Destroyer 129: Father to Son
By Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir
She was called Sonmi.
No one in the village knew much about her. She was from one of the older families, but since none had moved into the village in many generations, they were all members of the older families by now.
Her mother had died giving birth to her more than seventy years ago. Her father had died only recently. Some said the old man was a powerful shaman. All in the village stayed away from him and his daughter. When he died, only Sonmi wept.
On this day, as the cold sun peeked above the eastern horizon, old Sonmi picked her careful way down the rocky shore. A small fishing boat of fine Egyptian cedar was tied to a wood post. Sonmi unhooked the rope and climbed aboard.
It took a long time to row. Her withered arms were sore by the time she made it far enough out into the bay.
From a pouch on the belt of her coarse dress she produced some blessed herbs. She scattered them upon the black water, reciting the mystical chants passed down to her from her father and his father before him, all the way back to before the time of the Forgotten One.
Once she was done, she stood at the edge of the wobbling boat and jumped overboard. The cold waters of the West Korean Bay accepted her body with barely a splash.
Beyond the empty boat, across the bay and up the rocky shore, the village of Sinanju where the dead woman Somni had lived all her life, stirred awake. The sun rose.
The boat bobbed on the gentle waves.
In time an elderly fisherman noticed the boat out in the bay and sent his son out to retrieve it.
Days passed. No one thought much of old Sonmi. Eventually someone noticed she was gone. None knew where. No one looked for her. No one cared.
The few thoughts people had soon faded and the old woman disappeared from memory.
As if she had never existed.
The water was warm, but not from the sun.
The sun never warmed the waters of the West Korean Bay. Summer or winter, it was always the same. Cold. Like the emptiest heart or the farthest point in the bleak night sky.
But that one spot, way out in the middle of the bay-only as wide across as a man's arms could stretch-was warm. And though cold waves lapped all around, it remained warm within. No one knew why.
It was a new occurrence. Everyone was certain of that. The village of Sinanju had been founded on that barren shore more than five thousand years before. In all that time there was no record, written or oral, to indicate that the warm spot in the water had been there at any time in history.
It was dark, too. Like blood.
The spot had been warm for more than a year. Even though Sinanju would have been dismissed by most as a typical rural Korean fishing village, few fishermen actually lived there. Those who fished were mostly old men who kept up the tradition, coming to it later in life.
The healthy young men who should have been fishermen-would have been if Sinanju were like any other poverty-stricken village on the inhospitable coast of North Korea-did not toil in boats with nets until their hands became tired knots of arthritic bone. They sat in the village, fat and lazy, living off the sweat of another man's brow. Some day, when they grew old, some of them would take to fishing out of boredom, out of some need to connect to their past.
But for now, the young were young, the old were old and it was the old who fished. Sometimes. When the men who fished first found the warm spot in the water, they tried to cast their nets in it. Maybe it was a gift from the gods. Maybe that warm spot was put there to draw in the fish, for in truth the fishing in the bay was generally poor and the catch was always meager.
The nets came up empty.
Time after time they tried, always with the same results. The area was dead to life.
In the summer a few young men tried to swim down to see if there was something on the bottom that was making the spot warm. But the water was too deep and the undertow too strong. They gave up and swam back to the surface.
After that the area was left alone. The old men cursed and spit upon the waves even as they rowed wide around the spot. All avoided the evil warm blot, which, as time went on, grew more and more like the color of human blood.
The spot was there for many months. Then one night it vanished.
The supernatural stain on the waves was erased, consumed by cold and tide.
Not a soul was there to see.
When it happened, the village of Sinanju was asleep.
The rock walls of the bay were a black void, swallowed by the moonless sky. A jagged lip of stone formed the line between earth and air. Stretching up before the twinkling stars was a pair of upthrust basalt rocks. The artificial rock formation formed a pair of horns.
The white starlight cast the inky shadow of the horns across the bay. They rolled up and down across the waves like a pair of pinching black fingers. Far out, between the most distant, curving points of rock, they framed the spot where the water had been warm but had suddenly grown very, very cold.
In the hour after midnight there came a flash. It was brilliant, white. The white flash was the flash of a meteor. But it came from sea, not sky. From the dark depths of the bay. A bright pop of something otherworldly from beneath the waves.
No one saw it. Sinanju slept.
The water grew hot once more. Then boiling.
The air was cold. Steam rose white over the icy bay, rolling into shore like sweet-smelling fog.
The water churned. Hotter than blood. A swirling, frothy red foam bubbled to the surface.
The waves stained the shore red.
Three hours after midnight, something screamed. A single cry, like the shock of birth.
And as the swirling water leveled off, a hand rose through the foam, fingers clutching.
Then came another hand.
All at once, a face broke the cold surface, the gulping mouth gasping for air.
The hair was black and clung to the scalp. Streaks of blood ran down, framing the face. The face of a dead man.
The pain was too great.
With feeble kicks, the figure rolled over onto his back.
He floated there for a long time as the warmth dissipated and the water cooled around him. Hazel eyes stared up at the cold, thankless sky. It had been many years since those eyes had glimpsed the sky.
For a long time, the man just lay there, naked and alive. When the cold began to sting like life, he rolled over. Testing reborn limbs, he began swimming for shore.
For Sinanju. For home.
His name was Remo and he could feel a thousand sets of eyes following his every move even though he was alone.
When the sensation first manifested itself all those months ago, he hadn't known what it was. For Remo Williams, the not knowing had been a frightening thing.
Remo was a Master of Sinanju, the most ancient and deadly of all the martial arts. The other, lesser martial arts were but splintered rays. Sinanju was the sun source.
The very hum of life was white noise to most people. Their senses were dead to the world around them. As a Master of Sinanju, Remo was trained to the pinnacle of human perfection. His environment was alive. He was able to see and sense things the rest of the world tuned out.
One of the things Remo was able to detect were the telltale signs that signalled to him he was being watched. As a professional assassin, this honed sense was oftentimes the difference between life and death. The ability was as much a part of him as hands or eyes or breath itself. And so when he'd gotten up that morning almost a year ago and felt an audience crammed into his small bedroom alongside his sleeping mat, he thought his senses were going screwy. There was no one else with him. He was certain of it. No heartbeats, no nothing. He was alone. Yet not alone.
With great worry he sought the counsel of the man who had taught him everything important in his life. "Little Father, something's wrong," Remo said, the worry evident in his voice and on his face.
The very old Asian to whom he spoke was in the process of packing. They were scheduled to move soon.
The tiny Korean had skin like ancient leather, dry and weathered. Twin puffs of yellowing white hair clutched the age-speckled flesh above his shell-like ears. He looked frail. He was anything but.
Chiun, Remo's Master and teacher in the ancient art of Sinanju, understood his pupil's unspoken question.
"Your senses do not lie," the wizened Asian explained in his singsong voice. "That which you feel is called the Hour of Judgment. It is the time when the spirits of masters past scrutinize the Transitional Reigning Master of the House of Sinanju. As my successor, they will judge if you are worthy to become Reigning Master."
It was unnerving. The invisible eyes had trailed Remo from his sleeping quarters out to the common living room he shared with his teacher.
There was no one there. Remo was certain of it. But he had seen much in the many years since his training began. He had grown to grudgingly accept things that in his youth he used to dismiss as hocus-pocus.
"The spirits are all here?" Remo asked worriedly.
Chiun tipped his head. "There are probably a few dawdlers who have yet to arrive."
Remo felt his flesh crawl, cold and clammy. As if a too close spirit had just brushed the exposed skin of his arms.
"Can you feel them?" Remo asked.
"No. This is your time, not mine."
Remo exhaled. The knowledge of what was happening didn't bring him the relief he'd hoped for. "So this is normal? It feels like I'm the Super Bowl half-time show for a stadium full of Peeping Tom ghosts."
"You are being watched with great interest. After all, you are the first outsider to achieve such greatness."
Sinanju the discipline had originated in the North Korean village of the same name. In its five-thousand-year history, Remo was the only individual born outside the village to reach this level.
"Swell," Remo had said. "So should I just stand here, or do they want me to do a little dance or something?"
"If you want me to die of embarrassment, go ahead."
Remo folded his arms and studied his surroundings with forced casualness. The basement rooms with the painted cinder-block walls were empty. He and Chiun were all alone. Yet his senses screamed otherwise. "This happens to all Masters?"
"All who reach your level."
"And what if they don't judge me worthy?" Remo whispered from the corner of his mouth.
Chiun had returned to his packing. "There is little they can do now," the old Korean had admitted. He dropped his voice low. "But when you die, they can make your life miserable. If the Masters' Tribunal judges you unworthy, you will be banished with the other outcasts of the Void."
"Great," Remo muttered. "I had to join a heaven with a caste system. I guess I can stand this for a couple of days."
The days stretched into weeks. Moving day came and went. Remo and Chiun settled into their new lodgings, yet still the weird sensation that he was being watched didn't go. When Remo couldn't take it any longer, he again approached his teacher.
Chiun was watching television.
Of late, the Master of Sinanju had developed a fondness for Mexican soap operas. Remo wouldn't dare interrupt the programs themselves. Years ago, when his teacher used to watch American daytime dramas, fatal results came to anyone foolish enough to intrude on the old man's moments of joy. A Spanish-language commercial for Crest toothpaste came on, replacing the bright colors of Mexican TV studio sets and ultraclose close-ups that made the actors' pores look like flesh-draped lunar craters.
"So how long does this judging thing go on?"
"It depends," Chiun replied, his eyes glued to the flickering television set. "It could be brief or long."
"It's been weeks," Remo complained. "I feel like a freaking zoo exhibit."
"Said the monkey to the chimp."
"Ha-ha. It's gotten so I can't even go to the can in peace. Did it take this many weeks for you?"
"For me?" Chiun bristled, insulted. "Of course not. Why would the ghosts of my ancestors need to waste their precious time watching for a mistake from someone who obviously doesn't make mistakes? The dead have better things to do, Remo."
"So how long will they watch me?"
"Ten million years," Chiun replied. "Shush." The old man's program was back on.
It wasn't ten million yet, but it was right around one year since he'd first awakened to his supernatural spectators and they hadn't left him alone for a minute. Even though it had gone on for what seemed like an eternity, it remained a feeling Remo doubted he'd ever get used to.
They were with him always. Watching, judging. Remo had thought his teacher's gaze during training was bad. After all, Chiun hadn't been the most forgiving instructor. Multiplied by a thousand, it was worse than he'd ever imagined.
The invisible eyes were there morning, noon and night.
They were with him earlier that afternoon when he was watching the twelve-o'clock news in the Stamford, Connecticut, duplex he now shared with the Master of Sinanju.
As a rule, daytime reporters and anchors were usually even more frivolous and dim-witted than their evening counterparts. But for some reason this day, everyone seemed very businesslike. Remo soon learned why.
There was a breaking news story out of nearby Milford.
An office worker at a small software company had gone berserk an hour before. According to the reporter on the scene, the heavily armed man had entered the building where he worked, guns blazing.
There were a dozen confirmed dead, seven more wounded.
The killer was holed up in the rear of the building. A handful of office workers were unaccounted for. The police had not yet stormed the building, fearing for the safety of any survivors that might still be inside.
And so began the strange dance of camera and helicopter that seemed to capture American interest every few months.
The film crew showed stock footage of the killer's car a dozen times. It was a red Pinto with Bondo on the hood and rust chewing away the doors. The name Munchie was emblazoned on the lopsided vanity plate. A reporter mentioned repeatedly that this was the killer's nickname.
They flashed pictures of the killer on-screen. It was the sort of face not easily forgotten.
Remo needed only one look.
He had put on the news only for the weather report. But the weather forecast was suspended in favor of shock news. For Remo, enough was enough. He was sick of seeing this sort of thing erupt on his television with disgusting regularity.
When Remo switched off the TV and headed for the front door, the ghostly gaze of his invisible entourage was with him. The eyes trailed him out to the car and remained with him for the drive up to Milford.
"Could you back off today, fellas?" Remo muttered. "I'm trying to work here."
Asking around, he found the cordoned area around Soft Systems, Inc. with relative ease. At the line of police cars he doubled back, parking his car down the street in a Shop-Rite supermarket lot. He returned to the office complex on foot.
Remo was a man of average height and weight. The only thing outwardly unusual about him were his wrists, which were thicker than a normal man's by far. Most women found his face-with its high cheekbones and deep-set eyes-appealing, although even they would have described it as vaguely cruel.
No one saw the cruelty on Remo Williams's face this day, for no one saw the face of Remo Williams. He slipped up the sidewalk, past crowds and reporters and police without raising a single eyebrow. Avoiding the front of the building and the gaggle of press still crammed beyond the parking lot, Remo slipped around the back.
Even though it was broad daylight, the police at the rear of the building didn't see the thin man slip between them. Their eyes always seemed to be where Remo wasn't. The uniformed men milled about anxiously, guns drawn.
Remo found a caged window in the alley near a Dumpster. The metal mesh popped in silence. He lifted the window and slipped soundlessly inside without a single living eye tracking his movements.
He found himself in the downstairs ladies' room. There were two bodies in the bathroom. One was near the sink; another had been sitting in a stall. The woman near the sink had lived for a time after she'd been shot. She had crawled on her side to the wall, only to die near a trash can. The blue tiled floor was streaked with congealing blood. The other woman had been luckier. A shotgun blast through the flimsy stall door had delivered her a speedier, if grislier, end.
Face steeling, Remo slipped from the room. Another body in the hallway. The man wore a suit with no jacket. The back of his white shirt was stained red. Papers that had been so important in the last moments before his violent death were now scattered on the drab green carpet around his prone body. Unlike the women, the man hadn't been felled by a shotgun blast. This one was a bullet, not a shell. The newscast had mentioned this. According to eyewitnesses, the killer carried an arsenal.
There were vending machines in the hallway. They had been blasted open, their contents looted.
The building was still. The only activity came from the small room in the distant back.
Remo followed a trail of bodies to a rear office. When he peeked around the corner, he saw the face that had been plastered across his TV set an hour before.
Paul "Munchie" Grunladd looked like Satan's Santa. The killer had a wild, untamed beard that clung to his face like a tenacious porcupine. Long, mottled hair stuck out in every direction. What looked like cornrows were merely tangles of dirt and grease.
Munchie was six foot five and weighed more than four hundred pounds. His great, ponderous belly stretched the fabric of his flannel shirt. Buttons strained to bursting.
A shotgun, two rifles, handguns and sacks of boxed ammo sat on the desk, surrounded by a pile of candy from the blasted-open vending machines.
The killer was leaning back in his chair. One finger was digging deep in his ear. In his other hand he clutched a phone. It looked like a toy in his big, meaty paw.
A pair of crisscrossing bandoliers ran over his shoulders and across his chest. Munchie munched casually on Butterfingers and Pay Days as he spoke into the phone.
"No way," the killer was insisting. "You make me so mad, Jane Pauley. I'm warning you, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters are already in a hairpulling contest over my story over on ABC." The line clicked. "Hold on a sec, I think that's 60 Minutes calling back."
Munchie unplugged finger from ear and tapped the phone.
It wasn't 60 Minutes. In fact, it was no one. Scowling, he tried to switch back to Jane Pauley. He found that she was gone, too.
"Hang up on me, will you?" he groused. "That's it, I'm going with Barbara."
When he tapped the cradle again, he was surprised that no dial tone sounded in his ear. Maybe the jack had come loose. Face growing puzzled amid his big beard, he traced the line to the wall.
He found that the jack had come loose. Along with a fair-sized chunk of the wall. There was now a gaping hole where once phone cord had met wall plate. The saw-toothed section of extracted wall dangled from the end of the cord now in the hand of a very thin man with a very unhappy look on his face.
"Holy Jesus!" Munchie cried, clutching his chest. "You scared me half to death."
Remo's face was cold. "Not to worry," he said. "The next half's on the house."
Suddenly remembering just exactly how he'd spent his morning, Munchie released his flabby man bosom and jumped for his pile of weapons.
The first gun he grabbed up was an AR-18 rifle. He was surprised to find the weapon knotted up like a metal pretzel. He was reasonably certain it hadn't been like that when he'd used it to shoot Doris from accounting.
He threw down the rifle and snatched up a shotgun. It disintegrated in his hands, clanking in a dozen fat pieces to the surface of the desk.
He grabbed a handgun that somehow suddenly became a ball of fused metal with bullets dropping out. When he pulled the trigger, it pinched his finger. Yelping in pain, Munchie threw the worthless gun to the floor.
"I surrender!" Munchie cried, throwing up his hands.
Remo took a step back from the stink clouds that emanated from Munchie's armpits.
"What kind of job do you do around here that they'd let you come in to work reeking like that?" Remo asked.
"I do Web designs, mostly," Munchie replied. He saw Remo's blank face.
"For the Internet?" Munchie offered.
"Oh," Remo nodded, as if that explained everything. "Let's go, Buttercup. You're late for your own funeral."
Grabbing Munchie by a shell-filled bandolier, he yanked the killer toward the door. On his way out of the room, Remo picked up something from Munchie's desktop arsenal.
"What the hell were you just doing on the phone?" Remo asked as they made their way down the hall.
"Negotiating," Munchie said nervously. His belly jiggled as he huffed and puffed to keep up. "You know, my first television interview, post-tragedy. They've been calling like crazy ever since my story went national. The network-TV people have been very sympathetic to my problem."
They were stepping over the body of a forty something male with salt-and-pepper hair and a hole in his forehead.
"Your problem," Remo said, his voice flat.
Munchie nodded. "I have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome," the killer explained. "It makes me tired and irritable all the time. Are you with the police? You don't look like you're with the police. What did you mean about my own funeral?"
"You're claiming you killed two dozen people because you were sleepy?" Remo asked.
"Well, yeah," Munchie said. "I also had Attention Deficit Disorder as a kid. Could have contributed. Oh, and I suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder."
"Vietnam," Munchie insisted.
"I saw the news, genius. You're forty-one years old. You were barely out of diapers when Vietnam ended."
Munchie bit his lip. "I suffer from low self-esteem...?" he suggested tentatively.
"You ought to. You're a murderer," Remo replied, shoving the killer along.
"I have a bad body image," Munchie argued.
"Join a gym."
They were at the fire exit at the end of the hall. Munchie's face grew hopeful. He had gotten the impression that this dead-eyed stranger was actually planning to do him bodily harm. "Will I be able to?"
"I meant in Hell. Don't let Hitler hog the exercycle."
With one thick-wristed hand he slapped open the stairwell door and shoved Munchie through.
"My mother didn't hug me enough," the killer panted as he stumbled up the stairs. He had to grab the metal railing repeatedly to keep from falling.
"If the baby you was anywhere near as ugly as the adult you, you're lucky she didn't beat you to death with a rake."
They climbed three stories to the roof door.
"I have Repetitive Stress Syndrome!" Munchie cried as Remo propelled him through the door and onto the roof. He landed on his gelatinous belly, his hands scraping pebbles.
"Sick Building Syndrome!" the killer gasped as Remo took a mittful of blubber and hauled him back to his feet.
"Psychologica Fantastica!" Munchie pleaded as he was dragged to the edge of the roof.
"Male menopause!" he tried desperately as Remo picked him up and stood him on the ledge.
The parking lot was below. The lot and the street beyond it were filled with police and emergency vehicles. Men ran for cover when Munchie appeared three stories above. The police trained weapons on the teetering figure. The crowd gasped.
Remo stayed behind the killer's bloated body, hidden from the view of the crowds and passing helicopters.
Munchie felt something being slapped into his hand.
"That's what bugs me about you run-of-the-mill maniacs these days," Remo grumbled.
With the fingertips of one hand he worked a knot of muscles in Munchie's shoulder. They were hard to find, buried as they were amid thick, sagging sheets of blubber.
"Used to be a guy killed because he was nasty or nuts or he just plain wanted the other guy's stuff. Now you're all bed wetters and bully bait. Excuses, excuses."
The muscles in Munchie's shoulder tightened and his arm shot out in front of him, aimed at the parking lot. For the first time he saw what Remo had put in his clenching hand.
The Browning automatic pistol was trained on the nearest Milford police cruiser. Sweat broke out on Munchie's forehead. Below, police yelled for him to drop his weapon.
"It's not my fault!" Munchie yelled desperately. "I've got cognitive dissonance!"
"Yeah, and all I wanted was the goddamn weather forecast," Remo said. "Boo-hoo for you."
A tiny squeeze on Munchie's back and the killer's finger tightened on the trigger. A single shot pinged harmlessly off the hood of a parked police cruiser.
That was all the gathered police needed. Weapons' fire erupted from the parking lot. Shots sang up at the man with the gun on the ledge.
Unfortunately, the killer was so fat none of the bullets that struck him managed to penetrate any vital organs. Lead piercing blubber, Munchie bounced and jiggled in place.
"Ow! Ow! Eee! Ouch! Ow!" Munchie yelped as bullets pelted his ample frame.
"Ah, hell," Remo said, shoving Munchie off the ledge.
The killer dropped three stories to the ground. Just before he hit the pavement, he was screaming something about a repressed childhood trauma and a molesting neighbor. Then he and his entire sackful of excuses went splat.
On the roof Remo turned to the invisible army that had trailed him all this way. They were still hovering nearby.
"Was that good for you?" Remo asked the air. The air didn't respond.
With a sigh Remo hurried from the roof and the area before he could be discovered.
In the supermarket parking lot down the street, a tired-looking young woman with five kids had parked next to his rental car. She was stacking groceries in the back of her minivan. Four of the five kids were screaming and fighting.
"Let us give you a hand with that," Remo said. He helped the woman load her groceries in the van. Once they were done she shook her head in exasperation.
"Thanks so much. I've got to get to the post office for stamps and bring the church bingo money to the bank. Plus there's homework, then the kids have swimming lessons and basketball practice. Every little bit helps."
"No problemo," Remo said. "We're glad to help."
The woman wanted to ask who the "we" was. But the friendly man with the thick wrists and the nice smile had already climbed into his car and driven away.
Gusts of cold air rattled the frosty windowpanes. For many years instinct had awakened him at the same early-morning hour. The old man was generally the first to arise in the village. But for the first hour after dawn on this particular day, the sleeping man didn't hear the sound. He was tired and old and, after all, the howling, buffeting wind was nothing new for someone who had lived every day of his long life on the West Korean Bay.
Only when the sun began to brush the sill and cast evil yellow beams across his pillow did he finally, reluctantly draw open his tired, rheumy eyes. Another day in Sinanju.
It was a beautiful morning. A surprising thing given the uneasiness of the previous night. Although he was old and had earned the right to sleep late, Pullyang generally didn't stay in bed so long. But this day was different.
The elderly man had been awakened during the night by an awful sound-a wail of pain as loud as thunder and as clear as the night sky. The terrible sound had snapped him from a deep sleep.
When he heard the noise, Pullyang didn't go outside.
He slept in a warm bed, off the floor. Feeling his heart tremble, Pullyang had climbed out of bed. His weary bones creaked like the bare wooden floor. He crept to the window and peeked out at the dark.
It was late. The house lights were off in the village. Coal-fueled braziers burned on posts, their dying light illuminating the cold main square.
There was no one there. None of the other villagers had come out to investigate. They were fat and content and slept with the certainty of their own safety.
Pullyang's wrinkled face studied the night for several long minutes, but still he saw nothing.
Probably a plane. The Communist government in the capital city of Pyongyang sometimes practiced their games of war out over the Yellow Sea. By agreement their planes didn't fly over Sinanju itself, but the North Korean aircraft didn't have to be overhead to be heard.
After five tense minutes, night wind rattling the panes in his face, Pullyang left the window. He retreated to the warmth of his bed to await the coming dawn.
It was now hours later, and he was surprised that the sunrise found him back in such a deep sleep. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, Pullyang climbed out of bed.
He got dressed with great deliberation. Everything he did these days seemed to be done slowly. At his advanced age there was little vigor left. But eventually, like every morning, he managed to get dressed and find his way outside.
The coal in the square lights had burned to ash. He would put in fresh coal and relight the braziers in the evening. As he had every night for the past thirty years.
Pullyang's house was directly on the main square. He stepped carefully down the single wooden step to the road. He didn't want to trip and break a bone. In time the morning sun warmed his tired body, and his stride lengthened.
Cooking fires had been lit in some of the homes. Smoke rose from crooked little chimneys. The scent of cooked fish and soup floated to his upturned nose.
Although his stomach rumbled, Pullyang put thoughts of food from his mind. Breakfast would come later, down the road at the house of his daughter, Hyunsil.
Hyunsil's husband was dead. Pullyang had lost his wife and son-in-law within six months of each other ten years ago. His daughter was old now, too, nearly in her seventies.
It was nice that they could share their meals. She would prepare him some curdled-beef-blood-and-intestine soup, as well as some rice and kimchi. And they would sit and eat and talk about their family and their village. About tradition and about the great Master of Sinanju who worked to keep the entire village safe and fed.
He was glad that his daughter shared his reverence for the Masters of Sinanju. These men, only one in a generation, left their beloved village in order to sustain it. They would go, sometimes for years, toiling for faraway emperors. And the tribute they were paid was returned to the village.
For their labors and their sacrifices, Pullyang revered the Masters of Sinanju, and he had passed on this great respect to his only child, Hyunsil. He only wished the others in the village shared their reverence. The other villagers didn't respect the Master. Oh, they didn't show him open disrespect. They wouldn't dare. The villagers feared the Master of Sinanju. The current Master had spent much of the past thirty years away from home, but on those few occasions when their protector returned to the village of his birth, the men and women whom his labors supported stayed from his path.
Of course, they knew he wouldn't kill them. For it had been passed down since the time of the Great Wang, the first true Master of Sinanju of the Modern Age, that a Master couldn't harm another from the village. And this current Master was slavish to the teachings of the past. But he had a foul temper and little patience and-despite his respect for tradition-there was always the hint that something furious could explode from him at any moment. The people didn't want to risk injury, and so stayed away.
Pullyang didn't stay away. He loved the Master for all he had done and for all he represented. And this was the reason that Pullyang had been chosen from all others in the village to be caretaker for the Master of Sinanju when he was away. It was an appointment he accepted with great pride.
Pullyang had been a much younger man when he was elevated to the post of caretaker.
As he shuffled up the long road, the simple houses fell away behind him.
Pullyang walked down the path to the bluff whereon sat the home of the Master of Sinanju when he was in residence.
The House of Many Woods looked as if it had grown from seeds planted at a dozen different architectural ages. Egyptian, Roman, Carpathian, Victorian and other mismatched contributions combined in a melange of styles that had grown along with the history of the venerable house of assassins.
Most of the clashing styles were functional gifts from grateful employers. Marble and mahogany, granite and teakwood fought one another at angle and arch. But there were also some more individual touches from the men who had taken up residence in that house. Some were of a practical nature, like chimneys and furnaces, plumbing and a telephone line. Others were of a personal nature.
There were the golden lamps presented to Master Noo's wife by the wife of King Ashurbanipal of Assyria in 650 a.c. The gold still gleamed like it had the day they were first hung alongside the front door.
A fresco around the back depicted a heroic Master Tho, the first Master to travel to China and whose work opened up a vast, untapped market for the House of Sinanju.
Nine hundred years ago Master Jopki's young son had fastened seashells around the door. Nine hundred years later, they were still glued in place. Preserved like shards of frozen time by methods unknown in the West.
The house wasn't just a piece of history; it was many pieces. As unique as the men who called it home.
Pullyang opened the wooden door and went inside. The first thing he checked was the basement Stones from Roman quarries lined the walls of the main chamber beneath the big house. In a private area was a labyrinthine series of off-limits rooms, as well as tunnels carved in rock that Pullyang was forbidden to enter.
The main room was open around the furnace.
Stacked high against the far walls were hundreds of mismatched crates and trunks, as well as a few boxes carved from solid stone. Each case was marked. with a different symbol.
Pullyang felt a swell of pride every time he saw those piled boxes. No outsider had ever seen them. Few in the village had been granted the privilege of glimpsing them.
Pullyang understood that he was gazing upon history.
Contained within those many cases were the personal belongings of each Master of Sinanju who had ever lived.
The old man moved among the boxes, making certain there was no water on the floor. Given the age of the house and its nearness to the bay, the current Master was worried about seepage. The floor was dry. As it was every morning.
The water was shut off, so the pipes hadn't frozen during the night. Everything in the basement seemed fine.
Pullyang shook the old spent coal and ash out of the slow-burning furnace and added new coal. Afterward he went upstairs. The floor warmed beneath his feet as he began to take his daily inventory.
Most of the Sinanju treasure was stored in the upstairs rooms. This was the tribute paid to the Masters over the years by employers the world over. Originally the riches accumulated by the Masters of Sinanju were meant to sustain the village in times of strife. Over time the Masters' tribute became the sole income of the entire village.
There were silver coins minted for Master Lik. They had been stamped with the symbol of the House by Themistocles-thanks from the Greek statesman for Sinanju's aid in his success in battle against the Persians at Salamis. Twelve bronze urns filled with flawless diamonds showed the gratitude of the Roman Emperor Vespasian for a Sinanju service. Bolts of uncut silk from every Chinese dynasty were rolled tightly and bound with gilded ribbon.
On a corner shelf sat gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, presented without condition to a Master two thousand years before by a trio of Zoroastrian mystics. A reward to Sinanju for a prophesied vision, as yet unfulfilled.
Pullyang passed through room after room, making certain nothing had been disturbed. As he did evry day, he took special care at the door of the library. A few years before someone had entered the house and stolen an old wood carving from that room.
As his tired eyes searched the corners of the library, Pullyang's heart sang a quiet song of thanksgiving. Everything was where it should be. Feeling great relief, the old caretaker left the Master's House.
It was two hours since he had awakened. There was life in the village now. Men and women were in the square. As he walked along, Pullyang smiled at the playing children.
A group of people had clustered together in front of the cobbler's house. In the middle of them stood one of the women of the village. She seemed greatly disturbed.
"I saw it when I took my washing down to the shore," the woman was insisting. She was out of breath.
"What did you see?" a man asked.
"The shore," the woman said fearfully. "The shore is like blood. It stains the rocks. Come quickly! It is already washing away."
She grabbed the man by the wrist and began dragging him along. A few others went along with her. Such idle time-wasting was common in Sinanju. The people had nothing better to do than invent foolishness to occupy their days. Pullyang alone had important work to do.
While the group led by the agitated woman went to the shore, Pullyang headed out of the village. At the outskirts he left the main road. He shuffled up a weed-choked path into the black hills that overlooked the shore.
At his age it was rough going, but he eventually made it to the top. The hill became a plateau. Behind him the West Korean Bay stretched out to greet the cloud-smeared sky. Two curving columns of rock framed the bay.
The Horns of Welcome had been placed above the bay centuries ago so that visitors searching for the glory of Sinanju would know that they had reached their destination. The twin stones raked the sky above frail old Pullyang.
At the top of the plateau opened the black mouth of a deep cave. Pullyang was not permitted to enter the cave, for it was a sacred place. Indeed, he rarely ventured up this high as part of his professional duties.
There were three trees at the cave's entrance. Bamboo, pine and plum blossom. It was Pullyang's responsibility to keep them healthy throughout the changing seasons.
The three trees had survived the windy night intact. Bending, the old caretaker swept some needles from the ground around the pine into his coarse hand. Shuffling over to the edge of the plateau, he brushed them away.
He was slapping the dirt from his hand and was turning back to the path when something caught his eye.
Squinting in the weak sunlight, Pullyang peered down the far side of the hill.
The hill rolled more quickly down to flatland on this side. A short distance from the bottom was a plain stone hut. It was far away from the main village.
The family that had lived there for centuries had died out. The house had been abandoned for almost two years.
And yet, on this cold morning, old Pullyang saw a thin wisp of smoke slipping from the stone chimney. For a moment the old man hesitated.
His stomach grumbled loud from hunger. By now Hyunsil was probably wondering where her father was.
He was hungry, but in the end duty won out. Pullyang picked his careful way down the short side of the hill. He was relieved when his sandals reached flat ground. He hurried across the frozen mud to the hut.
He felt his will dissolve with every step. The house was a place of evil.
A wicked family had lived there. It had for countless years been residence to shaman. More recently Nuihc, the current Master of Sinanju's nephew and the greatest enemy of modern Sinanju, had been born and raised there.
For some reason lost in the mists of ancient time, the family that had lived there had rejected direct assistance from the Masters of Sinanju. The shamans took payment from the other villagers for their spells and tonics.
Pullyang was certain that the Masters of Sinanju knew why the occupants of this house alone in all the village rejected the generosity of their protectors, but the reason was never told. If the family of the last shaman who had lived there knew, the secret had died when his daughter disappeared two years ago.
The hut was in disrepair. Here and there the mud-and-thatch roof was falling in.
Pullyang no longer saw smoke coming from the chimney. The warming sun burned steam from the rotting roof.
Maybe he had been mistaken. His eyes had remained strong all his life, but it was possible he had confused the steam with smoke.
The path to the front door was overgrown with weeds. There was no indication that a single human foot had touched the ground from the old road to the dilapidated house since the dwelling had been abandoned two years before.
Old Pullyang felt his nerve grow stronger.
He had to have been mistaken. He had exerted himself too much this morning. He was hungry. That, coupled with the strangeness of the night before, had caused his tired old eyes to leap to flights of fancy.
It was time for breakfast. He would take a single peek inside the hut before heading back to his daughter's home.
His belly growling at thoughts of food, Pullyang rested a shrunken hand of bone on the door frame and leaned his face inside the open doorway.
Nothing. As he had now expected.
No one lived there any longer. He was foolish to have imagined seeing any sign of life in that unholy place.
The fireplace was black.
Wait. There was something. Specks of orange glowing amid the ash. They became clearer as his eyes adjusted to the dark interior of the hut.
Someone had been here. Pullyang's heart tightened. Movement. Something to his right.
Startled, Pullyang whipped his head to the source. He saw something in the dark. A flat face. Sinister eyes drawn up like those of a cat.
And then Pullyang's turning head kept going. It was off his neck before he knew what had happened. The decapitated head hit the frozen floor of the hut with a dull thud.
Shocked old eyes already growing dull in death, the head of the Master of Sinanju's loyal caretaker rolled into the corner of the abandoned hovel.
The body fell. Slowly. With great and lingering purpose. As if reluctant to leave the life it had clung to for so many years. The clutching old hand slipped away from the wooden door frame, and the body toppled forward.
For a moment all was still.
A scratching sound came from within the hut. Pullyang's body shook as an unseen hand took hold of his clothing.
Toes dragging in the dirt of the abandoned front path, the body of the Master of Sinanju's caretaker disappeared inside the squalid hut.
Remo turned off the city street. A wooden barrier across the road blocked his way. Slowing to a stop before the lowered gate, he leaned out the car window, passing the security card he retrieved from his dashboard through the scanner. The gate lifted and he drove onto the private main road of the development complex that he and the Master of Sinanju were currently calling home.
The roads were laid out as carefully as a Monopoly board. The street names strained to be cute. Remo turned down Gingerbread Lane to Hopscotch Road.
Half of the community was for rent, while the rest were condos for sale. Every building looked exactly like the one next door. Remo's rented town house was a simple duplex with absolutely no distinguishing features whatsoever. It was a plain gray-sided number with tidy white trim, a green-turning-to-brown lawn and a private one-stall garage.
As places went, it wasn't so bad. It beat the old hotel ritual Upstairs used to make him engage in back in the early days. A few days or a week in one place and he had to move on. But, thank goodness, that had eventually changed. He and the Master of Sinanju had lived in two houses for a number of years without incident. The last had been home for a decade and, even though it fell victim to arsonists, the burning of that house hadn't really been work related.
At first Upstairs resisted the idea of another more-or-less permanent home, but Remo insisted. In the end he won out. Remo, for one, was grateful. He hadn't looked forward to living out of suitcases again. Not that he ever actually technically owned a suitcase, but it was the principle of the thing.
Remo parked in the garage and headed around to the side door of the duplex.
The Master of Sinanju wasn't in the living room. The big-screen TV was off.
He didn't need to call out. There was a pulsing vibration in the air, like the plucked string on some musical instrument in tune with the very forces of nature.
Remo followed the thrum of life through the kitchen and out the sliding doors to the small garden patio.
Chiun was sitting cross-legged on the colored flagstones. The old Korean had been sitting in the same spot when Remo had left for Milford earlier in the afternoon. His shimmering scarlet day kimono was arranged carefully around his bony knees.
"Hey, Chiun. Anything happen when I was out?" The Master of Sinanju's leathery face was upturned to catch the dying rays of the cold white sun. He did not bother to open his eyes.
"No," the wizened figure said.
"You sure? Everything was quiet while I was gone?"
"The only time that it is quiet around here is when you are gone," the old man replied.
"It's just that when I was heading down the street I thought I saw what's-her-name. Becky? Barky? Binky? That woman that keeps trying to show the place next door."
The complex had been trying to rent the vacant side of their duplex ever since Remo and Chiun had moved in six months before. The woman who had rented them their place had tried showing the adjacent town house a number of times.
The first time she made the mistake of trying to rent to a Japanese businessman and his family. The afternoon they came for a look, Chiun stood on his tiptoes on the stone birdbath, his nose thrust over the fence that divided the property. In flawless Japanese the old man offered something in calm and certain tones that at first might have been mistaken for a welcome to the neighborhood. Becky wasn't sure what Chiun had said to them-after all, she didn't speak Japanese-but by the time they left, the wife and children were in tears and the husband was shouting a stream of what could only have been Japanese obscenities.
The next two times she tried to show the place to American couples, each of whom had mysterious, unexplained problems with their cars while they were inside the house. The first car had all its tires flattened and its seats ripped out. The second couple's vehicle had somehow rolled down the hill and landed upside down in the complex swimming pool.
Each time when they asked the old man who had been sitting on the lawn out front the whole time if he had seen anyone suspicious, Chiun replied that the only suspicious people he had seen recently in the neighborhood was a family of Japs.
"Check their embassy," he suggested. "But leave your wallets at home."
After the last time, word got out. Becky ran the other way whenever she saw Chiun, and no one else came to see the little duplex at the lonely end of Billy Goat's Bluff.
"So was she up here, or what?" Remo asked.
"She might have stopped by," Chiun admitted. "That's what I was afraid of. Was she showing next door again? You've got to stop scaring everyone off, Chiun."
As he spoke, Remo peeked over the fence. He didn't see any severed arms or legs.
The Master of Sinanju finally opened his eyes. "I?" Chiun asked, his voice straining with insulted innocence. "I? What makes you think I would scare, nay that I could scare anyone? Me? Scare? I am but a humble, sweet and kindly old man. Scare? How could I scare? My heart is filled to overflowing with goodness. I do not scare anyone. People like me. I, Remo, am a people person."
"I don't exactly see them flocking to you in droves," Remo commented. There weren't any bodies in the small yard. Maybe Chiun had stuffed them in a closet inside.
"They used to," Chiun sniffed. "Then I met you, and the droves started flocking in the other direction." Remo decided that there probably weren't any bodies. If people had been looking at the next-door unit, there would have been some cars parked out front. The pool at the bottom of the hill was already covered for winter. No one had been fishing out any runaway cars when he drove by.
"Okay," he said, turning back to his teacher. "If she wasn't showing the house, what was she doing up here?"
"Not everyone is like you, Remo Williams," the Master of Sinanju said. "Some people are givers, not takers. They are more than happy to do favors for the Master."
"Are you kidding? She ducks and covers every time she sees you. How'd you get her to do favors for you?"
"Because, unlike you, Remo, I take an interest in my community. Had you attended last week's rental board meeting as I did, you would know that the board unanimously voted that I was a wonderful human being and that, because I am old and frail and have a son who would rather run off all afternoon without even bothering to tell me where he is going, I have special needs that require special attention."
Remo knew Chiun had started to attend the informal Tuesday-night board meetings in the rec hall a month ago. Remo figured there was an angle. For weeks Remo had been worrying about intimidation and hospital bills. Now he realized Chiun had been pulling a slow con job on the board members.
"I get it. You went and whined for elderly privileges and managed to get poor Becky gofering for you."
"Poor nothing," Chiun sniffed. "She is rewarded handsomely as an employee of this complex. My rent money pays her salary. Therefore she works for me."
"I'm paying our rent," Remo pointed out.
"And I am paying every day of my life for putting up with you."
"Let's call it square," Remo conceded. "So what was she doing here? Light dusting? Typing? Stacking bodies?"
"She was delivering my mail," the Master of Sinanju said. There was a strange lilt in his voice.
Remo frowned. "I already got today's mail."
"Not the garbage mail," Chiun said, waving a weathered hand. "This was my own personal mail." Remo understood. For years the Master of Sinanju had kept a post-office box for special correspondence. Remo mostly didn't pay attention to that stuff, but he got the impression that Chiun had moved into the cyber age, hiring someone to collect and forward mail for him from a special Internet address. That mail was printed and sent along with all other personal correspondence to Chiun's P.O. box.
"You got them to make her do the post-office run for you?" Remo asked, impressed. "Wow. You must've really laid the snow job on thick with the board." He crossed his arms. "So what did you get? I'm guessing not another hardware-store flier."
A smile toyed just beneath the surface of the Master of Sinanju's wrinkled lips. When he nodded, the tufts of hair above his ears did a soft dance of weighty appreciation. When he finally opened his mouth, he spoke only three words.
"It is time," the Reigning Master of Sinanju announced.
His reverent tone caught Remo off guard.
In their many years together there were only a few times in training-very few in Remo's memory-that the Master of Sinanju had shown true pride in the way his pupil performed a given task. Words of praise, or even something as simple as a smile or a nod, were rare indeed. They came only when the Master of Sinanju was so overwhelmed by pride that he dropped his cynical guard and lost himself to the moment.
Those three simple words, delivered on the patio of their small town house, were spoken with just such pride. And with a touch of quiet reverence thrown in for good measure.
Remo slowly uncrossed his arms. "Time for what?"
In reply Chiun reached deep inside a billowing kimono sleeve. The old man pulled out a single white envelope, which he held aloft like some great and treasured prize.
Remo took the offered envelope.
The paper was heavy. The envelope wasn't a cheapie. On the back was a wax seal. A shield topped by what looked like a knight's helmet was flanked by a lion and a unicorn. A banner at the bottom read Dieu Et Mon Droit.
The seal had not been broken.
There were no mailing or return addresses on the envelope. If it had come to Chiun's post-office box, it had to have been sent inside something else.
Remo looked up, puzzled. "Open it," Chiun encouraged.
Still confused, Remo did as he was told. Inside he found a single sheet of folded parchment. The paper felt old to the touch. In the center were written four simple words: "We are expecting you."
It was a woman's handwriting. The script was crisp and sure. The woman who had written the words was obviously confident and unused to making mistakes. She had used an old ink-dipped quill, not a disposable instrument. Remo knew the difference. He had seen the same sort of strokes used by Chiun when recording the Sinanju histories.
"Okay," Remo said, looking up. "I give. What's this supposed to mean?"
"It means, O dim one, that it is time. That is the last. It will be the first." Chiun rose in a single fluid motion that barely disturbed the hems of his flowing robes. "Call Emperor Smith," he instructed. "Inform him the time is at hand and that we are leaving." He swept for the sliding glass patio doors that led into the kitchen.
"Whoa, Chiun. Where are we leaving to? What time is this supposed to be? What the ding-dang is going on?"
"Must everything be spelled out for you?" Chiun said impatiently. "The Time of Succession is finally here."
Remo felt an anxious thread in his belly.
"Okay, that sounds bad. Chiun, I've had to put up with the Sinanju Rite of Attainment, the Night of the Salt, the Dream of Death and about a hundred other rites of passage over the years. None of them were any fun. Are you telling me you're dumping another one on me? 'Cause if you are, I'm telling you right now, I can't take it."
"You can and you will," Chiun insisted sternly. "Those other passages were times of difficulty. This is merely a formality. It is your time of reckoning. By the end of our journey, your long apprenticeship will be at an end and the House of Sinanju will have a new Reigning Master."
The words hit Remo like a fist to the chest. He stood there for a long moment, unsure of what to say.
He could feel the eyes of Chiun's ancestors burning through him.
"You sure about that, Little Father?" he asked finally.
He winced at the old man's withering look. "Okay, you're sure," Remo muttered.
"As sure as I am that you will bring honor to the House and will not embarrass me in front of all the Masters who have come before," the old man announced to the small stone courtyard. He pitched his voice very low, leaning in to his pupil. "If you embarrass me in front of my family, you will rue the day, Remo Williams," he threatened.
Turning on his heel, he marched into the house. "Not much pressure, right, guys?" Remo asked the air.
His words were lost on a chill late-afternoon breeze that was like the breath of a thousand lost souls.
For Dr. Harold W. Smith, the day began with no fanfare.
It was the same as the previous day and the one before that, stretching back over years and decades. Other men longed for the limelight. Harold Smith opted for the exact opposite. Recognition, accolades-a fanfare for his arrival-would have meant a failure on his part of colossal proportions. Brass bands to greet his day would have sent Smith scurrying for shadows where he could have a very personal, very private fatal heart attack.
But, thankfully, when he drove through the gates of Folcroft Sanitarium in Rye, New York, no one was there to record his arrival except the same sleepy guard who had been on gate duty nearly every day for the past twenty years. And that guard never seemed overly interested.
Not that anyone would find any reason to be interested in Harold W. Smith. Even those who knew him found him exceedingly uninteresting.
Smith was uniformly bland and gray. His three-piece suit was gray, his overcoat was gray, even his skin tone was gray. The only splash of color in his dreary appearance was the green-striped school tie that was knotted with machinelike precision just below his protruding Adam's apple.
Smith was gray enough to be an escaped background character from a 1940s movie. That he would have been a background character on film was certain. Smith could never have had a speaking part. With the blandness he exuded, a single spoken line would have sent moviegoers stampeding for the bathrooms and concession stand.
For those who encountered the very real Harold Smith as he went about his life's business, Smith was a man the equivalent of an ice cube on an August sidewalk. He might be remembered for a little while, but he would sooner or later melt from memory and be gone forever.
Which was all well and good with Harold W. Smith. The man who craved no less than complete anonymity had been blessed by nature with the perfect camouflage. And so it was that in his living disguise he could drive onto the grounds of the facility that he ran and not garner more than a single glance from the guard at the main gate.
Folcroft was a private mental health and convalescent care facility nestled away amid the maples and birch on the shore of Long Island Sound. The trees had mostly lost their leaves as Smith steered up the long drive and parked his rusted old station wagon in his reserved space in the corner of the employee lot. He picked up his battered leather briefcase from the passenger seat.
There were only a few cars in the lot. Smith noted the one belonging to his assistant in the adjacent space. The remaining vehicles belonged to regular
sanitarium workers and were scattered throughout the large lot.
The night shift had come on duty at midnight and would not be relieved until eight o'clock. Since his earliest days at Folcroft, Smith had carefully set his own schedule, timing his arrival so that he would not encounter any sanitarium staff on his way to work.
As usual, he made it from the parking lot to the building without bumping into a single soul. Folcroft was a big, ivy-covered building built in an age when the pride of the American worker was evident in every carefully measured line and stacked brick. Though a century of cold and rain, wind and snow had howled and raged across the Long Island Sound, Folcroft's solid construction had weathered time and the elements. It, like its director, was a rock that only herculean intervention would dislodge. But no such effort had been raised against Folcroft, nor, it would seem, was any effort under way to dislodge Harold W. Smith from his lonely post. And so the gaunt gray man in the heavy overcoat hustled up the same path he had trodden on for forty years. Untouched by time, unperturbed by the vicissitudes of a cruel and changing world.
Through the door and up the stairs, Smith found his way to his office suite.
The outer room was empty.
For years Smith's secretary had made certain every day that she was at work a few minutes before her employer. But she ran the office with such efficiency, Smith had lately decided to relax her schedule somewhat by reducing her hours. The woman was edging closer to retirement age and this was one of the ways Smith hoped to persuade her to remain past sixty-five.
She was too valuable an asset to lose. Eileen Mikulka came in at eight now, not 5:55 a.m.
Alone in the semidarkness, Smith entered his office. Shutting the door at his back with a muted click, he crossed to his desk. He set his briefcase in the well at his feet and settled in his leather chair.
While the rest of the office was a throwback to the 1950s, the desk was a high-tech addition to a decidedly low-tech environment. The gleaming black desk drew the focus of the Spartan room like an onyx altar.
Some might have wondered how a modern desk had found its way into so old-fashioned a room. The secret of the desk was a window into the secret life of Harold Smith.
Reaching beneath the lip of the desk, Smith's finger found a hidden stud. When he pressed it, a square of light grew to glowing life beneath the surface of the desk.
