Banquets of the Black Widowers (The Black Widowers #4)

Chapter 6

chapter
Chapter

HENRY, the smoothly functioning waiter at the monthly Black Widowers banquet, filled the water glass of the evening's guest as though knowing in advance that that guest was reaching into his shirt pocket for a small vial of pills.

The guest looked up. "Thank you, waiter – though the pills are small enough to go down au jus, so to speak."

He looked about the table and sighed. "Advancing age! In our modern times we are not allowed to grow old ad lib. Doctors follow the faltering mechanism in detail and insist on applying the grease. My blood pressure is a touch high and I have an occasional extra systole, so I take a pretty little orange pill four times a day."

Geoffrey Avalon, who sat immediately across the table, smiled with the self – conscious superiority of a man moderately stricken in years who kept himself in good shape with a vigorous system of calisthenics, and said, "How old are you, Mr. Smith?"

"Fifty – seven. With proper care, my doctor assures me I will live out a normal lifetime."

Emmanuel Rubin's eyes flashed in magnified form behind his thick spectacles as he said, "I doubt there's an American who reaches middle age these days who doesn't become accustomed to a regimen of pills of one kind or another. I take zinc and vitamin E and a few other things."

James Drake nodded and said in his soft voice as he peered through his cigarette smoke, "I have a special weekly pillbox arrangement to keep the day's dosages correct. That way you can check on whether you've taken the second pill of a particular kind. If it's in the Friday compartment still – assuming the day is Friday – you haven't taken it."

Smith said, "I take only this one kind of pill, which simplifies things. I bought a week's supply three years ago – twenty – eight of them – on my doctor's prescription. I was frankly skeptical, but they helped me tremendously and I persuaded my doctor to prescribe them for me in bottles of a thousand. Every Sunday morning, I put twenty – eight into my original vial, which I carry with me everywhere and at all times and which I still use. I know at all times how much I should have – right now, I should have four left, having just taken the twenty – fourth of the week, and I do. In three years, I've missed a pill only twice."

"I," said Rubin, loftily, "have not yet reached that pitch of senility that requires any mnemonic devices at all."

"No?" asked Mario Gonzalo, spearing his last bit of baba au rhum. "What pitch of senility have you reached?"

Roger Halsted, who was hosting the banquet that night, forestalled Rubin's rejoinder by saying, hastily, "There's an interesting point to be made here. As increasing numbers of people pump themselves full of chemicals, there must be fewer and fewer people with untampered tissue chemistry."

"None at all," growled Thomas Trumbull. "The food we eat is loaded with additives. The water we drink has purifying chemicals. The air we breathe is half pollution of one sort or another. If you could analyze an individual's blood carefully enough, you could probably tell where he lived, what he eats, what medicines he takes."

Smith nodded. His short hair exposed prominent ears, something Gonzalo had taken full advantage of in preparing his caricature of the evening's guest. Now Smith rubbed one of them thoughtfully, and said, "Maybe you could file everyone's detailed blood pattern in some computer bank. Then if all else fails, your blood would be your identification. The pattern would be entered into the computer which would compare it with all those in its memory files and, within a minute, words would flash across a screen saying, The man you have here is John Smith of Fairfield, Connecticut,' and I would stand up and bow."

Trumbull said, "If you could stand up and bow, you could stand up and identify yourself. Why bother with a blood pattern?"

"Oh, yes?" said Smith, grimly.

Halsted said, "Listen, let's not get involved in this. Henry is distributing the brandy and it's past time for the grilling. Jeff, will you assume the task?"

"I will be glad to," said Avalon in his most solemn tone.

Bending his fierce and graying eyebrows over his eyes, Avalon said, with incongruous mildness, "And just how do you justify your existence, Mr. Smith?"

"Well," said Smith, cheerfully, "I inherited a going business. I did well with it, sold it profitably, invested wisely, and now live in early retirement in a posh place in Fairfield – a widower with two grown children, each on his own. I toil not, neither do I spin and, like the lilies of the field, my justification is my beauty and the way it illuminates the landscape." A grin of self – mockery crossed his pleasantly ugly face.

