To GET TO Reno, Nevada, from the southeast, in summer, if you don't have an air-conditioned car, you first sleep all day in Las Vegas. Then you eat a leisurely dinner, waiting for the sun to go down. You pack your gear and head off into the desert, which is cooling off now and bearable, if not exactly frigid. You drive all night through great areas of black nothing. The monotony is broken only by occasional neat signs informing you that the mysterious government installations along the way are none of your business, even if your taxes did help build them.
Then the sun comes up again, and a little while later you're in Reno, ready to get your divorce. I already had mine. I was just looking up my ex-wife, remarried now and living on a ranch somewhere nearby, because for some reason she wanted me to.
After a shower, a shave, and a belated breakfast, I reread Beth's letter while resting comfortably on one of the twin beds of an air-conditioned motel unit near the Truckee River. They do have a river in Reno, which is more than you can say for Las Vegas; and in other respects it's a little more of a town and a little less of a gold-plated gambling joint. Not that Reno qualifies as a staid and churchly community, by a long shot. No Nevada town does. I couldn't hear the clank of the slot machines from where I lay, but that could have been just be-cause it was still quite early in the day, or because the wind was wrong.
The letter was addressed to Mr. Matthew Helm, since Beth still clung to the notion that a nickname has no place on an envelope. It was written in blue-black ink on good rag paper bearing a cattle brand and the heading:
Double-L Ranch, Middle Fork, Nevada. It was quite short.
When we parted, you said that if I or the children should ever need you, you would come.
I have no right to ask, of course, but we need you now.
(Mrs. Lawrence Logan)
She'd gone to one of those strict eastern schools, almost vanished from the educational scene, where they still taught such cruel, old-fashioned disciplines as penmanship, regardless of the frustrations and inhibitions that might thereby be produced in the sensitive minds of their helpless charges. Maybe this educational trauma was at the root of her troubles, if you want to call them that. She wouldn't want to. In her view, as was only natural, there was nothing wrong with her. I was the one with troubles-troubles too terrible for a woman to share. Well, we could both be half right.
Anyway, she had a lovely, neat, precise and well-disciplined handwriting that reminded me of the lovely, neat, precise and well-disciplined person from whom it had come. We'd never quarreled; she wasn't someone you could quarrel with. There's not much satisfaction in yelling at someone who won't yell back. We'd even parted company in a quite civilized manner.
"Beth," I'd said, "can't you simply forget about it?"
"No," she'd whispered, "no, I can't forget! How can
I said, "Well, we might as well call it quits, then. I'll take my old pickup truck and the stuff in the studio. You can have the station wagon and the house and all the rest of it. I won't be needing much furniture where I'm going."
She winced and said, "I'm sorry, Matt. I just can't help… I'm sorry."
She probably was, but the fact remained that she could no longer bear to have me around. We'd had almost fifteen years, perhaps more than I'd had a right to expect. Then, one day, as I should have known would happen, the war, which I'd fought in a kind of specialized way with some kind of specialized characters, had caught up with me.
I'd had to call into play certain skills and attitudes I'd learned under the tutelage of a gentleman known as Mac, with fairly messy results, which Beth had witnessed. She'd seen the good, gentle Dr. Jekyll turn, briefly, into the nasty, violent Mr. Hyde, and the shock had remained with her. Well, there wasn't much point in forcing a woman to live with a man who turned her stomach; besides, it wasn't much fun for the man.
"I guess Reno's your best bet," I said. "Get a good lawyer and tell him I'll sign anything he wants." I'd hesitated then, not wanting to sound too corny and magnanimous, but it had been a pretty good marriage while it lasted, and I had to admit that the cause of the breakup, strictly speaking, lay in my past, not hers. I said, "It seems unlikely, but if the occasion should ever arise that you or the kids need a man of my peculiar talents, don't hesitate to call on me. After all, I'm still their daddy, no matter what a judge says."
I'd meant it all right, but it was essentially just one of those impressive lines you speak as you go out the door. I hadn't really expected her ever to take me up on it. I'd walked out and headed for the nearest phone and called Mac long distance to let him know I was coming back to work-he'd been after me to do it-after fifteen years of making my living peacefully with typewriter and camera. I'd been in Europe on official government business, never mind what, when notice reached me I was no longer a married man. Now, only some six months later, Beth was asking for help.
She must have found it difficult, I reflected. She must have swallowed a lot of pride to write those few lines.
She hadn't swallowed quite all of it, however. There was that little parenthesis under the signature-Mrs. Lawrence Logan-that specified the terms on which I was to come, if I did choose to come, quite clearly. Apparently she wasn't quite desperate enough to summon me as just a woman calling to a man. She wanted to make sure I wouldn't get any wrong ideas. If I helped her, she was saying, I was helping her as another man's wife, take it or leave it.
"Will you go, Eric?" Mac had asked after I'd read the letter the first time, standing by his desk in Washington on my return from Europe. I was always Eric in that office, no matter what names I might use elsewhere.
"Have I a choice?" I asked.
Then I glanced at him sharply. He was a lean, middle-aged man with close-clipped gray hair. He wore a gray flannel suit, and he looked about as much like Madison Avenue as an old gray timber wolf looks like your clipped pet poodle. They have some cold, hard, bright and ruthless men along that street, to be sure, but in one sense they're all thoroughly domesticated. They may talk big about cutting the throats of the opposition, or sticking knives in competitors' backs, but they are speaking quite figuratively, of course. The sight of real blood would send them all screaming for the police.
Blood has never bothered Mac a bit, as far as I know, and he's been responsible for the shedding of a lot of it.
He interpreted my questioning glance correctly. "Yes," he said, "I read the note. As a matter of fact, not knowing where to reach you, Mrs. Logan sent it to me with a covering letter, asking me to look it over and pass it on only if you were not on assignment. There was, she wrote, no point in worrying you if you were not free to come, and she did not wish to interfere with your efficiency, if you were on a dangerous mission. She seems quite a sensible and considerate person in many respects- and quite attractive, too."
"I didn't know you knew my wife-my ex-wife."
He said, "I paid her a visit last fall, while your divorce was still pending. It wasn't good security, of course, but she already knew more about us than she should, after that trouble you had in Santa Fe. Primarily, I wanted to see if she could be trusted to keep quiet, but I did think that perhaps, if I explained the patriotic necessity of your work with us, past and present, she might understand…" He shrugged his shoulders ruefully.
I hadn't known that he'd tried to intercede for me. "It was kind of you to take the trouble, sir."
"A commander must concern himself with whatever affects the morale of his troops," Mac said dryly. "As it turned out, I accomplished nothing in your behalf, quite the contrary. Your wife was very nice, very attentive, and quite horrified. She kept looking me over carefully to see where I kept my horns and tail."