Category: Crossover: Eroica/Lupin III, Sequel to “Thoughts Contingent on a Blithe Spirit.”
Notes: Originally published
in its own fanzine by Anime House Press © 1994
Editors: Marg Baskin & Heather Bruton
Archivist’s Note: This will make a great deal more sense if you’ve seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Just sayin’…
Warnings: Some OCCness, crossover
Summary: What happens when two infamous thieves are hired independently to steal the same object? They join forces, of course. Whether or not this is a good thing remains to be seen.
By: V.M. Wyman
Illustrations by: V.M. Wyman
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
You know you’ve had a bad night when you wake up in the morning with something on your shoulder and, when you go to brush it off, you find it’s the floor.
That’s something Jigen’s fond of saying. I must confess I never really understood it until I woke up one morning, found something on my shoulder, and discovered it was the floor.
It was the floor of a truck, to be specific. A truck traveling along at a fair rate of speed.
I opened my eyes and saw nothing. The truck’s tailgate was shut and the interior was black as pitch. After lying still for a moment, feeling absolutely dreadful, I tried sitting up. This didn’t work. My wrists and ankles were bound behind me. As I moved, I felt a sharp edge of a thing plastic strip bite into my flesh.
Struggling was not good, so I lay back down to think for a minute, trying to reconstruct what had happened last night.
We’d been in a bar, and the bar had been in Manhattan. It hadn’t been much of a bar, more of a dive really, but we had gone there because it was one of Jigen’s favorite haunts. It made him feel nostalgic. And Jigen had every right to feel nostalgic; he had just turned forty.
As birthday parties went, it was a relatively sedate affair. Jigen reminisced while I sat glowering at tourists and Lupin tried (once again unsuccessfully) to put the moves on Fujiko. We all got mildly crocked, but it wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle. We were still reasonably sober when we left the bar.
Left the bar…
You know, I couldn’t actually remember leaving the bar. I remembered going outside, remembered the damp, fresh smell of the May night and the cool caress of the air on my cheek. I also remembered stars, sprinkled across the blackness in front of me. In front of me; not above me. That meant I’d left the bar in a horizontal position. Someone had carried me out.
And dumped me in a truck.
I wondered if they’d dumped Lupin and Jigen in here with me. I knew they hadn’t taken Fujiko because I couldn’t smell her perfume. And Fujiko always wore perfume, Channel No. 5 was her signature.
Hell, she was probably the one responsible for getting us shanghaied. Damn woman! We couldn’t take her any place!
There was a faint moan and a scrape as something shifted on the truck-bed near me. This something grunted as he sat up and tested his bonds, much as I had done. Then, as I had done, he gave up with a sigh and lay back down.
“God…” Lupin murmured.
“Yes, son?” Jigen replied.
“Don’t look now, but I think we’ve been hijacked.”
“How should I know? I’m in the same fix you are. I’m willing to bet it was Fujiko’s fault, though. She probably slipped us something in our drinks.”
This annoyed Lupin. “You’re always blaming her!”
“That’s because she’s usually to blame.”
“Un!” I agreed. “Jigen’s absolutely right!”
Lupin shifted again. “Go? Daijobu?”
“More or less.”
“That still leaves us one brick short of a load.” Jigen decided. “I wonder who paid that brick, how much and why…”
Lupin didn’t say anything. I heard him shift again, fumbling around in the dark, then I heard stitches ripping.
Whoever had kidnapped us had searched us of course. They’d taken our weapons and any extraneous material they could find. Lock-picks, wire and the like. But nobody, no mater how thorough, is likely to strip Lupin of all his toys. Such as the sharp strip of flexible material he carried packaged in tape in the hem of his jacket.
“What’s the matter?”
“I cut myself. Not to worry. I’ll have us free in a moment.”
I heard further grunts and thrashing as Lupin squirmed about, freeing first himself, then Jigen. His hand searched for my wrist, then I was free, too.
Taking a deep breath to settle my stomach, I sat up.
Lupin was fumbling around again. He took what appeared to be a stay out of his shirt collar, snapped that piece of plastic, and shook it. A dim phosphorescence began to glow, under-lighting Lupin’s features with green.
