but a glint of red fire showed in his eyes.

'You will not approach closer than five miles to the line of action,' he said distinctly. 'You will report to my adjutant daily at oh-eight hundred hours and submit a schedule of your proposed movements. You will observe a nine o'clock curfew-'

I got to my feet. 'You've made a point of calling me 'mister'; if your intelligence apparatus is as good as you say, you're aware that I handle the rank of Brigadier. I haven't asked for any courtesies, and I damned sure haven't gotten any, but don't bother planning my day for me-and don't send out any more gun-handlers. I'll be on my way now, General. Just consider this a courtesy call; I'll operate on my own from now on.'

He came around the desk, strode to the door, wrenched it open, turned to face me.

'General Bravais, I cannot be responsible for your safety if you disregard my orders.' His voice had the grate of torn steel. I wondered what he'd do if he got just a little madder…

'You're not responsible for me in any event, Julius,' I snapped. 'I suggest you get back to your desk and cook up another chapter of that warmed-over, predigested, salt-free History of yours-'

He was standing rigidly, holding the glass doorknob in a firm clutch. He stiffened as I spoke, then jerked his hand away from the knob; his lip was raised, showing a row of even white teeth.

'I'm not accustomed to insolence in my own headquarters,' he grated.

I glanced down at the doorknob. The clear glass was shot through with a pattern of fracture planes.

'I guess you squeezed it too hard, General,' I said. He didn't answer. I went on down the narrow, gray-painted corridor and out into the hard, white, North African sunshine.

Chapter Two

I walked half a block at a pace just a trifle faster than the main flow. Then I re-crossed the street, slowed, and gave half a dozen grimy windows filled with moth- riddled mats and hammered brass atrocities more attention than they deserved. By the time I reached the end of the long block, I was sure: the little man with the formerly white suit and the pendulous lower lip was following me.

I moved along, doing enough dodging around vegetable carts and portable Jimii shrines to make him earn his salary. He was a clumsy technician, and working alone. That meant that it was a routine shadowing job; Julius didn't consider me to be of any special interest.

At an intersection ahead, a sidewalk juggler had collected a cluster of spectators. I put on a burst, slid through the fringe of the crowd and around the corner. I stopped, counted to ten slowly, then plunged back the way I had come, just in time to collide with my pursuer, coming up fast.

We both yelped, staggered, groped for support, disengaged, muttering excuses, and separated hurriedly. I crossed the street, did an elementary double-back through an arcade, and watched him hurry past. Then I hailed a noisily cruising helicab that had probably been condemned and sold by the City of New York Transit Authority a dozen years earlier.

I caught a glimpse of him standing on the corner looking around worriedly as we lifted off over the rooftops. I didn't waste any sympathy on him; he had been carrying a heavy solid-slug pistol under one arm, a light energy gun under the other, and at least three hypo-spray syringes under his left lapel-probably containing enough assorted poisons to suit any personality he might take a dislike to.

I took out his wallet and riffled through it; there were a couple of hundred Algerian francs, a new two cee American bill, a folded paper containing a white powder, a soiled card imprinted with the name of a firm specializing in unusual photographs, one of the photographs, a week-old horoscope, and a scrap of paper with my name scrawled on it. I didn't know whether it was Julius' handwriting or not, but there was enough of a UN watermark showing to make the question academic.

The cab dropped me in the wide plaza in front of the down-at-heels aluminum and glass Army-Navy-Air Club. I gave the driver the little man's two hundred francs. He accepted it without comment; maybe New York had thrown him in on the deal with the heli.

***

I had an hour or two to kill. It would be necessary to stay away from my room long enough to give Julius-or anyone else with an interest in my movements-adequate time to look over the evidence planted there to satisfy himself about my mission in Tamboula.

Meanwhile, food was in order. I dodged the outstretched palm of a legless fellow mounted on a wheeled board, and pushed into the cool, pastel-tinted interior of the club, where chattered conversations competed with the background throb of canned music.

Вы читаете A Plague of Demons
Добавить отзыв
ВСЕ ОТЗЫВЫ О КНИГЕ В ИЗБРАННОЕ

0

Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату
×