OLD ACQUAINTANCE

In the airport gift shop, next to the glass display case where they kept the cigarette lighters and the sunglasses and the enameled key chains, there was a circular rack of postcards, garish and glittering, like a science fiction Christmas tree.  Guinness ran his hand down a row of shining pictures of girls on water skis and mansions dripping with bougainvillea, went on to the next row, and the next, and finally picked one out, a full color glossy of a brick building that might have been anything, anywhere.  He turned it over. 

“U.S.  Post Office, Greenville, South Carolina.”  The description was printed in the upper left hand corner.  Yes, that would do.  It would give all the humorless boobies in Coding something upon which to exercise their ingenuity.  He scribbled a Washington postal address on the back and put the card down on the blue tufted pad, like a square of Astroturf, next to the cash register, along with a pack of gum, a little foil envelope of smoked almonds, and a five dollar bill. 

“I’d like a stamp for that, please,” he said, smiling as if the woman behind the counter were in on the joke.  She didn’t answer, didn’t even look up.  She just made him his change and pitched out a tiny chip of greenish paper from a compartment in the register drawer, exactly as if she were part of the mechanism.  So much for southern hospitality. 

Guinness slipped the postcard into his coat pocket, along with the gum and his change, and tore open the packet of nuts.  He began shaking them out into his mouth, one at a time, chewing them slowly as he flipped through a copy of a magazine called Sandlapper, and pretended to read parts of an article on lake fishing while he studied the faces of his fellow former passengers as they hurried past him to collect their luggage and then to scatter in all directions, like beads of mercury. 

He hadn’t really wanted a welcoming committee.  If anyone south of the District of Columbia even knew that he was in this state, it could mean no end of bad trouble.  But there wasn’t any particular reason to believe anyone did. 

Still, it wasn’t a profession in which you survived to retirement by depending on what it was reasonable to believe, so Guinness kept a weather eye. 

He hadn’t seen any alarmingly familiar faces, anyone he might have read about in one of the company’s earnestly lurid dossiers, but it never happened like that anyway.  By the time the types you had to worry about were that well known, they were either dead somewhere or had acquired a stable of anonymous flunkies to do the bread and butter stuff for them.  No, the guy who walked up behind you while you were waiting in line to use the john, the one who got close enough to put a knife in your kidney, would be someone as unknown to you as the dark side of the moon. 

Besides, he had only just arrived—it wasn’t likely the thing had been leaked that fast.  Ignoring the wall clock almost directly in front of him, he pulled back the cuff of his jacket to check the time.  His flight had only been in for 7½ minutes; probably the wheels were still smoking.  Six hours ago, without a thought in the world of anything below the Virginia state line, he had still been having breakfast at the International House of Pancakes across the street from the apartment they rented for him to live in when he was between jobs and pretending to be deeply involved in research at the Folger Library. 

That wasn’t quite fair.  It wasn’t just a cover.  Sometimes he really believed in it; he would write his book on Vaughan and the tradition of the religious lyric, and he would go back to teaching.  Someday.  If he lived. 

And today wasn’t his day to be set up for the kill.  This was too low grade an operation for any tales to be told out of school.  No highly placed Washington fink was likely to risk his ass for the likes of Flycatcher, no matter what hype Ernie had tried to feed him—they always wanted to make it sound as if doomsday were right over the horizon. 

“Just nose around a bit,” Ernie Tuttle had said, waggling his hand suggestively over a couple of glasses of twelve year old scotch in his new office on G Street, right across the way from the National Gallery—since retiring from fieldwork Ernie had really started to move up in the world, had become quite a collector of symbols—“and if this turns out to be Flycatcher’s show, close it down and pull his chain for him.  He’s on a lot of people’s lists around here, ever since that fiasco in Tunis when Osterhauser got his spine shot in half.  They don’t much like the idea of a thug like that operating right here inside our shining republic.  It makes people nervous.”

