The Golden Gate, p.1Alistair MacLean
The Golden Gate
To Mary Marcelle
About the author
By Alistair MacLean
Where Eagles Dare
About the Publisher
The operation had to be executed with a surgically military precision marked with a meticulousness that matched, in degree if not in scope, the Allied landings in wartime Europe. It was. The preparations had to be made in total stealth and secrecy. They were. A split-second co-ordination had to be achieved. It was. All the men had to be rehearsed and trained, over and over again until they played their parts perfectly and automatically. They were so trained. Every eventuality, every possible departure from the planned campaign had to be catered for. It was. And their confidence in their ability to carry out their plan, irrespective of reversals and departures from the norm, had to be total. It was.
Confidence was a quality exuded by their leader, Peter Branson. Branson was thirty-eight years old, just under six feet tall, strongly built, with black hair, pleasant features, lips that were curved in an almost perpetual smile and light blue eyes that had forgotten how to smile many years ago. He was dressed in a policeman’s uniform but he was not a policeman. Neither was any of the eleven men with them in that disused trucker’s garage not far from the banks of Lake Merced, halfway between Daly City to the south and San Francisco to the north, although three were attired in the same uniform as Branson.
The single vehicle there looked sadly out of place in what was, in effect, nothing more than an open-ended shed. It was a bus, but barely, by normal standards, qualified for the term. It was an opulently gleaming monster which above shoulder level was composed, except for the stainless-steel crossover struts, entirely of slightly tinted glass. There was no regular seating as such. There were about thirty swivel chairs, anchored to the floor but scattered seemingly at random, with deep armrests and aircraft-type swing-out dining-tables housed in each armrest. Towards the rear there was a cloakroom and a remarkably well-stocked bar. Beyond that there was a rear observation deck, the floor of which had for the moment been removed to reveal the cavernous baggage department. This was filled to near capacity but not with baggage. This enormous storage space, seven and a half feet wide by the same in length, held, among other things, two petrol-driven electric generators, two twenty-inch searchlights, a variety of smaller ones, two very peculiar-looking missile-like weapons with mounting tripods, machine-pistols, a large crated unmarked wooden box, four smaller wooden boxes, and a variety of other items of material, conspicuous among which were large coils of rope. Branson’s men were still loading.
The coach, one of only six ever made, had cost Branson ninety thousand dollars: for the purposes for which he intended to use it, he considered this figure a trifling investment. He was buying the coach, he had told the Detroit firm, as an agent for a publicity-shy millionaire, who was also an eccentric who wanted it painted yellow. And yellow it had been when it was delivered: it was now a gleaming, translucent white.
Two of the remaining five coaches had been bought by genuine and extrovert millionaires, both of whom intended them for luxurious, personal vacation travel. Both buses had rear ramps to accommodate their mini-cars. Both, presumably, would rest for about fifty weeks a year in their specially built garages.
The other three buses had been bought by the Government.
The dawn was not yet in the sky.
The other three white buses were in a garage in downtown San Francisco. The big sliding doors were closed and bolted. In a canvas chair in a corner a man in plain clothes, a sawn-off riot gun held on his lap by flaccid hands, slept peacefully. He had been dozing when the two intruders arrived and was now blissfully unaware that he had sunk into an even deeper sleep because he’d inhaled the single-second squirt from the gas gun without being aware of the fact. He would wake up within the hour almost equally unaware of what had happened and would be extremely unlikely to admit to his superiors that his vigilance had been a degree less than eternal.
The three buses looked indistinguishable from Branson’s, at least externally, although the centre one was markedly different in two respects, one visible, the other not. It weighed two tons more than its companions, for bullet-proof glass is a great deal heavier than ordinary plate glass, and those panoramic buses had an enormous glass area. And the interior of the coach was nothing less than a sybarite’s dream, which was no less than what one would expect for the private transportation of the country’s Chief Executive.
The Presidential coach had two huge facing sofas, so deep, so soft and so comfortable that the overweight man possessed of prudent foresight would have thought twice about ensconcing himself in either of them for regaining the vertical would have called for an apoplectic amount of will power or the use of a crane. There were four armchairs constructed along the same treacherously voluptuous lines. And that, in the way of seating accommodation, was that. There were cunningly concealed spigots for ice-water, scattered copper coffee tables and gleaming goldplated vases awaiting their daily consignment of fresh flowers. Behind this section were the washroom and the bar, a bar whose capacious refrigerators, in this particular and unusual instance, were stocked largely with fruit juices and soft drinks in deference to the customs of the President’s guests of honour, who were Arabs and Muslims.
