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Mrs. Pollifax had attended church that Sunday morning, and her hat--a garden of pale pink roses and green leaves--still sat on her head as she ate lunch in the sunny kitchen of her apartment. She had a tendency to be absent-minded lately about hats--in fact since beginning karate lessons she had become forgetful about a number of things--and since she would be going out again soon she had anticipated the problem by placing her hat where it could not possibly be left behind. This freed her mind for more important matters, such as a review of pressure points, or how to unbalance an assailant with an elbow-upward strike.
But Mrs. Pollifax was conscientious by nature, and if her karate textbook lay to the right of the sugar bowl, the Sunday edition of the Times lay on its left. She sighed faintly over her choice but it was the Times to which she turned first, carefully unfolding its front page for a quick scanning of the headlines. ENEMY AGENT DEFECTS IN ISTANBUL, THEN VANISHES, she read. Woman Had Sought Sanctuary in British Consulate, Mysteriously Disappears.
"Well!" exclaimed Mrs. Pollifax delightedly, and promptly forgot both lunch and karate.
Some months earlier a small episode of espionage had inserted itself like an exclamation point in Mrs. Pollifax's long, serene and unpunctuated life. Once it had ended--and she had enjoyed every moment of it--she had resumed her quiet existence with a sense of enrichment, of having added a dimension to her thoughts that could only be described as a chuckle. That chuckle was present now as she plunged into the news story, for not only was the defecting agent a woman but her past was so lengthy that Mrs. Pollifax guessed that fewer than six years separated them in age.
How very astonishing, she thought, reacting with the fascination of an amateur confronted by her professional counterpart. The news account promised a biography of the woman--Mrs. Pollifax's glance longingly caressed it--but with an exercise of will she saved it for the last.
The woman had leaped into the news by suddenly and mysteriously arriving at the British Consulate in Istanbul, breathless and ragged, to beg for help. After identifying herself as Magda Ferenci-Sabo she had been put to bed at once--at ten o'clock on a summer evening--with a sedative and a cup of tea. In the morning she had vanished, and this was all that the consul--tight-lipped and shaken--allowed himself to say, but rumors swept Istanbul that she had been abducted.
This in itself was front page news, and Mrs. Pollifax eagerly turned to the details of Magda Ferenci-Sabo's life. There were a surprising number, for an enterprising journalist had pieced together a great many old news items, adding suppositions and conclusions that alternately shocked and educated Mrs. Pollifax, who had been a spy quite by accident and for only a few brief weeks. "As an international beauty of the thirties, Ferenci-Sabo appeared at all the right places with the wrong people," commented the author of the article, and there was a blurred picture of her--all teeth and long hair--laughing on a beach with Mussolini. Then there were the marriages: first a French playboy mysteriously killed a year after the honeymoon (the journalist managed to suggest that he had been murdered by his bride); a wealthy German who later became a high official in the Nazi party; and at length a Hungarian Communist writer name Ferenci-Sabo, who was murdered in 1956 by freedom fighters. Following this the woman had disa ppeared--into Russia, it was believed, where it was rumored that she was actively involved in the INU.
"What an extraordinary woman," mused Mrs. Pollifax; and obviously a ruthless one as well. She wondered what such a woman thought about when the lovers and husbands had departed, leaving her alone with her thoughts, and she wondered what her motives might be in defecting now. It seemed a curious moment for such a leap. What could possibly have filled her with revulsion now?
Reluctantly Mrs. Pollifax put aside both speculations and newspaper because it was--she glanced at the clock on the wall--almost two o'clock of a Sunday afternoon, and before leaving for the Garden Club film (Gardens of the Mediterranean) she wanted to compose a grocery list for the week. She reached for pencil and notebook and had just begun to concentrate when the telephone rang. List in hand she walked into the livingroom and before picking up the receiver added EGGS, ORANGE JUICE. "Hello," she said absently, and suddenly remembered that she had promised cookies for the Art Association tea next Sunday.
"Mrs. Pollifax?" said a bright young voice. "Mrs. Emily Pollifax?"
"Speaking," said Mrs. Pollifax, and carefully wrote sugar, vanilla, walnuts.
"One moment please ..."
A man's voice said, "Good afternoon, Mrs. Pollifax, I'm certainly glad to have found you at home."
The point of Mrs. Pollifax's pencil snapped as she caught her breath sharply. This was a voice that she recognized at once, and a voice she had not expected to hear again. "Why, Mr. Carstairs!" she cried warmly. "How very nice to hear from you!"
"Thank you," he said graciously. "You've been well?"
"Yes--very, thank you."
