As soon as he arrives, Sam Eisler can see the train station is too busy. His clients would like the job done there, but if he kills a man in that kind of crowd, he’ll never get away—and Sam is here to commit homicide, not suicide. The target is a famous man, and his bodyguards will shoot an assailant on sight. Better to catch them unaware. Just outside of town, Sam spots a bridge and comes up with a new scheme: He’ll blow it up, destroying his mark in an instant, and all his problems will be solved. But nothing is ever as easy as it seems.
The professors and students of a local college have hired Sam to carry out this hit, a political killing that will change the course of the country. His contact is Sara, a beautiful young scholar whose boundless idealism entrances him. As Sam plans the murder, they begin an affair, and he finds himself falling in love. He came here looking for a reason to kill—in Sara, he may discover a reason to live.
This remarkable thriller from the author of the 87th Precinct series is set in a world where all political resistance has been stamped out. For Sam and Sara, the revolution will start when the bridge explodes.
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Nobody Knew They Were There
By Ed McBain
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1971 Ed McBain
All rights reserved.
Monday, October 21
I am here to perform a delicate piece of surgery. I am here to commit a murder. Take your choice.
She is here to assist me, she says. In getting settled, she says. Professor Raines has sent her. She meets me at the airport in a borrowed automobile. She is wearing brown skirt, sweater, and boots. A huge outrageous leather Mexican sombrero is tilted onto her forehead. Long brown hair cascades halfway down her back. She can be no older than twenty-one, and she carries herself like a beauty though she is not one. Her eyes in the sudden glare of sunshine, as we come out of the terminal and walk toward the battered red Volkswagen, are two distinctly different shades of green.
"Are you a witch?" I ask.
"No. Are you?"
"I'm an assassin."
"So I've been told," she says.
"Does that frighten you?"
Pretentious dialogue. Beginnings are always bullshit.
She drives well. She has very long legs; the small car seems too confining. She is aware of her profile. She tries to affect a haughty bored look. When the look fails, she discards it without regret, and then tries it on again not a moment later. It is hot in the automobile. October shouts stridently on the hillside, but there is a shimmering hanging heat that diffuses all color, rendering the landscape mute.
"Why did you ask if I was a witch?"
"You have two different colored eyes."
"Because I'm only wearing one of my contacts."
"Where's the other one?"
"I scratched it. I've already ordered a new one."
"Witches never tell," she says, and smiles.
(This is all fantasy. Don't believe a word of it.)
There are two men and a woman in the room.
I am not quite a fool. In my briefcase back at the hotel, there are reports on all of them, prepared for me by a private investigator. I have read each of those reports at least a dozen times, routinely at first, and then with growing interest, and finally with the breathless eagerness of a hunter tracking his quarry through a dense and tangled wood. And now I am face to face with all of them, and I know at once that the report on Hester Pratt ("a woman who possesses a somewhat unfortunate manner") is sharp and precise. The antagonism between us is immediate.
"How well do you know your job?" she asks.
"I'm an expert."
"You're how old?"
"And an expert?"
"America breeds expert assassins," I say.
Hester snorts, obviously unimpressed by hindsight. She is wearing a tweed suit, low-heeled walking shoes, black-rimmed spectacles. She studies me with the asexual scrutiny of a professional, defying me to kill someone on the spot if indeed I am as good as has been reported. I am tempted to oblige by murdering her. She unclasps her bag, withdraws a handkerchief, and noisily blows her nose, clearly terrified. Sunlight streams through the long leaded windows of the paneled room. On the campus outside, university students walk with their heads bent, seriously studying their shoes.
"You're here earlier than we expected," one of the men says.
"I like to plan far in advance."
"The train won't be coming through till November second."
"Fine. That gives me almost two weeks."
"How will you do it?"
"I don't know yet. That's why I'm here. To find out."
"But you will do it, of course."
"Of course. If it can be done safely. I don't intend to sacrifice myself. Not for you, not for anyone."