Avalon said, indulgently, "I suppose we can pass that. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Your name is John Smith?"

"And I can prove it," said Smith quickly. "Name your poison. I have my card, a driver's license, a variety of credit cards, some personal letters addressed to me, a library card, and so on."

"I am perfectly willing to accept your word, sir, but it occurs to me that with a name like John Smith you must frequently encounter some signs of cynical disbelief – from hotel clerks, for instance. Do you have a middle initial?"

"No, sir, I am the real thing. My parents felt that any modification of the grand cliche would spoil the grandeur. I won't deny that there haven't been times when I've longed to say my name was Eustace Bartholomew Wasservogel, but the feeling passes. Of the Smiths I am, and of that tribe – variety, John – I remain."

Avalon cleared his throat portentously and said, "And yet, Mr. Smith, I feel you have reason to feel annoyance at your name. You reacted to Tom's suggestion that you could merely announce your name and make the blood identification unnecessary with a clear tone of annoyance. Have you had some special occasion of late when you failed to identify yourself?"

Trumbull said, "Let me guess that you did. Your eagerness to demonstrate your ability to prove your identity would show that some past failure to do so rankles."

Smith stared around the table in astonishment, "Good God, does it show that much?"

Halsted said, "No, John, it doesn't, but this group has developed a sixth sense about mysteries. I told you when you accepted my invitation that if you were hiding a skeleton in your closet, they'd have it out of you."

"And I told you, Roger," said Smith, "that I had no mystery about me."

"And the matter of inability to prove identity?" said Rubin.

"Was a nightmare rather than a mystery," said Smith, "and it is something I've been asked not to talk about."

Avalon said, "Anything mentioned within the four walls of a Black Widowers banquet represents privileged communication. Feel free."

"I can't." Smith paused, then said, "Look, I don't know what it's all about. I think I was mistaken for someone once when I was visiting Europe and after I got out of the nightmare, I was visited by someone from the – by someone, and asked not to talk about it. Though come to think of it, there is a mystery of a sort."

"Ah," said Avalon, "and what might that be?"

"I don't really know how I got out of the nightmare," said Smith.

Gonzalo, looking pleased and animated, said, "Tell us what happened and I'll bet we tell you how you got out of it."

"I can't very well -" began Smith.

Trumbull's frowning face, having attempted to wither Gonzalo, turned to Smith. "I understand such things, Mr. Smith," he said. "Suppose you omit the name of the country involved and the exact dates and any other such identifiable paraphernalia. Just tell it as a story out of the Arabian Nights – if the nightmare will stand up without the dangerous detail."

Smith said, "I think it will, but seriously, gentlemen, if the matter does involve national security – and I can imagine ways in which it might – how can I be sure you are all to be trusted?"

Halsted said, "If you trust me, John, I'll vouch for the rest of the Black Widowers – including, of course, Henry, our esteemed waiter."

Henry, standing at the sideboard, smiled gently.

Smith was visibly tempted. "I don't say I wouldn't like to get this off my chest – "

"If you choose not to," said Halsted, "I'm afraid the banquet ends. The terms of the invitation were that you were to answer all questions truthfully."

Smith laughed. "You also said I would not be asked anything designed to humiliate me or to put me in a disgraceful light – but have it your way."

"I was visiting Europe last year," said Smith, "and I'll put the location and date no closer than that. I was a recent widower, a little lost without my wife, and rather determined to pick up the threads of life once again. I had not been much of a traveller before my retirement and I was anxious to make up for that.

"I travelled alone and I was a tourist. Nothing more than that. I want to stress that in all truthfulness. I was not serving any organ of the government – and that's true of any government, not just my own – either officially or unofficially. Nor was I there to gather information for any private organization. I was a tourist and nothing more and so steeped in innocence that I suppose it was too much to expect that I not get into trouble.