Poor Ernie.  He was the closest thing in the world Guinness had to a friend, and already he was starting to sound like a bureaucrat, after only a little over a year in from playing cowboys and Indians. 

A thug like that.  Guinness wasn’t drawing any morals, since no doubt he was on a few lists himself.  And if Osterhauser, whom he had known only slightly and who had struck him as a born fuck up, had ended up on a stainless steel slab with a tag on his big toe, that was probably his own damn fault.  If they wanted Flycatcher dead, that was fine.  Taking care of things like that was very much Guinness’s line of country; he was their boy for it and would kill all the Flycatchers in North America for them.  Just as long as they didn’t ask him to pretend he was Sir Artegall. 

He returned the magazine to the rack and picked out another, not even bothering to look at its title, which turned out to be Popular Mechanics.  On page 137 there was a plan for a wind driven electric generator that was supposed to do wonderful things for your utility bill—he stared at it for a long moment, trying to pay attention to what the picture captions said, but it was no use.  They might as well have been written in Sanskrit. 

Flycatcher.  Except that he was the type to put the lights out on a wonderful fellow like Osterhauser, nobody had much of an idea what kind of a thug he was.  He was one of the anonymous ones, assigned a code name only within the last three or four years, after it had become clear that a number of apparently unconnected operations were all the work of a single hand.  A composite figure, a patchwork of random facts and inference—almost more a collection of symptoms than a man. 

And yet a man, killable.  He was human, he could die. 

There was enough to suggest at least as much as that.  Just a few partial fingerprints and a single photograph, taken at some distance, of a tall, skinny, light-haired chap with his face turned three quarters of the way away from the camera as he got into a car; it could have been any tall, skinny, fair-haired chap in the world.  But still pretty obviously a fellow mortal.  He would die easily enough when Guinness put a bullet in him. 

A mystery, though.  Without a real name.  There didn’t even seem to be any clear consensus about the identity of his present employers. 

And finally, did he have any loyalties higher than to the almighty dollar?  Perhaps there was an indication here and there of contact with several of the more prominent left wing European terrorist groups, but that didn’t mean a damn—he might just as easily be on the payroll with MI6, and they simply might not have gotten around to mentioning it to anybody.  You never knew with the freelances. 

Well, Guinness hoped he enjoyed his anonymity.  In the end it wouldn’t save him. 

Guinness squinted out into the corridor from behind the gift shop’s glass wall and, not finding anyone markedly long and stringy in his line of vision, frowned.  No one, apparently, was going to make this one easy for him, but when did they ever?  Doubtless he hadn’t been the first person commissioned by some higher authority, on one side or another, to close the file on Flycatcher.  Such attention was part of the price of reputation in their line of work. 

The little lady at the Avis desk did a lot to restore his faith in basic human values with a sunny smile and an assurance that, yes, they had remembered his reservation and that his car was waiting for him out in the parking lot.  It was a tan Ford Granada and he had her unprompted word that the ashtrays were clean.  They even were. 

According to the map with which the Avis lady had provided him, Clemson, South Carolina, the proposed theater of operations, was a tiny flyspeck of a place, west and a little south.  To get there it seemed you had to drive through Greenville and then connect up with U.S.  Route 123.  But that was all right; he had business in Greenville. 

“You can get any kind of hardware you need, right there,” Tuttle had assured him.  “The gun traffic is so heavy that a couple of years ago Greenville had the third highest per capita homicide rate in the country.  Probably something like forty percent of all the contraband firearms in the North Atlantic states were originally purchased right there—perfectly legally, right across the counter and no questions asked.  You don’t need a permit, there’s no three day waiting period.  If a five year old kid had the money, he could walk into almost any department store in the state and buy a nice, shiny, nickel plated .38 to lug around with him in his lunch box.  It’s our kind of place, Guinness.”