Beyond this again, in a glassed-in compartment that extended the full width of the bus, was the communications centre, a maze of miniaturized electronic systems which was constantly manned whenever the President was aboard. It was said that this installation had cost considerably more than the coach itself. Besides incorporating a radio telephone system that could reach any place in the world, it had a small row of differently coloured buttons in a glass case which could be removed only with the aid of a special key. There were five such buttons. To press the first brought instant contact with the White House in Washington: the second was for the Pentagon: the third was for the airborne Strategic Air Command: the fourth was for Moscow and the fifth for London. Apart from the necessity of being in touch with his armed forces all the time, the President was an acute sufferer from telephonitis, even to the extent of an internal phone connecting him with his habitual seat on the bus and the communications compartment at the rear.
But it was not in this coach that the intruders were interested but in the one standing to its left. They entered by the front door and immediately removed a metal plate by the driver’s seat. One of the men shone a torch downwards, appeared to locate what he wanted almost immediately, reached up and took from his companion something that looked like a polythene bag of putty to which there was attached a metal cylinder not more than three inches long and one in diameter. This he securely bound to a metal strut with adhesive tape. He seemed to know what he was doing – which he did, for the lean and cadaverous Reston was an explosives expert of some note.
They moved to the rear and went behind the bar. Reston climbed on to a stool, slid back an overhead cupboard door and looked at the liquor contents. Whatever the camp-followers in the Presidential motorcade were going to suffer from, it clearly wasn’t going to be thirst. There were two rows of vertically stacked bottles, the first ten to the left, five in each row, being bourbon and scotch. Reston stooped and examined the upside-down optics beneath the cupboard and saw that the bo
Reston removed the ten bottles from their circular retaining holes in the cupboard and handed them down to his companion who stacked five of them on the counter and placed the other five in a canvas bag which had evidently been brought along for this purpose, then handed Reston a rather awkward piece of equipment which consisted of three parts: a small cylinder similar to the one that had been fitted forwards, a beehive-shaped device, no more than two inches high and the same in diameter, and a device which looked very like a car fire extinguisher, with the notable exception that it had a plastic head. Both this and the beehive were attached to the cylinder by wires.
The beehive had a rubber sucker at its base but Reston did not seem to have any great faith in suckers for he produced a tube of quick-acting glue with which he liberally besmeared the base of the beehive. This done he pressed it firmly against the forward-facing side of the cupboard, taped it securely to the large and small cylinders and then taped the three to the inner row of circular holes which retained the bottles. He replaced the five bottles in front. The device was completely hidden. He slid shut the door, replaced the stool and left the bus with his companion. The guard still slept peacefully. The two men left by the side door by which they had entered and locked it behind them. Reston produced a walkie-talkie. He said: ‘PI?’
The amplified voice came through clearly on the fascia-mounted speaker in the bus in the garage north of Daly City. Branson made a switch.
‘Good.’ There was no elation in Branson’s voice and no reason why there should have been: with six weeks of solid preparation behind him he would have been astonished if anything should have gone wrong. ‘You and Mack get back to the apartment. Wait.’
Johnson and Bradley were curiously alike, good-looking, in their early thirties, almost identical in build and both with blond hair. They also bore a striking resemblance, both in build and coloration, to the two men, newly wakened from sleep, who were propped up in the two beds in the hotel room, gazing at them with an understandable mixture of astonishment and outrage. One of them said: ‘Who the hell are you and what the hell do you think you’re doing here?’
‘Kindly modulate your voice and mind your language,’ Johnson said. ‘It ill becomes a naval air officer. Who we are doesn’t matter. We’re here because we require a change of clothes.’ He looked at the Beretta he was holding and touched the silencer with his left forefinger. ‘I don’t have to tell you what those things are.’
He didn’t have to tell them what those things were. There was a cold calm professionalism, a chilling surety about Johnson and Bradley that discouraged freedom of speech and inhibited even the very thought of action. While Johnson stood there, gun dangling in apparent negligence by his side, Bradley opened the valise they had brought with them, produced a length of thin rope and trussed up the two men with a speed and efficiency that indicated a long or intensive experience of such matters. When he had finished Johnson opened a cupboard, produced two suits, handed one to Bradley and said: ‘Try them for size.’
Not only were the suits an almost perfect fit but so also were the hats. Johnson would have been surprised if they had been otherwise: Branson, that most meticulous of planners, almost never missed a trick.
Bradley surveyed himself in a full-length mirror. He said sadly: ‘I should have stayed on the other side of the law. The uniform of a Lieutenant in the US Naval Air Arm suits me very well indeed. Not that you look too bad yourself.’
One of the bound men said: ‘Why do you want those uniforms?’
‘I thought naval helicopter pilots were intelligent.’
The man stared at him. ‘Jesus! You don’t mean to stand there and tell us -’
‘Yes. And we’ve both probably flown Sikorskys a damned sight more than either of you.’
‘But uniforms? Why steal our uniforms? There’s no trick in getting those made. Why do you -’
‘We’re parsimonious. Sure, we could get them made. But what we can’t get made are the documentation you carry about with you – identifications, licences, the lot.’ He patted the pockets of his uniform. ‘They’re not here. Where?’
The other bound man said: ‘Go to hell.’ He looked as if he meant it, too.