"I could not speak the language of the country but that didn't bother me. I can't speak any language but English and I have the usual provincial American attitude that that's enough. There would always be someone, anywhere I might be, who would speak and understand English. – And as a matter of fact, that always proved to be correct.

"The hotel I stayed at was reasonably comfortable in appearance, though there was so foreign an aura about it that I knew I would not feel at home – but then I didn't expect to feel at home. I couldn't even pronounce its name, though that didn't bother me.

"I only stayed long enough to deposit my luggage and then it was ho, for the great foreign spaces where I could get to know the people.

"The man at the desk – the concierge, or whatever he might be called – spoke an odd version of English that, with a little thought, could be understood. I got a list of tourist attractions from him, some recommended restaurants, a stylized map of the city (not in English, so I doubted it would do me much good), and some general assertions as to how safe the city was and how friendly the inhabitants.

"I imagine Europeans are always eager to impress that on Americans, who are known to live dangerously. In the nineteenth century they thought every American city lay under imminent threat of Indian massacre; in the first half of the twentieth century, every one was full of Chicago gangsters; and now they are all full of indiscriminate muggers. So I wandered off into the city cheerfully."

"Alone? Without knowing the language?" said Avalon, with manifest disapproval. "What time was it?"

"The shades of evening were being drawn downward by a cosmic hand and you're right in the implication, Mr. Avalon. Cities are never as safe as their boosters claim, and I found that out. But I started off cheerfully enough. The world was full of poetry and I was enjoying myself.

"There were signs of all kinds on buildings and in store windows that were beginning to be lit up in defense against the night. Since I could read none of them, I was spared their deadly prosiness.

"The people were friendly. I would smile and they would smile in return. Many said something – I presume in greeting – and I would smile again and nod and wave. It was a beautiful, mild evening and I was absolutely euphoric.

"I don't know how long I was walking or how far I had gone before I was quite convinced that I was lost, but even that didn't bother me. I stepped into a tavern to ask my way to the restaurant where I had determined to go and whose name I had painstakingly memorized. I called out the name of the restaurant, and pointed vaguely in various directions and shrugged my shoulders and tried to indicate that I had lost my way. Several gathered around and one of them asked in adequate English if I was an American. I said I was and he translated that jubilantly to the others, who seemed delighted.

"He said, 'We don't see many Americans here.' They then fell to studying my clothes and the cut of my hair and asking where I was from and trying to pronounce 'Fairfield' and offering to stand me drinks. I sang The Star – Spangled Banner' because they seemed to expect it and it was a real love feast. I did have a drink on an empty stomach and after that things got even love – feastier.

"They told me the restaurant I asked for was very expensive, and not very good, and that I should eat right there and they would order for me and it would be on the house. It was hands across the sea and building bridges, you know, and I doubt if I had ever been happier since before Regina had died. I had another drink or two.

"And then after that my memory stops until I found myself out in the street again. It was quite dark, much cooler. There were almost no people about, I had no idea where I was, and every idea that I had a splitting headache.

"I sat down in a doorway and knew, even before I felt for it, that my wallet was gone. So was my wristwatch, my pens – In fact, my trousers pockets were empty and so were my jacket pockets. I had been Mickey Finned and rolled by my dear friends across the sea and they had probably taken me by car to a distant part of the city and dumped me.

"The money taken was not terribly vital. My main supply was safely back in the hotel. Still I had no money at the moment, I didn't know where I was, I didn't remember the name of the hotel, I felt woozy, sick, and in pain – and I needed help.

"I looked for a policeman or for anyone in anything that looked like a uniform. If I had found a street cleaner, or a bus conductor, he could direct me or, better, take me to a police station.

"I found a policeman. Actually, it wasn't difficult. They are, I imagine, numerous and deliberately visible in that particular city. And I was then taken to a police station – in the equivalent of a paddy wagon, I think. My memory has its hazy spots.