The French thief examined the cut on his finger, then sucked the little wound as he turned to examine his surroundings.
I did likewise.
We were indeed in a truck: a fixed-bed U-haul of some variety with an oak floor and bare sheet-metal walls re-enforced with steel struts. The tailgate was vertical-lift, with no internal latching mechanism. There was also no access window between the trailer and the cab. No way for them to get to us, or us to them.
I looked back at Lupin. He was now examining a striated piece of white plastic about twenty inches long. “Plastic handcuff,” he reported. “Standard police issue. Disposable.”
“Cops?” Jigen wondered.
“Not necessarily. Anyone can buy this stuff. Besides, shanghaiing suspects isn’t standard police procedure.”
“You’re not exactly you standard thief.”
Lupin smiled at that. “How do you feel?”
“Peckish. I think I’d like to kick some ass.”
“Un!” I agreed.
“And I,” Lupin decided, “would like some fresh air. It’s stuffy is here.”
Lupin handed me the glowstick, then shrugged off his jacket. Ripping the lining open, he proceeded to dismantle both shoulder pads. What he ended up with were two gooey plastic squares, each about the size of a pat of butter.
He placed these “pats” on the lower lip of the tailgate, towards the center, then used a twist of fabric to build a makeshift fuse.
He grinned at Jigen. “Got a match?”
“Yeah, my butt and your face.”
“Don’t get smart, birthday boy! Gimme a match!”
Jigen did and Lupin used that match to set the makeshift fuse sputtering. While it sizzled, Lupin raced back and joined both Jigen and I, huddled in a far corner.
I heard a hissing noise, then the interior of the truck was bathed in a blinding, blue-white glare. This glare went on for about thirty seconds, then it faded and the hissing stopped. We were left in darkness, gagging on the stench of spent cordite.
Eyes watering, nose and mouth protected by a fold of his jacket, Lupin went forward to examine his handiwork. I couldn’t see a thing, but Lupin seemed satisfied. He gave the tailgate a well-placed kick, then stuck his toe under the lip of the ‘gate and lifted. The tailgate rode up in its tracks without a sound.
Cold air penetrated our prison, accompanied by a dim, grayish light. It was nearly morning.
The cold air was a tonic. It washed the last remnants of the drug-hangover out of me. I went quickly to join Lupin.
He was kneeling on the truck-bed, peering out of the half-lifted ‘gate. Behind the truk stretched a ribbon of worn, concrete bounded on either side by overgrown embankments. Beyond those embankments were trees green with spring. We were the only vehicle on this interstate. There were no lights, either on the road or off it.
“Desolate,” I observed.
“Yep,” Jigen agreed. “That means it’s either Siberia…or New Jersey. What time is it?”
“I’m not sure,” Lupin replied. “Five, I think.”
“That’s too damn early. I think I’ll go complain.”
“Excellent idea! I will go with you.”
Lupin lifted the ‘gate the rest of the way, caught the edge of the trailer and started climbing. He was topside in seconds, followed first by Jigen and then by me. We all crouched on the roof of the hurtling trailer as the gray countryside flashed past us in a blur.
The truck was a standard U-haul, right down to the black and orange logo and the stylized painting of people water-skiing on the side. Its headlights cut a swath of yellow light through the murky morning. The windows of its cab were buttoned up tight.
“Now for a plan of attack,” Lupin decided. “In a rig this size, there’s room for only two: a driver and a shotgun. Jigen, you take the driver. Goemon, you get the shotgun.”
“And whadda you do?” Jigen wondered, clinging to his hat.
“I will create the diversion which makes everything possible. Observe!”
With that, Lupin threw himself onto the roof of the cab. He bounced once, reversed himself in the air, and came down straddling the truck’s hood backwards, his face pressed grotesquely against the windshield.
It must have been a shock for the two men inside the cab, because I heard one of them cry out. Then the truck’s brakes locked. There was a scream of rubber as the truck began to skid.
The interstate was two-lane and empty, defined by blue-chip shoulders and grassy embankments. There wasn’t anything for the truck to hit as it swerved all over the road. When it ran off the road and up the grassy embankment, there wasn’t anything to stop it. It merely bounced down to the shoulder again with a series of sharp jolt.