He had grinned, drumming absentmindedly with the tip of his middle finger against the side of his glass.  It was very funny, a big joke.  They were both so very knowing and world weary and tough, and it was all a tremendous laugh. 

The whole conversation had had something of the aspect of drawing room comedy, Ernie being so very forthcoming, just bubbling over with all kinds of fascinating information, all given very fast and offhand, as if he just couldn’t do enough for his old pal Ray Guinness.  You could have thought they were lodge brothers, fellow insiders exchanging pieces of gossip, the significance of which was contained in the understanding nods and the shorthand of mutually appreciated allusions which were lobbed back and forth between them, like tennis balls, in this, the private language of the cognoscenti

And yet there had been something in his manner—probably it wasn’t anything more than the way his eyes seemed to waver a little every time he tried to look Guinness full in the face—that suggested he was being less than entirely candid. 

But you could go crazy in this business trying to figure out every little nuance, and anyway, it was generally the fellow with the firm handshake and the steady gaze whom you had to worry about the most.  The appearance of sincerity, the implied demand for your complete and unqualified trust, that was the real sucker trap.  Tuttle was his friend, but Guinness really didn’t imagine he could count on him to the death, so there was no harm done. 

If friend Ernie was pulling a fast one, Guinness would find out all about it soon enough.  In any case, it wasn’t something to fret over now; the immediate problems made perfectly adequate demands on one’s attention.  Pondering over the meaning and limits of his relationship with Ernie Tuttle was one more thing he could save up for when he would be an old man in a white hospital bed, with his arms plugged into half a dozen catheter tubes, trying to remember, before it was too late, what his life had been about. 

Guinness backed his car out of its parking space and began looking around for the exit that would lead him out onto the main highway. 

It wasn’t nearly as hot out as he had expected—you really didn’t need the air conditioning, such as it was; an open window was plenty, to catch the breeze you made for yourself while driving.  Somehow, in uncritical expectation, he had pictured the area to himself as all malaria swamps and cottonmouths and steaming like a Turkish bath, but probably up close to the mountains like this—he could see them in the far distance, hazy and blue and malevolently grand—and still so early in June, it would stay reasonably cool. 

Once outside of Greenville, it was all pine trees and potholes.  The scenery was very pretty, but Guinness was delighted it wasn’t his own car he was driving; the road didn’t appear to be much more than a thin piecrust of lumpy tar someone had applied directly to a little leveled off strip of that iron red clay he had seen so much of from the window of the plane. 

After Easley, which seemed less a town than simply a couple of shopping centers arranged symmetrically on either side of the highway, there wasn’t a sign of human habitation for twenty miles.  A billboard once in a while, and one lonely Standard Oil station, but that was it. 

Guinness didn’t like it.  He was strictly a city type; he liked noisy, crowded streets where there was a door every twenty or thirty feet.  He liked fifth floor window ledges.  He liked dark little alleys.  Trees and grass and playing the mighty hunter in the forest primeval just wasn’t his style. 

The company had lots of guys who had been going out after deer and geese and all manner of other reasonably harmless animals since boyhood.  Woodcraft was hardly at a premium, so what the hell was he doing here? 

He didn’t like it.  Somehow it just didn’t smell right. 

A road sign announced that Clemson was ten miles ahead, and Guinness tried to think about that, pushing everything else out of his mind.  At fifty-five miles an hour he would be there, when?  In a shade under eleven minutes, which would make it just about a quarter to twelve.  Lunchtime.  It had been a long haul since breakfast, and he was hungry.  It would be interesting to see what the Holiday Inn would have in the way of southern cooking. 

Concentrating on the prospect of food, he managed, after a while, to half convince himself that everything was fine, that he was merely getting paranoid in his old age.  It was a wonderful theory—hell, better paranoia than real danger—and it held up pretty well as long as he didn’t look at it too closely.  He made up his mind that, for the moment, he would try not to do that. 

