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By Brian Garfield
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1981 Brian Garfield
All rights reserved.
When I turned the corner I saw Leonard Ross going into Myerson's office ahead of me. By the time I reached the door I heard Ross say, "Where's Charlie?"
"Late. As usual. Shut the door."
Late. As usual. As far as I could remember — and I have phenomenal recall — there had been only one time when I had been late arriving in Myerson's office and that had been the result of a bomb scare that had grounded everything for three hours at Tempelhof. His acidulous remark had been a cheap shot. But then that was Myerson.
Ross was shutting the door in my face when I pushed in past him and kicked it closed. Ross said, "Hello, Mr. Dark."
Myerson only glanced up from the desk. Then he went on pretending to read something in a manila file folder. I said, "Welcome back, Charlie," in an effort to prompt him but he ignored it and I decided to play his silly game so I dropped my raincoat across a chair and squeezed into one of the tubular steel armchairs and perused the photos on the wall, waiting him out.
The room was stale with Myerson's illegal Havana smoke; it was a room that obviously was unnerving to youngsters like Leonard Ross because among Myerson's varied and indeterminate functions was that of hatchet man. Any audience with him might turn out to be one's last: fall into disfavor with him and one could have a can tied to one's tail at any time, Civil Service or no Civil Service; and as junior staff, Ross had no illusions about his right to tenure. I had none myself: I was there solely at Myerson's sufferance, but that was something else — he could fire me any time he chose to but he was never going to choose to because he needed me too much and he knew it.
His rudeness meant nothing; that was what passed for amiability with Myerson. I gave Ross a glance and switched it meaningfully toward a chair and finally Ross sat down, perching uneasily on the edge of it.
The view from Myerson's window isn't terribly impressive. An enormous parking lot and, beyond it, a hedgerow of half-wilted trees. Here and there you can see the tops of the high-rises around Langley.
Finally he closed the file and looked at me. "You're late."
"Would you care for a note from my mother explaining my tardiness?"
"Your sarcasms seldom amuse me."
"Then don't provoke them." pattern over Dulles."
"You are," he said, "preposterously fat."
"And you are a master of the non sequitur."
"You disgust me, do you know that?" He turned to young Ross. "He disgusts me. Doesn't he disgust you?"
Ross made embarrassed gestures and I said, "Don't put the kid on the spot. What's on?"
Myerson wasn't in a particularly savage mood, obviously, because he gave up trying to goad me with no more prompting than that. He tapped the manila folder with a fingertip. "We've got a signal from Arbuckle."
"East Africa. You really ought to try to keep up on the postings in your own department."
Ross explained to me, "Arbuckle's in Dar-es-Salaam."
Ross's impatience burst its confines and he turned to Myerson: "What's the flap, then?"
Myerson made a face. "It distresses me, Ross, that you're the only drone in this department who doesn't realize that words like 'flap' became obsolete sometime before you were born."
I said, "If you're through amusing yourself maybe you could answer the young man's question."
Myerson squinted at me; after a moment he decided not to be affronted. "As you may know, affairs in Tanzania remain sensitive. Especially since the Uganda affair. The balance is precarious — a sort of three-sided teeter-totter: ourselves, the Soviets and the Chinese. It would require only a slight upheaval to tip the bal —"
"Can't you spare us the tiresome diplomatic summaries and get down to it?"
Myerson coolly opened the file, selected a photograph and held it up on display. "Recognize the woman?"
To Ross I suppose it was only a badly focused black-and-white of a thin woman with attractive and vaguely Oriental features, age indeterminate. But I knew her well enough. "Marie Lapautre."
Ross leaned forward for a closer look. I imagine it may have been the first time he'd ever seen a likeness of the dragon lady, whose reputation in our world was something like that of John Wesley Hardin in the days of the gunslingers.
"Arbuckle reports she's been seen in the lobby of the Kilimanjaro in Dar. Buying a picture post card," Myerson added drily.
I said, "Maybe she's on vacation. Spending some of the blood money on travel like any well-heeled tourist. She's never worked that part of the world, you know."
"Which is precisely why someone might hire her if there were a sensitive job to be done there."
"That's all we've got? Just the one sighting? No evidence of a caper in progress?"
"If we wait for evidence it could arrive in a pine box. I'd prefer not to have that sort of confirmation." He scowled toward Ross. "Fidel Castro, of course, has been trying to persuade Tanzania to join him in leading the Third World toward the Moscow sphere of influence, but up to now the Nyerere regime has maintained strict neutrality. We have every reason to wish that it continue to do so. We want the status to remain quo. That's both the official line and the under-the-counter reality."
