[Magazine 1967-­12] - The Pillars of Salt Affair, стр. 1

The Pillars of Salt Affair

By Bill Pronzini

December 1967

Volume 4, Issue 5

One day a stream of life-giving water, the next an evil ribbon of salt—could Illya and Solo entrap the mad monster who had sworn to turn the world's great waterways into death traps? THRUSH had its most monstrous weapon in its hands—and only U.N.C.L.E. stood in the way!









The three men walked single-file, climbing steadily upward along a pine-needled path that wound through heavy growth of Douglas fir and Sitka spruce. Below them, nestled in a valley bounded by rising slopes of heavy timberland, was the small lumber community of Kamewa, Oregon, from where they had begun their climb.

Although it was only early afternoon, the shadows in the wood were long and deep. Thin shafts of pale sunlight filtered through the leafy ceiling above them, and the air was cool and moist.

As the three men walked, they could smell the fresh, mingling odors of the fir and spruce, and that of growing moss, ferns, sweet syringa and Oregon grape. The only sound was their quiet footfalls on the spongy cushion of the path.

The man in the lead was dressed in a plaid hunting cap and a bright red-and green lumber jacket. He carried a Winchester .270 deer rifle in the crook of his arm. The other two men wore similarly colored jackets, and carried small canvas knapsacks and binocular cases slung over their shoulders.

They paused for a moment to rest, nearly three-quarters of the way up. The darker of the two men carrying the knapsacks took a handkerchief from his khaki trousers and wiped his forehead. The man in the plaid hunting cap grinned.

"Not used to hiking in the woods, eh?" he asked. "How much further is it?" Napoleon Solo said, squatting to massage his aching ankles. His feet seemed to be suffocating inside his tight hiking boots. They had been walking for over an hour.

"Not far," the man in the plaid hunting cap said, answering his question. "About a quarter of a mile."

"It seems to me," Illya Kuryakin commented dryly, "that you said the same thing two miles back."

The man's grin widened. His name was Barney Dillon, and he was a foreman at the Kamewa Lumber Company, located at the northern end of the town below. He had agreed to act as their guide when they had arrived in Kamewa that noon.

"You'll be able to see it when we crest the slope," Dillon said.

"Are you sure we couldn't have ridden up?" Solo asked.

"We could have," Dillon said, "if the road had been open. But we had a slide day before yesterday. Can't figure how it happened, this being the dry season, but it happened all right. They're still trying to clear the road."

Solo stood and adjusted the knapsack on his back. He had held some doubts from the beginning as to the authenticity of the report that had brought them to this isolated logging community near the Oregon coast, but he reserved final judgment until they had seen the reservoir for themselves. If they had hiked all this way to gaze upon the shimmering blue waters of a man-made lake, he was going to have a few words to say to the people of Kamewa. But then there was the plain fact that no water, not a drop, ran from any of the taps and faucets in the town.

"Well," Solo said with a joviality he did not feel at the moment, "let's press onward shall we?"

They began to walk again, moving along the path. When they reached the crest of the slope, some fifteen minutes later, Barney Dillon picked his way through a clump of tangled, decaying juniper and stood on a wide, flat sandstone rock. Solo and Illya clambered up to stand beside him.

"There it is," Dillon said.

Below them, at the foot of a smaller slope that fell away much more gradually than the one they had just climbed, lay the reservoir they had come to see. It was ringed with a thickly knit growth of fir and spruce.

Solo took the binoculars from the case on his shoulder and peered through them. The denseness of the trees afforded him sight of only patches of the reservoir, gleaming brightly in the sunlight.

He adjusted the glasses. It seemed to him that the gleam was not that of sun on water, not the bright silver shimmer of dancing light. It was more like, Solo thought, the blinding whiteness of sun on fresh snow, of sun on hot white beach sand.

He turned, looking at Illya Kuryakin. Illya brushed a strand of blond hair from his forehead and shrugged. He lowered his own glasses. He had gotten the same impression.

"Still the same," Dillon said. "Been that way since sometime last night."

"Let's go down for a closer look," Solo said.

They followed Barney Dillon as the big man picked his way down the slope. They had almost reached the bottom, were almost to the shoreline, when the growth thinned out enough to allow them a clear, unhindered view of the reservoir.

They stopped. It lay in front of them, a half-mile long and a quarter-mile wide. At the upper end, furthest away from where they stood, was the filtering plant, its pale green buildings shining dully in the sun. To one side lay the packed dirt road that led up from the town of Kamewa.

But Solo saw that with a cursory glance. His attention had been caught, and held, by the reservoir itself.

What he saw was not water.

What he saw was a solid white floor, unmoving, like the floor of a rock canyon. It shone a bleached, almost antiseptic white under the sun. The surface was irregular, almost but not quite flat, and its edges, where it touched the shore, were smooth and planed, like cement that had been carefully spread with a trowel to blend with the sloping landscape.

Solo turned to Barney Dillon.

"Salt," Dillon said. "Pure rock salt"

"I don't believe it," Illya Kuryakin said.

"Neither did I, the first time I saw it."

They scrambled down the rest of the way to the edge of the reservoir. Dillon moved out to stand on the surface. "It's solid," he said. "We checked it this morning when we came out."

Solo and Illya followed him. They had begun to smell the salt now. It was not the fresh, pungent odor of ocean salt, but more the dry biting odor of processed sodium chloride.

The doubts Solo had held before vanished. It was salt, all right. But how was it possible? Only yesterday, Dillon had told him, the reservoir had been brimming with clean, fresh water fed from streams that wound down from the mountains. Only yesterday the people of Kamewa had been drinking that water, had been using it to wash their clothes and irrigate their gardens.

Napoleon Solo said, "you first began to notice the change last night?"

Barney Dillon nodded. "the tap water tasted tacky at first," he said. "then later, it became undrinkable. Like sea water. Finally, about ten o'clock, the water supply shut off completely."

"You came up to investigate this morning?"

"First thing," Dillon said. "This is what we found."

Solo shook his head, glancing around him at the white surface of the reservoir. "Pure water hardening, crystallizing into rock salt. It's a scientific impossibility."