Clemson really was a flyspeck, at least as seen from 123—he was almost all the way through it before he realized he had even arrived.  A car wash, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, one intersection with a traffic sign and a few gas stations, a state liquor store, a couple of restaurants, something called a Winn-Dixie that looked like a supermarket, the Holiday Inn, and that pretty much was it.  Maybe he was just in the wrong area; maybe 123 wasn’t the main drag.  He hoped so.  He would have to do a little looking around. 

After all, that was what he was there for. 

The Holiday Inn was just the same as every other Holiday Inn in the known world.  “I’m sorry,” Ernie had said when he handed over the ticket vouchers and the phony identification and the credit cards issued to someone who hadn’t existed ten minutes before, “but it seems to be about all there is in the whole damn town.”  Just the same, except that this Holiday Inn had a lake.  A real lake, just like on the postcards. 

Forgetting about lunch for the moment, Guinness allowed himself to drive past the entrance to the motel parking lot, on to where the road swept over a little bridge and around the curve of the water’s edge.  You couldn’t see much because the view was usually blocked off by fairly dense stands of pine forest, but a mile or two further on, the road arched back around again and crossed another little bridge.  There was a turnoff, just a patch of bare, red ground with a sizable puddle in the middle, like the yoke of a fried egg, and Guinness stopped the car and got out to have a look. 

It wasn’t a very wide lake, never more than a hundred or so yards, but very blue and sparkling and with a look of touching rawness.  Here and there a dead tree trunk was sticking up out of the water to betray its origin.  The federal government had dammed up the Tugaloo River, making a string of lakes for use in cooling certain nuclear power plants located further south. 

Guinness liked it.  He could imagine barefoot boys in straw hats fishing off the bridge in the distance, the one he had driven over not five minutes before and which must be right next to where he would be living for the next few days. 

Except that there might not be any fish in the lake, and somehow it didn’t strike him as the sort of country through which it would be a good idea to walk barefoot. 

Did kids ever go barefoot anymore, or did you have to be in college for that to be chic?  He couldn’t remember having seen anyone under the age of eighteen without shoes in a long time. 

Nuclear power plants.  Could that be what Flycatcher was up to?  It seemed pretty tame stuff to attract our boy, who had probably never gone barefoot in his life. 

Flycatcher had a reputation as a high stakes operator who could play very rough.  You wondered what there could be in this dump that could make it worth his while. 

Still, the lake was very pretty.  Especially to a man accustomed to dirty brown urban rivers like the Potomac.  Guinness turned around and drove back to the Holiday Inn, leaving his bag in the trunk of the car while he went into the dining room to have his lunch. 

“Is there more than one elementary school in town?” he asked, being careful to smile, when the waitress brought his iced tea.  The beverage he had initially envisioned for himself would have been hot and served in a cup, not over crushed ice with a slice of lemon in it.  But apparently down here you had to specify. 

“Aaauuu no,” was the shocked reply.  “Just th’ one.”

She was pink and blond and chubby behind her thick horn rimmed glasses, and she was not a day over eighteen.  She was probably a student at the local university, Guinness figured, and she could pack more vowels into a syllable than anyone he had ever seen before. 

“That’d be th’ Morrison School, out on th’ frontage road along 123.  You cain’t miss it; it’s raht down th’ way from th’ Dairy Queen,” she went on after a little pause, giving him a big, dimpled grin, as if she were just thrilled that he wouldn’t be able to miss the Morrison School.  Not while it stood associated with so prominent a landmark as the Clemson Dairy Queen of immortal fame.  Then her expression changed to one of astonished inquiry. 

“What kind o’ dressin’ would y’all like on y’r salad?”

After lunch, Guinness sauntered out into the lobby to check in and collect his key.  He asked if there were any messages for him, but there weren’t so he went back to the lot for his car and parked it in front of the entrance to room 147.  He had specified a first-floor room; stairwells were good places to avoid. 