Ross was perfectly aware of all that, I'm sure, but Myerson enjoys exposition. "The Chinese aren't as charitable as we are toward neutralists," Myerson went on, "particularly since the Russian meddlings in Angola and Ethiopia. The Chinese want to increase their influence in Africa — that's confirmed in recent signals from the Far East. Add to this background the presence of Marie Lapautre in Dar-es-Salaam and I believe we must face the likelihood of an explosive event. Possibly you can forecast the nature of it as well as I can?"
The last question was addressed to me, not Ross. I rose to meet it without much effort. "Assuming you're right, I'd buy a scenario in which Lapautre's been hired to assassinate one of the top Tanzanian officials. Not Nyerere — that would provoke chaos. But one of the others. Probably one who leans toward the Russian or Chinese line."
Ross said, "What?"
I told him, "They'd want to make the assassination look like an American plot."
Myerson said, "It wouldn't take any more than that to tilt the balance over toward the East."
"Deal and double deal," Ross said under his breath in disgust.
"It's the way the game is played," Myerson told him. "If you find it repugnant I'd suggest you look for another line of work." He turned to me: "I've booked you two on the afternoon flight by way of Zurich. The assignment is to prevent Lapautre from embarrassing us."
"All right." That was the sum of my response; I didn't ask any questions. I pried myself out of the chair and reached for my coat.
Ross said, "Wait a minute. Why not just warn the Tanzanians? Tell them what we suspect. Wouldn't that get us off the hook if anything did happen?"
"Hardly," Myerson said. "It would make things worse. Don't explain it to him, Charlie — let him reason it out for himself. It should be a useful exercise for him. On your way now — you've barely got time to make your plane."
* * *
By the time we were belted into our seats Ross thought he had it worked out. "If we threw them a warning and then somebody got assassinated, it would look like we did it ourselves and tried to alibi it in advance. Is that what Myerson meant?"
"Go to the head of the class." I gave him the benediction of my saintly smile. Ross is a good kid: not stupid, merely inexperienced. He has sound instincts and good moral fibre, which is more than can be said for most of the Neanderthals in the Company. I explained, "Things are touchy in Tanzania. There's an excess of suspicion toward auslanders — they've been raided and occupied by Portuguese slave traders and German soldiers and British colonialists and you can't blame them for being xenophobes. You can't tell them things for their own good. Our only option is to neutralize the dragon lady without anyone's knowing about it."
He gave me a sidewise look. "Can we pin down exactly what we mean by that word 'neutralize'?"
I said, "Have you ever killed a woman?"
"No. Nor a man, for that matter."
"Neither have I. And I intend to keep it that way."
"You never even carry a piece, do you, Charlie."
"No. Any fool can shoot people."
"Then how can we do anything about it? We can't just ask her to go away. She's not the type that scares."
"Let's just see how things size up first." I tipped my head back against the paper antimacassar and closed my eyes and reviewed what I knew about Marie Lapautre — fact, rumor and legend garnered from various briefings and shoptalk along the corridors in Langley.
She had never been known to botch an assignment.
French father, Vietnamese mother. Born 1934 on a plantation west of Saigon. Served as a sniper in the Viet Minh forces at Dienbienphu. Ran with the Cong in the late 1960s with assignments ranging from commando infiltration to assassinations of village leaders and then South Vietnamese officials. Seconded to Peking in 1969 for specialized terrorist instruction. Detached from the Viet Cong, inducted into the Chinese Army and assigned to the Seventh Bureau — a rare honor. Seconded as training cadre to the Japanese Red Army, a terrorist gang. It was rumored Lapautre had planned the tactics for the bombings at Tel Aviv Airport in 1975. During the past seven or eight years Lapautre's name had cropped up at least a dozen times in reports I'd seen dealing with unsolved assassinations in Laos, Syria, Turkey, Libya, West Germany, Lebanon and elsewhere.
Marie Lapautre's weapon was the rifle. At least seven of the unsolved assassinations had been effected with long-range fire from Kashkalnikov sniper rifles — the model known to be Lapautre's choice.
She was forty-five years old, five feet four, one hundred and five pounds, black hair and eyes, mottled burn scar on back of right hand. Spoke five languages, including English. Ate red meat barely cooked when the choice was open. She lived between jobs in a 17th century villa on the Italian Riviera — a home she had bought with funds reportedly acquired from hire-contract jobs as a freelance. Five of the seven suspected assassinations with Kashkalnikovs had been bounty jobs and the other two probably had been unpaid because she still held a commission in Peking's Seventh Bureau.
We had met, twice and very briefly; both times on neutral ground — once in Singapore, once in Teheran. In Singapore it had been a diplomatic reception; the British attaché had introduced us and stood by watching with amusement while we sized each other up like rival gladiators but it had been nothing more than a few minutes of inconsequential pleasantries and then she had drifted off on the arm of a Malaysian black marketeer.