"Good. I wonder if I might ask two questions of you then that will save us both invaluable time."
"Why not?" said Mrs. Pollifax reasonably. "Except I can't think of anything you don't already know about me."
Carstairs said pleasantly, "I don't know, for instance, if you would be immediately available--or even interested--in doing another job of work for me."
Mrs. Pollifax's heart began to beat very quickly. Split second decisions had never been her forte and she did not want to say yes without first remembering what Mr. Carstairs' work involved but on the other hand if a split second decision was necessary she did not want to say no, either. "Yes," she said recklessly, and promised herself the luxury of thinking about it later.
"Good," said Carstairs. "Question number two: are you free to leave immediately?"
"Immediately?" repeated Mrs. Pollifax, stung by the urgency of the words. "Immediately!" Of course he wasn't serious.
"I can give you thirty minutes."
"To decide whether I can leave immediately?"
"No, to leave."
Mrs. Pollifax was incredulous. Her glance fell to her grocery list, and then moved to the unwashed dishes on the counter in the kitchen; they at least were real. They would also, she remembered, take at least ten minutes to wash and put away. "But where?" she gasped. "For how long?"
Carstairs' voice was patient as if he realized the shock engendered by any such staggering rearrangements of a person's time concepts. "Put it this way," he suggested. "Have you any absolutely vital commitments during the next few days, say between today--Sunday--and Sunday a week?"
"Only my karate lessons," said Mrs. Pollifax. "And then of course I'm to pour at the Art Association tea next Sunday."
"An interesting combination," said Carstairs dryly. "You did say karate?"
"Yes indeed," admitted Mrs. Pollifax with a rush of enthusiasm. "I've been enjoying it enormously and I rather think that Lorvale--retired police sergeant Lorvale Brown--is quite shaken by my success." She stopped, appalled. "What on earth would I tell people? How would I explain my--just dashing off?"
"Your daughter-in-law in Chicago will have to be ill," said Carstairs. "We can, for instance, monitor any long distance calls that your son might get from New Brunswick, New
Jersey--but that's a problem we'll work out. Count on us."
"Yes," said Mrs. Pollifax, and took a deep breath. "Then I daresay I'd better hang up and get started. I'd better do something. Something," she added wanly.
"There will be a police car at your door in precisely twenty-two minutes. The call went through to them the moment you said yes--"
"How is Bishop?" asked Mrs. Pollifax fondly.
"--and in the meantime pack a small bag for a few days of travel. You'll be getting briefed within the hour. And now Godspeed, I leave you with twenty minutes in which to get ready."
"Yes," gasped Mrs. Pollifax, and to her first mental list--knit suit, pink dress--added: cancel newspaper and milk deliveries, notify janitor, Lorvale, Miss Hartshorne ...
"Goodbye, Mrs. Pollifax," said Carstairs, and abruptly rang off.
Mrs. Pollifax slowly put down the receiver and stared at it. "Well!" she exclaimed softly, reflecting upon how quickly life could change, and then in a surprised voice, "Well!" Her gaze fell on the clock and she jumped to her feet and began clearing away the lunch dishes: it gave her something to do. By the time that she had rinsed the dishes there was suddenly a great deal to do. She changed quickly into her navy blue knit suit, immediately placed the flowered hat on her head again, and packed walking shoes, cold cream and travel kit. She telephoned the dairy and then the newsman, and last of all Lorvale.
"I'm off on a little trip, Lorvale," she explained. "My daughter-in-law in Chicago needs me for a few days. I'm terribly sorry but I shall have to miss my Thursday lesson."
"I'm sorry, too," he said reproachfully. "You won't have a chance to practice your omo-tude, will you."
"No, Lorvale," she agreed solemnly.
Her note to Miss Hartshorne was the more difficult because Miss Hartshorne lived across the hall and had met Mrs. Pollifax's son and daughter-in-law at Christmas. The note had to be couched in dramatic enough terms to explain Mrs. Pollifax's precipitous departure--thus canceling a lunch date with her--yet contain just enough information so that Miss Hartshorne would not unduly worry over Roger's wife and telephone Chicago to express her concern.
When the knock came upon her door Mrs. Pollifax was at the telephone again, having nearly forgotten the Art Association tea on Sunday. "Come in, it's unlocked," she called, and turned to nod at the young man who entered her living- room--he was undoubtedly the plainclothes policeman sent by Mr. Carstairs. "It's my taxi," she blandly told the president of the Art Association. "Goodbye, dear."
"You're Mrs. Pollifax?" said the young man as she hung up.