The computer screen was angled so that it was visible only to whoever sat behind the desk. On the screen appeared a few lines of text that were set to appear automatically first thing every morning. Smith read them daily as both habit and reminder.
Only after reading every word to the preamble to the United States Constitution did Smith close out the window. Feeling the weight of the world on his thin shoulders, Smith began his day's work.
Those people who found Smith not worthy of a second glance would have been stunned to find out just exactly what was the work of the boring gray man in the drab gray suit.
Director of Folcroft Sanitarium was merely a cover. Smith's true work was as director of CURE.
CURE wasn't an acronym, but a dream. An agency set up by a President of the United States-long dead-who, in a time that would seem innocent by modern standards, had seen the seeds of anarchy and division already beginning to bear fruit. Rather than allow the nation to be torn apart, this President had created an agency to work on behalf of America. An agency that would ignore the Constitution for the express purpose of saving it and, God willing, America.
To head this most covert of organizations, a man of great courage, personal strength and moral rectitude would be needed. After an exhaustive search, just such a man was found toiling far from the spotlight in the bowels of the Central Intelligence Agency. Harold Smith had accepted the presidential appointment with a flinty resolve and settled down to the work of saving the nation that he loved.
Forty years later, he was still on the job. Adjusting his rimless glasses on his patrician nose, Smith scanned the window that opened up beneath the one he had just closed. There were several items sent up to him by his assistant, Mark Howard. The young man had forwarded them for Smith's attention from his own office down the hall.
Smith quickly looked them over. He saved two for closer inspection and dumped the rest in the main CURE files. After that, he lost himself in the comfortable realm of cyberspace.
Behind a secret wall in the basement of the sanitarium, four mainframes kept an ever watchful eye on domestic and foreign affairs. Throughout day and night, anything that might require attention was pulled and collected in a special file. Although Mark Howard had a heightened instinct for identifying matters that might call for CURE manpower, the young man did not yet have the eye of experience honed over years by Harold Smith. Smith and his mainframes were a team that was still more comfortable working alone.
The CURE director threw himself into his work with the vigor of a man half his age. After all, this was the business for which he had been born.
He only realized two hours had passed when a soft rap sounded on his door. His drumming fingers retreated from the capacitor keyboard that was buried at the edge of his desk. The glowing alphanumeric pad faded from sight.
A matronly woman entered the office, a plastic cafeteria tray balanced on her forearm.
"Good morning, Dr. Smith," his secretary said.
"Good morning, Mrs. Mikulka."
The woman brought the tray to his desk, setting down a cup of coffee and a plate of dry toast. "How are you this morning, Dr. Smith?" Eileen Mikulka asked as she picked up the tray again.
"I'm fine, thank you."
It was the same ritual every day. Smith could have set a tape recorder on his desk to give the same responses.
"Will there be anything else?"
"No, thank you, Mrs. Mikulka."
"I'll be at my desk if you need me."
With a courteous smile Eileen Mikulka left the room.
Only when the door was closed once more did Smith return to his computer. Fifteen minutes later he was still engrossed in his electronic reports when the telephone rang.
It was the blue contact phone. He reached for it even as he continued scrolling down his screen. "Smith," he said crisply, tucking the phone between shoulder and ear.
"We're leaving, Smitty," Remo's voice announced glumly on the other end of the line. Frowning, Smith tore his eyes from his computer screen.
"What do you mean leaving?" the CURE director asked. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing wronger than usual," Remo replied. "Chiun and I are going on some trip somewhere. Of course, we can't tell Remo where that somewhere is. That'd make life too easy for him. Gotta wait until the last minute to maximize the chances of bugging the crap out of him."
Smith breathed a silent sigh of relief. Remo had never felt completely fulfilled as CURE's lone enforcement arm. He periodically quit the agency in search of the happier life he sometimes thought had eluded him. Smith had thought that this was another of those times.
"You are not due for vacation time," the older man pointed out as he returned attention to his computer.
"No vacation, Smitty. By the sounds of it I'm off on some ritual that'll end in me taking over from Chiun. I don't think I really believe it, though. He pulls one of these rites of passage out of his kimono sleeve every other week. I think it's his way of keeping me focused."
Smith had been absently scanning data on his screen. Remo's last words finally got Smith's undivided attention. He took the phone from the crook of his neck, gripping it tightly in his arthritic hand. "Is this the Time of Succession?"
Remo sounded surprised. "You've heard of it?"
Smith tried to keep his tone casual. "Chiun, er, mentioned something of it last year while you were recuperating from your burns here at Folcroft."
"Huhn," Remo grunted. "Everyone knows about it but me. Anyway, Chiun told me to tell you the time was at hand, destiny awaits, blah-blah-blah. Upshot is, we're leaving."
"You haven't any idea where you're going?"
"Nope. I'll find out at the airport, I guess. The old skinflint isn't gonna pay for our tickets, that's for sure. I'll let you know what it's all about when we get back."
"Very well." Smith hesitated. "Remo," he called the instant before the connection was broken.
"Good luck." There was a strain in his voice, yet the words were sincere.
"Thanks, Smitty," Remo said.
The phone went dead in Smith's hand. With great care he replaced the receiver in the cradle.
Hand snaking from the blue contact phone, he picked up the black desktop phone. He dialed a three-digit number for the interoffice Folcroft line.
The nasal voice that answered was youthful. "Mark Howard."
"Mark, please come to my office at once."
Once he had hung up the black phone, Smith reached into his pocket and pulled out his key chain. With a small key he unlocked the long drawer at his belly. A few pens rolled along with the opening drawer.
Smith reached over paper clips and a sandwich bag filled with rubber bands. Far back in the drawer his fingers closed around an envelope. He pulled it out.
The thick envelope was gold. There was a seal on the back, broken open months ago. A simple trapezoid divided by a bisecting line. The symbol of the House of Sinanju.
Considering their working relationship, he was surprised that Master Chiun had been so formal in his invitation. But, he realized, Sinanju had managed to last for thousands of years in part because of the strict adherence to ritual.
Opening the golden flap, he pulled out a sheet of carefully folded parchment. The letter was written in Chiun's familiar florid script.
Dear Emperor Harold W. Smith, Secret Ruler of the United States of America, Protector of the Eagle Throne and President-in-Waiting,
You are cordially invited...
Smith stopped reading. He couldn't bear to go further. He folded the letter and tucked it back inside the envelope.
It was ludicrous. At first he had balked at the very idea. But Chiun insisted the ritual could not be avoided.
The Sinanju Time of Succession. The end of the line for Remo's training.
The ritual put Remo at risk. But the greater risk for Smith was to CURE and, therefore, to America.
He put the envelope to one side on his desk and returned attention to his computer. Smith closed out all the CURE files, dumping them into the mainframes. They would still be there when he went back for them. In spite of all that might need his attention, he had a feeling that the coming days would be occupied with work unrelated to CURE.
Once he was done, he turned in his chair. There was a picture window of one-way glass behind his desk. As he awaited the arrival of his assistant, Harold Smith watched Long Island Sound roll to shore. He was suddenly very tired.
Remo was right. When they got to John F. Kennedy International Airport, Chiun shoved him and his credit card to the front of the proper ticket line. When Remo saw that they were heading to England, he had just one question.
"Why are we going to England?" Remo asked unhappily.
"Because," Chiun replied. And said nothing more.
Over the Atlantic, Remo tried again. "What's in England?"
"Beef eaters with pasty skin," Chiun said as he looked out at the clouds. "You should fit right in."
"I doubt it. English beef is just ground-up bull horns and pickled horse assholes. And I haven't had a steak or a burger in thirty years. And you're just dodging the question. What are we going to England for and what does it have to do with the Time of Succession?"
Chiun's face puckered. "Are you a child?" he clucked, turning unhappily from the window. "For once in your life can you not demonstrate patience?"
"Whatever we're doing there, it has to do with me becoming Master of Sinanju. I think I have a right to know."
"When you are Master, then you have a right to know. Until then, enjoy the clouds." A long finger tapped the window. "Look. That one looks like a bunny."
Remo slouched back in his seat. "I hate clouds," he grumbled.
"I don't know why. You have much in common. You are both puffy and white and cast gloom wherever you go."
Remo sank even further into himself, muttering about how much he hated sarcasm, too. He was still complaining when their plane touched down in London.
They took a cab from the airport. Chiun gave directions to the cabbie from the back seat. The driver eventually stopped outside a high wall. Remo had glimpsed the building beyond from the back seat of their taxi.
"Chiun, what are we doing at Buckingham Palace?" he asked once they were standing on the sidewalk.
The most famous residence of the British monarchy stretched like a panoramic postcard beyond the wall. "Looking for an entrance," Chiun replied. Twirling, he marched up the sidewalk.
He stopped at a palace guard standing before a gate. The man wore the familiar red uniform jacket and high bearskin hat, tied under his chin. He stared out over Chiun's bald head. Pedestrians continued to pass by.
"Chiun, they're not just going to let you waltz in here," Remo whispered. "Now, will you come clean, please, and tell me what the heck we're supposed to be doing here?"
But the old Korean wasn't paying attention. He marched up to stand toe-to-toe with the palace guard. Remo had seen jokes for years about how unflappable the guards were at Buckingham Palace. How the men stood at rigid attention at their posts and couldn't be made to flinch or blink despite the best efforts of nuisance tourists.
Remo was a little disappointed that the guard Chiun had chosen wasn't quite as imperturbable as the movies made them out to be. Of course, Remo reasoned that this probably had something to do with the fact that the Master of Sinanju had yanked the man's gun from his hands and thrown it out into London traffic while simultaneously stuffing the soldier's furry black hat down over his head.
As the soldier stumbled away, the old Asian sent a hard heel into the unguarded gate. The lock shattered and the gate swung wide. He turned back to his pupil.
"It is open," Chiun announced before slipping inside.
On the sidewalk Remo hesitated. The nearby tourists were watching the guard whose hat had inexplicably swallowed his head. As the man stumbled and swore, cameras clicked.
No one was paying attention to Remo. He didn't know what else to do. Sliding reluctantly from the sidewalk, he followed the Master of Sinanju inside. He caught up to the tiny Korean near the palace. "What do you think you're-"
Chiun silenced him before he could say another word.
"Follow close and keep your mouth shut."
The wizened Asian spoke with great seriousness. With a furrowed brow, Remo did as he was told.
They entered the palace undetected.
Remo had been in royal and presidential palaces before. The trappings of royalty did nothing to impress him. He saw high ceilings and fancy paintings that were there because someone in the hazy past had decided they were royal just because they'd mounted more Viking heads on their walls than the guy next door, and enough of their countrymen had bought into the kingly con job to make it stick.
"Do not let your low-bred eye be bedazzled by the opulence of this place," Chiun hissed over his shoulder as they slipped up a corridor. "After all, you are American and therefore unused to good taste."
"Good taste, schmood taste. Give me the local mall over this snob smokehouse any day of the week."
"And the ugly American rears his ill-bred head yet again," Chiun whispered in reply. "Not that I entirely disagree with you. The palaces of ancient Persia. Now, they would have impressed even your Visigothic eye. Still, for a Western palace this is not without its charms."
"Yeah, I'm really impressed," Remo said aridly. "They invent indoor plumbing around here yet or do they still hang the royal arses out over the Thames?"
He was surprised that they hadn't encountered anyone yet. They had traveled deep in the palace without seeing another living soul. Remo figured they'd be armpit deep in butlers, falcon trainers and ladies-in-waiting by now.
In a hallway off the beaten path, the Master of Sinanju stopped at a gilded tapestry on which was depicted the Battle of Agincourt. Outnumbered English archers with longbows were slaughtering French knights. Henry V stood amid the chaos, resplendent in gleaming armor. At the king's side stood another man. The face caught Remo's attention.
He peered closer. The man had Korean features. "Relative of yours?" Remo asked.
Chiun wasn't paying attention. He had pulled up an edge of the tapestry. Manipulating the molding of the paneling beneath, he swung open a section. The old man slipped through the secret door.
Unable to hide his curiosity, Remo followed him inside.
The long passage beyond was dusty. Thick ropes of cobweb hung across their path. On one side grimy windows overlooked a courtyard that time had apparently forgotten. Overgrown vines swallowed stone benches and an ancient shed while shrubs and weeds grew wild.
"Okay," Remo said as the secret door swung shut behind them. "I've been patient long enough, but this is getting too weird. Wanna tell me what we're doing here?"
They had come to the end of the long hallway. Even as Remo was finishing his question, the two of them were stepping out into a larger room.
Remo stopped dead. "Oh," he said, his voice small.
The chamber they had come to was some sort of throne room. At least Remo assumed it was a throne room. He had two very good reasons for thinking it was. For one thing there was a pretty damned ornate throne standing on a small platform against the far wall. For another-and this almost assured him that this was indeed a throne room-the queen of England was sitting on the throne.
"Um, Chiun?" Remo whispered.
But the Master of Sinanju had swept ahead of him, gliding up to the throne. He offered a deep bow. "Your Majesty," Chiun intoned. "Sinanju bids most humble and undeserved greeting to Elizabeth II, Defender of the Faith and Queen by the Grace of God of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions Beyond the Seas. We stand before you as wretched and unworthy servants to your glorious crown."
"Greetings, Master of Sinanju," the queen replied. She wore a simple blue dress and silver crown. In her white-gloved hands she clasped the strap of her omnipresent purse. "You do us honor with this visit. We trust your journey was safe and bid you welcome to our shore."
Remo was still at the door, uncertain what to do. There were two men standing beside the queen. Although he had never met the man to the left of Her Royal Highness, Remo recognized the teeth, chin and hair. Britain's prime minister stood like a confused rat.
On the queen's right was a man Remo knew all too well.
Sir Guy Philliston was the head of Source, Britain's top spy agency. Sir Guy was a little older now, with graying temples and soft wrinkles around his eyes, but he still had male-model good looks. Philliston was so handsome that women regularly lined up beside his bed. They were invariably disappointed by the Men Only sign nailed to the headboard.
Remo sensed something was different when, unlike their usual encounters, Sir Guy didn't leer at him. Standing beside the queen, the Source head looked more businesslike than ever, if somewhat ill at ease. This was too much for Remo to comprehend. He was actually in a secret throne room with England's queen and prime minister. What's more, he and Chiun had obviously been expected. As he tried to make sense of the scene, Remo thought he heard someone call his name. When he looked up, he saw that Chiun was glancing back at him.
"Remo, approach the throne and be recognized," the old man repeated, a tight smile plastered across his face.
"Oh, sorry." Stepping forward, Remo wiped his dry palm on his thigh and offered it to Her Highness. "Hiya."
Thinking better after the dirtiest of dirty looks from Chiun, he dropped the hand to his side and offered a formal bow. He felt foolish.
"This is the one who will succeed you?" the queen asked the Master of Sinanju.
Although her use of language was precise in the extreme, she didn't speak with disapproval or disappointment. It occurred to Remo that, even though she had been famous all of his life, he had never before heard her voice.
"He is my son and heir, Your Majesty," Chiun replied.
The queen turned her regal gaze to Remo. "In that case, we welcome you, son of the awesome Master of Sinanju."
Still seated upon her throne, the queen offered a slight bow of her head.
At a nudge from Chiun, Remo returned the bow. The instant his head was down, he felt a sharp displacement of air beside his throat.
"What the?" Remo said, jumping back.
In the queen's gloved hand was a long needle that she had hidden behind her purse. The instant Remo bowed, she'd tried to jab him in the throat. When he jumped, she missed.
Forward momentum kept the needle going. Before she could stop it, the needle swept around, burying deep in the thigh of the prime minister.
The PM let out a yelp that was all jutting teeth and bugging eyes. He slapped a hand to the spot where the queen had harpooned him. For a moment he just stood there. Then he pitched forward on his pale face.
"What the cripes was that all about?" Remo demanded.
Sir Guy Philliston rushed over to check the pulse of the deceased PM.
Chiun tsk-tsked. "That is not permitted, Your Majesty," he scolded the British monarch.
"Bet your ass it's not," Remo snapped. "The frickin' queen of England just tried to kill me. That pin had some kind of poison on it. Lookit. What'shis-face is dead." He pushed a toe against the late prime minister.
Chiun's face grew mildly impatient. "Didn't you hear me? Didn't you hear me tell her it was wrong of her to do so?"
"We beg forgiveness," the queen interjected.
"Pipe down, hairdo," Remo growled at Her Majesty. To Chiun, he said, "Let me guess. This has something to do with the Sinanju Time of Succession."
"What else would it have to do with?" the Master of Sinanju replied in Korean. "Now be still. You are embarrassing me in front of the queen."
"Fine. In that case, I'm gone."
He started to march away. In an instant he changed his mind and wheeled around.
"Screw it," he said. Dodging Chiun, he marched up to the throne and snatched the queen's purse from her hands. "I've always wanted to know what the hell's so important you gotta schlep this around all the time."
Flipping the purse upside down, he shook it out over the steps.
He expected snotty hankies or some secret lease that would turn Boston over to the redcoats in 2076. Instead, a single, small framed picture dropped out. Remo grabbed up the silver frame. He looked at the picture.
He looked at Chiun.
He looked back at the picture.
When Remo looked once more at the Master of Sinanju, astonishment had overtaken anger.
"It's you," he said in amazement.
The picture was of a Chiun much younger than Remo had ever known him. The man in the photograph had black hair and an unwrinkled face. But there was no mistaking who it was.
The old Korean snatched the picture from his pupil's hand. A faint blush had risen in his cheeks. He handed purse and picture back to the queen. With a bow and an embarrassed goodbye, he quickly left the throne room.
Remo didn't know what to do. He didn't bother to bow to the queen or glance at Philliston. He left the small throne room and hurried back into the hall after his teacher.
As soon as they were gone, Sir Guy Philliston fumbled a cell phone from his pocket.
"They are on their way," he said. "Yes, just the young one. Be alert. He is better than anything you've ever seen." He clicked the phone shut. "Source's top agent will be in position momentarily, Your Majesty."
The queen said nothing. She was staring at the picture in her hands. After a lingering moment, she dropped the silver frame back inside her purse, snapping it shut with a crisp click.
The elegant man in the black bowler hat had parked in the no-parking zone in front of Harrods department store in the heart of London. The car the man leaned against as he waited was a yellow classic Bentley that looked like a shiny wheeled lemon in the bright midday sun.
He had been parked there for some time. A manager from the store who had spied him through a window was going to send someone to chase him away. But when the store employee saw how elegantly the man was dressed and how regal was his bearing, he had second thoughts. The stranger was so lordly it just seemed wrong to disturb him. So even though it was hip these days to scorn the landed aristocracy, the upper classes were in full cultural retreat and the hereditary peers in the House of Lords had been downsized back to the Dark Ages, the Harrods manager had given special instructions to ignore the man next to the gleaming yellow Bentley.
When a policeman walking up the sidewalk paused to question the man, the bobby was offered a cool smile and a glass of Dom Perignon champagne from the bottle that was chilling on ice in the Bentley's back seat. The officer accepted the smile, refused the drink and-by the time he headed up the sidewalk-was apologizing profusely for disturbing the well-dressed man.
The man waiting at the car was used to such reactions. Thomas Smedley had been getting them all his life.
Smedley was a true gentleman. In a world that had been surrendered to the coarse and profane, he exuded the once common and laudable Britishness that had gone out of vogue long before the dying days of the previous century.
"We Smedleys were gentlemen when the rest of the lower orders were still eating fleas out of each other's fur," his father was fond of saying. "Which, by Smedley time, was about quarter to three yesterday afternoon."
Even as a lad in kneesocks and knickers, Thomas Smedley was already a gentleman.
He was a gentleman at Eton, a gentleman during his stint in the British army guards regiment and a gentleman into his life's work as a top spy for Her Majesty's government.
Most people who knew him as a spy suspected he worked for MI-5 or MI-6. People connected with those agencies, who knew perfectly well Thomas Smedley didn't work for either, joked that he must be employed by MI-6 and a half. Only a handful knew that Thomas Smedley was the top counterespionage agent for the highly secret British organization known only as Source.
Those who passed him on the street this day had no way of knowing that beneath that cool exterior beat the ice-cold heart of Britain's most lethal killer.
Smedley couldn't count the number of times he had killed for queen and country, nor did he care to venture a guess. The fact that they were all dead meant that he was still alive and that was just fine with Thomas Smedley.
Smedley sipped champagne as he waited.
In addition to his black bowler, Smedley wore an impeccably tailored double-breasted navy-blue suit with brass buttons. A neatly knotted blue tie with white polka dots hung over his lavender shirt. In spite of the fact that the sun had decided to put in a rare and welcome appearance above London, a black umbrella dangled from Smedley's forearm.
As he sipped his champagne, he checked his pocket watch. A single raised eyebrow showed his displeasure.
The instant the eyebrow went up, the front door of the store opened. A thin, curvaceous woman, her arms stacked high with colored boxes, strode into the sunlight.
At the woman's appearance, every man on the street stopped and stared. They couldn't help it. She had the kind of beauty that could only be described as dangerous. Perfect smile, perfect cheekbones, perfect nose. Her eyes were brown pools flecked with green. As she walked, her shimmering black hair skipped across her proud shoulders. The men who saw her wanted her. The women envied her. As she marched from Harrods, she scorned them all. Silver shoes were matched by a silver clasped belt that hung around the waist of her burgundy, long-skirted top. Her red silk palazzo pants shimmered with every step as she stepped coolly over to the waiting yellow car.
"You're late, Mrs. Knight," Smedley said as he popped the rear door for her.
"Mr. Smedley," the woman said liltingly in reply, "threats to the crown come and threats to the crown go, but a sale like this is a once-in-a-year event."
Mrs. Knight dumped her boxes in the back of the car. As Smedley returned his champagne glass to the bar, she passed her lips very close to his cheek in something that might have been a kiss or a whisper. With a devilish smile, she dropped, giggling, into the back seat.
Leaving her in the rear, Smedley marched crisply around to the driver's side and slipped in behind the wheel. He set his umbrella on the seat beside him. In another moment he was pulling out into London traffic.
In the back seat Mrs. Knight wriggled out of her loose-fitting outfit. She pulled a change of clothes from a valise she'd stashed in the car before her side trip to the store.
In the rearview mirror, Smedley watched as Mrs. Knight slipped her long legs into her tight-fitting outfit. To do so she had to slide her bare bottom to the edge of the seat.
"I have never wanted more to be a leather seat, Mrs. Knight," Smedley commented.
"Perhaps later I'll tan your hide for you, Mr. Smedley," she replied as she tucked her pert breasts inside the top of the one-piece outfit. With slender fingers she lovingly drew the zipper that ran from crotch to neck.
Mrs. Knight was fastening the button at her collar when a cell phone purred to life in Smedley's vest. He popped it open as he drove.
"Smedley," he announced. "We've just left Harrods. We'll be there momentarily." He paused to listen. "Are you certain just the young one?"
He made a face at the response. Without a goodbye, he clicked the phone shut and slipped it back in his pocket.
"Philliston says they're on the move," Smedley said, mild irritation in his voice. "Warned me that they're better than anything we've seen before."
"Do you believe it?" Mrs. Knight asked.
"Better than anything I've seen?" Smedley scoffed. "After what I just saw in my mirror? Doubtful, Mrs. Knight. Very, very doubtful."
The lemon-yellow Bentley continued up the road to Buckingham Palace.
"SO, DID YOU DO the queen of England or what?" Remo asked as they marched out of Buckingham Palace.
Chiun's brow was dark, his gaze dead ahead. "You have done it again," the Master of Sinanju said in hot reply. "I continue to hope. I pray to my ancestors that each last time will be the last time. Yet you have managed to take a moment of great importance to your House and to me-yes, forgive me, Remo, for having selfish feelings this one time-and turn it into something embarrassing."
"Not that I need to defend myself here, but she did try to jab me in the head with a poison pin."
"Yes, that was not permitted," Chiun admitted grudgingly. "What passes for royalty these days. I shudder to think what is in line to follow her."
"So did you?" Remo pressed as they walked.
"Did I what?"
"You. The queen. She had that picture of you. That was you, wasn't it?" He held up his hands, warding off the foul look his teacher shot him. "Hey, not a problem here. I'm open-minded. Maybe she was a looker back in her day. Which, if she's like most Englishwomen, was the twenty-four hours just after her eighteenth birthday and just before the Crooked Tooth Express plowed full-steam ugly into her mush."
Chiun would not be drawn in. Outside, they scaled the wall and hopped to the ground. As soon as their feet touched the sidewalk, they were walking briskly down the street.
Remo was no longer surprised by the lack of guards or palace personnel. The pedestrians in whose midst the two men suddenly appeared seemed unfazed. None was aware that the two Masters of Sidanju had come from the palace grounds.
"I expect so little from you, Remo," Chiun said as they strolled along. "Is it too much to ask you to behave yourself at least in front of royalty?"
"As soon as royalty starts behaving better, I will. It's all a joke anyway. They build places this big just to distract the people on the other side of the gate. If they keep the commoners busy oohing and ahhing, maybe they won't realize the people inside are about as fit to rule as the winner of last year's Twit of the Year Contest."
"Your powers of perception are great, O insightful one," Chiun droned. "Do you think all of the Masters of Sinanju who have come before you did not know that? Do you think I do not know that? Of course that is so. But as long as they continue to rule, we will go to them. For no matter what nobility you place in the man who collects the garbage, he will never have the means to retain our services."
Remo shook his head, uncaring that the past Masters were watching him. "Some family we are. Always mercenaries."
"Yes," Chiun replied. "And the children back in Sinanju thank us daily for that fact."
Remo had been to Sinanju. Not once had he heard so much as a single word of thanks from the inhabitants. He had heard backstabbing and sniping. He had heard slander and toadying and fear, followed by a break for lunch and an afternoon free for more sniping. But he had never once heard anything remotely approaching a sincere thank-you. He was about to bring this up when he was suddenly distracted by something up ahead.
A garish yellow car had pulled to the curb.
Remo didn't know what triggered the sense. It was experience honed in training. All he knew was that the person behind the wheel seemed interested in him.
The windshield was strangely reflective. Even his sharp eyes had a difficult time seeing through it. Sunlight gleamed from the mirrored glass. Remo thought the driver was a man. At least he assumed so, given the fact that he could make out just the faintest outline of a bowler hat.
"We've got company," Remo said as they walked. For the moment he was more curious than concerned. Chiun said nothing. His slivered eyes were fixed on the car that was still a hundred yards away.
People on the street passed by the parked Bentley with the idling engine. No one seemed terribly interested in it.
As Remo and Chiun continued up the sidewalk, a hand slowly reached out the driver's window of the Bentley. Clutched tight in the pale fingers was a cylindrical metal object the size of a small can of spray paint.
Although the eyes were hidden by the glass, Remo could sense that the driver's gaze never wavered from him.
Remo knew something was wrong. Before he could speak his words of sudden concern, the driver pressed a tiny button on the top of the canister and let the metal device slip from his fingers. It bounced to the sidewalk with a sharp clank.
The instant the canister hit, it began spinning. A cloud of purplish gas erupted from both ends, shooting up into the faces of stunned pedestrians.
Panic came at once. As the cloud grew; people screamed.
Remo had started to run when the first body fell. It was a woman with shoulder-length black hair in a skintight leather cat suit. She crumpled to the sidewalk, screaming and writhing in her death throes. As soon as the driver had dropped the canister, the car tore away from the curb. As the gas can spit and people scattered in fear, the Bentley flew across lanes of traffic. Tires squealed and horns blared angrily. Remo wheeled. "Little Father," he snapped.
"Go," Chiun commanded. "I will see to the device."
As Chiun flew up the sidewalk to the hissing gas canister, Remo bolted into traffic after the fleeing Bentley.
They had walked nearly to the Royal Mews on Buckingham Palace Road. Directly across the wide road from the Doric archway that led into the Mews was the four-star Steen Hotel.
The Bentley didn't attempt to flee very far. After cutting across rows of traffic, it bounced the sidewalk in a sideways squeal that slid it on smoking rear tires to the entrance of the hotel's subterranean parking garage. Tearing down a strip of black rubber, it flew into the darkness.
Remo raced to follow. Though cars sped along, he dodged and jumped and somehow managed to be wherever they were not. In a few great strides he was across Buckingham Palace Road. On flying feet he raced down the incline into the Steen Hotel parking garage.
It was two levels deep. When Remo didn't spy the Bentley on the upper level, he ran down the ramp to the lower. The yellow car was nowhere to be seen.
He paused, clenching and unclenching his fists. The exit was located up near the entrance. There was no way a banana-colored car could have slipped past Remo undetected. It couldn't possibly have gotten out.
At the far rear wall of the lower level were several slight indentations in the concrete. Each was about the size of a garage door. They all looked solid. But as Remo walked past the last one, he felt something not quite right. Despite the solidness of the wall, he sensed hollowness beyond.
It was then that he noticed the fresh tire marks imprinted on the oil-softened floor.
He stomped his foot. The vibrations that came back confirmed his suspicions. He ran to the wall. Pressing the flat of his palms against the surface, he pushed. With a creak of protest and a single snap, the false door popped open, sliding up into the ceiling-The secret panel opened on another parking garage.
Remo slipped inside.
The smaller garage had room for only about twenty cars. A private elevator was at the rear, its door open. The tiny lot was full. Most of the cars were Bentleys painted different loud colors, although there were a few sports cars and a single white Rolls-Royce. A powder-blue Lotus Elan S3 was parked in the space nearest Remo.
The yellow Bentley Remo had followed from the street was parked in the spot farthest from the secret entrance. And standing calmly before it was Thomas Smedley.
The Source agent wore a coolly superior smile. His black bowler was tipped slightly toward his left eye. His umbrella was hooked to his forearm.
"Very good," the British agent said, impressed. "Being American, I assumed I would have to wait until you summoned fifty thousand troops with surface-to-air missiles to blast apart greater London to locate me. Jolly good show."
"Stuff the twaddle, Jeeves," Remo said as he marched across the garage. "You wanted to get my attention. Who are you and what do you want?"
"I, sir," Smedley said, "am your killer. As for the rest of your question, one hopes you can work it out from there. But, then, one hopes so much with Americans."
His gloomy tone and sadly shaking head made clear his disappointment on that front.
As he spoke, Smedley unhooked his umbrella from his arm. Continuing to shake his head, he aimed it like a weapon.
Remo barely had time to note the tiny hole at the silver tip when a trio of sounds like three clapping gunshots rang through the big basement room. Three bullets fired from the tip of the umbrella.
Although surprised, Remo's instinct took over. He dodged the first two bullets. The third he caught with the hardened tip of one index fingernail. With a flick and a snap, he sent it zinging back from whence it had come.
Remo had directed the bullet back down the barrel of the umbrella gun. But at the last moment it seemed to get a mind of its own. A few yards before it reached the Source agent, the bullet banked upward, impacting hard into the front of Smedley's bowler. It hit with a loud ping.
The bullet didn't tear the fabric. It made a little dent, but failed to penetrate.
Smedley seemed stunned. The impact of the bullet knocked him back against the Bentley. Blinking back his surprise, he quickly got his bearings.
"Magnetized," he explained to Remo's puzzled look. "And bulletproof. Handy to have in our business. Just one tool in an arsenal, my good man."
The umbrella was aimed again. With a slight manipulation at the handle, he sent another missile flying from the tip. This one was round and hard and came in slower than the bullets. Remo was still a few dozen yards from Smedley. The pellet arced to the floor and struck at Remo's feet. When it hit, a cloud of gas exploded up around Remo.
Across the garage Smedley yanked the brim of his bowler. A plastic gas shield came down, covering his face. He offered a sympathetic smile.
"Gas mask," the Source agent said. "Pity I only have the one. And I'm not keen to share. You'll find the gas is quite lethal. I shouldn't want to get much of it on my skin if I were you. Seeps in through the pores. Floods your lungs. The pain is excruciating, I've observed. You'll be dead in five or six seconds, if that's a comfort."
As he spoke, Smedley pulled on a pair of gloves that he had fished out of his pocket. As he awaited the American's inevitable death, he smiled behind his plastic shield.
The smile began to fade when the American didn't grab his throat and drop dead on the garage floor. In another second, as the American persisted in his stubborn refusal to die, Thomas Smedley's smile of success melted completely away.
For the first time in his professional career, he felt a fluttering hint of deep concern.
Across the room Remo stood in the smoke. Even though it kissed his bare arms and face, it seemed to have no ill effect. He shook his head in disgust.
"What is it with you people and gadgets?" he complained. "All the time gadgets, gadgets, gadgets."
Stooping, he picked up the smoke-spewing pellet. There was no risk of the poison seeping into skin. As soon as the danger was detected, his pores had shut down, closing out the harmful effects of the gas cloud.
Remo flicked the pellet off his thumb. It launched up into the ceiling vent, there to hiss and die harmlessly.
Near the rear wall, Smedley's jaw hung slack. He quickly recovered.
With the tip of his umbrella, Smedley poked a button on the wall near the elevator. Fans above their heads kicked on, sucking the gas from the parking garage.
"Hmm. I am loath to admit it, but I believe I might require a spot of assistance here, Mrs. Knight," the Source agent called over his shoulder.
The reply came from the open elevator doors. "I thought you'd never ask, Mr. Smedley." Remo had sensed another person lounging inside. From his angle he couldn't see inside. He was surprised when it was a woman's voice that spoke. Even more so when he saw who it was that stepped casually out to join Smedley.
Her long legs and thin arms were wrapped in tight black leather. Her neck was a porcelain pedestal for a perfect face. She was the same cat-suited pedestrian who had fallen to the ground in agony on the sidewalk near the Royal Mews.
As Smedley tucked up his bowler gas mask and pulled off his gloves, the woman stopped in a karate crouch beside him.
"You recognize our Mrs. Knight, I see," Smedley said. "Her performance on the sidewalk was just a cunning plan to lure you to your doom. The other pedestrians were frightened but unharmed by our little game. Well done, Mrs. Knight."
"Did you expect anything less, Mr. Smedley?" she asked.
Remo was nearly on the two Source agents. When he was close enough, Mrs. Knight made her move. Her attack was surprisingly quick. A graceful back flip and she was before Remo, her hands flashing like mallets in killing blows.
"You sure you're English?" Remo asked, tipping his head to examine her face even as he deflected her blows. "You're pretty okay looking. What passes for sexy in England is usually 'yikes' in the brush-and-floss parts of the world."
She tried launching a crushing knee into his sternum. Remo took the occasion to feel her up. "Nice," said Remo.
"Arrggghhh!" screamed Mrs. Knight.
Behind her, Thomas Smedley still had one trick left up his sleeve. As his partner fruitlessly fought Remo, the Source agent slipped the fabric off his umbrella, revealing a long stainless-steel sword. Its deadly sharp blade gleamed in the fluorescent light. He tested the weight of the blade over his head once before extending the sword before him.
"En garde!" Smedley challenged.
Mrs. Knight was still kicking and punching. By now she was sweating in her cat suit.
Remo looked at the sharpened tip of the umbrella sword. It was directed at his chest. He turned to Mrs. Knight.
"You work for him or is it the other way around?" he asked.
"I work for Britain." She tried to gouge his eyes out.
"Hey, here's a tip," Remo said. And, taking Smedley's wrist, he plunged the sword through Mrs. Knight's heart.
"Oh, dear," Smedley said as his dead partner slipped off the end of the sword. "Bad show."
"Worse movie," Remo said.
He flicked the sword from Smedley's hand. The Source agent seemed surprised to see it flying away. It buried two feet deep in the concrete wall. The sword wobbled in place.
"Now it's question-and-answer time," Remo said.
Smedley wanted to bolt, but before he could even take a single step, Remo had grabbed him by the hand. Remo pinched the fleshy web between Smedley's thumb and forefinger.
The pain was awful. Blinding. Worse than anything Thomas Smedley had ever experienced in his entire life.
"Eeeeeeaaaahhhh!" Thomas Smedley shrieked.
"That's level one," Remo explained as he squeezed. "It goes to one hundred. If you make it to fifty, you get a bonus of an umbrella suppository. Who do you work for?"
Remo increased the pressure. He made it as far as level one and a half before Thomas Smedley fell blubbering to his well-tailored knees.
"Source!" Smedley shrieked. "I work directly on order from Sir Guy Philliston."
"Philliston sent you to kill me?" Remo asked.
Smedley nodded. "I believe he was following orders from higher up." He gasped at the pain in his hand. "Please, go down from level one hundred. I can't bear it."
Remo scowled. "One hundred? I backed off before I reached two. What kind of girlie spy are you anyway?" He released the Source agent's hand.
With a disgusted look on his face, he collected the two sections of Smedley's umbrella. He wondered briefly after pulling the sword from the wall if it meant he now had to rule this damp sponge of a country. He hoped not. The climate was hell on leather loafers and he doubted he could get used to the stench of haggis blowing in from Scotland.
He slipped the gleaming silver sword back in the standard umbrella with a click.
Panting, Smedley pulled himself up on the Bentley's grille. "I've got a slight problem with pain," he admitted as Remo toyed with the umbrella. "It showed up on some of my early Source tests. Never had cause to worry about it before. Nasty bit of luck."
"No kidding?" Remo said. "How'd you score for getting umbrellas stuck through the head?"
He stuck Smedley's umbrella through Smedley's head.
If dying with a dumb look frozen on his face could have been judged high on the Source entrance exam, Thomas Smedley would have gotten perfect marks.
Remo opened the umbrella and gave it a little spin. It was still spinning above the head of Britain's former top assassin when he left the secret garage.
Remo found the Master of Sinanju waiting for him in the back seat of a taxi out in front of the Steen Hotel. The driver was of Middle Eastern descent. He wore grimy white pajamas, a swatch of cloth on his head that looked like he'd mugged a dog for its sleeping blanket, and a surly, suspicious expression. When Remo slid in beside Chiun he noticed that the cabbie seemed to take particularly keen interest in him in the rearview mirror.
"Okay, what's the deal here?" Remo demanded of the Master of Sinanju as the car pulled into traffic. "If you are referring to the cost of this carriage ride, you may work out the details with our driver," Chiun said. "I forgot my purse at home."
"Bull," Remo said. "And don't get cute. That hat bastard said he was sent by Guy Philliston to kill me."
"Really? How interesting."
"Yeah, real interesting. Interesting, too, how that babe who was dying out on the sidewalk-you know, the one you went to help by stopping that can of spraying poison-showed up downstairs as healthy as a horse."
Chiun waved his hands in praise before his weathered face. "Thank the awesome ministrations of the Master of Sinanju, deliverer and banisher of death, for restoring life to her ravaged body. All hail splendiferous me."
"Ditch the sales pitch. She was fine and you knew it. This is part of the game. We didn't fly all the way to England just so you could look up an old girlfriend. That guy in the bowler said Source was getting orders to kill me from someone higher up." He tapped the back of the driver's seat. "Hey, Gunga Din. Drop us off at Buckingham Palace."
They were heading away from the palace. The cabbie gave no sign that he even heard Remo.
"I have already told him to take us to the airport."
"No way I'm leaving without an explanation. First the queen tries to kill me, then she has Philliston send someone to do it for her. If you won't spill the beans, she will. Buckingham Palace," he ordered the driver. "And don't spare the camels."
"He cannot understand you," Chiun stated. "He speaks Pushtu and understands very little English." The Master of Sinanju said something to the driver in a language that Remo didn't understand. The man didn't nod, didn't say a word. He continued to stare at Remo in the mirror. There was a look of hate in his dark eyes.
"Did you just say 'Heathrow' in the middle of that gobbledygook?" Remo demanded.
"We are going to the airport."
"No way, Jose. Not unless you're willing to let me in on what's going on." He noted the look of determined silence on his teacher's face. "Okeydoke."
He smacked the driver on Fido's bed linen. "Buckingham Palace. You've gotta speakie enough English for that. Big house? Nice old lady in a frump dress lives there? Take us there now."
Across the seat, the Master of Sinanju pursed his lips. "Why must you always be so difficult, Remo?" he asked, a hard edge creeping into his voice. "Why can you not simply sit back and enjoy our most holy tradition?"
"Our most holy tradition is cash up front," Remo said, annoyed now with both the Master of Sinanju and the cabdriver, who was still ignoring his orders.
Remo was about to order the cabbie back to the palace once more when the taxi suddenly swerved sharply in traffic.
They were on Westminster Bridge. Traffic hummed along. Remo looked up in time to see the driver leaping over the seat at him, a wild glint in his dark eyes.
The cabbie had a knife in his hand, clutched in white knuckles. That wasn't all.
The man had lit a match a moment before. When Remo absently noted the sound, he had assumed it was for a cigarette that he was going to have to pluck from the stubble of the man's face and toss out the window. But he saw now it was not a cigarette between the driver's lips. A fat red stick of dynamite was clenched between the cabbie's yellowing teeth. The lit fuse sputtered rapidly down.
"What the hell?" Remo snarled as the driver tried repeatedly to stab him. Remo dodged the thrusting blade. The knife made a mess of the upholstery of the back seat.
"Death to the infidel!" the driver yelled in garbled English. He slobbered around his stick of dynamite. "I thought you said he couldn't speak English," Remo demanded of the Master of Sinanju.
"That?" Chiun asked. "Oh, they pick that phrase up like litter off the streets of Kabul."
The cab began to slow in traffic. The instant it did, a bounce came hard from behind. The rear bumper of the taxi had been tapped by a fast-moving truck, propelling the taxi forward in a more-or-less straight line. Tires squealed. A horn honked angrily.
In the rear Remo hardly noted the noise or the jostling. His face had grown very cold.
"Kabul?" he asked. "Like Afghanistan Kabul?"
"Death to America!" the driver said, saliva dripping from the end of his dynamite. When he spoke, he almost lost the hissing stick. He had to pause in midstab to reposition the dynamite. He clenched the far end in his molars.
"There is only one Kabul," Chiun answered. "The world has not excreted enough dung that it has need of another."
The driver was frustrated beyond understanding. Face glistening sweat, he continued trying to stab Remo, but only managed to shred the back seat. His frantic mind realized it didn't matter. The American was seconds from death. There would not be satisfaction from seeing him die by the knife, but the explosive would do the job the blade could not.
Even as the man was attempting to stab him, Remo noted the burning fuse. The driver gave one last jab with his blade when Remo finally nodded.
"Okay, that's long enough," Remo announced when the fuse was mere seconds from burning completely away. He promptly plucked the stick of dynamite from the cabdriver's mouth.
He plugged it hissing-fuse-first down the man's throat. Grabbing the cabbie by his dirty pajamas, he heaved him out the window and over the bridge. The gagging driver couldn't even scream. He was halfway to the Thames when his fuse burned down deep in his gullet and his body went boom.
Afghan meat splattered silvery waves.
Up on the bridge, Remo scrambled up over the seat and dropped in behind the taxi's wheel.
He hit the gas and pulled away from the honking truck. Swerving through traffic, he left the truck and its angry driver in their wake.
"What the hell just happened?" Remo demanded over his shoulder as he sped off Westminster Bridge.
"You killed our driver, that's what happened," Chiun clucked unhappily. "What is wrong with you?"
"He tried to kill me first," Remo snarled.
"Yes, but he had not taken us to the airport yet. You could have waited until then to remove him. Now we will need to find another. Pull over."
"Remo, in this country they drive on the other side of those little lines in the street. I do not trust that you will stay on the proper side of the little lines in a coloring book, let alone on the streets of a foreign land."
"Screw the lines," Remo said. "I want to know why that guy just tried to blow my head off."
Chiun's weathered face grew annoyed. "Apparently the British learned from you Americans how to keep a secret, that's why," he muttered. "And now, thanks to their loose lips, we need to find another taxi. Stop the car."
"No. And for the record, U.S. security only started to suck once we turned over all our national secrets to the ACLU and People for the American Way for safekeeping. What did that guy learn from the British?"
Chiun folded his arms, irritated. "That you were going to be here, obviously." He released a long, weary sigh. "You are going to make this difficult for me, aren't you?"
"If you mean am I going to go tra-la skipping along like nothing happened after two attempted murders in less than a half hour, no, I'm not."
And because he saw now that his intransigent pupil would not be persuaded to continue without an explanation, the Master of Sinanju reluctantly agreed to offer one.
"Although it is against my better judgment to betray one of our most beautiful traditions," the old Korean warned.
"Nothing beautiful about people trying to kill me."
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
Chiun instructed Remo to turn the cab around. They headed back over the Thames into the tourist heart of the city. Remo ditched the cab near Hyde Park. It was just as well. After the incident on the bridge, the car had probably been reported to the police by now.
The two Masters of Sinanju strolled along the paths of Hyde Park, sitting in the brown grass in the shadow of a great spreading ash. Children played in the sun.
As he sat cross-legged on the ground, Chiun fussed at his silk kimono, smoothing it at the knees.
"As part of your training in the awesome magnificence that is the art of Sinanju, I have taught you the lessons of the Masters who have come before us," the Reigning Master of Sinanju began without preamble.
Remo felt an involuntary chill. For years Chiun had hammered home the legends of his ancestors. A lot of the information Remo had been forced to memorize had to do with who begat whom, what they ate for lunch, as well as every little niggling detail about how they managed to score an extra denarius from a certain emperor of Rome. Because of this, Remo had become expert in avoiding listening to the tales. But it was different this day.
Those men were with him now, in death forming the Masters' Tribunal. The eyes that had been with him for the past year crowded around him in Hyde Park. The Masters who had bequeathed their hard-won lessons to the ages watched from some other realm. In the heart of London, Remo Williams felt the history of Sinanju all around him.
Feeling the weight of hundreds of disapproving stares, all Remo could do was nod.
Chiun accepted the silence with understanding. "Of all the tales you have learned, most important is the tale of the Great Wang," the old man said. "For though other, lesser Masters preceded him, Wang towered above them all. The truth of the Sun Source was his to discover and explore, and so he is remembered as the first. Know you, Remo, the tale of Wang?"
Remo was surprised to even be asked the question. "Of course I do, Little Father. You've drilled it into my head over and over practically since the day we met."
Chiun raised his chin, stretching his wattled neck. "Tell it to me," he commanded.
There would be no argument. Remo knew his teacher thought it important for him to speak the words. Feeling self-conscious about his invisible audience-one member of which was doubtless the Great Wang himself-Remo began.
"Wang lived at a time when there were many trained in the art of early Sinanju," Remo said. "These were called night tigers, the soldiers of Sinanju. Now, even in that age of many students, there was still only one Master who was head of the village. When the time came for him to retire, he would choose from the night tigers the one who would succeed him as Master. One day the older Master died before choosing a successor. There was fighting among the night tigers to see who would assume the mantle of Reigning Master. As the others fought, Wang went off to the wilderness to seek guidance from his dead ancestors. While there, legend says that a ring of fire descended from the heavens and, in an instant, gave Wang enlightenment. With a new vision and strength, Wang returned to the village and slew the quarreling night tigers. Afterward he assumed the title of Reigning Master, establishing the tradition of one pupil, one Master that has survived for millennia, all the way down to the modern age. Which brings us to this afternoon, Hyde Park, London, 5:17 p.m. Greenwich mean time."
Chiun had listened to his pupil's recitation in silence.
"Is that all?" he asked once Remo seemed finished.
"Pretty much. That's the Reader's Digest version. I can give you the director's cut if you want."
The old Korean shook his head. "For the time being I will forgive you the glaring omissions, for you have gotten the basic elements of the story. However, in the near future we must go over that lesson again, for it is likely your wandering mind needs to be refreshed. Remind me."
"I'll make a note of it," Remo promised, swearing silently to himself to never bring it up again.
"Very well," Chiun said. "Now, while it is plain you know some of the beginnings of Wang's masterhood, you do not know all of what followed his ascendancy to his lofty position as first Master of Sinanju of the New Age. It is true that Wang was given in an instant the knowledge of true Sinanju, knowledge that took the remainder of his life to master. But not everyone believed in his newfound gifts."
The old man's singsong voice settled back into the familiar cadence of teacher.
"Not long after Wang had slain the lesser night tigers, an adviser to a Japanese shogun did come to the village to seek the counsel of the Master of Sinanju. He was greatly disappointed to find that the old Master had died and that Wang had taken his place, for he had dealt on several past occasions with Wang's predecessor. Still, Sinanju's reputation was already old by this point, and so the adviser did explain his master's problem to the young Wang.
"According to the Japanese, his master, the shogun, had three wicked sons whom he had recently learned were plotting against him. The father was concerned, for all three sons had been tested in battle many times. All three were possessed of great physical strength, all three had powerful armies and all three were popular in the lands over which they ruled, lands given them by their father. Even after dividing his land among his sons, the father's kingdom remained the largest in the region, and was thus coveted by his heirs. They planned to kill their father and divide his land between them. To neutralize the threat to his kingdom and regain the land he had mistakenly turned over to his ungrateful offspring, the shogun wished to hire ten of Sinanju's greatest night tigers.