The room had two double beds and a green and yellow carpet to go with the wallpaper.  He checked the bathroom to make sure there weren’t any giant cobwebs in the shower stall and then hoisted his suitcase and his Eastern Airlines flight bag up onto the bed closest to the door, the one he didn’t plan to sleep in.  He hung up his extra suit and closed the curtain over the big picture window through which he could have seen the lake if it hadn’t been for a solid wall of trucks with campers in the payload, and what have come to be called RVs.  Then, after testing the doorknob to make sure it was locked, he unzipped the flight bag and took out the two handguns and their boxes of ammunition that had been nestled in with his shaving kit and a folded towel he had put there to keep things from rattling. 

The first was an ugly little Smith & Wesson five shot .38 revolver, not very accurate with its two inch barrel, not at more than half a dozen yards, not if your target happened to be moving, and not very damaging if you didn’t hit something vital.  But it was small and had a hammer shroud to keep it from getting caught on your jacket all the time; it would do for something just to carry around. 

The other, of course, was a different matter entirely.  The good old reliable Colt .45 automatic, with low muzzle velocity and lots of shocking power.  You could hit a man in the thumb with a .45 and still knock him over like a bowling pin, and Guinness had never cared much for the idea of having to be right on target to keep the other guy from shooting back. 

The man at the gun shop in Greenville had tried to talk him into a .357, claiming he had once killed a bear with one, but you could kill a bear with a .22 if you got lucky enough, and bears generally don’t carry guns themselves.  There was a story about an agent who hit a razor wielding Mexican four times with a .357, and when the Mexican reached him he still had enough juice left to cut the stupid bastard’s throat.  The Mexican, supposedly, had died an hour later, but that wasn’t thought to be much of a consolation. 

Guinness had test fired both weapons at the pistol range the gun store owner had fixed up in his supply room, and the .45 pulled a little to the left.  It would do, however. 

It was way too big to carry, if you didn’t want the whole world noticing the bulges under your coat, so he would squirrel it away somewhere, probably in the tire well of his car, until he needed it.  Things might never come to that—his man might be a thousand miles in the other direction; he might never have heard of Clemson, South Carolina—but in the meantime there would be a hand cannon no further away than the trunk of his shiny new Ford with its squeaky clean ashtrays, and Guinness would derive some comfort from that knowledge alone. 

He loaded all five chambers of the .38 and wedged it in under his belt, just over the left kidney, and then he methodically pressed six cartridges into the magazine of the Colt before sliding it into the handle.  The whole thing was like a little ritual, a reminder that he wasn’t down here for a rest cure.  Back in Washington, they expected him to work for his semimonthly government check, and the work he did really wasn’t very nice. 

The guns were still greasy with newness, so after he had put the .45 back inside the flight bag—he could worry about where to hide it later on—Guinness went into the bathroom to wash his hands, trying, as he always did, not to catch sight of himself in the mirror. 

When they had first come out, back in the golden days when he thought he had made his escape from a line of work that required one to hide guns in the tire well of one’s car, he had bought himself all four volumes, in hard cover no less, of The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, a boyhood idol about whom, in his mature years, he had once written a paper for what were laughingly called the “learned journals.”  Good old Orwell, he had known what it was all about; the very last sentence in his notebook had been, “At fifty, everyone has the face he deserves.”

With still a decade of grace in front of him, Guinness wasn’t fifty, but then he had a lot more to answer for than friend George.  Perhaps the process which lines your face started earlier if you did black deeds, the memories of which were hoarded up in some forgotten corner of what you had left of a conscience; perhaps it would have started earlier for George if he had stayed in Burma to spend a few more years whacking his bamboo cane against the soles of native felons’ feet; perhaps. . .  So you tried to avoid mirrors, tried not to speculate about whether the evidence was accumulating there in the lines around your eyes. 

