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Authors: Richard S. Prather

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BOOK: Pattern for Panic
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I jerked my head and felt his knuckles slam across my ear, then I buried my left in his gut, and as he bent in the middle I sliced the edge of my right palm over his kidney. I leaned aside, bringing my left hand across my chest; I started to swing and finish him off when something scraped my cheek and thudded into my shoulder. My left arm suddenly felt paralyzed.

The slicker was nearly out of commission, but for a moment I didn't realize the blow had come from behind me. When I did, I spun around with my right arm already swinging. I saw him just before my fist landed—a tall guy, with a big club-like nightstick raised over his head—and then my fist landed against his mouth with all the weight of my turning body behind it.

He went down on his fanny, not out but close to it, shook his head, spat out a couple of teeth and managed to get up. I hit him good, on the point of the chin, and he was out when he went down this time. I finally got a good look at him and saw the uniform. A cop.

I didn't have time to wonder about it, because I was worrying about the slicker behind me—and then it didn't matter because all the cops in the world were charging at me waving guns and clubs, and yelling things. Maybe it was only half a dozen or so, but it looked like the whole Mexican police force, and then they were clubbing me vigorously and it was all over except for a number of bumps on my head.

Chapter Three

I sat up on the cot, felt my bumps, and looked around at my miserable cell. The more I felt my bumps, the madder I got.

After the clubbing, I'd come to just before the million cops guided me into the Londres Street jail. At least Monique had gotten in touch with Amador—who was still out on his goofy errand about a Countess and naughty pictures of some kind. About half an hour after he'd left me, when I was beginning to think he must have returned to his opium den, he came back to my cell. Alone.

“Hello, Countess,” I said. I was in a nasty mood.

“She's here.” Amador grinned. “She's not really a countess. I just call her that because she looks to me like a countess ought to look. She's really the General's wife. You know General Lopez?"

I started getting interested. “Sure. I guess everybody in Mexico does.” He was one of the big boys in the Mexican Army, a brigadier general with his name often in the papers. He was a great advocate of a bigger army, constantly urged stronger laws against internal subversion, and spent most of his free time attacking the Communist conspiracy. Time and again he had stated the truth bluntly: that every Communist, wherever he might be found outside Russia, was part of the advance army of a foreign power, a member of the Kremlin's fifth column. Recognizing this, the General consistently advocated everything from horse-whipping to jail to execution for Mexico's open, and underground, Reds. Consequently, as with anyone who openly attacks the conspiracy, the General himself had been violently attacked—often from surprising and ostensibly respectable sources.

“What about the General?” I asked.

“Well, she's his wife, as I tell you—incidentally she'll be back here in a minute. I better make it fast, so here's the deal. General Lopez, he's a busy man, committees and stuff. He spends about four nights a week away from home, meetings and so on, and sometimes his wife goes out too. Only to different places. You follow me?"

“So far."

“Well, one night I meet her—I don't know who she is then, I'd have run if I did, but she's got that hungry look at me, see? So we go around. I spend most of the night with her. And then some other times also. Ah, she is a very classy señora.” He dwelt on her class for a minute, then said, “What it finally boils down to is she has me arrange for other guys—dates, you know—to be with her the same way. Guys she'd never meet ordinary, see? Guys in different circles."

I was beginning to see all too clearly. Amador filled in some details, then frowned. “What happens is, I get careless and meet her to a lemon. And this lemon takes her to his place and that's all there is to it—she thinks. Only it isn't. The guy had pictures of all of it—not little snapshots, but a movie—and so far it's cost her a hundred thousand pesos to keep the thing from her husband."

“Uh-huh. Messy. You know the guy, then?"

“Not exactly. That's where I get careless. We become acquainted in a bar and have drinks a few times. He seems a very lively fellow. Anyway, after the blackmail thing the Countess comes screaming at me—she thinks
I
am in with this guy. I swear on all the saints I am not, I am innocent. She is not convinced—I have introduced her to him, she says I am in it. I swear some more and say not only am I innocent but I know a most clever person who can dissolve all her trouble instantly, which will prove I'm not in it."

I nodded. “Yeah. And this most clever person..."

“You, who else?” He went on quickly, “She calms down somewhat, and even more so when I tell her you are from
los Estados Unidos.
This is good. She's got her kisser in lots of society pages, and the big shots and even enormous shots are friends of hers. Better that some stupid foreigner works for her, see? Somebody nobody knows here in Mexico."

“And I am this clever-stupid foreigner."

“Exactly. Besides, there is another item. Before coming screaming at me, she has paid once for the films and then done some checking on this fellow—he is one Jaime Guerara. He has been in jail many years ago for extortion, and both before then and since participated in many of these front things for the
comunistas.
"

“He's a Commie?"

Amador shrugged. “Who knows? You ask a
comunista
is he a
comunista
and always he says hell no, you are crazy, I am a loyal Mexican. But he has been in many of the front things. Right now, he is nowhere to be found. No phone in the book, no address, no nothing. He has vanished."

“Is that what you were trying to tell me on the phone?"

“Sure. When I tell the Countess you are also an expert on the
comunistas,
she is sold on you and I phone you. Don't you recall? I explained it all clearly."

I let it go. “How come a movie? Why not snapshots? That's an old enough gimmick."

He shrugged again. “I dunno. Sometimes maybe you can fake the little pictures. But this is no fake, that's for sure. The General sees this he will chew off his chin, that's also for sure."

I sighed. “And that's the little item I'm supposed to find?"

"Sí.
That's what you're here for,
amigo.
When the Countess say O.K., for me to get you here, we figure there's more time, we will all meet Sunday—but only today there is another call from somebody about the blackmailing. Time is vanishing rapidly.” He paused. “And, listen, I tell the Countess—I mean Señora Lopez—you are the best damn
norteamericano
detective in the whole hemisphere. According to me you are practically the whole U.S.A. F.B.I. You are so intelligent you find anything at all with no trouble."

“Like a cop's teeth. You didn't tell her I was J. Edgar Hoover, did you?"

“Not exactly. But you better convince her you're his assistant. I mean, if you want out of this
cárcel.
Unless you can do what she brings you down here for, why should she get you out?"

“Now that I think of it, I am J. Edgar Hoover's assistant."

He looked at his watch. “I better get up front and bring her back.” He frowned. “This maybe is kind of embarrassing for her."

“I'm not going to give her the holier-than-thou bit, Amador."

“Yeah, sure. How could you? I'm probably lucky you're not in the picture.” He grinned and took off. In half a minute a jailer unlocked the cell door and Amador came inside, preceded by my client. Potential client.

Señora Lopez, in high heels, was the same height as Amador, slim enough, and shapely. She was dressed in a black suit, and a black hat with a thick veil covering her face, and from what I could see, she was a classy vegetable. She paused inside the cell for a moment, standing very straight, as the jailer locked the three of us in. Then she stepped toward me, extending her hand.

I took it and said, “How do you do?"

“You are Mr. Scott, the famous detective?” Her voice was throaty, but soft.

“Fam—yes, ma'am. That's me.” I motioned toward the cot, the only furniture in the cell.

She sank down upon it, then patted a spot near her and said, “Sit down, please.” All her movements were easy, graceful.

I sat beside her and Amador leaned against the rough wall. The light was dim, but enough filtered in from outside so that we could see each other.

She said softly, “Señor Montalba has told you, I believe, of my—difficulty.” She didn't wait for an answer, but went on, “If you will help me, I shall arrange for your release. Señor Montalba has assured me that you are very—capable."

Amador broke in. “He is one hell of a detective, Señora. He is a legend in
los Estados Unidos.
A fantastic legend. You tell her, Shell."