"Yes, and you're--"
"Lieutenant Mullin. The car's outside. This your bag?"
"Oh--thank you." Mrs. Pollifax picked up her purse, hesitated and turned to glance with finality at her dear, familiar apartment. For the first time she allowed herself to compare the world that she was leaving--safe, secure and predictable--with the world she was about to enter, and about the latter she could know nothing at all except that it was certain to prove insecure, difficult and totally unpredictable. "At my age," she murmured doubtfully, and then she recalled that at her age, less than a year ago, she had been held captive in an Albanian prison for a week, and before she led an escape party to the Adriatic those seven days had proven extremely informative and lively: she had met two Red Chinese generals, a Russian spy, and a rogue of an American agent. It was quite unlikely that she would have met them in New Brunswick, New Jersey. It was the quality of a life that mattered, not its quantity, she reflected; and recalling this she straightened her shoulders.
"We're in a hurry," Mullin reminded her.
"Yes," said Mrs. Pollifax, took a deep breath and followed him out into the hall, closing the door firmly behind her. She slipped her note to Miss Hartshorne under the door of apartment 4-C and with this act, at once so final and so irrevocable, all doubts fell from her and she experienced a sudden exhilaration. She had committed herself to another small adventure: something was going to happen.
The elevator door slid open at the first floor, Mullin hastened ahead to hold the outer glass door for her, and they walked into the sticky heat of a July afternoon. The unmarked police car was parked at the curb, next to the No Parking sign, with a second man at the wheel. Mrs. Pollifax was no sooner seated, with Mullin beside her, when the driver's foot hit the accelerator, a hidden siren began to scream, and Mrs. Pollifax, clinging to her flowered hat, was startled into delight. How marvelous to be involved in so much haste, she thought, and was not even dismayed when she found herself suddenly gazing into the eyes of her astonished pastor, who barely escaped the racing car by jumping back to the curb. "C'est la vie," she called out gaily, fluttering her hand at him, and then they were leaving the city behind, cars scattering to right and left at the sound of the siren. Moments later they entered the gates of the small local airport. The police car bounced across the field and came to a screaming halt in front of a helicopter whose blades were already beating the air. Mrs. Pollifax, clinging desperately to her hat now, was boosted into the copter, and almost before she had reworked her hatpins the helicopter was landing at a very busy and much larger airfield.
They appeared to be expected: a man in a wrinkled beige suit left a waiting car and raced toward them. "Mrs. Pollifax?" he shouted up at her.
"Yes," she screamed back, and was dropped from the cockpit into his arms.
"Over here," he said, grasping her elbow. "They're holding the plane. Jamison's my name."
"Yes, but where am I going?" she gasped.
"Later." He hurried her into the car, which immediately tore off with a squeal of tires.
"Then where am I now?" demanded Mrs. Pollifax.
"Kennedy International," he told her. "You did very well time-wise, but that plane over there is waiting just for us and they've already held up the flight five minutes."
"Flight for where?" asked Mrs. Pollifax again.
"Washington. Carstairs wants to brief you personally before you leave the country."
So she was to leave the country; Mrs. Pollifax felt that shiver of the irrevocable again, of forces in motion that could no longer be halted, and then the reaction passed as swiftly as it had arrived. The car stopped, the door was thrown open and Mrs. Pollifax was hurried up steps and into the plane, where she and Jamison were belted into their seats at once. Before Mrs. Pollifax had sufficiently caught her breath they were landing again.
"Dulles Airport," contributed Jamison with authority, and once they had reached the terminal he guided her through the building to the parking area. "Here we are," he said, pointing to a long black limousine, and from it emerged Carstairs, tall, thin, his shock of crew-cut hair pure white against his tanned face.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Pollifax," he said gravely, as if they had met only yesterday and she had not been spirited to his side in less than an hour.
"I'm delighted to see you," said Mrs. Pollifax, clasping his hand warmly. "It's seemed such a long time. How have things been going?"
Carstairs said cheerfully, "Abominably, as always." He gestured toward a stolid-looking young man in a dark suit and black tie. "I'd like you to meet Henry Miles first."
"How do you do," said Mrs. Pollifax politely.
"Henry is going to be traveling behind you but not with you, and it's important you know what the other looks like."
"Behind me?" echoed Mrs. Pollifax as they shook hands.
"He's keeping an eye on you," explained Carstairs, and added with a faint smile, "This time I'm taking no chances with you. All right, Jamison, take Henry off to seat 22 and make sure that plane doesn't get away!" To Mrs. Pollifax he said, "You're about to depart for the Near East. Come and sit in my car, we've only fifteen minutes in which to talk."