For All Nails #203: All the World's a Stage
by David Mix Barrington
The man threw back his head and laughed. Well, he didn't throw back his head, having due respect for the tip of Clarissa's cavalry sabre at his neck. But the intention was clear.
"You find this amusing, Mercator?"
"My dear young lady, I am merely celebrating the ultimate triumph of my art. To deceive a trained observer (from the CBI, yes?) at close quarters is a much sterner test than deceiving an entire nation over the vitavision."
"What in hell are you talking about?" She had no time for this -- the General's men would find her soon. And how had they found her out?
"I am an actor, Constable. My name is Julian Singh. It has been my exclusive task for some ten years now to impersonate my late employer, Secretary Mercator."
"I don't believe you. Wait a minute, what do you mean late employer?"
"Ah, Miss Detective, I see that in the confusion you have yet to read the morning newspaper -- there is one on that table. Shall I fetch it for you? No tricks, I assure you, I am quite at your mercy for the time being."
Clarissa kept the sword tip in place as the man slowly walked to the table and transferred the paper to her left hand. With a prod, he returned to the wall.
"Turn around, hands on the wall, feet back, spread them. One move, and you can guess what I'm cutting off first."
"My dear, my interest in theatrics does not extend to real weapons. The story you want is on the front page."
"It could be anybody."
"I wish it were just anybody, Constable, but it isn't. I expect the submersible crew are negotiating a surrender to the NUSM as we speak. It seems they grew tired of protecting the most wanted man in the world."
"That's a nice story, Mercator, or whoever you are --"
"Please, Constable, think. If I am Vincent Mercator, how did I get here? You surely know, though the general public does not, that Mercator boarded a submersible on the Pacific coast of New Granada on the night of 3 January."
"The Pacific coast, young lady. Unless you're proposing that the submersible steamed through the Kinkaid Canal under the noses of the newly managed Mexican Navy, the only way to get here is around the Horn. There simply hasn't been time. Do you know how fast a submersible transport travels?"
In fact, Clarissa thought, she didn't. This story could be yet another fabrication. And yet the man before her didn't strike her as the murderer of tens of thousands. And he moved like an amateur, not like a career soldier. Could he possibly be telling the truth?
It had been clear that the General's new visitor was important. Only a small circle of intimates were allowed to see his face, not including Clarissa's alter ego, the accountant and occasional singer "Abby Bartlet". When she had finally contrived to get a look at the stranger--
"The life and freedom of an unemployed actor are of much less interest to you than those of Vincent Mercator, I admit. But still I propose to bargain for them--"
"I should run you through right now."
"Perhaps, Constable, perhaps. But I think you have more need for my help than you are willing to admit. As I see it, you are still in an isolated compound, surrounded by enemies who are alerted to your true identity. Somewhere there must be hundreds of militia waiting to pounce upon us, but the big question is whether you've yet given them the signal to move in."
"I have. They'll be here in two hours."
"Ah, Detective, a woman in your position should be more skilled as a liar. So you haven't signaled them yet, and my associates have by now surely cut off the telephones. But I know where there's a radio transmitter--"
Useful if true, Clarissa thought. He had the tactical situation figured perfectly. Somehow -- she still didn't know how -- in setting up a CBI takedown of this compound she had finally blown her cover. The General himself had confronted her a few minutes before in the music room, only to be temporarily dispatched by a kick in the head and her throwing knife in his leg. She'd only had time to grab one of the many antique weapons on the wall before dashing off to find Mercator, if that was who he was, here. "Abby" had been given the run of most of the compound, but she'd never seen this supposed radio.
"A radio. I'm interested. What do you want?"
"Your word as a lady that you'll let me escape once you've made your signal. For my part I'll help you however I can and not aid in your recapture in any way. I offer my parole, in the best Britannic tradition."
There were already audible noises from behind them. She didn't have a lot of choice. "All right, you have my word. I'll have plenty of time to spit you like a pig at the first sign of a double-cross. Which way?"
She followed him through the door to the right, wondering if she'd done the right thing. But she needed that radio, and she needed a last conversation with one particular Yank before the militia arrived ...
"Adam, you've got to go. Now. This compound is going to be swarming with millies in less than an hour whatever you do."
"I don't understand."
"I'm one of them, Adam. I'm not Abby Bartlet, there never was an Abby Bartlet, I've betrayed you. I'm CBI, an infiltrator, a spy. The last thing I can do for you is save you, but I'll never see you again."
"Take Jemmy, take the Conk and go. Take the back roads out of here, just drive. Go south, I'd think, Nova Scotia will be too hot for you, go south until you've out of the whole Northern Confederation. I won't tell them anything about you. I'm sorry, Adam. I don't know what to say."
"Why you wicked bitch!"
She reached out, almost tenderly, and took his face between her hands. He was still too stunned to resist. God, he was so young!
"I deserve that. Adam, everything I told you was a lie, but everything I felt for you was true. I did love you, I do love you, I won't ever forget you. But for God's sake believe me, you have to leave. Now."
She leaned forward, kissed him on the mouth, and dropped her hands. He stood there a second, then another. Clarissa watched him shake his head, turn, and run towards the car barn, calling "Jemmy!" as he ran. She looked around for a place to hide until the militia came.
- CBI District Office
- Falmouth, Maine, NC, CNA
- 25 January 1975
"SUBJECT IN ARGENTINE CUSTODY SINCE TWENTYTWO JANUARY NOT REPEAT NOT VINCENT MERCATOR PERIOD SUBJECT CONCLUSIVELY IDENTIFIED LASTNAME SINGH FIRSTNAME JULIAN PERIOD SUBJECT WELL KNOWN FORMER VITAVISION ACTOR AND SECURITY DOUBLE FOR MERCATOR PERIOD HELD ON ARGENTINE CHARGES COLON CONSPIRACY COMMA ESPIONAGE COMMA FALSE REPORT PERIOD NO LEADS HERE RE WHEREABOUTS MERCATOR PERIOD SIGNED CARTER COMMA CBI OFFICE BUENOS AIRES MESSAGE ENDS"
So it seemed that there had been at least three alleged Vincent Mercators that day: a dead man pulled from the waters of California, a prisoner in an Argentine jail, and the man she had released in Maine. Were there even more? Were any of them the real Mercator, the real murderer of fifty thousand people?
She had no answers to these questions. No submersible had surrendered to the Mexican Navy. In fact, she had learned, Mercator's alleged submersible had atomic engines and had been quite capable of reaching the North Atlantic in the necessary time. It was possible that she had in fact failed to apprehend the greatest lawbreaker in history.
No answers would be found in her final report, a model of obfuscation even by the standards of the Liddy-era CBI. But with dozens of arrests and the General's organization in ruins, Clarissa could afford to muddy the waters a bit. She would be due for a promotion, along with good old Roger Gaffney, who had assigned her to the undercover duty and stood by her for so long. They'd be happy to give her a transfer as well. Manitoba, perhaps, or the Vandalias? Any place far away from the life Abby Bartlet had lived for six months.
The report reluctantly conceded that the wounded General had escaped, no doubt by prearranged plan. It made no mention of the two young men who had driven south in a Mexican hot-rod, or the charming elderly man who had disappeared for parts unknown.
Forward to FAN #204 (24 January 1975): Rogue Asset.
Forward to Clarissa Forster: So I Wouldn't Get Weighed.
Return to For All Nails.