"That's not what Mr. Eisler told me on the telphone," Hester says.
"I'm not responsible for what Mr. Eisler told you."
"He assured us ..."
"I'm here to commit homicide, not suicide. As soon as the job is done, I expect to vanish. Safely." I study them each in turn. They seem to understand. Besides, they need me. "There's one other matter," I say. "The contract calls for half the fee on arrival. I have arrived."
It is always easy to identify the money man, even among college professors. I know who he is before he reaches into his inside jacket pocket. The envelope is white, sealed, made doubly secure with a rubber band. He first removes the rubber band. Then he tears open the flap. He begins counting off hundred-dollar bills. I count silently with him. Seven thousand dollars. When they are spread fanwise on the table before him, I pick up the bills and count them a second time. Slowly.
"All there?" Hester asks.
"All here," I say. "And seven thousand more due on the morning the train arrives."
"Before you kill him?" she asks.
"Before I kill him."
"That sounds presumptuous," she says.
"It is only realistic," I answer.
(But then, this is only fantasy.)
I call the girl at the number she gave me on the way from the airport.
"Hello?" a voice says.
"Sara?" I ask.
"No, this is Gwen. Her roommate. Who's calling, please?"
"I don't believe I know you, Mr. Sachs."
"Is that a prerequisite for talking to Sara?"
"Just a moment, please." She is both intimidated and annoyed. She puts the phone down with an indignant little clatter. I wait. At last, Sara's voice comes onto the line.
"It's me," I say.
"Yes, I know."
"Will you really help me get settled?"
"I said I would."
"I need a liquor store."
"Two blocks from the hotel," she says. "Go directly out the front door, turn right, and right again at the pharmacy. Cross Carter and turn left. You can't miss it."
"Is there a good restaurant in town?"
"Several," she says.
"Have you had dinner yet?"
"Yes," she says.
"Which is the best restaurant?"
"Reidel's. On Twelfth and Driscoll."
"Thank you," I say, and hang up.
I carefully establish myself with the desk clerk.
I have registered as Arthur Sachs, but on my way out to dinner, I stop at the desk and take pains to imprint upon his memory the image of a somewhat harried businessman from Los Angeles who is trying to close a big tractor deal. He sees in me only what I choose to show him. My physical appearance can indicate almost anything. I am tall and thin. I affect a gunfighter's mustache. My hair is the color of burnt toast, my eyes are brown, I dress with quiet good taste, I could be anyone. I show him company brochures I picked up in Los Angeles three days ago. I extol the merits of our product as though he is a prospective purchaser. I impress upon him the importance of taking all telephone messages accurately. I am trying to open the entire West, I tell him. It is an enormous deal. It may take me well over a month. He studies my face, he studies my clothes, he decides I am a failure. But my name and occupation are firmly etched upon his mind.
Before the kill, I will shave my mustache.
I walk over to Reidel's through streets suddenly cold with the promise of November. The town is ringed with mountains; the desk clerk has informed me that there is excellent skiing during the winter months, less than half an hour away. I have not skied in two years.
The restaurant is very crowded. It is German, there is beer in steins, and sauerbraten, and wienerschnitzel, all very gemütlich. I have not yet called home. I promise myself I will do that when I return to the hotel.
Tomorrow, I begin.CHAPTER 2
Tuesday, October 22
They have suggested the railroad station as the most advantageous spot, knowing the train will pause here, knowing there will be a crowd to welcome him. They have assumed that I will be able to use the crowd as a suitable cover before the kill, and as a distraction later to help in my escape. But I have very carefully kept from them all knowledge of how I will work, and I see at once that the railroad station will not serve my purposes. I meet with Hester late in the afternoon. She is wearing slacks and feeling very ballsy. She chain-smokes cigarette after cigarette, using a long black holder, the smoke swirling up around her face. She is trying to look like a European spy, and the pose bores me. Hester is head of the university's English Department, and we are in the English Department office. She presses a button on her desk, and the door opens. Sara enters with a notebook.