"When I begin to remember a bit more clearly, I was sitting on a bench in what I guessed to be the police station. No one was paying much attention to me and my headache was a little better.

"A rather short man with a large mustache entered, engaged in conversation with a man behind a massive desk, then approached me. He seemed rather indifferent, but to my relief he spoke English and quite well, too, though he had a disconcertingly British accent.

"I followed him into a rather dingy room, gray and depressing, and there the questioning began. It was the questioning that was the nightmare, though the questioner remained unfailingly, if distantly, polite. He told me his name but I don't remember it. I honestly don't. It began with a V, so I'll just call him 'Vee' if I have to.

"He said, 'You say your name is John Smith.'

"'Yes.'

"He didn't exactly smile. He said, "It is a very common name in the United States and, I understand, is frequently assumed by those who wish to avoid investigation."

"'It is frequently assumed because it is common,' I said, 'and since it is common, why shouldn't I be one of the hundreds of thousands who bear it?'

""You have identification?'

""I've been robbed. I've come in to complain – '

"Vee raised his hand and made hushing noises through his mustache. 'Your complaint has been recorded, but I have nothing to do with the people here. They merely made sure you were not wounded and then sent for me. They have not searched you or questioned you. It is not their job. Now – do you have identification?'

"Wearily, and quietly, I told him what had happened.

"'Then,' he said, 'you have nothing with which to support your statement that you are John Smith of Fairfield, Connecticut?'

"'Who else should I be?'

"'That we would like to find out. You say you were mistreated in a tavern. Its location, please.'

"'I don't know.'

"'Its name?'

"'I don't know.'

"'What were you doing there?"

"'I told you. I was merely walking through the city – '

"'Alone?'

"'Yes, alone. I told you.'

"'Your starting point?"

""My hotel.'

"'And you have identification there?"

"'Certainly. My passport is there and all my belongings.'

"'The name of the hotel?'

"I winced at that. Even to myself my answer would seem too much to accept. 'I can't recall,' I said in a low voice.

"'Its location?'

"'I don't know."

"Vee sighed. He looked at me in a nearsighted way and I thought his eyes seemed sad, but perhaps it was only myopia.

"He said, 'The basic question is: What is your name? We must have some identification or this becomes a serious matter. Let me explain your position to you, Mr. Blank. Nothing compels me to do so, but I am not in love with every aspect of my work and I shall sleep better if I make sure you understand that you are in great danger.'

"My heart began to race. I am not young. I am not a hero. I am not brave. I said, 'But why? I am a wronged person. I have been drugged and robbed. I came voluntarily to the police, sick and lost, looking for help – '

"Again, Vee held up his hand, 'Quietly! Quietly! Some speak a little English here and it is better we keep this between ourselves for now. Things may be as you have described, or they may not. You are an American national. My government has cause to fear Americans. That, at least, is our official position. We are expecting an American agent of great ability to penetrate our borders on a most dangerous mission.

"'That means that any strange American – any American encountered under suspicious circumstances – has, for a week now, been referred instantly to my department. Your circumstances were suspicious to begin with and have grown far more suspicious now that I have questioned you.'

"I stared at him in horror. 'Do you think I'm a spy? If I were, would I come to the police like this?'

"'You may not be the spy, but you may still be a spy. There are people who will think so at once. Even I view it as a possibility.'

"'But no kind of spy would come to the police – '

"'Please! It will do you good to listen. You may be a distraction. If you play chess, you will know what I mean when I say you may be a sacrifice. You are sent in to confuse and distract us, occupying our time and efforts, while the real work is done elsewhere.'

"I said, "But it hasn't worked, if that's what I'm supposed to be. You're not confused and distracted. No one could be fooled by anything as silly as this. It's not a reasonable sacrifice and so it's no sacrifice at all. It's nothing but the truth I've been telling you.'

"Vee sighed. 'Then what's your name?"

"'John Smith. Ask me a million times and it will stay my name.'