"'Summon them and they may return with me this day,' the adviser said, 'to deal fluttering death blows to the wicked children of my master.' But Wang-who was still Wang at this point, he having not yet earned the title 'Great'-did shake his head. 'This I cannot do,' he said.
"The adviser did not understand. 'My master will pay you well,' he promised. 'This you already know, for he has paid tribute to Sinanju five times for past services.'
"But Wang did explain that it was not the tribute that was the problem. He told the adviser that Sinanju no longer used night tigers. The skills and reputation of the art of Sinanju were now invested in but a single man. In Wang himself. And when the adviser protested, Wang did instruct him, 'Go and tell your master that the tribute will be double, for such is the cost of skills unequaled. Further, inform him that the threats to his kingdom are already bound for the grave. This is the promise of Wang of Sinanju.'"
Chiun paused in his recitation. This was long past the point in a story where Remo should have interrupted with an ill-timed and inappropriate remark. But Remo didn't interrupt. Sitting on the grass of Hyde Park, the younger Sinanju Master listened with rapt attention to the words of his teacher.
Nodding his satisfaction, the old Korean continued. "The adviser was not convinced that Wang was all he claimed to be. But he had no choice, for the shogun had commanded that he seek help from Sinanju, and this young man with the eyes of joyful death was now the Master and head of the village. The adviser went on his way by boat to give the shogun the news. A day later, after the rituals of departure were complete, Wang did follow.
"When he reached Japan, Wang did travel to the lands once controlled by the shogun. The kingdom of the eldest son was nearest, and so Wang did venture there first. On the road to the first son's palace, Wang was stopped by a group of five brigands who had been lying in wait for him. These highwayman did not demand his purse or tunic. Without a word they fell on Wang with clubs, intent on relieving him of his most valuable possession, his very life.
"In an earlier time five men might present a threat to a mere night tiger of Sinanju. But the Sun Source was known to Wang, and so his swift hand did fly left and right. Thwack, thwack. Faster than the human eye could follow did Wang deal with the brigands, until all five spilled their blood on the road. And verily did Wang continue to the palace, whereupon he slew the first wicked son of the mighty shogun."
Chiun paused again in his storytelling. Remo was still watching him intently.
"Then what happened?" Remo asked.
"You do not have any questions?" the old man asked.
"No, I'm fine," Remo promised. "Go ahead." Nodding, Chiun opened his mouth to speak. "Except," Remo interrupted.
"You said Wang was young. I thought you told me before he didn't become Master until he was in his fifties."
"Fifty is a child still learning," the Master of Sinanju replied. "Sixty is the beginning of understanding. Seventy is the application of knowledge. It takes many years for a man to shed the false promises of youth, for the child only slowly becomes father to the man. Even for a Master of Sinanju who has reached his full physical peak, it takes time to shed the vestiges of youth."
Remo's brow grew troubled. "How long?" he asked.
"In your case? Ten million years," Chiun replied. "Do you have any other stupid questions?"
Remo crossed his arms. "None that I'd dare ask after that," he grumbled. "And you're the one who asked."
"You were silent for more than three seconds. I was afraid you were dead."
The old Asian resumed his tale.
"Now Wang did travel farther into the lands once owned by the shogun. And on the route to the palace of the second son he did encounter a small army of men. There were ten in total, all dressed in armor, all carrying heavy swords of forged iron. These were the men who would one day become samurai, but at this time they were merely hired killers without a name. Now these ten men did not order Wang to stop. They did not command him to turn around or step off the path so that they might pass. When Wang appeared on the road, they simply attacked without provocation.
"And though their swords were fast, Wang was faster. Iron blades snapped and shields yielded soft to Wang's striking hands, and when he was finished the ten soldiers lay dead on the path. Wang viewed the bodies for a moment with suspicion before forging on to the palace wherein lived the second son. When Wang was through, the second son lived no more. After this second service was completed, Wang did venture on to the home of the third son.
"While he was still a way off from the third and final palace, Wang was set upon by a group of men who had hidden in the shadows of the woods that lined the path. And when the attack came this time, Wang was not surprised.
"There were twenty of them. Ninja they were, for it was after the time of Master Sam, who had recorded in the scrolls the theft of some of Sinanju's rudimentary skills by these Japanese. They were skilled in the art of death, these ninja. With fearsome speed they did hurl their shuriken and strike with their ninja swords. But although their numbers were great, the skills of the Master of Sinanju were greater. Wang did go among the ninja and through them, delivering death to them one by one, as only one of true Sinanju can. And when he was finished, the path was littered with ninja dead. Once the road was safe from ninja vermin, Wang did hasten to the near and final palace, where he did slay the last son of the shogun.
"Once his task was complete and the three sons no longer lived to threaten their father, Wang did travel to the castle of the man who had hired him. There was he welcomed at court, for word of his victory over the shogun's three treacherous offspring had preceded him. And this powerful feudal lord did offer great praise to Wang for the skill and strength he had demonstrated. And as reward the shogun did offer three times the amount that was customarily paid to the night tigers of Sinanju, rather than the agreed-upon two.
"But when the tribute was brought forward, Wang refused it. 'You will pay thirty and eight times the old amount,' Wang insisted, his voice calm and clear. And at his words a great silence descended on the shogun's court.
"The Japanese lord did balk at such a grand sum. 'Are you mad?' the shogun demanded. 'That is more than it would have cost to raise a whole army against my wicked sons. The amount agreed upon was two times the original fee. And see? In my generosity I have made it three. One for each of my sons.'
"'Yes,' replied Wang, 'but you forget the five brigands you hired to test me on the way to your first son's palace. And the ten warriors you paid to prove my abilities on the way to your second son's palace. And remember the twenty ninja you sent to verify I was what I claimed to be while I was on my way to your third son's palace. All these were sent by you because of your lack of faith. These nuisance hirelings of yours impeded me on my journey. Sinanju does not work for free. Their disposal will cost extra.'
"At this there were protests in the court. But as men denounced the Master of Sinanju for his arrogance, the shogun kept his tongue. It was true that he had been troubled by the report of his adviser who had returned from Sinanju with word that the fabled night tigers were no more. It was also true that, unbeknownst to even his closest advisers, he had sent men to test the skills of this new boastful Master.
"The shogun was no fool. The men he had dispatched to test Wang were some of the most feared in his kingdom. While collectively they were not strong enough to go up against the armies of his sons, none had ever been beaten in individual combat. And now all were dead. The shogun saw that this Master Wang's word was true. Sinanju-which had always been worthy of respect and awe-had indeed entered a new realm. It had become something to truly fear. And with a clap of his hands, the shogun did silence his chattering court. 'I was wrong to question you, O great Master of Sinanju,' the shogun said. 'I beg forgiveness for my impertinence. Your awesome skills are the sun that burns brighter than the flames of all the night tigers who came before you.' And the shogun did order men to his treasury to collect the new sum, which was thirty and eight more than it had been in the days of the night tigers. Servant girls and slaves did the shogun give to Wang, to aid this new and frightening Master on his journey back to Sinanju. And long after Wang had gone home, the shogun did proclaim to all who would listen that something new had been born among the fabled assassins of Sinanju, and the very gods themselves did tremble. But none believed, for men are always doubtful of things they have not seen with their own eyes.
"And it came to pass a little while later that Wang was summoned to perform a minor service in Egypt. While there he was trapped in a chamber with a secret sect of soldier priests, for the pharaoh wished to see if the tales he had heard were true. Wang, being Wang, easily vanquished the men. But that was not the end. He encountered the same problem in China, Assyria, Babylonia and several lesser kingdoms. None believed that he could be what he claimed."
"Wait a second," Remo interrupted. "Wasn't this what started the Master's Trial? People challenging Wang like he was the best gunslinger in Dodge?"
Chiun's gaze grew hooded. "I am certain as he looks on this very moment, the Great Wang appreciates being compared to a shooter of boomsticks," he said dryly.
Remo had been so drawn in to Chiun's story that for the first time in a year he had forgotten about his invisible company. He shrugged an apology at the vacant air.
"But that was part of the reason for Wang starting the Master's Trial, right?" he asked. "Don't tell me I have to go on that trip again, 'cause if you remember last time it went massively wrong in about a million different ways."
"You went through that ritual long ago. The Master's Trial is an honorable contest between ancient peoples. While the origin is similar, this is something different."
"Yeah? Just so long as this ends different, I'll be happy."
The Master of Sinanju pursed his wrinkled lips. "Are you going to listen or are you going to waste the rest of the day drying your flapping tongue in the sun?"
"I'm listening, I'm listening."
Chiun seemed skeptical. After a moment of fixing his pupil with a gimlet eye, he continued.
"And Wang, who was frustrated that the first years of his masterhood had been spent proving himself to disbelieving rulers, did return to the village deeply troubled. Even from its earliest days Sinanju had always been an art of assassination. But this new age he had ushered in was threatening to turn his most sacred calling into little more than a spectator sport. For many days he did think on the problem. And when the solution finally came to him, Wang's heart soared, for he knew it was right. Hiring runners from neighboring villages, he did send them to the corners of the Earth. The runners carried letters in every language known to man and were delivered to the rulers of every land.
"The letters were an invitation to king and pharaoh, emir and emperor. These leaders were encouraged to send the greatest assassins in their respective lands into battle with the Master Wang. In the ensuing years, when Wang traveled on business to a particular region of the world, the invited thrones sent their chosen combatants to kill the new Master by whatever means and specialities they could devise. The world was smaller in those days, but the journeys were longer. It took ten years' time, but in the end Wang had met the greatest champions of all who questioned the strength of our House. With the end came the dawning of the New Age of Sinanju, for all had seen and all believed. All hail Wang the Great, founder, protector and nurturer of the modern House of Sinanju."
With a proud smile, the Master of Sinanju rested his hands to his lap, fingers interlocking. His pose indicated that he was finished the tale.
"Hail Wang, all right," Remo droned. "He skinned that shogun for thirty-eight big ones more than he was supposed to get, then took the show on the road. He must have scammed a bundle for racking up that ten-year body count."
"The only tribute Wang collected in that time was for the normal services he would have performed as Master anyway," Chiun explained. "He did not charge for the removal of his would-be assassins."
The world seemed to grow very still around Remo. Even the branches of the ash above his head appeared to still in the cold breeze, as if the hand of Wang himself had quelled their gentle movement.
"He killed them for free?" Remo asked, astonished.
"It was a pure ritual, baptized in blood. Wang did not want the taint of money to corrupt it."
Remo blinked. He opened his mouth to speak. He closed his mouth and blinked again.
"Let me get this straight," he said finally. "Free?"
"He deemed the tribute unimportant," Chiun said. He seemed uncomfortable with the notion. "Wang had discovered something almost as vital as tribute itself-the importance of advertising. Have you never wondered, Remo, why in our travels in this, what you would call the modern world, Sinanju is not known to the general population, yet is whispered about by kings in throne rooms and cutthroats who hide in the dark corners of taverns from Marrakech to Taipei?"
"Our reputation," Remo replied. "We've been doing this job for years."
"Yes, and the clown who flips cowburgers and the man with the donkey who picks coffee beans have been about their business for far less time," Chiun replied. "Yet they are known to all. We are known only to those who need to know about us. Thank the wisdom of Wang for this. He understood that ours is a service that is oftentimes rendered in secret. Even before Wang we lived among the shadows, always running the risk of being forgotten when came the dawn. With no night tigers and only one Master of Sinanju in all the world, Wang understood that this new Sinanju ran the risk of being forgotten. Especially with the rise of civilizations and the armies that came with them. And so, lest the world forget, Wang did issue a decree that each generation must embark on the same journey he undertook. The new Master is introduced by the retiring Master at court, after which the court's designated killer may strike. The end result proves to the leaders of the world that Sinanju is the power to be sought by every throne. For a reasonable fee, of course."
"Wait a second," Remo said, snapping his fingers. "Those letters you were sending out last year. This is what they were for. That's why that Swiss assassin who was chasing us around during that fiasco with those oxygen-sucking trees had one in his house when we caught up with him. It was an invitation to try to kill me."
Chiun allowed a tiny nod. "The main letters in the larger gold envelope go to the head of the government. Inside there is a silver envelope, which goes to the assassin of their choosing. That man happened to have received an invitation by the German government to enter the contest."
"What about that Afghan who just tried to blow me up? Shouldn't we have had an audience with the head of the Junior Towelband, or whatever-the-hell backward rock worshipers we've installed to run that dump now?"
"As I said, the Afghans deviated from the rules," Chiun replied with distaste. "Hardly a surprise. Those people have been in a state of decline ever since Mongol rule fell apart in the hundred years after the death of Genghis Khan. Their deception has lost them the chance to participate."
"Good," Remo said. "Because I sure as hell wasn't going to work for them no matter what. And since someone broke the rules, does that mean the game's off and we can go home?"
Chiun fixed him with a baleful look. Unscissoring his legs, the old man rose fluidly to his feet. Remo's head sank. He let out a protracted sigh.
"So you're saying I've gotta hump my way around the globe killing the best assassins money can buy?" The Master of Sinanju raised a haughty brow.
"We are the best assassins money can buy," he sniffed. "Well, I am. You are whatever it is you are. But it is too late to do anything about that now." He clapped his hands. "Come!" he commanded. "We must hie to the airport, for France awaits." With that he turned on his heel and marched across the grass. For a long moment, Remo just sat there.
"Well, could be worse," he mused to himself, his voice a tired sigh. "At least I get to kill a Frenchman."
Rising reluctantly to his feet, he followed the Master of Sinanju from the park.
"I saw your father this morning. I said to him, Mr. Dilkes, where are you going so early? Can you believe it, he was going out for the paper? I've told him a dozen times he can get it delivered, but he says the walk does him good. It must be doing something, because he looks wonderful. I think it's amazing how he's able to get around at his age. He's got to be-what-eighty? Eighty-five?"
"He'll be ninety-two in April."
"Ninety-two? Imagine that. Ninety-two."
As Francine Standish and Mr. Dilkes's son rode up on the elevator in the King Apartments in Boca Raton, Florida, she clicked her tongue and shook her head in quiet amazement.
Francine was forty-five, with a pretty smile and hips that were starting to grow a little too wide. She had probably turned her share of heads in her glory days. But too much blond dye had turned her hair to straw and too much makeup now filled the subtle lines of her aging skin. Still, she was an attractive woman. There was more to her chatter than the awkward talk of neighbors on a shared elevator ride.
She offered the smile. It was the same one women always gave him. The smile that told him she didn't care whether his father fell down the front steps and cracked his skull open on his way to get the morning paper.
Benson Dilkes had gotten that smile a lot in his life. Even now, at a time of life when virility was in retreat for most men, women still flirted. It was no surprise. Dilkes had retained his rugged good looks into his early sixties. Although his dark hair was peppered with gray, there remained a boyishness about him, amplified by the crimping laugh lines that creased his eyes when he smiled.
In the rear of the car, Benson Dilkes pretended he didn't see Francine Standish's leering smile.
"Yes, ninety-two," he said politely as he watched the floor numbers light. His voice was a soft rasp, with the twang of his native Virginia. "The other day Mr. Freeman on the third floor asked if we were brothers. I hope he was joking. It made Dad pretty happy."
Francine snorted, as if this were the funniest thing she had ever heard. The laugh was cute when she was homecoming queen. It was the same laugh that-among other things-had finally driven her husband away five years before.
Unlike her ex-husband, who had once liked her snorting laugh, Benson Dilkes found it instantly irritating. So much so, he nearly killed her right then and there.
It would have been easy enough. Just a simple blow to the temple. Right where the blue veins throbbed beneath a curl of lacquered hair. Oh, there were other, more exotic methods. There were a hundred different options open to him. But he'd always preferred simplicity.
Despite the urge, he didn't crack his fist to her temple. A murder in the building would have inspired too many questions. Benson Dilkes didn't like questions. Instead, he waited for the car to stop on the sixteenth floor. When it did, he gave his fellow tenant a courteous "nice talking to you" before stepping off the elevator. The doors slid shut on Francine's disappointed face.
Dilkes headed up the blue-carpeted hallway. His apartment was at the far corner.
Corner apartments were always preferable. They only shared a single wall with one immediate neighbor. The other walls in Dilkes's apartment were exterior walls, with one facing the hallway. The building narrowed at the floor above, so there was no apartment over him, just a flat roof.
Dilkes unlocked his door with two keys. One for the standard lock, the other for the explosive charge that, if not deactivated properly, would have blown the floor and most of this side of the building across Boca Raton.
Stepping inside, he closed the door.
The apartment looked like any other in the building. It was an important charade to preserve. When he had guests over-which he sometimes did to maintain a cover of normalcy-he didn't want anything to seem out of the ordinary.
The drapes were drawn on the daylight.
Dilkes had recently heard a reporter compare Florida to Rick's Cafe in Casablanca. The Sunshine State, with its porous border to the open sea, was a welcoming haven for illegal immigrants, drug runners and terrorists. Dilkes liked it for the fresh-squeezed orange juice.
When his father had retired here, Dilkes leased two apartments. One for the old man, one for himself. Despite the fact that Benson Dilkes had himself retired to a ranch in Zimbabwe, leasing a second apartment that remained largely unused was still preferable to staying with his father during visits to Florida. Even though Benson Dilkes generally only used the apartment a few weeks each year, he knew he wouldn't have lasted long under the same roof with his father.
Dilkes really only pretended to have a relationship with his father, mostly out of obligation to his dead mother. The truth was, Benson Dilkes wouldn't have cared if the nasty old bastard was buried under ten tons of collapsed building.
In his darkened apartment, the thought made him smile.
When he came to visit this time, people were as polite to Dilkes as they always were. He had been coming to the King Apartments yearly for the past few years. Most of the permanent residents knew him. They assumed that, like usual, he would stay for a short time and then head back home.
But one month became two, became three. People eventually realized that this time he was here to stay. The other tenants didn't know much about their new neighbor. They knew that he paid the rent on his father's apartment. The old man lived on the fourth floor. From the father they learned that the son had been some kind of businessman who had spent much of his time in Africa.
Dilkes allowed his father to perpetuate the lie. If the other tenants of the King Apartments ever learned the truth, Benson Dilkes would have to kill them all. He had gone the mass-murder route before. Hotel and apartment fires were easy enough to arrange. They worked better in Third World countries, where few questions were asked and everyone could be bribed, but the same techniques could have been applied to the King Apartments. Fortunately no one really asked questions of any consequence, and so Benson Dilkes wasn't forced to kill all of his neighbors.
As Dilkes passed through the living room of his darkened apartment, he fished something out of his jacket pocket.
The small plastic case rattled in his hand. He had gone to collect it from the storage room in the basement.
Most of the items downstairs had been shipped from his Zimbabwe ranch. They were seemingly innocuous items from his old African office that he had stored out in the loft of his garden shed. When he had closed his office five years before, he had assumed the stuff would collect dust forever.
Bright red thumbtacks clattered inside the case. Dilkes had hoped to never see that case again. But the world had dragged him from his life of well-earned leisure.
He noted the change in his skin tone as he brushed some grime off the cover of the plastic case.
Back home in Zimbabwe he grew rosebushes for pleasure. His work in the sun had given him a dark tan. In the months since he'd left Africa, the tan had begun to fade.
With melancholy thoughts of his beloved rose garden, Dilkes went up the hall to his bedroom.
The curtains were pulled tight here, too. When he flipped on the lights his lips thinned unhappily. There was a collection of corkboard world maps standing on easels near the far wall of the bedroom. The countries had been painted in bright, clashing colors.
The maps, which used to hang in a back room in his old offices, were hopelessly out-of-date. They were made for Dilkes back in 1977. World maps were drawn differently now. Since that time, countries had come and gone, borders had been redrawn. An entire empire had collapsed.
But countries were always changing. Maps could never be completely accurate from year to year. Dilkes knew that well from the many years he had worked in Africa. But although man changed maps to suit his whims, the geography itself didn't change. Nor, Benson Dilkes feared, did tradition.
Red thumbtacks were pressed into spots all around the corkboard maps. Many were in Europe, while others were in the United States and Asia. A few were in Africa and South America. Each tack represented a life.
The one in Washington, D.C., was Dilkes's old associate Sylvester Montrofort. There was one in Rome for Ivan Mikhailov, a brutish Russian from the old Soviet-era Treska hit squads who was supposed to be impossible to kill. Lhasa and Gunner Nilsson were represented by a pair of tacks, one in New York's Catskills Mountains, the other in New York City. Hilton Marmaduke Spenser's life was marked by a lonely red tack pressed into Madrid. And on the island of St. Martin in the Caribbean, a thumbtack showed where the body of Merton Lord Wissex had washed up on a beach way back in 1982.
All had been killers. Famous in certain circles for cunning or skill or strength or family reputation. Benson Dilkes had known most of them, either in fact or by reputation. And every last one of them was dead. Dilkes popped the lid on the plastic case and picked out two red tacks. Setting the case on his nightstand, he walked over to the map of Europe. Very carefully, he pressed the tacks side by side into London.
He had just gotten the news from an old contact in Source. Thomas Smedley and Mrs. Knight had been good. Not up to the level of Benson Dilkes, of course, but they were more than just run-of-the-mill killers.
Two more red thumbtacks. Each representing a life. Soon to be joined by many others.
"And so it begins," Dilkes said to the darkened room.
He wondered if, when the time came, someone would record the end of his life thusly. He doubted it. Few people in his business were as efficient as Benson Dilkes.
Taking his pipe from an ashtray next to the thumbtack case, he lit the bowl and sat in a comfortable chair. To wait for the world to contract around his neck.
Remo and Chiun took the tunnel train from England to France. Their destination was outside Paris.
This meeting was much like the one at Buckingham Palace. This time it was a secret chamber in a part of Versailles that was off-limits to tourists, and this time it was the elected president of France instead of a monarch.
Remo had met the French president a few years before and hadn't been terribly impressed. For politeness's sake he shook the man's offered hand then stood back and let the Master of Sinanju do the talking.
Chiun bowed and pledged eternal loyalty to the Capetian House and the Valois and Bourbon dynasties, which made the French president more than a little uncomfortable. Much of what the Master of Sinanju said was in French. Remo knew he was being played up for the president when he saw the grand gestures the old Korean gave, as well as the knowing nods he'd occasionally make back in Remo's direction.
In all, the meeting took less than ten minutes. "That seemed to go okay," Remo said after they left the magnificent palace, which had started as a modest hunting lodge for Louis XIII and eventually metastasized into a display of the sort of vulgar opulence that got French kings' heads separated from French kings' bodies.
They were on the grounds of Versailles, walking past the Basin of Neptune fountain group. Mist spraying from the fountains chilled the crowds of evening sightseers.
"I suppose," Chiun said. "Not that it matters. These modern Gauls cannot afford our services. In order to hire us, some of them might have to work more than two days a week, which is as offensive a thing to them as warm bathwater. On top of that they have ugly notions of self-governance."
"No argument here," Remo said. "Nothing uglier than socialism in a beret." As he spoke, he turned left and right, scrutinizing everyone they passed.
"What are you doing?" Chiun asked.
"Isn't this the part where some guy jumps out of the bushes and tries to brain me with a baguette?"
"Just because the first two were obvious does not mean they all will be," the Master of Sinanju said dryly. "If they have planned well, it will happen when you do not expect it. Now, come. We have something more important than your impending attempted murder to worry about."
They took the cab into Paris. Remo didn't sense anyone following them into the city.
At Chiun's insistence, while waiting for the next assassin to attack they stopped for supper at a little cafe on the Rue des Ecoles. They were seated outdoors near the street. The place was nearly empty. Their corner table was tucked behind some potted plants away from the other diners.
Chiun ordered duck. Remo got fish. Both men asked for a side order of brown rice.
The waiter who returned to serve them was not the same one who had seated them. The first had been a tall, thin man in his twenties. This waiter was shorter, stockier and older. He had thick, callused hands that didn't seem to have gotten that way from carrying serving trays. The waiter's black uniform didn't fit him very well.
The waiter set their plates before them and produced a bottle of wine.
"Your wine, monsieur," he said in thickly accented English.
"I didn't order wine," Remo replied.
"It is with the compliments of the management." As he spoke, the waiter poured out a glass.
"I said I don't want wine," Remo insisted, irritated, as the waiter poured. "The only thing dirtier than a Frenchman's ass is his feet."
"Heh-heh-heh," said the Master of Sinanju.
The waiter's molars screeched. He forced a tight-lipped smile. "Monsieur obviously has a ready wit."
Chiun ignored the waiter's grinding teeth. "Did you know, Remo, that washing day used to come only once a year in France? It was canceled after the one Frenchman in the entire country who celebrated it died of syphilis. Heh-heh-heh. Frenchman's feet. Heh-heh-heh."
The old Korean turned his attention to his meal. Remo had picked up the stemmed glass. He sniffed the wine. The waiter looked on anxiously.
Remo didn't drink. He just sniffed. After a moment's sniffing, he looked up at the waiter with hooded eyes.
"It has a good nose, no?" the waiter asked.
"Yeah," Remo said. "Smells real swell."
The waiter was still waiting a little too eagerly for Remo to put the wineglass to his lips. Instead, Remo poured the wine onto the tabletop.
The table immediately began fizzing. The white linen tablecloth smoked. The wine proceeded to chew a hole straight through to the floor.
"Nice try," Remo said. "Next time try doing a little research, Frenchie. I don't drink wine, beer or spirituous beverages of any kind. You mind getting me some water?"
"Make that two," Chiun said, seemingly oblivious to the smoking crater in the middle of the table.
The waiter's smile tightened nervously to the point where his face looked as if it would shatter into little unctuous shards. His little mustache twitched. A creeping dark stain spread across the front of his uniform trousers.
"I do apologize," the waiter mumbled. "This wine has obviously gone off."
Leaving the bottle on the table, he marched woodenly into the back of the restaurant.
"And bring back a new table while you're at it!" Remo hollered at the retreating waiter.
The man offered a numb "oui." His entire body shaking, he disappeared into the kitchen.
"That's a relief," Remo said, chewing a forkful of rice. "For a minute I thought he was going to surrender."
"That is not permitted," Chiun insisted sternly as he ate. "The French contestant throws up his hands in surrender nearly every time the Time of Succession comes around."
"It happen to you?"
"No, but the Frenchman who tried to assassinate my father tried it."
"Bet that got him far."
"Actually," Chiun mused, "he was particularly sniveling, even by French standards. My father took pity on him and accepted his surrender."
"No kidding. What did he do with him?"
"He brought him back to Sinanju. Some of my earliest memories are of that smelly round-eye wandering lost around the village licking the worms from the undersides of rocks."
"Mmm?" Remo said, chewing slowly. "What happened to him?"
"He attempted to sully the virtue of my father's sister. His head is in the attic somewhere. I can show you when we next return to Sinanju."
"Pass," Remo said.
The waiter returned from the kitchen with their water.
He had gotten control of himself once more. His body no longer shook. His hands gripped the heavy crystal water glasses with determination.
"Your water, gentlemen," he said, setting down the glasses. "I apologize again for the problem with the wine. I am certain I do not know what happened."
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Remo said. "If you're gonna keep up the waiter shtick, do it downwind."
"I will see now to moving you to another table." The man took a step back, out of Remo's line of sight.
Behind Remo the waiter pulled out a razor-thin garrote that was stitched into the hollow seam of his shirtsleeve. With a hiss he flung it around Remo's neck, pulling tight. He yanked, grunting triumphantly.
The wire should have sliced through flesh and bone. But to the waiter's intense frustration, his victim didn't appear to even notice that he was being strangled.
Remo didn't pause in his chewing. "I hope they get better than this," he commented to the Master of Sinanju as the French assassin tightened the wire even more.
"Are you going to eat that?" the old Korean asked, pointing at the fish on Remo's plate.
"You ordered the duck, you live with duck."
"I want duck," Chiun insisted.
"Good, because that's what you ordered," Remo said.
"Die!" growled the French killer. Muscles in his arms bulged. Sweat had broken out across his forehead.
"Are you still here?" Remo asked, irritated. Reaching up, he snicked the garrote with his index fingernail. The wire snapped and the waiter flew backward, knocking over two tables. Plates crashed to the floor and silverware flew everywhere.
"And I can do without the Jerry Lewis impression," Remo said.
As he spoke, Remo snagged the wine bottle from where it still sat on the table. While the waiter struggled to get up, Remo stuffed the bottle's neck far down the man's throat.
Burning wine came out the man's nostrils. The killer tried desperately not to swallow. Then he swallowed. He wiggled for a moment in furious death before growing still.
The instant the waiter's arms flopped to the floor, a group of men hurried efficiently from the kitchen, calming the other restaurant patrons. Thanks to the upturned table, no one had seen quite what had happened.
The waiter's throat and stomach were dissolving into open hissing sores. Someone posing as a maitre d' threw a clean white linen tablecloth over the body. The man bowed his head respectfully to the Master of Sinanju.
"I will inform the president, sir," he said crisply.
"Before you do that," Chiun said, "tell the serving staff that I would like this order to go." He pointed a long fingernail at his plate.
Remo noted that, in the confusion, his plate of fish had somehow found its way in front of the Master of Sinanju.
Word of the dead French assassin found its way to Folcroft Sanitarium by the normal CURE means. Electronic tendrils extending from the basement mainframes collected the data in secret from an unknowing French intelligence computer. It was detected, translated and forwarded to the appropriate computer terminal for analysis.
For years the appropriate-indeed, the only-terminal with access to classified CURE files had been the one in the office of Dr. Harold W. Smith. But those days were gone.
Mark Howard read the report from Paris from the confines of his small office in Folcroft's administrative wing.
The centerpiece of the room was the large oak desk behind which Mark sat. The desk was so big that there was barely enough space for anything else in the office. So cramped was the room that for months after coming to work at Folcroft, Mark had regularly banged his head against the wall when he leaned back in his chair and bumped his shins on the desk's legs whenever he tried to get around it to the door.
If someone had walked by Mark's open office door, they might have laughed at the sight of such a big desk in such a small space. But few people strolled the halls of Folcroft. Besides, Mark kept his door closed and locked at all times.
In his early months at CURE, the size of the office used to bother Mark. These days he hardly noticed. His life had become far too serious in the past two years to worry about trivialities.
The rest of the room was plain and businesslike. In this Mark Howard had picked up his decorating habits from Dr. Smith. There was only one personal touch in the entire office.
For a time Mark's eight-year-old nephew used to draw pictures of Superman in flight. He would carefully color them in with red and blue crayons and have his mother cut them out with scissors so he could fly his little paper Men of Steel around the house. When Mark went home for the holidays the previous year, his nephew had grown out of that phase and Mark's sister was throwing a bunch of the little paper Supermen away. Mark saved one.
The cutout was in a little frame on Mark's desk. When Dr. Smith saw the picture, the older man frowned silent disapproval. Mark noted his employer's expression but hadn't removed the picture. The assistant CURE director couldn't express it in words, especially not to an emotionless man like Dr. Smith, but there was such great, wonderful innocence to the picture. Such hope. That simple pencil-and-crayon drawing reminded Mark Howard why he, why CURE, why America was here.
The picture stayed.
Mark wasn't looking at his nephew's masterpiece now. His greenish-brown eyes were locked on his computer screen.
He read the report from France with a determined frown.
Mark wasn't surprised at whom the French had selected. When Dr. Smith had briefed him in secret months ago about the rite of passage Remo would be going through, Mark immediately went to work sifting through CURE's files, compiling short lists of likely assassins from countries all around the globe. The man France ultimately selected as its champion was the name at the top of Mark's list.
It might have given another man satisfaction to have been right. Not Mark Howard. Pride at such a time was inappropriate. After all, a man was now dead.
Not that Mark objected to killing. Not when it was necessary. But the taking of a fellow human life was far too serious a thing to allow self-serving emotions to intrude.
Mark knew this from experience.
Although he did his best not to think about it, men had died thanks to him.
When he first came to CURE, there had been a patient at Folcroft by the name of Jeremiah Purcell. Purcell was a man with special psychic gifts. A psychotic, a murderer. The patient had manipulated Mark's receptive mind on a psychic level the assistant CURB director couldn't begin to understand. Mark had unwittingly freed him from his confinement. And people had died.
Although Mark hadn't been in control of his actions, that didn't lessen the guilt in the days and weeks after those terrible events. The patient was still at large. Purcell had gone silent after his escape from Folcroft. But there were probably others dead. All thanks to Mark Howard.
Those deaths had been at a distance. Other hands had done the actual deed. Maybe he could have lived with that. Gotten over the guilt. But they weren't the only dead.
Mark had killed. Personally. With his own two hands.
Only one man. Not that "only" could dismiss the horrible significance of such an act.
It was justified. The man with the gun on that cold December night had been about to shoot Dr. Smith. But that didn't matter. The guilt afterward had swelled to a point where it threatened to consume Mark. He had fought to hide it, to control it. But for months through spring and summer the anguish was almost more than he could bear. He came to work, did his job, went home. No one, not Dr. Smith, not anyone had guessed the crushing burden Mark Howard lived under all those months.
And then he stopped it. Just like that.
He remembered the day. September 10, 2001. Mark had finally gotten his nephew's drawing framed. He had just put the small frame on his desk. As he sat there in the yellow afternoon sunlight, he thought of the tiny hand that drew it, of the life of joys and heartaches that had not yet been explored, and of the lurking forces that threatened that young life, and the lives of all Americans.
Mark thought of his job at CURE. A frustrating, ugly, dangerous job. And a necessary one.
Guilt over what he had done, over what he had to do, was a small price to pay to help ensure the safety of those lives. And in that moment of realization, guilt was replaced by cold determination.
There were terrible events that took place the next day. Events that changed the world and America forever. But in a quiet moment the day before the world turned upside down, Mark Howard had already changed. The events of September 11 only helped to codify that resolve. Since that time, Mark had come to his small Folcroft office determined to toil and sweat and worry to the best of his abilities so that his fellow Americans did not have to.
For the moment his regular CURE duties were on hold.
Mark logged the death of the French assassin. The man joined the two English Source agents who had been reported dead earlier that day. He wondered briefly what country would be next. Most likely Germany.
Mark was pulling up his list of the best-known German killers when the phone at his elbow jangled to life.
It was the outside line.
Puzzled, he glanced at his watch. After 6:00 p.m. Mark had recently convinced Dr. Smith to relax his schedule. Now, two days a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, the CURE director went home from work at 5:00 p.m. These days Smith's secretary generally left around the same time. After they were gone the calls were routed to an answering service.
This was the public line, not the one used by family or friends. Confused, Mark scooped up the clunky old phone.
"Folcroft. Mark Howard speaking."
The noise that issued from the earpiece was so loud, Mark immediately had to yank the phone away from his ear. For an instant it sounded like the electronic shrieks of an Internet connection. For a second he held out the phone, unsure if it was some sort of malfunction.
He was about to hang up when he heard a series of distinct sobs amid the horrible shrieks. Only then did Mark realize that the noise wasn't phone static. It was the sound of a woman in distress.
He drew the phone tentatively back to his ear. "Hello?" he asked uncertainly.
The woman cried, she screamed. She wailed full heart and soul in pain into the phone. All in a language that Mark Howard could not begin to understand.
"I'm sorry," he said after a moment of listening to the crying woman. "I think you've got the wrong number."
He didn't know what else to say. He was about to hang up on the pitiful caller when she suddenly blurted out something that made Mark's hand grow white on the receiver.
"Sinanju," the woman bawled. Mark gulped. He hesitated.
Korean. Yes, the woman could be speaking Korean. He had heard Remo and Chiun speak it enough. He didn't know what to do. This was unprecedented in his CURE experience.
"I-I'm not sure what you want," he said cautiously, his heart beating faster.
"Sinanju!" the woman repeated, her frustration apparent. And then her voice failed and the gibberish she had been blurting was consumed by grief. She wept into the phone.
"Can you speak English?" Mark asked.
But the woman was no longer listening. She rebuffed all of Mark's attempts to question her. She finally hung up the phone in the middle of her pitiful sobbing.
Swallowing hard, Mark hung up his own phone. He grabbed it back up immediately. He held it there for an uncertain moment, halfway from desk to ear. He glanced at his watch. It was suppertime at the Smith household. Right about now Dr. Smith would be sitting down to a plate of his wife's rock-hard meat loaf. Mark Howard had been invited to supper with the Smiths on a number of occasions. He knew well of all the horrors it entailed.
"You can thank me later, Dr. Smith," Mark muttered.
From memory he began dialing his employer's home number.
They didn't leave France.
Remo was surprised when Chiun flagged them a cab to the Left Bank. On a forgotten side street near the Hotel de la Loire, the taxi stopped in front of a small apartment building.
"Wait here," Chiun commanded the taxi driver.
"Why aren't we taking a train to Spain to kill someone on a plain?" Remo asked as they mounted the front stairs.
"Because everything in this world does not conform neatly to what you think it should be, that's why," the old man replied mysteriously.
Remo didn't like the sound of that at all. His teacher's words and tone screamed trap.
On a panel next to the door twenty old-fashioned doorbells were lined up in neat rows of ten.
Remo waited for the floor to drop out from under him when the Master of Sinanju pressed a doorbell. He didn't know if he should be pleased or not when it didn't.
There was a distant ring somewhere in the depths of the creaky old building. It took a long time-forever, it seemed-for someone to answer. When a voice finally did sound from the speaker, it was guttural and low. Satan's voice rising up from the dark Pit.
"Kahk vaz zavoot?" the disembodied voice asked. Chiun said something in the same language. Whatever he said seemed to do the trick. The sepulchral voice grumbled something else that Remo couldn't understand.
"That wasn't French," Remo said as they were buzzed inside. "Hell, that didn't even sound human."
"You are right," said the Master of Sinanju as he swept through the door. "It was not French."
"What about the human part?"
Chiun tipped his head. "More or less," he mused. Turning on his heel, he marched for the stairs. The building smelled like damp wood and cat pee. Remo followed the Master of Sinanju to the top floor. There was only one door on this level. Chiun rapped a knuckle on the warped veneer.
A long moment passed. Finally, with rusty deliberation, the grimy brass doorknob turned. The ancient door creaked open on pained hinges.
Remo had not sensed anyone on the other side. He was certain Chiun hadn't done some trick to open the door. On cautious feet he followed the Master of Sinanju inside.
The apartment looked like the dusty storage room of a forgotten museum. Antiques crowding the foyer had been stacked against the walls. There were mirrors of solid gold, candelabra of ornately carved and rearing horses and footstools of silk that had long since turned to rot.
There was no one in the hall.
A strange and sickening mustiness filled the air. Remo set his breathing low, tuning out the smell. He trailed the Master of Sinanju through the apartment.
The rest of the rooms were like the hallway, all stacked with ancient bric-a-brac.
In one room Remo thought he saw a shadow move. But he sensed no life. Not even vermin. The dust didn't dance.
Keying up his senses, he followed Chiun to the far rear of the big apartment and into the main living room.
The big room was neater than the other rooms. The clutter extended in here, but there was more order to it. Unlike the rest of the apartment, it looked as if someone cleaned in here from time to time.
Sitting in the middle of the room was a chair.
It was made of dark, carved wood and plush cloth. The material was a little threadbare, but the wood retained a deep, just-polished finish. Remo realized it was more than a chair. Although it had nothing on the throne he had seen back in Buckingham Palace, it had that same regal feel as the seat from which the queen of England ruled.
Seated atop this plain throne of wood was a young boy.
The boy couldn't have been much more than thirteen or fourteen. His clothes had been rich at one time, but had seen better days. A few small holes peppered his shirtfront. Where the fabric was torn, Remo saw sparkling jewels.
The teenager didn't appear to be surprised at their appearance. With eyes that seemed lost in the dream of another age, he watched the two men approach.
Remo was about to question the Master of Sinanju, but the old Korean shot him a silencing glare.
With great reverence the old man approached the tawdry throne. He offered a deep, formal bow.
In a foreign tongue Remo now thought he recognized, the Master of Sinanju addressed the child. They spoke for a brief time, Chiun showing the boy the sort of respect Sinanju usually reserved for leaders of powerful nations. When the teenager spoke, his words were very slow coming. Even Remo with his supersensitive ears had to strain to hear them.
The boy's voice was not the same one that had growled at them from the downstairs speaker.
The audience was brief. Chiun offered another formal bow before backing from the throne. The boy watched him go with the same dreamlike eyes. He seemed like a lost and flickering memory, projected from another time.
Remo fell in step with his teacher on the way out of the big upstairs chamber.
"That sounded like Russian," Remo whispered as they made their way back through the maze of rooms. "Of course," the Master of Sinanju replied. "What else would you expect Russian to sound like?"
"So the kid's a Russian. Well, I know he's not their latest president, 'cause the kid's taller. So who the hell is he?"
"That was the czarevitch," Chiun explained. "He is the son of the last czar and crown prince of Russia."
Remo frowned. "Can't be," he insisted. "Didn't the Commies murder the last Russian czar and his entire family a hundred years ago?"
"That is what the world thought and is made to think to this day. However, two of his children escaped thanks in part to the intervention of my father. The rumors that they had fled to safety are well-known."
Remo only felt his confusion growing. "So what are you saying, that was his grandson?"
"No," Chiun said darkly. "I told you, that is Czar Alexis Romanov, youngest child and only son of the murdered Czar Nicholas II. Heir to the Russian throne."
Remo stopped dead. "Okay, you lost me. How can that be Czar Nickelodeon's kid if the czar was shot back at the end of the nineteenth century?"
"July 16, 1918," the Master of Sinanju corrected.
"Okay, twentieth. It doesn't matter. He'd still be, what, a hundred about now?"
"He is close to that venerable age."
"Right. There's where you lose me. That kid's barely out of junior-high school. How-?"
He didn't have time to finish his question.
There was a sudden compression of air behind him. It shouldn't have been there. Couldn't have been there. It was not mechanical. Nothing had launched from the wall. There were no panels popping or springs firing. This was a human stroke, yet Remo's senses had warned him of no human threat. All his instincts told him that all behind was air even as the knife lunged at him from the darkness.
Remo dodged just in time. He pivoted on his right foot, twisting out of the knife's path. The thrusting blade that had been aimed for his lower back slipped by harmlessly.
When Remo glimpsed his attacker, his first instinct was to call Universal Studios to see if any of their 1930s movie monsters had escaped.
The man wore a black robe with a cowl that encircled his head. His skin looked as if it had been drained of fluid. The face was sunken and pale, the deep creases filled with grime. His strings of ancient black beard were gnarled grease. The nails on the hand that clutched the dagger were long and twisted and caked with filth. He seemed shorter than he should have been, hunched as he was inside his robes.
But worst of all-the thing that would have sent children diving for cover under their beds and made otherwise sensible villagers form torch-wielding mobs to storm the local castle-were the man's eyes.
His eyes seemed twice as large as those of a normal man's. Pupils swam in seas of bloodshot whites. They never blinked. They just stared from the black depths of the man's cowl.
Remo had barely reacted to the first attack, barely got a glimpse of the demented man, before the stranger attacked again. Fingers clutching more tightly around the handle, the man jabbed hard at Remo's exposed belly.
This time Remo was prepared. When the knife was an inch away from slicing open his abdomen, he simply slapped the underside of the man's wrist.
The blade launched up and buried deep in the man's throat. The eyes bugged even wider, and the wretched creature dropped like a stone to the dusty floor.
Remo whirled on the Master of Sinanju. "What the hell was that?" he demanded.
The old Korean stood near a pile of ancient Russian knick-knacks, a bland expression on his face.
"The best old Russia has to offer. Pitiful," he tsked.
Remo sniffed the air.
"Pee-yew," he groused. "I thought the eyes were the worst, but the stink's got them beat by a country mile. It's not the building that reeks, it's him."
He jabbed a thumb in the direction of the corpse. Or, rather, where the corpse had been.
The body was no longer there.
"What the hell?" Remo asked, just as the knife jammed hard toward his back.
He jumped and spun.
The weird-eyed man was back on his feet, standing silently behind Remo, thrusting with his dagger. Remo strained his ears even as he dodged the blade.
There was not a standard heartbeat. Just a momentary fluttering. A faint gurgle of life deep in the man's chest.
Slapping the knife back again, Remo buried the dagger where the gurgle gurgled. It stopped gurgling. His clawlike hand fleeing the knife handle, the man fell to the floor once more, the dagger buried deep in his chest.
As his black robes settled, he grew very still. "All right," Remo insisted to the Master of Sinanju. "I killed that guy the first time."
"Probably," Chiun admitted glumly.
Remo opened his mouth to say more. Before the words could even come, he heard a faint squeak. His face growing shocked, he looked for the source.
On the floor, the dead man had taken hold of the knife handle once more. Metal squeaked on flesh as he slowly withdrew it from his lifeless heart. Once the blade was removed, the faint gurgle began again.
Remo wheeled on Chiun, his eyes wide. "What is this guy, freaking Freddy Krueger?"
"He is a monk," Chiun explained.
Warily, Remo glanced at the man on the floor. The man who, by all rights, should have been dead was slowly pushing himself up to a sitting position. So silent was he it was as if he existed in a soundless vacuum. This coupled with his near-nonexistent life signs accounted for why Remo hadn't heard him to begin with.
Remo appraised the cowl and the robe. The man did indeed look something like a monk.
"Monks are supposed to be nice. They aren't supposed to try to kill you."
"I did not say he was a very good monk."
"And maybe I'm a little rusty on my Baltimore Catechism, but aren't they supposed to die when you kill them?"
Chiun rolled his eyes. "Not this one," he said. "Believe me, we have tried. My father did, some Russian royals tried. I believe my grandfather might have killed him a few times. He has been poisoned, stabbed, shot and drowned. Yet he keeps coming back again."
Something about his teacher's words tickled a memory far back in Remo's brain.
The monk was standing again. He offered Remo a smile that was little more than bared teeth and bugging eyes. The dagger was up and out again, ready to slash.
"What do I do to kill him?" Remo asked, anxious for any tip, any weakness, any pointers that could help him stop this wild-eyed, unstoppable, knife-wielding Russian.
Chiun's hands were tucked deep in his kimono sleeves. "You already killed him twice," the old man said with a shrug. "You have bested Russia's champion in mortal combat. If he's still pestering you, take his knife away."
Surging forward, the monk swung the knife at Remo's throat, a mad glint in his wide eyes.
Remo wasn't sure what else to do. As the knife whizzed by, he plucked the dagger from the Russian's filthy hand.
The monk stopped dead.
Remo moved the knife left and right. The monk's unblinking eyes followed the silver blade. Remo tossed the knife into the dark recesses of the nearest junk-packed room. It landed with a distant, muted clatter.
As soon as the knife was gone, the monk faded back into the shadows beside the door. The darkness swallowed cloak and cowl until all that remained was a Cheshire cat vision, with naked eyeballs instead of smiling teeth.
Remo raised a suspicious brow. "That's it?" he asked.
Chiun nodded. "This is an unusual exception in the Time of Succession," the Master of Sinanju explained. "The monk was charged with protecting the life of the czarevitch by the boy's mother many years ago. For nearly a century, by spells and magic, he has kept them both safe for the time when he can return the child to the Russian throne."
Remo glanced skeptically at the eyeballs in the shadows. His own eyes were generally able to draw in ambient light, illuminating darkness. But light formed differently around the monk. It was difficult to make out the dark robes among the deep shadows.
"So he's just going to stand there until, what, my pupil and I come here in another forty years?"
"I think he is also paid to do the cleaning up," Chiun said, uninterested. "Not that he has touched a dust rag in eighty years. Typical Russian. And the Romanovs paid him in advance. Czar Nicholas must be spinning in his grave." He touched Remo's arm. "Come. We have dawdled long enough."
"Wait a sec." Remo was peering at the monk. The monk peered back. "What's up with his eyes?"
"He does that for the tourists," Chiun explained, clicking his tongue impatiently. "He is a hypnotist."
Remo jumped back. "Whoa," he said, slapping one hand like a blinder beside his eyes.
"We met a Russian hypnotist years ago. He anything like that?"
"This one is nothing to worry about," Chiun assured him. "That other one we met had full and terrible control of his dread powers. Whatever this one had he has squandered on dissolute living. He cannot affect the minds of those from Sinanju, for we are not weak-willed dullards." Squinting, he looked Remo up and down. "Maybe you should keep your eyes covered just in case," he suggested. He spun to go.
"Cram it," Remo suggested, lowering his hand cautiously. "There was a monk that hung out with the Russian royal family, wasn't there? I seem to remember hearing he was unkillable. Raspberry, Rasmussen, something like that?"
It was not Chiun, but a voice from the shadows that answered.
"Rasputin," growled the monk. It was the same funereal voice that had come from the downstairs speaker.
"Yeah, that's it. You him?" The eyes bespoke the truth.
The monk didn't respond to Remo. His words were directed at Chiun's retreating back.
"The night," Rasputin called to the Master of Sinanju. "Beware the night. Beware the false day. Beware the hand that reaches from the grave. Beware, Masters of Sinanju."
Chiun had been headed for the hall. When he heard the monk's words, he froze in his tracks.
"He ain't exactly Little Mary Sunshine, is he?" Remo asked, glancing over his shoulder.
He was surprised to see that a strange look had descended on his teacher's face. It was a look he had seen only rarely in all the many years they had been together.
It was a look of fear.
"Chiun?" Remo asked, suddenly worried.
But the Master of Sinanju wasn't listening to his pupil. He took a few cautious steps back across the room.
"Speak, monk," the old Korean demanded.
"What is it?" Remo questioned. "What's wrong?"
"Hush," Chiun commanded.
The monk's disembodied eyes floated in the black shadows. "The night draws near for you both," Rasputin warned. "Darkness comes from the cold sea."
"And the splendor falls on castle walls," Remo said, beginning to lose patience. "Can I kill him again, please?"
But Chiun was peering intently at the shabby Russian.
"What do you see, monk?" he demanded.
"What do you mean what does he see?"
"He is a healer, a hypnotist and a mystic," Chiun hissed impatiently. "The monk sees more than other mortals. He predicted the murders of the Romanov family."
"Fat lot of good it did them. Don't let him spook you, Little Father."
But Chiun would not budge. "Tell me more, monk."
The wide eyes remained fixed within the shadows. "You are stalked by death," Rasputin warned, his voice a croaking dirge. "Two from your order. Two will die. One will take your place. Another is dead already. Another lives who was dead. When comes the end, two Masters of Sinanju will die. Master and student, father and son."
Remo felt his own blood run cold. He shot a glance at his teacher. Chiun's eyes were as unblinking as the monk's. He stared in rapt attention at the man in the shadows.
Rasputin's voice was growing fainter.
"Two will die.... Two will die.... Two will die...."
The eyes faded. Flickering candles. "Two will die...."
The oversized orbs winked out.
Remo felt an emptiness swell in the darkness. He passed his hand through the shadow. There was no substance to it. Rasputin was gone.
"What the hell was that all about?" he asked. But when Remo turned a questioning eye to the Master of Sinanju, he found that he was alone. Chiun was gone.
Far off the apartment door clicked quietly shut.
"Merci," Benson Dilkes said into the telephone. The word was a grunt in the dark of his Florida apartment. His own voice sounded odd to his ears. The foreign words sat heavy and out-of-place on his fat Virginian tongue. Nothing was right any longer. The entire world was out of alignment. Spinning out of control. Dilkes replaced the phone. Carefully.
With equal care he picked another red tack from the plastic case. The lid was open now. The way things were already going, he saw no reason to close it.
He stepped over to the corkboard map of Europe. The new thumbtack went in, this time in Paris. Jean-Pierre Sevigne.
The assassin had been good. A freelancer who split his time between government and the private sector. Sevigne didn't discriminate. He went wherever the money was.
He also knew of Sinanju. Dilkes had hosted him several times in the 1990s when work brought the French assassin to Africa. Talk inevitably turned to the reason Dilkes had left the United States years before. They talked of Sinanju.
The Frenchman was disdainful of most in his profession, but, like Dilkes, he held the House of Sinanju in high regard. He had heard of what was to come. Unlike Dilkes, the Frenchman looked forward to this time. Hoped he lived long enough to see it. Sevigne saw it as the ultimate challenge. He knew that he could not hope to best the greatest assassins in the world with weapons or brawn. He insisted that it would be cleverness, trickery, not guns or gadgets, that would finally overcome the vaunted assassins from the East.
His greatest fear was that he would falter. That he would somehow tip his hand.
"In no circumstance have I ever been nervous. Not in my entire career," Sevigne had said one lazy summer evening in the gazebo of Dilkes's Zimbabwe ranch.
The two men sat with their brandies and watched the African sky burn away to smoldering ash.
"But these men from Sinanju," Sevigne continued, shaking his head in awe. He took a deep, thoughtful breath. "There was a young American performer a few years back. He wanted nothing more than to sing in front of his idol, Frank Sinatra. It was his lifelong dream. If and when the moment came, he thought it would be magical. He became successful and, as fate would have it, ended up performing on a stage in front of Sinatra. It was not a magical night, Benson. He forgot the words. He stumbled, he stammered. He made a nervous fool of himself. That is my greatest fear. I am not afraid of meeting the men from Sinanju. I am afraid I will make a fool out of myself when I do."
Dilkes had dragged on his pipe, blowing a lazy smoke ring to the warm gazebo ceiling.
"Your fear is misplaced," he warned. "Fear them, and not what you'll do to embarrass yourself in your dying moments. Because if this legend comes to pass and we're all forced to meet them, there's no doubt that they will be your dying moments."
In the end Dilkes was right.
Jean-Pierre had tried being clever. But all clever got him was a belly full of acid and a thumbtack stuck in a shopworn corkboard map.
The futility of cleverness had already been proved to Dilkes months ago. Olivier Hahn had been particularly clever. The high-tech Swiss assassin was a Dilkes protege. For a time he was like a son to Benson Dilkes. The younger man loved to build elaborate traps for his prey.
Hahn's thumbtack was stuck in the Swiss Alps where his frozen body had been discovered in a remote cabin.
Clumsy, low-tech didn't seem to have an effect, either.
Dilkes had gotten a report out of London a few hours after England's two Source agents were killed. A third body. Killed by an explosion over the Thames.
Although most of the thorax had been blown open, the head and one hand had stayed intact. They had landed on the deck of a pleasure boat. The police had identified the dead man as Amwala Mohtat, an Afghan national.
Dilkes went to his computer. He found Mohtat in his detailed files of the shadow world. At the moment, there was no confirmation from his sources that this had to do with the contest. None was needed for Benson Dilkes. He just knew.
Another thumbtack. This one in the Thames River. Four dead in a matter of hours.
Still standing at the Europe map, Benson Dilkes suddenly wondered if he had enough thumbtacks. He might have to run out to an office-supply store to pick up some more.
He glanced absently over at the nightstand where the open case of tacks sat. It was only then that he noticed the man standing in the bedroom with him.
A sliver of shock. Quickly overtaken by instinct honed from years of experience.
Dilkes didn't panic, didn't run. His gun was on his bureau.
Duck, slide, grab. Out of a crouch, his fingers closed around the butt of the automatic. Spin. The gun was up. Smoothly, efficiently. Aimed squarely at the narrow chest of the small man who stood in his bedroom doorway.
"How did you get in here?" Dilkes demanded. The man in the black business suit didn't react to the gun. His eyes remained locked on those of Benson Dilkes. A spider eyeing a twitching fly.
"Your defenses are elaborate," the intruder admitted. "However, doors are made to be opened. If there is a right way and a wrong way, one merely has to use the right way."
If Dilkes was the sort of man who made mistakes, he would have been racking his brain to think of what he did wrong.
Maybe he left the door ajar, maybe he hadn't flipped the switch when he came home, maybe he hadn't wired the damn thing up right. But the door had been wired perfectly, he had closed it tight and he had made certain to reset the charges when he entered the apartment.
This man couldn't be here. Yet here he was. And that face. It couldn't be.
Benson Dilkes began to get a terrible sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. His bowels turned to water.
The stranger seemed to sense his apprehension. "Yes," the intruder said, nodding. "You are wise, Benson Dilkes. You understand that all doors yield to me."
It was true. It had to be.
Benson Dilkes was shaking. He lowered his gun. If he was right, it was pointless to even try to aim it. "Are you-?" Dilkes began weakly. "That is, who are-? I thought you were ...older. "
The intruder smiled a smile devoid of warmth. His hazel eyes remained as flat and lifeless as his Asian face.
"I am what you think I am, yet not who," he said. "Names are but air formed by lips that inevitably turn to dust. They are fleeting, forgotten things. However, if you must call me something-" the Asian smiled, this time with wicked pleasure "-you may call me Nuihc."
Mark Howard was waiting anxiously by the window when he finally spied Dr. Smith's station wagon turning through Folcroft's main gates. Mark rushed down to the fire doors. When the CURE director came hustling upstairs a few moments later, his office keys were already in hand.
Smith didn't stop. "Did you trace the call?" he demanded as he hurried down the hall.
"Yes," Howard said, falling in beside his employer. "You were right."
Nodding crisply, Smith ducked into his office suite. Mrs. Mikulka's desk was empty.
"You are certain it was Chiun's number in Sinanju?" Smith asked as he unlocked the inner door, ushering his young assistant into his Spartan office.
"Double-checked," Mark said. "It was his. A clean line. No one tapped it. How did you know?"
"This is not without precedent," Smith explained. He shut the door tightly and hurried across the room, settling in his cracked leather chair. He booted up his computer.
"Should I have called back?"
"No, I'll handle this," Smith insisted.
Mark sighed relief. "Just as well," he said, taking up a post beside Smith's desk from where he could better see the canted monitor. "It sounded like she didn't speak English. I couldn't understand a word she was saying."
"That in itself is odd," Smith said. "Not the fact that you couldn't understand the language, but that it was a woman. I was led to understand that Chiun's caretaker is the only individual with access to the village phone line."
"She sounded like she was in hysterics," Howard said.
Frowning, the CURE director attacked his keyboard with certain hands. Amber letters burst soft in the trailing wake of his drumming fingers.
"After we spoke I tried tracking down Remo and Chiun," Howard offered as Smith typed, "but they're missing in action right now. Remo used his Visa card at a restaurant about two hours ago." He snapped his fingers. "Oh, I forgot. The French assassin is gone."
"That isn't unexpected," Smith said as he worked. "Master Chiun told me that this trial Remo is undergoing is merely a formality. Historically there is no real risk to the Apprentice Master of Sinanju. Remo shouldn't have any problems with any of the assassins he is scheduled to meet. It is more a demonstration of technique to potential employers, as well as a reminder that Sinanju is in the world. It is also a nuisance I could do without at this point in my life. But I learned many years ago the futility of arguing with the Master of Sinanju. As long as their activities remain below the world's radar, that is the best I can hope for." He finished typing. "There, we're tied in."
He picked up the blue contact phone. It was the line Remo used to call in. There was no dial on the phone. That didn't matter. The moment he picked up the receiver, the CURE computer was already dialing Chiun's special 800 number.
The phone rang a dozen times before someone finally picked up. Even away from the phone Mark recognized the desperately wailing woman.
"Hello," Smith said. "Master Chiun is not available at the moment. Is there something wrong?" There was more crying, more babbling. As the woman spoke, Smith eyed his computer.
"I'm sorry, I don't understand," the CURE director said. He spoke slowly and loudly, knowing full well the futility of doing so for the benefit of a person who obviously spoke no English. "May I speak with Master Chiun's caretaker? Please put Pullyang on the phone. Pullyang."
This drew a reaction from the woman. The crying turned into shrieks of agony. The woman wailed as if in pain for a few minutes, shouting her anguish into the phone, before hanging up amid a series of pitiful sobs.
Smith quickly cradled the phone. Spinning back to his computer, he tapped a few keys and then leaned back.
"I tapped the line and dumped her voice directly into the mainframes," he explained. "The translation will not be perfect, but we should at least see-"
The computer beeped and a window opened. Through narrowing eyes, Smith scanned the text. As he read, his lips thinned to razor slits of tight concern.
When he was finished, he leaned back in his chair. Mark Howard was still scanning the monitor, absorbing the data.
"Am I reading this right?" Howard asked. "This looks like she was saying her father was murdered."
"Apparently she is Pullyang's daughter," Smith said, his voice perfectly even. He adjusted his wireless glasses. "The mainframes are unable to translate all of the dialect peculiar to Sinanju, but that would seem to be the reason for both her calling here and for her emotional state."
"Wow," Mark said, shaking his head slowly. "This isn't going to sit well with Chiun. He must have told me a hundred times how the village is safe because of him. And this was the guy he trusted to watch his stuff? I'd hate to be in the shoes of whoever did it."
Smith could not disagree with his assistant's assessment. On a few occasions over the years Sinanju had been vexed by outside forces, invariably involving meddling by representatives of the Communist North Korean government. Since Pullyang was in charge of keeping watch over Chiun's treasure, Smith wondered if yet another North Korean agent had allowed greed to overcome wisdom.
The other option was a murderer among the citizens of Sinanju itself. To Smith's knowledge in the thirty years he'd known the Master of Sinanju there had not been a murder in the tiny fishing village on the West Korean Bay.
There was no doubt about one thing. This crossed a line none before had ever dared venture past.
"So what do we do?" Mark asked. "Chiun doesn't know. Do we let them finish what they're doing before we tell him?"
Smith released a sigh that was a mixture of bile and burned meat loaf.
"It would be easier," he admitted. "Certainly this is a complication none of us needs. With Remo and Chiun already skipping around the world for the Time of Succession, their activities are already too close to public. A rage-fueled vendetta on the part of the Master of Sinanju possibly directed against the North Korean government is not something I would like to see added to the mix right now."
"So we don't tell him," Howard said.
Smith shook his head. He offered something that might have started as a weary laugh but came out a tired moan.
"The only option worse than telling him would be to keep the knowledge from him." Smith sighed. Rolling his chair firmly into the desk foot well, the CURE director stretched his hands to his keyboard.
REMO CAUGHT UP to the Master of Sinanju on the steps of Czar Alexis's dingy French apartment building.
"What's wrong?" he asked, bounding down the stairs.
"I must think," Chiun replied tersely. He swept across the sidewalk to their waiting taxi.
"This can't be because of that Russian stink machine in the black bathrobe," Remo insisted. "Chiun, don't let him rattle you. I saw better hustlers than him rigging three-card-monte games on Coney Island when I was a kid."
But the Master of Sinanju didn't respond. He flung the rear door open and slipped into the cab. Remo hopped in beside him as the old man was barking orders at the cabbie.
"A little bad breath and mood lighting and you're running like French cheese?" Remo asked as the cab drew away from the curb. "That's not like you." The Master of Sinanju shot him a dark glance.
"Did you not hear the words of the wicked monk?" he snapped.
"See? There's my problem. If you'd said good monk, or happy monk or goddamn Dopey, Doc or Grumpy monk, I might put some stock in what he had to say. As it is, I listen to wicked monks about as much as I listen to crack-smoking mullahs."
"You would be wise to heed the words of this one," Chiun insisted. "He has been bestowed a gift, imparted to him by the dark forces with which he is aligned. My father knew well of him. The monk sees the future."
The words were said with such gravity that Remo dared not disagree.
"Okay, so he's a fortune-teller. So what? If he wanted to impress me, he'd predict himself a bar of soap."
"Do you not have eyes?" Chiun demanded. "Explain to me what just happened in that apartment." Shrugging exhausted surrender, Remo dropped his hands to his knees.
"I don't know, Little Father. I really don't. Maybe it was trick lighting. Maybe it was something more. Maybe you rigged it all somehow just to pull my leg. If you want to know the God's honest truth, whenever this sort of stuff happens I do my damnedest not to think about it."
"Is that what I have trained? A gangly legged ostrich with his big, dumb head stuffed in the ground? Have you seen nothing in your years as my apprentice? By now you should know well that there are forces at work in the universe that are beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. Apparently for ostrich you, that is doubly true."
"Fine," Remo said. "You want to know what I saw? I saw exactly what you did. Which is to say I don't know what the hell I saw. A hundred-year-old crown prince who looks like he's late for gym class and a Svengali monk who can Casper his way in and out of rooms. So I accept it. There. And he can tell the future. So what did he say? Watch out for the night and watch out for the day. What's that supposed to mean other than typical ambiguous fortune-telling gibberish?"
"He told us to beware the false night and day," the Master of Sinanju insisted.
"Okay, so what does that mean?"
"I don't know. But we must further beware of the hand that reaches from the grave. Darkness comes from the cold sea. For both of us, for he said Masters of Sinanju."
"Are you telling me you bought into that bullshit about someone being alive who was dead?"
"It seems unlikely," Chiun replied. "While the secret to true necromancy was supposed to be known to the priests of ancient Egypt, it was lost many years ago."
"I know necro is dead. Who the hell's Nancy?"
The old Korean gave a withering look. "It is the raising of the dead, numskull."
"I hate to break it to you, Little Father, but if the world starts vomiting up the living dead at us, it won't exactly limit either one of us. We've been tossing bad guys overboard to the sharks for more years than I like to think about. And there's a whole slew of dead chambermaids and bellboys who got in the way of your TV over the years. Not to mention ex-girlfriends, pissed-off gods and the occasional poor slob who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. If we've got some oogidy-boogidy from the great beyond stalking us, he's going to have to take a number. "
"It does not necessarily mean direct involvement by someone either of us has dispatched," Chiun said, stroking his thread of a beard with slender fingers. "Maybe it means a trap an enemy set before we delivered them to the Void."
"Like what?" Remo asked.
Chiun's wrinkled forehead creased. "I do not know," he admitted. "But he said that we are already stalked by death. Whatever it is may already be out there."
"Could be he's just talking about the Time of Succession," Remo suggested, hating the fact that he was being drawn into the demented monk's predictions. "We've got hit men already hiding behind every mailbox."
"Perhaps," Chiun said. He did not sound convinced.
Remo could see that his teacher was deeply disturbed. He touched the old man's shoulder.
"Hey, don't worry, Little Father," he said, his tone reassuring. "I don't put as much faith in Raspoopin as you do, but we've gone up against worse prophecies before and we're both still here to tell the tale. Let the world throw whatever it's got at us. We'll come out fine. I promise."
Chiun looked deep in his pupil's open, confident face.
Still so much a child. The boy had come to the edge, yet still had so much to learn.
Chiun knew. His father had told him. The monk was gifted. The monk was never wrong. And according to his words, two Masters of Sinanju were destined to die. Master and student, father and son.
Remo and Chiun.
Sitting in the back of the Parisian taxi, the old Korean studied the innocent, smiling face of the man he had trained. The man who was going to die. His son.
Grief overtook him. As Remo smiled, Chiun gave a brief nod, quickly turning away.
As Remo settled in for the cab ride, the old Korean stared out the window at the passing Paris lights.
Benson Dilkes was certain he was a dead man.
He had been driven from comfortable retirement in Africa, hired to kill the next Sinanju Master by a man he had met only once and came back to the world he had fled for a contest that was as unwinnable as it was unavoidable. As far as he was concerned, his fate was already sealed.
But when the small Korean standing in the bedroom of his Boca Raton apartment did not make a move toward him, Dilkes began to get a new sense. It was the name that finally did it. When the man mentioned his name, Benson Dilkes dropped his handgun to the carpet.
"Did you say Nuihc?" Dilkes breathed.
"There is nothing wrong with your hearing, Benson Dilkes," replied the Korean in the black business suit.
Dilkes's palms were sweating. He could feel the prickly sensation. Dilkes rarely perspired. Most days it took him an hour of kneeling out under the blazing hot sun in his rose garden back in Zimbabwe to even break a sweat.
Dilkes swallowed. "Forgive me, but the Master of Sinanju once had a pupil named Nuihc. I heard of him because, unworthy as I am, I traveled in some of the same circles as he did. Not that I was ever deserving to do so." He paused, heart racing. "Are you him?"
"Why do you ask questions when the answers are known to you already?" the Korean replied.
It was him. Dilkes could scarcely believe it. He felt his heartbeat quicken even more. He tried to will it to slow.
"I beg indulgence for my persistent impudence, O unequaled one," he said, bowing, "but it was my understanding that you had disappeared many years ago. It was assumed by many in my profession-I do not call it 'our' profession, for it sullies your great and hallowed reputation to be likened to worthless bunglers such as myself-that you had died."
The Korean's hooded eyes were flat. "Spare me that flowery foolishness," he droned. "You are not good at it, and I do not require songs of flattery to stroke my ego. I am not my uncle, decrepit and needy of validation. As for that other, I was asleep. That is all you need know."
Dilkes could see he had given offense.
"I beg forgiveness," he said. "It's just that you caught me by surprise."
The Korean nodded quiet understanding. "That is a rare thing for you, Benson Dilkes. I have heard of you. You are too cautious to be surprised. That is a good thing. The price of failure is high, given the work you do, yet you have survived longer than most. I am impressed."
"You honor me, sir."
"The proper term is 'Master.'"
"Forgive me, Master," Dilkes said.
The American assassin's eyes strayed to door and window. The window was sealed and wired. The same for the door. They would take precious seconds to disarm. Not that it mattered. Even if he made a dash for it, he was certain there was no way he could hope to make it past the Korean.
But even as the wild thoughts flew through the brain of Benson Dilkes, the Asian was shaking his head. It was as if the man in the business suit had read his mind.
"Do not make me question my faith in you," the Korean said. "You know full well that if I wished it you would be dead already. Therefore, I must not want you dead."
"But the contest..." Dilkes began, confused. His voice trailed off.
He was suddenly distracted, a worried look on his tan face. Dilkes had finally noticed the other person who had somehow stolen into his bedroom unannounced.
The other stranger had likely been standing near the Korean the whole time. It was easy enough to miss him, the way he loitered in the dark corner near the door. As it was, Dilkes had to squint to make him out.
The man was obviously not Asian.
He was white. Thin and pale. A mane of flowing blond hair like tousled corn husks hung down to narrow shoulders. His face was so sunken he looked like the hollow projection of a human. Even though he was younger than the Korean, he somehow looked older than his years. He didn't speak or move. Just clung to the dark. A subservient ghost.
"Who is that?" Dilkes breathed.
The man in the suit didn't turn. Didn't acknowledge the presence of the other man.
"No one. A failure. A tool that broke. A shadow of what he was supposed to be. Pay him no mind."
"As you wish, Master," Dilkes said.
The word fit comfortably on his tongue.
Many men, alive and dead, would have been surprised at the ease with which the great Benson Dilkes had accepted so subordinate a term. Even among those in his profession who knew of Sinanju, few fully understood what it was. Dilkes knew. For this reason the word Master came easily to him.
The man who called himself Nuihc padded across the room. Dilkes backed against the bureau, allowing a wide path for the small man to pass. The Korean stopped before the line of corkboard maps. Face upturned, he studied the many red pins.
The blond-haired man stayed back near the door. As still as death, the blond man studied the small Asian. For the first time Dilkes saw the Caucasian's eyes.
If a Caribbean sea could catch fire, that was the color of the younger man's eyes. They were blue. Brilliantly so. As the young man studied his Master, his electric-blue eyes sparkled with a vitality far greater than the pale, emaciated face in which they were sunk.
Dilkes found himself so entranced by the younger man's eyes that he missed something the Asian said. "Excuse me?" he asked.
"I said this is not accurate," the Korean repeated. He waved a hand across the big maps, pointing, one, two, three. "There, you missed some in India and China. Several in Lobinia. Here, in San Francisco and New York."
The reality hit Benson Dilkes. This was a Master of Sinanju. Of course he would know all the little pin marks in Dilkes's absurd maps. He had doubtless made many of them.
"You were there," Dilkes said.
"For a few," the Korean admitted. "Not for most. But I, like you, kept track."
Dilkes frowned. "But you're the pupil of the Master of Sinanju. And these-" he hesitated, searching for the right word "-events have spanned the past thirty years. Shouldn't you have been there for most of them?"
The Korean still studied the maps. At Dilkes's question, there was a slight twitch at the corner of the Asian's mouth. A hint of buried emotion. When he spoke, his voice was so soft Dilkes had to strain to hear.
"I was Master before any of these took place," the Korean said coldly. "I was Master when you first began your pitiful business of breaking necks and setting fires for money in barbarian African backwaters. These are all the result of an anomaly. The handiwork of an old man who stayed beyond his time. One who would betray everything he claims to hold dear. A pathetic shell of dust and bone who would take as a pupil a worthless white mongrel and present it to the world as something other than the unfit cur that it is." He shook his head. "This will end."
With that the Asian raised his foot five inches off the floor. With a look of icy determination, he dropped the sole of his black leather shoe hard to the carpet.
The thunder rattled the room. The vibrations seemed to find focus on the wooden easels that held up the world maps. One by one the tiny red tacks popped out, clattering to carpet like hard rain. The last tack to rattle loose was that of Jean-Pierre Sevigne. The plastic-capped pin that had become a grave marker for the French assassin fell to the floor and was lost in the scattering sea of red thumbtacks.
"It is one thing to follow a trail," said the Asian. "Quite another thing to blaze one. We are going to tear down a house and build a new one on its foundation."
As he spoke, the small man walked over and retrieved the plastic case from the nightstand.
Dilkes shook his head. "I don't understand."
The Asian turned. "You and the pins in this box are going to help me, Benson Dilkes. When I am done, not one stone will be left on another. Our task is a simple one. Builders do it all the time. The destruction of a house."
The Korean took two fresh pins from the case. Rolling them in his palm, he brought them over to the map. One after the next, he flipped them to the tip of his thumb and flicked them with his index finger. With near simultaneous whirs they flew at a map, burying themselves deep in the corkboard.
Dilkes saw that the tacks had embedded themselves near the Korean peninsula. Just at the edge of the curve of the West Korean Bay. When he turned back to the Asian, there was a look of excited wonder on his face.
Dilkes had been dragged from Africa, from the comfort of retirement. Practically kicking and screaming. He had thought his new life of leisure suited him. He was wrong.
Benson Dilkes-the man who lectured others about the power of the House of Sinanju, the man who twenty-five years before had run rather than encounter the most feared practitioner of that most ancient art-felt an old tingle in the pit of his fluttering stomach.
He thought it was long gone. The excitement of youth. The thrill of the kill. Replaced by drudgery and mechanics and, finally, by retirement, by uselessness. But it was back. Blazing bright and newborn. In a flash, the certainty of death that had loomed above his head all these months was replaced by the exciting possibility of ultimate success.
Benson Dilkes turned to the Korean, his tan face flushed with youthful energy.
"I understand, Master," Dilkes drawled, his Virginia twang suddenly as thick as the day he had made his first kill. "Just tell me what you need. I am yours to command."
The killer offered a deep, formal bow of submission.
And, unseen by Dilkes, in the corner of the room the silent, blond-haired man flashed a demented smile.
Remo was hoping that Chiun's gloomy mood would dissipate by the time they reached Charles de Gaulle International Airport. But the old Korean remained somber and silent from the cab to the curb to the terminal. His dour mood was infectious. Remo felt his own spirits sink with every cheerless step.
"Where to next?" Remo asked glumly as they headed to the ticket windows.
"Germany," the wizened Asian replied. He screwed his mouth up, refusing to say more.
"Great," Remo grumbled. "Snails for schnitzel. At least we're trading up the food chain."
He ordered the tickets at the counter, paying with his Remo Bednick American Express card. The two Masters of Sinanju had walked only a dozen feet away from the counter when a squat airport representative with a thick neck and a thicker French accent touched Remo on the elbow.
"Please excuse the intrusion," the man said, "but monsieur has a telephone call. If you would come this way."
Remo shot a glance at the Master of Sinanju. Chiun seemed uninterested. It was apparent he was still worrying about the words of the Russian monk.
"I'm warning you," Remo said to the Frenchman.
"I'm on my way to Germany. If this isn't on the level, I'm gonna throw a bratwurst over the Rhine and holler 'fetch.'"
The confused airport employee insisted he was telling the truth. With a sigh of surrender-the first ever uttered by a foreign national on French soil-Remo followed the man to a private lounge and a waiting telephone.
Remo expected the phone would be wired to sizzle him with electricity or spit poison gas. When he heard the bile-fueled wheezing on the other end of the line, he realized it was even worse than an assassin's booby trap.
"What is it, Smitty?" Remo sighed.
"Remo, thank goodness," said the lemony voice of Harold Smith. "We have been searching for you for several hours. Until you used your credit card, we were unable to find you."
"I'll have to remember to pay cash from now on. What do you want? And make it snappy, 'cause somewhere in Germany there's a killer waiting to zap me, and we all know how patient Germans are."
"Actually I was not looking for you. I need to speak with Master Chiun. Is he with you?"
Remo glanced at the Master of Sinanju. The old Korean was at the window of the lounge. Button nose upturned, he was staring out at the plane lights in the night sky, his face a mask of mummified concern.
"He's here," Remo said warily. "But he's not exactly in a chipper mood. I don't know if he wants to talk."
Twenty yards across the crowded lounge, the Master of Sinanju waved an angry, dismissive hand. His back remained to Remo as he studied the night.
"He wants me to take a message," Remo said. Smith cleared his throat.
"There has been an incident in Sinanju. I am afraid Master Chiun's caretaker is dead."
If Remo had even for a moment thought he might have to repeat Smith's words to the Master of Sinanju, he knew for certain in the next instant that it would not be necessary.
Across the room, the old man's head whipped around. Hazel eyes frowned in deep concern. The old Korean flounced across the lounge, snatching the phone from his pupil's hand.
"Speak," he demanded.
"Oh, Master Chiun." Smith did his best to mask his worried disappointment. Although he had called in search of the Master of Sinanju, he preferred to talk to Remo. "I was just telling Remo about your caretaker, Pullyang."
"Yes, yes," Chiun hissed. "What happened?"
"Well, his daughter called here a few hours ago," Smith said. "I believe her name is Hyunsil."
In the French airport lounge, the Master of Sinanju rolled his impatient eyes heavenward. Of course he knew the name of his caretaker's daughter. Just as he knew the names of all the villagers who lived under his protection. What was it in the white mind that made them state the obvious?
"How did my caretaker die?" Chiun pressed.
He was prepared to hear that natural causes or an unfortunate accident had claimed the life of his elderly caretaker. The answer he received startled him to silence.
"According to his daughter, he was murdered." Remo was still standing next to the phone. At Smith's words, he shot a concerned look at his teacher.
The color had drained from Chiun's parchment face. His hand was a knot of petrified ivory as it clutched the black receiver. His wisps of hair shook with vibrations that emanated from the very core of his shocked being.
For a long time he couldn't speak. All words he might have said shriveled and died within the compressing cage of his stunned chest. Hot breath slipped from between his lips.
The phone squawked in his hand.
"Hello? Master Chiun?" came the lemony voice from the line. "Hello?"
Remo gently pressed his hand to the Master of Sinanju's bony shoulder. "Little Father?"
At long last the old Korean found his voice.
"The treasure," he breathed. "Is the treasure safe?"
"I didn't think to ask," Smith said. "The translation program wouldn't have worked fast enough anyway. She hung up the phone too quickly. I could try calling back, although that really is not necessary now that you-"
Whatever else Smith said, neither Master of Sinanju heard. Chiun had hung up the phone. Lost in thought, the old man turned slowly to his pupil.
"I must return to Sinanju," he announced.
Remo nodded. "I understand," he said. "I'll get us two tickets to South Korea. We'll postpone this Time of Succession stuff for later."
"No," Chiun insisted. "You will continue alone. I will deal with whatever has happened in my village."
Remo's face clouded. "That's nuts," he said. "You have to go with me for this."
"You are a full Master of Sinanju, not an infant needing me to hold your hand," Chiun spit. "You will go alone."
Remo felt the world spinning away from him. He shook his head. "Is that even allowed?"
Chiun nodded. "There have been times in the past. Extreme circumstances where the pupil went alone. Usually they involved the death of the Reigning Master before the time of the pupil's introduction to the courts of the world. It is rare, but not without precedent."
Remo shook his head. "I can't do this by myself. I know two languages, English and Korean. I know govnyuk is 'shithead' in Russian, but we've already done the czar, so even that won't come in handy unless we're going to Moscow."
"No, we are not," Chiun said.
"All right, then."
The tiny Asian's voice was firm. Remo could see that there would be no arguing. His shoulders slumped.
"Why don't you at least call home first before you waste a trip?" he said with a sigh. "Get a heads-up on what's going on. He was pretty old, Chiun. Maybe Smitty got it wrong. He said he was using some translation something-or-other. Maybe Pullyang died in his sleep."
"To call first might alert the dastards who did this wicked thing," Chiun insisted, "for the village telephone is in the Master's House and if they killed my trusted caretaker for my treasure, they are surely there plundering it now. If it is as you suggest and he met a natural end, I must still go, for he has been a good and faithful servant to me for many years. I must pay my last respects."
The words were spoken in a clear and reasonable tone. But they were a lie.
Another is dead already.
That was what the monk had said. At the time, the words had confused Chiun. Now he understood. The monk knew.
Another is dead already. Pullyang. Two Masters of Sinanju will die.
Whatever was coming for them had its beginnings in Sinanju. Perhaps it would be possible to cheat fate. But first Chiun had to learn exactly what the danger was.
"I don't even know where in Germany I'm supposed to go," Remo said. He seemed lost.
The old Korean looked up into his pupil's face. It was leaner now than it had been when they'd first met so many years ago. The baby fat had long since burned away. But it was still a young, innocent face. Guileless and unlined. Despite the buffeting hardships of a sometimes vicious and heartless world, it remained open and honest.
"I will tell you where to go," Chiun said softly.
"Super," Remo grumbled. "While you're at it, tell me what to do when I get there."
"I do not have to," the old man said. "For you will do as you always do. You will make me proud." And this time, unlike back at their Connecticut duplex, Remo Williams knew to worry. For this time the old man did not erase his words of praise with an insult.
The chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany paced back and forth on the stone floor. The soles of his black dress shoes clicked sharply with each step.
"You said we were ready," the chancellor snapped. His breath formed puffs of gray steam in the chill morning air.
Wind blew cold through the open window in the old castle, cutting to the bone. The chancellor hugged his crossed arms tight to himself as he glared at the portly man in the heavy woolen overcoat.
"We were ready," the defense ministry man insisted. "Up until yesterday. But he has not arrived this morning. He was supposed to meet with me over an hour ago."
"Call him," the chancellor commanded.
"I have already tried calling a dozen times."
The leader of Germany strained to dull the furious edge in his voice, "Try again," he snapped. Nodding, the red-faced man waddled off to a dank corner, cell phone in hand. As the man pressed out a number on the disposable phone he intended to throw away later that morning, the chancellor stepped to the window.
The land he looked out on was primeval forest. The acres of wilderness were as untamed as they had been a thousand years before when this castle was a stronghold of the Hohenstaufen Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.
The history of ancient Germany was stretched out before the chancellor's eyes. The German leader didn't seem to appreciate the view. That Frederick I had stood at the same window and looked out on the same forests was the last thing on the chancellor's mind this morning.
The leader of Germany was irritated. Why wouldn't he be? He had every right to be upset. They were supposed to be prepared. Until yesterday he had been assured over and over that Germany was ready.
He had flown by helicopter to this secret spot in the dark of night, secure in the knowledge that this bizarre business had been handled.
The special throne was already in place. It had been carted from its government storage facility in Berlin. The ancient wooden throne had been carved from the trees of this very forest. Lovingly preserved, it had been handed down from one generation to the next for centuries.
The throne weighed over a ton. It was part of the ceremony. The men who had been charged with hauling it to this lost castle had no idea what it was for.
But it was here. In place. As everything else was supposed to be. All that was supposed to happen from this point forward were formalities.
Only when the black night sky had begun to feed the ugly grays of dawn was the chancellor informed that his country might not be ready after all.
Far below the castle walls, the twisted trees stirred in the morning breeze. Somewhere close a bird began to shriek. Its cry was answered from far away in the forest depths.
As more birds took up the call, a muttered curse came from the corner of the big room. The chancellor turned from the window and the growing dawn. "Anything?"
Phone still pressed to his ear, the defense ministry man shook his head. His sagging jowls wobbled worriedly. "It now says that the number has been discontinued."
The chancellor's eyes opened wide with rage.
The fat man understood why the German leader was upset. He had done research. He knew exactly what they were dealing with. For weeks leading up to this, he had been having nightmares about what might happen if things went wrong.
The fat man held up a staying hand. "I know another number," he promised. "Give me a moment." As the ministry man dug through his pockets for the second number, the chancellor turned back to the window.
He couldn't believe his bad luck. How many chancellors had there been since the last time? Any one of them should have had to deal with this. Mocking fate had dropped him in office at this time.
At first the German leader thought he could dispense with all of this in a quick, efficient German manner. But his first chosen champion-the talented Swiss assassin, Olivier Hahn-had met an untimely end. After a scramble to find a replacement, they found the best money could buy. Better, perhaps, than the dead Swiss killer. And now this.
Behind him, the defense ministry man had found the backup number. The chancellor heard the beeps of the cell phone. The German leader tried to tune out the sound.
Across the forest the sky continued to brighten. The castle was a sacred spot. Ever since the time of Frederick Barbarossa this had been the traditional meeting place between the leaders of Germany and the mysterious assassins from the East. The castle had been maintained better in the earliest centuries. The outer walls and outbuildings had begun to crumble four centuries before. The modern age had brought the inner hall to partial ruin. But through many years, from the rule of the Hapsburgs through the reunification of East and West Germany at the end of the twentieth century, much of the castle still remained.
In the modern age the upkeep expenses were part of a black budget. No one outside a tight circle within the government even knew of the castle's existence. The small stipend earmarked for the Barbarossa castle was barely enough to maintain the main structure. Still, in spite of the ravages of time, it remained one of the best preserved castles of its age in Europe. And one that no government bureaucrat, college professor or camera-carting tourist would ever see.
For an instant as he looked out the window of the great hall, the current chancellor of Germany felt a tiny touch of the specialness of this place.
And as quickly as it came, the bubble that was his brief connection to the history of his country popped. "Hey, Sergeant Schultz, is this Barbarella's castle?" asked an American voice.
The German chancellor whirled.
There was another man standing in the vast hall. The intruder had come up the east stairs. Silently, for neither the defense ministry man nor the chancellor had heard him approach. The stranger was addressing the fat man on the phone, a perturbed look on his cruel face.
The fat man looked desperately from the stranger in the black T-shirt and matching chinos to the chancellor of Germany. The ministry man didn't know what to do. He had not expected to be interrupted in so clandestine an affair.
"Yo, Pudding Pop, I'm talking to you," Remo said, waving a hand in front of the man's frightened face.
"You cannot be here," the chancellor called. Remo glanced up as Germany's leader approached. The chancellor got between Remo and the throne, as if partially blocking the massive piece of furniture in the ancient stone hall would somehow hide his purpose.
"This is not a place for tourists," the chancellor said.
"Tell me about it," Remo groused. "It's not on any maps. Next world war you guys should hide out here. It'd take us a hundred years to find you. You in charge?"
The chancellor wasn't sure what to do. He had brought no security. His helicopter pilot was the man with the phone. The fat man was shrugging helplessly.
The chancellor stood straight, stiffening his shoulders. "You are trespassing," he said. "I order you to leave this place at once."
"Sorry, Fritz," Remo said. "Not German. I don't do that whole blindly-follow-orders thing. And it sounds like you're in charge. Here's the deal. I'm the first Master of Sinanju in a thousand years who's had to do this on his own, I've got some spooky prophecy dogging me and I'm in the kind of mood you people get in just before you annex, invade or write an opera at someone. So let's get this over with."
The chancellor took a surprised step back. With one hand he steadied himself on the throne.
"You are the Master of Sinanju?"
"Transitional Master for the moment," Remo said. "And the faster I get through here the faster I can transition to Reigning Master. Not that that's going to be all peaches and cream, but it's time to move up and there's nothing I can do about it. So let's get this over with. Where's your guy?"
"Ahh..." the German chancellor said. He glanced worriedly at the defense ministry man.
"That him?" Remo asked. Frowning, he stabbed his thumb at the man with the cell phone.
"No!" insisted the fat man. Panicked, he fell back against the wall, clutching his phone to his chest.
"Calm down, pie haus," Remo said. He turned his attention to the chancellor. "So where is he?"
"We, ah, had someone in mind," the chancellor began.
"I bet. Must've been a real challenge finding a maniacal, bloodthirsty German killer. What did you have to do, look out the window?"
"Actually we had two people," the chancellor said. Despite the cold, sweat broke out on his forehead. "The first was a Swiss. Very good with mechanical devices. He would have presented a real challenge for you."
"Not much of one. That plug got pulled last year." The chancellor blinked dull understanding.
"Oh," he said, his voice small. "We did manage to find another. His skills were different than the one you-than the other one."
"And?" Remo asked, noting the man's fearful quaver.
The chancellor gave a helpless shrug. "Our contestant has not arrived." In German, he barked a question at the ministry man on the other side of the hail. "He has vanished," the chancellor admitted to Remo in English, his voice sinking to low levels of despair. Remo could see the man was telling the truth.
"Well, what am I supposed to do now?" Remo muttered at the cold stone walls of the ancient castle hall.
"Show mercy on we lowly ones, O great and awesome Master of Sinanju," said the chancellor. "Be quick, bitte."
The chancellor's voice sounded strange. Remo looked down.
The German leader was down on his knees, his face pressed to the mossy floor. There was a grunt behind Remo. When he turned he saw the fat man had prostrated himself, too.
"What are you nits doing?" Remo asked.
"We have insulted Sinanju by not finding an assassin," said the chancellor. "Don't you want to kill us?"
Remo frowned. "That what I'm supposed to do?"
"I do not know. In a thousand years my country has never failed to field a champion. I assumed the future head of the House of Sinanju would take our failure as an insult and exact a blood debt from us."
"Maybe," Remo said. "On the other hand, blood debts are a bitch to wash out of cotton fabric."
Frowning contemplation, he turned silently on his heel.
After a long moment, the German chancellor looked up from the ancient stones.
The American was gone.
The chancellor pulled himself to his feet. Nearby, the defense ministry man climbed up on wobbly legs. The fat man's face glistened with sweat. There seemed to be an odd pain shooting up his left arm. Not that it mattered. They were alive.
"Thank God," the overweight man whispered.
Remo stuck his head back around the corner. "Hey, can I hitch a ride back with you guys?" he asked.
He noted the fat man flopping to the stone floor clutching his chest.
"I hope Tubby the Tuba's not driving," Remo said.
HAROLD W. SMITH WAS at his computer in his Folcroft office when the phone rang.
It was still the dead of night on the East Coast. Through the picture window at his back, silver starlight sparkled across the inky black water of Long Island Sound.
Smith had sent Mark Howard home hours ago. It would be several hours before the younger man came back in to work.
Pursing his lips in displeasure, Smith picked up the ringing phone. "Yes," he said with mild annoyance. "I need some help, Smitty."
Smith had almost been hoping that the caller would be the frantic woman from Chiun's village. The Master of Sinanju would not be home yet. When he heard Remo's voice, the CURE director exhaled disapproval.
"I do not like being involved in this," Smith said unhappily, straightening with fussy annoyance in his chair.
"Join the club," Remo grumbled. "I've got a problem, Smitty. The guy Germany was supposed to use as cannon fodder has taken off. No one knows where he is."
Smith breathed hotly through pinched nostrils. Once it was decided that Chiun would return to Sinanju to check into the matter of his caretaker, Remo had hastily called Smith back, turning the phone back over to his teacher. Chiun had given the CURE director an encyclopedic list of people, places and tradition to help guide Remo through the Time of Succession. At first Smith objected, but threats from Remo to quit CURE if he didn't help finally brought him around, albeit reluctantly.
"I do not appreciate being blackmailed," Smith said, restating his earlier objection.
"No kidding," Remo replied. "I missed that the first hundred times you said so."
Smith spun in his chair, staring out at the night. "It is not as if this is a CURE matter," he said, more to himself than to Remo. "If the two of you wish to go off like this, it should be your business, not mine."
"Earth to Smitty," Remo snapped. "I need help." Smith exhaled loudly.
"You say the German assassin has rejected Sinanju's challenge?"
"I'd say chickened out, but your way works, too."
"Chiun informed me that this happens from time to time during this ritual."
"So what do I do?"
"Traditionally you would go in search of the individual who has fled to avoid confrontation. I understand there was a Master- Wait." Smith turned back to his keyboard, pulling up the relevant files. "Yes, Master Hwyack. Apparently he spent eighteen years searching for a Vandal champion who ran away from the contest."
"Pass," Remo said.
"Chiun was quite clear on this, Remo," Smith insisted. "The chosen champion must be defeated."
"Smitty, do you really want me to waste the next six months knocking on the door of every gingerbread house in the Black Forest to see if Germany's best assassin is hiding under the bed?"
Humming thoughtfully, Smith tapped a finger on his desk. "That would not be an effective use of time," he agreed.
"Fine. It's settled. I'm all finished here. Put a check on the chart next to Germany."
"I doubt Chiun will be satisfied with this outcome," the CURE director pointed out. "But you are right. I would prefer to limit the amount of time you waste on this matter. Perhaps we can approach this more efficiently. I will see if Mark can track him down. You continue to your next destination. Do you have the German assassin's name?"
"Wilhelm von Murderstrasse, or something like that. Wait a sec. They told me on the chopper. Let me find it."
"What helicopter? Who were you with?"
"Couple of Germans," Remo said absently as he searched for the name. "I think one of them was chancellor or something. Didn't have a little mustache, though. It was all I could do to keep the other guy alive till we got back to Berlin. Germans have heart attacks real easy. Found it."
In the dark of his Folcroft office, Smith had been pinching the bridge of his nose. He pulled his hand away, readjusting his glasses.
"What is it?" he sighed.
"Hermann Heyse," Remo said, obviously reading the name.
Smith typed the name into the computer along with the rest of the data he had compiled on the Time of Succession.
"Very well. I will have Mark track him down. In the meantime you may continue to your next destination. "
The CURE director read a quick summary of the where and who of Remo's next appointment. With instructions to call if there were any questions, he broke the connection.
Once the blue phone was safely back in its cradle, Smith sank tiredly back into his leather chair.
Remo had been on a helicopter with the chancellor of Germany. Another name to add to the growing list of world leaders CURE's Destroyer had met.
The only thing that was keeping Smith's sanity intact was the knowledge that no one in any of these foreign lands could allow word of what they were involved in to get out. Despite the requirements of this particular ritual, from Master to Master, Sinanju had remained successfully hidden from the eyes of the world for millennia. Smith trusted that the secret would remain hidden. It had to.
Smith sat back up in his chair. It squeaked. It hadn't done that for some time.
Taking odd comfort in the noise, the CURE director stretched his hands to his keyboard.
Kim Jong Il, Leader for Life of North Korea, was in his office in the concrete bowels of the People's Palace in the capital city of Pyongyang when he got the terrible news.
"How soon?" the premier demanded.
"The plane will be arriving in approximately thirty minutes," replied his secretary, an army colonel.
A flush came to the premier's cheeks.
The colonel who stood before his desk looked worried. The officer had just learned that a commercial jet had been "borrowed" in South Korea. That was the term the South had used. In this age of heightened awareness over hijackings, it was a very odd choice of words.
The highest leadership in the South had called the highest leadership in the North to tell them about the plane. In that urgent call they had mentioned one word the significance of which the colonel didn't understand. That word was Sinanju. The colonel was told that it didn't matter that he didn't understand. He had been informed that the premier would know what it meant.
It seemed as if the caller from the South had been correct, for at the mention of the word the North Korean premier's face visibly paled.
Sitting behind his desk, the premier had to grab on to his seat to steady himself. "Half an hour," he lamented.
"Less than that by now, my premier."
The premier had a clump of knotted hair that, left to its own devices, stood at bizarre attention on his head. With the news from his secretary, the premier's face had begun to match the impression of cartoon shock given off by his plume of sticking-up hair.
"They're early," Kim complained. "He swore to me they wouldn't work their way to Asia for another couple weeks."
"Sir?" questioned the confused secretary.
The premier didn't even hear the question. "Quick," he snapped. "Get on the phone to General Kye Pun of the People's Bureau of Revolutionary Struggle. Tell him the Sinanju schedule's been moved up. Tell him I need his special boy at the airport ASAP."
"Yes, sir. Now, about this rogue plane. Do you want to give the order to shoot it down?"
The premier's panic was so great it looked as if his spikes of hair might start launching at the ceiling. "Hell no," he snapped. "He's mad enough when I don't fire missiles at him. I don't even want to think about how pissed off he'd be if I shot a plane out from under him. Now, hurry up and make that call to Pun."
As his secretary hurried from the office to place the call to the head of North Korea's intelligence service, the Leader for Life was rummaging in the bottom drawer of his desk. He pulled out a bottle and a crystal tumbler. With shaking hands he poured himself a good stiff belt.
"Why do bad things happen to good dictators?" he moaned to his office walls.
TWENTY MINUTES LATER, when the plane appeared as a little black dot in the pale white sky, Kim Jong Il was shivering at the Pyongyang airport.
He wore a big furry hat that covered his wild hair. A heavy coat didn't block the wind that whipped the tarmac.
The booze hadn't helped. The dulling effects were mostly burned away by the bitter cold. The rest evaporated the instant he saw the plane.
North Korea's Leader for Life was not alone. He had a small entourage with him, which included several soldiers. General Pun, the head of North Korean intelligence, was there. Pun's special man stood beside the security officer.
In a land for which famine was common, the man to General Pun's left was a healthy aberration. Shan Duk had been born and bred in the slums outside of Pyongyang. A hulking brute of a man, Duk stood six feet four inches tall and was nearly as wide. His broad face was as flat as a frying pan. Angry flesh bunched above his eyes, lending the brute a perpetual squint.
At one point during a particularly devastating famine a few years before it was discovered that Shan Duk was hoarding food. This was when the young man was a mere guard at the People's Bureau of Revolutionary Struggle headquarters. To fuel the massive machine that was his body, Duk had been going from door to door in his neighborhood, shaking down neighbors for portions of their meager rations. When that wasn't enough to sate him, he brought the practice to work. On their way in to work every morning, half-starved coworkers at the PBRS were forced to line up and turn over large chunks of their food allotment to the behemoth. As the starving, hollow-eyed government workers watched Shun Duk gorge himself on their rations, their empty bellies grumbling, the big man always insisted, "Take heart. It is in the interest of the people's glorious revolution that I not go hungry. Is there any soup in that thermos?"
When the complaints about the young guard filtered up to General Pun, the head of Korean intelligence considered disciplining the young soldier. But how? A reprimand seemed too weak for such an infraction. He doubted there was a prison strong enough to hold the monster. He would have had him shot if he thought it just wouldn't have made him mad. In the end Pun had opted for the most prudent alternative.
Shan Duk's promotion to personal bodyguard of General Kye Pun was a win-win situation. Kye Pun got the toughest bodyguard on the Korean peninsula, and Shan Duk got an increase in pay that lessened the need to shake down the intelligence agency staff. He now only did so when he was really, really hungry.
At brutality, few men on Earth showed as much natural talent as Shan Duk. When it came time to select the champion who would carry the banner for North Korea in the Sinanju Time of Succession, there was only one logical choice.
Some found it odd that the premier hadn't recruited the big man for his personal security force. Although Shan Duk was clearly the most formidable individual in the North Korean government, Kim Jong 11 had never considered bringing the man over to work for him for one simple reason: Shan Duk scared the living bejesus out of the Communist leader.
As the plane from the South landed, the premier stood at the center of his entourage, a few men away from the fearsome intelligence officer. On a good day he kept his distance from Shan Duk. But for a moment as the final alcohol buzz burned off, he wished that the most terrifying thing he had to face was a half-starved brute of a bodyguard.
Sober and shaking, Kim Jong Il listened to the plane tires squeal. It rolled to a stop before the group of men.
The air stairs were quickly put in place. When the door opened a minute later, a lone man stepped into the cold air.
At the sight of the Master of Sinanju, Kim Jong Il felt his bowels clench.
"It's show time," he said with a reluctant moan. Entourage in tow, he headed to the base of the stairs.
The Master of Sinanju descended like a floating mummy. His eyes were as hard and cold as the Korean terrain.
"Master of Sinanju!" Kim Jong Il enthused, a phony smile plastered wide over his face. "Welcome home. We weren't expecting you so soon. So where's that sonny boy of yours?" He stood on tiptoes, looking worriedly up the stairs.
Chiun's voice was glacial. "He is not here." A spark of hope lit the Korean premier's eyes. "Oh, no," he said, attempting a sympathetic tone as insincere as his vanishing smile. "I sure as heck hope no one got the better of him in this contest thing."
Chiun gave him a cancerous look that told the Korean leader that Remo was alive and well.
"Sorry," Kim Jong II said, holding up his hands in apology. "I can't help it. That kid of yours gives me a serious case of shit-the-pants. The way he's always smacking me around, busting the place up when he's in town. I don't think he likes me. But you and me. That's a whole 'nother story. We understand each other."
Smiling again, he offered the Master of Sinanju his hand in friendship.
Chiun took the premier's hand. The premier was glad Chiun took his hand. Shaking hands was nice. Friendly people shook hands. And they were both Koreans, after all. Koreans understood each other with the sort of understanding that was sealed with friendly handshaking niceness.
"There." Kim Jong Il beamed. "One, big happy Korean fam- Ahhhhhhhhhhhh!" He was down on his knees before he even realized that Chiun hadn't warmed to a shared bond of Korean niceness after all. He hadn't shaken the premier's hand. Instead, the old man took the web of flesh between the premier's thumb and forefinger and squeezed. The pain was unbelievable. Blinding.
Kim Jong Il's shocked brain couldn't register what had happened. To help it along in understanding, the Master of Sinanju squeezed again.
"Ahhhhhhhh! " Kim Jong Il screamed again.
All around came metallic clicks, like winter crickets suddenly popping from hibernation.
Kim Jong Il's eyes grew wild.
"Hold your fire!" he yelped at his troops, who had quickly taken aim with rifles and handguns on the little man who had brought the Leader for Life of North Korea to his knees on the bitterly cold tarmac of Pyongyang airport. "Back off, back off! That is a goddamn order! Ahhhhhhhhh!" he cried anew, falling farther to the ground. He propped himself up with his free hand. "What's wrong?" he begged.
The old man's eyes were frozen hazel shards. "Are you responsible?" the Master of Sinanju demanded. The premier didn't have time to answer.
As ordered, the men with the guns had backed off. They stood at a short, anxious distance, unsure what to do. But amid the crowd one man had decided on a course of action.
Puffs of angry white steam shot from the flaring nostrils of Shan Duk. He looked like a Korean bull. And like a bull, Shan Duk charged, howling with rage.
No one there was quite sure what happened next. Things moved so quickly they saw only the result. They were certain that Shan Duk had attacked the little old man. They were reasonably certain that he had succeeded in crushing the tiny man to paste, for the old man vanished very briefly underneath the towering mountain of meat that was Shan Duk.
But then Shan Duk was in the air. Floating. And then they saw the bony arm.
It held the mighty North Korean Communist warrior in the air by his back like a waiter's serving tray. The arm was attached to the little old man who, with his free hand, continued to assault North Korea's Leader for Life even as he held the big bodyguard aloft.
Shan Duk was like a turtle on his shell. His big arms were useless as he tried to grab around to the bony hand that propped him up by his meaty back. His tree-trunk legs kicked helplessly at the air.
There was no strain on the hard face of the Master of Sinanju. He continued to stare cold accusation at Kim Jong Il. The premier cowered under the huge, flailing shadow of Shan Duk.
"Are you responsible?" Chiun demanded once more.
"For what?" the premier begged.
"There was an atrocity committed in my village. A man is dead who was more honest and decent than any born of the slatterns in this brothel city. And so I ask again, on pain of a thousand deaths, are you responsible?"
"No!" Kim Jong Il shrieked. "God, no! I swear on a stack of outlawed Bibles. Sinanju is off-limits now. I made sure everyone knows that."
Chiun detected no deception coming from the North Korean premier. He released Kim Jong Il's hand, spinning in a whirl of kimono silk.
For an instant he suddenly seemed to remember Shan Duk, all 270 pounds of which was still balanced on his fingertips. As an afterthought, Chiun lobbed the bodyguard-who was thrashing by this point into the mob of soldiers. The men fell like bowling pins.
Chiun twirled through the toppled mass of men, heading across the tarmac. As he walked he shouted, "I require an automobile."
And all around, terrified men produced jangling sets of car keys. Mostly Chryslers and Subarus. The finest cars the Communist leadership of North Korea could buy.
IT WAS GENERAL KYE PUN who was elected to drive the Master of Sinanju home. Chiun remained silent in the back seat of the car.
A major highway, the likes of which existed nowhere else in all of North Korea, led to the coast. It stopped dead at a frozen mud road.
When the intelligence officer slowed to a gravelly stop at the end of the paved road, the Master of Sinanju got out of the back. He padded wordlessly away from the car.
The car turned for the ride back to the capital. When General Kye Pun looked in the rearview mirror, he saw the solitary figure of the elderly Master of Sinanju walking up the old mud path between the clumps of winter weeds.
"May we never cross paths again, old one," the general muttered to himself as he drove back down the road.
Alone on the path, Chiun heard the general's softly spoken words. He listened to the sound of the car engine driving away. It was an ugly sound. A modern intrusion into a place otherwise untouched by time.
The automobile sound faded, replaced by the howl of the wind and the roar of the nearby sea.
As always when he returned to the village of his birth, Chiun soaked in the history of his surroundings. Countless centuries ago, the sandals of the first Master of Sinanju had walked this very path. Chiun returned along that road. The same path he had walked as a young man when first he ventured out as Reigning Master.
Usually a return to Sinanju was cause for rejoicing. But this was not a happy homecoming. With a heavy heart he walked the path of his ancestors to the village proper.
The homes and shops were closed up tight. Windows were shuttered against the relentless wind. No one was about.
It was not the elements that kept the people inside. Chiun had sensed it even before he reached the village. Fear hung heavy in the cold air.
He walked through town unchallenged.
The House of Many Woods sat on a bluff beyond the far end of the main road. Buffeted by wind, Chiun climbed the hill and entered the house of his ancestors.
The treasure was where it belonged. To his sharp eye it was clear nothing had been disturbed.
That he had not been robbed was a small consolation. There were things larger than mere robbery. Greater even than if bandits had come in and whisked away all the centuries' worth of accumulated treasure.
He was coming out of a back room when he heard the sound of the front door opening.
An old woman waited for him in the main room. Her eyes were dark from lack of sleep. She was draped in the traditional white garments of mourning.
Chiun needed only to gaze upon Hyunsil, daughter of his caretaker, to see that Smith had been right. "So," the Master of Sinanju said quietly. "It is true."
Hyunsil nodded. "Yes, Master," she said, her voice heavy with sorrow. Though burdened, she tried to straighten herself. "Hail, Master of Sinanju, who sustains the village and keeps the code faithfully, leader of the House of Sinanju. Our hearts cry a thousand greetings of love and adoration. Joyous are we upon the return of him who graciously throttles the universe."
That in her sorrow she would remember the traditional greeting for a returning Master of Sinanju-the greeting her father had taught her-filled Chiun's heart with love.
"You honor me, child, to remember the words," he said, padding over to her. "Even more, you honor the memory of your father. But do not bother with formalities now."
"As you wish, Master," Hyunsil said, studying the dust on the floor with tired eyes.
Chiun sensed her spirit. "You blame the Master for your father's death," he announced, nodding sagely.
The old woman looked up with a start, shocked that her secret heart had become known. But then she realized to whom she was speaking.
"My father would be angry at me for thinking such a thing," Hyunsil said, hanging her head in shame. "He taught me to revere the Masters of Sinanju, whose labors have sustained our village for generations."
And the Master of Sinanju did take great pity on the old woman. Reaching out, Chiun took Hyunsil's chin in his slender fingers. He gently raised her eyes from the floor.
"Your father was a good man," Chiun said. "Not great, for that is another thing altogether, most often bestowed by shallow men who are easily impressed by flash and showmanship. In many ways it is more difficult to be good than great. Your good father taught you well. He was right to tell you that Sinanju survives by the labors of the Masters of Sinanju, the sworn protectors of our village." The old man offered a wise smile. "But in this matter, daughter of Sinanju, it is not wrong for you to blame the Master, for you are correct, as well. I have failed."
This time when she looked up, there was amazement in the old woman's bloodshot eyes.
"You are surprised that I would admit to failure," Chiun said. "I tell you now it is so, for if I had not failed in some way this terrible thing would not have happened."
And although he did not say it to the woman, his thoughts were of the reputation of the House of Sinanju. A reputation that had kept the village safe for generations.
Somewhere was someone who scorned that reputation. Who dared visit death to the Pearl of the Orient.
All this did Chiun think but did not say. He turned his attention to the crone who stood before him.
"I would see the body," intoned the Master of Sinanju.
THEY FOLLOWED the remote path from the main village.
Chiun knew at once where they were heading, for the road led to one place only.
"He was missing for many days," Hyunsil said as they walked. She struggled to keep strength in her voice. "At first a few of the other women from the village helped me look. But they gave up after a day. After that no one would help me search. They said he was an old fool who had probably stumbled into the bay and drowned. Someone saw blood on the shore that morning. But he did not drown." Her head hung low. "I was alone when I found him."
The hut of the dead shaman was at the end of the path.
Chiun knew well the family that had called the pathetic pile of stone and thatch home. The last shaman had died many years ago. His daughter, Sonmi, who had been the last of the family's pure bloodline, had vanished many months ago.
As he approached the crooked little path that led to the front door, the Master of Sinanju could not help but think of another who had once called the hut home.
The ghosts danced cold around his ankles. For this reason did Chiun approach the building with quiet care.
This was a place where few in the village dared venture. It was not a surprise that this was the last place Hyunsil had looked for her missing father. Halfway up the path, Hyunsil stopped.
"He is inside," the old woman said. Tears welled anew in eyes tired from weeping.
Chiun took her hands in his, patting them gently. He left the sobbing woman on the path.
It was cold in the hovel. Colder than outdoors. Ice formed on the insides of the stone walls.
The freezing temperature had preserved the body. With great sadness Chiun looked on the frozen corpse of his faithful caretaker.
Pullyang lay on his back in peaceful repose in the center of the dirt floor. As if arranged by a mortician. The daughter had said that he had been murdered. For the sake of delicacy Chiun hadn't asked the method of death, not wishing to further upset the woman. But upon initial examination he couldn't see anything obvious.
Perhaps the head. There was something not right with the way Pullyang's head sat in relation to his body.
Chiun circled the body.
He saw instantly. It had been obscured by Pullyang's clothing.
The head was no longer attached. It had been made to appear natural. The killer had tucked the head back up to the neck. A taunt. A grisly joke waiting to be discovered.
No tools or weapons of any kind had been used.
The initial blunt trauma to the bluish flesh of the neck indicated that the head had been removed by hand. The blow that had been used was unmistakable. Chiun quickly left the body, hurrying back out into the weak sunlight. Hyunsil was still on the walk, her back to the hut. She jumped when Chiun touched her elbow.
"Did you see anyone near here?" he asked sharply.
"No," she replied. "He was alone when I found him. "
Hyunsil could see the look of deep worry that had suddenly appeared on the face of the Master of Sinanju.
"Master," she asked, "is something wrong?" Chiun had been glancing around the area. As if looking for something to jump at them from the scrub brush.
When he spoke, the Master of Sinanju's voice was grave.
"Go back to your home, daughter of Sinanju," he intoned, adding darkly, "and barricade the door."
Remo's flight from Berlin dropped him in Madrid late in the morning. It was just over an hour's drive from the capital of Spain to his next meeting spot.
The Alcazar at Segovia was a massive castle that seemed to grow up out of solid rock. If it seemed postcard perfect, that was only when viewed from the comfortable side of civilization. The castle was largely gray and functional, built at a time when strong fortifications oftentimes meant the difference between life and death.
Remo parked his car far down the road from the castle. Ducking into the woods, he found the little clearing just where it was supposed to be. For generations groundskeepers at the Alcazar had no idea why they were ordered to keep this one lonely spot in the middle of nowhere neatly mowed.
Remo found the tallest tower of the castle. It rose up high in the air, casting shadows across the rock. He felt the watchful eyes of the deceased Masters of Sinanju following his every move. As usual, a vague sense of dissatisfaction emanated from the spirits of the Masters' Tribunal.
"You've all done this before," he grumbled. "You'd think one of you could rattle a chain in the right direction."
Careful to keep the tower over his right shoulder, he began walking away from the palace, counting as he went.
"...seventy-eight, seventy-nine, eighty."
He stopped at an angled wall of rock. It jutted from the ground far from the castle.
He looked back. The very top of the tall tower peeked at him over the nearby treetops.
Pushing aside the bushes that grew wild in front of the rock face, he found a cave entrance. Beyond the opening was a long tunnel. The scent of stale earth and old moss drifted from the tunnel's ancient mouth. "About damn time something went my way."
Whistling a happy tune, Remo ducked through the weeds and disappeared inside the ancient tunnel.
THE PRIME MINISTER of Spain was the first to hear the sound. He cocked an ear, listening intently.
It was difficult to isolate over the cooing of the birds. He strained hard, but the sound was gone. He had to have imagined it. Small wonder. The ancient room in the gloomy old castle had everything but a rack and a black-masked torturer wielding a cat-o'-nine-tails.
"What was it?" asked a nearby voice as the prime minister fussed, irritated, at his jacket cuffs.
"Nothing, Your Majesty. My ears playing tricks on me."
The king had arrived early that morning. He had been waiting on his throne for hours in the secret chamber of the Alcazar that was opened only once in a generation.
The king of Spain's throne was set back under a stone arch in order to avoid the sloppy white pigeon droppings that fell from the ceiling. The floor was thick with a paste of bird waste, fresh and drying intermingled.
When that room was opened to the first assassin from the East, there weren't pigeons. The first Master of Sinanju to stand in that room was the fifteenth-century Master, Lee-Piy, assassin of Pope Calixtus III. Near the hidden room was the very spot where Isabella's coronation as the queen of Castille had taken place. Secret tales of both assassin and queen had been passed down from one Spanish ruler to the next, all the way down to the modern constitutional monarchy.
The current king checked his watch as he settled back in the unfamiliar throne.
"They should be here soon."
The prime minister barely heard the king's words. He was listening to the walls once more.
The sound was back. Stronger this time. Much louder than the bird noises that came from the rafters. It seemed to be coming from everywhere and nowhere all at once.
This time when he glanced to the king it was clear that Spain's monarch had heard it, too. And though both men knew well the sound they heard, neither could understand why the walls of the Alcazar were whistling.
"What is that?" the king asked in wonder.
"I am not certain, Your Majesty," the prime minister replied worriedly. "But it sounds familiar." For a moment as the walls whistled, the prime minister's fearful mind conjured an image of a group of cherubic cartoon dwarfs marching with picks and spades to work. And then the whistling abruptly stopped and a man stepped out of the solid rock face. "Hi-ho, hi-ho," said Remo Williams.
The shocked prime minister thought he glimpsed a hidden passage. It closed up behind the stranger. "My God," the Spanish prime minister gasped.
"Nope, already got a job," Remo replied. "You the guy I'm supposed to meet?"
It took the prime minister a moment to get his bearings. "Oh, I see. You are Sinanju. But you are white."
"I try to make up for it by thinking impure thoughts." Remo looked around the chamber, his nose wrinkling at the mess on the floor.
The room was small and square. Massive wooden beams crossed far up the high ceiling. Pigeons fluttered near the filthy rafters. Small slits for windows allowed a little gray light to slip inside. The windows had been arranged to focus light on a single piece of furniture-the only piece in the room. Remo aimed a thumb at the throne.
"Who's that goomer?" he asked the prime minister.
The prime minister hurried to the throne. "This is his majesty, King Juan Carlos de Borbon y Borbon."
"No fooling?" Remo said, surprised. "I thought you guys fired your king to give the socialists free rein to wreck the country. Mission accomplished, by the way."
To Remo he didn't look like much of a king. He seemed like just any older gentleman in a business suit, plucked from the street and dropped on a throne. The king said not a word. He just sat there, waiting. Remo understood the monarch's silence.
Sighing quietly to himself, Remo approached the throne, picking his way through the mess of bird droppings.
He felt the eyes of Sinanju history watching his every move. He knew why. This was Sinanju's bread and butter. Schmoozing with monarchs kept the gold flowing back to the little village on the West Korean Bay. It was also the part of the job Remo hated more than any other.
Remo, latest in the unbroken line of Masters of Sinanju, offered the king of Spain a formal bow. "Sinanju bids most humble and undeserved greetings, Your Majesty," Remo recited reluctantly. "We stand before you as wretched and unworthy servants to your glorious crown."
He felt stupid reciting the words. He wouldn't have bothered if he knew the rules his ghosts were playing by. But if one of them blabbed in a seance that Remo hadn't offered the proper greeting to one of Europe's last surviving monarchs, Chiun would have his neck in a noose.
His words seemed to satisfy the king.
"Greetings, Master of Sinanju," the king replied in English. "You do us honor with this visit. We trust your journey was safe and bid you welcome to our shore."
For some reason Remo couldn't explain, the king's words warmed him. Maybe it was the connection to the past. A ritual greeting between monarch and assassin. Knowing that all the Masters of the modern age had said the same words during the same rite of passage. He was living history. It surrounded him on all sides. Hummed with life.
What with finding the secret passage right where it was supposed to be and seemingly making happy the ghosts of Sinanju past, Remo actually started to feel good.
The feeling was short-lived.
The prime minister cleared his throat. "I am afraid, Master of Sinanju, we have a problem."
The life hum stopped. Remo was back in a cold stone cell smeared with pigeon shit.
"Why?" Remo asked, eyes narrowing. "What's wrong?"
The prime minister looked to the king. The king looked to the pigeons flapping and crapping at the ceiling. The prime minister looked back at Remo.
"It has to do with our entrant in the contest," said the prime minister. He offered an oily, apologetic smile.
REMO STOPPED at a little restaurant a few miles down the road from the Alcazar.
When he asked if there was a pay phone, he was told it was out of order, which didn't surprise him. From what he had seen in this short trip, the last thing to work properly in Spain were three little wooden boats that had, in 1492, gotten the hell out of the country.
He peeled off ten hundred-dollar bills from the roll in his pocket and offered them to the owner for private use of the kitchen phone. As the owner was chasing the kitchen staff from the room, Remo was dialing the multiple 1 code that would connect him to Folcroft's secure line.
"Are you finished in Spain?" Smith asked without preamble.
"Everything's finished in Spain," Remo said. "I don't think they've started anything new since they figured out they can kill bulls with red blankets and shiny pants."
"Yes," Smith said dryly. "May I assume you are calling for the details of your next appointment?" For some reason the CURE director's voice sounded echoey.
"You know what they say about assuming, Smitty," Remo said, sitting up on the little desk that was tucked in the corner of the restaurant's kitchen. "I haven't finished this one yet."
"Did something go wrong?"
"Maybe. I'm not sure. I think there could be something screwy going on. You know how the German guy said auf Wiedersehen without a fight? Turns out the Spanish guy did the same thing."
There was a pause on the line. "Are you certain?" Smith asked after a thoughtful moment.
"Depends on how much stock you can put in the king of Spain's word. Seemed like an okay guy. Nice suit. By the way, did you know Spain still had a king?"
"Oh. Anyway, maybe I should just take it as an ego boost that this one took off, too, and jump over to the next square."
"I'm not so sure," Smith said. "While Chiun said that it was not unheard-of for a contestant to flee the contest, it was my impression that this was unusual in the extreme. Unfortunately, Mark has not been able to track down the German yet, so we cannot ask him if there is a connection. Do you have the name of the Spanish assassin?"
Fishing a scrap of paper from his pocket, Remo read Smith the name the Spanish prime minister had given him. Over the line he heard Smith's fingers drumming against his special keyboard as he entered the name in his computer. The sound had the same strange hollow quality as Smith's voice.
"Why do you sound so funny?" Remo asked.
"I have you on speakerphone," Smith explained. Remo knew that the CURE director had the device for some time but rarely used it, preferring the privacy of a clunky old phone pressed tight to his ear. If it was on now, that could only mean one thing.
"Tell Howard I said hi," Remo muttered.
Smith didn't hear. "There," he said, finishing his typing. "I will include him in our search. For now I suppose you can do nothing but move on to your next appointment. According to my list, Italy is next. You have a meeting with their president at midnight." Smith quickly gave him the details.
"Swell," Remo grumbled once the CURE director was finished. "I think I figured out the real reason Chiun's putting me through all this. He's hoping to wear me down so I wind up hating everybody like he does."
"This tradition dates back well beyond Master Chiun," Smith reminded him.
"Chiun comes from a long line of racists," Remo said. He cupped the phone to his chest. "No offense," he announced to the empty kitchen.
"I did have one question before you go," Smith was saying as Remo raised the phone back to his ear. "I have been going over your itinerary. Not that I approve of any of this, but there are countries that have been left out. For instance Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland are all skipped."
Remo laughed, shaking his head wearily.
"Chiun says we don't bother with Poland because their assassins kept effing up the rules and shooting themselves by mistake. I think he's just being racist and writing them off 'cause the zloty's worth spit. If you look at that list he gave you, he's skipped over pretty much all of the old Soviet countries. Mostly because the Franklin Mint's got more gold in their Wizard of Oz collector series plates than those countries have in their whole damn treasuries these days. We're great assassins, but we're even better money magnets. Spain is probably only still on because it had a pretty big empire four hundred years ago. It takes time to get knocked down a notch. Another couple of hundred and it'll probably be dropped, too." He slipped down off the desk. "There's a lesson for America in there," he warned quietly. "See you, Smitty." He dropped the heavy black phone in the cradle.
"DID YOU HEAR all that?" Smith asked. The first hint of worry creased his gray brow.
Mark Howard sat in a plain wooden chair across Smith's desk. The young man nodded.
"Do you think it's a coincidence both guys backed out?" the assistant CURE director asked.
Smith shook his head. "No, I do not." Even as he spoke, he was reaching in his desk drawer. Taking out a bottle of baby aspirin, he shook two pills into his palm. "This business should not even involve us," he said as he measured out some liquid antacid into the tiny cup that came with the green bottle. Throwing back the aspirins, he washed them down with the chalky liquid.
Across the desk Mark hoped he wasn't getting a glimpse of his own future.
"I tried calling him a few more times," Howard offered. "The line's still not busy, but he isn't answering."
Smith knew exactly whom his assistant meant. The CURE director took off his glasses, rubbing tired eyes.
"Do you have a sense that there is something larger going on?" he asked.
It made him uncomfortable to ask the question. His assistant had an unusual ability that sometimes allowed him to see beyond that which was known. Howard's sixth sense was something neither man liked to discuss.
"No," Mark admitted. "But given what Remo just told us, I guess we have enough of a pattern." Smith nodded his understanding.
"Most likely," he agreed wearily. "But we need to know for certain. Our obligations in this were made clear enough early on. I will have to go check. You will be in charge here while I am gone. You may use my office if you wish."
Replacing his rimless glasses, he began reaching for his keyboard to order plane tickets.
"Wait," Mark said, standing. "I should be the one to go, Dr. Smith. I'm expendable. You're too important to CURE to still be doing fieldwork."
He left off the phrase that both men knew was implied: At your age.
The older man knew that it was true. His last fieldwork had been a year ago in South America. Smith might have sent his assistant then, but at that time Mark Howard could not go due to a psychological condition that-at the time-none of them understood. While Smith was gone, his young assistant had inadvertently freed the Dutchman, Jeremiah Purcell, from captivity in Folcroft's security corridor. Once Purcell was gone, the psychic connection he had made with Mark Howard was broken. Howard had returned to normal.
It was one year later now and Mark was fine. A thirty-year-old man in the peak of health.
One year later. Smith, now one year older. The CURE director considered briefly.
"Very well," Smith said all at once. "You may go. I will take over for you here. I'll look into the matter of the two missing assassins Remo told us about and continue to confer with him on the phone. I'll reserve the tickets under your cover identity. Please remember to leave all of your true identification here."
"Yes, sir," Howard said, a flush rising in his cheeks.
"That includes, Mark, anything that might connect you to Folcroft," Smith warned. "I had an...associate who made that mistake years ago."
A flash of confusion crossed Mark Howard's face. He hadn't known of anyone else who had been a regular CURE employee connected to Folcroft. He could see by the strange look on his employer's face that he should not ask.
"I'll call with any news," Mark promised. The young man left the room.
Alone once more, Smith turned to the picture window and Long Island Sound. Lazy eyes tracked a bird in flight, pushed higher, ever higher, on rough gusts of frigid wind.
Smith's thoughts turned to his old associate. Strange. Even all these years later, even in his own mind, he could not bring himself to use the word friend.
The man was dead. Were he still alive, he would have been the first to announce to the world that he and Smith were friends, if only to see how uncomfortable it made Harold W. Smith.
Harold Smith and Conrad MacCleary had a friendship baptized in blood. It was impossible for two men who had been through as much as they had together to not form a bond.
Mark Howard had not even been born when Smith and Conrad MacCleary fought together in World War II in the OSS. Nor had Howard been alive when the two old friends joined the peacetime CIA or even when the two old cold warriors had stepped even farther into the murky shadows of the espionage world to found a new secret organization called CURE.
Howard was everything MacCleary was not-polite, tidy, efficient-sober, in every meaning of the word. Yet in a strange way Smith felt the same sort of connection to this young man, more than forty years his junior, as he had to his long-dead comrade in arms.
It didn't hurt that Mark had saved Smith's life the previous winter. If Smith had needed final proof of the young man's suitability to this job, that was it.
Yet there was more to his relationship with Howard than there had been with MacCleary. Conrad MacCleary was a born espionage agent. Mark Howard was still learning many of the things that had come easily for MacCleary. It was Smith's job to shepherd the young man. MacCleary-a contemporary of Harold Smith-hadn't needed that sort of guidance.
No, the bond between Mark Howard and Harold Smith was similar to that between Smith and MacCleary, yet different.
Years ago some of the uglier duties of the job weren't so easy for Smith. Oh, he did them, always and without complaint, because it was work that had to be done. But it was still difficult to subvert his natural inclinations to the greater good. In the past two years Smith had seen Mark Howard struggle with some of the same demons.
Smith saw shades of himself in his young assistant. And in so seeing, he easily assumed the role of mentor.
Harold Smith studied the dark, churning waves. "Be careful, Mark," he warned the water.
And in his heart he hoped the softly spoken words would carry far into the future, to a time when someone else of good character, strong will and undying patriotism sat in this, the loneliest of chairs.
Special Agent John Doyle of the FBI's Miami field office wanted to know just exactly what kind of terrorists they were dealing with.
"Al-Qaida, Cubans, Palace Indians, what?" Doyle whispered to his partner. "I mean, it's terrorists, right?"
"Beats me," Allen Horsman replied gruffly. "They just pay me to get my ass shot at by the bad guys. They don't bother to tell me the who or why."
That was typical for Agent Allen Horsman. Running down murderers, drug runners and terrorists was all the same.
But Agent Doyle was curious. This business with apartment 1602 certainly did not constitute a normal FBI day. Given the presence of the mysterious man from Washington, Doyle was certain they were after terrorists.
Their superior from Washington was even younger than Doyle. Pale and of average height, with a wide face that was red from either excitement or anxiety. Probably both.
Weird that Doyle could be older than this temporary boss. Some at the Bureau-including his own partner-still considered Doyle an infant. Whoever the man was, he had clearance higher than anything Doyle or Horsman or anyone else at Miami FBI had ever seen. When they called Washington to confirm their orders, they were told to give the man everything he asked for. They were also told that the phone conversation had never taken place.
"Terrorists," Doyle stated firmly as the bombsquad men continued to saw through the wall. "Has to be."
Like the FBI, the bomb squad had been brought to Boca Raton from Miami. The men were using a short blade to cut by hand. As they worked they swept the wall electronically.
They moved with painstaking precision. On blue display screens that looked like the one on which Doyle had first seen sonogram images of his infant son, the FBI man saw the interior of the wall. The images passed slowly over oversize screws and splinters in the uneven surfaces of two-by-fours.
Agent Doyle knew it was terrorists the moment the man from Washington told him they couldn't use the door or windows. He had warned them about the roof.
The bomb squad had started there. And were horrified by what they found. The apartment next to 1602 was quickly and quietly evacuated so the ordnance folks could get to work.
The rest of the building hadn't been warned. A mass exodus might tip off someone with a remote detonator. The whole block could go up.
"Terrorists," Agent Doyle mumbled as the bombsquad men finished their sawing.
The section of wall was pulled carefully out. The men held their collective breath, knowing there could be any manner of trip wire or triggering device inside. Nothing happened. The men exhaled relief.
Once the wallboard was free and leaning safely against a coffee table, the bomb-squad captain ducked his head inside the hole, shining a yellow flashlight beam all around the interior of the wall and into the adjacent apartment.
"Immediate area looks clear," he grunted.
Agents Doyle and Horsman drew their side arms. Standing at the ready, they waved on the bomb squad. In body armor and with face shields down, a handful of men slipped inside.
There was silence for a long minute. The only sounds to come from the next apartment were soft murmurs. From somewhere down the hall, the drone of a television filtered to Agent Doyle's anxious ears. A sudden hoarse voice carried through the hole. "Sweet Jesus."
An instant later the bomb-squad captain stuck his head back into the room. He was white as a sheet. "Tell your buddy from D.C. to grab a cup of coffee," he warned, voice low. "This is gonna take a while."
FIVE HOURS LATER Mark Howard stepped carefully through the hole into the living room of Benson Dilkes's apartment.
Howard had ordered the police and FBI out of the apartment. The assistant CURE director was alone. As he walked past the sofa he could hear footfalls on the roof. Men in boots were still tiptoeing around with wire cutters, looking for anything they might have missed. The ceiling creaked.
The walls of the apartment were gutted. Wires that had been carefully threaded up inside the wallboard had been harvested and left on the floor.
The walls had been packed with explosives. Vans built to carry bombs had been hauling material away from the apartment building's kitchen loading dock for hours.
The Miami bomb-squad captain had insisted to Mark that he had never seen anything like it.
"The whole place was wired," the man had said, still pumped from adrenaline and fear. "The whole goddamn place. I mean, holy shit. I've never seen a place wired like this. If you hadn't warned us, we would have gone in through the door. It would have taken half the building down with it. How did you know?"
Mark hadn't answered. He simply thanked the man and left him to sift through his wires and switches. The truth was, Mark didn't know how he knew. He just did.
After arriving in Miami, Mark had driven to the King Apartments in Boca Raton. In the lobby he got on board the elevator and rode straight up to the sixteenth floor.
At least he thought he did.
He realized that he'd pressed the wrong button only when the doors opened on the seventeenth floor. Before he could press the 16 button and ride back down to the right floor, something clicked in his brain.
He wasn't quite sure why, but he got off the elevator and walked to the window at the end of the hall. It offered a good view of the city. High enough up that Mark could see the ocean.
The building narrowed one floor below. From his vantage, Mark could see out over a flat roof.
That was how he noticed the gleaming silver wire that shouldn't have been there.
That was why he looked for-and found-other wires, carefully threaded all around the pebbled roof. Which was why he called Dr. Smith, which was why the FBI was summoned, which was why Mark Howard wasn't scattered in tiny little bits around the smoking crater that had once been the King Apartments, reasonable rates, lovely view, within driving distance to beaches and most nightspots.
The shambles of the living room fed into a narrow hallway. Only half the wall was torn down here. The mess of shattered wood and particleboard extended into the large bathroom on the right. To the left were two bedrooms. Both rooms remained largely intact.
The first room appeared to be used mostly for storage. There were old suitcases and Army Surplus trunks stacked in tidy piles. There was also an arsenal.
Weapons of every kind neatly lined the walls. Machine guns to flamethrowers, guns large and small. Rifles in and out of cases. Boxes and boxes of ammunition.
Along one wall was a long table spread thick with bomb-making equipment. The police and FBI had already picked through everything, defusing whatever they could and carting away the rest.
Some mail from a local P.O. box had been left at the end of the table. It was addressed to a Mr. Mandell. Mark knew that was just a Dilkes alias.
When he saw the mail, Mark felt his heart rate quicken.
Glancing back to make certain he was alone, he thumbed rapidly through the mail.
He found what he was looking for at the bottom.
With great relief he slipped the envelope into his pocket.
Patting his pocket, Mark went back out into the hall.
The next room down looked like a normal bedroom. With one exception.
"Holy cow," Mark mused as he looked at the row of colored maps. They had been set up on easels and lined up on the far side of the bed near the shuttered windows.
The maps were turning brown from age. The countries had been painted in different primary colors, but the colors had begun to fade. Some of the corkboard at the corners was rotting.
There were tiny red thumbtacks all over the floor. It looked as if someone had come through and swiped them from where they had been stuck into the maps. Mark stepped through the tacks.
He blew a soft whistle as he tracked the maps from left to right. They started with North America. The second easel skipped to Western Europe. As he walked, he passed his fingertips along the rough surface of the corkboard, feeling the slight indentations where once had been pins.
Sometimes he could get a sense of something just by touching it. But as he felt his way around the world, Mark felt nothing but crumbling old corkboard.
There was something there. As usual, something impossible to define. A frustrating sense of not knowing.
He passed through Central Europe to Asia. When he got to the Korean peninsula, he stopped dead.
"Uh-oh," Mark said to himself.
The last easel was tilted slightly. He hadn't seen the two red pins buried deep on the West Korean Bay. But that shouldn't surprise him, should it? He knew the reputation of the man who owned these maps. Knew what he had been hired to do. And yet Benson Dilkes had disappeared. There was no trace of the assassin, not under his own name, nor under any of his known aliases.
Maybe he was off plying his trade. Maybe this was just how he conducted his business. Get the job and go undercover until the job was completed.
But for Mark Howard, there was the Feeling. Before he knew what he was doing, Mark was stretching out a hand to one of the red pins.
He felt it at once. A strange sense of cold dread as he reached for the pin. Stronger than the usual sense he got.
For an instant he felt strangely light-headed. The room seemed to take on a sickly glow.
Mark took a step back, blinking.
It was just a pin sticking into a rotting old map. An inanimate object. Alone in a killer's apartment that, until a few hours before, had been one big bomb, Mark Howard felt foolish letting himself be rattled by something as trivial as a little plastic tack.
He reached up and pulled it out. And instantly regretted doing so.
The color flew at him. It was as if he were suddenly standing on train tracks, the train barreling down on him. Whistle blowing, light growing bigger, bigger. No way to move. Paralyzed to inaction. Knowing there was no way to avoid it, knowing he was going to be struck.
There was a shock, as if touching the pin had sent a jolt of electricity coursing through his body.
The color came in a flash. Bright, brilliant purple. Then the images.
Flashes of nightmares.
An owl taking flight. A twisted winter tree. A man lying in a hospital bed. The same man standing on an outcropping above a bloodred bay, blond hair spilling down around his shoulders like a Norse god.
The nightmare turning real.
Mark saw the same man now. In the corner of Benson Dilkes's Boca Raton bedroom. Hovering in the shadows. A demented glint in his electric-blue eyes.
The eyes flashed. The shock of blue that flew from them seemed to envelop the room. But Mark knew that the color he was seeing was only in his mind. And then the flash of blue was overtaken by a wall of impenetrable darkness.
Mark reeled, stumbling against the map of the Far East.
He knew. Mark Howard knew.
The maps tumbled into one another, falling over one by one like colored dominoes.
Remo and Chiun. The danger. It was his fault. They didn't know. He had to warn them.
But it was too much.
Even as he tried to fight it, Mark Howard surrendered to the blackness. As the maps fell, so did he. When he struck the floor, a few of the dropped tacks bit the soft flesh of hands and face. By then Mark didn't even feel the pain.
Air hissing from his lips, his eyes fluttered shut. The pin that represented one of the two true living Masters of Sinanju dropped from his opening fingertips. It rolled under the bed.
There had always been the fear.
Even in life, even when he thought he was not afraid.
Even before he died.
Most would think he was still alive. An easy enough mistake to make. After all, he moved, breathed, ate. He seemed to do those things that living humans did. But those who thought that were wrong. A man was only a man who had a soul. His soul was dead.
It hadn't gone all at once, as it did for most living things. His soul had died in little pieces, bit by tiny bit. A thousand cuts, a million invisible drops of blood. It had taken years for his soul to pass into that final night. By the end, the last, lingering fragments had become a nuisance. Something to be extinguished. A disease. When it was gone completely he didn't miss it.
Back in the days when he had a soul, his name had been Jeremiah Purcell. But that was back when he could say that he was truly alive and not just a walking corpse.
He was an orphan, although it had not always been so. The early part of life-before this walking death-he had been raised on a farm in rural Kentucky.
For those first few years Jeremiah was a boy almost like any other. Until the day he killed his parents. It wasn't his fault. In his mind he had seen them die horribly. He thought they were on fire. Then it happened. When the daydream of his undisciplined mind became reality and his parents ran screaming, trying to put out the flames, young Jeremiah Purcell's soul began to shrink.
He was eight years old.
In his mind he dreamed they had died and somehow his mind had made that dream real. Impossible. He could not have killed his parents. The real world didn't work like that. Even a boy his age knew that. Things did not happen just because of an idle thought.
Even though he knew he had made it happen, there was a part of Jeremiah that stubbornly refused to believe. Through the sheriff's investigation, to the double funeral where he did not shed a tear, to the train platform where he was passed off to a social worker who would take him to a state home in Dover City, Jeremiah tried to tell himself that he hadn't done anything.
But on the train, it happened again. As he dozed in his seat, his mind misbehaved. Bent reality for all to see. He woke up to a mass hallucination of a snowstorm inside the train car. And when he woke, it stopped.
There had been chaos on that train. The astonished adults looked everywhere for the source of the snow. Everywhere but at the young boy who had made it happen. There was only one man who was looking at Jeremiah. And the way he stared, Jeremiah knew that the man in the blue business suit with the funny eyes understood the truth.
The child whose soul had not yet died had met the man who would begin to methodically murder it. The man had taken Jeremiah from the train. To the life that had been waiting for him all along. To a life of death.
Back on the farm Jeremiah had known fear. His father was a brute of a man who mistreated him. His life at home, in town, at school was filled with a hundred daily fears.
After he had murdered his parents there was new fear. The fear of being caught. Of others finding out about his special abilities. Of a new life in a state-run orphanage.
But until that chance meeting on a train, Jeremiah had not known true fear.
The man, he learned, was named Nuihc, although Jeremiah was never to call him by that name. He would be called Master. For Jeremiah it was not a term of respect, but a term of enslavement. And although his Master taught Jeremiah new levels of fear he hadn't known existed, he taught the young boy from Kentucky much, much more.
Nuihc was from a place called Korea. Jeremiah had vaguely heard of it. He was pretty certain his dead father had been in a war there at one time.
Nuihc's full title was Master of Sinanju. For the moment, he was but a Master, a practitioner of the deadliest martial art. He would one day soon be the Master of Sinanju, he vowed. This would happen once a minor obstacle could be removed from his path.
At first, as a boy from rural Kentucky, Jeremiah couldn't understand what a Sinanju was. He soon learned.
The training began three days after Nuihc liberated Jeremiah from the train.
It started with the breath.
"Life is breathing," Nuihc had explained. "Men do not breathe. They puff on what little air they need to keep their torpid bodies trudging forward. They breathe with their lungs, and even then only with part of them. You will breathe here."
With sharp fingers he pressed a spot in the pit of Jeremiah's stomach. The fingers hurt. This was something that Jeremiah would grow accustomed to. His new Master did not mind causing him pain.
At first finding the breath was hard.
Coaxing, holding the boy's belly and breathing in rhythm with Jeremiah, Nuihc taught the boy to breathe. Once he found it, Jeremiah caught on quickly.
He remembered the day. They were in an old, abandoned meat-packing plant in Illinois. When that first breath came to him-the first real breath in his entire life-Jeremiah had promptly vomited onto the floor.
"What's that smell, Master?" he asked, gagging on the rancid air he now breathed which had, until a moment before, seemed blessedly clean.
He would never know that his senses had been opened and he was smelling the stench of the cow blood and viscera that had soaked into the slaughterhouse floor for a hundred years.
The instant Jeremiah asked the question he felt the sting of Nuihc's hand across his face. It was pain that rattled his teeth and made his eyes water. The slap raised a red welt that would not heal for three weeks. Nuihc's face was a furious sneer.
"When I instruct, you listen," the Master said. Jeremiah listened.
He listened through those early years and into his preteens. All the while learning to control his body, to do things he had never imagined were possible. But whatever he did never seemed to be enough for his Master.
"You are a pitiful excuse for a pupil," Nuihc said one day after his eleven-year-old pupil had attempted a task eight times but only performed flawlessly seven of those eight times. "You are so obtuse you have no idea the great gift I am giving you. I should find another to train."
"Please, no, Master. I'll do better."
"You will," Nuihc had insisted. "Or I will kill you."
Jeremiah had no doubt that his teacher was telling the truth. The young man struggled to improve. The first years were difficult. But Jeremiah learned. Never, of course to the level of Nuihc's expectations. That didn't surprise Jeremiah. Thanks to Nuihc's constant intimidation, Jeremiah now fully understood how truly worthless he was. All the abuse, all the scorn that Nuihc heaped daily on his pupil's young shoulders was deserved. Jeremiah was no good as a man or as a pupil. He showed disrespect every time he didn't perform flawlessly.
This was the thing that injured Jeremiah most of all. More than anything, he wanted to show his teacher how much he meant to him. He thought that if he could do one thing right, match even a single move, he might demonstrate to Nuihc what was in his heart. The great love he felt for the man who had saved him from a life as a freak.
The training of his body was a welcome diversion from the growing powers of his mind. The beast that lurked in his brain was a monster that was impossible to tame. But it could be distracted if he concentrated on something else.
Jeremiah trained hard. Sometimes Nuihc would go away on business. At those times Jeremiah could have relaxed his regimen just a little. Fearing that the beast might get loose, the young man trained even more. He hoped that his diligence would not go by unnoticed.
Always when Nuihc returned he failed to notice the improvements his pupil had made on his own. Jeremiah realized it was his own fault for not trying harder. Quietly he would vow to work harder the next time.
When he was twelve years old Jeremiah killed a man.
Nuihc told his pupil that this was an honor. Masters of Sinanju of the recent age had begun to put this aspect of training off until their students were more fully developed. Nuihc's own Master and teacher-who, Jeremiah learned, was Nuihc's uncle-had not allowed his protege to know the thrill of the kill until he was well into his twenties.
What the boy did not know was the psychological reason this important aspect of training was now delayed. The physical could be taught at an early age, but only an older mind could be fully prepared to understand why the work of assassination had to be done. But it was a different kind of psychological conditioning Nuihc was after.
Jeremiah's first victim was a bum off the streets of Chicago. A gibbering indigent whom no one would miss. When Nuihc dragged the terrified man before Jeremiah, the Asian did everything but wrap him in a presentation gift bow.
Jeremiah didn't want to do it. In training he had shattered wood and stone with his hands and feet. But a living target was something altogether different.
The vagrant's hands were tied together and hung on a big rusted hook suspended from the ceiling. He wept in fear. Jerenuah Purcell wept, too.
"You weak infant," Nuihc spit as the boy shook and the old drunk blubbered. "You will do this thing or I swear I will tear your limbs from your worthless carcass."
Nuihc had taunted and threatened until Jeremiah could take it no more. Squeezing back the tears, he launched a pulverizing foot into the hanging man.
It wasn't a death blow. Jeremiah had gone for the hurt, not the kill. In his mind he still hoped that there would be some way to spare the pathetic bum's life.
The bone was more brittle than he had expected. The man's hip shattered like a dropped teacup. And then he howled.
An awful, nightmarish cry of animal pain the likes of which Jeremiah Purcell had never before heard.
"You did not kill it," Nuihc complained, unmindful of the feral cries of the pathetic man.
The vagrant twisted in agony, one leg hanging loose.
"Finish the task," Nuihc ordered.
Jeremiah didn't know what to do. He was shaking so badly by now that when he tried to deliver a killing blow of mercy into the chest, he only succeeded in shattering the man's sternum. There was another cry of pain. The bum's head slumped over his frail chest. Blood mixed with water streamed from his mouth. But he continued to breathe.
Jeremiah couldn't take the moaning. Still shaking, he pressed his hands to his ears trying to blot out the sound.
With a spark of fury, Nuihc grabbed the boy by the shoulders. He sent a hard palm across Jeremiah's face.
"Finish the task, dog!" he snapped.
There would be no argument. There never was with his teacher. This time when Jeremiah tried, the mercy was not for the old man but for himself. Steadying himself, he sent his palm into the old man's chest.
All he wanted to do was stop the bum's whimpering and protect himself from Nuihc's wrath. He had intended to send the already shattered bones into the man's vital organs. But his will was greater than he knew.
His hand went straight through the chest. He felt the warmth of the man's insides. Held the struggling heart in the palm of his hand. Felt the muscle contract once.
Then it stopped.
The man grew still in death.
Jeremiah was horrified. His blood-soaked hand made a horrid sucking sound as he pulled it free. When he looked to his teacher, he saw for the first time a new look on Nuihc's face. There was a glint of savage satisfaction in the Korean's hazel eyes. And Jeremiah understood. Only in delivering death could he hope to satisfy this man who meant so much to him.
The next death was easier. The next easier still. Each death caused another little piece of Jeremiah's soul to die. But that didn't matter. Murder was the only way he seemed able to touch his Master's cold heart.
The boy who was slowly growing into a man thought that he could feel the bond growing between himself and his teacher. He was wrong.
Jeremiah had called Nuihc "father" once. It was a slip of the tongue, spoken in haste. When he realized what he'd said, Jeremiah was relieved. It was a word that he had longed to speak to this man who had given so much to him. After he spoke it, he looked up at Nuihc with hope.
Nuihc had slapped him across the face. It was the last time Jeremiah ever spoke the word to him. But in his heart Nuihc was the only real father he had ever known.
For a little while Jeremiah was sent to a boarding school in Europe. Out of sight of his teacher for too long, the beast of his mind got loose. There was an incident with a member of the faculty. She didn't die, but his secret was out. Jeremiah the freak, Jeremiah the monster was locked in a room with special doctors. Nuihc rescued him yet again.
After that Nuihc kept the boy on a short leash. They traveled the world. When Jeremiah was thirteen, Nuihc had found steady work in New York. The Korean was playing a balancing act between two rival organized crime figures, getting payment from both sides while working for only one. By this point in his life-five years after his first chance meeting with his Master-Jeremiah Purcell's soul was nearly dead. Over time as the years peeled away, Jeremiah grew colder, more distant. The boy became an automaton. He trained in New York for almost a year. He killed Mafia men and government agents. It didn't matter. He didn't care. The only thing that mattered to him was the approval of the man who would not allow Jeremiah to call him father.
It was while they were staying in New York that something strange happened. At the time Jeremiah didn't quite know what it was. Only that it was frightening.
Nuihc had gone to Washington on business. When he came back, there was fear in his eyes.
It was a subtle thing. But Jeremiah was trained to watch for small things. He could see the fear just below the surface. In Nuihc's facial muscles, at his mouth. It was the same as the fear Jeremiah lived with daily.
In the five years that Jeremiah had known him, Nuihc was always in control. But when he returned from Washington, that control seemed on the verge of shattering.
For hours Nuihc paced the living room of the apartment they were sharing. He didn't say a word to the boy. Jeremiah stayed in a corner, quietly performing his exercises. All at once something in the Master snapped.
"He is here!" Nuihc snarled, suddenly enraged. A rage made all the more terrifying because it was sparked by his own fear. "Here! Now! He will not die! That decrepit old fool has emerged from his cave to vex me yet again!"
The Korean seemed about to lose control. Someone had scared him in Washington. For the teenaged killer it was a frightening thing to even contemplate anything that could scare the teacher he worshiped.
"Who is here, Master?" Jeremiah asked. "What's wrong?"
Nuihc's words hadn't been directed at Jeremiah. He wheeled at the timid voice.
The Korean was an animal. Terrified and cornered, ready to lash out at anything. For an instant it seemed he would take out his impotent frustration on the alarmed young boy.
But by supreme effort, Nuihc managed not to kill the instrument he had trained. He vented his anger on their apartment, smashing feet through floorboards and launching sofas through walls. When he was done, he turned to the boy.
"We are leaving," Nuihc announced. They fled America.
Nuihc brought Jeremiah to a safe place. A castle on the Caribbean island of St. Martin.
There was a legend of a Dutch trader who had built the castle centuries before. When the natives saw the blond-haired, blue-eyed boy who had come to live among them, they assumed the spirit of the long-dead merchant had returned to reclaim his home. They called Jeremiah the Dutchman.
It was at this island hideaway that Jeremiah Purcell completed his training.
Nuihc went away from time to time. Sometimes his business kept him away from the island for months. One time when he left he never came back.
Word came that his Master was dead.
Older now, Jeremiah knew that there were only two men on Earth who could have killed the Fallen Master of Sinanju.
After that, the Dutchman's path was clear. He took up the yoke of his dead Master and set out to complete the task his teacher had failed to finish. The death of the Reigning Master of Sinanju and his American pupil.
As was preordained, he met the men in combat. The Dutchman assumed the powers of his mind would give him an edge in any conflict. But every time he met those two, he failed. There was a special bond between them. The ties of family. Of father and son. Their strength came from their love for each other and their deep respect for the traditions of their art.
After their last encounter, they sealed the Dutchman away in the worst prison imaginable. The prison of his own mind. Heavily sedated for ten years in a mental facility in New York, Jeremiah Purcell only managed to escape thanks to a special mind that came into his sphere of influence.
The Dutchman had never encountered a mind quite like it. It was powerful in a way he hadn't understood. Different from his own. Thankfully, it did not yet understand its own power. That was a weakness that could be exploited.
In slumber the Dutchmen forced his will upon this untrained mind. And he succeeded. It sapped nearly all of his remaining strength to do so, but he escaped. After that, the Dutchman went into hiding.
There were places he could go. Safe havens where the world would not find him. At first the old Caribbean castle was out of the question. His enemies had found him there twice in the past. After his escape, that would be the first place they would look for him.
The Dutchman spent months regaining his strength. Only when he could once more move with stealth did he sneak back to the old island hideaway that had been his secret refuge so many years before.
It was safe. It had been so long since his escape that his enemies would no longer be looking.
He found the castle in ruins. As his plane flew low over the place that had been his home for almost a decade, he saw that the old walls were collapsing onto Devil's Mountain, the ugly chunk of black rock on which the castle had been built. After landing, he was careful to avoid the natives. He didn't want word of his return to get back to the wrong sets of ears.
As he approached Devil's Mountain through the jungle, he could see high above that some of the structure on the fortified side of the castle remained more or less intact.
There was one room where a great deal of his training had taken place. For some reason he felt drawn to this place. It seemed to call to him over the squawks of the fluttering birds overhead.
The Dutchman had climbed the mountain, picking through the overgrown garden and up to the terrace. Much time had been spent on that balcony as a youth. The surrounding jungle had long begun to reclaim the wide terrace.
The French doors that led into the training room were shattered. Old scattered glass had been rubbed smooth from years of tropical downpours. As the Dutchman stepped across the glass, not one piece made a noise under his feet.
He pushed through the doors and silently entered the castle ruins.
The smell inside was rank. The old furniture had gone to rot. Rats and other small animals had made their home inside. Thanks to the curse that hovered over Devil's Mountain, the locals hadn't looted the old furnishings.
The Dutchman walked amid the shadows and the memories.
There was a big stone fireplace on one wall. A set of rusted metal chains hung before it.
At the fireplace the Dutchman stopped. He curled one hand through the thick manacles at the end of a chain. With vacant eyes he stared into the dead fireplace, blackened inside from ancient blazes.
He stared at the past. At the life he had lived. Of the life that had been denied him.
The thick metal in his hand creaked. His life as a freak.
The chain twisted.
He had been saved from that life.
The manacle elongated, exposing shiny, curled silver.
His Master had made him something more than a freak, more than an outcast.
The chain snapped. The links broke, pop-pop-pop. They fell, scattering, around the hearth.
The Dutchman didn't notice. The single ring of the manacle clasped tight in his hand, he fell to his knees. He didn't know how long he wept. It seemed like hours. The metal in his hand was warm and melted into the shape of his gripping palm as he climbed to his feet.
Only when he stood did he finally notice the dark figure that waited in the shadows near the cold fireplace.
"Who's there?" the Dutchman demanded. His tears had dried instantly. He was ready to pounce: He needed a fresh kill. Something to distract him from the horror of life.
"You are as pitiful as ever," said the figure. The voice was thin and reedy.
That voice. The Dutchman took a step back.
It couldn't be. He opened his hand. The warm manacle slipped from his fingers, clanking to the floor. "Who are you?" he asked. His throat was hoarse, scarcely able to ask the question.
"Miserable wretch. Have your skills so deteriorated that you cannot see who it is that stands before you?"
The figure glided into the light.
And when the man stepped out to where he could fully see him, Jeremiah Purcell's pale skin blanched. The Dutchman couldn't believe his eyes. His mouth opened and closed with incredulity. When words finally came to him, he spoke in a choked gasp. "Master?" he managed.
And when the dead Master Nuihc spoke, it was as if he was speaking from within the Dutchman's mind. "I have returned," the Fallen Master intoned on that wonderful, terrible day. "The world has turned to the Hour of Darkness. The age has come. At last has it come. And the very ground where the chosen one walks will bleed."
And in that moment for Jeremiah Purcell, the terrifying Dutchman who had quailed hearts around the world, the fear of long-dead childhood was born anew.
"DO YOU FEEL fear now?" Nuihc asked his pupil. All around, the hum of the jet engines shook the plane with soft vibrations.
The Dutchman liked when his teacher spoke with him. Most of the time these days Nuihc was busy talking to others.
Nuihc spoke with Benson Dilkes. Explained to the killer what needed to be done. Outlined his plan to exterminate his two great rivals and lay claim to the House of Sinanju. But he rarely found time for his protege, the worthless boy who had grown into a halfmad failure.
"No, Master," the Dutchman replied.
"Lying wretch," Nuihc growled. "First you insult me with your incompetence. Now you attempt to lie to me. Your weaknesses are obvious. You have lived every day of your pathetic life in fear. Do you not know that I know your thoughts before they are formed? I live because of you. It is your failure that has brought me back."
The Dutchman felt the blood color his cheeks. He hung his head in shame. "I'm sorry, Master," he said.
"You are worse than sorry," Nuihc insisted. "You are a contemptible insect."
He might have said more, but a shadow fell across the empty seat.
"Excuse me, is everything all right?" a questioning voice politely interrupted.
Purcell looked up. The stewardess stood in the narrow aisle of the plane, a curious expression on her pretty face.
"Everything is fine," the Dutchman said hastily. He spoke in Korean. All of the flight attendants on this South Korean plane were Korean. Her smile broadened at his easy use of her native language.
"I heard you talking," she said in the same language, warming to the attractive American with the long, blond hair. "I thought you might be having a bad dream."
The Dutchman almost laughed. Every day of his life had been a waking nightmare. He didn't dare show any emotion. Not with his Master staring disapproval at him.
"I was talking to my fath-to my companion," Purcell said. He pointed toward the window seat. When the woman looked past the thin young man sitting on the aisle, her eyes opened in surprise. The woman didn't know how she could have missed the Korean gentleman. He lounged in the seat near the window. He didn't speak, didn't acknowledge her. There was an empty seat between the two men.
"Oh, I am sorry, sir," she apologized. "I did not see you there."
For some reason the Korean gentleman made her uneasy. It was as if he was there but not there. To look at him was like looking at a ghost. Her discomfort was apparent as she stepped away. Apologizing once more, she hurried up the aisle, leaving the two men to their private conversation.
The Dutchman was used to her reaction. He had been seeing it ever since the castle on St. Martin. Ever since fate had reunited him with his Master.
The Dutchman glanced at Nuihc. He was a waking dream. Face cast in perpetual disapproval. The image of his dark Master was the same as the one that he had seen in his mind for so many years.
Yes, the Dutchman had lied. He did feel fear. And yet with the rebirth of his teacher also came a welcome relief. He had been forced into the position of leadership after the death of his mentor.
But Nuihc was alive again. By some miracle, he was alive. The Dutchman could sink easily back into the role of subservient wretch. He deserved no more.
The pilot's voice came on the speakers to announce that the plane would soon begin its descent over South Korea.
The Dutchman settled back in his seat.
Nuihc was back. Nuihc would lead him to ultimate victory. It was time for history's end. Time for death.
And in this time will be reborn one of the dead, but beyond death; of the Void and not of the Void; of Sinanju, yet not of Sinanju. And he will summon the Armies of Death and the war they wage will be the War of Sinanju, the outcome of which will decide forever the fate of the line of the Great Master Wang and all who have followed him.
-Book of Sinanju, Wang Prophesies, Volume 1
Chiun gathered the people of Sinanju in the main square.
From the frightened villagers, the Master of Sinanju heard the events of the night before his faithful caretaker had disappeared. He heard about the wails that haunted the night and put many a terrified man off sleep for days. Those who heard it agreed that the otherworldly noise sounded almost like a woman in the pain of childbirth. But it was not a natural sound. It was the sound of demon birth.
When he asked which direction it came from, they all said everywhere and nowhere. Some pointed to the bay.
As he had done with his dead caretaker's daughter, the Master of Sinanju instructed the people to go to their homes. Once they were locked safely away, he went to the source of the sound, to the West Korean Bay.
In ages past when there was no food to eat, this was the place where the babies of Sinanju would be brought. The infants were drowned in the bay, "sent home to the sea," the people would say, to be born in a better time.
The bay was home to death.
At the shore Chiun walked to the very edge where the cold, clear water lapped slippery stone. Gale-force winds whipped wildly the thin strands of yellowing hair that clung to his parchment scalp.
The Master of Sinanju opened his senses.
Despite the strong wind a familiar scent carried to the old man's sensitive nose.
He stepped away from the water, hiking a little way up the rocks to the farthest point wind-propelled waves might reach at high tide.
Crouching, Chiun turned over a rock. The underside was red.
Blood. As fresh as if it had been newly spilled, although it would have to be a week old by this time. Chiun touched it with his finger. It was still warm. A troubled shadow passed across the old man's face.
He turned over a few more stones. They were all soaked under with blood. At high tide the blood had stained the undersides of many rocks all around the bay.
The West Korean Bay had seen much death over the years. So much so that it had apparently grown full. The bay had finally rejected one of its dead.
Chiun turned from the water.
Walking briskly up the shore path, he headed through the village. All the windows were shuttered and the doors remained bolted tight.
Instructing the people to lock themselves inside was a pointless exercise. When death finally showed itself, a locked door would do little good to stop it.
He climbed the stone steps of the bluff and crossed the front walk to the Master's House.
Inside, he went to the library. Cabinets and cubbyholes were filled with rolled scrolls and items of importance brought back by past Masters. On a desk in the rear of the room was the village telephone. It was the old-fashioned kind not seen for years. A separate earpiece was attached to a cord and the mouthpiece was connected to the upright base.
Chiun lifted the earpiece from the cradle and picked up the base to speak.
Smith would know how to locate Remo. Remo needed to know of the danger. The Time of Succession would have to be suspended so that Remo could return to Sinanju. Together, Master and pupil would face whatever evil had come to the small fishing village.
The phone was dead.
With a slender finger, Chiun tapped the cradle. There was no dial tone.
Chiun carefully hung up the phone. With leaden movements he set it back to the table.
Sinanju was isolated. No one in the village had the skills to repair a damaged telephone. There were no radios. Whoever had killed Pullyang had cut the village off from the rest of the world. And yet they had waited to do so until the Master had returned to Sinanju. The phone had worked well enough for Hyunsil to summon the Master home.
For a long moment the Master of Sinanju stood alone in the library of the House of Many Woods, thinking.
Only Pullyang was dead. Only one man in the entire village of Sinanju. There were days before Chiun returned when the treasure could have been stolen. Or the scrolls. But nothing was taken. Only one man dead.
Perhaps the village was not the target. Perhaps Pullyang's murder was a ploy to lure Chiun back. To separate him from Remo at this important time.
Two Masters of Sinanju will die.
Together they would pose a far greater challenge. Separate they would be easier for an enemy to defeat. Chiun felt the worry blossom full.
"Remo," he hissed.
The name had not passed his lips before the old man was flying for the entrance to the library. He exploded out the entrance to the Master's House. On flying feet the Master of Sinanju tore through the village and ran to the highway.
Frantic thoughts uncaring of the villagers he had sworn to protect, the wizened Asian raced away from the defenseless village of his ancestors.
ONLY ONCE the Reigning Master of Sinanju had become a speck on the distant road did the dark figure finally emerge from its hiding place.
Standing on the hill above the village, the Lost Master of Sinanju watched as Chiun vanished from sight over the horizon.
Behind the figure was the cave of the ancients. The place of spiritual purification where retiring Masters of Sinanju had been coming to reflect on their lives since the time of Wang. It was the perfect place to hide. This would be the last place any Master of Sinanju of the line of Wang would search.
Blaspheming such a holy place with his presence brought joy to the black heart of the Forgotten One. Sinanju was spread out before him.
"And now begins the end."
With a wicked smile, the Lost Master folded his legs and sat on the mountaintop. To await the slaughter.
Remo spent the entire flight from Madrid trying to sort out just exactly how he was going to explain to the Master of Sinanju his failures in Spain and Germany.
The first thing he decided was that in no way would he call them failures. After all, he hadn't even been given the chance to fail. You couldn't say someone struck out if they hadn't even gotten a chance at bat, right? And in a way Remo had succeeded. The guys had turned tail and run rather than stand and fight. A forfeit counted as a victory.
No good. There was no way Chiun would let him get away with claiming success.
Failure. Barring complete and utter success, that's what Chiun would call it. Remo's only hope was for Smith's assistant to track down the two AWOL killers before the Master of Sinanju found out what had happened.
For the time being Remo was relieved that Chiun was off in Sinanju. Despite the circumstances of the old man's trip, going home always put the Korean in a better mood. And if his caretaker had indeed been murdered, Chiun would enjoy meting out justice to the perpetrator. He might even enjoy himself so much that he'd let slide Remo's not-entirely-complete success in Germany and Spain.
"Fat chance the way that old skunk keeps score," Remo grumbled to himself as he deplaned in Rome. Near the cabstand outside the airport, Remo was relieved when a man with a gun assaulted him. Maybe his luck had turned and these sissy-boy assassins were finally going to start earning their keep. Then he realized it was just Italy, it was just a mugger and practically everybody else on his late-night flight was currently being assaulted at various spots up and down the sidewalk.
"Well, hell," Remo groused as the man jabbed the gun deep into his ribs and demanded all his money. As the rest of the tourists dutifully handed over watches and wallets to their muggers in a charming Italian tradition that was as old as recycling Christians into cat food, Remo was stuffing his own mugger face first in an airport mailbox.
"Couldn't work for the government," Remo yelled at the man's kicking shoes. "Couldn't give a guy a break."
After seeing what Remo had done to the mugger, the driver whose cab Remo got into decided to break with another great Italian tradition of driving American tourists around in circles until they got nauseous and then mugging them for whatever the muggers hadn't mugged them for.
He drove Remo straight to his secret midnight rendezvous with the Italian prime minister.
The meeting took all of two minutes. Practically as soon as he'd left the cab, Remo returned to the back seat with a deeply angry expression on his face. "Take me to a phone," he demanded.
The driver didn't argue. He took the fare directly to an outdoor pay phone.
"It happened again," Remo complained when Smith picked up on the first ring.
"Another assassin has disappeared?" Smith asked. "No, I lost the freaking evening-gown competition because I had visible panty lines."
"Oh," said Smith. "Did you get the man's name?"
"No," Remo said angrily. "And what's the point? Chiun's going to kill me whether or not we make a list of all the no-shows."
"I doubt Master Chiun can blame you for this."
"Hello, McFly," Remo said sarcastically. "I don't think we're talking about the same Chiun. Mine's the one who still somehow blames me for the networks preempting his soap operas so they could air the Watergate hearings thirty years ago. This is going to be my fault. Case closed."
"I am not so sure," Smith said. "It seems almost certain at this point that there is something larger going on here. One or two men turning up missing is a coincidence. Four is more than likely a conspiracy."
"Three," Remo corrected.
"Don't jump the gun on me, Smitty. So far it's only Germany, Spain and Italy that's pulled a disappearing act."
"Yes," Smith said, clearing his throat. "That's what I meant. But with the three missing men, we have established a pattern. There must be a connection."
"Okay, so we've got a conspiracy. What has the Little Prince found out about the missing guys?"
"Mark has, er, not been successful in uncovering any information on the men in question. For all intents and purposes they have vanished without a trace."
There was an odd ring to the CURE director's voice.
Remo had recently come to find out about Mark Howard's sixth sense. It was after the affair with Jeremiah Purcell, when Howard had become an unwitting dupe, aiding the Dutchman in his escape from imprisonment at Folcroft. Smith and the Master of Sinanju seemed to think there was something to Howard's alleged ability. Remo was more skeptical.
"He's using a computer to search, right?" Remo asked slowly. "He's not wearing a swami hat and rubbing a crystal ball while picking his toes through soggy tea leaves?"
"Of course not," Smith insisted. He quickly changed the subject from his assistant. "Now, since you have been unsuccessful in Italy-"
"Not my fault," Remo interjected.
"-you should continue on to your next appointment."
"Aw, c'mon, Smitty. Can't I just call it quits?"
"This is not up to me. If it were, you would not have started on this ritual. Chiun, however, made it clear that it is a critical rite of passage."
Remo sighed loudly. "Where to next?"
Smith gave him the directions to his next meeting, a late-night rendezvous in the Kremlin.
"Try to be politic when you meet their president," the CURE director pleaded when he was finished. "U.S.-Russian relations are at a pivotal stage. There is opportunity for a long-term shift for the better in our relationship."
"You got it," Remo vowed. "I won't mention his submarine asphyxiation program. I'll just limit myself to talking about their booze-and-whores-based economy."
He slammed the phone so hard it shattered like glass.
SMITH WINCED at the crackle over the line. Frowning, he folded up his cell phone and replaced it in his battered leather briefcase. Setting the briefcase between his ankles, he sat back in the unfamiliar chair.
The chair had an ugly green vinyl seat and cheap wood. On the arm someone named Judy had used a set of keys to inscribe her eternal love for a gentleman suitor named Len.
Smith was annoyed with himself for mentioning a fourth missing assassin to Remo. But he was tired. This had been a long day.
At the moment Smith didn't know how to handle the Benson Dilkes matter. He had attempted to call Master Chiun in Sinanju for guidance, but for some reason the phone there wasn't working.
For the twentieth time in the past half hour, Smith checked his watch. As he did so, the door finally opened.
The doctor was middle-aged and balding with a too dark tan. It seemed as if no one on staff at the hospital appreciated the dangers of ultraviolet radiation. Smith assumed the climate made it too tempting to stay indoors.
At the doctor's appearance, Smith got to his feet, picking up his briefcase. The two men met at the foot of the hospital bed where Mark Howard lay in gentle slumber. Near the bedside an EKG monitor beeped relentlessly.
The doctor cast a concerned eye over the sleeping patient before addressing Smith.
"You've been briefed by Dr. Carlson. Just so you know, we're not sure what's wrong. Physically there doesn't seem to be a problem. We did a scan and can't find any problem with his brain. It looks like it's some sort of shock."
"I know all this, Doctor," Smith said impatiently.
The doctor nodded. "He seems to be giving signs of coming around. Dr. Carlson and I both think it would be safer to keep him here in Florida rather than move him."
"Is he in any immediate danger?"
"Not that we can tell. But in cases like this it's always better to-"
"The facility where I'm taking him will give him the best of care," Smith interrupted.
The doctor bristled at the gray old man's frosty tone.
"It's your decision," the physician said. "We just wanted you to be certain you knew the risks. I'll send someone in with the forms."
Without another word the doctor stepped from the room, leaving Smith at the bedside.
It was another few minutes before a plump nurse entered, a clipboard tucked under her meaty arm. Smith had seen her come in and out of the room a few times in the past hour.
She smiled as she passed Smith the clipboard. "I'm going to need you to sign a few forms, Mr. Marx."
The cover name had been Howard's. Smith had appropriated it for himself. It was the easiest way to get Mark back to Folcroft without arousing suspicion.
She saw the look of concern on Smith's lemony face as he began signing the necessary documents. "Don't worry," she whispered confidently. "I'm sure your son will be fine."
Smith glanced at the sleeping form of Mark Howard. The instant he saw the young man, the worry lines on his forehead deepened once more. He couldn't shake the image of another hospital bed at another time. Another CURE agent-one Smith had not been able to help.
"Thank you," Smith grunted in reply.
Feeling an uncomfortable shudder, he turned his attention back to the forms.
Premier Kim Jong Il was in his underground bunker beneath the People's Palace when he heard the noise. The bunker was generally a noiseless place.
It had been designed and built by his dead father, former Korean Premier Kim Il Sung. A maze of poured-concrete tunnels had been constructed in hollowed-out bedrock. The main chamber was buried so deep in the earth that a nuclear blast at ground level powerful enough to level Pyongyang might just might-rattle the liquor bottles in the premier's mahogany bar. The living room of the bunker was wonderful for its silence. That is, until the scratching at the door started.
The premier was watching an American television program starring a bleached-blond woman with plastic lips and plastic boobs who solved crimes while wearing sexy clothes. The same woman used to save people from drowning while wearing sexy clothes. While the woman couldn't act wet in water, her skintight red bathing suit deserved an Emmy.
The premier hated to miss a minute of the action, especially for some annoying scratching sound that sounded as if someone had set a kitten loose in the hall outside his bunker's eight-inch-think steel door.
"What the hell's that noise?" Kim Jong Il demanded.
No one responded. That was odd, for his security detail should have been right outside the door.
The scratching persisted.
For personal safety's sake, only a handful of people knew how to get this far into his inner sanctum. There was only one outsider who had ever penetrated the defenses. But the American Master of Sinanju was less the scratching and more the kick-in-the-door type. And besides, according to the old one, the young one wasn't due in town for weeks.
"Whoever that is, knock it off or else," the premier shouted from where he sat in his favorite recliner. The scratching didn't stop.
Luckily the program went to a commercial. "Dammit," Kim Jong Il growled, hopping to his feet. "If I miss one second of jiggle, heads will roll." He marched across the bunker and threw open the door.
The premier was right. Heads did indeed roll. In fact, one rolled right inside the room.
"Sweet mother of crap!" the premier yelled, jumping back from the decapitated head.
He saw the body that the head belonged to. At least he thought he did. There were so many bodies and body parts piled up in the hall he wasn't sure what belonged with what. All of the dead men wore the uniform of the People's Army.
There was one soldier still clinging to life. It looked to Kim Jong Il as if he'd been force-fed through a piece of farm equipment. Not North Korean farm equipment, of course, which, thanks to decades of glorious Communist struggle, had not invented its way past the ox and lash. The other kind of farm equipment. The kind that was made from metal and moving parts and could make a man look as if he'd been fed through the jaws of John Deere Hell and spit out in strips of pulpy red meat from the far end.
The soldier who had been sliced into ribbons yet still somehow clung impossibly to life looked up at the premier. There was pleading in his eyes. His fingernails were broken and bloodied where he had been scratching at the door.
"Help me," the man begged. The premier's mind reeled.
Someone had breached his security. They had gotten all the way downstairs from the People's Palace without being detected. They had slaughtered his personal guard without so much as a whimper and left one man alive on the premier's doorstep as a gruesome calling card.
He looked down at the pleading man on the floor. "You're on your own," Kim Jong Il said to the dying soldier. "I'm not helping anyone but me." Grabbing for the doorknob, he started to slam the huge door shut. It wouldn't budge.
And then he noticed the hand. It was pressed to the door, holding it open. The hand was attached to the man who was suddenly standing before the premier. The man wore a black business suit and had a dead look in his hazel eyes.
"Forgive me, my premier, I have been away from my homeland for many years," the man in the suit said. "Has Pyongyang now made it a crime to help others?"
And with that he put his foot through the dying soldier's skull. The soldier collapsed with a sigh.
The premier saw that his visitor's shoe came back clean. It should have been a mess. And if this man was responsible for the rest of the carnage in the hallway, he should have been covered with blood. He had walked through the slaughter without so much as a speck of blood on his neat suit.
The premier felt a tingle in his belly.
The way the man stood was familiar. So calm, so centered. Hands pressed together, fingertips tucked into the sleeves of his white dress shirt. But the eyes clinched it. He had seen those eyes before. On a little old man who, with a twist of pinching fingers, could bring the mighty premier of North Korea to his knees.
"Oh, my God," Kim Jong Il whimpered. "There's another one of you."
The man offered a smile that not only lacked warmth, but also seemed to drop the room temperature by ten degrees.
"No. There is only one," he said. "My name is Nuihc. You have heard of me."
The way he said it, the premier could tell he should nod. He did so. Vigorously.
"Oh, yeah. Nuihc. Right. I should have known."
Nuihc's expression grew cold. "Do not lie to me," he spit. He shook his head. "Have I been gone so long?" he muttered bitterly. "I am not even remembered in my own land by the son of the man to whom I promised the world."
Kim licked his lips nervously. "You knew my old man?"
Nuihc nodded. "Once, many years ago, I made a bargain with your father. I offered him my services."
"Services? You mean like with the killing and all? Thanks, but I've got folks to do that. Hell, one more winter like last year and we'll all freeze or starve to death. Great of you to think of me, though."
He tried the door again. Though he strained to close it, Nuihc held it open, no strain on his flat face. "My motivation in your father's day was greed," Nuihc said. "That has changed. The world can go to whoever desires it. I want vengeance."
The premier could see he was getting nowhere. With a grunt he released the door handle. "Vengeance against who? The old guy or the kid?"
"Both murdered me. Both will pay."
Kim Jong Il wasn't sure he had heard right. "Did you say murder?" he asked.
There was no response. At least not verbally.
In that moment the premier saw something more than death in this man's eyes. It sparkled beneath the surface. The leader of North Korea had seen it before. The eyes of this Nuihc who stood before him held a touch of madness.
"I extend to you the same offer that I made to your father," Nuihc said, "with the same price. I give you the world, but Sinanju is mine."
Kim Jong Il clenched his hand. The pain lingered where the Master of Sinanju had assaulted him at the airport. "The old Master will have something to say about that."
"He is long past his time. His skills are no match for mine. I will tear his belly wide and scatter his withered entrails that the fish and the gulls might feast upon them."
The leader of North Korea could sense the madness in this man. But then the premier noted the bodies in the hallway. From the evidence before him, this new Sinanju Master might actually be able to deliver on his threat.
"What about the young one?" Kim Jong Il asked. "He'd be a match. That white scares me half to death."
"I have already dealt with him."
He said it with such certainty. So offhandedly. The leader of North Korea could scarcely believe his ears. "He is dead?" he asked, astonished.
"As good as dead," Nuihc replied. "Even now he runs around the world with the fool thought that he will succeed the one he calls father. The soft white imbecile has no idea he is about to fall into a trap."
This Nuihc seemed confident. The premier wanted to believe him. But he had seen those other two in action too many times in the past.
"You have doubts," Nuihc said. "There is wisdom in that. You know what they are capable of. But see-" he waved a hand across the soldiers' bodies "-that I am as skilled as they are. And I am not fettered by the weakness of their emotional attachment to each other. When the young one dies, the old one will be a shell. Easily disposed of."
"I don't know," the premier said.
"They have threatened to harm you?"
"They've done more than that. Every time they're in town I end up covered with bumps and bruises."
"And yet they allow you to live," Nuihc said. His face and tone hardened. "That will not be the case with me. I promise you that I will kill you if you stand in my way. That is your choice. On the one hand unquestioned power, on the other death. And all you need do is allow events to unfold as I have designed. Merely stay out of the way."
Understanding the impossible choice he was being offered, Kim Jong Il felt the life drain from his shoulders. "What do you need from me?"
"There will be a plane arriving here from the South within the hour. Allow it to land in safety. I will need helicopters to transport men and a clear air corridor from the capital to Sinanju. Beyond that, all you will need to do is sit back and the world will be yours."
Kim Jong Il looked at the bodies of the men littering the floor of the hallway outside his impenetrable bunker. They were supposed to be safeguarding his life. The premier of North Korea looked into Nuihc's cold eyes.
"You will have my cooperation," he vowed.
HYUNSIL WAS TENDING the hearth fire when she first heard the sound. It rolled up over the wail of the wind off the bay.
At first she thought it was the noise that had been the terrible harbinger of her beloved father's death. But as she listened she realized this sound was mechanical.
Her tears had dried in the warmth from the fire. Still, she wiped her eyes as she went to the window. The Master of Sinanju had instructed the villagers not to leave their homes. Hyunsil had done as she was told. But there was a little space between the slats on her wooden shutters where she was able to see out.
Putting her eye to the pane, she saw low lights amid the twinkling stars of the night sky.
They moved too slowly to be planes. Helicopters. There seemed to be many of them. The lights came within a mile of the village and then descended, disappearing from sight.
Hyunsil continued to watch, her warm breath steaming up the cold windowpane. A few times she had to wipe the gathering mist away with her apron.
After only a few moments the strange helicopters returned to the sky. They headed back in the direction of Pyongyang. In a minute the noise from the shushing rotor blades was consumed by the howling wind.
All that was left was the rattling of the boards in the old wooden house. So strange a thing was it that Hyunsil stayed at the window for a few minutes. But though she watched the sky, no more helicopters came.
The village was quiet. The houses remained locked up tight. Here or there a slivered beam of light could be seen from underneath a door or shining out through the uneven slats in a set of shutters. Since the death of her father, the lanterns in the main square had not been lit.
Illuminated in the blue light of a million flickering stars, Sinanju almost seemed peaceful.
Hyunsil was about to turn away from the window when she caught something from the corner of her eye.
A glimpse of movement. A man's face. Another. And another.
They came into the village from the north.
Their faces were not Korean. They were white and black and Asians of all kinds. Hyunsil could see a Japanese, a Chinese and a half-dozen others. They carried weapons, these strangers. They brought arms into the village where none-from the Mongols of ages past to the Communists of modern times-had dared set foot to soil.
The men kicked in doors. Hyunsil watched as her fellow villagers were dragged out into the street. Women and children wept. The men of Sinanju cowered in fear as the strangers went about their evil business.
Hyunsil was frozen in place.
The Master had gone. She knew not where. But he had disappeared hours ago. The House of Many Woods sat in darkness on the bluff overlooking the village.
The door across from her home was forced open. Light from within spilled out onto the street. Hyunsil saw a face. Suddenly clear in the stab of yellow light. Her breath caught.
It could not be.
The face was the face of death. Twisted, gleeful. Hyunsil had seen him die. And yet here he was. The people of Sinanju lined up before him. He went from face to face, studying each in turn before moving on.
And then-fear tightening as she watched the man move around the village square as if he was unaware of his own death-Hyunsil remembered something that her father had once told her. Part of an ancient Sinanju legend.
"And he will summon the Armies of Death, and the war they wage will be the War of Sinanju," Hyunsil whispered.
A shadow fell across her window. She jumped. The front door burst open in a spray of white splinters. A big man stomped inside. Grabbing the old woman by the arm, he dragged Hyunsil from the window.
The rough treatment didn't matter. The caretaker's daughter had already seen the face of death. Hyunsil didn't struggle. She allowed herself to be dragged from her home, confident in the knowledge that she would soon be in the company of her dear father.
As soon as Remo got to Russia and the secret throne room of the czars, he could see that he was in for more headaches just by the way the Russian leader was fidgeting. The president of the Russian commonwealth nervously told him that Russia's contestant-a very brutal former KGB killer-had gone missing. Remo had had enough. He called the man a govnyuk, broke Czar Ivan's favorite throne into little pieces and assaulted the president's personal security brigade when they swarmed in to see what the commotion was.
"What do you say now?" Remo demanded as the last man fell, a rifle barrel coiled around his neck like a metal snake. "Still can't find someone to try to kill me?"
The president looked at his security detail lying on the floor. Some of them moaned. They were probably alive. Those who didn't moan seemed to be the lucky ones.
"I could make a few phone calls," the president offered weakly.
"Don't bother," Remo grumbled. "I don't even know what I'm doing here. It's not like I'm ever going to work for a country where the only way to tell the difference between its currency and its toilet paper is that the currency absorbs better and flushes without clogging."
Leaving the president and his twitching guards, Remo prowled out of the secret throne room.
Away from the Kremlin, he found a phone at the Moscow Pizza Hut. He stabbed out the special CURE number so hard the metal 1 button cracked. The pieces were falling to the tile floor when Smith picked up.
"I've had it, Smitty," Remo announced. "I don't know if somebody said I pinch like a girl or have B.O. or what, but nobody wants to play with me. I'm coming home."
He didn't even give the CURE director time to answer. Slamming the phone down, he stormed out of the restaurant. He could hear the telephone ringing as he marched out the door.
At Sheremetevo-2 International Airport in Moscow, he bought a ticket for New York. Finding an out-of-the way seat, he sat down and waited for his flight.
A few times while he sat, some agents who worked for the airport came up to tell him he had a telephone call. He had no desire to talk to Smith again. He chased them all away. Eventually they stopped coming.
Disgrace. That's what Chiun would say. And he'd be right. Remo had screwed up. Somehow it was his fault. He could feel the disapproving eyes of a hundred Masters of Sinanju staring into his soul. The soul of a failure.
Dead or not, Remo couldn't look them in the eyes. He looked at his shoes. They were nice shoes. Handstitched Italian leather. He thought of the person who made them. The man was obviously not a failure. He made good shoes. Hell, he made great shoes. Perfect shoes. Remo could beat a cowhide silly and cut and stitch for a million years and not come up with a finer pair of shoes. The man who made the shoes was a success. Unlike Remo. Remo, the first Master of Sinanju to flunk the Time of Succession. Remo, who would get an F for the Hour of Judgment. Remo the Failure.
He sat there in a funk, eyes downcast, for he didn't know how long. A shadow fell over his perfect shoes. He assumed it was another airport agent insisting that there was an urgent phone call for him. Another gruff Russian voice that sounded as if it had been born hoarse and raised on Marlboros.
"Mr. Remo?" asked a sweet voice that was like a chorus of angels.
Remo looked up from his perfect shoes into a face that put the perfection of his shoes to shame. The face matched the heavenly voice. The woman smiled. Her face was radiant. Her soft brown eyes twinkled with joy.
"How are you?" she lilted.
In the lonely corner of Moscow's airport, Remo Williams had met the most beautiful woman who would ever kill him.
AFTER REMO HUNG UP the phone, Smith allowed the CURE system to redial for him automatically. He let the phone ring a dozen times. When a Russian voice eventually answered, he hung up.
He was back in his office in Folcroft. Entering a few commands into his computer, he found that Remo had called from an American chain restaurant that now had a franchise in Moscow. Marveling at the changes the world had undergone in the past ten years, he returned to his computer.
Smith couldn't say he blamed Remo for wanting to come home. His time in Europe couldn't exactly be termed a rousing success. Still, the Master of Sinanju would not be pleased if CURE's enforcement arm returned in defeat from this crucial phase of his training. And Chiun had a tendency to make his private gripes disturbingly public.
The CURE director would give Remo a little time to cool off. He would call him at the airport.
As he typed, Smith felt the weariness of his quick round-trip to Florida. Thankfully, Mark Howard was now safely tucked away in CURE's basement security wing.
The Folcroft doctors had concurred with the prognosis of the physicians in Florida. The assistant CURE director was in no immediate danger. It was only a matter of time before he came out of this strange unconscious state.
Smith was more than a little concerned about his assistant's blackout. It was the sort of thing that could cause a security problem for the covert agency. After all, the FBI men on the scene had used Mark's phony ID to contact Smith. The line was untraceable and, thanks to the orders they had been issued at the start of the Dilkes affair, no one had filed a report about the incident. Still...
Smith took some comfort in the fact that there was nothing in the young man's medical record to indicate that anything like it had ever happened before. Howard didn't abuse drugs or alcohol. He had submitted to regular testing since his assignment to Folcroft. Disturbing though it was, with any luck this was an isolated incident.
As he worked, Smith couldn't shake the nagging sense that the incident with Howard had something to do with the young man's strange sixth sense.
Smith was sifting through the latest data on Remo's missing assassins when the blue contact phone jangled to life. It was half an hour since the last time it rang. Assuming Remo had had a change of heart, he scooped it up.
"Remo," he said sharply.
The urgent voice that replied didn't belong to CURE's enforcement arm.
"I need to speak with Remo," the squeaky voice of the Master of Sinanju announced sharply.
"Oh, Master Chiun," Smith said. "Was there a problem--?"
"Remo," Chiun interrupted. "Where is he?" There was an anxiousness bordering on fear in the old man's voice.
Frowning, Smith checked the time display in the corner of his monitor. "At the moment he is in Moscow," the CURE director replied. "He should be at the airport by now."
"Find him," Chiun commanded. "I must speak with him."
Smith cleared his throat, uncomfortable to be dropped in the middle of this. "There might be a slight problem," he admitted slowly.
"Is he injured?" Chiun asked with tight concern.
Smith was surprised by the question. "No, not at all," he replied. "It is just that he has been having a slight problem with some of the men he is supposed to meet with in the Time of Succession."
He felt unhappy to be the one delivering this news. Given the circumstances, he was certain this was a private matter between Master and pupil. And he was just as certain that Chiun would find a way to blame him for not shepherding Remo properly through the Time of Succession. Smith was surprised, therefore, at the old man's response.
"The Time of Succession is meaningless," the Master of Sinanju snapped. "There is something greater here. Remo is in danger. You must find him."
There was pleading now. Smith had never before heard such desperation in the old Korean's voice. The CURE director typed a few commands into his computer. He pulled up Remo's Visa card record. In Moscow, Remo had just purchased a ticket to New York.
"Please stay on the line," Smith instructed. Using the outside line, he called the airport in Russia and made arrangements for someone to collect Remo. The Russian returned to the line a few moments later.
"I am sorry, but the gentleman is seeming not to be want to speak to anyone," the airport representative apologized. "He is saying that you to. . . 'blow it out your ears'?" The helpful man seemed confused by the unfamiliar expression.
Smith tried a few more times with no success. He finally gave up. He returned to the blue phone. "Remo will not answer, Master Chiun," he apologized.
The Master of Sinanju didn't speak immediately. There seemed a great hesitation over the line. As if the old man were considering options, none of which pleased him.
"You must give him a message," Chiun said eventually. "Tell him to stop what he is doing and return to your side. If an assassin comes near, he must not confront. Tell him to run. For in distance there is safety."
"I don't understand, Master Chiun, but Remo is returning here. He called me to tell me so."
The news didn't seem to much hearten the old Korean.
"That is good. But tell him not to resume the Time of Succession. And he is to stay away from Sinanju. Tell him if he values me and all that I have given him, under no circumstances is he to return until he hears directly from me. Tell him that. Under no circumstances."
There was great resignation in his voice. As if he expected never to give his pupil permission to return. Smith glanced down at his monitor. The data reflected in his owlish lenses.
"You are not calling from your home phone," he said, adjusting his glasses.
"I am at a building. The first I could find with a working telephone. It is some sort of garrison. And that does not matter. I will have someone from the government come repair my telephone. Tell Remo I will call him when I know more. Will you give him my message?"
Smith was trying to picture the Master of Sinanju in a North Korean army bunker, a group of soldiers cowering in the corner as he used their phone. He pinched his nose with his tired fingers.
"Of course," the CURE director sighed. "But if there is something wrong there, I'm sure-"
He never completed his thought. The line went dead.
For a moment Smith puzzled over what this could mean. He hadn't even had a chance to mention his own problem with the Time of Succession.
Chiun had sounded unlike he had ever sounded before. Like a condemned man waiting for the ax to drop.
Frowning with his entire face, the CURE director gently replaced the receiver.
"Is it Mr. Remo?" the woman asked. "Is that right?" The woman with the Midwestern twang sounded apologetic for not knowing. Her eyes smiled warmly. She wore a blue skirt with matching jacket and a starched white blouse. A mane of honey-blond hair was pulled into an efficient little ponytail. If this was an attempt on her part to make herself appear dowdy or tomboyish, it didn't work. With those lips and teeth and all the parts north and south, there was no doubt that she was one hundred percent woman.
"Um, yeah," Remo said, clearing his throat. "That's good enough."
The woman sighed great relief. As if this was just the happiest news she had ever received.
"I didn't know for sure," she admitted, the little bit of tension in her voice draining away. Her smile retreated as she allowed herself a little apologetic pout. "I had your description, but you just can't tell sometimes."
The woman scootched into the seat next to Remo and took a clipboard out from under her arm. With a little Bic disposable pen, she made an efficient little mark on a piece of paper. The way she held the pen in her slender fingers made Remo swallow hard. He had never before in his life so wanted to be a cheap disposable pen.
"There," the woman said, her smile returning. She slipped her pen into the top of her clipboard. "I have to apologize for being late. We must just keep missing each other." She tapped her forehead absently. "There I go again. I'm just a scatterbrain these days. Too much on my mind. I'm Rebecca Dalton."
She offered Remo her hand. Remo wasn't sure what to do. He shook it.
"Are you here to kill me?" he asked.
Rebecca laughed. This time it was better than angels singing. Angels would have cast themselves from the eternal bliss of Heaven to hear Rebecca Dalton's laugh.
"Me?" she said, tipping her head with joking thoughtfulness. "Well, we'll just have to see. A girl's got to have some secrets. What would you think of someone who just blurted everything out right up front like that?"
"What say we fly off and get married?" Remo blurted.
"See?" Rebecca said. "It would be awkward." Her smile demonstrated that it was anything but awkward.
"Okay, what say we fly off and have a really dirty weekend?" Remo suggested.
"Maybe later," Rebecca promised, patting his knee.
He thrilled at her touch. Just the thought of maybe latering with Rebecca Dalton was enough to tide him over.
"Aren't there two of you?" she asked. "The Reigning Master should be here, too, shouldn't he?"
She craned her swanlike neck to search the immediate area.
"He's not here," Remo said.
"Oh," she said. "Even better that I found you, then."
"How do you know about us?"
"You know that you're known in certain circles," she replied, her voice suddenly a conspiratorial whisper. "Your circle and my circle are all kind of, you know, encircled. But we're getting ahead of ourselves, aren't we?" Rebecca became all business. "I represent parties that are interested in-how shall I put it?-meeting you." She offered a sympathetic smile. "I understand you've been having trouble these past few days. I hate to admit that I'm probably partially to blame for that. I was supposed to meet up with you in London, but there was a delay taking off in Paris and by the time I got to London, well, gosh, there you were in Paris and-" she raised delicate hands in a helpless gesture "-you know what it's like."
"I haven't got a clue," Remo said, not really caring that he didn't. He liked hearing Rebecca talk. He could have sold to Hugh Hefner the way her lips formed W's.
"This thing you're doing now," Rebecca said. "This generational thing?" She checked her notes on her clipboard. "Now, my information on the House of Sinanju isn't detailed, but as I understand it this whole process we're involved in right now is a milestone for the man who goes through it. The introductions at court are his way of becoming Master-is that right?" She patted his knee again. "Just a big ol' congratulations to you, by the way."
Remo nodded thanks.
"Well, as the man in the middle of all this, I'm sure you know this has gone on for, well, ever and ever," Rebecca explained. "And in a given generation, it's sometimes been known to go on for years. Governments all over the world have tied up manpower and resources that they'd much prefer to have directed elsewhere. Well, this time there are certain governments that are interested in streamlining the process. Making it run more efficiently so that they can put it quickly behind them. Modern age and all that. I'm sure you'd be happy to get this unpleasantness over with quickly, as well. Unfortunately there was a mix-up. Mix-ups happen all the time, as you know. I told you, Paris. And, well, anyway, here I am." She smiled once more. "Shall we?"
Remo hadn't really been listening. As she yammered, he'd been watching her chest.
"Yes," he replied with utter certainty.
He realized that she wasn't talking about the same thing he was talking about. She was gesturing with her clipboard.
"Oh," Remo said.
Disappointed, he allowed Rebecca to lead him through the terminal. Special passes and strategically flashed smiles opened locked doors and special off-limits corridors. In a matter of minutes they were outside and climbing aboard a fully fueled Gulfstream jet. The plane was taxiing even as they were settling in their seats.
"That's more like it," Rebecca purred contentedly as the jet lifted off, leaving Moscow in a trailing cloud of jet fumes and twinkling lights. She stretched her arms over her head. "Would you like something to eat?"
"Water," Remo said as he watched her stretch. "Undrugged, if you have it."
Her laugh came easily. She called out an order in a language Remo didn't understand. A moment later a woman with ebony skin, high cheekbones and teeth like pearls appeared from the galley carrying a frosted glass of water.
After handing Remo his water, the stewardess and Rebecca Dalton exchanged a few words, after which the flight attendant disappeared back in the galley.
"Are you sure you don't want anything to eat?" Rebecca asked.
Remo leered over his water glass.
Rebecca waved an admonishing finger as she pulled out her clipboard once more. "I can see I'm going to have to keep my eye on you, mister."
"That's not the body part I'd vote for."
Rebecca pretended she didn't hear. She cast an eye across her clipboard. "Turkey," she announced all at once.
"Still not hungry," Remo said.
"Not the food, the country. We have an appointment-" she checked her watch "-sooner than soon, I'm afraid. If you want to rest before we meet the Turkish prime minister, you have a couple of hours."
Remo didn't know what to make of all this. An hour ago he'd been ready to abandon the whole Time of Succession and head for home. But this beautiful woman who had appeared out of the blue seemed to know what she was doing. And Chiun wasn't exactly here to offer guidance.
"What the hell," said Remo. "You want to run the show, be my guest. Lord knows I've done a craptacular job at it. Wake me when you've lined up someone for me to kill."
Closing his eyes, he leaned back in his seat. He was asleep in a matter of seconds.
Rebecca Dalton watched him sleep. She watched - as the flight attendant brought her a good oldfashioned American steak-and-potato dinner. Rebecca ate every last morsel, just as her mother had taught her. When she was done eating, she dropped her napkin on her plate and got up from her seat.
Remo was still sound asleep.
Rebecca went down the aisle and locked herself in the small bathroom. She pulled a cell phone from her pocket and dialed the special number that only a handful of people in all the world knew. She knew she had reached the right party when she heard that familiar Virginia twang.
"Hello," said Benson Dilkes.
The older man's voice was gruff. She could hear wind blowing over the line. Wherever he was, Dilkes was outside.
"I have him," Rebecca Dalton whispered.
"Good," Dilkes said. "Double-check the arrangements in the Middle East. I've been out of the game for a while. I want to make certain everything is perfect."
"Now, now, Benson," Rebecca chided. "You didn't teach me to trust someone else's work. Even yours. I already checked. It looks fine now, but I'll double-check along the way just to make sure. You know how cautious I like to be." She thought of Remo, slumbering gently in his seat. He was kind of cute. Still, a job was a job. "When this is over, someone will be dead," she said, "and I can dang well assure you it won't be me."
With soft hands she clicked her phone shut. Before leaving the bathroom, she checked her makeup in the mirror. Perfect. She wouldn't have it any other way.
With a satisfied little smile, Rebecca Dalton left the bathroom. There was still plenty of time to catch a quick nap before all the big crazy ol' excitement began.
At first there was an argument among the North Korean soldiers about who would be best able to fix a broken telephone line. No one wanted to be trapped in a truck with the terrifying old man who had appeared out of nowhere like a raging typhoon and taken over their isolated little garrison.
The whispered arguing ended when the captain in command ordered a group of soldiers to accompany the old man. The rest remained behind to help the captain locate his missing teeth, which were scattered around the frozen compound.
The men were surprised as they sped down the highway in the middle of nowhere. Most hadn't known it even existed.
A few miles from. Finally Chiun ordered the truck to stop.
A row of telephone poles trudged alongside the highway-along with the road, the only signs of the civilization of the past thousand years. The telephone cable had been cut.
Chiun pointed to the wire. "Fix it," he commanded.
As the men went to work, Chiun headed down the road on foot. There was great conflict on his leathery face.
He had to protect Remo, to warn him of the danger. Two Masters of Sinanju will die.
The Russian monk's words echoed in his brain. Rasputin had warned them to beware the hand that reached from the grave. "Darkness comes from the cold sea," the monk had said. Chiun had seen the blood at the shore. An evil had been reborn from the cold waters of the West Korean Bay.
Another is dead already.
Chiun knew now that this was Pullyang. The condition of the body was a sign, delivered in death. Another lives who was dead.
Chiun had recognized the blow used to kill Pullyang. It was a variation of old Sinanju, before the time of the Great Wang. The tearing of the flesh near the point of exit was like something Chiun had seen before.
Chiun's own pupil used to make that mistake. Not Remo. The young man's movements had been perfection from the start. Oh, they were raw. And he had the habit of not keeping his elbow straight some of the time. But the poetry of movement was there even in those first days.
Nor was it Chiun's first pupil. That child had been even more gifted than Remo. Sadly, Chiun's son, Song, had died before he had a chance to fulfill his early promise.
Not Remo. Not Song. There had been another. Nuihc. Chiun's nephew. The Great Betrayer, who had taken the gifts bestowed on him and used them for selfish means. The wicked child who had turned his back on the village and gone out into the world to seek power and wealth. The Unmentionable One who had squandered years with his selfish wandering, finally returning to the village to fulfill his evil destiny by murdering Remo and Chiun and claiming the title of Reigning Master as his own.
In Sinanju he had met his end.
Nuihc was dead. Although it had betrayed one of the most sacred edicts of the Masters of Sinanju, the traitor had died by Chiun's own hand. Afterward the body was cast into the bay to feed the crabs.
Long vanished. Long dead. Years of silence. And then the cries in the night.
The blood on the shore.
The blow used to murder Pullyang.
Impossible as it might seem, Chiun was forced to accept what had happened. Somehow Nuihc lived. It was that accursed family. Although Nuihc's father was brother to Chiun, the boy's mother was from a less than worthy family. Their line could be traced back to before the time of the Great Wang. They were mystics and shamans. In past ages, when there was not one Master of Sinanju but many, members of this family coveted the title of Reigning Master. It was thought that their seething envy had died centuries before. It had not.
The seeds of ancient hate had taken root in Nuihc. When Nuihc's aunt, the old crone Sonmi, disappeared months before, Pullyang wrote to inform the Master. At the time Chiun tore up the letter and spit on the ground, satisfied that the evil spawned by that wicked family was finally no more. But the hatred in that family now seemed stronger even than the pull of the grave.
It was she. The last of her line, Sonmi had used the final magic of her wicked clan and somehow revived the most dangerous foe Remo and Chiun had ever encountered.
Chiun needed to protect Remo. Had to warn him of the danger. But he was torn. As Reigning Master he had an obligation to the village. Yet he couldn't explain to Smith, an outsider, what had happened. Couldn't tell him why Remo needed to be warned away. Chiun's American employer understood little beyond the so-called facts presented to him in Western books and on his computing devices.
Two Masters of Sinanju will die. Master and student.
He had trained both men. Did it mean Chiun and Remo or Chiun and Nuihc?
And there was another. Jeremiah Purcell was at large in the world. If Nuihc had returned, so, too, might have his wicked protege.
Two will die. But which two?
He would sort it out in Sinanju. There he could protect the village. With his telephone restored, he would speak to Remo. They would devise a strategy.
Remo was protected. The young man was a full Master in his own right. Prepared to take the final step to Reigning Masterhood. Chiun had given him the skills he needed to keep himself safe. Remo would survive. He had to.
Two miles from the village, Chiun caught the scent of the early-morning stove fires. Night had long since fed the dawn. The village of Sinanju was stirring awake.
As he came closer, Chiun expected to see threads of black smoke rising into the pale sky.
The smoke grew thicker. Clogging daylight.
Feeling a sudden strain of fresh worry in his narrow chest, Chiun began to run.
A mile from the village, the daylight vanished. The black smoke swallowed the sky, turning day to night. Chiun raced from the highway. The weeds along the path to his ancestral village whipped his kimono hems.
He crested the hill. Sinanju spread out below.
The buildings had been burned to the ground. The air was thick with smoke. It swirled around the old man.
Training kept him from breathing it in. Not that it was necessary. The terrible sight that befell him robbed the aged Korean of breath.
There were bodies all around the streets. Scattered like seeds amid the charred and ruined houses. Chiun ran. Down the hill and into the main square of his doomed little village.
The first body he came upon was that of the carpenter's granddaughter. The fat-faced woman and her family had kept the old ways even in hard times. They were of the few in Sinanju who remained faithful to the Master.
Her body was cold in death.
She had been killed with a simple force blow. It had shattered her chest and collapsed her organs to jelly.
The dead woman's lavender dress was mocking bright. Brighter than a color should be. Fabric paid for by the labors of the Master of Sinanju.
Chiun ran to the next.
They were fishermen. Old men who sometimes dragged their nets through the cold water of the bay. There was the butcher. Near him was his wife.
Over there was the seamstress, who had been teaching her little daughters her craft. The girls, as well as their father, lay dead near the mother.
Chiun found Hyunsil. In final repose his caretaker's daughter looked like her dead father.
There were more bodies. Lying in the dirt. All around. Everywhere his gaze settled.
He ran from house to burned house, looking amid the ruins for a single living soul.
There was none. He counted as he went. There were none missing. They were gone. All of them. All the souls he was sworn to protect. All dead.
As the fires smoldered, the Master of Sinanju returned to the center of the desolate village.
He turned around and around, soaking in the devastation. When his twirling brain could take no more, Chiun fell to his knees in the main square and wept cold tears. The bitter wind racked his frail frame as he cried out to his ancestors in pain. A questioning howl of animal agony.
No answer came.
His ancestors were gone. As were their descendants.
Dead. All dead. Sinanju, now dead.
Tears burning his hazel eyes, the last Master of Sinanju of the pure bloodline looked up at the sun. Otherworldly smoke blotted out the heavens.
He had followed his heart and in so doing had allowed death and destruction to rain down upon his village.
Tearing his garments, the Master of Sinanju got to his feet. Howling in rage and anguish, he fled the devastated village and stumbled off into the wilderness.
Behind him, a discordant song of triumph seemed to rise from amid the smoldering ruins and ashen-faced corpses.
At six o'clock on the dot, Dr. Harold Smith shut off his desk computer. The buried monitor winked to darkness. His briefcase was where it always was, in the foot well of his desk. Gathering it up by the worn handle, he stepped over to the coat rack next to the door and threw his scarf and coat over his forearm. Shutting off the lights, he left his Spartan office.
Mrs. Mikulka was gone for the day.
When the clocks were changed weeks before and the days grew short, Smith's secretary had started switching on a single fluorescent bulb above an old filing cabinet. This so her employer didn't stumble coming out of his office in the dark. After all, none of them was getting any younger, and a spill at their age could mean worse than a bump or bruise. This was just one of the many small ways Eileen Mikulka proved her thoughtfulness on a daily basis.
Snapping off the light, Smith made a mental note to tell his secretary to stop wasting electricity.
Out in the hallway the lights were mostly off. The only illumination came from a few dim emergency lights along the walls and the glowing exit sign above the stairwell doors at the end of the hall. Smith headed for the stairs.
Folcroft at night operated on a skeleton crew.
Smith encountered not a soul in the administrative wing. Like a comfortable gray spirit haunting familiar halls, Harold Smith descended the stairs to street level.
Instead of ducking out the door to the parking lot, he continued down to the basement.
There was no one in the long, empty downstairs hall. He rounded the corner to the security corridor. A new door replaced the one that had been damaged the year before during Jeremiah Purcell's escape. Entering the new security code on the wall keypad, Smith slipped inside.
There were now only two regular CURE patients in the special wing, a comatose man and a catatonic young woman. A faint sulfur smell emanated from the girl's room.
The third room in the hallway had been Purcell's for ten years. Smith glanced in the empty room as he passed.
The damage to the room had been repaired, the bodies long carted away and the blood washed clean. A new mattress was rolled up at the foot of the bed and wrapped in plastic.
Smith's face was grim as he looked in that room. Rather than eliminate the Dutchman while he had the chance, he had allowed Remo and Chiun to talk him into keeping the dangerous man a prisoner down here. Some metaphysical claptrap about Remo's soul-and thus Remo's fate-somehow being intertwined with Purcell's. Chiun had insisted that were Purcell to die, Remo would die, as well.
Smith didn't believe it, of course. But the Master of Sinanju was insistent and Purcell seemed harmless enough at the time. One of Smith's rare mistakes.
Frowning self-recriminations, the CURE director continued along the hall, entering the room at the far end.
Mark Howard was asleep in the bed.
It was strange, but Smith felt uncomfortable leaving his assistant alone down here. The young man seemed so lost.
Only two physicians on the regular Folcroft staff were allowed into the room, and even then only while under Smith's supervision. For security's sake the night staff had not been told the condition of Folcroft's assistant director. No one would have a reason to come to this out-of-the-way room during the night. As he had the previous night, Smith would work from Howard's bedside until midnight, go home for a few hours' sleep and then return before dawn.
There were no monitors or intravenous drips hooked up to Smith's young assistant. At the moment nothing seemed necessary. Mark was simply asleep.
It had not yet been twenty-four hours since the onset of this mysterious unconsciousness. In another day Smith would consider hooking up an IV.
As he looked down on the youthful face of Mark Howard, Smith noted darkly that there were other, more serious options to consider if the young man remained in this state.
For now Smith put aside such uncomfortable thoughts.
The CURE director pulled a chair up to the bed, hung his coat and scarf over the back and set his briefcase onto his knees. Popping the hasps, he took out his laptop, placing it on the closed briefcase lid.
Within moments Smith was once more engrossed in his work.
He didn't know how many hours he worked at Howard's bedside when he heard the rustling fabric. Glancing up from his computer, he found Mark Howard shifting under the sheets. Arms and legs moved like a man in light sleep. As Smith watched, Howard's youthful face-which had remained almost lifeless since Florida-began to twitch. Eyes rolled beneath closed lids.
Smith quickly exited the CURE computer system and put away his laptop. With one hand he drew his chair closer to the bedside.
"Mark?" he questioned quietly.
It seemed as if Howard responded to the sound of Smith's voice. The young man's head rolled over on the pillow, eyes still closed. He began speaking, softly at first. Smith strained but couldn't hear the words. But as he listened, his assistant's voice grew stronger.
"I did this," Mark Howard whispered. "I shouldn't have- Should have left him. I have to tell... warn..."
Standing now, Smith pressed his hand to Howard's shoulder. "Mark," he repeated, giving a gentle push. With great slowness the young man's eyes fluttered open. There was confusion at first as they focused on the gray face hovering above.
"Dr. Smith?" Mark asked weakly.
He was disoriented. Trying to soak in his surroundings.
"I'm at Folcroft," Howard said, confused.
"Something happened in Florida," Smith said, a hint of relief in his lemony voice. "You lost consciousness at Benson Dilkes's apartment. Do you remember what went wrong?"
The memories flooded back. The corkboard maps.
The two red pins. The blond-haired man hovering in the corner, hiding in the cobwebs of consciousness. Howard sat upright in bed. He grabbed Smith's wrist so hard, the older man winced.
"Where's Remo and Chiun?" Howard demanded.
"Remo was supposed to be on his way back here from Russia," the CURE director replied. "However, he never made his flight. Chiun is in Sinanju."
"We have to call him," Howard insisted.
"We can't," Smith said. "Unless the phone is working again. It was out of commission earlier." Howard released Smith's wrist. His eyes darted to the corners of the room, searching for answers. "What's wrong, Mark?" Smith pressed.
When Howard glanced back up at his employer, there was a deadly earnestness in his greenish-brown eyes.
"He's back," the assistant CURE director pleaded. "And it's all my fault."
Remo ignored the whine of the lowering landing gear. Across from him on the jet, Rebecca Dalton chatted away on her cell phone in yet another foreign language. On her lips and tongue, even Arabic sounded sexy. The young woman seemed to know every dusty dialect of every country they had been to in the past two days.
Two days. It seemed like a month.
Remo had spent the past forty-eight hours bouncing around the Middle East like water on a griddle. True to her word, Rebecca Dalton had streamlined the Sinanju Time of Succession to move with assembly-line efficiency.
Turkey-which was still listed in Sinanju's out-of-date guidebook as the seat of the Ottoman Empire-had been a breeze. Rebecca handled all the details. Remo merely had to show up. A quick meeting with the prime minister, a trapdoor assassination pit in the belly of an ancient citadel, finally another dead assassin to satisfy the Master of Sinanju and back on the plane by breakfast.
Then the real trial began. Mostly it was a challenge to Remo's patience. So far he was holding up okay. But it had been a steady drumbeat for two days now. Before they returned to the airport in Damascus after meeting with the Syrian president, Remo was shot at by that country's top assassin. He'd also been assaulted by lancers on horseback in the Jordanian desert, fed poison fruit in Lebanon and had a basket of asps thrown into his cab in Israel. Aside from Remo, the only living things to get out alive in all those attacks were the snakes. Any Arab he could find in the West Bank who grinned when Remo mentioned the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers got a snake down the pants, a cracked kneecap and an eye poked out with a sharp stick. Remo kept the stick as a happy souvenir.
He was tapping his stick against his ankle as he stared out the small window of the jet.
Thanks to Rebecca, Remo had left in his wake a whole passel of dead would-be assassins in rapid succession.
On several occasions he asked her what her real interest was in all this. She continued to insist that she was a unique public-relations expert who had been hired by a collection of governments working in their own self-interest. Their only concern was streamlining the Time of Succession process.
Remo knew that was a crock. Even Madison Avenue PR firms weren't cutthroat enough to deal with assassination. And it wasn't as if he didn't notice Rebecca's conspicuous absences. She was constantly disappearing to talk on her cell phone. Still, she was better at getting him where he was supposed to be than Smith had been. So what if she turned out to be a killer, as well? He was making great time.
Remo was starting to think that he might not shame himself in front of Chiun's ancestors after all. In fact, he might have actually felt good about the way everything was suddenly going if not for his current destination.
As the jet flew low over the latest Mideast country, Remo looked out the window with undisguised disgust.
The buildings were low. Probably because they were built out of desert sand and held together by camel spit. More than two stories and the sand would give out. Here and there onion domes had been stuck on the columns of mosques. From the air it looked as if someone had dumped a box of Christmas ornaments into a backyard sandbox.
"This is dumb," Remo grunted as he watched the ground grow larger. "I am never going to work for goddamn Iraq."
Rebecca had finished her conversation and was clicking her phone shut. "Patriotism?" she asked. Her face was open, guileless. She seemed genuinely interested in what Remo had to say.
Remo stopped tapping his eye-poking stick. "What?" he asked.
"The way you said it. 'Goddamn Iraq.' It sounded more American patriot than Sinanju assassin."
"Sure," he replied. "Why not? It's on the approved list of countries we Americans are still allowed to hate."
"I probably am wrong and I don't want to insult, but you don't seem to like anyone."
Remo frowned. "What do you mean?"
"It's just an observation. But judging from your comments about the countries we've been to in the last couple of days-the way you've acted when we've been there-you don't really seem to be very happy with, well, anyone."
Remo shrugged. "Arab countries are like giant cat boxes, except it's people shit, it's everywhere and the people doing the shitting haven't bothered to bury it or scoop it up for the last six thousand years."
"And with a statement like that, I'd say you were bigoted against Arabs."
"Just telling it like it is."
Rebecca didn't condemn. She smiled. "But from what you've said, you don't like any of the places you went to before we met. And they were all white European countries."
"White shmite," Remo grunted. "Paint them plaid, they're still living in inbred squalor."
"And it's statements like that that make me think you don't really like anyone. I'm not judging you," she added quickly. "Actually I find it refreshing. It's not really bigoted when you think about it. I don't think you can really be bigoted if you don't like anyone at all."
"I'm not the bigot in my family," Remo said. "Guy who taught me? Now, he's a bigot."
Rebecca wasn't listening. The stewardess appeared in the plane's lounge to whisper something to Rebecca.
"They have a ride waiting for us at the airport," Rebecca said to Remo, opening up her cell phone once more.
"I like plenty of people," Remo insisted. "I've saved the world a bunch of times. I didn't do it for spotted owls or kangaroo rats. I did it for people."
"I'm sure you did," Rebecca said, patting his knee. They landed at a small airport in northern Iraq.
In the years following the Gulf War, Iraq's leader had built dozens of opulent palaces around the country. A five-minute limo drive from the airport deposited Rebecca and Remo on the steps of one of the dictator's lavish new homes.
Rebecca wore sunglasses against the desert sun and windblown sand. Remo's eyes were wide open and filled with disgust as they climbed the palace steps.
"Isn't this just peachy?" he complained. "You know, back in the States we've got this stupid Sunday-night TV show that pretends to be news and it's got this ditzy old fart who likes to talk about things like elevator doors that don't open fast enough and the black stuff under ketchup caps. Nobody pays any attention to him 'cause he's just a crazy old fool who ought to be at the dog track. But now all of a sudden he's a big political expert. They all get to be big political experts, all these morons ...the cartoonists, their talk-show wives, all of them. Well, anyway, this guy, like all the big political experts, suddenly he knows what's wrong with the world. You know what's wrong with the world? America's what's wrong with the world. Every time some kid in some Cairo slum gets a sniffle or the Managua Y runs out of Band-Aids, it's somehow Uncle Sam's fault. But over here we've got Iraq, where this tinpot caterpillar-puss has built himself a hundred Taj-freaking-Mahals while his people are allegedly going hungry and not one of those blowhards can get their sucking mouths off of Castro's craphole long enough to say one bad word about the rape of Iraq."
"You care about Iraq now?" Rebecca asked.
"I told you," Remo said. "I care about people."
"Mm-hmm," Rebecca said, clearly not buying.
Remo shook his head angrily. "Forget about the wedding," he grumbled. "I don't think I love you anymore."
This time when Rebecca laughed her heavenly laugh, there was something else behind it.
They were met by guards who led them to a grand audience chamber. The Iraqi leader was there, grinning tightly beneath his bushy mustache.
Rebecca handled the introductions. When it came time to translate Remo's "screw you," Rebecca apparently sweetened it into something that made the Iraqi leader smile happily.
The meeting was quickly concluded. Barely five minutes had passed before the two of them were back out in sunlight.
"I don't think you translated me right," Remo groused as they climbed down the steps.
"Right and accurately are two different things," Rebecca said absently as she glanced around the large courtyard. "I might not have been accurate, but for the impression Sinanju wants you to give, I was right."
"How do you know so much about what Sinanju wants?" Remo asked. "I'm not even sure what Sinanju wants."
As he spoke, he thought of the Masters who surrounded him even as they walked through the courtyard.
"I know things, Remo," she said, squinting in the sun as she scanned the yard. "There it is."
There was a Jeep parked over near a row of garage stalls. The Iraqi flag was painted across the hood. The keys were in the ignition. Rebecca climbed in behind the wheel. Remo felt the press of all the Masters of Sinanju surrounding him as he got in beside her.
They didn't leave the palace grounds. Instead, Rebecca drove around the main buildings within the high walls.
Although there were guards in towers and along the walls, they kept their distance.
The palace had been built against some low mountains. In the shade of the rear towers, a wide shaft had been tunneled through the solid rock. A paved road led inside. Rebecca steered the Jeep through the opening.
"I like humanity okay," Remo announced abruptly.
Rebecca seemed distracted. "But you don't like people."
"I did," Remo said. "I mean, I still do. I like people well enough as individuals. It's when they come at me in groups that I don't like them so much." Rebecca didn't answer. She drove on.
The paved tunnel road had a single white stripe up the middle. The walls and ceiling were rough-hewn, as if formed by men with iron tools. The road angled downward. Remo could feel the change in pressure in his ears.
"Whose turn is it to kill me now?" he asked, exhaling.
She didn't have time to respond. Before Rebecca could answer, Remo suddenly latched on to the dashboard with one hand. The other hand he slapped flat to his temple.
"Whoa," he said, wincing.
He looked at Rebecca. She was only a foot from him, but all of a sudden she seemed a million miles away. Her words echoed as if carrying across a great chasm. For a moment Remo couldn't speak. He felt dizzy, nauseous. And alone.
The Masters' Tribunal was gone. Just like that. In this desolate cave in the middle of Iraq, the thing he had been awaiting for almost a year finally happened. The spirits of the deceased Masters of Sinanju had finally vanished. For the first time in ages Remo didn't feel the collective disapproving gaze of countless generations of Korean assassins. The Hour of Judgment had ended with a whimper.
"Guess that's it," Remo said, his hand pressed firmly to his suddenly throbbing head. "I must have finally done something right." His own voice sounded far away.
The pain was bearable. The disorientation was something he hadn't expected. He thought when the moment finally came it would be a relief. But the sudden departure of his silent companions seemed to have thrown his senses into diearray.
In the driver's seat, Rebecca didn't quite know what to make of Remo's sudden strange behavior. "Do you want to stop?" she asked.
"I'm fine," he insisted, waving her onward. Blinking seemed to help. The world was beginning to come back into focus. "What is this place anyway?"
She tore her eyes from Remo, turning her full attention back to the underground road.
"A poorly kept secret," she explained. "After the Gulf War, Iraq continued its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. Everyone knew the labs were probably being hidden under these palaces. It was like a big shell game. This is where Iraq's assassin is going to finish you off."
"Him and what Republican Guard?" Rerno grunted.
They had come to the end of the road. Buried deep beneath the mountains was a complex of offices and labs. Metal catwalks surrounded the man-made cavern. It looked like a James Bond set on a Roger Corman budget.
"This is it," Rebecca said, stopping the Jeep. They had gone through the same drill in a half-dozen countries. Rebecca would drop him off to be attacked by the latest assassin, then swing by to pick him up later.
This time as Remo got out of the vehicle something felt different. Rebecca didn't seem right.
Probably not her. More than likely it was Remo. His senses were still recovering. And then it was there. Her dazzling smile. Plastered across her beautiful face.
"Good luck," she said.
Blaming everything on the strange disorientation he was still feeling, Remo shut the door of the Jeep. "See you in a few," he said.
Rebecca nodded tightly. Without a word she turned the Jeep around and headed back up the long road. Alone in the subterranean chamber, Remo shook his head once more. "Thanks a lot, guys," he muttered.
Turning, he headed deeper into the complex. As he walked, he slowly began to extend his senses. It was like flexing sore muscles. He had spent so much time focusing around the spirits of men who weren't there that everything was out of whack. Still, he could feel his body adjusting.
It took another minute for his senses to return to normal. Once they did, he frowned.
"What the hell?" Remo grumbled.
There were no life signs. The cavern was a few hundred yards around. Except for the road in, he couldn't detect any other tunnels or chambers. It was small enough that he should have been able to sense an enemy. But there wasn't so much as a single heartbeat in the entire underground complex.
"I'm warning you," he called, "if there's a smelly Russian monk floating around down here, this time I'm harvesting eyeballs."
With great disappointment he suddenly remembered he'd left his eyeball-poking stick on Rebecca Dalton's plane.
"Crap," complained Remo Williams.
And in response there came a loud animal roar. The sound came from the direction of the tunnel. For an instant Remo thought Iraq had sent a herd of stampeding elephants to kill him. He wondered briefly if elephants were legal to use as tools of assassination in the Sinanju Time of Succession.
And then the choking dust cloud rolled in along with the growing, terrible roar, and Remo realized that it wasn't a herd of elephants after all, but an explosion so massive that it rocked the ground beneath his feet.
And in the same instant Remo realized who Iraq's hired assassin probably was, but it was too late to do anything about it because the roaring dust cloud was upon him.
OUTSIDE THE COLLAPSED entrance to the tunnel, Rebecca Dalton neatly tucked the tiny silver antenna back inside her cell phone. It had taken just a three-digit number and the pound key to set off the explosives buried in the rock above the tunnel. The shafts in which the bombs had been placed were drilled down from the mountain above so that there was no evidence of them inside. Men trained in Sinanju had amazing abilities of perception. She hadn't wanted to take the risk of drilling up from the inside.
Marveling at the technology available to assassins in this modern age, Rebecca tossed the phone into the big pocket of her beige desert jacket and drove over to a small shed that sat away from the palace. There was no one inside.
Rebecca sat down before a computer monitor. An old-fashioned microphone that looked as if it had been scavenged from Walter Winchell's attic sat beside it.
The keyboard and screen commands were in Arabic. That didn't matter to Rebecca Dalton. Like the pro that she was, Rebecca began typing swiftly at the keyboard. At the far end of snaking tendrils of wire, unseen locks popped open.
On the monitor a dozen red warnings flashed. That was all there was to it.
Brushing a little desert grime from one leg of her pants, Rebecca reached for the microphone. While there was still time to talk to the man she had just murdered.
ELECTRIC FANS successfully removed most of the dust from the air. They whirred for a few minutes before a second pair of explosions-these much smaller than the one that had sealed the tunnel-brought them to a spluttering stop.
A gasoline-fueled generator continued to chug in the distance, feeding power to dull lights. In the yellow glare, Remo found huge boulders blocking the tunnel a dozen yards along. Soft groans and puffs of dust rose from the newly formed wall.
Remo could sense no other openings. The chamber was completely sealed off from the outside world. It would take hours-maybe days-for him to dig through all that rock back up to ground level. "Great," Remo groused.
Tiny glass-enclosed laboratories were built into the walls on either side of the cave. Panes of glass had been carefully removed from each of the rooms, compromising what were supposed to be sealed environments.
As Remo stood in the middle of the chamber, he heard various pops coming from each of the rooms. Vaporous clouds began hissing out the open windows and into the main cave.
Remo instantly shut down his pores. Darting from the main section of the chamber, he raced up the tunnel. The wall of fallen rock stopped him dead.
He launched a fist into a rock, sending a shudder through the cavern walls. A fissure appeared along the broad face of the largest boulder. Another pummeling fist and the rock cracked in two. Wrapping his fingers around the edges, he pulled it free, hurling the half-ton piece of rock back into the chamber. It landed with a thunderous boom.
He was spinning back to the wall when he heard a voice behind him.
"Don't bother," Rebecca Dalton announced, her voice distorted by microphone feedback. "It's half a mile out through solid rock. You'll never make it." Remo didn't turn. He felt the waves from a video camera directed at his back.
His hand smashed the remaining section of rock, flinging it back in two large chunks.
"Let me guess," he grunted. "You work for Iraq."
"More or less," she replied, her voice as calm and sweet as ever. "They were the ones who hired me initially. But I'm getting a double salary for this. One from Iraq, the other from Benson Dilkes."
By her tone it was clear she thought the name should mean something to Remo.
Remo had moved on to the next rock. It was slow going. All the while he felt the tendrils of something soft and sinister moving through the air at his back. "Never heard of him."
"He was one of the best," Rebecca's echoing voice said. "Present company excepted, of course." Her tone was light, laughing. "Benson taught me a lot. Retired for a while, but he's back in the game again. He's got contacts around the world. More than anyone else in the business I've ever known. Benson is the one who's been pulling all the assassins before you could meet with them."
He knew it. There was a conspiracy. "Why?" he asked as he worked.
Even with fans off, shifting air currents within the underground chamber had continued to lazily circulate. Remo felt the first of the cloud-now invisible-roll over him.
Whatever was in the air was far more deadly than the simple poison gas Thomas Smedley had used against him in London. Remo's skin prickled hot. He redoubled his efforts.
"I don't know," Rebecca replied. "A job. A big one, by the way he sounds. Benson doesn't give much away. But it seems he's hiring an army of death to take over that village of yours. He's got a new employer who must really have it in for you. But they didn't want you to get too frustrated too soon, so Benson hired me to keep you busy. He'll be so proud that I was able to do more than that."
"Don't count on it," Remo said. He was thinking of Chiun. Alone in Sinanju. An Army of Death-wasn't there some ancient prophecy about that?
One thing was certain. Remo's threats were hollow. He was feeling it. Whatever was in the air was all over him. Crawling on his skin, burrowing in. Burning hot. His breathing low, he felt the heat in mouth and nose.
His movements were growing slower. He threw out another rock, climbing inside the opening. It was narrow, confining. He had barely tunneled a few feet. Not enough.
"Usually I'd just blow up your plane or hire someone to shoot you," Rebecca mused. "I'm not hands-on. I contract out. But I couldn't trust anyone else to do this job right. It's amazing the preparation that was necessary for you. At first I thought I could get you in there and collapse the whole chamber. But I've read up on you Sinanju escape artists. Just burying you under rock probably wouldn't have done it. One air pocket big enough to hide in and you'd find your way out somehow. You people are veritable Houdinis."
"He stole everything he knew from us," Remo grunted.
He was still trying to dig. Still trying to fight for life. But it was no good. He could feel it going. Slipping slowly away. The life was draining from his arms and legs. The world was growing dark.
A sound echoed through his spinning brain. Rebecca. Somehow Rebecca was still talking to him. But she couldn't be near. She had driven away. Left him here. Left him to die. He hardly heard the words.
"If you're wondering what you're inhaling, what's soaking into your pores or crawling on your skin ...well, it's just everything. None of it nice." Rebecca's voice feigned sympathy. "Everything they have, biological and chemical. Anthrax, smallpox, nocardiosis, cholera. There's sarin, mustard gas, tabun GA, butolin. Your eyeballs will bleed, your skin will peel off. By the time it's all done working its magic, they'll be able to soak up what's left with a sponge. Not that even the Iraqis would be silly enough to dig you up. No one will ever find you. This tunnel will be sealed like a pharaoh's tomb. No one will even know what happened to you. It's a shame, really. I liked you, Remo. You're not like most of the men in this business. You showed some style. A pity. Well, ta."
There was a horrid squeal of feedback, then nothing.
As if taking its cue from Rebecca Dalton, the generator far back in the chamber sputtered loudly once, then died. The lights dropped dim, then faded to dark.
From the darkness came a feeble scratching. It was followed by a booming crash. More rocks falling. Then silence.
Chiun tripped through the desolate wasteland. Thorns tore at his garments. He noticed not.
He came upon a silvery stream, half-frozen. The old man stumbled down the shore, falling across ice and splashing to the other side. Muddied, his wet kimono skirts already freezing, he crawled up the far shore.
He ran on, racing to nowhere.
As he lurched along, the voices of the dead sang a chorus of accusation in his tortured mind.
"You were the vaunted Master of Sinanju. Our champion, protector of the village. We trusted that you would defend us. Where were you, O Master, when we were murdered?"
He covered his ears and cried out in agony, but the voices would not be silenced.
He ran on.
At one time his arrogance made him think he would be remembered in the histories as "Great." But there would be no future history. The future was as dead as the present. As dead as the past would become with no one to remember it.
Chiun, the Greatest Failure. His true title. He would bestow it upon himself in these, his last hours on earth. Inscribe it in stone with his own blood so that those who discovered his desiccated body would know the truth.
They could bring the stone back to Sinanju and plant it in the lifeless square. A final marker to a dead village.
In his mind he could still see it, could not banish the terrible image. The village of Sinanju was gutted. Houses smoldered. Winter wind howled over frozen corpses.
The image burned his brain as he ran on, mile after mile. He knew not how far he had gone when exhaustion finally overtook his frail body. Feeling every tiring moment of more than a century of hard life, he fell to the ground.
His tears were dry. He had wept them all before. The tired old man lay there in the frozen dirt. The cold crept up his extremities. Chiun welcomed it.
His limbs would die first. Then the numbing cold would seep into his vital organs. Finally his brain would go.
In life Sinanju had been his home. But everything there he had lived for, fought for, bled for was now dead. His home on Earth was gone. His new home beckoned.
He had eluded the pull of the Void for a long time. Now, in exhaustion and despair, he awaited its embrace.
"Come to me, Death," he whispered to the ground, his shivering lips scarcely able to form the words. "We are old friends, you and I. It is long past time we met."
He didn't think he had spoken the words aloud. He realized that he had to have, for out of the desolate wind came a mirthful reply.
"I doubt he'd want to meet you. The way you operate, poor old Death would have a hard time keeping up."
That voice. He had heard that voice before. Chiun snapped his face up from the dirt.
A man stood there, smiling down upon him. As if the desolate land where nothing grew were home to him.
The man had a roly-poly belly and a broad cherub's face. He seemed perpetually on the verge of laughing at some private joke.
The instant Chiun beheld the vision standing above him, his jaw dropped in shock.
The figure was known to all Masters of Sinanju. His exploits had been described in many legends, for countless generations throughout the modern history of Sinanju.
But it could not be him. Chiun was hallucinating. Still, the figure seemed real. Intermixed with the jolly smile was the sympathy of a loving father. Standing in his simple robes in the North Korean wilderness, the figure gazed down on the pathetic little man lying in the dirt.
Chiun shook his head. "Great Wang?" he breathed. So shocked was he and so sore was his throat he was scarcely able to speak the words.
"In the flesh," the vision replied. He considered his own words. "More or less," he amended. Chiun understood well what he meant.
The Great Wang had been dead for thousands of years. Traditionally Wang's spirit appeared to a Master of Sinanju in a much younger stage of training. It was a great honor, and one that Chiun had experienced decades before. Since there was no record of the greatest of all Masters of Sinanju ever returning for a second visitation to the same Master, Chiun assumed that no one had lived to tell the tale.
Chiun felt relief wash over him. It was time. "You have come to aid me on my journey."
"Could be," Wang replied mysteriously. "That all depends on which journey you're going to take." And when he saw the confusion on Chiun's face, the spirit of the Great Wang smiled a knowing smile.
IT WAS NEARLY MIDNIGHT when Colonel Mundhir al-Rasul's plane landed at the airport in the remote region of Iraq.
There was no one on the ground to greet him. The colonel wasn't surprised. The airport had been sparsely manned. The soldiers who guarded the small landing strip had radioed Baghdad earlier in the evening to say that there was something wrong at the nearby palace.
Baghdad had taken the news in stride. For some time now, every day brought a new risk of American attack.
When Colonel al-Rasul tried to reach the palace guard by radio, there was no response.
There were no indications that the Americans were attacking. No reports of explosions or planes flying in. There had yet to be a Pentagon briefing on CNN.
An old MiG-21 from the Iraqi defense force was sent up to overfly the area. There were no fires burning, no lights of any kind. The palace was completely dark.
After much discussion, Colonel al-Rasul was sent to investigate the mysterious blackout.
At the airport in the desert a few miles from the palace, the men he brought with him found a Jeep and two trucks. The soldiers got in the trucks while the colonel and his driver climbed in the Jeep. They headed for the palace.
The road was empty. Sand swirled around the Jeep. Two miles from the airport, the palace rose up from the desert floor. A dark, distant silhouette.
For some reason the great leader himself had visited this isolated palace earlier that day. Colonel al-Rasul didn't know why, but he was aware that there had at one time been some sort of weapons production facility hidden there.
As they drew closer to the outer walls, the colonel instructed his driver to shut off the Jeep's lights. The men in the trucks followed suit. Their eyes were adjusted to the darkness by the time they drove through the main gates.
The image inside the high walls stunned the colonel.
The palace towers had been collapsed by some phantom force. They lay in ruins, chunks of broken brick scattered across the inner courtyard. Most of the outer palace walls were knocked over, exposing dark inner rooms.
"The Americans have returned," the colonel's young driver whispered fearfully.
"Stop here," Colonel al-Rasul whispered gruffly. The driver stopped in the main drive. The trucks drew in behind. The colonel was first out. His shiny boots crunched grit. He addressed the men who were hurriedly climbing down from the trucks.
"The palace guards must be hiding," he snarled. "Find the coward in charge and bring him to me." As the soldiers swarmed the buildings, the colonel went to the palace.
Only a cursory examination told him this was no ordinary assault. There was no sign of missile attack. There was no burning, no charred stone or craters showing point of impact.
The colonel kicked a chunk of rock. In the moonlight he saw a dent in the surface. Kneeling, he put his fist in the hole. Nearly a perfect fit. The declivity in the brick was in the perfect shape of a balled human fist. By the looks of where the big brick sat, it had been part of the base of a tower. It was as if someone were trying to make it seem that brute human force had knocked the towers from the sky.
"This does not make sense," the colonel muttered. His driver stood dutifully at his side, rifle at the ready.
"What is wrong, sir?" the soldier asked. The colonel shot the young man a silencing glare. The devastation around the area near the fallen tower was great, yet there were no treads in the sand to indicate the use of heavy equipment. Cranes with wrecking balls certainly hadn't been secretly shipped into Iraq to destroy one palace and then shipped back out again.
No natural phenomenon could account for the damage. There had been no earthquakes or sandstorms. It almost was as if some huge shadow had marched into the Tigris-Euphrates valley and felled the towers with powerful blows.
The call came from beyond the rubble. The colonel and his driver ran back to the Jeep and drove to the rear of the palace. Four soldiers stood in a semicircle on a road around back.
"Put on the lights," Colonel al-Rasul ordered. His driver fumbled at the switch for the headlights. The men winced in the glare of the yellow light. Below them lay a body. At least, it looked as if it might have been a body. When the colonel examined it, he thought he saw fingers. And teeth. The rest was a pulverized pile of goo in a Republican Guard uniform.
"What happened here?" Colonel al-Rasul barked.
"There are more, Colonel," a soldier informed him, a sickly expression on his face. "All over the grounds. We have not yet found anyone alive."
There was fear in the young man's voice. The colonel ignored him. Something had caught his eye. This road was supposed to lead into a tunnel in the mountain behind the palace. But in the wash of headlights he didn't see the opening to the underground weapons laboratory.
Colonel Mundhir al-Rasul went to the rock wall. Where the road ended, he found a wall of collapsed stone.
The newly formed rock face was solid, except for a single dark spot.
Crouching, the colonel peered into the hole.
It looked like an animal burrow. But no animal he knew of could cut its way through solid stone. The headlights from his Jeep cut a ways down the tunnel. The crushed stones at his feet indicated that something had dug its way out. His thoughts went to the handprint in the tower stone.
Colonel Mundhir al-Rasul was beginning to get the distinct feeling that Baghdad had not told him everything.
Fear tickling his belly, he tore his gaze from the eerie dark depths of the hole.
"We are returning to the airport," the colonel announced as he got up, slapping dust from his hands. "I will have Baghdad send reinforcements and we will come back in the morning."
As al-Rasul turned, he saw something move sharply across the bright Jeep headlights. A twisted shadow fell over Colonel al-Rasul, blanketing black the stone behind him. For a moment the shadow seemed to dance, things like human hands upraised. By the time the sharp light returned an instant later, blinding the colonel, the screams had already begun.
He heard cracks of bone, tearing of limbs. Arms and legs flew out of the light, twitching across the ground.
There was a gunshot. Only one. Useless. The screams grew in pitch. Steadier now.
Men cried for help. More shadows converged on the Jeep. The soldiers from Colonel Mundhir al-Rasul's entourage were racing in from all around the palace grounds.
The colonel fumbled his side arm from its holster and ran forward. With shaking hands he took aim at the shadows beyond the light.
He stumbled over an arm that was no longer attached to a body. The colonel fell over the ragged appendage, landing spread-eagled on the ground. Sliding in the dirt, he came to a stop nose-to-nose with an Iraqi soldier. He recognized the face of his young driver. The man's mouth was open wide. Colonel al-Rasul saw the soldier's body. It was lying ten feet away from the man's head.
Mundhir al-Rasul scampered to his feet.
The bodies were everywhere. He saw them now, beyond the wash of the Jeep's headlights. All the soldiers he had brought with him from Baghdad. All dead.
It had started seconds-no more than ten seconds before.
Something moved out of the shadows. It was the thing. The terrible demon with the long spidery arms that had tunneled through solid stone, knocked over towers with bare hands and dismembered twenty-nine heavily armed soldiers in the time it took a man to scream.
When the colonel saw the creature's eyes, the old soldier felt the contents of his bladder drain down the front of his trousers.
The eyes of the monster glowed like twin red coals in the cold Iraqi night.
The instant he saw those devil eyes, the colonel threw away his gun and dropped to his knees in supplication.
"Spare me!" he cried out in fear, arms outstretched, face buried in the sand.
A hand grabbed him roughly by the scruff of the neck. He felt himself being yanked violently from the ground. Boots dangling off the ground, he spun in air, coming face-to-face with the nightmare-spawned demon.
It was not the face of a monster, but a man. He was white, with high cheekbones and deep-set eyes. But, oh, the eyes. They burned red with ancient fury. When the demon who had taken on the form of a man opened its mouth to speak, an otherworldly voice boomed up from the lowest depths of Na'ar, Islam's Hell.
"You!" the demon bellowed. "Insect! You will take me where I need to go."
And his fear of the creature was such that Colonel Mundhir al-Rasul would have led a charge through the very gates of Na'ar itself rather than bear the horrible demon's terrible wrath.
WITH A DELICACY BELIED by his girth, the Great Wang sank cross-legged to the ground. He seemed to forget Chiun for a moment, content to breathe the air and gaze up at the sky.
Chiun was still on his knees, his hazel eyes locked on the spirit who stood wrapped in flesh before him. The old man slowly pulled himself from the ground. Confused, he sat at the feet of the greatest of all the Masters of Sinanju.
"It happened right about here," the first Master of the New Age announced all at once. "I don't know why I never recorded that. I guess it's just as well. There'd be pilgrims coming out here day and night. No sense desecrating a sacred place with tourists."
"What happened here, O Great Wang?" Chiun asked.
"You know," Wang said. "That thing. The thing that changed everything for us. This is the spot." All at once Chiun realized what the Great Wang meant.
It was as Remo had recited back in London's Hyde Park. Was it only days ago? It seemed like months. In Wang's time one Master ruled the village with many trained in Sinanju to serve under him. This was back in the days before the Sun Source. The Master of the time had died without an heir. While the night tigers fought one another to see who would become head of the village, Wang left to meditate. While he was alone in the wilderness, a ring of fire descended from the heavens, revealing to young Wang a new way. Wang returned to the village and slew the squabbling night tigers, taking up the mantle of Reigning Master. It took him a lifetime to understand all the vision in the wilderness had imparted to him in that instant.
While this was the oldest legend in the modern age of Sinanju, history had never recorded the spot. Chiun looked around the barren region with new eyes.
For his part Wang continued to watch the sky. He seemed fascinated by a distant bird. As dusk settled, the bird swooped and dived on currents of invisible air.
"That's what I miss the most," Wang said wistfully. "The realness of reality. There is a miraculousness to every insignificant little moment on Earth. You just have to be looking in the right direction."
He smiled once more as the bird flew away. Its beating wings seemed to draw up the cloak of night. Cold stars winked on in the heavens.
Chiun watched Wang watch the bird disappear. The old man could contain himself no longer.
"O Wang, Greatest of all the Masters of Sinanju-"
"None of that," Wang interrupted, attention snapping sharp from the suddenly eerie night sky. "I didn't come all the way here from my eternal rest in the Void to hear you polish my apples."
"Forgive me," Chiun said. "I only wish to know, you are here to take me home, are you not?"
"If you mean am I here to watch you die, no. Unless that's what you decide to do. If so, I'll send you on your journey on wings of doves. When we reach the land of your fathers, we will place rings on your fingers and give you a seat of honor for all you have accomplished." The chubby man leaned in close. "But you'll be missing out on the best half of the story." He offered a broad wink.
Chiun could only shake his head.
"I do not understand. I have finished my work on Earth. I have taken my pupil to the pinnacle of perfection. There is no more I can teach him."
"There's always more," Wang said. "And who knows? Maybe he can teach you a thing or two." He saw the look of utter bafflement on Chiun's face. "Haven't you figured it out yet? Why do you think you were entrusted with training Remo? You know his destiny. Yours and his are intertwined. You're a Master of Sinanju unlike any that have come before, including me. Your destiny is not to die out here in the middle of nowhere. Your songs will be sung in our village long after my name has been forgotten." At this, Chiun hung his head in shame.
"I fear not. I am disgraced, for thanks to my failure, the lips that would sing such songs have all been silenced. The frozen curses of the dead are my herald's song."
"You mean what you saw back in Sinanju?" Wang waved an easy dismissal. "A vision of what might be."
Chiun's face showed deep confusion. "I have seen it with my own eyes," he insisted.
"And even if your eyes tell you the truth, Sinanju lives in you and in your pupil. Assuming, that is, you choose not to die and he manages to get out of this mess alive."
"Remo will be fine," Chiun said. "He is back with his American emperor by now."
"Are you sure about that?" Wang asked.
His tone sent a worried warning flash across the Master of Sinanju's wrinkled face.
"Why?" the old man asked. "What of Remo?"
"Nothing," Wang said absently. He was back to studying the sky. This time his gaze was directed straight up. "Maybe everything. We'll just have to wait and see with that boy. By the way, I like him, Chiun. You two work well together. A few too many bodies for my taste, but you can't have everything. But whatever is or isn't wrong with our Remo will have to wait." He was still looking skyward. A smile touched his broad lips. "Your ride is here."
Chiun did not understand what the Great Wang meant.
Before he could ask, he felt his senses suddenly go haywire. All around he felt the prickly sensation of eyes winking on, one after another. The invisible gaze of hundreds directed on his wizened form.
Though old, it remained a familiar sensation, one not easily forgotten. For the year before his ascendancy to Reigning Masterhood, Chiun had endured the Masters' Tribunal, feeling in every moment the invisible stares of all the former Masters of Sinanju. The Hour of Judgment. But that was many years ago, when the world was young and every day held the promise of adventure. This was not Chiun's time. The past Masters should have been with Remo, not Chiun. There had to have been some cosmic mistake.
But there was Wang. If Wang was present, it had to be right.
The greatest Master of Sinanju was still standing there, staring up into the heavens. Chiun followed his gaze.
And then he saw it. Coalescing from the swirl of countless galaxies. A fog of mystic energy churning round and round, burning brighter as it swirled and flashed.
A spark in the mist. A flash to fire. The light more blinding and brilliant than anything touched by hard flint to mere earthly tinder. The ring of fire descended.
The glow from the supernatural light burned hot on the barren wastes of rock and scrub.
Small on the ground, the Master of Sinanju felt his heart catch. With utter incomprehension, he looked to Wang.
The smile had returned to the fat man's face. Wang's broad face was angelic in the warm radiant glow of the slowly descending light.
"Show time," the Great Wang announced.
And when the ring of fire touched ground, the brilliance of the light consumed them utterly.
Captain Ralph Chauncy didn't like his orders one damn bit. Ordinarily he would have blamed it on just the locale. This special route always made him uneasy. Not that anyone in his right mind would blame him. It wasn't easy sneaking into North Korean territorial waters. Especially since the Navy had seen fit to give him command of an old rust bucket of a submarine like the USS Darter.
Every November 12 for the past seven years, Captain Chauncy was given delivery duty. He would sneak into the West Korean Bay in the dead of night so his men could paddle some special cargo ashore. Crates of something. Captain Chauncy never looked to see what was inside. For all he knew, they could have been crammed full of weapons for anti-Commie agitators or goddamn Watchtower pamphlets. It wasn't his job to ask. What was his job was keeping the leaky bucket that was the Darter from splitting apart at the seams.
That first trip Captain Chauncy had no idea why the Navy had given him the Darter-a boat that by all rights should have seen a complete refit or been sold for scrap. He found the reason at the bottom of the West Korean Bay.
Another U.S. sub was already there. Nestled in the silt. Gaping holes where the hull had been blown apart.
It was a chilling moment.
Captain Chauncy had heard about a sub being sunk in the West Korean Bay years before. He assumed it had been salvaged. Never thought he was being sent to the exact same spot. The rusting sub appeared to have been left as warning. On that first visit he realized he was looking at his own future, should fate so choose it for him. A forgotten watery grave for the USS Darter.
But the Darter was more than just a replacement for the ill-fated USS Harlequin. Chauncy learned afterward from Admiral Lee Enright Leahy, who had commanded the Darter for years, that the Darter had been the first sub to haul cargo on this route. In a way it was a homecoming for the creaky old sub. Captain Chauncy could not wax nostalgic.
It was bad enough to have to risk sneaking into enemy waters, bad enough to do so in a rust bucket, bad enough that he'd just done this whole dance three weeks ago with the regular cargo crates. But now his boat had been turned into a goddamn shuttle service.
Captain Chauncy was looking out the periscope. The weird rock formations that looked like a pair of blunt devil's horns told him he was back in the right place.
"Go get them," Chauncy ordered his executive officer. "Tell them we're here."
As the exec hurried off, Captain Chauncy grunted unhappily to himself. He would have preferred crates. He had picked up his two passengers in the Pacific.
The men had been flown out to an aircraft carrier that had rendezvoused with the Darter.
One was an old man, the other a kid only about ten years older than the sailors aboard the sub. Oddly enough, it was the old man who seemed more comfortable on the sub. He sat on his bunk for most of the trip as if waiting for the next downtown bus. The young one looked queasier every time Captain Chauncy checked in on them.
The exec returned less than a minute later, the two men in tow. As usual the young one looked a little green.
"This is your stop, gentlemen," the captain said. "My men can have you on shore in fifteen minutes."
"That is not necessary," said the older of the two passengers. He had a clipped, lemony voice and wore a three-piece gray suit. "When you surface, lower a raft over the side. We will row ourselves ashore."
Captain Chauncy looked the two men up and down. The old one was dressed for a business meeting and the young one looked as if he was about to upchuck.
"Your funeral," Captain Ralph Chauncy shrugged. Hoping that it would not be his, as well, he gave his men the order to surface.
TEN MINUTES LATER Harold W. Smith and Mark Howard were in a black rubber raft paddling across choppy waves.
Smith had donned his overcoat and scarf. The collar of his coat was turned up against the cold. Howard wore a turtleneck sweater and water-repellent down jacket. The assistant CURE director did most of the paddling on the way in to shore.
"I know this place," Howard commented darkly as he paddled. Cold water splashed over the knees of his Levi's.
Even in the bleak starlight he could see the CURE director's puzzled frown.
"In those visions I had before I-" Mark hesitated. "Before Purcell escaped from Folcroft." He pointed at the strange twin rock formation. "I saw that."
Smith nodded. "The Horns of Welcome," the older man explained. "Constructed by one of Chiun's ancestors."
His gray eyes were studying the night cliffs, trying to glimpse a silhouette of movement. He saw none. There was no ambient glow from beyond the rocks. Sinanju seemed dead.
On the shore Smith helped Howard drag the raft from the water's edge. Once it was secure, the two men made their way up the winding bay path to the village.
"Have you ever been here before?" Howard whispered, a worried edge in his voice.
"Was it -I don't know-livelier back then?" Smith understood his assistant's meaning. Even in a village as small as Sinanju, there should have been sounds of life, the collective din of people going about their daily lives. No sound whatsoever emanated from the village ahead.
Smith had brought his .45-caliber automatic from Folcroft. He slipped the handgun from its holster. Before they even reached the village proper, Smith feared they were too late.
He smelled the smoke first. It was a little too acrid in the frigid air. It burned his nostrils.
He saw the buildings when they crested the hill.
Burned husks of the simple wood-framed homes and shops that had comprised the central core around the main square of Sinanju.
And all around were bodies.
The dead lay everywhere. End to end. Across the square, up alleys, on wooden sidewalks. The streets of Sinanju were choked with corpses.
"Good God," Smith breathed, his gun lowering in shock.
Beside him on the road, Mark Howard seemed strangely unbothered by the destruction all around them. There was an odd look on his youthful face. With careful eyes he studied the nearest building, as if he had never before witnessed up close the destruction wrought by fire.
Away from his assistant, Smith was staring at bodies on the ground. One face after another. So many dead. It looked as if the entire village of Sinanju had been-
What little color he possessed drained from his gray face. "Chiun," the CURE director whispered in soft horror.
Stumbling over the nearest bodies, he crouched beside a frail corpse.
The Master of Sinanju was peaceful in eternal repose. The care lines of his weathered face were relaxed.
Scarcely able to believe his eyes, Smith reached out a shaking hand, touching the old Korean's cheek. The flesh was cold. Chiun had been dead for hours. "No," Smith breathed, the word a mournful plea within a puff of white steam. His gun arm went slack and he fell to his backside in the dirt.
Someone was calling him. The words scarcely registered.
The Master of Sinanju was gone. The most awesome force to walk the face of the earth. Dead. "Dr. Smith!"
Smith turned numbly to the sound. Mark Howard stood a few yards away, an excited expression an his face. The young man seemed unaffected by the death of Chiun.
Didn't he know? Didn't he care?
Smith cared. Professional detachment be damned. Chiun deserved better. More than the fact that he was part of CURE's inner circle, the old man had dedicated his life to this village. His end should not have come this way, along with the death of his beloved Sinanju.
Howard had turned away from Smith, away from Chiun's frail body. He was standing next to a charred and smoking building. Though blackened from fire, the wall was still intact. Mark raised a tentative hand to the wall.
Smith couldn't begin to guess what the young man was doing. Nor did he care. CURE had lost one of its own. This trip had been to warn Chiun and Remo of the danger. An arduous journey ended in bitter failure.
Smith's eyes burned.
Howard glanced back once at Smith, a baffled expression on his broad face. And then to Smith's shock, the young man stepped directly through the charred wall, disappearing through the solid wood like a wisp of winter chimney smoke.
KIM JONG IL WAS HIDING out in his basement bunker when he heard the news.
General Kye Pun of the People's Bureau of Revolutionary Struggle had personally come down to tell him. The general's bodyguard, Shan Duk, stood just inside the door. The premier sat in an overstuffed beanbag chair before his big-screen television, a bucket of half-eaten popcorn on his lap.
"What are we, the goddamn hijacked-plane capital of the world now?" the Korean leader demanded angrily, spitting out an unpopped kernel. It pinged off the TV screen. "Where's this one from?"
"Iraq," replied the general. "And it is not hijacked. It has been put at the disposal of a-" he read from a scrap of paper in his hand "'-a friend of the head of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council."' He looked up from the paper. "They radioed ahead."
The premier's eyes narrowed. "He's got friends like I've got friends. Meaning he's got zip. Can only mean that one guy's on that plane, and he's not the friendly type, either." Very carefully he put down his popcorn bucket. "I hope I backed the right pony in this race," the premier said warily. He looked up at the inscrutable face of Kye Pun. "Let's get this show on the road."
Wiping buttery salt on his knees, Kim Jong II struggled up out of his beanbag.
BENSON DILKEs felt uneasy.
Back in his day, when he was still plying his trade, before cozy retirement in Africa, uneasiness was always the leading edge of failure. A prudent man, Dilkes generally skipped town at the first sign of uneasiness. But this situation afforded no such luxury.
For the first time in his professional career, Benson Dilkes was stuck.
Still, as he climbed the basement stairs of the grand Sinanju treasure house, there were no self-recriminations. He had made the only decision he could. Nuihc had given him no other options.
It was ironic. That day a week ago, when the renegade Master of Sinanju had arrived unannounced at Dilkes's Florida apartment, had actually offered hope. The first Dilkes had had for many months.
For months, long before Nuihc's arrival, Dilkes was certain he was a dead man. He alone seemed to know the truth behind this Sinanju Time of Succession. Some in his profession saw it as an honor, while others saw it as a duty. Dilkes saw it for what it was: clearing house.
They were cagey, these Sinanju assassins. They hadn't lasted thousands of years by being stupid. They might dress it up with pretty words for kings and killers alike, but it was clear precisely what they were doing with all this.
Removing the competition.
There was no opting out of the ritual. Once a contestant was "lucky" enough to be chosen to participate, he was locked in. It was diabolically clever, really. Prove your mettle to the rulers of a nation by murdering that nation's best assassin. See? We're the best. But-oh, no-now you no longer have your greatest national assassin. Not a problem. Sinanju is always available for your convenience. For a reasonable fee, of course.
It was ruthless and brilliant and something Uiat Benson Dilkes himself might have come up with. That was the worst thing about all this. In spite of everything, he still felt such accursed admiration for these killers from the East.
At least for the true Masters of Sinanju. He had no such appreciation for the madman he'd thrown in with.
He found Nuihc sitting in a plain back room in the House of Many Woods. Unlike the rest of the Master of Sinanju's home, there was no treasure jammed to the rafters here. Just a simple wooden floor, a reed mat and a few unlit candles.
The blond-haired man was in the room with Nuihc. He stood in the corner, his blue eyes wide. He was a shadow of a man. Although his mouth opened and closed, no words came out.
The scrawny white man who babbled soundlessly night and day was an obvious lunatic. But Nuihc was just as crazy. Worse. Dilkes hadn't seen it right away. It had come out in dribs and drabs during their days together. Nuihc's insanity was quieter and thus, to Dilkes, more frightening.
"The furnace is fine, Master," Dilkes announced. He hated that word now. It sounded so wrong on his tongue.
Nuihc was sitting on the woven mat in the center of the room. "Really?" he said. "I felt ... something." The words came out a lazy drawl.
Why, Dilkes wondered for the hundredth time, was this native Korean sounding more and more as if he'd been born and bred on some rural Appalachian dirt farm?
The accent had slipped out a few times during their days together. The Southern twang was as thick as a bowl of hominy grits. When Rebecca Dalton had phoned with news of the death of the American Master of Sinanju three days before, the Southern accent had blossomed full. Gone was the precise use of language of a cultured Korean master assassin. Nuihc now sounded as though he should be calling Saturday-night square dances in Possum Hollow.
Benson Dilkes, native Virginian, knew the accent wasn't a put-on. But he couldn't figure out why it was coming out of Nuihc's mouth. Or why the lips of the blond man in the corner of the room now always seemed to move in perfect time with the words spoken by Nuihc. Dilkes felt that he was stuck in the middle of some demented ventriloquist act.
"I can check the furnace again," Dilkes offered.
"No," Nuihc said. He closed his eyes, a blissful expression settling on his flat face. "It's more than just the furnace. I can feel it now. A great army comes."
"I don't hear anything."
"Of course you don't. You ain't Nuihc the wise, Nuihc the great, Nuihc the sees-all-and-tells-all." And at this, the Korean giggled insanely. Out of the corner of his eye, Dilkes saw the blond-haired man was laughing, as well. Mouth hanging open wide with demented glee, not a single sound passing parted lips.
"It's Kim Jong Il," Nuihc explained. "Come to welcome us to the neighborhood. I promised him power and glory in exchange for protection. Dang fool thinks he can give it to me with tanks. Beats having to kill him, I expect. And I could do it, too, 'cause I'm Nuihc the killer. Killer of men, killer of hopes and dreams. Killer of childhood. Don't make a whole lot of difference either way to me."
The blond man found this hysterically funny. Over in the corner, he laughed his silent laugh even as Nuihc threw back his own head, clutching his belly as he cackled crazily.
"If the North Korean army is advancing on us, I should go tell the men," Dilkes said, voice loud over the laughter.
Nuihc waved a hand. "No," he said, his Southern accent strong. "Leave them where they are. They're my Army of Death. They're the fellers what are gonna help me rule the world. I give 'em a little training, see, and then I send 'em back to wherever they come from. Nothing can stop them. That's what I always wanted, you know. To rule the world. I couldn't be happy just being a plain old Master of Sinanju or a daddy. I always had one eye on the whole big world."
This was intolerable. He was getting worse by the minute. Talking gibberish, laughing insanely.
For Dilkes enough was enough. Nuihc had gotten them all into this country. As a white American in Communist North Korea, Dilkes thought himself trapped. No more. He was getting out somehow. He was leaving this crazy man to his plots of world domination. Benson Dilkes was going back to Africa. Back to his prize roses and his happy retirement. Let them come and get him if they wanted. Nuihc, the current Reigning Master. Dilkes didn't care. He wasn't going to play this insane game any longer.
"If the premier is sending men, maybe they can help find the old Master of Sinanju," Dilkes said, beginning to back slowly from the room. "They know the terrain, and he hasn't been seen since he ran from the village three days ago."
"He's dead," Nuihc insisted firmly. "This place meant everything to him. It made him nuts to see it in ruins. I felt his insanity." He hugged himself, like cuddling up in a warm blanket. "He couldn't live with it."
Dilkes didn't know what Nuihc was talking about now. Someone seeing Sinanju in ruins. More crazy talk.
"As you say, Master," Dilkes smiled. "If there's nothing more, I'll go check on the men."
Nuihc didn't hear. He had already lost interest in Benson Dilkes. He had turned full attention on the blond man. A human plaything, Nuihc lifted one arm, and the blond did the same. They each mirrored the movements of the other perfectly. The two of them giggled at each other.
"Like father, like son." Nuihc laughed.
At the door Benson Dilkes shook his head. He quietly departed the room on the disturbing image of mirrored lunatics' laughter.
"MARK!" Smith gasped.
The CURE director couldn't believe his eyes. He had seen much that was strange in his time, but little could compete with the extraordinary sight of his assistant stepping straight through a solid wall.
When Smith called, Mark Howard returned. The young man appeared like a phantom through the side of the burned-out building. He wore a nervous smile. "Abracadabra," Mark said.
"How did you do that?" Smith demanded.
"Easy," Mark replied. "The wall's not really there." He waved around the decimated village. "None of them are. You mean you can't see it?" He was optimistic, but seemed resigned to the fact that he alone could see the truth.
Smith still sat on the ground near the Master of Sinanju's body. He looked up the main road of Sinanju.
"I see buildings burned. Some right to the ground."
Howard shook his head. "It's just a projection, Dr. Smith. The buildings I see are still in one piece. They're a little bit behind the fake walls. From what I can tell, the village looks fine. It's like he's superimposing an image of destruction over the whole place."
Smith knew precisely who Howard meant. He also allowed a fresh sliver of hope to enter his grieving heart.
"What of-what of the villagers?" he asked. He kept his eyes trained on Mark, not daring to look down at Chiun.
The answer sent Smith's tired old heart soaring. "That's definitely not Chiun," Mark insisted. "It's not anyone. None of these bodies are real."
The questioning singsong that rang loud at Howard's back startled both the assistant CURE director and Harold Smith.
"Are you certain?" demanded a squeaky voice. Howard wheeled.
The Master of Sinanju stood like a statue carved from stone at the very edge of the village square. His hands were tucked inside his voluminous kimono sleeves. With suspicious slits he looked across the ruins of Sinanju. His eyes lingered on the corpse that wore his face.
"Master Chiun!" Smith cried, climbing quickly to his feet. As he hurried over to meet the old Korean, he dried the cold tears from his face.
Chiun ignored Smith. "The bodies of my people," he snapped at Howard. "Are they real or not?"
"No," Mark Howard replied. "They're just illusions. Like this wall." To prove his point he put his hand against the wall. It disappeared up to the forearm.
Eyes widening in surprise, the old Korean pressed a wrinkled hand to the wall. It felt solid to his touch. He could feel the rough surface of the charred wood. But it seemed too perfect, felt too much like a burned house. Just like the smell of smoke that still lingered in the cold air. All too real. He was ashamed to not have noticed it before. Experience should have made him suspicious. In the past he had been tricked several times by Jeremiah Purcell's more-real-than-real illusions.
"The Dutchman," Chiun snarled, his hand hopping from the false wall.
"He's here," Smith insisted. "That's why we came. To warn you. Mark says-"
"Enough!" Chiun snapped impatiently, cutting Smith off. "What day is this?"
Smith was surprised by the question. The Master of Sinanju kept time better than an atomic clock. "It's Friday," Smith replied.
"Three days," Chiun said to himself. To Smith he asked sharply, "Where is Remo?"
"We don't know," the CURE director replied. "He never returned from Russia. I believe he may have resumed the Time of Succession schedule. I have gotten a few odd reports from some countries in the Middle East. But he has not gotten in touch with me in days. You haven't spoken with him?"
Chiun shook his head. "No," he said, his nose turned into the air like a bloodhound on a scent. "But he is near."
Howard and Smith exchanged glances. Smith seemed to easily accept the old man's words. Mark was going to ask how Chiun could possibly know Remo was nearby, but then he remembered he was standing in the middle of a madman's three-dimensional delusion that had been conjured out of thin air. He decided that anything was possible.
"He has preceded the tanks here," Chiun commented.
"Tanks?" Smith asked.
Chiun didn't elaborate. "Emperor, take your prince and flee this place," the old man warned gravely. "In the coming battle I cannot guarantee your safety."
"We cannot go," Smith insisted. "You don't understand."
"Then stay," Chiun snapped impatiently. "But the risk is yours."
Turning on his heel, the Master of Sinanju hurried through the village square. Brow sinking in frustration, Smith raced to catch up.
"Wait, Master Chiun," Smith called.
Up ahead the Master of Sinanju was still not immune to the illusions. His kimono skirts were hiked up as he darted over and around seemingly solid bodies.
Only Mark Howard was able to see reality beyond the illusion. On some level he realized that it was due to the psychic connection he'd had with the Dutchman more than a year before. Somehow the mind tricks didn't work on him. Rather than go around, the assistant CURE director waded straight through the bodies, feet vanishing ankle deep in torsos before drifting ghostlike out the far side.
"Some of these faces aren't Korean," Howard commented as they hurried through the heart of the village.
Smith had noticed the same thing. The farther along they went, the more non-Korean faces there were.
"I believe they are his victims," Smith commented tightly. "I- My God," he gasped, stopping dead. Three of the corpses that had been conjured from the depths of the Dutchman's twisted mind wore faces familiar to the CURE director. Three United States senators who had been murdered thirty years before were lying with the rest.
Smith was shocked silent. The murders of the men had been tangled up in the first assignment he had ever sent Remo on as CURE's enforcement arm. Smith had no idea that they had somehow been connected to Jeremiah Purcell.
"He couldn't have been more than a boy when these murders took place," Smith whispered.
He looked back over his shoulder, across the sea of faces. There seemed more now. Bodies as far as the eye could see. As Smith watched, more bodies grew atop the piles. Mountains of corpses rising up, pasty death faces illuminated in the weird purple light of the growing dawn.
"What's wrong, Dr. Smith?" Howard asked. "His mind is unraveling. He is remembering all of his victims. All the faces of the dead that have been tormenting him throughout the years."
When he turned, he saw that a new pair of bodies had been set at the very end of the line.
The man and woman were both in their late thirties. The man was dressed in simple blue jeans and plaid work shirt. The woman wore a blue apron and a worn but clean dress. She had blond hair like spun silk. The skin of both husband and wife was blistered black from third-degree burns.
"Who are they?" Mark asked.
"I would guess Purcell's parents," the CURE director replied, his thin lips pursed. "He told Remo and Chiun years ago that he had murdered them. They were his first victims. I believe we have come to the end of the line."
His worried eyes were directed ahead.
The main road ended where the long walkway to Chiun's house began. The area was free of phantom corpses. Smith saw that a familiar figure had joined the Master of Sinanju on the well-trampled footpath.
For the first instant that he saw Remo, the CURE director felt a flash of quick relief. That relief disappeared as quickly as it had come.
It was Chiun's reaction that sent up warning flares for Harold Smith.
The old Korean gave a deep, subservient bow, the likes of which Masters of Sinanju granted no mere mortals. Eyes downcast, he shuffled a few obsequious steps backward.
Howard stopped at Smith's side. "It's Remo," he said.
Smith shot a hard look at Mark Howard. "If you value both our lives, do not say anything to him." Howard shook his head as he studied the new arrival. There wasn't the same flickering lack of substance he had seen in the buildings and bodies.
"Don't worry, Dr. Smith. That's really Remo." The CURE director was studying the Master of Sinanju.
The old man's face was now upturned, but he maintained a subservient semibow. Remo had taken a posture of arrogance, hands planted on his hips, as he looked up at the House of Many Woods. He seemed to be soaking up his teacher's groveling as if it were his due.
Smith shook his head ominously.
"He is real," the CURE director said darkly. When he glanced at his assistant, the dread was reflected deep in his gray eyes. "But I fear he is not Remo."
The Master of Sinanju knew to fear the instant he saw Remo's eyes. Within the dark depths of the deep-set brown orbs were twin pinpricks of red-ancient burning coals compressed into a tiny supernova of raw power and fury.
Chiun had seen those eyes before. They were not the eyes of his beloved son, but of a force far greater than any mere mortal. Even a Master of Sinanju.
His bow was deep and reverential.
"O Supreme Lord, your humble servant welcomes you joyously to this temporal plain."
And though his words were respectful, they were laced with fear for the world and sadness for the son who had to die to bring this terrible force to life.
Remo didn't answer right away. He didn't look at Chiun. His eyes remained directed on the house up ahead, the senses of his perfect body tuned to the life force that emanated from within. And when he spoke, there was a quizzical growl to the booming voice that rose like accusing thunder from deep within Remo's chest.
"I know this place. "
Chiun allowed a glimmer of hope. "It is the ancestral home of the Masters of Sinanju."
This seemed to strike a chord within Remo. He looked away from the house. His glowing eyes studied Chiun's face.
"I have encountered you before, old man. "
"You honor me to remember such a worthless soul as I."
The Dutchman's sunrise had oozed up over the horizon. Purple light spread like an oil slick across the dreary landscape. The light brightened across Remo's battered form.
It looked as if Remo had been dragged through Hell. His clothes were tatters, his hair filthy and unkempt. But it was the condition of his pupil's skin that made Chiun wince.
A year ago Remo had suffered terrible burns over most of his body. This was worse. There were blue blotches and oozing red sores. Patches of necrotic-tissue colored arms and neck with hideous splotches of black.
It looked as if Remo had wept tears of blood. The streaks below his eyes were dry now and beginning to flake.
He was filthy, covered with dirt and grime. His fingers and knuckles had bled profusely at some point in the very recent past and were now covered in scabs.
Yet through it all, Chiun sensed a strong heartbeat and powerful, working lungs. A great stillness suffused Remo's being. There was no sense of contagion coming from him. Whatever had happened to Remo, he had sloughed off the worst effects. His body was healing.
"Why am I here?" the being who possessed Remo demanded. "Did you summon me from my slumber?"
"My lips are not worthy, Supreme Lord. I would not defile your name to speak it, wretch that I am."
Chiun sensed the approaching presence of two men. He shot a glance back at Harold Smith and Mark Howard. An angry hand waved them to halt their approach.
The thing that wore Remo's face looked back to the House of Many Woods. His features seemed to soften visibly. A contemplative frown settled around his mouth.
"This was my home for many years," Chiun said sadly. "If the Supreme Lord wishes to claim it for his own, he may have it, for without an heir I no longer have use for it."
The words pained him. He had so much to tell Remo, so much now to discover in himself. But his revelations were nothing without his son to share them with.
The red-flecked eyes narrowed as the being within Remo considered Chiun's offer. At long last he spoke. "I'll put up with everything else, Little Father, but if you think I'm living in this dump, you're nuts." Chiun felt hope soar on fluttering wings.
"Remo?" Chiun sang joyfully.
"Do not address me, worthless one, " boomed the voice that was not Remo's.
As soon as he finished, he spoke again, this time in a voice more familiar.
"Yes," Remo's normal voice insisted. And again he shook his head.
"No," Remo said, louder now. He looked to Chiun, a puzzled expression on his face. The fire still burned within his eyes. But they were Remo's eyes. Though the fire came from another, it was his own to command.
"It's me, Chiun," he stated firmly. "But not me."
And a lopsided smile cracked his face wide, for the doors had been flung open and he at last understood. He had been given a moment. A glimpse of his future.
The fire came from within, from a primordial place that Remo had always known was there. It was right, and it was him and now, after all these years, he finally understood.
With a new strength-one that he owned but was not entirely his own-he spun back to the House of Many Woods.
"Time to kick some squatter ass," Remo Williams said.
INSIDE THE MASTER'S House, the man with the Asian features sensed the men approaching. At first he assumed they were representatives of Kim Jong Il's government, for the rumble of tanks was nearly upon the village.
But then the heartbeats came into his sphere, first one, then another. Men trained in Sinanju. Unmistakable.
There wasn't shock or fear. Just another twist in the tangled knot of madness.
"They dare come against me?" he asked the wall. "Don't they know that I'm the mighty Nuihc? Nuihc the Unbeatable?" He turned to the blond-haired shadow in the corner. "The battle has come to us. You will do as you were trained to do, dog. Stay close and defend your Master."
And even as the order was being issued, the lips of the other man moved in perfect time with those of the Asian.
"COME OUT, come out or I'll blow your house in!" Remo called from the front walk of the Master's House.
The Master of Sinanju was at his side. They had instructed Smith and Howard to stay back near the village.
"Are you well enough for this, my son?" the old man asked from the corner of his mouth.
"Couldn't be better," Remo said.
The truth was, despite his appearance, he felt good. Better than good. It was like a puzzle piece had been missing from his life all along and he hadn't even known it.
When the door opened and Nuihc appeared, Remo wasn't shocked. Chiun had quickly filled him in about the blood on the shore and Pullyang's method of execution.
The Dutchman appeared through the door, as well. With Jeremiah Purcell in tow, Nuihc descended the steps.
It was an odd sight for Remo and Chiun, to actually see their two greatest foes in the same place. Through the years their battles with both men had always been separate. They had never before seen the two false Masters together.
"I miss the days when dead people had the decency to stay dead, don't you, Little Father?" Remo said loudly.
"Be on guard," Chiun whispered in a voice so low only Remo could hear. "For I am forbidden by tradition to raise a hand against the son of my brother."
"Okay, I'll take Nuihc, you take Purcell."
"Very well," Chiun replied hastily. "But the Dutchman's life must be spared. Remember, your spirits are intertwined. If he dies, so, too, will you."
Remo seemed about to say more, but there was no time.
Nuihc and Purcell stopped on the path. Only a few yards separated the pairs of combatants.
"Welcome to my village," Nuihc said.
"Love what you've done with the place," Remo said. "A few too many burned buildings and dead bodies for my taste, but I guess that's what you get when you hire a rubber-room reject as your landscaper."
The barb was directed at Jeremiah Purcell, but it was Nuihc who reacted. A small twitch at his thin lips.
"My son is not to be underestimated," he said coldly.
Both Remo and Chiun took note of the word. From what they had learned from Purcell, Nuihc had never thought of the younger man as anything more than a weapon. Purcell's feelings for Nuihc as father had never been reciprocated.
"You don't belong here, duck droppings," Remo said.
"You are welcome to try to remove me," Nuihc replied. "But this time can I assume that our mutual teacher will adhere to the dictates he claims to hold dear?"
"I will not kill you, wicked one," Chiun answered. Nuihc grinned. So, too, did Jeremiah Purcell. There was something wrong with the smile-with everything. The Nuihc arrogance was there. But the rest was off.
Remo had no time to question.
"Welcome to your doom, white mongrel!" the Fallen Master of Sinanju cried out in triumph.
And in a blinding instant, Nuihc was off the worn path and in the air, teeth gritted in a mask of a hatred so primal that it defied the very grave itself.
SMITH AND HOWARD HAD taken refuge behind the facsimile of a burned building. The CURE director's heart was in his throat as he watched Nuihc's first attack.
An uncoiled toe flew for Remo's throat. Smith was certain that it would register. But at the last moment, Remo seemed to fall in with the blow. His body bent back and Nuihc flew over, rolling and springing back up.
As Nuihc jumped toward Remo, the Dutchman vaulted at Chiun. The blond-haired man circled the elderly Korean on the frozen earth beside the path. No blows registered as the two combatants circled each other.
Above, the sky began to shimmer. A cloak of swirling purple flooded the inverted bowl above the planet. Smith's worried gray eyes were directed on the heavens. "Purcell," he breathed, awed by the supernatural display.
Mark Howard was squinting at the battle. "There's only one of them," he announced all at once.
Smith tore his eyes from the roiling sky. "What?"
"There's only one guy there, Dr. Smith," Howard repeated excitedly. "It's another illusion."
Before Smith could stop him, Howard was scampering out of hiding and running toward the Master's House.
"It's Purcell!" Howard yelled.
Remo's attention was directed at Nuihc, Chiun's at the Dutchman. Neither man dared look to Howard, who had stopped on the road below the bluff.
"I told you to stay back, junior," Remo snarled.
Mark's face was pleading. "You're both fighting Purcell!" he insisted. "There's no one else there but him. It's just another illusion."
The words struck hard.
Howard had some insight into Purcell's sick mind. For an instant Remo thought he had been given a decoy and that the Master of Sinanju was fighting the true Dutchman.
But then the man Remo thought was Nuihc glanced down at the assistant CURE director, hatred in his eyes.
"Knives!" he shouted.
Mark instantly buckled, grabbing chest and abdomen. He collapsed to the road. Smith ran from cover to his side. He began dragging the injured young man to safety.
Remo wheeled in shock. "Purcell," he hissed. From the corner of his eye he saw the shadow that had been dancing around Chiun vanish. The Master of Sinanju found himself facing empty air where a moment ago he would have sworn was a solid opponent.
As the shadow Dutchman was evaporating, Nuihc's features began to change. The flat Asian face dissolved, replaced by the Caucasian features that had been lurking below all along. The black hair lengthened and turned to silken blond. The hazel eyes melted to electric blue.
Remo found himself face-to-face with Jeremiah Purcell.
A crooked smile split the younger man's pale face.
Above their heads, lightning crackled blindingly across the swirling purple sky, flashing demonic light over the Dutchman's twisted features. Fat drops of rain the color of blood began to splatter the ground. They struck the earth like balls of thick molten lead.
"I am Nuihc!" Purcell cried out. "Do not speak the name of that failure in my presence, for he is dead to me."
"That makes two of you," Remo said.
And ignoring the growing storm that was a window to the madness of Jeremiah Purcell's mind, Remo Williams lashed out.
SMITH PULLED Howard behind the half-burned building. By the end the young man was crawling as Smith dragged.
"I'm fine," Mark insisted, panting. "He just knocked the wind out of me."
Smith searched for blood. There wasn't any, nor were there any wounds. Typically victims of the Dutchman's mental attacks believed so vividly in their injuries that they manifested fatal symptoms. But, thank God, Mark Howard's reactions to the Dutchman's mind games were atypical.
Leaving his assistant propped against the wall, Smith scampered over, peering around the corner. Up near the House of Many Woods, Chiun had fallen cautiously back, his hands tucked inside the sleeves of his kimono. This fight was Remo's. Smith didn't know how to gauge a Sinanju battle. It seemed to last an eternity. Feet and fists flew. Traded blows deflected to impotence.
The first blow to hit home came abruptly, landing with a sickening crunch. The sound echoed out across the wasted village.
At first it was unclear who had drawn first blood. Remo and Purcell stood locked in eternal struggle, each with an arm outstretched, fingers like steel mauls.
Then Remo wavered.
The Dutchman! Jeremiah Purcell had scored a blow against Remo!
Remo's arm dropped back to his side. His face was a grimace. Of course the pain had to have been excruciating. But when Remo again raised his hands, Smith saw that he had been mistaken.
No, not pain. At least not for Remo.
It was Purcell who had been hit. The Dutchman pivoted back on his heel, twisting out of harm's way. As he did so, his left arm swung down useless to his side.
"Strike one," Remo said tightly.
One arm crippled, the Dutchman battled on. Another blow, this one to Purcell's right arm.
It was the traditional Sinanju attack of disrespect to show an opponent was unworthy. Years before, Nuihc had used the method on Remo. Back then Nuihc had played the coward, using proxies to deliver the first three blows. Coward as he always was. Coward as Remo, a full Master of Sinanju and so much more, would never be.
Purcell knew what was happening. He held his injured arms close. "Fire!" he cried in desperation. And Remo felt the flames lick his damaged skin. But he had already come through worse, and the fire that burned from within was far greater than any mere hallucination.
Remo wound like a top, twirling on one leg, the other bent up near his body. He took out the Dutchman's right leg. The mass of muscles tore, and the young man could no longer stand. The leg buckled and he felt to the dirt.
"I will have my vengeance!" Purcell shrieked. And Remo spoke. The words were thunder that rolled up from a place deep within him, and for the first time in his life he owned them. And he did say, "I am created Shiva, the Destroyer; death, the shatterer of worlds. The dead night tiger made whole by the Master of Sinanju. Who is this dog meat that dares challenge me?"
"I am Nuihc," Jeremiah Purcell sneered, "he of the pure bloodline, true Reigning Master of the House of Sinanju."
"This is my house now," Remo said. "And you're nothing but a schizo son of a bitch."
And he was on Purcell, his arms wrapped around the younger man's injured shoulders.
"Did you forget?" the Dutchman taunted weakly. Blood and sweat streaked his face. His teeth were bared in a superior sneer. "You can't kill me. If I die, you die."
"That should work both ways, pal," Remo whispered in his ear. "But I died a couple of times already, and you're still kicking. Lemme test a theory."
And Remo Williams took the throat of the last false Master of Sinanju in both hands and gave a mighty twist. There was an unholy crack of bone. The Dutchman's head whipped around twice on a tightening knot of loose flesh before lolling to one side. Strings of mottled blond hair stuck to pale skin.
In that instant there was shock in the eyes.
For Jeremiah Purcell, life had been a curse. Death was a thing longed for. But in that final, brutal moment there was the first true instant of understanding of life.
Then the light faded from his electric-blue eyes. And as the flickering force of life slipped finally and forever from the wicked Dutchman, the illusions around the village of Sinanju began to fade.
The bodies went first. Disappearing one by one in little puffs of light and steam. The purple sky washed to blue, sweeping away the mirage of destruction that had been painted across the village. The sunlight of a new winter day erased the charred buildings, replacing them with familiar wooden homes and businesses.
The Dutchman's mental projection had apparently surrounded the entire village of Sinanju with a false backdrop, for as the final spell ever to be cast by his tortured mind collapsed, there appeared just beyond the northern border a row of North Korean tanks. Soldiers shouted to one another as they ran between army equipment.
Smith had come out of hiding. Mark Howard, now well enough to stand, also came.
Smith's eyes strayed to the bay. Until moments ago it had been shrouded in darkness. He was relieved to see that the Darter wasn't visible. The sub had sunk below the waves and wasn't scheduled to resurface for hours.
"What now?" the CURE director asked Remo warily.
"Don't sweat it, Smitty," Remo said. "They're with me."
Some men were moving into the village. Smith and Howard stayed back with the Master of Sinanju as Remo went to meet the new arrivals.
The soldiers were propelling a lone captive before them.
Benson Dilkes had been captured while trying to flee the village. The North Korean forces turned him over to Remo without question. Their orders had been clear. They were told from on high to do anything the white Master of Sinanju asked. So far, they had only been told to round up anyone who tried to escape from Sinanju.
Remo ordered them to stay put. The soldiers went back to man their vehicles while Remo dragged Dilkes back into the village.
"I didn't want any of them to get out of here," Remo explained to the others. "I've had enough clomping around the world for my next three lifetimes." He turned his attention to Dilkes. "Where is everybody?"
Dilkes was staring at the lifeless body of Jeremiah Purcell. Although he didn't see Nuihc anywhere, he assumed the worst. By the looks of it he had picked the wrong team.
"This way," Dilkes said, defeated. He led the four men from the village.
"The real Nuihc didn't just want to kill us," Remo explained as they walked along the rough shore. "He wanted to take over the village and lord his victory over everybody here. He had an ego as big as North Dakota. If Purcell thought he was channeling Nuihc, he'd want to take over Sinanju, too. A kingdom's no fun without subjects."
Caves carved by the rolling sea speckled the rock a mile from the village. As they closed in on the caves, Remo and Chiun sensed many heartbeats coming from within.
Dilkes stopped before a big cave mouth. "In there," he said, pointing.
"Wait here," Remo ordered.
He turned for the caves, but Dilkes stopped him. "Master of Sinanju, I beg for mercy," Benson Dilkes said. "I was retired. I wouldn't even be involved in this if I hadn't been invited to try to kill you." As he spoke, his eyes strayed to Harold W. Smith.
"Let me guess," Remo said to Smith and Chiun. "America had to field a contestant, as well."
Chiun remained impassive. Smith fidgeted uncomfortably.
"It was against my better judgment," Smith offered.
Remo turned to Dilkes. "You already cash the check?" Dilkes nodded. "Good." Remo planted his fist so deep in Benson Dilkes's head the others caught a glimpse of daylight before the assassin dropped to the ground. "Try to get the money back now," he said to Smith.
Alone, Remo ducked inside the cave.
For the next several minutes there issued terrible breaking sounds from inside. When Remo finally emerged back in sunlight, he was surrounded by Korean faces.
There were men and women, old and young. For the first time in days, the entire population of Sinanju stumbled out into daylight. They blinked against the glare as they began trudging back to Sinanju.
The last one out was an old woman.
Hyunsil, daughter of Pullyang, fell to her knees at Chiun's feet, kissing his kimono hems and giving thanks to the Master for liberating the villagers. None of the other villagers offered so much as a word of thanks, which wasn't a surprise to Remo. With their legendary ingratitude, he would have been disappointed in them if they had.
"The praise is not mine to accept, child," Chiun said, gathering the old woman up from the ground. "For it is not I, but my son who deserves our gratitude. Furthermore, the Master's House needs a new caretaker for when we are away. You would honor us to assume the duties of your father."
"The honor is mine, O Master," Hyunsil said. And bowing with great reverence, she headed back to the village.
"Okay, just FYI here," Remo announced once the villagers were gone. "The Time of Succession is officially over for me. I smelled a hundred different stinks from a hundred different nationalities in that cave. I'm gonna have Kim's tin soldiers bag them up and ship them back to wherever they came from. If this doesn't impress the leaders of the world, I don't know what will."
He didn't give time for argument. Turning on his heel, he headed for the village. Smith and Howard followed.
Only Chiun lingered. Eyes trained on a distant hilltop, he padded in thoughtful silence after the others.
The investiture of a new Master of Sinanju was by tradition a quiet affair. The retiring Master and Master-to-be stood on the steps of the House of Many Woods to face the gathered villagers and pledge support in life and death. Remo and Chiun recited the memorized speeches that had been passed down from generations of Masters of Sinanju.
Harold Smith and Mark Howard had been permitted to witness the occasion. It was the first time since Kublai Khan that a foreigner was allowed to observe the ancient rite.
Children threw cloth flower petals at the feet of the Masters. An ancient song extolling all the dead Masters was sung. After, Chiun beat a gong three times, completing the symbolic transfer of authority to the new Master.
Afterward it was the people who celebrated. The Master and his teacher didn't join in the raucous festivities. This was as it always was, for the lives of the Masters of Sinanju were spent apart from the villagers.
Throughout the ceremony, Mark Howard and Harold Smith maintained a respectful silence, sensing the weight of tradition hanging heavy in the air. When it was all over, Smith shook Remo's hand.
Though unseen, the North Korean army was still nearby. At Remo's order they were up the shore carrying the bodies of the dead assassins from the caves. Despite CURE security concerns, it seemed right that Smith be present for this. They had all been through so much together over the years.
"Congratulations, Remo," the CURE director said, a thin smile on his lemony face. "And to you, Master Chiun."
He offered a bow. With his assistant Smith went to await the submarine that would take them both home. From the front of the Master's House, Remo and Chiun watched the activity in the village.
"I take back what I said about that smelly Russian swami, Little Father," Remo said once they were alone. "He was right after all. The Dutchman was so nuts he thought he was two people. As far as he was concerned, two Masters of Sinanju did die. I guess that's what Assmuffin meant."
"Yes," Chiun said vaguely. "Go inside, Remo. Your skin must be taken care of. I have a poultice that should help. Lie down while I go collect some seawater to mix with it."
Remo didn't argue. The truth was, he was exhausted. He could use some shut-eye.
As Remo went inside, Chiun headed down the front path.
The old Korean's gaze was trained once more on the rocky hill that sat in the shadow of the Horns of Welcome above Sinanju. And on the small man who sat cross-legged watching the activity from his lonely perch.
FROM HIS MOUNTAIN vantage point he watched the celebrations through bitter, hate-filled eyes.
This was supposed to have been the end. The destruction of the village, the murder of the last two Masters of this false New Age.
He had come back from death to witness the destruction. To watch the House fall and the village burn.
But the last hope had failed. When the people returned to the village, he watched them stomp the body of the dead white Master to a flat sack of broken bones before throwing the trampled remains into the cold water of the bay.
There was dark power in that boy. But it wasn't enough. Nor were the summoned Armies of Death. He could see what was left of them even from this distance. They were being carted away by the men who had arrived in the wheeled metal beasts.
Sinanju lived. In the people, in the village, in the five-thousand-year-old tradition. In its newest Master. Atop his mountain, the Lost Master, who had been reborn only to fail, hung his head in disgrace. He sat with his shame for a long time before a voice broke his solitude.
"I will tell you a tale." The Lost Master looked up.
Chiun stood with him on the flat mountaintop, a figure of ancient wisdom. He padded silently over, sitting down before the Forgotten One.
"It is a tale of the earliest days of the New Age," Chiun continued. "It happened after Master Hung of the Old Order had died, leaving no heir. The Great Wang went out into the wilderness, only to return with a vision for a new future for this village." He held a hand out to Sinanju.
The celebrations below continued.
"When Wang returned and found the other night tigers fighting among themselves to see who would succeed Hung, Wang did proclaim that he had discovered the Sun Source. As proof he did use his newfound skill to slay the quarreling night tigers, establishing that from that day forward there would only be one Master and pupil per generation.
"And the bodies of the dead Wang did order brought to the bay, where they were sent home to the sea.
"But when the time came to collect the last body, the villagers were shocked to find that breath still clung to it.
"Wang knew well this last night tiger. Knew him as a creature of jealousy and hate. From a lesser family was this still-breathing night tiger-a family to whom magic and black arts were well-known.
"And this lesser Master and dying night tiger did spit at Wang from where he lay on the damp shore. Though the fire in his eyes was slowly winking out, it burned still, and in his dying moments he did find strength to speak, and he did say, 'You are undeserving of the title Master of Sinanju, Wang the Impostor. You build this new era on a foundation of fraud and so, like you, all who follow you will be illegitimate. Although I will be sent to the sea this day, I will not accept my place in the Void.' And turning to the villagers he did cry, 'Listen to me, people of Sinanju! You have joined with Wang and will therefore suffer with him. I place on the heads of you and your descendants a curse. The Curse of true Sinanju. When comes the end of my bloodline, will also come the day of judgment for this New Age of Wang. Hatred fuels vengeance. I will have my day.'
"With that, he died."
On the mountain, Chiun grew silent.
The Lost Master tried to speak. It had been a long time. The voice was a pained rasp.
"My family plotted vengeance for uncounted years," said the Forgotten One. "This was to be the age. Your nephew, his protege, the death of my last living ancestor. The curse was now. Everything was right for success."
And Chiun did shake his head sadly. Great sympathy did he feel for this pathetic soul who had wasted eternity on a plot that was doomed to fail from the very start.
"If you had only clung to life a little more, your dead ears would have heard the rest, Forgotten One," Chiun replied. He resumed the tale.
"And Wang did accept the curse of the Lost Master. And he did offer a prediction. 'One day there will be a Master of Sinanju who will find among the barbarians in the West one who was once dead. This Master will teach the secrets of Sinanju to this pale one of the dead eyes. He will make of him a night tiger, but the most awesome of night tigers. He will make him kin to the gods of India and he will be Shiva, the Destroyer. And this dead night tiger whom the Master of Sinanju will one day make whole will himself become the Master of Sinanju, and a new era will dawn, greater than that which I am about to create.'"
Chiun raised his head proudly. "That age is here." The Lost Master hung his head, allowing the words to penetrate deep. When he at last looked up, there was tired acceptance in his weary, bloodshot eyes. "I allow death to claim me, son of Wang," he said. And with a whoosh that stirred the soft hair over Chiun's ears, the spirit of evil that had afflicted an entire family for generations slipped from the frail old body.
With the Forgotten One no longer animating it, the corpse fell to one side. It was cold to the touch. As if it had been dead for many months.
In death the body looked once more like Sonmi, aunt of Nuihc, last of the bloodline of the Lost Master, whose drowning death had given the Forgotten One life.
Chiun took the old woman's body down the hill. He brought her to the abandoned house of her ancestors.
And when he had lain her inside the hut, he attacked the building at its four corners. The structure shivered, then collapsed, burying forever the woman Sonmi, the evil magic, the plot for vengeance and the jealous Master of Sinanju from the old ways whose name history would not remember.
The Darter broke the surface at the prearranged time. Remo had gone to the shore to say his goodbyes. "Her name is Rebecca Dalton," Remo said. "At least that's what she told me it was."
"I will look her up when we get back," Smith promised.
"Good. 'Cause I think I should thank her. Maybe kill her. Either way I probably should touch base with her."
Smith and Mark Howard got into their rubber raft. As Smith sat, Howard paddled out to the waiting sub. Remo watched the two of them go, CURE director and assistant, tossed together in a crummy little life raft in a treacherous sea. He was sure there was some grand poetic metaphor there. Remo wasn't a poet.
He turned from the shore and headed back through the village. On the bluff behind the House of Many Woods he found the Master of Sinanju looking out across the bay.
Smith and Howard had reached the sub by this point. Helpful sailors were pulling them aboard. Remo watched his teacher watch the bay. There was a vigor to the old man he hadn't seen in years. The hazel eyes were sharp and piercing. Chiun had indicated that something had happened to him during their time apart. The old Korean had yet to say what that something was.
"Whatever happened, it suits you," Remo commented.
"I have a future," Chiun announced simply as he watched Smith disappear down the submarine's hatch.
The words were filled with such pride, such hope. For a long time those had been absent in the old Korean. They had dripped away so gradually that Remo had hardly noticed. But, standing proud on the bluff above his ancestral home, the wizened figure seemed fully himself once more.
Remo felt his heart swell. "I never doubted it for a minute, Little Father."
Chiun looked up into his pupil's smiling face. Remo's smile reflected in the Korean's leathery visage.
The whole world had changed. And yet it seemed more the same than it had in a long, long time.
The eyes of hundreds of past Masters smiled warmly on the only two living Masters of Sinanju. Chiun's face became sly. "You are destined for a great honor, too," Chiun confided, leaning in close.
"Care to enlighten me?"
"When those who come after us write the book of me, you, Remo Williams, above all others will be the greatest of all the footnotes. Isn't that wonderful?"
The old man looked back out at the sea. "Possibly not the greatest," warned Chiun. "I will have to mention Smith, I suppose. And Prince Howard if he stays around much longer. Oh, and there is my cousin Lai. Did I ever mention him? On my mother's side? He would be upset if he did not get a mention. Anyway, you will certainly be, at the very least, a lesser footnote."
"My cup runneth over," droned Remo Williams, the new Reigning Master of the House of Sinanju.
"Perhaps a footnote to a footnote," said Chiun the Great Teacher, former Reigning Master of Sinanju. After all, he didn't want this new white Master of Sinanju to get a swelled head.