The Power Cube Affair, стр. 1
THE POWER CUBE AFFAIR
Admiralty House stands where I have placed it, and it looks the way I have tried to describe it. So much is fact, but only on the outside. The interior details, and the events happening inside, as I have given them, are fiction. Nothing remotely resembling such things ever happen within the real Admiralty House. Those, and all villains herein described, are fictitious and bear no resemblance to anyone alive or dead.
NOT EVEN a hermit can turn his back on the world entirely. The air and sky, the elements, he must share with everyone. John Guard was content to do that much, but he wanted no part of anything else. As he stood now, with the sea growling at the pebbles on his left and the dark-hidden shore away to his tight, with only the sea breeze in his face and the constant beat and wash of the surf in his ears, he was content. If he had thought about it he would have agreed with the disillusioned poet who wrote—
"Where every prospect pleases, and only Man is vile."
But Guard had stopped thinking about such things long ago. He had learned not to think at all, but just to appreciate peace, quiet and the solitude of his home here on the coast. From the top timber of the groyne where he stood, he could see, on a clear day, one mile in either direction along the coast, the further distance cut off by small headlands reaching out into the sea. Here there was no one but himself, and that was exactly what he wanted.
On the point of leaping down from the groyne he caught the indistinct impression of movement in that snarling surf, and stiffened. Someone swimming in to shore? In instant anger he stared, then leaped down and ran, because the stare told him it was someone in trouble and instinct is stronger than cynicism. The gray-white shape grew more distinct. A girl, or a woman, in a brief two piece suit, and still conscious enough to make feeble struggle against the rough waves. Angry with himself and her, he hunched a shoulder against the spray, splashed into the surf, stooped to get an arm under and around, and in that instant folly became tragedy. Her shoulder had lumps in the wrong places, no working arm could dangle that way, and his grasp around her waist reported unnatural pulpiness.
Lifting strongly, he hoisted her and struggled until they were both free of the water, then laid her down as gently as possible on the stones. His wits creaked at the sudden need to think. His small bungalow lay two hundred yards to the south. To carry her that far, in her condition, would be murderous. The nearest telephone was all of a mile away, and to leave her that long, alone, was out of the question. She stirred. He bent close.
"Don't try to move. You need help. A doctor."
"No!" Her word was a feeble explosion, cut off with a cough. "No time. Too late!" She was right, although he hated to admit it. Her face, white in the starlight, was young, no more than twenty-three or -four, but the touch of death was on it.
"Just keep still," he repeated in futility.
"Who? Let me—see your face."
He took a penlight from the breast pocket of his shirt and put the light of it on his face for her benefit.
"My name is Guard. John Wilson Guard. Tell me who to go for and—"
"No time. Put out the light now. Dangerous. Trust you with message. Will you take it?"
She coughed again, and for all it was a warm night he shivered, for he had heard a man, once before, cough like that. A man with his chest caved in and the blood bubbling in his lungs, he had coughed, and choked, and died. This girl—there were places out there in that sea where jagged rocks lay close to the surface of the restless sea—she tried again.
"Chantry," she said, chalk-white teeth vivid against black lips in the starlight. "Mary Chantry, Navy. Tape cassette in my swim-suit. Must get to Captain Barnett, Captain Roger Barnett, R.N. Urgently—" and her straining self-control slipped again into a spasm of coughing. Almost by intuition Guard interpreted her weak struggles to indicate the left breast of her scanty costume. He touched something flat, hard, with corners. He peeled hack the wet fabric and took the thing, a box of plastic.
"Get it—to Captain Barnett!"
"I've got it." He slid the thing into his shirt-pocket, bent close again to talk over the surf-roar. "Is there anything else?"
"Man called Green," she gasped, the white mound of her young breast trembling as she tried hard not to cough again. "Yacht Oberon, not his. Someone else over him. Pretended to be stewardess. Spied. Listened. Planted recorder in cabin, underside of table." For all her trying the cough caught her again, into racking spasms that brought a dark rope of blood from the corner of her mouth.
"Chief came," she whimpered. "Got his voice on there. But they caught me. Beat me. The black man. Green watching. Then they left me to die, but I climbed—out of cabin window. Fell into the sea. Message to Captain Barnett." She was rambling now, her eyes dulling. "Listened many times. They say it is always the seventh stone. The seventh stone!" Then she smiled, and sighed, and sagged, very quietly. And lay quite still.
Guard let her down gently on to the pebbles. She was dead. No more problems for her, but she had handed him one. Could he dismiss all this as being none of his business, just as he had turned his back on life some three years ago? Or should he listen to a newly awakened conscience that told him there were one or two people on this Earth who had lived longer than they deserved? A new sound cut short his deliberations.
From out there, hidden by the swirling gray scarves of mist, came the sound of a motorboat engine. As he turned to stare, a slim ghost finger of light cut the mist, stabbed a hole in it. Guard moved instantly, straight up the beach, over a hump of pebbles and into a hollow, face-down and then squirming around so he could see. A boat rode in on the waves to rush up on the pebbles and halt, the search light in the bows methodically traversing the shore.
"That's her!" a huge bull-chested voice roared. "Right thar!" Now a small, neat figure rose, perched on the gun-whale, leaped for dry footing and turned to say:
"Fortunately for you, Rambo. Saved your neck!"
"Like I told you, Mistah Green, all we hadda do was follow the tide. She couldn't swim none."
The owner of the big voice leaped ashore in his turn, tramped in the wake of the little man. Guard watched them both crouch.
"She's daid sure enough. Why don't we just leave her be?"
"Fool!" The precise voice was as sharp as a whip-lash. "You know the Chief has other plans. Get her back aboard."
"Hokay!" The big man straightened with his load carelessly over one shoulder, the portable searchlight in his other band. "All set?"
"No! Swing that light about a bit."
Guard flattened as the peering beam slid over his head, and knew he was in a tight corner. He had met men like Green before, men who live ruthlessly, who have to make instant judgments and who develop an instinct for danger amounting to second sight. "I'm not satisfied. There's a house over there, with a light showing. I'm going to check up, just in case someone has seen something. You carry her back aboard. You know where to pick me up, later."
The tone discouraged argument and he waited for none but marched up the slope within feet of where Guard lay. As his steps died away the boat's engine roared and Guard caught a glimpse of the name painted by the bows. Oberon. So Mary Chantry had not been babbling altogether. He got to a knee, thinking hard. Right ahead of Green ran a rough east concrete walkway that would take him up to the bungalow, to an empty house but with lights burning. That would really set fire to his suspicions. Guard went up the beach fast, paused long enough at the concrete strip to hear the rap of footsteps going away, then hoisted himself up, across, and ran as fast as he could.