"'But you can't prove it. – See here,' he said, 'you have two alternatives. One is to convince me in some reasonable way that you are telling the truth. Mere statements, however eloquent, are insufficient. There must be evidence. Have you nothing with your name on it? Nothing material you can show me?'

"'I told you,' I said, despairingly. 'I've been robbed.'

"'Failing that,' he said, as though he hadn't heard my remark, 'it will be assumed you are here to fulfill some function for your country that will not be to the interest of my country, and you will be interrogated with that in mind. It will not be my job, I am glad to say, but those who interrogate will be most thorough and most patient. I wish it were not so, but where national security is at stake – '

"I was in utter panic. I said, stuttering, 'But I can't tell what I don't know, no matter how you interrogate.'

"'If so, they will finally be convinced, but you will not be well off by then. And you will be imprisoned, for it will not then be politic to let you go free in your condition. If your country succeeds in what it may be attempting, there will be anger in this country and you will surely be the victim of that and will receive a long sentence. Your country will not be able to intercede for you. It will not even try.'

"I screamed. 'That is unjust! That is unjust!'

"'Life is unjust," said Vee, sadly. 'Your own President Kennedy said that.'

"'But what am I to do?' I babbled.

"He said, 'Convince me your story is true. Show me something! Remember something! Prove your name is John Smith. Take me to the tavern; better yet to the hotel. Present me with your passport. Give me anything, however small, as a beginning, and I will have sufficient faith in you to try for the rest – at some risk to myself, I might add.'

"'I appreciate that, but I cannot. I am helpless. I cannot." I was babbling. All I could think of was that I was facing torture and an extended prison term for the crime of having been drugged and robbed. It was more than I could bear and I fainted. I'm sorry. It is not a heroic action, but I told you I wasn't a hero."

Halsted said, "You don't know what they had put in your drink in the tavern. You were half – poisoned. You weren't yourself."

"It's kind of you to say so, but the prospect of torture and imprisonment for nothing was not something I could have faced with stoicism on my best day.

"The next memory I have is that of lying on a bed with a vague feeling of having been manhandled. I think some of my clothing may have been removed.

"Vee was watching me with the same expression of sadness on his face. He said, 'I'm sorry. Would you care for some brandy?'

"I remembered. The nightmare was back. I shook my head. All I wanted was to convince him of my utter innocence somehow. I said, 'Listen! You must believe me. Every word I have told you is true! I -'

"He placed his hand on my shoulder and shook it. 'Stop! I believe you!'

"I stared at him stupidly, 'What!'

"He said, 'I believe you. For one thing, no one who was sent on a task such as yours might have been, could have portrayed utter terror so convincingly, in my opinion. But that is only my opinion. It would not have convinced my superiors and I could not have acted on it. However, no one could be as stupid as you have now proved to be without having been sufficiently stupid to step into a strange tavern so confidingly and to have forgotten the name of your hotel.'

"But I don't understand.'

"Enough! I have wasted enough time. I should, properly, now leave you to the police, but I do not wish to abandon you just yet. For the tavern and the thieves within, I can do nothing now. Perhaps another time after another complaint. Let us, however, find your hotel. – Tell me anything you remember – the decor – the position of the registration desk – the hair color of the man behind it – were there flowers? Come, come, Mr. Smith, what kind of street was it on? Were there shops? Was there a doorman? Anything?'

"I wondered if it were a scheme to trap me into something, but I saw no alternative but to try to answer the questions. I tried to picture everything as it had been when I had walked into the hotel for the first time less than twelve hours before. I did my best to describe and he hurried me on impatiently, asking questions faster than I could answer.

"He then looked at the hurried notes he had taken and whispered them to another official of some sort, who was on the spot without my having seen him enter – a hotel expert, perhaps. The newcomer nodded his head wisely and whispered back.

"Vee said, 'Very well, then. We think we know what hotel it was, so let us go. The faster I locate your passport, the better all around.'