On one of these jolts, Lupin lost his grip. He slid backwards off the hood and disappeared from sight. We watched with horror as the trucked rolled over him.
If we were horrified, so were the men in the cab. They brought the U-haul to a stop as quickly as possible, then tumbled out of its doors in a frantic effort to help.
Jigen took the driver; I took his companion. It happened so fast, I’m quite sure the two men never knew what hit them.
Jigen then knelt beside the truck. “You okay down there?”
Lupin wiggled out from under the U-haul and stood in the lank grass, nursing his posterior tenderly. “I’ve got some bruises, but not where they’ll show. What have we got?”
What we “had” were two unconscious men, both in their twenties. Both were clean-scrubbed and in good shape. If not for the denim jackets, jeans and cowboy boots, I’d have suspected they were professional military.
I will add they were both armed with automatic pistols, neither had a driver’s license (or any other form of identification) and one was carrying two thousand in small bills.
Jigen frowned. “Curiousor and curiouser, said Alice.”
“What is Duck, New Jersey?” Lupin wondered, staring at a small slip of paper he’d found in with the money.
“Duck’s an old army base,” the gunman replied. “A buddy of mine did some boot-time there during ‘Nam. It was mothballed about ten years ago. Why?”
“These gentlemen had a appointment in Duck at seven this morning. Apparently, so did we.”
“Uh-huh,” Jigen decided, then paused to eyeball the two men lying on the ground. “You know, in a way this is starting to make sense. You were right about these guys not being cops, Lupe. Cops don’t hang around deserted military bases. Guys who do Work For the Government.”
Lupin was surprised. “What could the CIA possibly want with me?”
“That is the sixty-four dollar question.”
While Lupin and Jigen talked, I ransacked the U-haul’s cab, finding their guns and my katana. I also found a box of those plastic handcuff-things. I took them and, after distributing the hardware to its rightful owners, prepared to bind the two men.
“Wait on that,” Lupin told me.
“Why?” I asked.
“Jigen and I are going to switch clothes with them.”
“It’s not often the CIA commands my presence. I’ve a mind to go see what they want.”
Jigen frowned. “Damn anxious to step in it, aren’t ya? Or maybe you’ve forgotten what happened the last time you messed with an alphabet agency. You were sick in bed for two weeks.”
“That was KGB.”
“There’s damn little difference, Boo-boo.”
I was inclined to agree with Jigen. One covert government group was much like another. Especially now that the changing world climate had placed many traditional bureaucratic formulas in doubt. This was especially unsettling to covert groups because their policies were so in-grown. They were in a period of transition and this made them particularly dangerous.
Lupin probably understood this, but he’d already made up his mind about something, he was difficult to dissuade.
“It doesn’t matter,” Lupin asserted. “We’re going to Duck.”
* * * * *
Duck, New Jersey, wasn’t the end of the world; just the nest closest thing to it. Located in a marshy area surrounded by woods, Duck was ideal for training rangers and other deep-infiltration groups. But a round of Senate budget-cutting had meant to end for Duck. It was mothballed. Now this isolated base looked all the more desolate, its drab buildings weather-worn and in need of paint, its asphalt pierced by patches of crabgrass. The only part of the complex which looked relatively new was its twelve-foot fence, which was electrified and topped by a curly-cue of barbed wire.
There was an outbuilding at the main gate. A watchman stepped out to greet the truck as it approached. He had a pistol on one hip and a walkie-talkie on the other. Face set, this man waved the truck to stop, then reached for the walkie-talkie.
That walkie-talkie evaporated, shattered by a single shot from a .357 Magnum. A second shot from the same Magnum amputated the holster from the watchman’s hip. Then the truck roared back into gear. It started advancing on the disgruntled watchman at an ever-increasing rate of speed.
The watchman was no fool. He bailed out sideways as the U-haul went thundering past. Then he watched with dismay as the truck slammed into the gate. There was a bright dazzle of sparks and the gate gave way. The truck tore it and several sections of fence from their mountings.
By the time this truck reached the main compound, the parade area was swarming with men in brown suits carrying automatic weapons. Imagine their surprise when the truck in question wandered aimlessly into their midst, apparently driverless. It blundered across the compound like a drunken elephant and came to rest in a pile of rusted trash-cans. Its engine died, lapsing into silence with a cough.