“Well,” I said, “uh, yes, I'm, uh—"

“We shall see. The situation is this.” She talked slowly, softly, for almost five minutes. What it boiled down to was that she had been mailed four photographic enlargements and a film strip of ten frames, all depicting a scene with which she was more than somewhat familiar. She was advised by phone that the original film would be hers for fifty thousand pesos. The alternative was that the film would be made available to General Lopez, her husband. She paid, and received the roll of film by mail. But then the process was repeated. She paid again. Earlier today she had received still a third phone call—the same old story. This time she had balked at submitting to further extortion. The voice on the phone had calmly said that in that case there was no more to discuss. She could continue further discussions with her husband in the morning—or read the details in the papers. She had started to protest, even mentioned that tomorrow she could get the money, but her caller had hung up.

I said, “They didn't seem interested when you suggested you might pay later?"

“No."

“The voice on the phone. Was it a man or a woman?"

“A man. And I am sure he meant me threat. He did not really seem interested in further payment. It is almost as if he wished to destroy me."

I thought a minute. “Or possibly your husband? Would the General be—that is—"

“It would be tragic,” she said calmly. She paused, then turned more toward me. She raised her hands and lifted the veil from her face, laid it back over her hat and looked directly at me.

Her eyes were large and dark, with extremely long black lashes, her cheekbones high and prominent, the mouth wide, with a look of moist warmth. She had a subdued, exotic beauty, a faintly Slavic appearance. Looking at me, she said, “Mr. Scott, I should like to say this. My husband is much away from me, and often I believe there is no real need for him to be away—though he is very busy with his meetings and committees. I wish you to understand, at least a little. I should not have this difficulty, but it is not fair ... he has much of his life away from me, and it is all right because he is a man. In Mexico this is often so, but I am not Mexican.” She paused. “Can you understand?"

“I think so.” I smiled at her. “At least a little."

She bit her lip, frowning slightly, then pulled the veil back over her face. She sighed and said, “There must be truth and trust between a man and woman before they can be man and wife. Even though I have this trouble, I do love my husband deeply. It is of the greatest importance that you help me. If he learns of this, it will be a great tragedy, for both my husband and myself. Perhaps for you also."

I didn't get that last bit, but I said, “I believe I understand, Señora. I'll do anything I can."

We all spent another five minutes in the cell, during which time she told me the fifty thousand pesos she was to have paid the blackmailer would be mine if I could help her. Then she went out to the desk to pull strings, while Amador stayed behind with me.

I said, “I'm not out yet. But it looks like you produced."

“Is possible. I'm a great producer. Maybe I should be in Hollywood.” He licked his lips and played with his mustache again. “Is, uh, a funny thing, Shell. You better find that movie thing. Listen. The General plays around some, but he is one jealous general. You know, is O.K. for him, but not for the lady. Comprehend?"

I comprehended. The General was a normal male.

Amador said, “He'll do anything his wife asks him, just about. But once he sees that picture he's not gonna do anything except hit her over the head. So you better find this film."

“I don't follow you exactly."

“Well, the Countess, she hasn't got so much pull. But the General has an abundance, and he does most anything she wants. And it's the General that's gonna get you out, if you get out."

I blinked at him for some time while that sank in.

“Yes,” said Amador, “that's what she's doing now. The General won't know
why
she wants you out, that is apparent. If he did, no telling. He's got one terrible temper. Might shoot the both of you.” He laughed.

“What the hell are you laughing at? That's not funny."

“Is very funny,” he said. “What I mean, you better find the thing before he sees it—or you be back in here very quickly."

I nodded, dumbly.

“You have to work fast, too, because it looks like maybe he sees it tonight. One of his party things, pretty wild."

And right then, when I wanted to hear much more, a cop came down to the cell, unlocked it, and I was free to leave. The cop was my friend, Toothless—Captain Emilio. He looked very unhappy as he told me I could get the hell out.

He grabbed my arm as I stepped from the cell. “You,” he said. “You not going to be out long; I get you back in here for good. Nobody gets away with nothing with me. You understand?"

“Yeah,” I told him. “And I understand something else: you've still got some teeth. Let the hell go of my arm."

BOOK: Pattern for Panic
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