"Off we went in an official car. I sat there, fearful and apprehensive, fearing that it was a device to break my spirit by offering me hope only to smash it by taking me to prison instead. God knows my spirit needed no breaking. – Or what if they took me to a hotel, and it was the wrong one, would they then listen to anything at all that I had to say?

"We did speed to a hotel, however. I shrugged helplessly when Vee asked if it was the hotel. How could I tell in pitch – darkness? And I feared committing myself to what would turn out to be a mistake.

"But it was the correct hotel. The night man behind the desk didn't know me, of course, but there was the record of a room for a John Smith of Fairfield. We went up there and behold – my luggage, my passport, my papers. Quite enough.

"Vee shook hands with me and said, in a low voice, 'A word of advice, Mr. Smith. Get out of the country quickly. I shall make my report and exonerate you, but if things go wrong in some ways, someone may decide you should be picked up again. You will be better off beyond the borders.'

"I thanked him and never took anyone's advice so eagerly in all my life. I checked out of the hotel, grabbed a taxi to the nearest station, and I don't think I breathed till I crossed the border.

"To this day, I don't know what it was all about – whether the United States really had an espionage project under way in that country at that time or whether, if we did, we succeeded or failed. As I said, some official asked me to keep quiet about the whole thing, so I suppose the suspicions of Vee's government were more or less justified.

"In any case, I never plan to go back to that particular country."

Avalon said, "You were fortunate, Mr. Smith. I see what you mean when you said you were puzzled by the ending. Vee, as you call him, did make a sudden about – face, didn't he?"

"I don't think so," interposed Gonzalo. "I think he was sympathetic to you all along, Mr. Smith. When you passed out, he called some superior, convinced him you were just a poor jerk in trouble, and then let you go."

"It might be," said Drake, "that it was your fainting that convinced him. If you were actually an agent, you would know the dangers you ran, and you would be more or less steeled for them. In fact, he said so, didn't he? He said you couldn't fake fear so convincingly and you therefore had to be what you said you were – or something like that."

Rubin said, "If you've told the story accurately, Mr. Smith, I would think that Vee is out of sympathy with the regime or he wouldn't have urged you to get out of the country as he did. I should think he stands a good chance of being purged, or has been since that rime."

Trumbull said, "I hate to agree with you, Manny, but I do. My guess is that Vee's failure to hang on to Smith may have been the last straw."

"That doesn't make me feel very good," muttered Smith.

Roger Halsted pushed his coffee cup out of the way and placed his elbows on the table. He said earnestly, "I've heard the bare bones of the story before and I've thought about it and think there's more to it than that. Besides, if all five of you agree on something, that must be wrong."

He turned to Smith. "You told me, John, that this Vee was a young man."

"Well, he struck me as being in his early thirties."

"All right, then," said Halsted, "if a youngish man is in the secret police, it must be out of conviction and he must plan to rise in the ranks. He isn't going to run ridiculous risks for some nonentity. If he were an old man, he might remember an earlier regime and might be out of sympathy with the new government, but -"

Gonzalo said, "How do you know this Vee wasn't a double agent? Maybe that's why our government doesn't want Smith to be talking about the matter."

"If Vee were a double agent," said Halsted, "then, considering his position in the government intelligence there, he would be enormously valuable to us. All the more reason that he wouldn't risk anything for the sake of a nonentity. I suspect that there's more than sympathy involved. He must have thought of something that authenticated John's story."

"Sometimes I think that's it," said Smith, morosely. "I keep thinking of his remark after I came out of my faint to the effect that I was too stupid to be guilty. He never did explain that remark."

"Wait a minute," said Rubin. "After you came out of your faint, you said you seemed to be in disarray. While you were out, they inspected your clothes closely, realized they were American make – "

"What would that prove?" demanded Gonzalo, scornfully. "An American spy is as likely to wear American clothes as an American jerk is. No offense, Mr. Smith."

"None taken," said Smith. "Besides, I had bought the clothes I was then wearing in Paris."

