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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Hamilton Donald
 

«The Silencers», Donald Hamilton

I

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:

 

DANGER-PELIGRO

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."


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