The files on her were slender and all we really knew was that she was a professional with a preference for the 7.62mm Kashkalnikov and a reputation for never missing a score. By implication I added one other thing: if Lapautre became aware of the fact that two Americans were moving in to prevent her from completing her present assignment she wouldn't hesitate to kill us — and naturally she would kill us with proficient dispatch.
* * *
The flight was interminable. I ate at least five meals. We had to change planes in Zurich and from there it was another nine hours. I noticed that Ross was having trouble keeping his eyes open by the time we checked into the New Africa Hotel.
It had been built by the Germans when Tanganyika had been one of the Kaiser's colonies and it had been rebuilt by Africans to encourage business travel; it was comfortable enough and I'd picked it mainly for the food, but it happened to be within easy walking distance of the Kilimanjaro where Lapautre had been spotted. Also, unlike the luxurious Kilimanjaro, the New Africa had a middle-class businessman's matter of factness and one didn't need to waste time trying to look like a tourist.
The change in time zones seemed to bewilder Ross. He stumbled groggily when we went along to the shabby export office that housed the front organization for Arbuckle's soporific East Africa station.
A fresh breeze came off the harbor. I've always liked Dar; it's a beautiful port, ringed by palm-shaded beaches and colorful villas on the slopes. Some of the older buildings bespeak a dusty poverty but the city is more modern and energetic than anything you'd expect to find near the equator on the shore of the Indian Ocean. There are jams of hooting traffic on the main boulevards. Businessmen in various shadings: Europeans, turbaned Arabs, madrassed Asians, black Africans in tribal costumes. Now and then a four-by-four lorry growls by carrying a squad of soldiers but the place hasn't got that air of police-state tension that makes the hairs crawl on the back of my neck in countries like Paraguay and East Germany. It occurred to me as we reached Arbuckle's office that we hadn't been accosted by a single beggar.
It was crowded in among cubbyhole curio shops selling African carvings and cloth. Arbuckle was a tall man, thin and bald and nervous; inescapably he was known in the Company as Fatty. He had one item to add to the information we'd arrived with: Lapautre was still in Dar.
"She's in room four eleven at the Kilimanjaro but she takes most of her dinners in the dining room at the New Africa. They've got better beef."
"Yeah, you would. Watch out you don't bump into her there. She must have seen your face in dossiers."
"We've met a couple of times. But I doubt she'd know Ross by sight."
Ross was grinding knuckles into his eye sockets. "Sometimes it pays to be unimportant."
"Hang onto that thought," I told him. When we left the office I added, "You'd better go back to the room and take the cure for that jet lag."
"What about you?"
"Chores and snooping. And dinner, of course. I'll see you at breakfast. Seven o'clock."
"You going to tell me what the program is?"
"I see no point discussing anything at all with you until you've had a night's sleep."
"Don't you ever sleep?"
"When I've got nothing better to do."
I watched him slouch away under the palms. Then I went about my business.
* * *
The breakfast layout was a nice array of fruits, juices, breads, cold cuts. I had heaped a plate full and begun to consume it when Ross came puffy-eyed down to the second-floor dining room and picked his way through the mangoes and sliced ham. He eats like a bird.
The room wasn't crowded; a sprinkling of businessmen and a few Americans in safari costumes that appeared to have been tailored in Hollywood. I said mildly to Ross when he sat down, "I picked the table at random," by which I meant that it probably wasn't bugged. I tasted the coffee and made a face; you'd think they could make it better — after all they grow the stuff there. I put the cup down. "All right. We've got to play her cagey and careful. If anything blows loose there won't be any cavalry to rescue us."
"Did you think you were here just to feed me straight lines, Ross?"
"Well, I kind of figured I was mainly here to hold your coat. On-the-job training, you know."
"It's a two-man job. Actually it's a six-man job but the two of us have got to carry it."
"Wonderful. Should I start practicing my quick draw?"
"If you'd stop asking droll questions we'd get along a little faster."
"All right. Proceed, my general."
"First the backgrounding. We're jumping to a number of conclusions based on flimsy evidence but it can't be helped." I enumerated them on my fingers. "We assume, one, that she's here on a job and not just to take pictures of elephants. Two, that it's a Seventh Bureau assignment. Three, that the job is to assassinate someone — after all, that's her principal occupation. Four, that the target may be a government leader here, but not Nyerere. We don't know the timetable so we have to assume, five, that it could happen at any moment. Therefore we must act quickly. Are you with me so far?"
"So far, sure."
"We assume, six, that the local Chinese station is unaware of her mission."
"Why should we assume that?"
"Because they're bugging her room."
Ross gawked at me.
I am well past normal retirement age and I'm afraid it is not beneath me to gloat at the weaknesses of the younger generations. I said, "I didn't waste the night sleeping."
Excerpted from Checkpoint Charlie by Brian Garfield. Copyright © 1981 Brian Garfield. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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