Johnson was mild. ‘This is off-season for heroes. Where?’
The other man said: ‘Not here. The Navy regard those as classified documents. They have to be deposited in the manager’s safe.’
Johnson sighed. Oh, dear. Why make it difficult? We had a young lady stake-out in an armchair by the receptionist’s last evening. Redhead. Beautiful. You may recall.’ The two bound men exchanged the briefest of glances: it was quite clear that they did recall. ‘She’d go on oath in a witness stand that neither of you deposited anything.’ He smiled in a wintry fashion. ‘A witness stand in court may be the last place on earth she’d want to go near, but if she says it’s no deposit, it’s no deposit. Let’s not be silly. Three things you can do. Tell us. Have your mouths taped and after a little persuasion tell us. Or, if those don’t work, we just search. You watch. If you’re conscious, that is.’
‘You going to kill us?’
‘What on earth for?’ Bradley’s surprise was genuine.
‘We can identify you.’
‘You’ll never see us again.’
‘We can identify the girl.’
‘Not when she removes her red wig, you can’t.’ He dug into the valise and came up with a pair of pliers. He had about him an air of gentle resignation. ‘Time’s a-wasting. Tape them up.’
Both bound men looked at each other. One shook his head, the other sighed. One smiled, almost ruefully: ‘It does seem a gesture of useless defiance – and I don’t want my good looks spoilt. Under the mattresses. At the foot.’
Under the mattresses they were. Johnson and Bradley flicked over the leaves of the two wallets, looked at each other, nodded, extracted the not inconsiderable dollar billfolds in each wallet and placed those by the bedside tables. One man said: ‘Couple of crazy crooks you are.’
Johnson said: ‘Maybe you’ll be needing that more than us pretty soon.’ He extracted money from his newly discarded suit and placed it in his uniform while Bradley did the same. Our suits you can have. Unthinkable for US officers to be running around the city in their striped underpants. And now, I’m afraid, we have to tape you.’ He reached into the valise.
One man, a quick mixture of suspicion and apprehension in his eyes, tried, vainly, to sit up in bed. ‘I thought you said -’
‘Look, if we wanted to kill you, the noise from those silenced guns wouldn’t even be heard in the corridor outside. Think we want you to start hollering the place down the moment we step outside that door? Besides, it would upset the neighbours.’
After they were taped Johnson said: ‘And, of course, we don’t want to have you jumping and wriggling around and making banging noises on the floor or walls. I’m afraid we can’t have any bangs in the next couple of hours or so. Sorry.’ He stooped, retrieved what looked like an aerosol can from the valise, and squirted it briefly in the faces of both bound men. They left, hanging up the no disturb notice outside. Johnson double-locked the door, produced his pliers, leaned on the key and snapped it leaving the head jammed in the lock.
Downstairs, they approached the clerk at reception, a cheerful youngster who gave a cheerful good morning.
Johnson said: ‘You weren’t on last night?’
‘No, sir. The management wouldn’t believe it but even a desk clerk requires a little sleep now and again.’ He looked at them with interest. ‘No offence, but aren’t you the two gentlemen who’re going to ride herd on the President this morning?’
Johnson smiled. ‘I’m not sure if the President would care to have you put it quite that way
‘Yes, sir.’ The clerk put his pen through the names.
‘Now, we’ve left one or two – ah – naval things in our room that we really shouldn’t have done. Will you make certain that no one goes near our room until we return? Three hours, about.’
‘You can depend on me, sir.’ The clerk made a note. ‘The no disturb sign -’
‘We’ve already done that.’
They left and stopped at the first pay telephone on the street. Johnson went inside with the valise, fished inside and brought out a walkie-talkie. He was immediately through to Branson, waiting patiently in the dilapidated garage north of Daly City. He said: ‘PI?’
‘Good. Get down there.’
The sun was coming up as the six men filed out of their cabin in the hills above Sausalito in Marin County, north across the bay from San Francisco. They made up a nondescript and not particularly attractive group, four of them in overalls and two in faded raincoats that might have been lifted from some unsuspecting scarecrow. They all piled into a rather battered Chevrolet station-wagon and headed down to the town. Before them stretched a stunning vista. To the south the Golden Gate and the staggering – if rather Manhattanized – skyline of San Francisco. To the south-east, lent a slightly spurious glamour by the early rays of the sun, Alcatraz Island, of unhappy history, lay to the north of the Fisherman’s Wharf, in line of sight of Treasure Island, the Bay Bridge and Oakland on the far side of the bay. To the east lay Angel Island, the largest in the bay, while to the north-east lay Belvedere Island, Tiburon and, beyond that again, the wide reaches of San Pablo Bay vanishing into nothingness. There can be few more beautiful and spectacular vistas in the world – if such there so be – than that from Sausalito. On the basis that not to be moved by it would require a heart of stone, the six men in the station-wagon had between them, it was clear, the makings of a fair-sized quarry.
The Golden Gate by Alistair MacLean / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes