The Destroyer #54
by Richard Sapir & Warren Murphy
Copyright © 1983
by Richard Sapir & Warren Murphy
All rights reserved.
A Peanut Press Book
First Peanut Press Edition
This edition published by
When Leith Blake was sent home from school, he didn't know he was the harbinger of a national epidemic that would make the Black Plague look like a mild case of zits by comparison. He only thought he was stoned.
It was a fair assumption. He'd consumed five Seconals, three Tuinols, a handful of Quaaludes, and approximately a half-ounce of marijuana before breakfast. All in all, Leith felt pretty much the same as he had on every other schoolday morning since his twelfth birthday four years before.
He wasn't sent home for illness. Once every couple of months, when the faculty of the Southern Palm Beach Preparatory Academy felt like partying, a schoolwide drug inspection was held. The goods were confiscated, and the offenders sent home. Then, having cleared out the entire student body, the faculty was free to get blasted on their own without the bothersome interruption of teaching. It was a good system. Palm Prep knew how to keep morale high.
Leith staggered in through the colonnaded portals of his family's Palladian mansion. "Hi, Mom," he said as he passed the yellow satin bedroom where his mother, dressed in an ostrich boa and pearls, diddled the wife of a frozen-foods magnate while she snorted a line of cocaine.
"Aren't you supposed to be in school or something?" Mrs. Blake asked. Her son mumbled something, but the response was lost in the shrieks emitted by the frozen-foods queen as she writhed in ecstasy.
"What's that, dear?" Mrs. Blake said, popping a handful of Valium.
"Got sent home."
"For what?" Leith's mother rasped while lighting a bong of hashish.
Leith walked over to the bed and slogged a fistful of barbiturates into his gullet. "Drugs," he said phlegmatically. The frozen-foods lady tweaked the zipper on his jeans.
"Drugs again," sighed Mrs. Blake, shaking her head. "Honestly, these kids today. What's the world coming to, I'd like to know."
"Mff," replied her companion as she tilted a bottle of champagne to her lips.
"Your father will have to be told, of course."
Big deal, Leith thought. His father, hotshot of the Miami business scene, got as shitfaced as his mother did. Both of them could out-consume Leith hands down. He shambled away toward the kitchen. He wanted a cup of coffee.
Funny, he thought. His bedroom was stocked with enough drugs to put Squibb out of business, but all the pills and powders and assorted mind and mood elevators seemed old hat now. What he really wanted— no, not wanted, but needed, craved, longed for— was a good steaming cup of black coffee.
Well, he supposed the school guidance counselors had been right when they'd told him that his various drug habits were a passing phase. He would miss the good old days of his early teens. Even now the memory of stumbling down the street, crashing headfirst into his locker each morning, lying supine on the floor in English class and wrecking the family Mercedes every weekend were passing into misty nostalgia.
Yes, he would miss those times. But for now, he had to get a cup of coffee down his throat before he killed somebody.
Growing up was hell.
Forty miles away in downtown Miami, Leith's father, Drexel Armistead Blake, strode confidently into the board room of International Imports. He was the chairman of the board, and had prepared a brief statement to read to the other members. Rather, his secretary, the loyal but homely Harriet Holmes had prepared it while Blake was defending the company's honor against the president of a rival importing firm on the racquet ball courts.
The report didn't look too difficult. Blake had cautioned Miss Holmes against using too many words of more than one syllable, lest he lose the attention of the other board members. They understood how rough it was to read all those big words when you had a heavy golf game waiting.
He scanned the two typewritten pages. They looked all right. All the words he was supposed to stress were underlined, and Miss Holmes had left blanks in the spots where he was supposed to pause. He could get through it in ten minutes.
Blake nodded cordially to Miss Holmes, who was serving coffee to the members of the board.
Harriet Holmes blushed. Mr. Blake's brief nod was all the thanks she required. Beaming, she poured the steaming coffee from the silver server into the cups set before the twelve illustrious men at the table.
"Delicious, Harriet," a distinguished white-haired man said. He was a millionaire many times over.
"Perfect coffee," agreed another gentleman. He was the head of the Miami Philanthropic Society. He had dined at the White House.
"Thank you," Harriet said meekly. The big ones, the really successful men, always appreciated small things. She sat down on her stool in the corner to take down the minutes of the meeting in flawless shorthand.
"Gentlemen," Blake began.
"Freaking fantastic," blurted the head of the Miami Philanthropic Society.
"I beg your pardon?" Blake asked from the head of the table.
"The coffee," Miami Philanthropic roared, crashing the cup in his hand onto its saucer with a splinter of shattering porcelain. "Let's have some more, damn it."
"Of course, sir," Harriet said, rising quickly.
"A blast over here, too," demanded the distinguished white-haired gentleman who, to Harriet's dismay, was languidly scratching his privates.
"Hey, babe," shouted a little balding fellow toward the far end of the table.
Harriet worked like a dervish replenishing the empty cups as her boss tried valiantly to begin his speech.
"Gentlemen, our quarterly profit scheme—"
"Where's the frigging coffee?"
"I'm making a fresh pot, sir," came Harriet's meek voice from the doorway.
"The quarterly profits—"
"Screw the profits. Bring on the java."
"Soak your head, Blake," the balding fellow advised while assiduously picking his nose. The remark was met with loud guffaws from around the table.
Blake took in the scene with calm despair. The twelve men at the table, normally as hurried and brisk as he was, sat lounging and jawing like a bunch of Sunday picnickers, their jackets off, their ties hung in loopy lassos around their necks. Two or three of them were so relaxed, they were actually nodding off.
"Gentlemen..." Blake tried again.
The man from Miami Philanthropic blew a Bronx cheer.
With a sigh of resignation, Blake sat down and sipped at his cold coffee. Golf was rapidly becoming a thing of fantasy. Nine holes, maybe, if he could clear out this bunch of coffee klatchers within a half-hour.
The coffee. It wasn't bad at that. He took another sip. No question about it, that Harriet certainly knew how to start off the morning.
"Damn, that's good," he said after licking the last drop out of the cup with his tongue.
"No shit," the white-haired millionaire said, blowing his nose with a honk into a monogrammed linen handkerchief.
"Where's Harriet?" he yelled. The others took up the chant.
"Coming, sir. Sirs," Harriet squeaked, traveling as fast as she could down the hall with the overflowing coffee server.
The board room was a shambles. Several of the members lay stretched over the mahogany table, snoring loudly. The others swiveled in their chairs, scratching themselves and muttering incoherently. Drexel Blake rose shakily to his feet as she entered and staggered over to her. He grabbed the pot out of her hands and gulped down its contents, to the feeble protests of the other board members.
Then, with a smile on his face, he slumped bonelessly to the floor.
At 10 A.M., the board members were all sound asleep.
At 10:30, Harriet Holmes called in the company nurse, who prescribed aspirin.
At 11:00, Harriet called in the wives of the board members to take their husbands home.
By noon, sitting in a local restaurant with her friend, Ann Adams, Harriet was too exhausted to eat. While Ann stuffed herself with lasagna and burgundy, Harriet downed two cups of black coffee with trembling hands.
"It was the strangest thing I ever saw," Harriet said, recalling the bizarre events of the morning. "All those men scratching and snorting and yelling, and poor Mr. Blake flat on his face on the oriental rug."
"Sounds like somebody had one tee many martoonis," Ann Adams said, tittering as she repeated her favorite phrase.
"But it was the first thing in the morning." Harriet drained her second cup of coffee and collared the waiter for another. When it came, she swigged it down with expertise, wiped her chin savagely with her napkin, and heaved a deep sigh. "Balls," she said resolutely, her eyes glassy.
"Thash one fine cup of coffee."
"It's three," Ann Adams corrected. "Better watch it. You'll get the jitters."
Harriet responded with a reverberating belch. "Yeah. Jitters." She stretched out until she was on a diagonal with the table.
"Jush taking a little resht, hon," Harriet said, sliding woodenly off the seat.
Ann Adams never finished her lunch. After pouring her companion into a taxi, she returned to her desk at the First National Bank and Trust Company, where the chief loan officer lay draped across her "in" basket. She called for one of the bank guards to remove him, but the guard was busy wetting his pants near the tellers' windows. She tried to get to the bank president, but he'd left for a breakfast meeting at 8 A.M. and never returned.
Ann Adams took the rest of the day off.
At home, she meticulously cleared her kitchen table and set upon it three sheets of white paper and two ballpoint pens.
This would have to be reported. It was her duty. She never liked preparing these reports. They reminded her of TV movies she'd seen about Communist Russia, spying on friends and all that. Turning them in to the Thought Police.
But the U.S. government wasn't anything like the Thought Police, she knew. It wasn't as if whoever was getting her reports was throwing anybody into jail or anything like that. In fact, no one seemed to be doing much of anything about the reports.
For twenty years Ann Adams had been receiving monthly checks from the Treasury of the United States of America in exchange for reporting any unusual activities at the bank where she worked; yet nothing whatever had been done about them. When she'd exposed the blonde hussy in the small-business loans department for her shameless carryings-on with one of the junior accountants, the government had not expressed even the slightest interest. Ditto for the ten pager she'd written on her upstairs neighbor who secretly harbored ten cats in her apartment. It wasn't banking business, but anybody who kept ten cats in the city ought to be turned in. Still, the government never lifted a finger.
There was, of course, the incident of the vice-president at First National who embezzled $18,000 before Ann Adams sniffed him out. That was a peculiar episode. She'd gone to the bank president about it, and was told she was mistaken. Then she'd written the report. As usual, no troopers came in to finger the V-P. She doubted seriously if anyone at the Treasury Department even read the reports.
Then, a funny thing happened. Three days after she mailed the report, the crooked V-P turned himself over to the police and returned all the money— 18,000 plus interest. And the bank president retired that very week on grounds of poor health and opened a gas station on Key West. It was a very weird coincidence, and it only went to show that Providence was on the lookout even if the federal government was sitting on its thumbs.
But worthless or not, the government reports were part of Ann Adams's patriotic duty. Also, the monthly checks would help pay the bills if the First National Bank and Trust folded, an occurrence that seemed imminent, considering the state the home office was in.
She organized her thoughts. Harriet Holmes's strange story about the board meeting of International Imports, Harriet's own outlandish behavior at lunch, the bizarre doings at First National— they would all be included in the report. She opened a new can of coffee, prepared a pot, and began to write.
Three hours later, she was still on the first paragraph. She tried to concentrate, but the words on the page kept melting together. She could barely keep her eyes open.
Funny, she thought. Instead of keeping her awake, the six cups of coffee she'd drunk seemed to have the opposite effect. Smacking her lips sleepily, she picked up her pen. But her fingers were out of control, tearing through the paper and printing wobbly block letters on the tabletop.
Something was wrong here, very wrong. Ann Adams picked up the torn sheet with its illegible scrawl and tried to read. Nothing made sense. Not on the page, not in her life. This was more important than the frowzy blonde in small-business loans or the embezzling V-P. More important, even, than her criminal neighbor with the ten cats. Something was happening to her, her body, her mind. And the same thing was happening to people all around her.
Think about it, Ann, she told herself, concentrating. That man who was weaving down the street in front of her when she walked home. The clerk in the grocery store, passed out in the tomato bin. She had passed both instances off as drunkenness, but then there was Harriet. Harriet didn't drink, not even eggnog at Christmas, yet she seemed as pie-eyed as the rest.
And now herself, Ann Adams, employed for thirty years by the First National Bank and Trust, confidant of the U.S. government, seeing double and feeling itchy all over and wanting only to sleep and never get up again.
There was a phone number. It had been given to her twenty years before by the lemony-voiced man who had first asked her to write the reports. The number, he said, was to be used only in the most dire contingency. Calling the number would signal the end of Ann Adams's relationship with the government. There would be no more reports after the phone call, no more checks; all communication with her unknown benefactor would be severed. For reasons of national security, the voice had said. In other words, explained the man on the telephone, the number was to be used only under the most extraordinary circumstances of national emergency.
A thunderous crash sounded outside her kitchen window. On the street below, three cars had collided in an impossible three-way head-on collision. Smoke and steam were pouring from the crumpled vehicles. A horn blew steadily. One by one, as Ann Adams watched, the three drivers got out, yawning and leaning against their automobiles, barely noticing one another as the traffic lined up behind them. Occasionally a horn honked above the endless wailing of the stopped car. Squinting to get a better view, Ann Adams could see that many of the drivers appeared to be asleep at the wheel.
"National emergency," Ann Adams muttered as she rummaged through her precise household files for the yellowed scrap of paper with the number written on it. She hesitated as she lifted the phone. Maybe it wasn't a national emergency, after all. Maybe it was just a case of everyone in Miami having one tee many martoonis. Including herself.
"But I haven't had a drink since lunch," she cried.
Losing it. Losing my marbles. She must have been drinking since the solitary glass of burgundy at noon, she reasoned. Nothing else could bring on the weird sensations that were washing over her like euphoric waves. Maybe she was a secret drinker, so secret that even she didn't know about it. She'd read about that sort of thing in magazines. Multiple personality, they called it. Maybe she was suffering from multiple personalities, and an Ann Adams she wasn't even aware of was a lush.
Maybe what she needed was a drink.
An idea came to her. "Hospital," she said aloud, fumbling with the telephone dial for the emergency number.
It rang seventeen times.
She hung up. "It's got them, too," she whispered, suddenly afraid.
The police? She thought over the possibility, then dismissed it. What would the police do, give her a breathalizer test while the world fell apart?
Outside her apartment door a long, protracted banging seemed to be moving toward her entranceway. Staggering wildly, she made it to the door and flung it wide, just in time to see her upstairs neighbor, the lady with the cats, rolling end over end down the last steps in the stairway and come to rest at a crazy angle on her doormat.
"What's going on?" she screamed.
An old man, the cat lady's husband, crawled on all fours to the top of the stairway. "Sara?" he called sleepily. His face was ghostly white.
"She's down here," Ann Adams shrieked. "She fell down the stairs. I think she's dead."
The old man raised his head. "Honey," he managed slowly, "you got any coffee?"
Ann Adams slammed the door. It was a national emergency. She would have to find the number. By the phone. Call the number. But first stop the room from spinning. So tired.
So dead tired. Maybe a small cup of coffee to perk up.
"Perk up, get it?" she tittered as she chugged down the rest of the pot.
She was feeling better. Somewhere, out there beyond the confines of her apartment, a national emergency was going on. But that was outside. Inside, the world was growing rosy and warm and sleepy. Just another pot of coffee for the road, and she'd go to bed.
As she brewed the pot she saw, through her kitchen window, the body of a man hurtling slowly— oh, so slowly, as slowly as her breathing, an eternity for each graceful turn of the man's falling form— off the roof to the sidewalk below. He landed with a soft, gushy splat.
"One tee many martoonis," she teased, shaking her finger at the inert form eight stories below.
As she polished off the second pot, fire and ambulance sirens wailed all over the city. "National emergency," she said stolidly.
She had to do it. There was a dead woman right on her doormat, and another body on the sidewalk in front of her building, and it was her duty to call, even though the prospect of dialing the phone did look like an insurmountable task.
With a long yawn, she unfolded the piece of yellowed paper, studied the numbers until they came vaguely into focus, and dialed.
"Please identify yourself," a metallic computer voice on the other end said.
"Please identify yourself," the machine repeated.
"Adams," she growled, realizing that she sounded like a recent stroke victim, but unable to do anything about it. "Awful Annie Adams, they call me at the bank."
There was a whirr of machinery on the line and then a human voice spoke. It sounded lemony and sour. "Proceed, Miss Adams."
"I need a cup of coffee."
"Would you repeat that, please?"
"What you said. I didn't understand you."
"What'd I say?"
The voice faltered. "Miss Adams, are you intoxicated?" It sounded angry.
"No!" she shouted. "Nash'nul 'mergency. But then..." She trailed off.
"Mush be," she said. She sounded tiny and faraway to her own ears. "Mush be one tee many martoo..."
The phone dropped out of her hand.
"Miss Adams?" the voice called. "Miss Adams?"
But Ann Adams didn't hear, because at that moment she had passed out of consciousness and slipped quietly into death.
Along with Leith and Drexel Blake, Harriet Holmes, and 2,931 other people in the United States. And the epidemic was just beginning.
His name was Remo and he was racing a truck. On foot.
The truck was a pickle truck, and the toll collectors at the George Washington Bridge passed glances at one another as the six-foot-tall blur whizzed past them down the inside inbound lane into New York City.
"For a second, I thought it was a guy," one of the toll booth operators said to his companion in the next lane.
"Yeah, me too. Must be the light."
The first operator looked at the twilit sky and nodded uncertainly. "Must be."
"This work can get to you," the second operator said, and they both laughed, because the blur had been barreling along at sixty miles an hour through the toll gate, and had actually sped up once the pickle truck behind it moved through its gears. And now the blur was in front of the truck, seeming to turn into a ball. The ball was rising off the ground and rolling over the truck's cab and onto its canvas roof and over the length of it and disappearing down the back, tucking neatly inside the back end of the pickup.
Remo came out of the spin near the end of the bridge, landing on both feet. He'd almost blown it when he caught a glimpse of the driver's face as Remo rolled with the wind up onto the hood of the cab. The driver's mouth had opened and he had begun to yell something to his partner in the cab, and then Remo had halted the momentum of his spin to stick his head inside the driver's window.
The passenger, a lanky fellow whose features had turned gray instantaneously, screamed. The driver only stared, his eyes glassy and his lips forming a rubbery "o" at the apparition on the hood of his truck.
Horns honked. Several cars skidded out of the way as the pickle truck veered into the center lanes. Remo reached in and grabbed the steering wheel.
"Who— who are you?" the driver stammered.
"I'm your conscience," Remo said. "What's in the back of the truck?"
The driver took a deep breath and scowled. "Pickles."
"Funny. I didn't know they made pickles at the nuclear reactor in Jersey."
"They're special pickles," the driver said belligerently.
The passenger leaned past the driver to get a better look at Remo, who was hanging onto the window by one hand, his legs stretched out along the side of the vehicle. "Say, how's he doing that?" he whispered to the driver.
"Shaddup," the driver said, poking him. He turned mockingly to Remo. "He ain't real. He said so himself."
"Whatever you say, pal," Remo said, smiling.
The driver's face became menacing. "Oh, yeah? Well, what I say is, you better get off my truck before I drive up next to that semi." He jutted his chin in the direction of a sixteen-wheeler in the left lane ahead. He speeded up with a crash of gears until the pickle truck rolled beside the semi.
"Now get off, or I'm going to move in closer," the driver snarled.
"Like this?" Remo yanked the wheel. The pickle truck careened toward the sixteen-wheeler. A deep foghorn boomed from the semi, but it was drowned out by the screams of the men inside the pickle truck.
"We're dead, Sam!" the passenger screeched.
"Shut your face." The driver struggled to get the wheel away from Remo. He pummeled Remo's thick wrists with both fists until he felt as if every bone in his hands was broken. Remo's grip never wavered.
"You know what's back there," the passenger cried, sweat beading on his forehead. "We're gonna blow!" He closed his eyes and waited for doom.
Then, in an instant, Remo was gone. The driver swerved his vehicle to narrowly miss a collision with the semi.
"Where'd he go?"
The driver loosened his collar and coughed weakly.
"Let's turn back, Sam. I don't like this."
"Shaddup," the driver said.
"Look, it's already dark out. It'll be okay. Besides, the sooner we get rid of this shit, the better."
Remo stood in the back of the truck with the cargo, feeling exhilarated. Assassination was a lonely line of work most of the time. There weren't many occasions for him to have any fun on the job.
Of course, his teacher Chiun complained that Remo had far too much fun, given the dignity of his position as official assassin of the United States. Lately, Chiun had been complaining even more than usual about Remo's lack of purity in movement and, even though Remo's moves were purer than any living human's except for Chiun himself, he would be sure to catch hell for being a wiseacre with the pickle truck driver when he ought to be concentrating on killing the man.
Standing among the barrels of nuclear waste in the back of the truck, Remo tried to forget about having fun and concentrate on killing.
It depressed him. Killing was what Remo did for a living, and it held no fascination for him. He could never understand why the subject was such a perennial favorite with the rest of the world, to the point where thousands of people added themselves each year to the undistinguished ranks of amateur assassins. It was crazy. If killing weren't Remo's job, he'd certainly never choose it for a hobby.
But others did. Killing one's fellow man was something the human race had been practicing ever since the first apeish swampdrinkers discovered that rocks and logs could be used to make other human beings lie down and stop breathing.
Some people still killed that way. Hatchets, fire-hoses, BB guns, howitzers, bombs that trailed stinking blue smoke and exploded a thousand feet off target— they were all methods of killing, inefficient though they were. There were one-time killers, little old ladies who focused a lifetime of stored despair and offed former boyfriends in a fit of passion. Bored young men who never learned the seven-times table. Professional soldiers who gloried in the manly pursuits of decimating large groups of strangers. Pervert loonies who popped their cookies while slicing up the jugular veins of teenage disco queens. Cops, robbers, and Indian chiefs. And gangsters, who killed by a code whereby the only legitimate prey were individuals who somehow prevented them from achieving their ends. That was civilized killing at least, Remo thought. But then the mob had been fitting people with cement shoes for a long time. Experience counted in this game.
And then there was sanctioned killing. The Crusaders, murdering for God. Medieval knights, murdering in the name of noblesse oblige, spearing peasants in the gentlemanly way. The Spanish Inquisitors, murdering to further the inventiveness of the human imagination. Not to mention the Romans, the Egyptians, the Chinese, the Nazis, and the Bolsheviks, all of whom managed to find their own particular ways of killing and their own reasons for why murder was okay when they were doing the murdering.
Anybody could kill. Anybody did kill. But nobody killed like Remo. Remo was to killers what Escoffier was to short-order cooks. Remo was as much of an artist in his way as Paganini or Rembrandt or Eliot or Fabergé or Ray Charles were in theirs. He practiced killing like a Renaissance journeyman, under the master Chiun's watchful eye. Before, he had spent ten years of apprenticeship perfecting the art. Ask your local hit man if he spent ten years learning his craft. Hardly. Murder these days was as rough and sloppy as Monday morning at the abbatoir. It was graceless. Lacking form. As Chiun would say, there was no tradition in killing outside of Sinanju, the tiny Korean village whose inhabitants had nurtured and developed the art to its present state.
A note about Sinanju: Outside of producing the most extraordinary killers the world has ever known, the village is practically useless. It is a fishing village that the fish stopped visiting centuries ago, surrounded by rocky cliffs and enveloped in perennially inhospitable weather. Its inhabitants, though Oriental, lack the manual dexterity notable among the race. "Made In Korea" does not mean made in Sinanju.
Nothing of any value whatever is made in Sinanju, with the exception of one baby every hundred years or so. This baby, under the care of the reigning Master of Sinanju, is taught the secrets of the sun source of the martial arts from which the lesser forms of tae kwan do, karate, aikido, and jujitsu are derived. But only one person in a century learns the true methods of Sinanju.
And when that baby becomes himself Master of Sinanju, he sets forth in the tradition of his ancestors to support the village in the only way the village will accept: by hiring his skills to the rulers of other lands. Thus has Sinanju preserved a tradition of having no loyalties, no chauvinistic bias, no political morals.
Until recently. For Chiun's natural apprentice, Nuihc, deviated from the ways of Sinanju and was unacceptable to continue his training. And the Master, advanced in years, had to continue hiring out his services without an apprentice to take his place.
So when an offer came to Chiun, Master of Sinanju, to work not as an assassin but as a trainer to a pupil who would learn the ways of Sinanju as Chiun's natural apprentice, the old Master accepted.
The offer came from the West, from the United States of America. For in the government of the United States was a secret sinecure, an organization called CURE that was known only to three people: The president of the United States, the director of CURE, and Remo, the organization's enforcement arm.
CURE was formed at the direction of a long-dead president to combat crime by means outside the Constitution. It was developed by a computer expert and ex-CIA agent named Harold W. Smith. Smith hired Chiun not to kill, but to teach Remo how to kill.
The selection of Remo as Chiun's pupil occurred almost at random: A rookie policeman with a good record in Vietnam happened to come to the attention of Dr. Smith's computers. After that, nothing that happened was ethical or in any way legal, as if to set a precedent for the kind of extremely illegal operation which CURE was to be.
The policeman was framed for a crime he didn't commit, and was sentenced to die in an electric chair that didn't work.
On the day following his alleged death, the policeman awoke in a private sanitarium called Folcroft in Rye, New York. Folcroft was an ordinary rest home except that its executive offices housed the most sophisticated computers in the world, and its director had nothing to do with the sanitarium business. His name was Dr. Harold W. Smith.
Smith introduced Remo to the ancient Oriental who was to be his trainer. The Oriental quickly deemed the young policeman with no identity to be an old, white, fat meat eater who was incapable of absorbing the difficult discipline of Sinanju. But for a submarine full of gold to be paid each year to the village of Sinanju, an attempt would be made.
Thus did Remo Williams become the successor of the Master of Sinanju, and one of the two greatest killers on the face of the earth.
And now this great killer was looking at the tops of twelve metal containers with "Hickle's Pickles" stamped on them as they jostled in the back of a covered pickup truck through the traffic of midtown Manhattan, looking at them and knowing that their contents were a billion times stronger than he was.
The view from the rear section of the truck changed from the bright, variegated commercial buildings of Seventh Avenue to the elegant apartment houses of Fifty-ninth Street. Then the truck turned west, and the landscape changed again, to narrow pedestrian lanes lined with trees. The evening breeze rustled through the leaves, which were just beginning to fall.
Remo knew where he was. There was only one place in Manhattan that was deserted after dark, and that was Central Park. A long time ago, Remo guessed, people used to walk in the park on nice evenings like this. That was before mugging became a municipal pastime.
The police never did hang around the park much, except for their annual raid on the Sunday afternoon pot peddlers, so they were never a part of the scene. The park was the DMZ between muggers and nonmuggers, and since the nonmuggers had nonviolently evacuated the territory, there was now no more incentive for the muggers to protect their turf. Now no one but the truly demented ventured into Central Park at night.
But the men in the Hickle's Pickles truck weren't bonafide perverts out for a little air. And the barrels shimmying as the truck ground to a halt weren't just along for the ride.
Remo slipped out quickly and waited behind a tree. The truck was parked at the top of a grade leading to a sulphurous-smelling pond below.
Remo guessed that around the time those long-vanished New Yorkers were strolling through the park, during the days before Mace and pneumatic scream alarms were invented, their kids were splashing around in the pond. Now the pond was in worse shape than the park, its thick veneer of green scum punctuated by a few hundred beer cans and a rainbow of assorted flotsam and jetsam. In the darkening night, the effect of the pond was more olfactory than visual, though: it stank as if the entire Russian army had camped there and died.
New Yorkers didn't complain about the pond because the nose is a delicate sensor, and in New York it gives out in humans at the age of two. Besides, the city reasoned, the truly demented wouldn't care how the pond smelled.
"See, Ben?" the driver said. "I told you he wouldn't be here."
"Yeah, Sam," Ben said, nodding vigorously.
"He was just some nut."
"Some nut. Yeah."
"Get out the dolly."
"Oh, I don't think you'll need that," Remo said, taking the dolly out of Ben's hands and tossing it up into the trees. Ben screamed.
"Hey," the driver said.
"Look, Sam," Remo said wearily to the driver. "I haven't slept in three days. Now, I've tried to be nice about this. You know there's nuclear waste in those drums, and you know that if you dump it in the middle of Manhattan, you'll contaminate everything on the island. Food, water, the soil—"
"I don't know nothin'," Sam said stubbornly. "This is just my job. And if you don't think that pond's already polluted, you ain't got a nose on your face. Nobody's going to notice."
"That's not the point," Remo said.
"Oh, yeah? What is the point, mister?" Sam taunted.
Remo rolled his eyes. He was tired. He was sad about the condition of the lake. Of New York. Of the world. Of life. He despaired of the Crusades. Killing was a subject he should never have tackled. And Sam's opening was too good to pass up.
"Here's the point," Remo said flatly, picking up the man by the thigh so that he dangled upside down over the metal container of radioactive waste. "On the top of your head."
Oh, reason, where have you flown, Remo thought as he drilled a hole in the can with Sam's nose.
"Holy shit, Sam, you okay?" Ben asked, his limbs twitching.
Sam didn't answer. His shoulders followed his head into the small hole, melting bonelessly. His torso disappeared, and so did his legs, leaving only a pair of scuffed shoes on top of the can. After a moment the shoes wiggled and separated. Between them bobbed a clean white skull.
"Agghh," Ben gurgled.
"Don't, mister," Ben whispered. "Just tell me what you want."
"I was hoping you'd say that," Remo said.
"W-why?" Ben ventured.
Remo stared at the remains of Sam in the poisonous barrel. "You know, it's just not fun anymore."
"Good," Ben said softly. "You want I should drive this truck back to the plant?"
Remo shook his head. He arranged the skull of the dead man so that it fit squarely in the middle of the hole in the opened drum, then filled up the excess space with small rocks and leaves. "That ought to hold it for a while," he said.
Drudgery. Once you start thinking about killing, it's just another chore. "Might as well be washing windows," he said desultorily.
"Say, that's an idea," Ben offered.
Remo threw him into the passenger seat. Then he hoisted the drum containing Sam's remains onto the truck and got in on the driver's side. "We're going to the police."
They rode in silence until they neared the police station.
Ben cleared his throat. "Excuse me," he squeaked.
"What?" Remo said.
"You going to tell the cops you killed Sam?"
"What time is it?"
Ben looked at his watch. "Seven-thirty."
"No time," Remo said. "I've got to catch the ballet."
"Oh," Ben said, inching toward the door.
Suddenly, without warning, Remo vaulted out the cab window and landed on his feet in the shadows. Through the darkened windshield he saw Ben grasping frantically for the wheel, bringing the truck to a halt in front of the precinct doors.
"Hey!" he yelled. "They're going to think I killed him!" Ben started out the door, but was halted by two curious policemen who were circling the truck.
"That's the biz, sweetheart," Remo said, kicking a stone along an alleyway.
Killing was the pits.
* * *
The lights at Lincoln Center were brilliant, illuminating the lavish fountains in the courtyard. Walking among the columns in front of the New York State Theater was a diminutive figure draped in billowing green brocade robes. His white hair stood in a tufty cloud on top of his head, and hung in long strands from his upper lip and chin.
Chiun's age was somewhere between eighty and a hundred, but when he smiled, he looked like an eager child.
"I like this place," the old man said, gesturing grandly toward the stately buildings and their glamorous patrons. "It is good to be at last among surroundings suitable to one of my station."
"Yeah," Remo said. "Terrific."
"What is wrong, o uncultured one? Perhaps the prospect of broadening your mind is distasteful to you. You would prefer, no doubt, to gobble hot dogs and ogle the udders of white females?"
"Hark, it speaks."
"I'm sick of killing."
"Ah," the old Oriental said sagely. "This I understand."
"Of course. When one practices the art of assassination as you do, one is bound to become disillusioned. But do not sorrow, my son. You will improve with a little practice. Ten, fifteen years. Practically overnight." He patted Remo gently on the shoulder.
"It's not that, Little Father. I'm just tired of killing people for a living. I don't want to do it anymore."
Chiun arched an eyebrow. "And what, may I ask, do you propose to do since this great revelation? Sell washing machines?"
The lights dimmed and brightened in the lobby, the signal to enter the theater. "I don't know. But I'm not going to kill anybody else. I've thought it over."
Chiun sighed as he settled into his seat in full lotus position. "I guessed as much."
"That you have been thinking. Like killing and making love, thinking is an activity which should only be undertaken by those who know how to do it correctly. In your case, you should stick to killing."
"And only under supervision."
Remo sat back. He wouldn't have to tell Smith about his decision until intermission. Till then, he'd have time to take a nap. The first act of Giselle was as good a place as any to catch a few winks, and he was bone tired.
"Disgraceful," Chiun muttered as soon as the curtain came up.
"Hmmm?" Remo cranked one eyelid open.
"This is not dancing. Where are the fans? Where are the streamers?"
"This is ballet," Remo said. "It's different from Korean dancing. They use their feet."
"A shameless display of leg-showing. Girls should have more modesty. Look at that one in the white jacket. Ruffles at the collar, and no skirt. She is ladylike only around her neck."
"On the stage. A carnal exhibition. And big legs, too. White legs. Who would have such a woman?"
"That's not a woman, Chiun. It's a man."
"A man? With no pants?"
"Quiet down, Little Father."
The old Oriental looked around. "Why? Are you afraid I will wake someone up?"
Remo scanned the seats around him. Indeed, almost half the audience seemed to be fast asleep. He craned his neck to see into the orchestra section. A thousand heads bobbed up and down rhythmically as the air welled with the sound of deep snoring.
"Everybody's conked out," Remo whispered.
"What do you expect? Even unconsciousness is preferable to watching those legs."
"Something weird's going on here," Remo said.
At intermission, the curtain came down to a smattering of applause. The house lights came up, and a few people straggled into the aisles. Most of the audience remained sprawled in their seats.
"Let's find Smitty," Remo said.
Smith was standing by the refreshments counter on the first tier. Remo and Chiun had a hard time getting to him because the other patrons kept staggering in front of them.
"Out of my way," Chiun commanded as a young couple slammed into him on either flank.
"Sorry," the young man said with exteme slowness. His mouth worked further, but only drool came out.
"Slovenly creatures. White, naturally."
"He's not the only one," Remo said. Near Smith stood a fashionable middle-aged woman in green taffeta. As Smith purchased something from the bar, the woman melted to the floor. A few feet away, another patron, an elderly gentleman holding a styrofoam cup in his hand, slid slowly down the wall to the carpet.
"What's wrong with all these people?" Remo asked. "They're falling like boll weevils at first frost."
Smith walked over to them, a styrofoam container in his hand. His face was grave. "Can you see what's happening?" he asked.
"I see it, but I don't believe it," Remo said. "Is it like this all over New York?"
"All over the country," Smith said. "The first reports came from Miami, but within hours I'd heard from every city in the United States. The hospitals are full with accident cases, from people falling asleep at the wheel. Suicides are quadruple their usual rate."
"Maybe it's something in the water," Remo offered.
Smith shook his head. "Unfortunately, we know what it is. There've been enough autopsies to prove it beyond a doubt."
Smith looked around him. "Heroin," he said.
"Heroin?" Remo repeated unbelievingly. "The whole country?"
"Somehow, a huge quantity of heroin has been introduced to the American public. The epidemic has crossed all social and ethnic barriers. There's no pattern." Smith took a sip of his coffee. "I'm afraid there's just no way of stopping it at present, since we don't know the source. That's yourjob. Find out who's behind this scheme, and how he's operating. And then stop him."
Remo waffled. "There's just one thing—"
"I recommend you start with known drug contacts in the Miami area, then work your way up to the main distributors."
"See, I'd like to catch this bum as much as you, but I've come to a decision. About my life. That is, about the way I spend my life. It's the killing, Smitty.... Smitty?"
Smith stood weaving in his spot, staring glassily at Remo.
"Are you all right?"
He didn't answer. Remo waved a hand in front of Smith's face. He didn't blink. Then slowly, his arm dropped and his coffee spilled in little rivulets down the side of his trousers.
With a muffled sound, Smith careened backwards and lay unconscious on the floor.
Remo scooped him up in his arms. "It's got Smitty, too," he said. He listened to Smith's heart. "I think he's okay. We've got to get him home."
He put Smith in a taxi, gave the driver a roll of hundred-dollar bills, and sent the cab off to upstate New York.
"What now?" Chiun said in the light of a street lamp.
"We'll start in Miami."
"I thought you were not going to work again."
"I said I wasn't going to kill."
They traveled to the airport in silence. Why, Remo wondered, would anyone want to drug the entire population of the United States? Whatever the reason, Remo had the sickening feeling that things had just started.
The city of Miami was like a ghost town. Except for the constant wail of ambulances in the distance and an unusual number of derelicts, the city seemed to be deserted.
Remo walked purposefully past the palm trees lining the wide boulevard. A restriction banning all but emergency vehicles from the roads lent the empty streets an air of spaciousness.
He knew where he was going. Skirting the main routes, he turned into a series of alleyways in the northwest section of town. At the far end of a dead-end street hung a filthy shingle reading "Shoes Repaired" above a dingy storefront. Through the window Remo could see a counter tended by a laconic, murderous-looking fellow.
If Remo remembered correctly, there was a false wall at the back of the shop that opened to a warehouse filled, intermittently, with large shipments of heroin.
CURE's computers had flushed out the warehouse some months before, and Remo himself had been inside to verify the stash, but had left it untouched. Harold Smith preferred to leave big drug busts to the FBI, so Remo's climactic moment had come with an anonymous call pinpointing the location of the warehouse. The place had been raided and the heroin seized, but the Feds didn't wait to check the facts about who was in charge, and ended up arresting some minor cog in the drug wheel with no more information than the average street pusher.
The real operator, Johnny Arcadi, had taken appropriate precautions at the time and was securely and visibly out of town during the raid, speaking at an electrical contractor's convention in Detroit. Arcadi was left clean, as usual.
The Feds watched him for a while, but with so many underlings working for him, Arcadi was never in the shoe repair shop anymore. Most of the Feds concurred that Arcadi had moved to a new location. Harold Smith knew he hadn't, but Arcadi was small potatoes to CURE.
Smith waited, hoping that when Arcadi led him to the next rung on the ladder, surely a man untouchable by the democratic laws of the United States, he would send in Remo. To finish both jobs in a way the Constitution did not permit but, the only way that would work. Remo decided that the time had come.
The shoemaker in the shop was sitting on a high stool, a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth.
"Whaddya want," he said.
"Johnny Arcadi. Your boss."
"Never heard of him," the shoemaker, whose only calluses were on his trigger finger, said. He removed the cigarette from his mouth and slowly lowered his arm behind the counter. "Who wants to know?"
"My name's Remo. And I wouldn't pick up that gun if I were you."
"What gun?" the shoemaker drawled. From an almost imperceptible twitch of the man's right shoulder Remo knew that the man's fingers were wrapping around a weapon.
Shifting his position slightly, Remo kicked a hole in the front of the counter with the bottom of his foot. The gun spun into the air in three pieces, and with the same movement the shoemaker slammed shoulders first into the back wall. It yielded under his weight. Then Remo was over the counter and through the hole and into the warehouse, and the shoemaker was hanging off Remo's right hand by his nose.
"Now do you remember who Arcadi is?" Remo asked pleasantly.
The shoemaker made motions with his tongue. The only sound that issued from him was a kind of squealing grunt.
"That mean yes?"
"Give him a call. Tell him I want to talk to him. Here. In five minutes."
"Gla," the man said. Remo set him down. "You a cop?"
"Then why do you want Arcadi?"
Remo extended two fingers toward the man and pressed a place on his neck that convinced the man that further explanations were unnecessary. "He's in his car," the shoemaker said. He lifted the phone and dialed, his eyes glued to Remo's hands. "Johnny? I think you better come down here. Some guy named Remo. Says he's not a cop. He wants you should come here in five minutes. Yeah... Sorry, boss. Okay." He hung up. "He says you should go stick your pecker in a ravioli machine." He held out his two hands, palms forward, in defense. "You said call, I called. Mr. Arcadi's with a lady. He ain't coming." A bubble of a laugh escaped from his lips. "At least not now."
"He'll be here," Remo said.
"Uh-uh. That five-minute stuff, that was no good, not with Johnny Arcadi. Like he ain't used to taking orders from nobody, you know what I mean?"
"I said he'll be here." Remo glanced at the clock on the wall of the shoemaker's shop. Fifty-eight seconds had elapsed.
"How do you know he'll come?" the shoemaker persisted.
"Say I've got ESP," Remo said.
"Yeah, but if he don't come, what then? Then you murder me, right? Like maybe you think that's going to make Johnny Arcadi die of sadness or something." He expelled a little puff of air. "It just don't work that way, you know. Like you'll kill me, and he won't give a good flying crap, you know?"
"I'm not going to kill you. I'm not going to kill anybody."
The man rubbed the spot on his neck that moments before had sent him into spasms of agony. "Okay. You remember that. But he ain't coming."
Outside there was a skid of tires and a splintering of glass. Then the rotund form of Johnny Arcadi flew through the hole in the wall.
"I told you he was coming," Remo said.
"Johnny." The shoemaker's eyes shone with relief. "You cared. You really cared. Hey, I ain't going to forget this, boss, honest."
"Cram it," Arcadi moaned, rubbing his bald head where he had landed on the cement flooring. Through the hole in the wall walked a slight figure with wispy white hair bobbing over a yellow satin robe.
"Greetings," Chiun said.
The shoemaker looked from Arcadi to the old Oriental. "Who's the old gook?"
"Some maniac," Arcadi mumbled, getting shakily to his feet. "Here I am, halfway to heaven with a chick looking like a Penthouse centerfold, and along comes this old geezer and turns my legs into pretzels. Tears my arms out by the sockets. Makes my neck into a dartboard with those pointy little fingernails. Sheesh. What're you, some kind of Bruce Lee nut?" He wiped his brow with a handkerchief.
"I do not associate with persons named Bruce," Chiun said with dignity.
The shoemaker smiled. "He beat you up? You got to be kidding, boss. He can't weigh more than a hundred pounds."
"That broad'll never let me so much as cop a feel again.... Hey, you think you could do any better with the old man, smartass?"
"No offense, boss," the shoemaker said apologetically.
"I'm asking. Do you think you could cream the old gook, or don't you?"
"Well..." he smiled. "Yeah. I think I could. Sure."
Then he looked at Remo. "Oh, I get it. You look out for the old guy, don't you. I lay a finger on Pops here, and you step in and brain me, right?"
"Brain him, Remo," Chiun said. "He could use a brain."
"Hey, watch it, you old goat—"
"I won't lift a finger," Remo said.
"Even if I kill him?"
"Be my guest."
"Be his guest," Chiun said.
Remo touched Chiun's shoulder. "Don't kill him, okay?"
Chiun's jaw tightened. "You are impossible," he said.
"And you're dead," the shoemaker said. He advanced on the frail-looking old man and circled him, his fists held in front of his face. "You could at least put your hands up," he said with a smile.
"Why?" Chiun asked. "You have never seen hands?"
"You sure your friend ain't going to step in?"
"Absolutely sure. He has embraced nonviolence."
"And you haven't, right?" He laughed.
"That is correct," Chiun said.
"Okay, then. This is for what he done to me." He poked a mean right at the old Oriental. It missed. And then there was a blur of yellow satin and a sputtering of breathing sounds, and then Chiun was standing in his former position, hands tucked inside the sleeves of his gown, his face serene.
Beside him lay a spheroid shape banded by a braid of arms and legs.
"Is he dead?" Remo asked.
"No," Chiun said with disgust. "It is breathing. It will continue to breathe. That is all."
Arcadi touched the mass with his toe. It rolled away. "What a cluck," he said.
"Want to talk?" Remo asked.
"Yeah, sure." Arcadi's voice was heavy with resignation. "You're taking over the operation, I suppose."
"What if we are?"
"Then welcome to it. I'm sick of it anyway. Business. Poot." He spat significantly toward the blob of inert tissue that was the shoemaker.
"Not good? You kidding? You're looking at a ruined man. You think there's any living in hookers and numbers? That's all I got left. Ready for the poor farm, that's what I am."
"Hookers and numbers? I'm talking about heroin," Remo explained.
"You and everybody else. Heroin." He looked up nostalgically, savoring the word. "Horse. Smack. Dope. H. Heroin used to mean something," he said through misty eyes. "Secret cargoes by sea. Special cars with the stuff built into the doors. Airline stews with a little stash up their bazonkas."
"Yeah," Remo sighed. "Junkies screaming. Narcotics raids. Teenage girls turning to prostitution to support their habits."
"You got it," Johnny Arcadi said with a dreamy smile. "Them were the days." He snapped out of his reverie with tight-lipped resolution. "That's all ancient history now."
"What's ancient history?"
"As if you don't know."
"Maybe I do and maybe I don't," Remo hedged.
"You come on, Arcadi. The whole country's blasted to the gills. On heroin."
Arcadi snorted in contempt.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Jeez, you guys are even dumber than you look," Arcadi said. No wonder you got picked to close me down. You don't know nothing." He walked slowly to the far wall of the warehouse and lifted up a wooden crate. "Allow me to explain to youse."
He tossed the crate on the floor with a crash of splintering wood. Out of the broken sides slid a fat five-pound plastic bag filled with white powder. Arcadi picked it up.
"This here," he said, raising the bag to shoulder level as if demonstrating a product on television, "is your standard street heroin. Properly adulterated so as not to encourage OD's by addicts, since everybody knows junkies are pigs when it comes to dope and will shoot up as much pure heroin as cut heroin and will die, thereby diminishing the number of customers."
"Can the lecture, Arcadi."
"Please. I am making a point," Arcadi said, his brow furrowed eruditely. "Since this is not pure heroin, it was valued last week at approximately one hundred and sixty thousand dollars. Not the treasure of the Sierra Madre, Maybe, but a living." He shrugged.
"Why last week?" Remo asked.
"Ah, yes. A good question. Why do I say that last week this little packet was worth a hundred sixty thousand smackeroos?" He squeezed the bag with both hands until his face turned red and his teeth clenched and his limbs shook, and finally the packet burst open with a spray of white dust that coated the warehouse floor.
"Because this week it ain't worth bullshit!" Arcadi screamed, ripping the remaining plastic like a man possessed. He proceeded to tear open the other bags in the crate and flung their contents to the winds. "Junk is now as obsolete as the horseless carriage. Garters. Suspenders. Ocean liners. Black and white TV."
The warehouse was a blizzard of flying white dust that coated them all like bakers' apprentices as Arcadi moved frenziedly from crate to crate, ripping open the bags of heroin and dumping them in every direction.
Chiun made a corkscrew with his finger near his temple and cocked his head toward Arcadi. Remo went over to the man, who was sitting, sobbing, on a pile of sparkling powder.
"Get a grip on yourself," Remo said.
"Whoever would have thought it was possible," the fat man cried. "The price of gold, yes. That goes up and down all the time. Diamonds, sugar, art. The dollar. The value of Cuba. But the bottom falling out of heroin? I'm ruined, I tell you. Finished. A bum. I'm a bum."
"Perhaps you should try some deep breathing," Chiun suggested.
"Hookers and numbers. You ever try to make a living on hookers and numbers? I'm going to have to go back into the dry-cleaning business."
"There are plenty of addicts," Remo said consolingly. "More than ever, I hear."
"Think so? Go look at the streets. Where are the wasted dregs of humanity who used to lie in empty doorways begging strangers for enough change to buy a nickel bag? Where are the degenerate kids with their runny noses and pasty skin? The girls with the track marks running up their arms and legs? The old junkies, shaking like leaves, dying for a shot—"
"How revolting," Chiun observed.
"Where are they?" Remo asked.
"At Chock Full O' Nuts, that's where!" Arcadi roared.
The fat man looked up with red-rimmed eyes. "You think I'm kidding? Hah. Go check out the restaurants. That's where the junkies are. Hanging out in the coffee shops, swilling java and feeling like kings. It's disgusting."
"Ever hear of such a thing? Junkies don't eat. It's not done. Goes against the whole tradition. You'd think they'd have some pride. Never trust a junkie."
"You mean," Remo said, "that everybody's trying heroin— except the junkies, who are used to it?"
Arcadi rolled his eyes. "What a lame-brain. No," he said with exaggerated patience. "Don't you hear nothing? I am saying that nobody wants heroin. No deals, no sales. That's how come all this stuff is still here in the warehouse. I can't give it away. That is what I'm saying. And your boss knows it, even if you don't, lunkhead."
"The slimy Ay-rab in the turban."
Remo's thoughts drifted to Dr. Harold W. Smith, staring at his computer console through steel-rimmed spectacles. Somehow Arcadi's description didn't quite connect.
"What Arab in the turban?"
"Amfat Hassam," Arcadi said querulously. "You think I was born yesterday? Everybody in the business knows the Ay-rabs been moving Horse into this country for years." He raised his head and shoulders in a posture of dignity. "It's part of a foreign plot to undermine the morale of the nation," he said, giving appropriate weight to each word.
"And you were one of the middlemen," Remo concluded.
"We sell to junkies," Arcadi said dismissively. "Who cares about the morale of junkies?"
"Let me get this straight," Remo said. "Amfat Hassam has been supplying the pure heroin."
"And you have been buying that heroin, cutting it to spread out the volume, and selling it to dealers in the area."
"Only now nobody wants to buy heroin anymore."
"So why is eighty percent of the American public high as a kite?"
"How the hell should I know?" Arcadi screamed. "You think I like this situation? You think I like working hookers and numbers? Your boss, Hassam, he knows. This is part of some kind of new Ay-rab plot, I tell you. Get 'em zonked on something else, and eliminate heroin from the whole scene. Put thousands out of work."
"But it is heroin that everyone's stoned on."
"Then find out from Hassam how they're getting it, 'cause it sure ain't coming from me."
"I will," Remo said.
"And tell him he can take this warehouse full of dope and stick it up his bazonka."
"And now you're going to kill me, I suppose."
"Go ahead," Chiun prodded. "When one falls from a camel, one must quickly mount the same camel. An old Persian proverb."
"What's from camels?" Arcadi snarled. "Are you gonna off me, or what?"
"Quiet, large mouth, that is what we are discussing," Chiun said.
"Oh, excuse me," Arcadi said with an elaborate gesture. "While you two are making conversation, I think I'll just take a little air." He sauntered toward the demolished wall.
"The Emperor will be most displeased if you permit this man to go free," Chiun said in Korean.
"I'm telling you, I just can't kill anymore. Not even a beanbag like Arcadi. I don't have the stomach for it."
Chiun sighed noisily. "All right. But let it be on your head."
"Arcadi," Remo shouted.
Arcadi was sprinting down the street. Remo flew at him in a tackle and brought him to the ground. He bounced him back inside the warehouse and tied his wrists and ankles together with Arcadi's necktie. Then he picked up the telephone and dialed the Chicago Dial-A-Prayer number that eventually reached Harold W. Smith at Folcroft Sanitarium.
"Er... fine," Smith said, rather stiffly. "It must have been some manifestation of stress."
"You were blasted, but never mind," Remo said. "Are you sure that stuff that's going around is heroin?" He explained Arcadi's predicament. "There isn't any market for heroin these days."
"Interesting," Smith said. "But it's heroin, or a close molecular derivative. And organic. There's no mistake."
"All right," Remo said uncertainly. "By the way, you'd better alert the Miami police to come pick up Arcadi."
"He's— he's alive?"
"Yeah," Remo said defensively. "What of it?"
"Remo, I must advise you—"
"Forget it," Remo said, and hung up.
He turned to Arcadi. "Everybody wants you dead."
Arcadi shrugged. "Breaks my heart."
"Well, I'm not going to kill you."
"Don't do me no favors."
"You could be a little grateful."
Arcadi made a disgusted noise. "You mash my assistant into a human bowling ball, then you beat the gas out of me, tie me up like a frigging doughnut, and leave me here for the cops in a warehouse full of smack, and you want gratitude?"
Remo walked away. "Dumb ingrate," he said.
Chiun sniffed. "And you call yourself an assassin," he said. "I am returning to our motel. You can see your Mr. Hassam and not kill him by yourself. Be back by five o'clock. We are eating duck tonight."
Amfat Hassam's residence wasn't hard to find. The lawn in front of the mansion was studded with classical Greek statues painted in vivid flesh tones and anatomically correct. Three gigantic fountains sprayed particolored water into the air above a rhinestone-studded reflecting pool with a mosaic of Ann Margaret on the bottom. Although it was only October, twinkling Christmas lights sparkled on the colonnaded façade of the house, which was a replica of the White House except that it was painted Schiaparelli pink.
Remo vaulted over the ten-foot-high brass gates and walked around to the back. In the middle of a vast orchid garden stretched the blue expanse of a star-shaped swimming pool surrounded by leggy girls in bikinis.
"Oooo," a buxom blonde crooned when she saw Remo.
Gorgeous girls no longer had the effect on Remo they once had. Through years of "oooos" and "ahhhs" and the stray manicured hand brushing accidentally against his buttocks, he had grown to accept the fact that he was the sort of man women found attractive. To him, it all seemed like standard equipment. He was tall, and they liked that. He had dark hair and eyes to match.
The eyes, he had to admit, were pretty extraordinary: he could see about a mile in any kind of weather, and his night vision was as good as the daylight variety. Chiun had taught him to control the diameter of his pupils, a feat that had taken nearly four years to learn. But the girls didn't know that. They just thought his eyes were cute, as if that made any difference whatever.
Or cruel. Women were always telling him how cruel his eyes were. Kiss me, you brute. Remo sincerely wondered what mechanism made women enjoy the company of men they found frightening, but his was not to reason why. Women were a species unto themselves, and nothing they said or did surprised him anymore.
Which was why he didn't say anything when the blonde with the rack on her pulled off his T-shirt with one deft motion and buried her face in his chest. Or when the statuesque redhead standing nearby grabbed him by the hair and stuck her tongue in his ear. Or when the brunette with the freckles wound herself around his legs and bit the blonde on the knee. There was no reasoning with them after that, with claws flying and perfumed hair coming out by the handful and enough shrieking and cussing to make Hassam's tropical paradise sound like a cathouse during a panty raid.
"Ladies, ladies," Remo attempted. He got a curvaceous calf in his mouth for the effort. A finger attached to a three-inch-long orange fingernail darted alarmingly, near his right eye, and when he recovered his balance, a well-muscled female belly enveloped him.
"Get off me," Remo griped. "What are you, Hassam's army?"
"Psst. Come with me," whispered the girl attached to the belly. She was a pretty little blonde with the kind of puckish, innocent features that reminded him of old Tuesday Weld movies. She led him, crawling combat style, out of the melee and into the shadows of some tiger lilies.
"I'm Sandy," she sighed, kissing Remo full on the mouth.
"That's okay," Remo said. "I'm a little dusty myself." He smiled broadly.
"Huh?" She batted a lot of genuine mink eyelashes in his direction.
"Never mind. Why'd they attack me?"
Sandy giggled. "It wasn't you they were attacking, silly. It was each other. Men are so scarce around here, every girl wanted you for herself." Her tongue flicked between her lips. "Wanna play doctor?"
A high-heeled shoe whizzed overhead. "Aerial attack," the girl said. Her smile widened into a lascivious grin. "Better stay close to me, Brown Eyes." She ground herself on him to ensure maximum protection. "Can't tell what they'd do for a man."
"Why don't they try the bars?" Remo offered.
"We're not allowed. It's part of the contract."
"To the sheik." She wriggled onto his lap. Before he could protest, the tiny bikini top she was wearing sprang off and flew into the bushes. "Oops," the girl said, her breasts quivering in Remo's face. "It must have slipped. Well, men will take advantage when the opportunity comes up," she giggled. She drummed her fingers on his thigh as the moments passed. Her smile faded. "They will, won't they?" she asked uncertainly.
"Not always," Remo said gallantly, plucking two leaves off a plant and presenting them to her. "What contract?"
"Our work contract," she said, accidentally losing the leaves in Remo's hair. "Hassam's our employer. We're his harem." She appraised Remo's reaction. "So it's a job," she said.
"Uh, yeah," Remo said. "What do harem girls do, exactly?"
"Not what you think. Squirt's no stallion. His wife sees to that. We're just dancers. Kind of."
"Sure. That weird dancing Arabs like. Bumps and grinds and shimmies. I'm the best one here." She demonstrated for Remo at point-blank range. "Works better with tassels, I think."
"I see," Remo said.
"I'm the only real dancer in the bunch. My last job was at the Whiskey à Go-Go in L.A." She arched her back proudly. "Naturally, I feel sort of dumb listing 'harem girl' on my W-2," she reflected, "what with my background and all. But for five grand a week, who's complaining? And Squirt's such a nice guy."
"The sheik. Hassam, that is. He's not really a sheik. But his wife makes us call him that." She laughed. "Everybody knows they were both date pickers in some desert slum before Squirt hit it big on the drug scene."
"So I've heard. I want to see him."
"Forget it. Squirt's got the hordes of Allah surrounding him. Besides, what do you want with him when you can see me?" As if to illustrate her point, the bottom of her bikini slithered off inexplicably.
"Is he in the house?"
"Who, Squirt? Sure. Hiding from the sheikess, or whatever the old battle-axe calls herself. Squirt goes into his secret room up in the attic for an eyeful whenever the girls are out here by the pool."
"In that room?" Remo pointed to a small window overlooking the pool, where the harem had retreated after losing sight of their quarry.
"That's the one. You can see his binoculars. Poor old Squirt. It's the only jollies he gets." She fought for position as Remo tried to remove her from his lap. "Hey, don't waste your time, big boy. Squirt's got twenty-four-hour bodyguards. And take my word for it, I smell a lot better than they do. Better stick around here."
"Sorry, sweetheart," Remo said, lifting her gently and depositing her beside him. She looked as if she were about to cry. "It's nothing personal," he said.
"I used to be a respectable go-go girl," she said bravely. "More boom boom than I knew what to do with. Dinners, they gave me. Cab fare. One guy even kept me in fancy underpants for a whole year. Now I can't even land a quickie in the damn bushes."
Her pretty eyes were beginning to squeeze shut miserably, so Remo did the only thing he could think of. He pinched a nerve on the left side of her back that sent her moaning in orgiastic delight. "Oh, baby, what's that, telepathy?" she squealed.
"Just an old Korean trick. It'll go away in about an hour. Unless you don't like it." He reached toward her, but she squirmed away.
"I'll let you know how I like it in an hour," she said, smiling.
He headed for the house. One of the girls spotted him, and the stampede was on again, but they called off the chase as soon as Remo started climbing up the sheer face of the wall.
"He can't be for real," one of the harem said as Remo slapped one hand over the other on his spiderlike crawl to the third story. Remo usually didn't like to have people watching him while he worked, but wall climbing was about as elementary as you could get. Even if Amfat Hassam did let loose with a piercing scream when Remo's legs swung in front of his binoculars and into the window.
Four goons who looked as if they'd been weaned on blood adhering to the ends of sabers appeared out of nowhere. They were swathed in flowing nomadic robes. Long curved knives hung glinting from their belts. Their fierce eyes spoke of a thousand years of desert fighting.
"Let's moider da creep, Joey," the biggest one said, pulling a revolver out of his sleeve.
"Hold it, fellas. I just want to talk."
"Talk to dis," another warrior said, thrusting a brass-knuckled fist toward Remo's nose.
"You're not very polite," Remo said, before embedding the man's knuckles in the man's throat.
The big one fired his revolver. The bullet missed, an event the gunman seemed to find amazing, considering he had fired five inches from Remo's chest.
"Your manners aren't very good, either," Remo said, poking him in the forehead with his index finger. A little cylinder of brain tissue about the diameter of a dime shot out the back of the man's skull.
For a moment, Remo was afraid he had killed the man, but his fears were allayed when the man smiled. "Only a lobotomy," Remo said to the two remaining guards who were closing in on him. "Now, now," he said. "You two look like you're thinking impure thoughts."
He picked one up in each hand and flung them to opposite sides of the room. Their weapons, still in their outstretched hands, hit the wall first, cracking apart and spilling two showers of unspent bullets on the floor. A split second later, their bodies made contact with the plaster and tunneled inside it like jewels in a mosaic.
After checking to see that they were breathing, Remo turned to the little man with the binoculars. He was wearing a pair of baggy Bermuda shorts, which trembled pitifully around his knocking knees.
"Me, I have excellent manners," he said quickly. "I buy the cookies from the Girl Scouts. I help old ladies cross the street. I use a napkin, always. You would like perhaps a drink?"
He shambled over to a tray filled with decanters, clattered a rapid tattoo while he filled a glass, and offered it spastically to Remo.
"I don't drink."
"Thank you," the sheik said, downing the contents of the glass with one gulp. The thinning strands of hair on his head quivered.
"I thought Arabs didn't drink, either."
Hassam dropped his glass instantly. "I will never drink again. I swear it."
Remo was about to tell Hassam that he didn't care whether anybody drank or not. Then he remembered that the day his body had reached the level of development where he could no longer ingest alcohol had been a sad day in his life. No more Scotch Mists to soften the blows of life's slings and arrows. No vacation Mai Tais in coconuts with little umbrellas in them. Not even a beer after a good football game. The experience had left him with a perverse envy of people who could down a little nip now and then. Drunks made lousy assassins, but sobriety was hell sometimes. So why shouldn't a heroin smuggler feel at least as rotten as he did, he reasoned.
"See that you don't."
"My lips will never taste the bitter nectar of sin again." He clapped his hands, and a butler who looked like Lawrence of Arabia entered. "Some entertainment, please," Hassam ordered. "Prepare the dancers."
He turned to Remo. "Since you have murdered my bodyguards, I assume you have come to rob my house?" he inquired pleasantly.
"I didn't murder them," Remo insisted. "And no, I don't want anything in your house. I just wanted to talk to you."
Hassam's face fell. "You are not a robber?"
Hassam looked crestfallen.
"Sorry. It's not my line," Remo explained.
"Just a few jewels, perhaps," Hassam persisted. "Very valuable. Easy to steal." He leaned forward, squinting conspiratorially. "Just put in your pocket. Nobody to see," he whispered. "My wife Yasmine keeps her jewels in a box on her dressing table. In her bedroom. You go down one flight and turn right. The third door on the left side."
"You sound like you want me to rob you."
Hassam laughed nervously. "Me? How ridiculous. Of course not."
"Well, that's good," Remo said.
"By the way, my butler can provide you with a hammer and chisel."
"The box. In case it is locked. Very easy to break. No trouble."
"Will you come off it? I'm not going to rob you, and that's final. Now, would you mind discussing what I came here for?"
"Oh, very well," Hassam said, annoyed. "Although I do not know why you bother to kill my guards and then do not even attempt to rob me. It is not sensible. Not American."
"I didn't— oh, what's the use. Johnny Arcadi sent me."
"The slime," Hassam said. "Excuse me. That was not polite. Pray, do not kill me for my rudeness."
"Oh, for..." Remo counted backward from ten. "Okay. Think whatever you want. Anyway, Arcadi said you supplied him with the heroin he sold."
Hassam grunted. "I know nothing of drugs. My people do not believe in drugs. Drugs are for degenerate westerners with nothing to fill the emptiness of their depraved and selfish existences."
"Gosh, if there's one thing I hate more than rudeness, it's dishonesty," Remo said.
"Drugs are my life," Hassam squeaked. "Please do not poke your finger into my brain."
"Keep talking. What about Arcadi?"
"He is a bum," Hassam said off-handedly. "An unscrupulous money grubber. A thousand pardons for the rudeness. An odious criminal, excuse me."
"He buys heroin from you?"
"That is past. There is nothing between us."
"Because Arcadi couldn't sell the goods."
"That is what he says," Hassam said hotly. "For eight years he sells everything and makes a huge profit, leaving only a pittance for myself. Now suddenly he claims there are no buyers. Am I to believe such a story?" He paced agitatedly around the room, talking in a torrent. "He has found another supplier, I am not an idiot. I can see. There is more heroin now than ever. All the accidents everywhere." He picked up a newspaper and rattled it savagely. "Three thousand deaths today alone. And almost all of them attributable to drug overdoses."
"But Arcadi wasn't making any money," Remo said. "He thought you were behind some plot to ease him out as middleman."
Hassam stared at him. "You mean Johnny Arcadi is broke, too?"
Hassam let out a low moan. "Why do you think I wish for you to steal my wife's jewels? At least the insurance would bring us enough to eat. I am a pauper." He chewed his fingernails. "I sold all my stock in ITT this morning. My treasury notes and money market investments are already gone. The house is for sale. Yesterday I had to pawn my wife's pearls and replace them with paste beads. I have nothing."
"If you're telling the truth, then where's all the heroin coming from?" Remo asked.
"Where? If I knew where, would I be standing here begging you to rob me? Please. At least the paste pearls. My wife is bound to find out I replaced them unless they are stolen first."
"I'm sure she'll understand," Remo said sardonically. "Things could be worse."
A scattering of fingernail slivers shot from Hassam's mouth. "I take it you have not met my wife."
"Haven't had the pleasure," Remo said.
"You are a lucky man. And if Yasmine discovers that I have sold her pearls, my bodyguards who are dead will also be lucky men compared with me."
The butler entered and announced that the dancers were ready. He placed a record on the stereo. Weird twangy music filled the room. The heavy curtains covering the doorway parted, and all the girls from the pool filed in, dressed in spangled brassieres and gossamer houri pants, undulating gracefully to the music. The girl Remo had met in the bushes winked at him.
"That is Sandy," Hassam said longingly. "She likes you, I think."
"Um," Remo said noncommittally. "Actually, I came to talk about—"
"It is for the last time, this dance," Hassam said, blinking hard. "I will not be able to pay the girls after today. Tomorrow they will all be gone, like a beautiful dream. All that will remain will be Yasmine."
A slow tear rolled down the furrows of Hassam's cheeks. "Yes. There will always be Yasmine."
A thundering noise reverberated through the house, accompanied by a wail that sounded like the cry of a wounded buffalo. The phonograph needle scraped painfully across the record, and the music stopped. Then a 300-pound Arab woman covered with black veils elbowed her way into the room. Waving a strand of pearls, she flattened the dancing girls against the walls as she cut a ferocious path to Hassam.
"Fake!" she shrilled. The butler clapped and the dancing girls scurried away. "The pearls are paste!" To illustrate, she chomped down on a few inches of the strand and spat the fragments into Hassam's eye.
"May I introduce my wife, Yasmine," Hassam said, squinting.
"Pleased..." Remo began.
"You think to hide from me in this room!" she shrieked. "But there is no place for you to run now, vile cur of a deceiver. There is no comfort for thieves."
"... To meet you," Remo finished lamely. Mrs. Hassam looked coldly at him. "And who is this skinny person in a T-shirt, a bum?" She flicked a pudgy wrist in Remo's direction. "Another of your worthless friends, no doubt, come to ogle the bags of bones you call a harem. Maybe you sold my beautiful pearls to him, eh?" A chunky hand loaded with gaudy rings lashed out and wound itself expertly around Hassam's nose. It gave a mighty tug.
"Well," Hassam said heartily, extricating himself from her grip with a broad, frozen smile. "Shall we have a drink?" He glanced at Remo. "Oh. Only coffee, of course." He motioned desperately to the butler.
"Hey, listen, Hassam," Remo said sympathetically. "It's okay with me if you want a dr—"
"He does not want a drink!" Mrs. Hassam bellowed. She flipped her husband onto the sofa. "You'd better come up with some new pearls, you sodden drunkard of a no-good husband, or you'll have my brother's saber down your throat."
"Yes, my lily," Hassam said.
"Bigger pearls than the others. And longer. And another ring. My thumb is nearly bare."
Hassam nodded numbly.
"Coffee, sir," the butler said. Hassam poured himself a cup and help it shakily to his lips, trying valiantly to restore his composure.
"Delicious," he said, smiling fixedly. "As we were saying, Mr...."
"Call me Remo," Remo said, trying to drown out Mrs. Hassam's tirade behind them.
"Don't you ignore me, you weaselly runt," she roared. "Where are the airline tickets for my mother and her servants to visit me for the winter? I know you never liked my mother."
"Are you sure you won't join me for a cup, Remo?" Hassam offered. "It is quite good, really." He smacked his lips languidly. "Exceptionally good."
"Hassam!" his wife hissed, poking the little man hard in the ribs. His lips followed the coffee cup around as it bounced, licking up any stray drops.
"I might as well tell you that I've fired the upstairs maid," Mrs. Hassam went on. "I've seen the way that strumpet looks at you. Do you think I am blind and deaf?"
"I wish I were," Hassam said mournfully, draining his cup.
"What are you mumbling? I heard you. Don't think you can get away with your nonsense forever, Amfat Hassam. My brothers will know how to handle you."
But Hassam was too absorbed in the coffeepot to answer. He opened the lid, sniffed deeply, smiled, and began to pour himself another cup. Then, watching the slow stream of liquid, he dispensed with the cup and held the spout directly to his lips, greedily gulping down the contents of the pot.
"Excuse me," Hassam said with a belch. "Extraordinary. Most excellent coffee."
"It must have been," Remo mused. Hassam clapped. Within a few moments another pot appeared.
"Are you listening to me?" Mrs. Hassam screamed.
Hassam picked his nose in reply.
She turned to Remo. "What is wrong with him?"
Remo shrugged. Hassam stretched out like a cat, scratching his belly and nodding his head sleepily.
"Hassam! Amfat, my husband, what has come over you?"
"Mmpht," Hassam said, curling into a ball.
"He has gone mad," Mrs. Hassam whispered dramatically. "My mother was right."
"They always are," Remo said.
"If I had married Ali El-Jabbar as she suggested, I would have real jewels now, not cheap paste imitations. I would not have been chained to a thieving drunkard besotted by vice." She turned an accusing finger on Remo. "You forced him into this shameful condition, didn't you?"
"He hasn't been drinking anything," Remo said, poking experimentally at the motionless Hassam. It was all so peculiar. "Smith," he whispered. "Chock Full O' Nuts."
"What are you saying? You are as crazy as he is," Mrs. Hassam shouted.
Remo grabbed the coffeepot from the butler. He opened the lid. The steam wafting from the surface of the liquid stung his eyes and burned his nose. "There's something in this coffee," he said.
Hassam snorted awake and stretched out his arms. "Cof-fee," he chanted.
Remo stuck a finger into the coffee and tasted it.
Bitter. Odd. Hypnotic. "Heroin," he said.
Hassam's eyes opened a fraction of an inch. "Heroin?"
"In the coffee."
Mrs. Hassam gave out a terrifying yell. "A drunkard and a thief, and now my worthless husband is a drug addict as well!" She grabbed Remo by both shoulders and shook him. "What can I do? Help me to do something with this criminal before he attacks me in lust."
"Uh... just a second, Mrs. Hassam," Remo said, carefully removing her viselike fingers from his shirt.
"This is terrible!"
Remo nodded in agreement. "Yes, ma'am. Very bad. I'd say you were in great danger right now."
"Oh," she gasped, backing away a step.
"If I were you, I'd go somewhere right now where there isn't any chance that he'll see or hear you. The basement ought to do it. Just stay out of danger until I can subdue him."
She stole a quick glance at the little man snoring peacefully on the divan.
"Oh, they're unpredictable in this state, ma'am. You can't tell what they'll do next. A kitten one minute, a tiger the next."
Mrs. Hassam faltered backward as far as the doorway. "To... the basement? Would not my bedroom do as well?"
"I'm afraid that's not far enough out of the danger zone, ma'am. Quick! I think he's coming out of it."
With a final shriek, Mrs. Hassam careened out of sight.
Remo shook Hassam awake. "Hassam. Sheik. Listen to me."
"Cof-fee," the old man intoned.
"No coffee. Just tell me where your supply of heroin is."
"You want heroin?" Hassam shook his head slowly.
"No good. Coffee is much better. Besides, business is rotten."
"It doesn't matter."
With an effort, the little man sat up and looked around warily. "Where is Yasmine? She knows nothing of my business activities."
"I sent her to the basement."
Hassam stared at him. "Is she dead? Did you kill her, too?"
"No. She's all right. I just told her to go, and she went."
"Just like that?" His voice was incredulous.
"Yeah," Remo said impatiently. "Now where do you keep the stash?"
Hassam appraised Remo with a long, unfocused glance. "I suppose you will kill me if I don't tell you."
"Worse. I'll release Yasmine."
"It is on a freighter in Miami Harbor. The Maid of Mallecha is the name of the ship." He spelled it out. "But why do you want heroin? It is worthless."
"The police will still be interested."
"You are with the police?" Hassam asked, startled.
"Oh. That is good."
"I'm an assassin."
Hassam looked into his eyes for several moments. At last he spoke. "Cof-fee," he said.
"You are not going to kill me?"
"Don't press it," Remo said.
"But what will happen to me?"
"Jail, probably. And a lot of interrogation by the cops."
"Jail? Imprisonment?" Hassam moaned. "But that is terrible! It is the end of my life. Is it not bad enough that I am impoverished? A convict in the land of the free... oh, it is most unbearable..."
"Think of it this way," Remo said. "Jail's for singles only."
Hassam gaped, his mouth flopping open occasionally like a fish. "No Yasmine?"
"Not for twenty or thirty years, anyway."
"Twenty or thirty years." Hassam relished the words.
"Or I could call Yasmine right now and take you both to an uncharted tropical island where there aren't any other people. It's your choice."
"Please," Hassam said shakily. "Do not even joke about such ideas. I am not a strong man. Jail it is."
"Deal," Remo said. He rose. Hassam smiled gently at him. Crook or not, Remo thought, he liked the guy. Who knew what crimes a woman like Yasmine could drive a man to. "I'm going to give you a present," Remo said.
"Yes?" Hassam asked politely.
And Remo showed him exactly how to hold his fingers when pressing a certain spot on a woman's back.
"Yes, very good, but what will this do?" Hassam asked, experimenting with the unusual position.
"I'll let you find out for yourself. Sandy's going to visit you in the pokey. I'll see to it. When she does, you push on the place on her back the way I showed you. She'll come every visiting day, I promise."
"Very strange," Hassam said.
"So long, Squirt."
"Hassam's got a freighter full of dope -in Miami Harbor," Remo told Smith. "The Maid of Mallecha is the name of the ship. Hassam's at home, waiting to be picked up."
"That's just the way it is," Remo said flatly. "I'm not going to kill anyone, no matter what."
Smith sputtered for a few moments. "All right," he said finally. "There isn't time to argue. How was Hassam getting the heroin to the public?"
"He wasn't. He's broke, like all the other drug dealers."
"You mean you don't have a clue?"
"Oh, I've got a clue all right. The stuff's in coffee. I just don't know how it's getting there."
"Coffee?" A mechanical whirr sounded in the background. Smith mumbled to himself while making entries into the computers. "That would explain the widespread proliferation of the drug. But which coffee? And how does the heroin get into the coffee? In the packing stage, or earlier? What city does it originate from? How can one dealer infiltrate every coffee operation in the country? Who has access to so much heroin? And why would anyone want to do it?"
"Hell, I don't know, Smitty—"
"It doesn't even seem that it would be profitable," Smith rambled on, oblivious now to Remo. The background clicks and beeps whipped to a frenzy, then died away. "None of that computes," Smith said wearily. "Are you sure it's coffee?"
"I'll have some tests run. Be where I can reach you this evening."
It was 7:30 when Remo arrived back at the motel. The only sound in the place was Chiun's quill pen scratching furiously at a piece of parchment.
"Sorry I'm late," Remo said breezily. "What's for dinner?"
The old man's head lifted slowly, revealing a pair of hazel eyes glinting with rage. The white wisps of hair on top of Chiun's head raised and lowered rhythmically with the clenching of his jaws.
"Dinner?" he asked innocently. "One does not eat dinner in the middle of the night. At least civilized people do not. When a civilized person is invited by his elder and superior to dine at a proper hour, that person arrives when he is due. Not two and a half hours later."
"I'm sorry, Chiun," Remo said. "It couldn't be helped."
"Of course not. Uncivilized oafs can never prevent their true nature from revealing itself. Especially white men. It is their genetic duty to be rude and crude."
"Okay, okay. I deserve that. But I'm starving. Isn't there any duck left?"
Chiun tilted his head. "Duck? Of course there is duck."
Like a puff of smoke, he seemed to rise off the floor unaided by muscle bone. He walked serenely into the tiny kitchenette and emerged a moment later holding a platter. The platter was heaped with a lumpy black substance.
"Here is your duck, o prompt one." With his fingers he snapped the platter in two. The charred mass clunked onto the floor.
"All right, I get the picture. How about the rice? Is there any rice left? I don't mind if it's cold."
"Rice?" The old man padded back into the kitchenette and out again. In his hands was a smoke-blackened pot, which he upended over the blackened duck. A brown pancake composed of hard, crisp granules flew out. "There is your rice, o industrious assassin who is too busy not killing to return for dinner. Is there anything else I may serve you?"
Remo sighed. "No. No thanks, Chiun. I'll make some tea."
"Tea?" Chiun asked acidly.
"Water, then. Don't worry, I won't soil any of the plastic glasses here with my undeserving lips. I'll just hold my head under the faucet and slurp."
"Mockery. Count on an unmannered white lout to make mock of the graciousness of others," Chiun grumbled.
"Little Father, I know you went to a lot of trouble—"
"Silence," the old Oriental said, picking up his quill. "I have no time to bandy about words with you. My writing now is of utmost importance."
Remo peered over Chiun's shoulder at the parchment. On it he saw the Korean characters for "lout" and "ungrateful."
"Writing about me again?"
"It is the history of Sinanju that I write. From the time of the first Master, whose village was so poor that the fishermen had to send their babies back to the sea."
"Do tell," Remo said, feigning interest in the story he had heard at least a thousand times before. "And I'll bet the Master hired himself out as an assassin to help the village out."
"Hmmph. That is just the beginning. My work follows all the Masters up to and including myself." He read aloud as he formed the careful strokes with his quill. "Chiun was the name of the last Master of Sinanju, with whom the unbroken line ended because there was no one to succeed him except for a loutish white person who refused to practice the arts of Sinanju which are taught to but a handful of beings in the whole of history, an ungrateful wretch who did not even possess the manners to arrive on time for dinner. Seeing the qualtities of leadership sorely lacking in his pupil, the Master was forced to tell the people of Sinanju that there would be no further Master after him."
"And cut off the submarines full of gold bullion that Smitty sends Sinanju every year so that nobody in town ever has to work a day in his life? Oh, the villagers'll love you for that."
Without changing expression, Chiun drew a line through the last sentence and scribbled another. "Chiun, Master of Sinanju, who in the twilight of his years, at last found a pupil worthy of his kindness and goodwill. A pupil of proper color," he recited.
"So you're writing me off, is that it? Sending me to the unemployment line without dinner."
"And lo, the loutish white person, after a long search, found employment suitable to his character," Chiun orated. "Biting the heads off chickens in public places."
"Oh, that's good, Chiun. Insightful. Rich prose style."
Chiun continued, unruffled. "Thus did the ungrateful pupil learn too late that a dinner invitation by the Master of Sinanju was not to be ignored."
"I said I was sorry."
"That is what all chicken-biters say."
The phone rang. "Yeah?" Remo said.
Smith's voice sounded alarmed. "It's all the coffee," he said. "Every brand. Every location. Whole beans included."
"Whole beans? But that's impossible."
"The computers don't say it's impossible."
"Why not? How do you get heroin into a bean?"
"I don't know. But if it were impossible, the Folcroft computers would have said so. The answer is in the beans."
"Where does that leave me?"
"We're still in the dark, I'm afraid. But you have to start somewhere. There's a coffee warehouse in Port Henry, about thirty miles northwest of where you are. Get there the first thing in the morning and find out what you can. If you can't find any information, you'll have to investigate other warehouses in different parts of the country. It's a slow process, but that's all we can do."
"What about the coffee already in the stores?"
"It will all have to be recalled. Of course, as soon as that's done, the perpetrators will no doubt halt their operation."
"What are my chances of catching anyone, then?" Remo asked.
The computers beeped and clicked. "Now that's impossible," Smith said.
Remo hung up. "I've got to go to a coffee warehouse. Want to come along?"
"I will be quite busy conducting auditions for my new pupil, thank you," Chiun said crisply.
"Fine. That's just terrific. I'm sure you'll find somebody who's perfect in every way."
"I will only audition Koreans," Chiun said. "It will eliminate the chaff from the beginning."
"Okay. But I'll be home for dinner tomorrow night. Honest. I'll even cook."
"For both of us?"
"You and me? Sure."
"I mean myself and my new pupil. We will expect to dine at five o'clock."
Remo sighed. "All right. If that's the penance you want, I'll do it."
Chiun smiled tightly and resumed his writing. Remo left, ate a bowl of tepid rice at a Chinese restaurant, and spent the night walking to Port Henry.
The warehouse was operating at full tilt. Dozens of hustling workers glistening with sweat scrambled around the long, low cement block building, loading large burlap bags fragrant with the rick dark scent of coffee beans onto forklifts or into shipping crates. Remo went directly to the small office just inside the truck entrance.
A harried-looking man with hands that looked like they were used to rough work was frowning as he poked a stubby index finger onto the keys of an adding machine. Smoke from a fat, worry-chewed cigar steamed around his face like a curtain.
"You the manager?" Remo asked.
"Yeah." The man looked up briefly. "Name's Sloops. You looking for work?"
"Sure am," Remo said.
Sloops puffed at his cigar hurriedly. "You got it."
He rose, shoving a piece of paper toward Remo. "Put down your name and stuff there, so we can pay you. And make it fast. We got more work than we know what to do with."
"Business looks good around here," Remo said conversationally as he filled in the blanks.
"Never been better. Strange thing. People out of work all over the country, and we're turning over more business than we can handle." He puffed out a little laugh. "Well, I ain't complaining. I guess coffee's the only thing people can afford to drink these days."
"When did the boom start?"
"Oh, I dunno, not too long ago." Sloops stood and smoked for a few minutes, ruminating. Then he spoke softly, as if to himself. "Last Thursday."
"What happened last Thursday?"
The smoke from his cigar rose in thick curls. "I just remembered, Thursday was the first crazy day we had here. It started right after the new beans came."
"What new beans?"
Sloops puffed in silence for a few more moments, then turned irritably toward Remo. "What's it to you, what beans? You want work or not?"
"Sure," Remo said. "I was only—"
"Then quit jawing so much. That thing filled out?" He snatched the form away and scanned it. "What's this crap? Under 'address' you have the Happy Rest Motel."
Remo shrugged. "I've got to live someplace."
With a grunt the man tossed the card onto his desk and opened the door. "Don't make no difference to me, long as you can do the work." He appraised Remo's thin body as they walked toward the far end of the warehouse. "No offense, but you don't look that strong, kid. You got to be able to lift those hundred and fifty-pound bags."
"I'll do my best, sir."
He was put to work beside a handsome young man with bulging biceps. The young man looked Remo over condescendingly as he hoisted up one of the big bags of coffee beans. The effort made his muscles stand out ostentatiously beneath the thin straps of his wet-look tank shirt. He hesitated as the bag was at its zenith, admiring the contours of his own physique.
"Ty," he said, sounding for all the world as if he'd spent his teen years watching Nelson Eddy movies.
"Tie what?" Remo asked.
The young man tossed the bag onto the skid they were loading and smiled. "That's me. Ty. Stands for Tyrone."
Good, Remo thought. A talker. It always saved time when people were willing to talk, even if they were as dumb as Ty seemed to be.
"Remo," he said, extending his hand.
Ty declined the handshake with a modest wave. "Nah. I might hurt you. Sometimes I don't know my own strength."
"Oh. Thanks for warning me," Remo said.
"So I noticed."
"Nah, not this crap. This is nothing. I lift weights, real weights. It's the only way to build up your delts."
"I'll keep that in mind," Remo said, controlling his movements to look as if the coffee bags required more than one finger to move.
"You know, you could do something with yourself with a little work. You got good wrists. Put on some weight, work out for maybe a year at a good gym, you could have potential." He winked patronizingly at Remo between displays of musculature.
"Gee, thanks," Remo said.
"Nothing great, of course. But you could be okay."
Remo nodded. "Have you been working here long?"
"Yeah. A while. They're grooming me for management here," he said proudly.
"Then you must know a lot about coffee."
"Everything," Ty agreed. "Believe me, there's nobody here knows more than I do about this place. You know why? 'Cause I make it my business to know. Perfection of the body and the mind, too, that's what the Greeks said. You know about the Greeks?"
"Any particular Greeks?"
"The old Greeks. They believed in body building and thinking. All at the same time. Not the new Greeks, though. The old ones. Most of them are dead now. They built a lot of statues."
"What happened last Thursday?" Remo asked.
"Huh? Oh, Thursday. Yeah, it got real wild here. Busy. Ten new guys got hired since then. Overtime six nights a week. We've been making out good. What's good for business is good for me, you know?"
"Did the Greeks say that, too?" Remo muttered, thudding one of the bags onto a flat wooden square.
"The Greeks? Nah. They didn't speak English. They were only into foreign stuff. Hey, did I tell you they're grooming me for management here? I fill in for Sloops when he can't make it in."
"Yeah, yeah," Remo said. "Sloops said something about some new beans."
"Damn good thing we had them, too," Ty said belligerently. "Sloops almost chewed my ear off when I bought them, but he's glad now."
"You bought them?"
"Yeah. Well, I'm not supposed to buy anything, really, just kind of mind the store when Sloops is sick. He's got this kidney problem or something—"
"Where'd the beans come from?"
"Colombia. Good beans. The best beans come from Colombia. That's why most American blends are mostly Colombian beans. Now, you have your African beans, they're kind of small and bitter," he rambled pedantically. "Then there's your Jamaican bean—"
"Who sold them to you?" Remo interrupted.
"A guy named Brown."
"Yeah. Said he represented a new company, and he'd sell me the beans cheap. Sort of a get-acquainted discount."
"Did this Brown give you a card?"
"Sure. 'George Brown,' it said. 'North American Coffee Company,' or something like that. Which is funny, since coffee don't grow in North America. Anybody who knows beans from bongos could see those beans came from Colombia."
"Where was the company located?"
Ty searched his pockets. "I still got the card here someplace." He extracted a fat wallet and leafed leisurely through dozens of photographs. "Now this," he said, pointing to a picture of himself oiled and straining, "is from the regionals. I took second. There's one that shows my lats real good."
"Skip the lats," Remo said. "Where's the card?"
"Oh that, yeah," Ty said, remembering. He pulled out an embossed business card.
North American Coffee Company
"Indiana?" Remo mused. "There's no phone number here. No post office box, no street address."
"That's what I mean," Ty said, chortling. "I figured it was a scam. Hot beans. You know, stolen from some other warehouse. It happens all the time in this business. But I figure, who cares? Satisfaction guaranteed, the man says. We don't pay a cent if we can't move the beans."
"And if you can?"
"Then he says he'll come by to collect the money himself."
"That's the funny part. When I told Sloops I bought the beans, he just about wet his pants, he was so mad, but what could I do, I says. The deal was too good to pass up. I says, 'Okay, Sloops. If you don't want the beans, you don't have to pay for them. The next time this Brown fella shows up, you just give the beans back to him.' Only Brown never showed up again. Just more beans."
"What do you mean, more beans?"
"I mean shipments of beans started coming in to beat the band. Beans out the gazoo. No bills, nothing, just beans. Sloops just about had a heart attack, what with all the beans coming in, and no invoices or anything to go with them. We were going wild just trying to keep track of them. And then Thursday."
"What happened on Thursday?"
"That's when the orders started coming in. Orders from all over the country. It's like the coffee business went through the roof overnight. Suddenly everybody wanted coffee. Me, I don't drink the stuff personally. It's bad for your kidneys. Look at Sloops. He can't touch the stuff anymore. But the public suddenly got crazy for coffee, you know what I mean?"
Remo nodded as he loaded the last bag onto the skid and motioned for a man on a forklift to pick it up.
"At first Sloops wasn't going to use the new beans," Ty said, starting on another skid. "He said he didn't like the whole setup, what with no bills and all these beans. It was almost as if this George Brown was forcing them on us. But the orders kept coming in so fast that we ran out of our regular stock in two days. Sloops called the next closest warehouse— that's in Washington, D.C. There are only a handful of coffee warehouses in the whole country, you know. It's a limited field. Lots of chances for advancement, if you know what you're doing. It's like the Romans said. You know who the Romans were?"
"Forget the Romans," Remo said testily. "What did Sloops call the Washington warehouse for?"
"To see if they'd sell us some beans. Like I said, Sloops didn't want to use the new beans, on account of he thought they was hot."
"So did you get more beans from Washington?"
"Hell, no. They were in the same situation as us. More orders than they knew how to fill. But they were filling them. You know what with?"
"George Brown's beans from Indiana," Remo said.
"You got it, buddy."
Remo loaded the bags in silence, grateful that the loquacious Ty had finally run out of conversation.
"What'd Sloops do?" Remo asked finally, throwing a bag onto a high pile.
Ty grinned. "He admitted I did right in making the deal on the new beans. That's all we're shipping out now."
Startled, Remo snatched back the bag he had just loaded. "These are the beans?"
"All of them. And more coming in every day."
A thin line formed across Ty's brow as his eyes fixed on the 150-pound bag suspended between Remo's thumb and forefinger. "How are you doing that?" he asked suspiciously.
Remo wasn't paying attention. With his left thumb nail, he sliced open the heavy burlap. A cascade of fragrant coffee beans spilled out.
"With your thumb," Ty gasped. "Man, how'd you ever get hands like that? You squeeze tennis balls or something?"
Remo tasted one of the beans and quickly spat it out. It was exactly what he was looking for. "Where do these come from?"
"Colombia, I told you. I knew all along, even before I seen the proof. See, I can spot beans—"
"Where in Colombia?" Remo yelled.
Ty walked over to the rows of bags stacked eight deep across the length of the block-long warehouse. "Lemme see," he said. "There's a stamp on the first bag of every shipment. Colombian government stamp. It gives the location."
He pushed at the stacks. "Sorry, buddy. There can't be more than six or seven stamped bags in the whole place. We'd never find... What the hell are you doing?" he whispered, rubbing his eyes.
Remo was going through the stacks like a crazed ferret. He lifted them two at a time, scanning their fronts and backs, then tossed them over his shoulders with exactly enough force so that they rapped lightly against the opposite wall and slid into place in high piles.
"Here's one," Remo said, throwing the other bag in his hand casually onto the skid.
Ty walked over to him, his gaze still riveted on the far wall as he counted the bags. "Thirty-eight, thirty-nine... Mister, you just moved six thousand pounds in fifteen seconds," he said, astonished.
"Peruvina," Remo read, pointing to the blurry green stamp on the bag. "Is that the place?"
"Yeah," Ty said, poking a tentative finger into Remo's unspectacular-looking forearm. "I looked it up. It's about a hundred miles north of Bogota. Good coffee country. Must be a private plantation."
Sloops's voice called from near the office at the end of the warehouse. "Hey, Remo." His footsteps clacked slowly across the concrete floor. "I got some bad news. There's been a nationwide recall of all the coffee on the market. Some tampering scare. Everybody except me and Ty's laid off until further notice. You want me to send your wages to the Happy Rest Motel?"
"Keep them," Remo said, heading toward the door.
"Hey, wait a minute," Ty called, running after him. "I got to ask you something."
"About how I moved the bags so fast?" Remo never missed a step.
"Yeah. How'd you do it? I mean, you're not even built. You got no delts to speak of. You work out with isometrics or something?"
"Pins," Remo said.
"Every night I stick a hundred pins all over my head."
"Ouch." Ty swallowed. "Any special kind?"
"Long. With blue tops. They've got to be blue. And eat a lot of rotten cabbage. Keeps your skull hard."
"Sounds like a weird workout," Ty said, testing his skull for tenderness.
"It was used by the ancient Glods. Ever heard about the Glods?"
"Uh, they make statues or something?"
"That's the Glods, all right."
"Guess they knew what they were doing."
"Trust the Glods, kid," Remo said, and vaulted over the ten-foot-high fence out of the compound.
From the shadows, a pair of eyes watched. A pair of legs moved slowly toward the two men who remained in the warehouse. A pair of gray-gloved hands raised a Browning Automatic and screwed a large webbed silencer over the barrel.
Two small pops sounded. Ty and Sloops lay together in a heap, the wounds in their foreheads not bleeding. The eyes on both the corpses stared in the same direction, and the expression in them was one of wonder.
Paul "Pappy" Eisenstein was an optimist. Even though his livelihood had disappeared from under him, he had faith in the future of America. And that future, he firmly believed, lay in the hands of the children inside the hallowed walls of P.S. 109.
He waited hopefully, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, as the final bell sounded inside the old brick building and the fifth and sixth graders whose classrooms were located nearest the entrance poured out, shrieking with their usual jubilation.
"Hey, Frankie... Frankie," he whispered hoarsely, trying to manage a smile as he shuffled toward a tough-looking twelve-year-old. "Got some good stuff. Panama red. Blow your socks off."
"Get out," Frankie said loftily. "Marijuana's uncool. Nobody smokes reefer these days."
"Come on, kid. Just an ounce or two. As a favor, for old times' sake."
"I'm not running a charity," Frankie said, holding his fists firmly over the fifty-dollar allowance in his pockets.
"I'll give you a discount," Pappy pleaded. Frankie strutted away. Pappy chased after him. "Hey, how about a referral, huh? You send over a couple of kids, maybe some bozos don't know what's in, what's out, and I'll give you a cut of the action. What do you say, Frankie, huh?"
The child considered. "Nope," he said with finality, shaking his head. "Nobody's tubular enough to think marijuana's in. Besides, coffee's better. You can mix it with ice cream."
Pappy played his trump card. "Oh, yeah? Well, you can forget about getting zonked on coffee malteds, because coffee has been recalled. You got that? There ain't no more coffee." He smiled triumphantly.
Frankie sneered. "There's nothing sadder than an old pusher," he said.
"I mean you're so out of it, you ought to be put out to pasture, Pappy." He pointed through the wire mesh of the playground fence across to the other side.
Past the seesaws and spring-mounted ducks were a large cluster of children waving money. In the center of the group was a tall gray-haired lady with glasses.
"Who's that?" Pappy asked, walking quickly toward the woman.
"Meet your competition," Frankie said.
The woman was handing out small glassine envelopes filled with brown powder and exchanging them for five-dollar bills.
"Is this any good?" one of the children asked.
"Folger's crystals," the woman said, smiling sweetly. Her eyes crinkled behind her bifocals.
"You got Maxwell House?" a boy wearing corduroy pants with a bear on the pocket asked knowledgeably. "My brother says Maxwell House is the best."
"I'll have some next week," the woman promised. "And Hills Brothers, too."
The woman chucked him gently under the chin. "And if you're willing to pay a little more, I've got some special edition A & P Fresh Ground for parties. Dynamite."
"I'll take some."
"Me, too," a little voice squeaked as the grandmotherly lady passed out her envelopes.
Pappy shook his head. "I can't believe it," he said disgustedly. "Selling nickel bags to schoolkids."
"What do you think you were doing?" Frankie said, sniffing deeply from his envelope of instant coffee and rubbing a little over his gums.
"I wasn't dealing coffee," Pappy said, indignant.
"They always say that smoking pot leads to bigger things."
Pappy looked carefully at the old woman. "Say, you look familiar," he said.
The gray-haired lady gave Pappy a shove. "Buzz off, turdbreath. This is my territory now."
"Hey, wait a second. I've been coming here for years. So now, I should let you horn in... in..." The words dried up in his throat. Pappy's eyes stared glassily ahead to a point beyond the old lady and the children— at a black Cadillac Seville rolling slowly down the street. And beyond it, a young man in a T-shirt walking toward him down the sidewalk, a man with brown hair and brown eyes and thick wrists.
"Excuse me, I gotta run," Pappy said, twirling abruptly in the other direction.
But the man with the thick wrists seemed to move without walking. And before Pappy, running at full speed, reached the corner, he found himself plastered against the playground fence, his forearms and shins woven deftly through the fence.
"Well, Pappy Eisenstein," Remo said. "Isn't this a surprise."
"Yeah, a regular barrel of monkeys," Pappy said. "How'd you find me?"
"Just luck," Remo said, smiling.
It had been luck. After leaving the warehouse, Remo felt that he was being followed. The same black Cadillac Seville with dark polarized windows had inched behind him for eleven random blocks, passing him only to permit what little traffic there was to go by, then circled the block and trailed him again. When he'd finally gone up to have a talk with the driver, the Seville spurted forward, slowing up only enough to give Remo a chance to catch up.
It was a game, Remo decided. Some rich old lunatic out for a drive, having fun with the pedestrians. The game had brought a piece of luck for Remo and, seeming to sense that the cat-and-mouse chase was now over, the driver gave up and the Seville turned the corner.
"I want to talk to you," Remo said. "Don't go away."
"Very funny. Ha, ha. I'm laughing," Pappy said bitterly, wiggling his feet through the wire fence.
The children were pointing at Pappy's ridiculous figure and giggling merrily. The old lady batted her eyelashes demurely behind her spectacles.
"I thank you kindly, sir," she said in a sweet voice. "That degenerate was beginning to bother the little ones, and as you can see, I'm just a helpless old widow..."
"...Who pushes dope to babies," Remo finished. With hands moving as fast as birds' wings, he grabbed every packet the children had and ripped them to shreds, sending the coffee flying on the breeze. Then, withut stopping, he snatched the roll of five-dollar bills from the old lady and tore that up, too. Finally he dumped the remaining supply of coffee from the woman's handbag and blew the powder out of sight.
Everyone except Pappy, who wept volubly, was too stunned to react. The old lady was the first to recover. With a disapproving "Tut-tut" she slammed a hairy fist in the direction of Remo's jaw. He caught the fist, flipped the old lady in a 360-degree arc, and yanked off the mass of gray hair. Beneath it was a crew cut.
"Why, hello, Granny," Remo said.
"Hector Gomez," Pappy shouted. "I knew it! I knew it! God, you smack pushers'll stoop to anything."
The children screamed. They screamed even louder when Remo gave them each a hefty slap across the hindquarters and sent them racing down the street.
"You're wrecking my trade," Hector said reasonably.
"That's not all I'm going to wreck." Remo picked the man up by the belt and tossed him effortlessly over the fence into the playground. The pusher landed on one of the spring-based ducks. The fat steel coils contracted under the big man's weight, then sprang upward, pulling him through the air.
"This I don't have to watch," Pappy said from his position on the fence. "I seen it all before."
"He's not going to die," Remo said equably. "But he's never going to be in business again, either."
The splat told Pappy it was all over. Glancing behind him, he caught sight of the man in the granny outfit, who had landed headfirst on the roof of P.S. 109.
"That's what I thought I'd see," said Pappy, wincing.
"He's not dead," Remo insisted, brushing the coffee residue off his hands. "If I'd thrown him two or three degrees further in either direction, I'd have killed him, but..."
Pappy was staring at him with terrified eyes.
Remo cleared his throat. "Well, that doesn't matter," he said. "I thought you were going straight, Pappy. You promised me."
"Yeah, I will. I owe you one."
"You still owe me one from the last time I let you live. Ten years ago, remember?"
Pappy remembered Remo, all right. As if he could ever forget a killer like that. The biggest collection of drug dealers ever assembled, and Remo had gone through them like a hot knife through butter. Fifteen guys dead in eight seconds. And the guys had had guns. Remo and the old Chinese guy with him had used only their hands.
Pappy had been no more than a messenger then, a harmless old rummy whom the bosses allowed to be present at the big meetings to go out for ice or broads. And so when the holocaust had come, Remo let Pappy go to warn others in the profession.
"I tried to get a real job," Pappy pleaded. "But I can't do nothing else. To tell the truth, I ain't even much good at this."
"Save the sob story."
"All right, already," Pappy said, giving up. "So poke out my eyeballs. You want dope, you got the wrong guy."
"I don't want dope. I want a connection to Colombia," Remo said. "Pot smugglers do business in Colombia, I hear."
"You still got the wrong guy. Me, I'm a marijuana dealer. The last of a dying breed. Nobody's flying to Colombia for pot anymore. You want to get into Colombia without a passport, that's who you see." He pointed to Gomez on the school roof. "Only he's in no condition to talk now, smartass." Pappy straightened out his threadbare coat.
"What's he go to Colombia for?" Remo asked.
Pappy rolled his eyes. "For coffee, man. You blind or something? The kids all are stoned on heroin au lait. It's in the coffee. Don't ask me how it gets there, I don't know heroin from hamhocks, but that's what the smart pushers are running these days. Coffee."
"But coffee was just recalled today," Remo said. "Up to now, it was legal."
"You think these guys are idiots? The big dealers, the fat men with their Lincolns, the Mafia types with the warehouses full of horse— they're losing their shirts, just like me. We're out in the cold because we didn't see what was coming. Thought somebody would always be buying pot or straight heroin. But the smart guys, the independents, they see everybody getting zoned out on coffee, and what do they think?" Pappy tapped his forehead, "I'll tell you what they think. They think, hey, this stuffs too good to be legal. So naturally, it ain't going to be legal for long, get it?"
"So last week they start making their own runs into Colombia for the coffee. Hector and his men was going to take off tonight, only you screwed that up good. Unless you want to take his place."
"Maybe," Remo said. "How'd you know about Hector's operation?"
Pappy shrugged. "I found out things here and there. They work out of a DC-3 from Endley Airport. Hector's job is to bribe the Colombian government official at the other end. Ten thousand bucks. I was going to put it to Hector that he should cut me in, and I was going to spill the beans on him to Johnny Arcadi, only I guess you wrecked that angle, too."
"What are you talking about?"
Pappy gave him a withering look. "Oh, you haven't heard? Well, excuse me, but Johnny Arcadi's dead."
"Yesterday sometime. You ought to know. You killed him. Along with Amfat Hassam."
Remo was stunned. "Hassam, too?" he said softly.
"Yeah," Pappy said, his face grim. "Hassam. And his wife. And all them dancing girls he had hanging around. It was on the news. Listen," he said, putting his arm around Remo's shoulder. "I know it's none of my business how you get your rocks off, but maybe you been working too hard, you know? I mean, all them dames..."
"I didn't kill them," Remo said in a daze. Then he looked up into Pappy's face, realized he'd already said too much, and pushed him away.
Pappy held up his hands. "Okay, okay, I'm not saying nothing." He sounded scared. "I only told you about Hector so's you'd know I was on your side." His upheld hands were shaking violently. "I thought then maybe you wouldn't kill me, too. Huh? Whaddya say, pal?"
Remo stared at him. Dead. All dead. All the targets he'd spared, and a lot more besides. How? Who?
Pappy Eisenstein was trembling. In his eyes was the look of a man who'd been cornered by a beast. "Get out of here," Remo said.
Pappy backed shakily down the sidewalk.
At a pay phone near the school, Remo punched through the long routing code to Folcroft Sanitarium. He hit the buttons so hard the whole unit threatened to come off the wall.
"Yes?" Smith's voice at the other end of the line was grim.
"What's going on?" Remo said.
The reply was agitated and sharp. "I'd like to ask you the same question. There was simply no reason ... Well, what's done is done. I'll expect a full accounting for this after the assignment is over."
Remo hardly heard him. He kept seeing Pappy Eisenstein's eyes in front of him, frightened eyes that regarded him as a killer who couldn't help killing.
But he didn't kill them, he couldn't have...
He heard his own voice speaking, sounding hollow and faraway. "How'd they die?"
"The police reports list cause of death as single gunshot wounds to the head in all cases."
"All of them? Arcadi, Hassam?" He gritted his teeth. "The women, too?"
"All but one. A twenty-three-year-old woman named Sandra Hess. A dancer."
"Sandy," Remo said, remembering the pretty blonde with the bright eyes.
"She's in a coma. She's not expected to come out of it, so at least there won't be a witness."
"A wit... God, you cold bastard, you think I did it, don't you."
"Hassam's four bodyguards are dead, too, and the butler," Smith went on mechanically. "And two men at the Port Henry warehouse. A man named Tyrone Bates and the manager, a Mr. Sloops."
"Sloops?" Remo whispered. "He didn't know anything."
"Neither did the women at Hassam's," Smith said coldly. "Remo, do you mean to tell me that you know nothing about these killings?"
Remo forced himself to breathe deeply. "I'm only going to say this once," he said. "I didn't kill any of those people. Not one. Is that clear?"
Smith took a long time answering. "Yes," he said at last. "I don't believe you would find it necessary to simulate gunshot wounds. It wouldn't be logical."
Remo tried to collect his thoughts. "Two things," he said. "I'm going to need ten thousand dollars."
Smith exhaled. "I'll wire it to you. What else?"
"Do you have any data on a George Brown with the North American Coffee Company in Saxonburg, Indiana?"
The Folcroft computers whirred. "That doesn't compute as a whole," Smith said. "But I'll examine the elements. Why?"
Remo told him about the man who had sold the coffee to the Port Henry warehouse without bothering to collect the payment, and about the plantation in Peruvina.
"That may fit in somewhere," Smith said. "But the fact remains that everyone you've come in contact with is dead. Have there been attempts on your life?"
"No," Remo said, bewildered.
"Then whoever the killer is wants you alive, and everyone around you dead."
"What did you say?" Smith asked.
A dial tone answered him.
Eight blocks away, Pappy ducked into the crumbling doorway of an abandoned building and waited. Even though the air was warm and he was wearing an overcoat, he felt cold. He fumbled in his shirt pocket for a cigarette, held it shakily to his lips, and lit it. He puffed furiously, looking to the right and then the left. When at last the familiar black Cadillac Seville pulled up close to the curb in front of him, he breathed a sigh of relief and ground the cigarette on the sidewalk with his shoe.
"Thought you'd never get here," Pappy said, the sweat popping from his brow. "That guy nearly had me."
The hands inside the gray leather gloves smoothed over one another, as if caressing themselves. "He's going to the airport?"
Pappy nodded. "Everything went just like you said. Except for Hector Gomez. Who'd think he'd show up?"
"I did," the figure in black said.
The gloved hand slid inside the lightweight black coat.
"Five grand," Pappy reminded his contact. "You said you'd give me five grand to get him to the airport."
"You were going to run away."
"I got scared," Pappy said, swallowing. "I mean, the guy's some kind of nut, killing everybody right and left. I just got scared for a second. Wouldn't you?"
Out of the coat slid a .38 Browning with a silencer.
Pappy's eyes widened. "You ..."
And before Pappy could scream, the left side of his face blew into fragments.
A mob of horrified onlookers was crowded around an ambulance. Several feet away, two men in white were lifting a stretcher covered with a white sheet soaked in blood.
Remo threaded his way through the crowd to the stretcher and threw back the sheet. Someone gasped. A man standing nearby threw up violently onto the crowd. Pappy's features were mangled beyond recognition.
"Hey, you, get away," the ambulance attendant commanded, shoving Reno's arm away. "You know this guy or something? Maybe you'd better make a statement to the police."
"No... No," Remo said, backing away.
"Freaking ghoul," the attendant said, covering Pappy's remains with the sheet.
Remo walked away toward the airport. Pappy, too. They were all dead, every one.
But why? And a bigger question: why had Remo been left alone?
Only one thing was certain. Someone, someone who thought nothing of murder, was on to him. How far did that knowledge go? To Chiun? To Smith? To CURE itself?
He made one more phone call outside the airport.
"Chiun, you can be mad at me later. Just get to Folcroft and stay with Smitty until I get back to you."
"Is the Emperor's life in danger?"
"I don't know. But stick with him. I'm scared."
Smith was scared, too. The vague killings through heroin overdoses were rapidly turning into specific murders through bullets. And those bullets had all been directed at people Remo had talked to.
Again and again he fed what little information he had into the Folcroft computers. The mysterious George Brown of the North American Coffee Company. Does not compute. Does not compute. There was no connection between Arcadi, Hassam, the men at the warehouse. And the deaths of Mrs. Hassam and the other women in residence at the Hassam mansion seemed to be completely extraneous.
Only one thing was clear: whoever was behind the killings wanted absolutely no witnesses, and that person was as ruthless as they came. But why hadn't the killer tried to eliminate Remo?
The computers repeated their answers, the only answers possible.
Someone knew about Remo, and wanted him alive— at least for the moment.
And that someone might know about CURE, and want it destroyed.
Coffee. Coffee was the only thread Smith had to go on.
At 10:30 in the morning, Smith switched off the computer console, picked up his brown fedora and the attaché case with its portable telephone, divested himself of all his identification except for some falsified credit cards and a bogus government credential from a file in his office containing every type of identification from the post office to the White House, and set off for Washington.
Dr. Harold W. Smith
Special Investigator for the President
The fluffy blonde in the outer office of the Assistant to the Undersecretary of the Interior in Charge of Regulations Concerning Importation and Exportation of Agricultural Products looked at the card blankly.
"Er, is this Hugo Donnelly's office?" Smith queried.
The blonde's face was still blank.
"The Assistant to the Undersecretary—"
"Oh, Donnie Boy," she said, brightening. "Yeah. He's my boss. I'm his secretary."
She used Smith's card to clean beneath her magenta fingernails. Clearly, Smith thought, Mr. Donnelly had not selected his clerical assistant on the basis of her incisive mind.
Still, it had taken three hours just to see her, let alone her boss. During the first hour of waiting, Smith told himself that Donnelly's office was small, and therefore probably swamped with work after the monumental coffee recall. The heroin-laced coffee was a major disturbance, major enough to cause the deaths of thousands of people and virtually ruin a worldwide industry overnight.
These things took time, Smith told himself. When he realized, well into the second hour of waiting, that Donnelly was not even in the office, his leniency became strained. Apparently the crisis had not been major enough to bring the man in charge of the recall operation back from lunch before sundown.
Smith's sense of order was extremely offended. He had been waiting in the outer lobby since 11:30 A.M. The office secretary was already gone, and had not returned until after three in the afternoon. Hugo Donnelly, the exalted assistant himself, hadn't even checked in.
"This like Watergate?" the secretary asked, snapping her chewing gum as she held Smith's card up to the light.
"I beg your pardon?"
"You know." She screwed up her face prettily. "The special investigators in Watergate. They kept trying to get the tapes. Only Kennedy wouldn't hand them over."
"Nixon," Smith corrected automatically. "The name of the president at that time was Nixon."
"Oh, yeah. I remember. I was a kid. It was on TV. The hearings were always cutting in on 'Soul Train.' "
"Er, yes, Miss..."
She extricated a wooden desk plate with her name on it from beneath a pile of papers yellowing with age.
"Devoe," she said, dusting off the nameplate. There were stickers of smile faces plastered on all four corners. "Darcy Devoe. It used to be Linda Smith, but I changed it. I mean, you're not going to get noticed in a place like Washington with a dopey name like Smith, are you, Mr.... uh..." She fumbled through the rubble of her desk top, searching for the card that had already disappeared into the wreckage.
"Smith," Smith said helpfully.
"Oh, yeah. Well, what are you investigating? Donnie Boy doesn't keep tapes. He likes records."
"Mantovani, Lawrence Welk. Creepy stuff. Wanna hear some?"
"No, thank you," Smith said.
Darcy Devoe threw her arms down to her sides in exasperation. "Well, what do you want, then?"
"I would prefer to take the issue up with Mr. Donnelly," Smith said tersely.
"Suit yourself," Darcy said with an elaborate gesture of resignation. "Want some tea or something? We used to have coffee, but that's all over with. It had bugs in it or something. We took it all back."
"I see," Smith said, glancing at his watch.
"Don't sweat it, hon," Darcy said reassuringly. "Donnie Boy's always late. Just take a seat and wait." She sat down behind the mountain of crumpled paper on her desk and filed her nails.
Smith ambled over to a leather-upholstered sofa, tried to sit, couldn't, and stared at the second hand on his watch.
"Excuse me, but I've been sitting. For nearly four hours," he said tightly. "And the matter I have to discuss with Mr. Donnelly is most urgent."
Darcy's face registered a vapid concern. "What's the matter, you getting a charlie horse or something?"
"No, it's not—"
"Come here, sweetie," she said, rising and wiggling her purple-tipped fingers at him. "Darcy'll make it all better."
"Er— never mind," Smith said, backing away.
"Oh, just try me. I'll bet you're here about the coffee recall, aren't you?"
Smith blinked. "Why, yes, I am. Maybe you can help me with some information."
Darcy looked puzzled. "Well, I don't know. We don't get a lot of that around here."
"I thought not," Smith sighed. "But your department is in charge of the coffee recall?"
"Sure," Darcy said, smiling brilliantly.
"And you've investigated all of the coffee companies that do business with coffee plantations?"
Darcy stuck a finger into her mouth to help her think. "Yeah. Yeah, we did that."
"Among those investigations, did you inquire into a coffee company located in Saxonburg, Indiana?"
"India? Well, there's coffee in Java. That's near India, isn't it?"
"Indiana," Smith repeated. "The North American Coffee Company in Saxonburg, Indiana."
Darcy shook her head firmly. "You must be in the wrong place, mister. We only deal with things from other countries. You should be talking to somebody that deals with states. The state department, maybe."
Smith felt himself trembling with exasperation. Chiun was hard to talk to, but Darcy Devoe could drive a man to insanity. "Now see here, young lady," he said, "I have it on good authority that somebody is selling Colombian coffee out of an operation in Saxonburg, Indiana."
"Oh, yeah?" She jutted out her chin defiantly. "Well, you see here, smartypants, if we could grow coffee in Indiana, we wouldn't have to import anything. Mr. Donnelly wouldn't even have a job. And you know what that would mean."
Smith was dumbfounded. "I don't understand. What would that mean?"
"Unemployment," she trumpeted.
Smith whinnied. With great effort, he placed his hat on his head. When he spoke, he kept his voice low and atonal.
"I will be staying at the Excelsior Hotel. Please ask Mr. Donnelly to call me when he returns."
Darcy Devoe gave him her prettiest smile. "I'll sure do that, Mr.... Mr...." She scrambled once again on her desk.
"On second thought, I'll call him," Smith said quietly.
The Excelsior Hotel was a clean but unpretentious hotel in a part of Washington where politicians stayed only to carry out assignations with call girls. There was no need, Smith felt, to spend a hundred or more dollars for a room he would only be using until Hugo Donnelly returned from his leisurely lunch.
He walked the fifteen blocks. The longer he had to forget the quagmire that was the brain of Darcy Devoe, the better. The streets surrounding the Excelsior were teeming with traffic, and the sidewalks jammed with shoppers and out-of-work drifters. Prostitutes in their short dresses and skin-tight pants were already lining up alongside the buildings for the evening's trade.
Next door to the hotel, a large building was under construction, and the blasts from the riveters and machinery were already giving Smith a headache. No doubt, he thought drily, his room would be on the side of the hotel next to the construction. It was the law of the city: Whatever had to be done would be carried out in the most noisy, obstructive, wasteful, and complicated manner possible. He longed to be back in upstate New York, with its small-town order, its cleanliness, its livable space.
A roar from the construction startled him out of his reverie. He was jostled by a crowd of chattering middle-aged ladies loaded down with packages and enormous handbags, followed by a gang of ghetto toughs engaged in a battle of dueling radios.
Donnelly, you ass, he thought wearily. He chastised himself for his impulsiveness in coming to Washington. He could have accomplished twice as much back at Folcroft at the controls of the computers.
Then, amid the din and scuffle, no more than fifty feet from the main entrance to the hotel, he felt a pain in his side so terrible that he felt his knees buckling.
Heart attack? Was it his heart? Sudden appendicitis? Had he been mugged? He couldn't tell. All he could hear were the pneumatic drills on the building next door and the strains of "Boogie All Night" from a passing radio.
"Oh... my," he said, more surprised than hurt. Somebody shoved him and called him a drunk.
Smith's hand went to his side, where the throbbing pain was sending waves of numbness toward his arms and legs. Hot wetness oozed between his fingers. He pulled his hand away, slowly, so slowly it seemed. Bright droplets of blood fell from it onto the sidewalk in a zigzag pattern.
"Shot," he whispered, sinking to the sidewalk.
With the images of the city blurring into pale, formless colors, he felt the faraway sensation of a gloved hand clasping the handle of his attaché case. He turned his head slowly. The glove was gray.
With no effort, the hand inside the glove released Smith's fingers from the handle of the case and slowly moved away with it. Beneath him was a spreading pool of blood. Smith felt his flesh fall into the sticky fluid. He could smell it, faintly metallic, his life. A woman screamed.
Smith's lips formed one word, "CURE," that no one heard. A passing radio announced the weather.
The pilot of the DC-3 was a man in his fifties with the lined, haggard face of the professional pilot and semipro boozer. Not a doper, Remo was certain. Probably in it for the money.
The other man on the crew was thin and wiry, with a suspicious, weaselly look about him. Small-time hood, Remo guessed.
"I'm Gomez's replacement," Remo said, getting into the cockpit. No one seemed to care much who he was. The weaselly man nodded.
"You got the money?"
"Ten thousand," Remo said.
"Half of it's for us."
Remo didn't argue. He counted out the bills as the captain revved up the engines. The weaselly man snatched the money and recounted it. No one spoke until they were over the Gulf of Honduras.
"We'll be in Colombia in under an hour," the thin man said, pulling out a flask and drinking deeply. The fumes from his breath instantly filled the cabin. "Flying always makes me jumpy." He took another drink. "What's your name?"
The man drank again. The alcohol seemed to loosen him up to a kind of seedy conviviality. "This is Thompson," he said, indicating the pilot. "He got kicked out of the airlines for hitting the sauce." He cackled cruelly, poking the pilot in the ribs. "Hey, Thompson, want a snort?"
"Get away from me," the pilot growled. His eyes remained fixed ahead, out the window and on his instruments, as if he didn't want to soil them by looking at his partner.
"Thompson don't like this business."
"I don't know your business," the pilot snapped, "and I don't want to."
The thin man gave a little snort and lit a cigarette. He tossed the used match onto the pilot's lap. "Miss them fat paychecks and all the juicy stewies, dontcha?"
The pilot picked up the match and threw it to the floor.
"Who are you?" Remo asked, trying to break the tension.
"I ask the questions around here," the weaselly man said, turning around in his seat so violently that the whiskey inside his flask sloshed over the seat.
The answer seemed satisfactory. "Belloc," the thin man grunted. "My name's Belloc. Mr. Belloc to you." He took another drink. "Scared, ain't you?"
"Not really," Remo said.
"Hey, big brave pretty boy." Belloc's eyes appraised Remo the way old-timers in prison, the ones who've sliced up enough inmates to rate an extra carton of smokes a week, looked at new meat. Ex-con, Remo was sure of it. And not enough going for him upstairs to mastermind any plan involving a plane and an unwilling pilot.
"It took a lot of brains to figure out that the heroin was in the coffee," Remo said, feeling Belloc out. "You must be a pretty smart guy to know the coffee would be recalled."
"Smuggling's the only way to make any real money these days," Remo said breezily.
Belloc's smile broke into a derisive laugh. The ash on his cigarette rolled down the front of his shirt. "Bullshit," he said. He pointed at Remo. "That's what you are, pure bullshit. You never done a dope run in your life. You ain't the type." He took a long swallow that dribbled onto his chin. "Just like she said—"
"Shut up," Thompson said.
Belloc sucked on his flask gloomily.
"Shaddup," Belloc said, shoving Remo back in the rear seat.
"You said she."
Belloc's face twisted into a lopsided grin. "Hey, baby, you got it wrong. What I said was shut up." He produced a revolver from beneath his seat and pointed it straight at Remo's face.
"Get rid of that, Belloc," the pilot said.
"Aw, dry up. What difference does it make, anyhow? You," he commanded Remo, jutting the gun's barrel forward. "Give over the other five thousand."
"I thought this money was to bribe some kind of Colombian official when we landed."
Belloc chuckled. "Well, I guess you're going to have to think of another way to bribe him, won't you?"
Remo looked out the window. It didn't matter to him if he kept the money or not. What did matter was if the psychopath in front of him discharged a revolver in a small plane at high altitude. He handed over the money. He would get the gun away from Belloc later, when they were nearer to Peruvina. What mattered now was a smooth flight and a quick one.
"That's better," Belloc said, taking the cash. "Nice and cooperative. That's how we like our passengers." He took another drink. Drops of sweat formed on his upper lip. "How much longer?" he asked Thompson.
The pilot didn't answer.
Belloc shifted the barrel of the gun violently to Thompson's head. "I said, how much longer?"
"Get that away from me," the pilot said coldly. "You can't fly this plane."
"Neither can you, if you're dead."
"Crazy son of a bitch," Thompson whispered. "There's Peruvina." He pointed to a green area beyond some trees. "I've already started the descent."
A huge outcropping of rock towered above the greenery. On the very top of the rock rested a palatial hacienda. Beside the sprawling residence squatted a large, opaque white dome.
"What's that?" Remo asked.
"Shut your face," Belloc said, pointing the revolver back at Remo. "It's time you and me had a talk. That means I talk, you listen. Got it?" He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"I listen better without a gun in my face," Remo said.
"Tough." He drained the flask and tossed it away with a clatter. " 'Cause that's where it's going to stay. Remember your buddy Pappy Eisenstein?"
"Just keep your mouth shut, Belloc," the pilot said. "You've talked too much already."
"How do you know?" Belloc shouted. "You don't know nothing."
"That's how I want to keep it. I'm sure as hell not getting killed because you couldn't keep your trap shut."
"Shit," Belloc said miserably. "It don't make no difference what I tell him. The twerp's going to die anyway."
For the first time, Thompson looked Belloc straight in the face. His expression was one of horror.
Belloc found it amusing. "Oh. Beg your pardon. You're just the' pilot, like you say. You don't know nothing."
"I didn't know you were going to kill a man."
"You going to do something about it?" Belloc pointed the gun at Thompson. It was a slow, deliberate gesture. Shakily Thompson faced front, gripping the steering column.
"That's better, flyboy."
"What about Pappy?" Remo was getting impatient.
"He set you up, jerk. Look, I don't know who you are, but I know you're some kind of fed. And you must be pretty hot stuff, too, 'cause the person who wants you dead ain't taking no chances." He squinted through the sight of the revolver. "A bullet in the head in the middle of Colombia."
"In the middle of Peruvina, you mean," Remo said. "A nice private burial on private property. No body, no explanations."
"You catch on fast, pretty boy." Belloc's index finger pulled almost imperceptibly on the trigger. As he did, Remo lashed out with his left hand and, at the precise moment when the bullet began its spiraling trajectory through the barrel, he clasped his hand over Belloc's and squeezed it around the length of the revolver. The heat from the trapped bullet fused the gun into a hot metal ball that burned Belloc's fingers to the bone.
Belloc screamed, trying to shake the blob of molten metal from his blackened hand.
"Now I'm going to ask the questions," Remo said. "Starting with who 'she' is."
But a terrible scraping rattle of metal reverberated through the plane. A black screen of smoke poured out of the engines. Red lights glowed on the instrument panel.
"What— what is it?" Belloc shrieked.
"Engines on fire, both of them," the pilot muttered, struggling with the controls. The plane whistled as it careened downward toward the hills 12,000 feet below.
"Who's 'she'?" Remo repeated, grabbing Belloc by the throat. Belloc only sobbed and hacked as the smoke filled the cockpit and the front of the windscreen burst into a wall of yellow flame.
Remo turned to the pilot. "What do you know about this?"
Thompson's mouth was set. "Mister, all I know is that this plane's been sabotaged. If I knew who did it, believe me, I'd tell you."
"I never talked to her. Some woman gave Belloc his instructions over the phone. I didn't know they included you." He made a final desperate thrust on the controls. "Can't make it. Get the 'chutes from the back."
Belloc scrambled over Remo toward the back of the plane, weaving crazily with the craft's erratic movement.
"They're gone!" he screamed. "The parachutes are gone. The bitch! She did it. She wanted us all dead!"
The pilot sat back and exhaled deeply. "Nothing more I can do," he said.
"The bitch!" Belloc raged. He was like a crazy man, beyond comprehension, running through the fuselage as if he were on fire. "The murdering little bitch!"
Remo grasped the door by the hinges and ripped it off. A sheet of flames roared in. The pilot looked over incuriously.
"He's no use," Remo said, nodding his head toward Belloc. "But you're coming with me."
Thompson was stone faced. "Are you planning to get me down there in one piece?"
"No guarantees," Remo said. "You turning down the offer?"
The pilot unbuckled his safety belt. "Guess jumping's an easier way to die than burning."
Holding the pilot around the chest, Remo made a wide somersault clear of the flames lapping at the plane. Fifteen seconds later, the plane exploded in midair. A flying piece of metal struck Thompson in the chest. He cried out, and his head snapped back.
For a moment, Remo stared at the streaming wound in the man's chest, the blood flying into the air in spurting jets as the two men fell. If it weren't for the protection of Thompson's body, the metal would have hit Remo.
Isn't fate the damnedest thing, Remo thought as he floated in his free fall with Thompson's body lying weightless in his arms. He had made a decision never to kill again, and everyone around him had died. Now here he was, thinking he was saving a guy's life, and all he managed to save was his own. He wanted to feel relief. All he felt was nausea.
He directed his descent toward a cushion of trees on the top of a barren hill, turned onto his back to absorb the impact, crashed through, then landed flat on his feet on the downward slope and slid slowly to the bottom. It was as gentle as he could make it.
He felt Thompson's pulse. It was faint, but there. The wound was severe, and Thompson was unconscious. Remo examined him cursorily. Thompson wouldn't live much longer; he'd already lost too much blood.
He had two choices. He could kill Thompson now, painlessly, or he could try to patch him up with some of the regional herbs as Chiun had taught him to do.
Killing would be the easier way, and probably kinder, too, sparing the man from a lingering and almost surely painful death. There wasn't time for doctoring now. There was ajob to do. He didn't even know the pilot. And there was no point in carrying on the pretense that he wouldn't kill anymore. Death followed him like a shadow. Yes, killing the man would be easier.
Remo raised Thompson's neck, prepared to snap it, then stopped.
Killing was always easier. There had been so many killings lately that it seemed like the most commonplace thing in the world. If you didn't like the way someone looked at you these days, you killed him. Want a diamond ring for your girl? Walk into a store and murder the owner. Free gas? Just kill the station attendant. It's been done. Don't like the president? Piece of cake. Boom, problem solved. The easy way.
The easy way was how Remo and CURE had come to be in the first place. Too many people were taking it.
No, Remo decided, there had been enough killing. Someone had somehow found out about Remo, and so had decided— quite casually, it appeared— to kill everyone around him. Easy as pie. Well, at least one of those victims wasn't going to die any sooner than he had to.
Remo knew it was perverted thinking for a professional assassin, but then, killing for a living made you look at death from a funny perspective. From inside out and sideways, the way a magician looks at a deck of cards. Sometimes you just got so sick and tired of death you wanted to...
He didn't know what he wanted. That was why he was still an assassin, whether he ever killed again or not. And why he was gathering leaves to stem the bleeding of a man he didn't care about much.
"I don't think you're going to live more than an hour," he said out loud to the unconscious man.
An hour. An hour of life.
Suddenly it all made sense. It wasn't killing or not killing that was important. It was knowing the difference between who was decent and who wasn't. Thompson was a decent man. Remo didn't know him and didn't care about him, but he understood that much. An hour of life was Remo's gift to a decent man.
Remo searched the area for some herbs, made a poultice for the wound, then left Thompson to rest in a shaded area near a field of coffee plants.
After walking a half-mile or so, he could see, high on a cliff in the distance, the large house he had seen from the air. The odd-looking dome was invisible now, on the other side of the hacienda. Beneath the cliff, in the coffee fields, several dozen laborers, wearing straw hats against the sun, worked.
At Remo's feet lay a charred arm, ripped from the body at the shoulder. Melted into its blackened fingers was something dark that used to be a revolver.
And Arcadi. And Hassam. And the women. Sandy, soon. Ty. Sloops. Probably Thompson. Who would die next?
Killing was so easy, after all.
A gray-gloved hand.
The case with the CURE telephone, the notes on Arcadi and Hassam and the others, the name of Hugo Donnelly, Smith's contact in the Department of the Interior, the preliminary printout research on the coffee plantation in Peruvina. By now, whoever took Smith's attaché case knew everything there was to know about the investigation into the heroin-laced coffee. And more.
CURE was compromised. Without doubt. The discovery of the portable telephone with its direct line to the president of the United States revealed more about the illegal nature of CURE than a thousand documents.
Smith's head swam. He became dimly aware of his surroundings, a large room sectioned off with panels of Lucite around small white beds. The beds were hooked up to monitors and all manner of science fiction-type devices. Men and women in white patrolled the room briskly, silently. A hospital. Intensive care, probably, Smith thought.
He himself was attached to a series of tubes and bottles suspended above him. A constant beep somewhere over his head announced his life functions with every heartbeat. An uncomfortable apparatus led into his nose.
Gritting his teeth with the pain, he pulled up his hospital gown to see the heavily bandaged wound on his side. It was a blur of white against his skin. Reaching carefully over to the small metal table beside him, he held his breath while he searched for his glasses and put them on. It was a large bandage, already beginning to spot with blood.
So he had been shot, after all. And the attacker was probably the same man who had eliminated the others.
Consciousness drifted in and out in waves. His fingers were cold; his vision, even with his glasses, was fuzzy. He was, he reasoned, sedated to the hilt.
Had to stay awake. Had to think.
Using an old trick he learned years before in the OSS, he bit down hard on the inside of his cheek, hard enough to send pain shooting through his head. God knew, he had enough pain already, but it wasn't the sort of attacking, localized pain he needed.
The trick had worked to keep him alert when he'd been captured and interrogated at a Nazi outpost in Danzig, when the enemy had deprived him of sleep for five days; and he'd never forgotten it. Pain made things real, kept your ideas clear. He swallowed the blood and concentrated.
There was some luck on his side. The president was out of the country, so the thief wouldn't learn of the direct link with the White House for a few days. But there was another problem, a much bigger problem: The phone in the stolen attaché case was an extension of the telephone in the office at Folcroft. Whoever had the portable phone had access to every call incoming to CURE.
He had to get back to Folcroft. He had to destroy CURE before the thief figured out that the U.S. government operated a secret agency that broke every rule of the Constitution.
The destruction of CURE meant Smith's own death, of course. The series of events leading to the dissolution of the organization had been planned in minute detail years before. Should CURE become compromised for any reason, Smith was to engage the self-destruct mechanism of the computer banks, then see to his own death. Quietly, quickly, CURE would no longer exist.
It had to be done. Now, before whoever had shot him discovered that he was still alive and returned to finish the job.
The gray-gloved hand... There was something about that hand....
There was no more time to ruminate about it. It was a hand in a glove that had pulled a trigger and then taken Smith's attaché case. Any other details were probably the result of the vast number of drugs in Smith's system.
He bit himself again to keep awake, and watched. The ICU was busy and understaffed. Most of the nurses were gathered in one section in the far corner of the ward, where an old man bleeding profusely from the head was being wheeled in. The normal scrutiny of the staff had momentarily ceased. Now was the time.
Quickly, he removed the needles from his arms and the tube from his nose. Then, struggling not to cry out in pain, he slipped from the bed and crawled to the double doors leading from the unit.
He needed clothes. Where was the supply room? Staggering, he clutched the slippery tile wall of the corridor and stopped for breath. To his horror, he saw that the wound in his side was bleeding again and spreading a large red stain on his gown. Blindly, he pulled himself along the wall, one hand after the other.
It wasn't working. Even the pain wasn't going to keep him on his feet.
Quick steps clattered toward him. "What are you doing here?" a male voice demanded.
Smith opened his eyes slowly, trying to focus. The man was dressed in white. From his neck hung a stethoscope. He lifted Smith's wrist, where his name tag was. The man looked from the name tag to the spreading red mark on Smith's gown.
"What in hell are you doing out here, Mr. Smith?" the doctor asked, appalled.
Smith tried to push him away. It was a feeble attempt.
"Orderly!" the doctor shouted.
"No," Smith whispered. "You don't understand."
Smith was only vaguely aware of another form rushing forward. "Please," he said. "You can't—"
And then the doctor was lying on the floor in the empty corridor, and Smith felt himself being lifted into the air and carried outside in a manner so gentle that it felt as though he was riding a cloud.
The yellow shape of a taxi loomed in front of him, and the next moment, it seemed, he was inside, being jostled into the white uniform he recognized as belonging to the doctor who had stopped him.
"It is not an attractive garment, but it does close in the back, o Emperor," Chiun said, visibly embarrassed.
"How did you find—"
Chiun held up a hand. "Conserve your strength. Suffice it to say you are not the only man who rests this night in a hospital."
Smith smiled. "Folcroft," he said.
The vision of the gray-gloved hand came back to him, weaving, distorted, as if seen from underwater. The smallest hand...
And then he permitted the painless blackness of unconsciousness to take over.
Remo made it up the almost sheer cliff face leading to the Peruvina mansion in twenty minutes. It would have taken a mountain climber in full gear an hour to make the journey; a normal man, three times that. Obviously the owner of the plantation didn't welcome drop-in visitors.
The view from the top, at the front of the house, was breathtaking. Nearly 1200 feet below, the army of laborers, prodded on by a half-dozen field bosses, stooped over the acres of coffee plants. The air was rarified and clean.
West of the cliff, Remo could make out the copse of trees where he had left Thompson. The pilot would most likely never regain consciousness before he died. But if he did, Remo thought, he would at least be aware of spending his last moments in a beautiful place with good air and the sound of birds singing.
He walked into the house through an open side door. It was magnificent, the home of a king. One wall, made of curved sheet glass, looked directly over the cliff, so that from the inside the house appeared to be floating, baseless, in the sky. The enormous room he was standing in was richly appointed with fine, tasteful furniture and works of art of a quality and antiquity usually reserved for museums.
Remo followed the long corridor leading into the interior of the house. The place seemed empty. He saw room after room of magnificent tapestries, priceless collections of English and Chinese porcelains, ancient scrolls glittering with gold leaf painted by the Japanese masters of the eleventh century. Peruvina was a far cry from Amfat Hassam's gaudy finery. Whoever owned the plantation evidently was accustomed to wealth.
The corridor led him into a dimly lit room redolent of old leather. The walls were lined with first-edition volumes and scholarly works in both Spanish and English.
Who lived here? Remo wondered as his hand brushed against the polished, rust-colored wood of an enormous Cuban mahogany desk. His footfalls were silent on the deep gray carpet. Who was the master of Peruvina?
"You are looking for someone, señor?" a woman's throaty voice whispered from the doorway. In the deep silence, it sounded to Remo like the din of cannon. He caught his breath.
She was beautiful, one of those women you only see in ads for liquor. Five-foot-seven or so, every inch of it perfect, with thick curly black hair and green-blue eyes that got hotter as she narrowed them. Beneath the eyes there was a nose straight and aristocratic enough to have been the masterpiece of some Latin plastic surgeon, but somehow Remo didn't think so. There was something in the ripe mouth, in the carriage of her breasts, that suggested she'd never been less than perfect, and knew it.
In her manicured hands was a pistol, a chrome and mother of pearl Rohm RG-7 .22 caliber.
"If I were you, I'd get a better gun," Remo said.
"Oh, jes?" She fired. Straight into the Shakespeare first folio Remo had been standing in front of.
"Jes indeed," Remo said.
She smiled. "You are a man of humor, señor. I like that," she said. "Although you are very quick. I do not know if I like that so much in a man." Watching Remo, she slowly laid down the weapon on a small table. She folded her arms across her chest and caressed herself languidly. The movement made her breasts swell over the low neckline of her dress.
"I am Esmeralda," she said in a way that made Remo's mouth feel as though he hadn't swallowed in days. "Why are you here?"
He tried to clear his head. She was wearing perfume. Or something. Spanish Fly, maybe, Remo thought stupidly. Digitalis. Something that made standing seem like the wrong position for them both to be in.
"I want to see the owner of this place."
The impossibly rich mouth curved more deeply. "Well?" She spread her arms. "How much more do you wish to see?"
"You run Peruvina?"
"You expected maybe Juan Valdez?"
He looked at the splendor around them. "Alone?"
"This was my father's house before he died," she said. "Peruvina has belonged to my family for centuries. But I am its last descendant."
She. Belloc had taken orders from a woman. But hell, Remo thought as Esmeralda shimmied out of the loose garment she was wearing, did it have to be this woman?
"The beans," he said, averting his eyes. It was difficult. Her breasts were high and full, the nipples erect. The skin of her belly was taut and tan, and the place above her long legs glistened with anticipation.
"There's a drug in the coffee beans that comes from Peruvina and nowhere else. It's heroin. I want to know how you get it into the coffee."
She moved closer to him. With each slow step her flanks rippled like a leopard's. He had never seen any woman so unself-conscious about her nakedness.
"When I tell you— and I will," she purred, "you will understand many things." She nuzzled his ear. "Perhaps you will be angry. Perhaps only indifferent. You will tell your government, whomever you work for, or else you will steal the secret of the beans for your own profit. I do not know which." She ran her soothing, hypnotic hands through his hair and down his back as she continued to tease him softly with her words. "What I do know is that things will be forever changed between us. We will no longer be strangers. The fire here, in our bodies, will be cooler, because we will have spoken too much. It will be like the marriage, yes? With friendship but not the magic of first love."
She pulled off his shirt and rubbed herself on him like a cat. Hot, she was. Silky. Unknown. Dangerous. "Let us enjoy each other once, when the magic is strong."
It was wrong. Remo knew that. There was a dying man in a grove of trees outside, Remo was on assignment, and Esmeralda had probably ordered the deaths of nearly a score of people, including his own. Dead wrong. All of his discipline fought against it.
And lost. They sank together to the plush carpet. The fire inside them both burnt into incandescent, uncontrollable flame. Her mouth opened for him.
A door slammed, bringing Esmeralda gasping to attention, followed by the sound of heavy footfalls.
"Caramba, my husband," she squeaked.
"Come on," Remo grumbled. "This is like a rotten movie." He struggled into his clothes. "You said you were alone," he complained.
"No," she whispered excitedly. "I said I was the last descendant of my family. My husband, he is of another family."
"Terrific," Remo said. "Fine time for a semantics lesson."
"He'll kill you."
"Probably." Remo staggered out of the library and down the hall.
In the foyer stood a hairy ape of a man with fists like steam rollers and hatred in his eyes. He reminded Remo of a Latin version of the Incredible Hulk. One that wasn't going to turn into a skinny movie actor before his eyes.
"What do you do with Mrs.?" he bellowed.
"Nothing," Remo said mildly. "She's just fine, Mr.—"
"Why you spy on our beans?"
"Actually, I'd like to talk with you about that. You see—"
"You talk sheet, meester."
"About those beans—"
"I keel for beans!" he roared as he lunged at Remo.
"And less," Remo said. He dodged a blow that sent a Ming vase crashing to the floor.
Remo stalled for time, ducking, sliding out of the big man's way for two reasons. One, he hadn't known that Esmeralda had a husband. If the lunk smashing a path toward Remo was the real master of Peruvina, he was the one Remo had to talk to. And second, coitus interruptus didn't make for great fighting spirit. At the very least, his uncomfortable condition would affect his balance. Or his breathing. Or his timing. A mistake in any of those areas could be lethal.
It was. The big man came for him again, and Remo deflected the blow. Too hard. He knew it as soon as his arm began its first downward thrust in the spiral designed to repel the attacker. No control. He didn't know whether it had been his balance or his breathing or his timing that had been off, but as soon as he saw the bulky body of the man jerk from the floor, Remo knew it was all over. The man's head struck the wall too fast, too hard. He heard the crack of bone, the harsh rattle in the man's throat, saw the red stripe of blood slide down the wall behind the man's crushed skull.
"So much for not killing," Remo mumbled as he stared, disgusted, at the body. Smith was going to love this. On top of everybody else who'd been dropping dead since this godforsaken assignment began, he'd just silenced the perpetrator of the biggest drug scam in history without finding out how it had been done. Wonderful.
Behind him Esmeralda shrieked in a torrent of Spanish.
"I'm sorry," Remo said flatly. "I didn't mean to kill your husband, but no hysterics, all right? I can't handle it just now."
She burst into laughter. He turned toward her, incredulous. "But... but this is not my husband," she said between fits of hilarity. "It is only Manuel, the head field boss. He must have seen you coming and followed you here."
He stared hard at her. "He's still dead," Remo observed. "You've got a hell of a sense of humor."
"I know it is not good to laugh at the dead," she said, wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes. "But I am so relieved it was not my husband. You see, he is much more dangerous than Manuel. He has weapons, special weapons—"
In an arched doorway at the far end of the living room stood a young man in his early twenties. He was a homely sort of youth, short and thin, with sallow skin punctuated freely with acne. He wore the kind of Coke-bottle glasses that enlarged his eyes to the size of saucers.
"Oh," Esmeralda exclaimed softly, her smiling features momentarily dropping. For an instant, the heady perfume she was wearing was camouflaged by another odor, acrid and wild. Remo had smelled fear often enough to recognize it.
"Your manners, Mater," the young man insisted quietly, not moving from his position in the doorway. He spoke without a trace of Esmeralda's accent.
The youth emanated an eerie calm. Remo had the impression that he could have stood in that doorway all day without so much as shifting a foot if he wanted to. His shirt was tightly buttoned to his neck.
"Yes, excuse me. Arnold, this is a friend—"
"Your name?" the young man snapped.
"Remo," Remo said, a little disconcerted.
Esmeralda continued, her smile now markedly different from the easy, sensual turning of her lips he had seen earlier. It was too bright, too wooden. Clearly the woman was scared to death of the young man in the doorway.
"This is Arnold, my son," she said, appealing to the boy with her eyes.
Remo looked from the pimply creature in the doorway to the woman beside him.
"Stepson," Arnold corrected. A smile, practiced, cold came to his lips. "But we're still a family, aren't we, Mater? We have our affairs to ourselves."
There was a hushed moment. The silence weighed a metric ton.
"Don't we?" the boy repeated, never raising his voice.
"Of... course," Esmeralda faltered.
"Good." The boy turned and left.
Remo followed him. In the corridor behind the archway where Arnold had stood was a closed door beside a telephone set in the wall. Next to the phone was a large red button. Remo opened the door. A skeleton hung inside. With a shudder he slammed it.
"Very funny," he said. He pressed the red button beside the phone, but nothing happened. There was no noise, no signal of any kind. He lifted the telephone. It was an ordinary instrument that gave off only a dial tone.
Arnold had vanished.
"Where'd he go?" Remo asked.
Esmeralda avoided his eyes. "Oh, Arnold makes his own passageways," she said evasively. "He is a genius, you know."
"At what, designing funhouses?" He didn't like the kid. He didn't even like the memory of him. In the archway, Remo could still smell him, a sickly sweet odor. Probably all the starch in his shirt, Remo said to himself.
"The skeleton in the closet— a genius's idea of fun, I suppose."
"I— I will explain," Esmeralda whispered. Her eyes scanned the corners of the house as she took his arm. "Let us go back to the library."
"He didn't even mention the dead man in the entrance," Remo said, settling into an overstuffed chair where Esmeralda placed him.
"He is a strange boy. That is why he is here, away from his home."
"Where is his home?"
"Shhh," Esmeralda said, settling on Remo's lap. "There is time to talk of Arnold later. Let us finish what we have started."
"What? Are you kidding?"
She placed her lips on his. Almost immediately the fire inside him rekindled.
"I suppose we've got a few minutes," Remo said, hating himself.
He stripped her slowly, enjoying every part of her. The rosy hot glow returned, the private music. Only there was a discordant note in the music. It was a tiny metallic ping that sounded somewhere deep in the recesses of his mind.
Remo hesitated. No, not his mind. It was some kind of switch, a mechanical device, and it was deep in the recesses of the chair.
He sprang up, dropping Esmeralda in a heap on the floor, just as a sparkling steel blade shot out of the tufted back of the chair at the exact place where Remo's neck had been.
"What was the idea of that?" Remo yelled.
Esmeralda was abject. "Oh, I am so sorrowful. It is one of Arnold's devices. His hobby."
"Murder? Nice hobby. Releases tension, I understand. Very creative."
"Oh, Remo." She backed him toward the bookcase, her lips quivering.
It was there again. The little click. "Move aside, lady," he said as a barrage of bullets blasted out of a gilt-bound volume of the Collected Works of Mario Vareas Llosa.
"What else is there in this arsenal?" Remo moved quickly around the room, banging on surfaces and listening for the release clicks.
A net of fine nylon spiked with razor-sharp diamond slivers ballooned out of the ceiling. A thin wire sprang from behind a Louis XV chair and looped into a rapid coil in front of it.
"Nothing like a little strangulation with the evening brandy," Remo said.
Standing back he opened a cigar humidor on the big mahogany desk. A white shaft of laser light streamed out of it and burned a smoking hole in the ceiling.
"Nice," Remo said, closing the lid.
"Oh, let us get out of here," Esmeralda cried.
"What for? You're the one who set me up here."
"No, it's not true. Just let me—"
"They said she, you know. The guys on the plane. A woman set them up, too. Guess which woman?"
"Plane? I know nothing of a plane."
"And little Arnie there. Probably some nut you pulled out of the looney bin to keep you in ideas in case somebody got past Manuel the Iron Man. Very neat, Esmeralda."
"Please," she pleaded. Her voice was hoarse, and the fear shone in her eyes. She gestured with her head toward the doorway. Once in the corridor, she led Remo into a short cul-de-sac in which a single door stood. Placing her finger over her lips, she opened the door and led him inside. There was a large bed, a bar, and some canvases by Miró.
"This is my bedroom," she said.
"Another chamber of horrors, I presume?"
"No. It is safe here. We can talk. You see, I had to take you into the library. Arnold would have known if I hadn't. He would have killed me."
"It was you or me, huh?"
She hung her head. "I am shamed. I was so afraid. But Arnold will think you are dead by now."
"Oh, I see. He doesn't check on these minor occurrences, naturally."
"No. He is busy with— other things. He will leave you to me."
Remo felt his heart sinking. "You mean you've done this before?"
"Once," she said softly. "Or twice. Unless you count—"
"Oh, glory," Remo said.
"They were only field hands," she explained earnestly. "Just nosy workers who found out about the coffee and wanted to blackmail us."
Remo sighed. "I don't know why I should be surprised," he said, more to himself than to her. "There are over a dozen people in Miami whose heads you've ventilated."
"I have never been in Miami. And—"
"Right, right. You've never sabotaged a plane, either."
"I know nothing of this plane you keep mentioning. I wish you would explain."
"Drop it," Remo said. "It's time you explained some things to me." He waved his arms in despair. "Start anywhere."
She smiled. "Hokay." She wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him onto the blue satin bed.
"First we talk."
She kissed him. "We talk, we kiss. We make love. We do everything the same time. It is economical, sí? Like smorgasbord."
"We talk. Period," Remo said.
"Beginning with the coffee."
She straddled him. "The coffee is made with heroin. Arnold makes it. It grows here."
Coffee wasn't the only thing that was growing, Remo noticed. He tried to force the demon urges from him, but Esmeralda was running her lips on him, and her hands were taking off his clothes again, and her hips were moving round and slow and hot, so hot he was going to burst.
He turned her over so that she was looking up at him, and he groaned once, pushing deeply inside her. She panted and cried out as she came, once, twice, again, without stopping, the momentum building, the fire licking him with its heat until it consumed him and they lay together, spent. It was a hell of a way to conduct yourself with someone you ought to be saving democracy from, Remo thought.
He got dressed and sat back down beside her. "That— that doesn't change anything," he said guiltily.
"But it was still wonderful, jes?" she answered. "You will take me home with you, to America, jes?"
"You'd go to jail."
"That is all right. It will be better than this place. I am so afraid here, always so afraid. Only in this room am I safe. My husband has made Arnold promise. He cannot touch my room with his tricks."
Remo lifted his head. "Your husband? You really have a husband?"
"But what do you think?" she asked indignantly. "Do you imagine that a woman in South America with the beauty of Esmeralda would be an old maid? Of course I have a husband." She bounced off the bed proudly. "I will make us the drinks. What do you wish?"
"Water," Remo said. He sat up on the bed. "Who is he?"
"Your husband. A Colombian?"
"No, no. He is Arnold's father. An American, like you." She stepped from behind the bar, carrying the glasses. "He is a very important man in Amer—" She screamed.
There was no click this time. The floor beneath the bed just opened up and swallowed Remo whole.
As he fell, he heard two glasses thump above him as they hit the carpeted floor.
"You promised you would not touch my room!" Esmeralda shrieked. "You promised!"
The bed hit a surface that felt like rock, splintering the wooden frame of the bed in a crackle of noise. Remo bounced high on the mattress, extending himself as far as he could, but he wasn't able to reach high enough to grasp the broken floorboards several stories above him, where Esmeralda's face gazed down at him in horror.
"Oh, Dio, what have we done?" she cried. Her words echoed down the narrow stone-paved column where Remo was trapped.
And then a metallic whirr sounded above him, and a flat sheet of metal moved slowly to cover the opening at the top of the column.
Esmeralda's face disappeared as the opening between them was sealed. There was no more light after that, no more sound.
Smith opened his eyes with difficulty. He was in another hospital room, all antiseptic white. Chiun stood beside him.
"Where are we?" Smith croaked, motioning toward a water glass. Chiun gave him a drink.
"We are at Folcroft Sanitarium, Emperor, as you requested."
"Not as a patient!" Smith coughed.
"Do not be troubled. The sanitarium staff does not recognize you. I have made inquiries. They know that the name of their director is Smith, but none has ever seen him. They feel the elusive Dr. Harold Smith has little to do with the operation of this worthy institution."
"They're right," Smith said. "They wouldn't know my face."
"Exactly. It was for that reason that I signed you in under a false name."
Chiun smiled. "A common name. A name so ordinary that it will arouse no suspicion whatever. The most widespread of names."
"What is it?"
"I see," Smith said. "Well, be that as it may, I have to get to the office." He strained to pull himself up, but Chiun stopped him.
"No, Emperor. You are wounded, and you must rest. You are no longer young, and unlike me, your body is in a state of degeneration, o most understanding and enlightened being." He bowed formally in apology.
"No one knows that better than I do, Chiun, but I must return to my office at once. There are procedures you don't understand—"
Chiun interrupted. "While it is possible to live as many years as I have and still be ignorant of all around one, it is difficult."
Smith passed a long moment looking into the expressionless hazel eyes. "Then you know?"
Chiun spoke softly. "I know that you are not the emperor of this land, but of a society within this land whose secrecy is so necessary that, rather than risk its discovery, it would be destroyed."
Smith remained silent, listening.
"I know that you are part of this society, and that my pupil, Remo, is also part. I believe that you carry evidence of this society with you in the case that is ever in your hands. When I found you, you were without the case. Therefore, I believe you wish to return to your office in order to destroy yourself."
Smith rubbed his eyes tiredly. "It has to be done," he said. "You understood when I first hired you to train Remo that... that certain steps were to be performed if necessary."
Chiun remembered. The one command he was obliged to obey was the order to kill Remo. If CURE was destroyed, then everything associated with it would have to be eliminated. Smith would obliterate all the tangible evidence of the organization himself. The computers would burn to the ground in the special asbestos-lined executive offices at Folcroft. And a coffin in the basement of the sanitarium had been waiting, prepared with a poison capsule, for years. Waiting for Harold W. Smith.
But Chiun had created Remo, transformed him from a normal man into the exceptional being he was, and it was Chiun's duty to destroy his creation. Of the three, only Chiun was to live. He was to return to the village of Sinanju in Korea and live out the rest of his days in peace. By then, the massacre would be over.
"I understand," Chiun said. "But you must wait for Remo. He may have information. Perhaps we can retrieve your case."
"Remo may not be alive," Smith said. "Someone's been following him, trying to kill everyone he's come in contact with, including me. The killer knows about Remo."
"I also know about Remo," Chiun said cryptically. "He is alive."
Smith puzzled the statement over in his mind briefly, then gave up. "How?"
"In the discipline of Sinanju, the development of the body is but a small part. The art of my village is different from the other so-called martial arts because in it, one's strength rises from within. The body, the mind, the spirit— all are one."
Smith stared at him blankly. "Yes?"
"I would know if Remo died, just as I would know if one of my limbs dropped off, or if one of my organs ceased to function."
Smith nodded dubiously. "We can't wait until it's too late," he said. "CURE can't risk any exposure. Any whatever."
"How late is too late?"
Smith reached for his spectacles at his bedside. Adjusting them, he studied the clock whirring quietly beside the table lamp.
9:42 P.M. It annoyed Smith to know that the clock was probably inaccurate, but he had left his watch in the hospital room in Washington.
"It's between nine and ten o'clock," he grumbled. "It may already be too late, if Remo has tried to call me here. And unless the thieves are complete cretins, by tomorrow they'll know that the portable phone is hooked up to the president's office."
"Midnight, then. We will wait until midnight for Remo."
"In my office. Not here."
"Very well." Chiun stretched his long fingers toward Smith's neck.
"What are you doing?"
"Rest, Emperor. Your command will be obeyed."
Smith didn't want to sleep. But the old Oriental's fingers seemed to trigger something in Smith's nervous system that sent waves of euphoria through his brain. Suddenly, there was no more need for conversation. All that mattered had already been spoken. He felt himself drifting off, the thoughts beginning to jumble in his mind. The case. The gloved hand. The terrible destruction that was to come.
When he awoke again, he was in his office, propped up in his chair by pillows. Chiun had somehow carried him there without so much as disturbing his sleep. But Smith had long since ceased to be amazed by the old man's abilities.
"Are you in discomfort, o Emperor?"
"I'm fine," Smith said.
He waited. And while he waited, he could almost hear death rushing toward him.
The discipline of Sinanju, as Chiun told Smith, was more than the development of the body. How much more, he could never explain to any man who not only allowed himself to be struck by a bullet, but whose very existence depended on the use of a telephone.
Chiun retired to a far corner of the office, as distant from the four computers as possible.
For Smith, the Folcroft computers were infallible, precise, perfect. But for Chiun, they were no more than machines, the emperor's toys, not to be trusted. Their artificial brains, made of tape and wire and droplets of molten metal, revolted him. They did not work the way that a brain was supposed to work. They collected information and regurgitated it on command. To Chiun and all the Masters of Sinanju who went before him, that was the smallest and most insignificant function of the human mind.
Chiun believed that the mind, with its labyrinthine possibilities and awesome power, held the force of the universe. Even ordinary minds, the dissipated, ignominious minds of the fat white people whom Smith's machines served, could create cities out of the air in the heat of the desert. They called these creations mirages, visions, dreams. They deemed them of no consequence and so were unable to enter and explore them.
In moments of crisis, frail young mothers were able to lift thousands of pounds with their bare hands to remove automobiles from the bodies of their children. But they discounted feats like this also, saying that they were no more than freak occurrences. Some of them claimed proudly that they were able to move pencils with the power of their minds. These were regarded either as human oddities or as clever charlatans.
Those who approached real power were disregarded entirely. A yogi in India during the early part of the twentieth century allowed himself to be buried alive for seven years. He was both interred and disinterred before hundreds of witnesses from several countries, including England and America. Yet all but his followers scoffed, calling the yogi's feat, for which he had prepared all his life, a hoax.
With evidence of their power all around them, people still would not believe.
And Chiun understood. Because to believe would be to step into the province of the impossible, the irrational, the uncontrollable. A place where there were no rules, no boundaries, no natural laws. A place of absolute freedom. Sinanju was not for everyone, because freedom, with its thousand demon fears, was not for everyone. For men like Smith, there was safety in bondage. That was why there would always be a Master of Sinanju, why his services would always be needed, despite the great mass of knowledge provided by the world's thinking machines, and why he would always be held as a secret, treasured thing by those who did not understand, but who accepted out of need.
The need was there now.
Remo was alive. The thread between Chiun's mind and his pupil's was almost a tangible thing, like the string of a harp that vibrates with the smallest breeze. Chiun had made Remo, taught him the arduous discipline of Sinanju, set him free. And with that freedom had come a link to all things seen and unseen, a million slender threads connecting Remo with the limitless universe, but most strongly to Chiun himself.
And so the old man sat cross-legged in his corner of the room, and cleared his mind of all thought, and slowed the workings of his body to a state approaching death in its stillness, a place where there was neither sight nor sound, and vibrated the string.
In the cold stone-lined column where Remo had fallen, his heart pumped harder. The pupils of his eyes widened so that he could see every marking on the stones surrounding him, every filament of moss gathered in the damp darkness. The muscles of his back relaxed to readiness.
He didn't bother to think about what his body was preparing for. His mind was his body. Deep within him, a thread was coiling, strengthening, preparing to spring. His thoughts voided; he felt as if a heavy veil had been flung over his conscious brain, subduing it, allowing his instincts to take over.
The wall disappeared. The scent of moss, the cold, gone, all rationality, all reason, vanished, replaced by an urgency, a necessity to escape that was so strong that every fiber and nerve inside him, the very skin covering him, insensate as the shell of a sea animal now, directed him toward it.
First, the body curled into a tight ball at the far end of the tower. The motion was smooth and seamless. The retracting of the legs, the slow bending of the neck, the arms crossing in front, the back bent, pliable, then opening, releasing, uncoiling the spring, gaining momentum, thrusting out until his speed was as fast as a bullet's and the force behind it, the power generated by the invisible coiled thread inside his soul, as great as a tank's. He exploded through the wall feet first and landed standing.
For several seconds he remained still as his heart slowed down to normal and his senses returned. The wall of the stone column was collapsing, pouring gray dust out of the hole Remo had made while the great slabs of rock fell and broke. The noise came up on him slowly as his hearing returned, growing from a muffled rumble to a shattering din.
His skin warmed; he looked around. He was in a short hallway. The lighting was very bright. The walls and ceilings and floor were covered with white soundproof tile, littered on the far side with small particles of rock. His expulsion from the chamber had propelled some pieces deep into the wall.
A boulder jutted out of the hole. Others piled on top of one another, filling the gap. The noise muffled, and then ceased. There was no other sound.
At the end of the hallway, on the left-hand side, was an open door. From it issued a scent Remo recognized: sickly sweet, mingled with chemicals. But there were other smells, too, behind the odor of fallen limestone that permeated the corridor. Somewhere there were also green plants, and another scent as well. Bitter. Rich. Commonplace. Mornings, long ago. The ballet. Smith falling. The warehouse.
He walked toward the room at the end of the hall. It was much larger than it would appear from the size of the corridor, and contained a greenhouse of sorts, bathed in eerie ultraviolet light. Coffee plants in pots lined several shelves which stood to the right. Another bank of shelves containing wildly colored flowering plants stood in rows on the left side. Remo sniffed them. Their odor was sweet and cloying.
"Poppies," Arnold said, walking languidly toward him down the aisle between the two banks of shelves. He was wearing a white lab coat and rubber gloves. In the black light, his craterous face had lost all of its youth. He looked to Remo like a walking cadaver, wasted and rotting. When he smiled, his teeth shone like those in a bare skull.
"I must say, you do surprise me," he said genially. "My reverse tower was patterned after the French 'oubliettes' of the twelfth century." He extended one hand down the aisle, inviting Remo to lead the way toward the back of the room.
"You first," Remo said.
"You have a suspicious nature."
"Call me neurotic."
Arnold walked leisurely, picking off an occasional brown leaf as he moved among the plants, and chatting easily. "The term—'oubiliette,' I mean— comes from the verb 'oublier,' to forget. Prisoners were dropped into these holes and then ignored for the rest of their lives, which usually wasn't long." He shook his head. "The ones in France have lasted for centuries. I'm afraid my oubliette just didn't pass muster."
"I'll call the building inspector in the morning," Remo said. "What are the poppies for?"
"Ah, yes. I forget that you are unfamiliar with our operation here. We have so few visitors, I'm afraid."
"A waste of fine hospitality."
Arnold laughed. "I know. We're really shockingly rude, my stepmother and I. I do apologize."
"I'll remember how sorry you are the next time you try to kill me. Now, about the poppies."
Arnold led him into a partitioned area at the rear of the greenhouse. The ghostly ultraviolet light was replaced by large banks of bright fluorescents strung above a series of metal-topped laboratory tables. On the tables were a number of objects, including several plants, some bearing beans, others with bright flowers. They were all slightly different from one another. Arnold picked up one of the blossoms.
"Papaver somniferum," he said. "The opium poppy." He set down the plant and picked up a tube of some sticky black-brown material. It was about the thickness of a stick of pepperoni. "Opium is made from the juice of the immature seed capsules belonging to this plant." When Arnold moved the tube, the sickly sweet odor became stronger.
"Opium, in turn, is refined into morphine, a drug that for years was considered the strongest narcotic available to medicine." He picked up a plastic bag filled with white powder, set it down, and lifted another bag of even more brilliant white.
"But then along came heroin, and even further refinement of the commonplace opium poppy plant. Those who enjoy its soothing effects—"
"Yeah, yeah," Remo said.
"Forgive me if I am oversimplifying, but you have come for information, haven't you?"
"About the coffee. You can dump the lecture on junkies. Thanks to you, there are millions of them in the United States right now."
"And elsewhere soon, I hope," Arnold said laconically. He looked up at Remo. "Surely you didn't think we were going to stop with the North American continent? That was just the test area. The idea is far too brilliant to contain in one country. No, it belongs to the ages, my coffee. Would you like to know how it's made?"
Smiling vaguely, Arnold pulled one of the coffee plants under the light on the lab table. Beside it he placed a large square cardboard box, which had rested on a low shelf. He opened the box. Inside was a single dazzling purple blossom. Its fragrance was overpowering, with ten times the intensity of the other flowers in the room.
"Another strain of poppy," Remo said.
"Quite. Papaver somniferum Esmeralda. I've named it for my stepmother. They tend to have the same effect on men."
He lifted the plant from the box. Its gorgeous petals shrank from the light. "Night blooming. Very rare," Arnold whispered.
"You've crossed coffee plants with these poppies," Remo said.
"To put it gracelessly, yes. Naturally, the hybrid only works with a certain strain of Colombian coffee and this particular species of opium poppy, but the cross is possible. See for yourself." He took one of the beans from the coffee plant and crushed it with a mallet. The fragments emitted a bittersweet fragrance.
Remo tasted one of the pieces. "But this is heroin, not opium."
"It is opium," Arnold said. "But of such an intensity that further refinement is unnecessary. Do you now see why the use of this drug will not be limited to your country?"
"It's your country, too," Remo said.
Arnold laughed. "How very provincial of you." He placed the flowering plant back inside its box, then took off the rubber gloves and the lab coat he was wearing. "Would you care to see the plants where they grow? They're exceedingly beautiful."
"Not really. I've seen enough."
"I'm afraid I must insist we go upstairs, all the same." Arnold tapped the crystal on his watch. "You see, it's eight minutes to twelve. It will soon be Esmeralda's birthday. I wish to help her celebrate it."
They walked through the greenhouse and down the corridor, picking their way over the fallen rock and detritus left by the collapse of Arnold's oubliette. At the far end, Arnold pressed a small button, and the tile wall slid away to reveal an open elevator.
"Clever," Remo said. "This connects to the closet upstairs?"
"Very good," Arnold answered with an approving nod. "My stepmother will be so glad to see you again. I'm pleased that you managed to be friends with her. She gets so lonely."
"Wonderful friend," Remo observed. "I suppose she had something to do with my falling into that hole of yours."
"What do you think?"
"I think you're two peas in a pod. Nothing like murder to bring a family together."
The elevator door opened immediately behind the hanging skeleton. "You really do overemphasize that aspect of things. Murder is not our objective in this enterprise. Profit is. If I may say so, I think you have a tendency toward the morbid." He pushed the skeleton aside. "Ah, there's my charming Mater now."
They walked into the living room. Esmeralda was standing in a corner, looking like a trapped animal. Whether she was afraid of Arnold or of himself, Remo didn't know, but it was clear she was afraid.
"Come here, Mater dearest," Arnold said. "Our visitor won't harm you. I was just going to show him the poppy fields."
"You— you told him about the beans?" she asked.
"Why, of course. You did, didn't you?"
"It's all right." His voice was soft. "Our secrets are safe with our friend, aren't they?"
Esmeralda looked at him for a long moment, her eyes wide. Then she lowered them and nodded slowly.
She was on the kid's side, all right, Remo thought. All the talk about being terrified of Arnold was just a sham. Good old Esmeralda, the best actress in Colombia.
Arnold broke the silence. "If you'll just follow me, please."
A flight of stairs led them to the roof. It was flat and bare except for the huge opaque dome that Remo had seen from the air.
"What's that?" he asked.
Arnold shook at finger at him. "Now, if I told you everything, we wouldn't have any conversation left for later."
"Oh, yes, we would. We could discuss who your father is, for instance."
Arnold chuckled and put his arm around Esmeralda, who was shivering. "My, my, we have been talkative, haven't we, Mater?"
She didn't answer.
"But to the business at hand," Arnold went on. He flipped a switch on the side of the outer wooden wall of the mansion, and a thousand powerful spotlights blinked on to reveal acres of shimmering, violet-colored flowers in the fields far below the house.
"Magnificent, aren't they? The only ones in existence. Their seeds are filled with the purest natural variety of opium known to man. When these blossoms are crossed with Peruvinian coffee beans, the result is even purer than refined heroin." He inhaled deeply. "And you can drink it for breakfast, too."
Remo waited. The young madman had already told him and shown him far too much to let him live.
"Now that I've seen your flowers, I guess the two of you are going to push me off the roof."
Arnold shook his head. "Certainly not. After all, if you escaped from my oubliette with nothing but the strength in your limbs, you would most decidedly win in any physical struggle with me or my stepmother." He consulted his watch again. "It's nearly midnight. Come back downstairs. We must usher in Esmeralda's birthday with a toast."
With a backward glance at the strange opaque dome on the roof, Remo followed the two of them back into the living room. Arnold passed glasses of brandy around.
"You, Mater, must sit in the place of honor while we toast you." He led her to a small settee facing the curved glass wall overlooking the cliff, and raised his glass.
Esmeralda cast a glance at Remo. "I did not wish to kill you," she said.
Remo shrugged. "Forget it. Happy birthday."
"My sentiments exactly," Arnold said, moving behind her. He raised his glass. "A very happy birthday to you, Mater. A short life and a merry one."
He leaned forward slightly. Remo heard a faint ping, a sickening, familiar sound.
"Move!" he shouted. But it was too late. The drink flew out of Esmeralda's hand as the bottom cushion of the settee sprang out, thrusting her like a rocket toward the sheet glass wall. Her head broke through the glass, and her body followed, flying, out into the empty air. She screamed, a long wail that cascaded downward and died long before the faint thud of her body striking the ground sounded.
Arnold finished his drink calmly. "She never was a part of the plan, not really," he said, his eyes glistening with pleasure as he spoke to Remo. "She was far too stupid. But rich. Her family's fortune has helped both my father and me enormously. Cheerio, Esmeralda." He tossed his glass out the broken window after her, then ran across the room past the archway leading to the closet.
"Oh, no you don't," Remo said, lunging after him.
He heard the click. He knew that something else was coming, a knife, a bullet, maybe, but he had expected it in the corridor ahead, in one of Arnold's peculiar passageways. When the midst shot out of the archway itself, covering Remo with fine droplets, he was more annoyed at himself for not seeing it coming than bothered by any discomfort it caused.
It was, after all, only a fine liquid spray that lightly touched his skin and clothing. It had no odor. It was not a drug of any sort Remo could identify. Yet Arnold stood only a few feet away from him, backing away slowly, and Remo couldn't catch him. With each millisecond he felt himself hardening into stone, unable to move even a muscle of his face.
"A plastic polymer," Arnold explained helpfully. He strolled past Remo, poking him gently on his arm. "Very effective, I'd say. I never tried it before on a human, but it seems to have done the job nicely. You're as immobile as Lot's wife. Excuse me."
He picked up the decanter of brandy, poured himself another glass, and brushed past Remo again into the corridor, where he stood beside the telephone with its red button. He scrutinized the human statue standing beside him.
"You'll suffocate, you know. But for all that, you'll have to die twice." He sipped at his drink. "Frankly, I'm surprised you're still alive. But then you may not be. The polymer seals the eyes open. The hamsters and monkeys I've experimented with remained quite lifelike long after death. A real boon for taxidermy."
He opened the closet door and removed the skeleton from it. He took it to the far end of the living room and arranged it beside the broken glass wall.
"Curious?" He laughed. "Very well. On the off chance that you're still alive, I'll tell you what I'm doing. The great drawback of being a criminal genius is that one has so little opportunity to talk of one's achievements."
He looked at the skeleton lovingly for a moment, then took a box of matches from one of the mahogany tables and set fire to the draperies.
"This," he said, gesturing to the skeleton, "is myself. The dental work matches mine exactly. When the authorities come to investigate the fire, they will find three bodies: poor Esmeralda, who leaped to her death rather than subject herself to the flames, her grief-stricken stepson, who perished while contemplating the terrible fate of his beloved "Mater," and a stranger, perhaps a visitor to the house, perhaps the arsonist himself."
The flames rose higher. The precious paintings on the walls curled and buckled. Arnold moved away from the heat, past Remo into the corridor.
"No one will notice the flowers. They are an unknown species. They, with the beans, are far enough below to escape damage from the fire. And my underground laboratory, designed against every conceivable natural disaster, will remain hidden. Only Esmeralda's house and its three occupants will vanish from the earth." He smiled. "There's more. I've thought of everything."
His eyes glowed as he told of his plans. "After a decent interval, there will be a buyer for the property. No, not me, but another whom I trust. Someone, if that is possible, nearly as intelligent as myself. This person will rebuild this house. The crops will be harvested as usual, business will continue, and I shall return, nameless and free."
He loosened his tie. "Well, there's no point in telling you any more. I'm sure you've gone to your reward by now, and the heat, I must say, is becoming oppressive."
He lifted the telephone to his ear and pressed the red button twice in succession. "Father, I'm coming," he said, and hung up. Then he walked into the closet where the skeleton had hung. There was a faint whirr, and then silence. Arnold was gone.
Then the closet itself burst into flame. The passageway leading to the laboratory was obliterated.
Remo had stopped breathing long before, and could remain in that state for hours, if necessary. But he did not have hours. There were flames on both sides of him, and even in the desensitized state of his body beneath the rock-hard glue that covered it, he was beginning to feel the searing heat.
He stood, rooted, while an invisible thread inside him coiled and uncoiled in frenzied frustration. Something was calling to him, urging him to action. It was near to pain, the insistent thrumming of the deep string within him.
Chiun. Chiun wanted him, needed him, and there was nothing he could do.
A gust of air whooshed in through the broken glass wall and sent a tongue of flame curling around him. He closed his eyes. The inside of his eyelids felt cool against their dry surface.
The inside of his eyelids, he thought. He had blinked.
And then, throbbing with the heat, one finger moved.
The clock on Smith's desk read 12:01. He rubbed his hand over his face. The movement hurt his side. Then he pulled out his chair and painfully began to rise.
"Halt." A small hand, strong as a vise, clasped his arm above the elbow. Chiun did not meet his eyes. Instead, the old Oriental was gazing straight ahead, his breathing even and silent, his posture relaxed, but with an intensity about him that frightened Smith.
"A bargain is a bargain," Smith said.
"He is coming."
The grip on his arm was beginning to hurt, but Smith did not sit down. "We can't wait. There are too many things to... prepare."
He couldn't bring himself to say the word, "destroy," not when those things he would be destroying were the four massive computers that were the working components of his life. For just as Chiun had created Remo, Smith had created the Folcroft computers.
He had first designed them in the days before microcircuitry, when computers filled whole rooms. Little by little, as the technology of the 1960s and 1970s progressed, he refined the machines, replacing what parts he could with miniature components and redesigning the parts that did not exist on other computers— the circuits that could tap instantaneously into any other computer bank in the world, the parts that enabled the Folcroft Four to jam satellite transmissions— with his own hands.
And there were functions of the Four that Smith had added through the years, functions that still required the bulky hardware of the old days, because new hardware for these functions did not exist. The computers' ability to trace worldwide telephone connections, for example, hadn't been added until two years ago, after seventeen years of work, at odd times, in Smith's office. Seventeen years, but it had been worth it. There were other projects that hadn't been. When, after nine years, Smith had finally perfected the computers' capability to reproduce photographs in dot concentrations on plain paper, Xerox came out with a machine for general public use that did the same thing.
For Smith, developing the computers was an ongoing project, like raising a child. Parts of the process were frustrating and unpleasant, but for the most part, because the Folcroft Four were unique children, the business of testing them and creating them anew with each experiment was one that held for Smith the wonder of communication with a higher life form.
Now they stood, awkward and bulky, looking like amusing relics of a primitive technology, giving no outward sign of their extraordinary sophistication, their awesome abilities. There were four more just like them on a Caribbean island. When all eight were gone, their millions of hours of information turned to ash, there would not be another series like them for a hundred years.
"We can't wait," Smith repeated.
The hand grew tighter. It pulled Smith down into his chair. "He is coming," Chiun said.
"You're forcing me."
"I am doing what I must."
His breathing came faster.
His nasal passages were open. He could blink. Experimentally, Remo contracted the muscles of his upper arm. His forearm raised slowly. He worked at his legs. After exerting enough effort, it seemed, to kick in the Great Wall of China, one foot finally lifted. Strings of goo adhered between the sole of his shoe and the floor.
Another wave of flame swept near him. His neck bobbed forward.
It was melting.
Stiffly Remo pushed himself toward the closet, where the fire was streaking out in gusts.
Remo did not like fire but it no longer frightened him. Fears were remnants of another life, before Chiun had taught him to overcome the obstacles of fire and water and shock. He had walked through fire; he had been on fire himself in the past. He knew it held no real danger for him, as long as he kept himself quick and balanced and aware. But still, he had once been afraid, and old fears die hard, and it was difficult for Remo to stand in front of the open closet and let the wild orange flame lick him like a hungry beast.
He desensitized his skin to the heat. His hair was singeing; he could smell it. Pools of the goo, liquifying fast, gathered around his feet as the plastic sloughed off Remo's skin in syrupy sheets.
In the closet, behind the gusts of flame, was an empty elevator shaft. From that shaft now issued a noise above the crackle and rush of the fire, something that sounded like an engine. And it was coming from above. From the roof.
Of course, Remo thought. The elevator went up as well as down. The dome.
Feeling his eyelashes burning off, he stretched out his hand and worked his fingers. They moved.
There was another way to the roof. The stairway would be on fire by now, but he could run it. His legs were free enough.
But inside him! The coil, the thread, wound so tight, vibrating so hard it was going to strangle him.
"Chiun!" he called.
And then he understood.
He picked up the telephone, blistering and soft now, and dialed the international routing to Folcroft.
It was answered on the first ring. "This is not a secure line," he said quickly. "What does Chiun want?"
"For you to escape from there," Chiun's reedy voice piped.
"Thanks for reminding me. That all?"
"Get back here immediately," Smith interrupted.
"And I repeat, this is not a secure line."
"Look, secure or not, this place is on fire. Trace this next call. It's to somewhere in the States, I think, but I don't know where. And make it fast. The circuits are burning." He depressed the cradle, released it, dropped the phone, and pressed the red button twice. Then he ran for the stairwell.
The dome was open, its half-sphere tilted back like an oyster. Inside it was what Remo had expected from the sound of its engine: a combat-sized Grauman helicopter.
Remo was running at full speed. The blaze in the stairwell had seared off what remained of the immobilizing plastic that once coated him. He saw Arnold in the pilot's seat, wearing a ludicrously large crash helmet, look down at him with alarm while he worked the controls frantically.
Preparing with a low coil, Remo sprang upward, grasping the runner toward the tail end of the machine with both hands. The helicopter swayed, tilting precariously with the imbalance.
Arnold tried to level the vehicle, but without sufficient speed, all he could manage was to drift at low altitude, weaving like a dying insect with something black and mobile dangling from one side of it.
In the growing distance, yellow flames tongued out of the house. From Remo's vantage point, Esmeralda's mansion was like a shimmering vision, its contours wavy behind the heat, its windows exploding, sending sparkling fragments of glass shooting into the black night like stars.
He managed to get one leg up on the runner, then another. Then, scuttling upside down, he made his way forward toward the cockpit.
The chopper righted itself. With Remo's weight away from the tail, Arnold could maneuver the helicopter with ease.
Remo raised an arm to reach the door, when suddenly the helicopter flew into a deep dive. He had to retreat to his crouched position on the runner.
They were descending fast. Ahead loomed a broad, black shape, only distinguishable from the rest of the night-darkened ground by its dense color. The helicopter approached it, picking up speed as it did.
Remo hung on. He knew what the black shape was now. He was too close to miss it. It was an expanse of trees, the same copse where he had left the pilot Thompson to die. The trees were directly below him now, so close that their tops scraped Remo's back.
At the end of the grove, the chopper gained elevation, turned around, and headed for it again.
The kid's trying to scrape me off. Like mud from a boot. A sharp branch skimmed deep over Remo's back, ripping his shirt and gouging a deep groove into his flesh that made him suck in his breath.
In the next instant, a loud report sounded and a sharp crack whistled past Remo's ear. He looked up. Arnold had a pistol in his hand.
As he watched, Arnold squeezed off three more shots. There was limited space to move on the runner of the helicopter, but Remo managed to dodge each of the bullets as they came. The fifth shot grazed his forehead. It was a flesh wound, and a minor one at that, but he was bleeding like a pig. The blood streaming into his eyes blinded him for a moment with a thick curtain of red.
In that moment, Arnold fired for the sixth time. The bullet took Remo in the side of the hand. He yelped. Involuntarily the hand sprang away, but the other held fast. He blinked away the blood from his eyes. Above him, Arnold was smiling.
"You little bastard," Remo muttered.
He gathered his strength. Breathe. Breathe, the way Chiun taught you. In and out, steady. Control the shock in your body, and your body will heal itself. Just hang on.
The trees appeared again, their branches cutting deep. Remo concentrated on breathing. He breathed, and the pain subsided, and soon the trees were far below him again and the helicopter was circling for another round.
"Okay," Remo said aloud. "You want to play games? You just got yourself a playmate, sonny."
Arnold had the helicopter and the hardware, and that was good. Because as far as Remo was concerned, anyone inside a machine was at a disadvantage to a free man working under his own power. Machines didn't have will. Without will, a thing only operated until something went wrong. Without will, the smallest setback could stop the works.
Men weren't like that. They slogged on with wooden legs and broken hearts and cancerous bellies and eyes that didn't see anymore. They kept going without any reason in the world except that they wanted to find out what was coming next.
Remo was a man. No pimple factory with a gun and a helicopter was going to stop him.
Slowly, hand over hand, his legs sliding, he made his way back toward the rear of the runner. When he'd gone as far as he could, he swung his legs and hooked them over the tail. Then he followed with the rest of his weight, taking care to stay on one side of the tail to keep it out of balance, and bounced.
The chopper swerved. Arnold, close to the trees, tried to gain altitude, but Remo had changed his tactics. He was jumping from one side of the tail section to the other, landing in crazy angles that made the rudder veer wildly.
The helicopter dipped. From time to time Remo caught a glimpse of Arnold's frantic face. He was trying to watch Remo, the controls, and the view in front of him at the same time. His shoulders worked. He was obviously reloading his gun.
When he'd finished, he aimed out the cockpit window, but it was easy for Remo to lose the bullet from his position on the tail. He jumped to the other side, sending the helicopter into a sharp curve. The bullet hit the rudder.
The chopper dived. The engine sputtered. A stall. Inside the cockpit, Arnold hammered at the controls, but the trees kept coming closer, closer. If it crashed headfirst, the engine would catch fire, Remo knew, and with it would go his only chance to get out of Peruvina before daybreak.
He waited. Then, just before the moment of impact, Remo leapt into the air, turned a fast double somersault to gain the weight and momentum he needed, and landed square on the tail's center.
The helicopter landed flat in the trees, without an explosion.
Arnold's arm extended out from the window, the gun in his hand firing in every direction.
"Forget it, kid," Remo said, snatching the weapon away from him through the open window.
Arnold stared at him. Remo was standing erect, balanced on the tops of the trees. Although he had used enough weight to move a helicopter, Remo now seemed to be weightless. Not a branch cracked beneath his feet. Not a leaf moved.
"She was right," Arnold murmured from inside the cockpit. "You are something special."
"She's dead," Remo said. "Now get out of there."
"You're together, aren't you?" Arnold whispered dazedly. "You and the man named Smith."
Remo felt the blood drain from his face. "What do you know about Smith?"
"She was right. There is some kind of secret government organization. Smith runs it, and an old Oriental's got something to do with it, too." He spoke as if to himself, smiling strangely. "I really didn't believe her at first. It all sounded so bizarre. But she was right. I should have known. She's always right."
"Get out of there," Remo said hoarsely.
"Oh, I know you've got to kill me now. But you won't." Slowly he reached into his pocket. Out came an ordinary penknife.
"What, no lasers, no jet-propelled gadgets?" Remo said.
Arnold sat still in the pilot's seat, shifting the knife from one hand to the other. His cocky confidence, his urban veneer, had vanished. In his oversized helmet and glasses, Arnold looked more like a kid than ever. A rotten kid, Remo reminded himself.
"She said you'd make me talk if you caught me," Arnold said in a small voice.
"That's right," Remo affirmed. "Now just come out of there. I'll see that you make it to the ground in one piece."
But Arnold only stared, his eyes fixed and blank. "She said..." He trailed off. Then, with a broad, quick motion, he thrust the knife to his left side, plunged it into his own neck, and drew it across his throat.
Aghast, Remo ripped open the door. Blood was gushing out of Arnold's neck in bubbling red fountains. The cut had been so deep that the inner workings of his throat were exposed. Arnold's eyes rolled back.
The helicopter broke a branch and settled more deeply in the trees. Arnold's body, its head dangling behind it, swung around and toppled out the door. It bounced and tumbled through the trees like a rag doll, catching on broken pieces of wood, painting the leaves it touched with a coating of bright red, its bones cracking loudly in the stillness.
His clothing stuck on a long, sharp branch. Arnold's body hung suspended like a carcass in a slaughterhouse, his head attached only by bloody strings. Finally, the head alone reached the ground, its glazed eyes staring sightlessly upward.
Smith watched the blank video printout screen as the computers whirred, sorting out information, seeking to locate one telephone out of millions.
The connection had been fast and short. After Remo's message, there was a strange, loud noise on the Peruvina end. Smith worked with a speed he didn't know he possessed to program the Folcroft computers to the correct mode for intercepting the transmission.
"This had better work," he muttered. The call from Remo had further jeopardized CURE's vulnerability, if that was possible at this point. If whoever had stolen Smith's attaché case were listening in at the time of the transmission, that person now knew that Remo and Smith were still alive. He would also know that CURE was capable of tracing international calls on command.
The call was picked up on the first ring by a growly, sleepy male voice.
"What now?" it said.
The connection was crackling. Remo had said that the circuits were burning, whatever that meant. It was clear to Smith, listening in on the intercepting phone, that the Peruvina end was shorting out fast.
"What's the matter? There's nothing but noise on this line."
"Er..." Smith tried to stall for time, in case the poor connection delayed the intercept function on the computers. "This is a lineman," he improvised, holding a handkerchief over the mouthpiece so that his words, coming from within the United States, would not sound unnaturally clear in the connection from Peruvina. "Several of the telephones in your area have been malfunctioning, and—"
The connection was broken in a sea of static.
"The wires in Peruvina must have burned through," Smith said to Chiun while he busied himself at the computer controls. "There's been some kind of fire in Peruvina. I hope the computers were able to trace the call. Otherwise, I'll have no choice..."
He didn't finish the sentence.
They waited. The computers sorted and sifted, clicked and hummed. At last three lines of green lettering appeared on the screen.
322 W. LINDEN DRIVE
WASH., D.C. (RES.)
Smith blinked as the words appeared, unable for a moment to believe the information. Then his forehead smoothed, and he exhaled in relief.
"How stupid of me," he said, keying in his next question. There had to be more than one Hugo Donnelly in Washington. He had simply assumed, foolishly, from the name that the man connected with the heroin-laced coffee from Peruvina was the same man who held an official position with the government of the United States.
"EXPAND HUGO DONNELLY," he asked the computers. They answered instantly:
DONNELLY, HUGO, B. 1927, PORTLAND, ORE.
MARRIED, ARLENE NASH PALMER
1931–1957... ESMERALDA VALASQUEZ
DONNELLY, B. 1950, CURRENT RESIDENCE
PERUVINA, COLOMBIA... CHILDREN, 1
ARNOLD LANCE DONNELLY, B. 1961...
EMPLOYED, U.S. GOVERNMENT, ASST. TO
UNDERSEC. OF INTERIOR...
Smith felt himself trembling. He remembered a name that Remo had given him, the name of the man who had given the Peruvinian coffee beans to the Miami warehouse.
"CONNECTION, DONNELLY, HUGO, WITH
BROWN, GEORGE, SAXONBURG, INDIANA,
OR NORTH AMERICAN COFFEE COMPANY."
DOES NOT COMPUTE.
Remo lowered himself out of the trees gingerly, taking care not to use his injured hand except to extricate-Arnold's headless corpse from the tangle of branches that suspended it.
Well, it was all over now. He should at least have gotten to know the name of his father. But maybe Smith had taken care of that end. He'd find out when he got back. Still, he hated to close a case without being sure. The last thing Remo would have suspected Arnold of doing was committing suicide.
Wrapping his hand with a strip of cloth torn from Arnold's shirt, he dragged the two parts of the body further into the trees. The kid had looked so scared at the end. Kept mentioning the woman, as if he were afraid that Esmeralda would somehow rise from the dead. There must have been more of an attachment between Arnold and his stepmother than either of them let on. He'd never know now.
He looked around. The setting was familiar. If he could find Thompson, the pilot of the plane, he'd bury the two bodies together. Not much tribute to Thompson, being laid to rest next to a headless maniac, but the dead didn't care.
The pilot's body, still mottled with the blood-soaked leaves Remo had staunched his wounds with, sat propped against a tree. Poor devil, Remo thought. He must have regained consciousness before he died. At least he had had his hour.
He picked up the body gently. It was still warm. And the eyes were closed. Remo checked his pulse. Dead men didn't close their own eyes.
"Thompson?" he asked tentatively. He couldn't be alive, not after all this time.
The eyelids fluttered open. "You look as bad as I feel," the pilot said, pausing for breath after each word.
"You're some kind of ox," Remo said, smiling. "Is there pain?"
The pilot managed a low laugh that made him cough up blood.
"I can stop that," Remo said. He set the man down and pinched a cluster of nerves on the man's spine.
Thompson almost gasped with relief. "I can't feel a thing," he said, astonished. "I'm good as new."
"Not really." The man's face was a sickly white. He'd lost too much blood. The wound in his back was deep. Punctured lung, probably. "Pain tells you that things aren't right with your body. I've only taken away the pain. Things still aren't right."
"That's good enough for me," Thompson said, rising and spitting a blob of red onto the grass.
"We've got a helicopter," Remo said. "Think you can show me how to fly it? Maybe I could get us to a hospital."
Thompson scanned the area. "What helicopter?"
Remo pointed up to the trees.
"How in hell—"
"I'll get you up there."
In the chopper, Thompson looked over the controls. "I'm not checked out on this type," he said with a grimace. "I think I might be able to fly it myself, but I don't know enough to talk you through it. Besides, that hand of yours is in rotten shape."
"Hell," Remo said. "You can't—"
"Get in. I won't let us crash." He started the engine. "Where are you going?"
"Bogota," Remo said. "To a hospital."
"I'm okay," Remo said. "You're not."
Thompson smiled as they lifted off. "You're some kind of Fed, right?"
Remo winced. "Don't ask so many questions."
"You're a Fed, all right. You on a job?" No answer. "I want to know where you're going, so I can take you there, that's all."
"We're going to a hospital, I told you. I can't get where I'm going fast enough in this thing, anyway."
"You got connections?"
"What do you mean?"
"There's a new Air Force base on Malagua Island, off the coast of Puerto Rico. They've got F-16s there, and God knows how many experimentals, all supersonic. If you've got the connections."
"I can make it."
Remo thought. "Do they have a hospital?"
Thompson laughed. "For a base full of test pilots? Are you kidding?" He looked at Remo, waiting.
"Yeah, I've got the connections."
Thompson whistled. "A big Fed," he said. "But then you did tear off the DC-3's door with your bare hands. Not to mention crushing Belloc's gun into a lead golf ball and jumping out of the plane without a parachute. I didn't think you worked as a clerk in the New Rochelle courthouse."
Remo felt a wave of panic rising in him. Not him, he said inwardly. After all the crumbums I've spared, don't let Thompson be the one I have to kill. Not the only decent man in this whole foul, dirty can of worms. "They won't believe you," he said quietly.
The pilot smiled. "Yeah, I know. I'm not planning to talk."
Some time passed. "Why'd you get into this lousy business, anyway?" Remo asked.
"You here to save my soul or something?"
"No. Just curious."
"Ah," Thompson said. "Curious." He was quiet for a long time. "I guess it was the flying," he said at last. "For a while, after I got fired from the airline, I had this crazy idea that I'd borrow some money and buy myself a used bird. Rent it out for charters in the Caribbean, that sort of thing.
"No guts. My wife left. The drinking," he explained. "They'll do that once they find out you've pissed your pants in the arms of a fifty-year old hooker." He laughed, then his smile disappeared. "Took the kids with her. The house got sold. Lost my car. But I wouldn't stop drinking, no sir. Bills everywhere, no job-think I gave a shit? Stuck on the ground like some kind of slug, crawling on my belly for a drink. God. Sometimes I'd look up at the sky, and I'd want so bad..." His voice trailed off.
"Bad enough to quit drinking," Remo said.
"Enough to do anything," Thompson reflected quietly. "Just to fly again... Oh, balls." He smiled, embarrassed. "What a pile of sentimental horseshit. I did it for the money."
"I don't think it was the money," Remo said.
"Well, you're wrong. The law's going to see that I never fly again after this stint, and I don't really give a good goddamn, because I'm no better than Belloc when it comes right down to it, otherwise I wouldn't be here, would I? Now, do you want to go to Malagua or don't you?"
"I think you just wanted to fly again."
"Christ," Thompson said. "You're an even bigger horseshitter than I am. We're going to Malagua."
They radioed an emergency before they landed, and a stretcher, along with a greeting party of interrogators, was waiting for the chopper from Colombia.
Thompson cast a glance at Remo as they descended. "Hey, quit worrying. The plane crashed, we both survived it, and then I passed out. When I came to, you were there with the chopper. That's all I know. Can you cover your end?"
Remo nodded distractedly. He wasn't worried about covering his end. "Those guys down there are going to want you to talk. About what you were doing in Colombia."
"Don't be sappy," Thompson said. "What happens, happens."
"You'll go to jail."
"So what." He landed the helicopter. "Hey, do that thing with my back again, will you? The pain's getting bad."
Remo touched the pilot's spine.
They got out. "This man's been hurt, and I need to make a phone call," Remo said by way of greeting.
Fifteen minutes later, Thompson was being prepared for surgery. Tubes of whole blood were being pumped into his drained body. Remo made his way past a battery of protesting nurses to Thompson's bed. "You'll be all right now," he said.
"That noise outside. It's an F-16. That for you?"
"Big Fed," Thompson said, smiling.
Remo turned to go. "Hey," Thompson called. "Thanks. Thanks for coming back for me."
Remo didn't respond. If it hadn't been for Thompson's body between the flying piece of metal and himself, Remo would probably be dead somewhere in Colombia by now. If it hadn't been for Thompson's insistence on flying to an Air Force base instead of a quiet little hospital in Bogota, Remo would be trying to figure out a way to get out of South America instead of taking off in a supersonic plane. And now Thompson was going under the knife, and after that, Thompson was going to go to jail for something he didn't even know anything about. And Thompson was thanking him.
That was fate, Remo thought, not without some bitterness. The way the world went. That was the biz. And Thompson understood that, because he was one of those creatures who kept on going while fate was throwing sucker punches to his insides. He was a man.
"I'll remember you," Remo said.
Smith stood by the large tinted one-way windows of Folcroft Sanitarium that looked out over the beach of Long Island Sound. He was alone. He had never been so alone.
The first streaks of dawn were just beginning to lighten the sky, causing the ocean waves below to sparkle pink and purple. The pain in Smith's side still throbbed, but only dimly now. Chiun's ministrations had been better than any doctor's. The old man had even offered to remove the pain entirely, but Smith hadn't permitted that. He didn't hold with any system of medicine in which there was no pain. There was something vaguely immoral in the concept. Besides, the pain helped him think.
Back to the beginning.
Coffee. Someone had put heroin into every brand of coffee used in the United States. From what Remo had gathered, that someone wasn't a regular drug dealer.
The closest they had come was a name on a business card: George Brown of Saxonburg, Indiana. George Brown, who had virtually given the drugged coffee beans to every warehouse in the country, according to Smith's investigations.
The Folcroft computers had ascertained that there were four George Browns in the five-square-mile around Saxonburg, Indiana. The FBI claimed that none of them had been out of town in the past six months. That meant that the George Brown, the one who didn't compute in the Folcroft information banks, was an alias. Back to square one. Unless George Brown was Hugo Donnelly, government employee.
But Remo would have to find that out. Before it was too late. Or was it already too late?
And then the murders. Fourteen that Smith knew of for certain, and probably a fifteenth. Remo had mentioned the name "Pappy" in his last phone call before leaving the country, and a Paul "Pappy" Eisenstein, a known drug dealer, had cropped up on the homicide lists that same day. Fifteen victims, all of them in contact with Remo.
Somebody knew about Remo.
And somebody knew about Smith, knew enough to shoot him at point-blank range and take his attaché case, which contained enough incriminating evidence to destroy the Constitution of the United States forever.
He had been waiting ever since Remo had called from Malagua. It was a strange phone call, to say the least. For one thing, Remo had spoken entirely in code.
It was as if he knew that CURE was on the verge of destruction. Smith had desperately wanted to know the extent of Remo's information in the matter, but he had to keep the call as short as possible. The fewer the words, the more difficulty the thieves would have in decoding the transmission.
Remo told, in the language the Folcroft computers had devised, about Arnold and the woman. He gave his location and requested transport to Rye.
"Done," Smith responded in the same language. "But don't come here. Get to the lobby of the Excelsior Hotel in Washington. Chiun will meet you there with further instructions."
The connection was terminated. It had taken less than one minute. Then he walked to a pay phone, made several calls, arranged for the F-16 to take Remo to Washington with no questions asked, and returned to the office.
Chiun was still waiting silently in the corner he had appropriated. Smith wrote a long message on a piece of paper and folded it.
"There's a private plane waiting for you at the local airport," he said.
Chiun beamed. "For me? Alone? I may sit wherever I wish?"
"Anywhere," Smith said. "You'll be met at the end of your journey by a driver who will escort you to a hotel. Wait in the lobby for Remo, and give him this." He handed him the message. "No one else may see this," he warned.
"You shall be obeyed," Chiun said solemnly, bowing low. "Your humble servant does not forget the kindness of his illustrious Emperor. In the twilight of my years—"
"Er... that's fine, Chiun," Smith said distractedly. Chiun slipped the note into his sleeve and left, exhibiting all the dignity of his station.
Smith walked over to the window. The waiting had begun.
That had been hours ago. Dawn coming, and the attaché case was still missing. CURE was still operating, exposing the country to irreparable damage with each passing minute. Had he been right in not destroying the organization at midnight? Remo had provided some information, but not enough. Had Smith risked the future of America just to save his own skin? He didn't know. He went over the questions again and again. He just didn't know. There was so much to think about, and he was so tired of thinking.
George Brown. Hugo Donnelly. Saxonburg, Indiana. Does not compute. Does not compute.
It was 6:14.
"Tomorrow will be too late," he remembered saying. The waves outside his window were dappled with morning light. It was tomorrow.
He squeezed his eyes shut.
A gray-gloved hand ...
Suddenly he started to attention, so fast that he choked and coughed. Holding his side, he made his way back to the computer console, keyed in "SAXONBURG, INDIANA," and followed a new line of questioning.
By 7:02 he knew the answer.
He took his extra suit from the closet in his office, got dressed slowly and painfully, and called a taxi.
Before he left, he set the self-destruct mechanism on the Folcroft computers to go off automatically at noon. He arranged it so that the destruction of CURE could only be aborted by his own voice print, issuing directly from the telephone inside his attaché case.
Because if he was right, he would be in possession of the case by noon.
And if he was wrong, noon would be well past his appointed hour to die.
Chiun's gold brocade robe looked even more splendid than usual, surrounded as it was by the threadbare furniture of the Excelsior Hotel lobby.
"Hi, Little Father," Remo said.
"Look at you," Chiun whispered, casting embarrassed looks all around. "A disgrace. Your shirt is torn. There is blood all over your face, dried like paint. I have arrived here in a private airplane. Do you know what it will do to my image to be seen associating with such a person as you? And what is that rag on your hand?"
"A bandage. I was shot."
"You, too? Has no one in this oafish country a decent sense of balance?"
"Smith?" Remo said, his voice rising. "You were supposed to watch him. How bad was it?"
"I do not have to explain myself to you," Chiun snapped. "The Emperor is well, and most grateful to me. He knows how to show gratitude, which is more than I can say for some persons who cannot even arrive in time for dinner."
"I can't believe it. I asked you to do one thing....And here I am shot, for God's sake," he sputtered. "Well, we can argue later. Give me Smitty's message."
"You have no manners at all." Chiun's eyes glared as he shot the piece of paper into Remo's hand. "This I do for the Emperor alone, because I have promised him," he decreed. "Not for ill-mannered beings who do not know how to ask for a thing politely."
Remo read the note, frowning.
"What does it say?"
"He wants me to get a suit," Remo said.
"A man of excellent discernment," Chiun said, fingering the torn back of Remo's T-shirt.
"And then he wants me to withdraw a hundred thousand dollars from the bank across the street."
"In gold?" Chiun asked excitedly.
Remo shook his head.
"Then it does not count."
Donnelly's secretary, busily filing her nails, rose like a zephyr from behind a two-foot-high stack of papers.
"We have an appointment," Remo said.
The girl's face looked blank for a moment while her nail file slowed in concentration. "Oh, yeah," she said, a smile dawning. "I knew I remembered somebody calling. I even wrote it down. You're..." She rummaged through the papers on the desk, creating a small blizzard.
"I am Chiun," Chiun said, bowing politely.
"Chiun is one of the biggest businessmen in Korea," Remo explained. "He's here to see Mr. Donnelly about some exporting business."
"Yeah," the secretary said enthusiastically. "It's all coming back to me now. And you're his assistant, right?"
"Jackpot," Remo said. "I'm Remo. Remo—"
"Wang," Chiun finished.
Remo looked at him. "An appropriately common name," Chiun explained.
"Remo Wang," the secretary said. "Pleased to meetcha, Mr. Wang. I'm Darcy Devoe. It used to be Smith, but I changed it. I always say—"
"Is Mr. Donnelly in?" Chiun interrupted.
"Sure. I told him about you when you called. He can't wait to see you. His office is..." She turned in a slow circle, scanning the walls with bewildered eyes before they came to rest on the only inner door in the office. "Through there!" she said, pointing triumphantly.
"Thanks," Remo said. "That's got to be the ditziest broad in Washington," he added in Korean as they knocked on Donnelly's door.
Chiun shrugged. "She is white."
Donnelly was a broad man with heavy features and expansive gestures. "Mr. Williams?" he asked, smiling at Remo.
"Wang," Remo said.
"Wang? Oh, I beg your pardon. My secretary must have got the name wrong. She's a little disorganized at times."
"She is to be excused," Chiun said graciously. "She is—"
"And this is Chiun," Remo said loudly.
"Ah, yes." Donnelly managed an awkward bow in what he evidently believed to be an Oriental manner. "Mr. Chiun of..." He quickly pulled a note card out of his jacket. "Sinanju. Did I pronounce that right, Mr. Chiun?"
"Perfectly," Chiun said. "And 'Chiun' will suffice. As I am the Master of Sinanju, who rides in airplanes with no other passengers, no other title is necessary."
"The Master of... I see," Donnelly said. "Well, sit down, sit down. I'll get us all a drink."
Chiun folded his hands inside his sleeves. "That will not be necessary. And I prefer to stand. My associate will explain the purpose of our visit."
"Yes, of course," Donnelly said. "Are you looking for some American goods to import into Sinanju? I don't believe we've dealt with your— um— province before."
"You know what we want," Remo said. "Coffee."
"Coffee?" The look on Donnelly's face was expectant.
Remo lifted the suitcase in his hands and opened it. Inside, it was stacked with hundred-dollar bills. "A hundred thousand dollars."
"Oh, that coffee."
"We've heard that it makes people happy," Remo said.
"Very happy," Donnelly agreed.
"Well, a little happiness is just what the Master of Sinanju is looking for. He's having a morale problem with his people. You see, they've been starving and slaving for three hundred years, and their productivity is beginning to lag."
"Tut, tut," Donnelly said.
"Besides, the Master thinks he can turn a nice profit off the dirtbags."
"It'll happen every time," Donnelly said, smiling. "With this good American coffee—"
"Unh-unh. Not American. The coffee from Peruvina. That's what we've come for."
The smile vanished from Donnelly's face. "How do you know about Peruvina?" he asked cautiously.
"I've spent the evening with your son, Arnold."
Donnelly brightened again. "Oh, you know Arnold. Well, that puts a whole new light on things. Are you friends?"
"Oh, I could hardly bring myself to leave the plantation," Remo said.
"He's got a good head on his shoulders," Arnold's father said proudly.
"Um... he did, yes."
"As a matter of fact, he's coming here. Got a call this morning. To tell the truth, that's why I'm in the office so early," he added with a chuckle. "Usually I don't get in at the crack of dawn, but this way we can spend the day together, my son and I. Did you meet my wife, Esmeralda?"
"Yes," Remo said. "But she had to leave unexpectedly. She was flying."
Donnelly nodded. "I see. Well. To the business at hand. I suppose Arnold told you about our plans?"
"Some," Remo said. "He said you were planning to expand into world markets with your coffee. What Chiun would like to know is, how can you get the coffee to us all the way out in Sinanju, when it's been banned right here in the United States?"
Donnelly guffawed and slapped Remo on the back. "But that's the beauty of it! Let me explain." He removed his jacket and rolled up his shirt sleeves, indicating in his bureaucrat's way that he was really getting down to work.
"You see, the American market was only a test to see if the general population of a country would drink the coffee. There are far too many regulations here to allow anything as appealing as our Peruvinian coffee to continue being sold indefinitely. But in more enlightened nations such as yours, Chiun, we don't have to bother with a lot of unnecessary restrictions. The coffee was meant for export in the first place."
"Through this office," Remo said.
Donnelly nodded. "Exactly. I am the Assistant to the Undersecretary of the Interior in charge of Regulations Concerning Importation of Agricultural Products. There won't be any red tape getting the coffee to you in Sinanju. Or anyplace else."
"But what about the Secretary of the Interior?"
Donnelly sighed patiently. "Mr. Wang, you've got to understand Washington politics. The Secretary of the Interior is a busy man. He's got whole coastlines to destroy. His time is taken up with selling wilderness areas to commercial concerns. It's not easy to obliterate the entire ecological balance of the Western Hemisphere. The Secretary's got his hands full."
"I see," Remo said. "And the Undersecretary?"
"The Undersecretary is busy doing what the Secretary would be doing if he didn't have all that noncommercial land and clean water to contend with. He's got to go to the luncheons, talk to the ladies' dubs, party at the White House.... The Undersecretary's job is never done."
"Sounds like a heavy load," Remo agreed.
"And for less than ninety thousand a year, too. But then, we are public servants. Sacrifices have to be made when you're serving your country."
"I guess so."
Donnelly grunted in satisfaction. "So you see, I have a relatively free hand in the business of exporting American goods."
"Like wheat to Russia?" Remo said.
"Oh, Darcy takes care of most of those details."
Remo recalled the stack of moldering papers on Darcy's desk and the girl's vacant expression. "Her?" he asked, pointing toward the doorway leading to Darcy's office.
"Somebody has to do those things," Donnelly said briskly.
"And what do you do?" Chiun asked.
Donnelly straightened out importantly. "Why, any good executive's main priority is to think. Keep his mind limber for big decisions. Get enough rest, eat right, that sort of thing."
"I see," Chiun said.
"And visiting coffee warehouses?" Remo said quietly.
Donnelly looked up, surprised. "My, you and Arnold did get chummy, didn't you?"
"We're talking about a lot of money, Mr. Donnelly. Or should I say Mr. Brown?"
Donnelly guffawed. "Say, you're a sharp one."
"So you are George Brown?"
"Nobody's George Brown. That's just a name sheI mean I made up. Printed up some cards. We had to get the coffee into the warehouses somehow. Darned good idea, I think. Set the business off to a good start."
"Is it your business?" Remo asked. "Your private business?"
"Well," he faltered. "I do have partners. My son, for one. He developed the coffee, you see, but he's usually in Peruvina, and... another partner—"
"Your wife's dead, Mr. Donnelly," Remo said.
Donnelly hesitated for a moment. "Dead? Are you sure?"
Slowly, Donnelly reached for the intercom on his desk. "Darcy, Esmeralda's dead," he said.
There was a short pause at the other end. "Do you want me to fix you up with somebody for the weekend?" Darcy's voice said at last.
"No, just check out the will." He released the connection. "Terrible," he said to Remo. "Poor woman."
"Arnold killed her. I saw him."
"She was lovely," Donnelly said.
"So now you only have one partner," Remo said.
"What? Yes, I suppose so. Just Arnold and me."
"He mentioned something about Indiana."
Donnelly waved it away. "Oh, that's nothing. A two-acre tract of land with a shack on it in some hick town. On paper, the coffee comes from there. That way, I can slide the whole thing through as an American export."
"Very clever," Remo said.
"Too clever," Chiun mumbled.
The intercom buzzed. "Your wife has left the Peruvian estate to you and your son, sir," Darcy said.
"Thank you." A deep flush of satisfaction rose in Donnelly's cheeks as he tried vainly to suppress a smile. "Just terrible about Esmeralda," he said.
"And Peruvina. It's burned to the ground by now."
Donnelly's face drained instantly of color.
"Arnold did that, too. Some kid you raised."
With a trembling finger, Donnelly reached for the intercom again. "Darcy. Darcy," he called. "I need you."
"Just a sec. I got a hangnail."
"Peruvina's gone?" he whispered. "That was going to be where I retired after this coffee business got started. Now it's gone...."
"So's Arnold," Remo said. "He killed himself."
"Darcy!" Donnelly roared.
There was no answer.
"You killed him! You must have."
"Nope. Cross my heart," Remo said. "He tried to kill me often enough, though. And speaking of killing, I suppose you're the one who's been murdering everyone I've talked to."
"What's that you're saying? You're the killer, not me."
"Let's say George Brown was the killer," Remo said, rising. He walked slowly toward Donnelly. Donnelly backed away. "And that scheme to blow up the plane that you cooked up with your dear departed wife backfired, too."
"Oh, cute. Arnold called you from Peruvina. He knew exactly what was going on."
"You're not making any sense. Darcy! Miss Devoe, get the police, for God's sake," he yelled.
The door opened. Darcy tossed a Browning .38 to him. "Your gun, sir," she said.
Donnelly backed up to the wall, the revolver trembling in his hand. "Clear out," he shouted, his voice quavering. "Clear out, or I swear I'll shoot you."
Remo stepped forward. Donnelly fired.
The bullet passed through the exact location where Remo had been standing when he fired, but Remo was no longer there. Remo was next to Donnelly, and the revolver was turning into gravel in Remo's bandaged hand while in his other palm, Donnelly's skull was turning into something resembling oatmeal.
"Gotta go, boss. Coffee break," Darcy said as she flounced away.
Remo and Chiun stared for some moments at Donnelly's body. "It's funny," Remo said. "I didn't mind that time. Killing him, I mean. I didn't mind at all."
"I did," Chiun said.
"Your elbow was bent, as usual," Chiun said resignedly.
"Well, I guess that's all of them. Esmeralda, Arnold, Donnelly. We'd better look for Smith's case." Remo began methodically to take apart the bookcases and file cabinets.
"It will not be here," Chiun said.
Chiun said nothing. Together they searched both the inner and outer offices down to the bare walls. There was no trace of Smith's case.
"My son," Chiun said. "Upon receiving word from the Emperor, I will be forced to kill you, as part of my contract with him. The case is not here. Now, you tell me. To save us all. Why is it not here?"
Remo was silent for a long time. "Something wasn't right," he said.
"Donnelly didn't want to shoot me. He was afraid. Afraid to fire the gun. Whoever killed those people and sabotaged the plane I was in wasn't afraid to kill."
"He wasn't smart enough. Thinking up the George Brown business, routing the shipments through Indiana... He just didn't seem to have the intellect to come up with ideas like those. He didn't even run his own office...."
The words caught in his throat.
Smith let himself easily into the house on the outskirts of Saxonburg, Indiana. It was a tumbledown place consisting of one vacant room. Never more than a shanty in its finest hour, the house showed signs of vandalism, from the crushed beer cans on the floor to the childish graffiti on the walls. A threadbare carpet, stinking of urine, covered the creaking floorboards.
This had to be the place, Smith thought. The Folcroft computers didn't make mistakes.
Unless he had been completely wrong. If he had been, then the killer was still an unknown, the attaché case was gone forever, and CURE had come to its inevitable end.
But he couldn't be wrong. There was too much coincidence for him to be wrong. The coffee plantation in Colombia, its direct link to Donnelly, the house in Saxonburg— it all added up under his premise. Even the computers had given him a 91 percent probability. No, he couldn't be wrong. The case was here, somewhere.
There was nothing to search. No furniture, no books, no shelves. The closets had no hidden exits. Even the walls, once covered with cheap flowered paper, now all but stripped bare down to cracking plaster, contained no hollow spots, no secret recesses. He even went over them with a miniature electronic sweep. No bugs, no electronic devices of any kind had been installed. The place was as insecure as a public street.
He reached high with the sweep to get a reading in the upper corners. It was a one-story building with no attic that he could see from the outside, but you could never tell. Nothing.
His side aching from the strain of lifting his arm, he made his way around the room once more. Halfway along the third wall, he tripped over a dusty wine bottle and fell sprawling to his belly.
The jolt of pain was tremendous. Vomit rose in his throat. Smith lay there for several minutes, panting, breathing the acrid stench of the carpet, before trying to work his way back to his feet as the room slowly came back into focus.
The sweep was lying in the middle of the carpet. He crawled to it. As he approached, he heard something. The faint click-click of the sweep.
The floor, he thought, unaware now of the burst stitches in his side. He scrambled to the edge of the room and began to roll back the stinking rug, debris and all. Sweat poured off his forehead and splattered onto the ancient floorboards in fat drops. The blood from his wound had soaked through his bandages and was straining his white shirt a bright red.
He scarcely noticed. For dead in the center of the bare floor was the hole he had expected, a neat square trapdoor with a padlock fitted into a small recess.
Taking from his jacket a small leather case filled with fine tools, he picked the lock. The tools were meant for dismembering a computer, but they worked just as well for burglary. Smith had picked enough locks in his career to be able to take one apart with a tiepin, but the tools made it easier. The hasp opened in a matter of minutes.
It should have occurred to him, he thought later, that anyone hiding electronic equipment in a place as vulnerable as the shack in Saxonburg would have placed other precautions besides an ordinary padlock over the point of entry, but he was too overcome with his small triumph of finding the trapdoor, too eager, too racked by the pain from his injury to think about it. Or to take notice of the scratching, scuffling sound beneath the trap as he opened it and a thousand fat black rats poured over him in a screaming wave.
He cried out low, recoiling from the creatures as they rushed out of the hole and seemed to fill the room. For a moment, his mind went blank in senseless terror. Then, shaking like a palsy victim, he brought himself under control.
Nothing. It's nothing, he told himself. A trick to scare off curious children.
A damn good trick.
Slowly he made his way to the front door and opened it. The rats scurried outside. Breathing deeply to calm himself, Smith went back to the trap and lowered himself inside. Another level lay three feet below the first. Smith crouched on his hands and knees in the darkness, feeling his way along the platform with the electronic sweep.
About four feet to the right of the trap, the sweep went crazy. Smith's right hand found a sharp edge in the wood. A hole. A plain hole.
Be careful. He pulled his hand back quickly. Don't get caught again.
He removed his tie with its metal clip. Dangling it from his fingers, he approached the hole again and let the end drop through the opening. There was a sharp crack as the platform was suddenly bathed in brilliant, erratic white light shooting in zigzags across the opening.
Electricity. Enough to kill a horse, from the display of light emanating from the small hole.
He felt better. A flood of rats was and always would be an alien terror to Smith, but defusing an electric security shield was familiar ground. He searched for the switch in the darkness, made suddenly darker by the brief onslaught of bright light.
To the left of the hole he felt a raised metal disc with a jagged line running through the center. A keyhole.
Just right, he thought. I would have used a key switch myself. Removing a long instrument of flexible steel from his tool packet, he worked on the keyhole. Despite the desperateness of the situation, he was beginning to feel something like admiration for the killer. The security measures were good. Simple but efficient. And hidden, the way all security ought to be. They were the work of a fine, clear mind that paid attention to detail.
The whole scheme, from the distribution of the coffee to the theft of Smith's case, had been a beautifully orchestrated piece of work, the product of a mind that missed nothing, that could organize disparate elements into a workable whole.
A mind, in fact, quite like his own.
The instrument turned in the keyhole. Smith dropped his tie down the hole again. There was no reaction. He lowered himself into the opening, catching his foot on the step of a ladder, and let himself down.
There was a naked electric lightbulb at the base of the ladder, activated by a string. Simple, no frills, Smith thought. A good, clean mind. On a table against the wall sat a small computer. A home model, augmented with special one-of-a-kind hardware. Attached to it by a series of wires was the telephone from Smith's attaché case. Beneath the table was the case itself.
He disconnected the wires, dialed the special routing code that led directly into Folcroft information banks, and said, "Abort self-destruct."
A small wave of relief washed over him. Not much, certainly not what he'd expected. His eyes kept wandering over to the small computer.
He knew there would be a computer. Unless the theft of his attaché case had been simply a random crime, it was certain that the thief knew computers. But this, he thought, touching a slender hollow tube protruding from the computer's open back. The tube was welded to a five-inch disc covered with frames of microcircuitry. It was almost identical to the hardware he himself had constructed in order to develop the Folcroft Four's capability to tap other computer information banks through the direction of shortwave signals.
"Remarkable," he said. He realized that the telephone was still in his hand. "Repeat. Abort self-destruct," he said, his hands straying back to the tabletop computer.
On the other end of the line, the Folcroft computers whirred, clicked, and then died down. At the end, a Morse code transmission reading, VOICE PRINT ACCEPTED, SELF-DESTRUCT MECHANISM DE-ACTIVATED clattered out, and then the connection was broken.
He set down the phone and gave his full attention to the computer. He knew he would have to dismantle it and leave immediately, even though the beauty of the thing piqued his curiosity almost to the point of physical longing. He turned on the console. Experimentally his hand passed over three tiny glass cylinders. Who used glass anymore? he wondered excitedly. Only someone who knew hardware well enough to create whole new circuits.
"Stop it," he said aloud. He opened his leather case and selected his tools for dismembering the machine.
"2, 16, 28, 59," he keyed, in at random. "FIND SEQUENCE."
The little machine spewed out numbers until it organized a mathematical sequence in twenty-digit figures. Inserting a flat tool into a recognizable circuit, he watched the numbers disappear from the screen as he erased the sequence-finding function.
He poised the instrument over the remaining exposed circuitry and keyed in the computer's biographical file mode. He typed the first name that came to mind.
The machine responded:
322 W. LINDEN DRIVE
WASH., D.C. (RES.)
B. 1927, PORTLAND, ORE.
MARRIED, ARLENE NASH PALMER
1931-1957... ESMERALDA VALASQUEZ
DONNELLY, B. 1950...
He stared at the information. It was presented in exactly the same way the Folcroft computers would have given it. But that wasn't possible. He had programmed the Folcroft biographical banks himself. Of course, it may just be coincidence, he thought.
"SMITH, HAROLD W.," he typed. No information banks in the world except for those at Folcroft contained any precise information about himself, and even the Folcroft computers didn't release Smith's information without a special code.
SMITH, HAROLD W, B. 1925
RES. 426 WESTACRE LANE, RYE, NY...
MARRIED, IRMA WINWOOD SMITH, B.
CHILDREN: 1 (F)F BETH JO ANN, B. 1955...
OCC: DIR, FOLCROFT SANITARIUM, RYE,
OCC: DIR., CURE (REF: CURE, SPECIAL
CODE 4201–26, OPERATIONAL MODE 58–
The instrument fell out of his hand.
"Surprised, Dr. Smith?" a voice said softly from the ladder behind him. He whirled around.
The first thing he saw was a pair of gray kidskin gloves.
He had been right. Exactly right. From her coat, Darcy Devoe extracted a .38 Browning revolver.
"You flatter me," Darcy said.
"How did you gain access to my information banks?"
She smiled. A real smile, devoid of the dazzling imbecility of Hugo Donnelly's secretary. She seemed like a different woman now, her head poised elegantly, the hands still, her eyes steady with cold intelligence. "It wasn't easy," she said. "Although once I'd constructed the hardware, the routing signals were relatively uncomplicated."
Smith nodded vaguely. "You monitored the calls to my office yourself."
"From Washington. I wanted to know who your successor would be, so I hooked your telephone up to my computer and arranged it so that any call coming into Folcroft— and consequently to the phone in your attaché case— would ring both in my office and at my home. I must say, it was a surprise to find you were still alive. But we'll take care of that soon enough."
"I— I've been followed," Smith said, stalling.
Darcy laughed. "That's a pitiful attempt. I don't imagine you're much good at lying."
"I'm not as good as you are."
"I might as well tell you right now, Dr. Smith, that there is no way you're going to escape from here, with or without your extraordinary little helpers. I've installed certain failsafe measures to ensure that. Speaking of your friends, I believe they've recently disposed of Mr. Donnelly."
"That was just what you wanted, I suppose," Smith said. "First Esmeralda, then Arnold, now Donnelly. The last obstacle's out of the way, as far as you're concerned."
She raised an eyebrow. "That's a good deduction. I like the way you think." She looked at him thoughtfully. "Yes, I do. I feel I've come to know you through your computers. You have a clean mind. A useful mind. I haven't underestimated it. From the minute you gave me that phony card in Donnelly's office, I guessed you knew much more than you appeared to. You hide your abilities well."
"The same could be said about you."
Darcy laughed. "Are you referring to my office persona? I thought I performed that role rather well."
Smith cleared his throat. "Er... your computer. It's very good."
"Thank you. I take that as a great compliment. But what you're really getting at is, how did I construct it? You've looked into my background, of course."
"Yes," Smith said. "That's what puzzles me. I know that you grew up here, in this town. In this house. You have no education to speak of. If you don't mind my asking..."
He blushed. It was all very strange. Here he was, held at gunpoint by an obvious menace to everything he held dear, and yet he felt like a schoolboy asking a girl to dance.
She watched him. Her eyes twinkled. "No, I don't mind," she said. "I taught myself. I read everything I could about everything. I sat up till dawn every night for twelve years to learn how to think. When I was twenty-six years old, I went to work for a computer manufacturing company, on the assembly line. That's where I learned how these machines worked. I stole some parts, studied them at home, and brought them back before they were missed. It was a passion with me.... Do you find that impossible to believe about a woman?"
"No," Smith said simply. "Only... you could have put your gifts to better use."
"I've found a way to make all the money I'll ever need," Darcy said. "That's the best use I can think of."
"That's not true—"
"Don't lecture me, Smith. You didn't have to grow up in a hole like this. You didn't have to drop out of school in the eighth grade to clean houses so that your old lady could keep herself in smack."
"Johnny Arcadi used to operate in this area a long time ago. You knew him, I gather?"
"I knew him, all right," she said, her eyes narrowing. "If it weren't for Arcadi, I might have had a pair of shoes that weren't already worn out by the time I got them. I might have eaten a hot meal when I was a kid. I might not have had to find my mother dead at the age of thirty-five. Oh, Arcadi and I go back a long way. A long way." The hatred fairly oozed out of her. "Nothing pleased me more than to shoot that fat bastard between the eyes."
"But not until you'd learned what you needed to know about the black-market drug business from him," Smith said.
"Why not? For all I'd learned in the factory, I couldn't get a decent job. Think anyone wants to hire a computer designer with an eighth grade education? The only way I knew how to make money was Johnny Arcadi's way. And he taught me a lot, believe me. Johnny even introduced me to Arnold, you know."
"I guessed as much. You undoubtedly stole Arnold's ideas, too."
"Don't make me laugh," Darcy said. "Arnold didn't have any ideas. He was nothing but a brainy, spoiled kid who was looking for adventure. After he invented the heroin-laced coffee, he tramped around Miami for three months searching for a drug dealer to distribute his beans. He found Johnny."
"Did Arcadi agree to deal?"
Darcy made a face. "Arcadi had the imagination of a frog. He thought the kid was crazy. Wouldn't even look at the coffee beans. Besides, he thought nothing would ever replace injectable heroin, the ass. But I knew Arnold had something. We became... very close. He got me the job with his father, who was an even bigger fool than he was. But useful. Once I learned how Donnelly's office operated, I knew the plan for exporting Arnold's coffee would work. It was easy to get Donnelly to go along. He did all the legwork. With me to run the office in Washington, he was free to travel."
She wiped some dust off the computer console with her free hand. "Good old 'George Brown.' Donnelly set up all our American customers. They're not going to stop drinking the coffee now, you know, just because it's illegal. An addict is an addict."
"You've created millions of them."
"Quite," she said. "The black market in this country alone will bring in staggering profits. And once I'm in Donnelly's job, the Peruvinian coffee will be distributed worldwide. Since it looks just like regular coffee beans, I can ship it in broad daylight. Think of it— the biggest-selling illegal drug on earth, and I'll own every bit of it."
"How are you going to get Donnelly's job?" Smith asked. "You're only his secretary."
Her face was innocent. "Why, through CURE, of course," she said.
"You're going to blackmail the government."
"And they'll accept, too. Because I'm not asking for much. No huge sums of money, no nuclear bombs. All I want in exchange for my silence about CURE is a job. Donnelly's job. Oh, I can pull it off. All very fluffy and earnest. And I'll only need the job long enough to establish my contacts in foreign countries. The CIA won't have enough time to have me killed."
She smiled. "I have to thank you for that. If you hadn't come into the office when you did. I'd have been forced to keep Arnold and Donnelly alive and share the wealth. I must say your timing has been perfect. Don't move." She pressed the barrel of the revolver into Smith's temple.
"There's a car outside. Tell your friends to come down here." She jammed the weapon closer against his flesh.
"No," he said quietly.
"Remo. Chiun," she called. "You have five seconds to come down here, or the gallant Dr. Smith gets a bullet through his head."
Silently Remo and Chiun descended the ladder.
"Kill her," Smith said. "Let her shoot. Then kill her. That's an order."
"It is one we cannot obey," Chiun said, and folded his arms in his sleeves.
"How touchingly loyal," Darcy said. "How did you find me?"
"There was only one black Cadillac Seville pulling out of the parking lot," Remo said. "I figured it was you in the car that led me to Pappy Eisenstein. We trailed you to the airport. It was easy to track you down on this end by your description."
"I remembered you," Chiun said. "When you were leaving the office. I remembered that Mr. Arcadi was in his car when I intercepted him. You were with him."
"Ah, yes indeed," Darcy said. "Your employer and I were just discussing Mr. Arcadi. You see, I didn't stop seeing Johnny when I met Arnold. I went back to kill him. His usefulness was over, you see. But our Oriental friend here snatched Arcadi out of my arms, and led me directly to Remo. That was the beginning of how I learned about you and CURE." She sighed. "Really, Smith. You should have stayed out of this. I only wanted to put Arcadi out of his misery."
"And Hassam," Remo said. "And everyone in his house. And Pappy. And the guys in the warehouse. And the men in the plane. There must have been a lot of misery going around."
"Oh, my," she said, smiling. "Never have so many given so much. And all for li'l ole Darcy Devoe. But I couldn't very well have kept them alive, could I?"
"What about me?" Remo asked. "Why didn't you get rid of me in the first place?"
"How could I? I saw you fight. I knew what you could do. I was hoping the explosion in the plane would have done the trick, but even that didn't work. In the end, though, I was glad. You killed Donnelly for me."
"You can't keep killing everyone who knows about you," Smith said. "Pretty soon you'll have to kill off the whole world."
"Oh, I don't think so. I'll have a nice little life in Peruvina. Build a new house, travel..."
"How is Peruvina yours?" Remo asked. "Maybe you were Arnold's partner, but—"
"She was Arnold's wife," Smith said. "Her real name is Linda Smith. According to my information, Arnold Donnelly married a Linda Smith five months ago. Esmeralda's property went to Donnelly and his son upon her death. When they died, it all became the estate of Linda Smith."
"And no one knows who Linda Smith is," Remo said. "Very convenient."
"Poor Arnold," Darcy sighed. "He was such a nice little husband, too. He even agreed to kill himself rather than face the police or jail. I said I'd do the same. He believed we'd be in paradise together now."
"With no confessions to the law," Remo said.
Darcy shook her head. "Arnold was a real twerp. But useful."
"Does everything and everyone in your life have to be useful?" Smith asked.
She looked blank. "Well, certainly," she said. "What a ridiculous question, especially from you. Don't pretend not to understand me, Dr. Smith. Because I understand you. We're two of a kind. Thorough, cautious, secretive. I do believe, Harold, that if I didn't have to kill you, I would have fallen in love with you. You really shouldn't have interfered. We could have been happy together."
With the revolver still trained on Smith, she picked up the attaché case and placed the portable telephone inside it. "And now, gentlemen, I have to be going."
She pressed a combination of keys on the computer. The machine emitted a low hum that grew louder. Behind her, on the wall opposite the ladder entrance, a narrow steel panel slid open.
"The magic of science," she said, backing through it. When she had gone, the panel slid shut again. After a few seconds a deep rumble sounded behind it.
"She let us live," Smith said.
Remo eyed the computer. It was growing louder by the second. He switched off the power button. Nothing happened.
"Like hell," he said, shoving Smith toward the wall. "This thing's a bomb."
Chiun was already at the metal panel, tracing its outline with his fingernail. The panel loosened. He pressed harder against it. It wouldn't give. He pulled it out. Behind it was a wall of solid earth.
"It filled in to block the entrance when she left," Smith realized. "There is another way out, but—"
Remo was climbing the ladder.
"Don't!" Smith shouted.
The jolt of electricity from the opening sent Remo flying backward into the room, the skin of his hand blackened. His face was contorted in pain.
"My bad hand," he growled.
Remo felt the pain emanating like waves from his injured hand. First a bullet, then electricity. Of the two, he far preferred the bullet. Nothing hurt like electric shock, because it brought fear along with the pain. Every nerve ending in his sensitive system seemed to be screaming. Not electricity! Fire, bullets, knives, but not electricity.
He had once been sentenced to die in an electric chair...
"She's reset the charge through the computer," Smith said, opening his leather tool kit. "Maybe I can dismantle this." He turned a couple of screws, rearranged some wires. "Unfortunately, I don't know this machine. It could take hours, and she's probably got the explosive, wherever that is, on some kind of timer to allow her a few minutes to get away."
"Can we dig our way out?" Remo asked.
"Too slow," Chiun said.
Remo regarded the walls. They were all underground, surrounded by earth. It would be no use breaking through them. There wasn't enough time to tunnel themselves out.
The ceiling? Remo thought. Possible. "Smitty, is the whole area up there electrified?"
"No. Just the opening. If I could only dismantle that from here..." He probed deeper into the machine. "Would you test this?"
Remo took a piece of paper, spat on it, and rolled it into a ball. He tossed it through the opening. Sparks flew.
"All right," Smith said. "How's this?"
The same reaction.
Chiun was looking up toward the opening thoughtfully. "Let me see your hand," the old man said.
Remo showed him. The flesh was entirely charred. He couldn't make a fist. "Little Father, could we—"
"No," Chiun said, looking at the electrified entranceway. "Burning could not be avoided. Or death. Even for such as us. We will wait for the Emperor." He moved to a spot in the center of the floor and sat down in full lotus position.
Smith was drenched with sweat. "Did that do it?"
Remo tossed his paper ball again. "No."
Outside, the big engine of Darcy's Cadillac roared. Remo felt-afraid.
Nothing would be worse than dying by electric shock, he thought. The burns, a thousand times worse than fire... It would be better to die in the explosion.
And then again, maybe they wouldn't die. Smith might make it in time.
Sparks encircled the paper ball.
Chiun waited patiently to die. Smith would go, too, Remo thought. Poor Smitty. He was already so battered, and scared out of his pants. They'd all be gone in a minute. There probably wouldn't even be any pain. Just a lot of pressure, and then... Not like electricity. Agony for endless minutes while you fried, burned to death.
"Now?" Smith asked.
"No, Smitty," Remo said.
There was no time left.
Burned to death...
He crouched on the ladder, focusing his entire mind on the opening above him.
"What are you doing?" Smith called, but in Remo's mind his voice was already receding into another plane, an existence Remo was leaving far behind. He was entering the sphere of the possibility, the dimension in which there were no rules.
There is no fear. Conquer the fear and you will conquer the pain. No fear. No fear. I am whole. I am unafraid. I am ready.
He shot upward, his arms encircling his head, his legs lifting effortlessly, flying through time and space, illuminated by the light of burning stars, touched by the essence of the universe. In that moment, he saw all, felt all, experienced all, suffered all. Pain and beauty, ecstasy and despair. All of the strings connecting him to life vibrated with great music before they snapped and sent him floating into a void of unspeakable peace.
He was free.
And then he was descending, snatched back, yanked by one string that was stronger than the others. It was unpleasant. He tried to rid himself of the thread, wound round him like a steel bond, but it was infused into his very soul, and it dragged him back, back through ages of darkness, out of the peace of eternity, into a place of terrible pain, so terrible that he screamed aloud, and the shock of the scream brought him further down... No... to the depths of suffering, so bad he wanted to weep with it. Oh earth! Can't resist... oh, fragile life. Chiun, why have you brought me back?
The music and light were gone. He lay in the narrow landing between the floorboards of the house and the ceiling of the basement. And somehow his legs moved hard enough to kick out a section of the flooring, and then Smith's face appeared through the splintered wood and Chiun was behind pushing Smitty out.
Chiun carried Remo outside. It was so pretty out there in the open air that he forgot all about flying through space, and if anyone would have told him about it, he'd have said they had a screw loose.
Only he did remember the music for a few minutes afterward, and that was what he listened to as he watched Chiun catch a big black Caddie on foot and drag some woman who was wailing like a banshee out of it and then toss her like a football into this empty house where she must have exploded, because the house went up like a stick of dynamite, the way trees do in war movies, eaten up by a ball of fire, all to the tune of this magic music that he had to listen to with all his might because even in his memory it was fading so fast.
It was beautiful.
He couldn't understand why Smitty looked so sad.
Remo woke up in a sunny room in Folcroft Sanitarium. He was covered with bandages from his scalp downward. On another bed in the same room lay Harold Smith, a bottle of plasma dripping slowly into his arm.
"Where's Chiun?" Remo mumbled through the narrow mouth slit in his bandages.
"Outside. He's terrorizing the staff."
"How bad are we?"
"You're worse than I am," Smith said. "How much do you remember?"
"Everything up to going through that hole in the house in Indiana."
"That's good," Smith said weakly.
"All I can see is light and dark. Am I blind?"
"I don't think so. The doctors say the bandages will come off in a few days."
Remo slept. It was dark when he awoke again. "Are you working?" he asked when he came to.
"I have a temporary secretary come in twice a day," Smith said.
"What'd you do about Peruvina?"
"Coded message to the CIA. The poppies have been burned to the ground, and Arnold's laboratory has been destroyed."
"Is the girl from Hassam's dead?"
"The dancer? No, she's recovering, surprisingly."
"Send her some flowers for me, okay?"
"She's a witness," Smith said.
"Wasn't it you who said you can't kill off everybody who knows anything?"
"That was different."
"All right," Smith grumbled. "Just get some rest. And let me."
"You've got to do something else," Remo whispered before he slipped out of consciousness.
It was light again when he awoke.
"What do you want?" Smith asked.
"A pilot named Thompson," Remo said. "He was arrested in a military hospital on Malagua Island."
"Civilian. Get him out of jail."
There was a long pause. It may have been days. "Why?" Smith asked.
"He's innocent. Sort of."
"Sort of? I can't—"
"Get him out of the slammer and send him to the Caribbean."
"And give him a plane. A DC-3."
"Smitty. Do it for me. Because you're a friend."
"Don't be absurd."
"Then do it for me because I'll break your face when I get out of here if you don't," Remo said sleepily.
"She wasn't right, was she?"
"Darcy Devoe. She said you were two of a kind. Are you?"
"Are you?" he asked the following evening.
"Yes, I suppose I am."
"Did you love her?"
"I'm a married man," Smith said.
"Oh, come on."
Smith sat up. The tube was out of his arm. "No. No, I didn't."
"But you could have."
"We could all do a lot of things. We don't," Smith said tersely. "She's dead, you know."
"Yeah, I figured. I'm sorry."
"I wanted to stop killing once. It can't be done."
"I understand," Smith said.
"No, you don't. I don't. But that's just the way it is. Some people have to die."
"I suppose so," Smith said. He cleared his throat.
It was light. Remo opened his eyes. The bandages had been removed. Smith sat in bed, a breakfast tray covered with papers on his lap.
"Hey, I can see."
Smith looked over, annoyed at being interrupted. "Er... That's fine."
"Did you do it? Get Thompson out?"
"I'm trying to work." Smith turned back to his papers.
"Yes, I did," Smith said irritably. "Although I'll never understand why. I must not have been myself."
Remo smiled. "Thanks," he said.
Smith rustled his papers and pretended to read.