Still, it wasn’t too bad a face, not noticeably evil.  The eyes with perhaps a little too much gray, making the blue look pale and a little cold.  The mouth perhaps a little too small, a little too narrow through the lips.  But for the rest, it was a good, farm boy face, with reddish brown hair and a few almost invisible freckles here and there over the bridge of the nose.  Not a bad face—a face lots of people would be fool enough to trust.  A good face for a man in his line of work.  A mask. 

It was early yet, he had plenty of time.  So Guinness went back outside and walked around to the lobby, thinking that he would buy himself a Mounds bar—he had seen a box of them next to the dining room cash register—and then go out to the little dock that the motel maintained for the benefit of guests who trailered a boat, and watch the water for a while.  It would be nice just to stand there and listen to the waves slapping against the aluminum sides of other people’s outboards. 

The cashier was off somewhere, so Guinness stood in front of her counter, staring through the glass at the neat little double row of cigar boxes.  He didn’t smoke himself, hadn’t had a cigarette in close to eight years, but he knew enough to tell that none of these would have been worth the hazards of falling back into bad habits. 

He had had a friend once, a great chubby, pleasure loving friend, who had been his boss back in the days when he had worked as a shooter for the British, back when he had still been in his twenties and had thought he was immortal.  And that friend had always said that the Americans were an uncivilized race, the proof of which was that they could allow a trifle like Castro’s relationship with Moscow to irritate them into placing an embargo on Cuban cigars. 

Doubtless he had been right. 

A car drove up and parked in front of the motel’s entrance—you could see it quite clearly through the plate glass double doors—and a man climbed out from behind the wheel and came in to the front desk.  Guinness let his eyes sweep past him, as if he were looking over toward the ladies’ room to see if his cashier might materialize from that direction; he was careful not to show any interest, at least no more than a man might show who was getting bored and restless, a man whose heels were going to sleep while he waited for someone to come and let him pay for his Mounds bar.  No more than anyone might show at the arrival of a new body in his line of vision, a body it was pretty safe to assume wouldn’t help him with his problem.  Nevertheless, he got a very good look. 

A man in his middle thirties, very tall, very thin.  Wearing chocolate colored slacks and a tan sport coat over a white turtleneck shirt.  His watch, which had a black leather strap, was on his left wrist, so he was presumably right handed, like most of the race.  His hair was cut a little shorter than was usual at his age, but it was long enough to take a part, on the right side of his head.  And his hair was almost blond enough to be called bone white. 

Well defined features in a tanned face.  No signs of any weapons, but then there wouldn’t be.  All in all, rather an elegant figure, the kind who looked like he read Gentleman’s Quarterly and had never done a stroke of work in his life. 

While Fashion Plate was busy with the clerk, a middle aged lady with a beehive hairdo came out from the restaurant, and Guinness paid his quarter and began unwrapping one end of the little paper package as he ambled off in the direction of the main exit, without even so much as a glance at the man who was counting out twenty dollar bills to settle his reckoning. 

Outside, he noted the make and license number of the car—a pale blue Buick, Georgia plates CLS 291.  It was a rented car, just like his; the keys had been left in the ignition and they were attached to a chain looped through a plastic identity tag with the word Hertz printed on a slip of paper inside.  Additionally, the rental agreement was lying face down on the dash. 

He would have liked a look at that agreement, but it wasn’t really practical with the guy almost ready to come back out again and drive away.  He would have liked to have known where the car had been rented—although that would be reasonably easy to trace—and where it was to be returned.  Guinness supposed it was even possible they could dig that out of the computer banks for him, maybe even in time for the information to do him some good. 

Anything to make life a little easier. 

He would also have liked to know the guy’s name, but that was purely out of idle curiosity; it was almost certain to be a phony. 

Guinness was reasonably sure that he had just had a good, long look at the bull’s eye.  He would have bet this job’s per diem that the man in the lobby of the Clemson Holiday Inn, calmly adding up the figures on his bill, was Flycatcher.