The men were at a loss. Last they heard, the truck had been crewed by two individuals. Somewhere between the compound and the main gate, that crew of two had vanished without a trace. Now these men studied the abandoned truck with suspicion, as if it were the wreck of the Mary Celeste.
After five minutes of unproductive scrutiny, the men decided to approach.
There was a thin metallic “ting”, and the cab of the U-haul flowered open. Cut in quarters, it just fell away, revealing but a single man wearing a swordsman’s gi. That swordsman didn’t eve bother to glare at them.
“Toranu tanuki no,” I said, “kawa-zan’yo.”
(Don’t estimate the value of the badger’s skin before catching the badger.)
Springing straight into the midst of my enemies, I started cutting gun-metal left and right.
There was spontaneous applause in the form of automatic weapons fire. This didn’t bother me particularly. I knew the men would be constrained by the desire not to shoot one another. I had no such handicap. I went through the front line like salts through a gander.
In this, I was helped immeasurably by the second apocalyptic figure who rose from the ruins of the U-haul like a phoenix from his ashes. Bearded and clad in denim, wearing his perennial hat, Jigen leaped up onto the set and started shooting.
The chaos was absolute.
Into this chaos ran a solitary figure who could be recommended for his bravery, if not his common sense. This man, clean-shaven, blond and thirtyish, bounded into the fray from the commandant’s office wearing a tailored brown three-piece and a red “power” tie. He immediately began shouting: “Hold your fire! Hold your fire!”
The government men were quick to comply because a large number of them were already weaponless. Jigen and I stopped mostly out of curiosity.
“Please hold your fire, gentlemen,” the man insisted. “Rest assured that we will hold ours.”
“Who’s ‘we’?” Jigen wanted to know.
“All in good time, Mr. Jigen. First allow me to introduce myself. I’m…”
“Fox,” said Lupin III, lounging in the doorway to the commandant’s office and studying something which appeared to be a wallet. “Sylvester Fox.” He grinned at the man. “I’ll bet you call yourself ‘Sly’, don’t you?”
Fox was stunned. He patted his pockets quickly, looking for a wallet which was no longer there. Having failed to discover it in any of its usual places, he gave Lupin a grudging grin.
“Damn good, aren’t you?”
“I’m better than good,” Lupin decided, tossing the wallet back. “I’m splendid. But you already knew that or you wouldn’t have gone to all this trouble. Now, Mr. Fox, what did you wish to see me about?”
“Ah, no. I don’t think so. I’ve an allergy to confined spaces…especially after having been locked inside a truck.”
Fox’s smile grew less grudging. “You’ll have to forgive us, but we thought these measures were necessary. You’re an elusive bird, Mr. Lupin, and we weren’t sure you’d want to listen to our proposal.”
“I will listen to any proposal, sir. I didn’t say I would accept, mind you. But I will listen.”
“We want to hire you.”
“So I had surmised.”
“We need you to steal something.”
“Of course. Forgive me, Mr. Fox, but don’t you have your own…how shall I say?...’tactical’ experts? Whatever do you need me for?”
Fox cleared his throat. He disliked having to discuss his business in front of witnesses. “We’d rather not become involved in this matter directly. The government is a big fish. When it moves, it makes big ripples. If we were to display an interest in the item, others would take notice of it.
“However, if a professional thief were to abscond with the merchandise,” Lupin decided, “no one would bat an eye. I understand. What is this ‘item’?”
“Let me clarify my earlier statement; When I said we wanted you to steal something. I actually meant we needed you to steal something back. This think belongs to the U.S. government. We just need a discrete means of recovering our property.”
“Semantics, Mr. Fox. I do not care to whom the merchandise legally belongs. Just tell me what you want stolen, from whom and for how much. Let’s leave political niceties out of it.”
Fox frowned. “The ‘item’ in question is a crate measuring three feet, by four feet, by five, marked with the serial number 909580B, It was taken from the Defense Department warehouse in Washington three days ago. Last we heard, it’d been sold to a man named Georgio Domingo, who is the personal confidant of one Pedro Gurrera.”