Gonzalo said, "I guess you didn't ask him why he thought you were stupid."

Smith snorted. "You mean did I say to him, 'Hey, wise guy, who're you calling stupid?' No, I didn't say that, or anything like it. I just held my breath."

Avalon said, "The comments on your stupidity, Mr. Smith, need not be taken to heart. You have said several times that you were not yourself at any time during that difficult time. After being drugged, you might well have seemed stupid. In any case, I don't see that we'll ever know the inwardness of Vee's change of mind. It would be sufficient to accept it and not question the favors of fortune. It is enough that you emerged safely from the lion's mouth."

"Well, wait," said Gonzalo. "We haven't asked Henry for his opinion yet."

Smith said, with astonishment, "The waiter?" Then, in a lower voice, "I didn't realize he was listening. Does he understand this is all confidential?"

Gonzalo said, "He's a member of the club and the best man here. Henry, can you understand Vee's change of heart?"

Henry hesitated. "I do not wish to offend Mr. Smith. I would not care to call him stupid, but I can see why this foreign official, Vee, thought so."

There was a general stir about the table. Smith said, stiffly, "What do you mean, Henry?"

"You say the events of the nightmare took place some time last year."

"That's right," said Smith.

"And you say your pockets were rifled. Were they completely emptied?"

"Of course," said Smith.

"But that is clearly impossible. You've said you still carry the original vial of pills, and that you have carried it everywhere and at all times, so that I suppose you had it with you when you travelled abroad and that you had it with you when you entered the tavern – and therefore still had it with you when you left the tavern."

Smith said, "Well, yes, you're right. It was in my shirt pocket as always. Either they missed it or decided they didn't want it."

"You didn't say anything about that in the course of the tale you have just told us."

"It never occurred to me."

"Nor did you tell Vee about them, I suppose?" said Henry.

"Look here," said Smith, angrily, "I didn't think of them. But even if I did, I wouldn't voluntarily bring up the matter. They would use it to place a trumped – up charge of carrying dope against me and in that way justify an imprisonment."

"You'd be right, if you thought of the pills only, sir," said Henry.

"What else is there to think of?"

"The container," said Henry, mildly. "The pills were available only by prescription and you told us it was the original vial. May we see it, Mr. Smith?"

Smith withdrew it from his shin pocket, glanced at it and said, vehemently, "Hell!"

"Exactly," said Henry. "On the label placed on the vial by the pharmacist, there should be printed the pharmacist's name and address, probably in Fairfield, and your name should be typed in as well, together with directions for use."

"You're right."

"And after you had denied having any identification on you, even in the face of torture, Vee looked through your pockets while you were unconscious, and found exactly what he had been asking you to give him."

"No wonder he thought I was stupid," said Smith, shaking his head. "I was stupid. Now I really feel rotten."

"And yet," said Henry, "you have an explanation of something that has puzzled you for a year, and that should make you feel good."

AFTERWORD

Here's another story in which I accepted Fred's title and discarded my own. I had called this story "What's my Name?" and it seems to me that "Can You Prove It?" is much more successful. There's an air of hostility about "Can You Prove It?" that instantly increases the tension even before you begin the story.

Incidentally, this, like "The Driver," is one of those stories that derives its tension from the fact that the world contains two superpowers that have confronted each other for forty years now, each with weapons of destruction so unparalleled that a war between them would mean loss (perhaps irreversible loss) for all mankind.

It is for that reason that I hate to write stories involving the confrontation, or even to read them. It strikes me that anything that serves to increase hatred and suspicion just increases the chances that in a moment of anger or miscalculation the nuclear button will be pushed.

And yet, sometimes, the exigencies of plotting force me into it, and then as I reread the story I can't help but think sardonically that with the change of very few words, with just a substitution here and there of minor extent, the story could very well have been written by someone on the other side. – And that's rather sad, too.

The story appeared in the June 17, 1981, issue of EQMM.


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