"What's this?" I say.
"If we're to pay you fourteen thousand dollars, we're entitled to a record," Hester says.
"Who's the girl?"
"I thought she picked you up at the airport," Hester says, puzzled.
"Yes, but who is she? I know nothing about her."
"Tell him who you are, dear," Hester says, and smiles.
"Sara Horne," she recites. "Twenty-one years old, native of Philadelphia, graduate of Northwestern. A law student at the university here." She smiles bleakly. "I'm entirely trustworthy."
"She is entirely trustworthy," Hester repeats.
I look at them both. Sara's pencil is poised over the pad.
"What's your involvement in all this?" I ask her.
"I want him dead."
"So do a lot of people."
"Yes, but I'm doing something about it."
"What? Recording an assassin's complaint?"
"If you have a complaint," Hester says, "voice it. The girl stays."
I look at them both again, and then I sigh heavily. "The railroad station won't do," I say, and Sara's pencil begins to move.
"Why not?" Hester asks.
"To begin with, it's in the center of town. Since my own safety is prime among my concerns, I choose not to encumber myself with a longer escape route than is absolutely necessary."
"The crowd will help you."
"Or hinder me, as the case may be."
"Either way, you're here to do a job. I find your sense of caution excessive."
"Too bad. Would you like your money back now?"
Sara looks up at me. I am aware of her glance, and recognize that I am seeking her approval, and therefore read approval into it.
"Why else is the railroad station bad?" Hester asks.
"For such a small town, it's a very busy terminal. There are trains moving in and out at every hour of the day and night. If I'm to do this properly, I need to study my terrain. I can't very well do that in a place as busy as your depot. Not without being noticed sooner or later."
"Your caution again."
"Yes. It's my neck, not yours."
"Which is why you're being paid fourteen thousand dollars to risk it."
"Would you risk yours for the same amount of money?" Hester smiles. "No," she answers. "Are you getting this, Sara?" Sara nods.
"What else about the depot?" Hester asks.
"It's where they'll be expecting trouble. Crowds are dangerous, and they know it. They'll be watching and waiting for something to happen. I'd prefer to surprise them."
"I don't know yet."
"When will you know?"
"When I know, I'll tell you."
"Meanwhile, you have seven thousand dollars of our money."
"I won't run off with it, if that's what you're ..."
"You wouldn't get three feet beyond the town limits."
"Then what are you worrying about?"
"That the money might be better spent. On someone else."
"I know my job," I tell her.
"Do you?" she asks.
Our eyes meet. It is a question of who will turn away first.
"I know my job," I say again, hoping that at least someone in the room will believe me.
That evening, I call Sara again. I have not yet called home, but I call Sara. When she answers the phone, I am certain she is wearing only her leather Mexican sombrero. The notion is absurd, but it persists.
"What's the second best restaurant?" I ask her.
"How did you like the first best?"
"It was terrible," I say. "If you haven't had dinner yet, I thought ..."
"I haven't. ..."
"Good, then perhaps you'd like to join me."
"I'm having dinner with Gwen."
"Yes, my ..."
"Yes, your snotty roommate."
"She's very nice, actually."
"Then bring her along."
"I don't think she likes you."
"Ask her anyway."
In a conversational voice, Sara says, "Gwen, do you like Arthur Sachs?" Gwen, who is obviously sitting not two feet from the phone, says in a very loud voice, "I despise him."
"Do you want to have dinner with him?"
"Yes, okay," Gwen says.
"Settled," I say.
"Did you hear?"
"Yes. Where shall we go?"
"There's a place called Anthony's on South Engels. It's Italian and very student rah-rah."
"Sounds fine. Eight o'clock?"
"Yes, all right," she says, and sounds suddenly dubious.
"What are you wearing?" I ask her.
"I'm not sure yet."
"I meant now."
"Now? This minute?"
"Are you naked except for your sombrero?"
"Fuck off," Sara says angrily, and hangs up.
Anthony's is on a windswept corner at the southern end of town. The foothills of the mountains are clearly visible from the sidewalk outside. The railroad tracks disappear into a distant bluish crotch. I arrive at ten minutes to eight and stand silently watching the tracks, wondering what is beyond that curve where they vanish. At a quarter past eight, the girls arrive. Sara is wearing a tan corduroy jacket, wide-waled, with chinos and boots, a leather headband across her forehead. She introduces me to Gwen, who is perhaps twenty-three, a curly-haired blonde with a pumpkin face and humorless blue eyes. She merely nods when we are introduced, and I sense that Sara finds our mutual hostility amusing. I frankly find it a pain in the ass. I am forty-two years old, and I do not need a college girl's petulance. Besides, I want to be alone with Sara. I admit this to myself. And while I am at it, I also admit that Sara is a very real part of why I am here, assassination or not. The knowledge comes as no surprise to me. It is something I have known all along. The recognition, the admission are at best disappointing.
Anthony's is populated with university students, but I do not feel at all self-conscious because I am an assassin and therefore ageless. I am beginning to feel very good about this whole job. The only thing bothering me is that I have not yet called home. I have been gone since Thursday night, and this is Tuesday, and I have not yet called home.
"What brings you to town, Mr. Sachs?" Gwen asks.
"I'm a tractor salesman."
"Yes. Tractors and heavy machinery."
"How do you and Sara know each other?"
"Professor Raines introduced us," Sara says.
Raines is one of the men who organized the plot. I wonder suddenly how much Gwen knows. I look into Sara's eyes. They tell me nothing, except that they are now the same color.
"You have your new lens," I say.
"Yes, I picked it up this morning."
"What?" Gwen says.
"I scratched one of my contact lenses," Sara explains. "Last week. This is a new one." She points to her right eye.
"I thought witches never told," I say.
"What?" Gwen says again, puzzled.
"How do you happen to know Professor Raines?" she asks.
"From Los Angeles," I answer.
"Oh. Is he from Los Angeles?"
"He's from Boston," Sara says.
"We met in Los Angeles, though," I say. "We're old friends. We used to play soccer together."
Sara shoots me a warning glance. Gwen says, "Are you putting me on?"
"Yes," Sara says. "He is."
"I am," I admit. Then, to show Sara how quick and inventive I am, I say, "The university is constantly expanding, constructing new buildings, and so on. Professor Raines thought he might be able to put me in touch with some of the local contractors. And since I'm originally from Philadelphia, he thought I might enjoy Sara's company. She's from Philadelphia, you know."
"Yes, I know."
"It's as simple as that," I say, and smile.
"As simple as that," Sara repeats, but she does not smile back.
I know I must call home. It would be dangerous to delay the call further. I try to imagine what Abby has already done, but I become hopelessly mired in possibilities. Twice I reach for the phone. Twice I change my mind. Instead, I call Sara. I have left her not a half hour ago, but I call her anyway. The line is busy. I pour myself a water tumbler full of scotch and slowly sip at it. I by Sara again. The line is still busy.
At last, I place the call to New York.
Abby answers on the second ring.
"Sam?" she says when she hears my voice. "Where are you?"
I decide to lie. She cannot trace me because I am registered here as Arthur Sachs, but I lie anyway. "I'm in Salt Lake City," I tell her.
"I thought you were dead," she says. She sounds disappointed that I am not.
"No, I had to come out here suddenly."
"Important contract to negotiate."
"That Eugene knows nothing about?"
"You spoke to Eugene?"
"Yes, of course I spoke to Eugene. When a man suddenly disappears ..."
"Eugene doesn't know anything about this."
"An important contract, and your partner doesn't ..."
"I was called in privately."
Excerpted from Nobody Knew They Were There by Ed McBain. Copyright © 1971 Ed McBain. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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