“General Gurrera?” Lupin wondered. “The dictator of Calize? Hasn’t he been deposed, or something?”
“Or something,” Jigen inserted. “And they oughta know. They’re the ones who ‘deposed’ him.”
“He was overthrown,” Fox protested, “by his own people in a successful attempt to establish a democratic government!”
“Semantics again, Mr. Fox,” Lupin declared. “Let me reiterate: I do not care. Let us content ourselves that the man is out of a job. Now he, presumably, has possession of this crate. What, might I venture to ask, is in it?”
“That’s something of a tricky question, Mr. Lupin. We’re not sure. This item came into possession of the army during World War II. It was classified Secret and shipped to Fort Meade. It was then supposed to be transferred to Fort Knox, but the paperwork was mislaid.”
“Fort Knox?” Lupin wondered. “Isn’t that a rather odd place to store a ‘secret weapon’?”
“It’s not a weapon at all, and in none of the surviving paperwork can we find reason for its ‘secret’ classification. The contents were listed as being ‘historically significant.’”
“Not so odd, really. In wartime, governments have a tendency to classify things as ‘secret’ until they have time to sort them out. In this particular case, the paperwork was mislaid before any sorting could be done. It wasn’t declassified until fifty years later. At which point it was transferred to the Department of Defense and was awaiting final disbursal to the Smithsonian Institution, only…”
“Only someone absconded with it before this could be done.”
Lupin frowned. “Forgive me, Mr. Fox, but I don’t quite follow this. If this object was classified as ‘secret’, why on earth would the army not open it before hanging it to a museum?”
“Because the army believes it has no strategic value. It was listed as ‘late Egyptian’ and contains documents of some sort. Presumably papyrus. The contents are also listed as volatile. They will decompose once exposed to air. This is one reason we wish to be discreet. If someone wrenches the top off that thing, we may end up with a crate of very historic dust.”
“What makes you think Gurrera hasn’t done this already?”
“We believe the crate is intact. Gurrera won’t try opening it until the twenty-first of June.”
“General Gurrera practices rights of a quasi-religious nature. He’ll leave the contents of the crate inviolate until the summer solstice, when he believes it’s safe to remove them.”
“The contents have religious significance?”
“Let’s just say Gurrera thinks so. He also believes they have the ability to restore his grasp on power.”
Lupin thought about this, then shook his head. “I still don’t follow. I understand that you don’t want the contents destroyed, but why should you care if a former dictator amuses himself by performing rites of a ‘quasi-religious’ nature?”
“We’ll care a great deal if he can convince certain people there’s truth in his mumbo-jumbo. Many drug-dealers are also superstitious and drug cartels have a great deal of money.”
“Meaning they might finance a reverse-coup if Gurrera can convince them ‘God’ is on his side?”
“Je vous comprende,” Lupin finally conceded. “Now we get to the meat of the matter: How much?”
Fox stepped closer and said something to Lupin. Something that made Lupin’s jaw drop.
“Are you serious?”
“Let’s just say it’s cheaper then mounting a ‘clean-up operation.’”
“And we will receive half in advance, of course…”
“Two hundred thousand dollars, American, will be placed in your name in the Bank of Mexico,” Fox said. “If you wish to collect the remaining two, you must return the crate to us intact. If we even suspect that crate has been tampered with, you will not get the rest of your money. In addition, you will make us very angry.” Fox smiled. “And don’t make us angry, Mr. Lupin. You wouldn’t like us when we’re angry.”
“Maa, Faxsu-chan! I would never cheat a client! Whatever must you think of me?”
“We think you’re a damn sneaky bastard. Which is why we chose you for this job.”
* * * * *
Calize was an island in the southwestern Caribbean about thirty kilometers square. Until the fall of ’89, it had been ruled absolutely by one Pedro Gurrera, a man whose eccentricities were matched only by his cruelty. He called himself “General” although he had no legal claim to the title and he ran his little island like a bootcamp. Gurrera was a singularly objectionable character, but that wasn’t why the CIA had been instrumental in his overthrow. They had deposed him not because of what he was, but because of where he sat. Calize was a small island, but not so small it couldn’t maintain an airport. Various drug cartels had been using it as a stopover to ship their produce, duty-free.
Now, of course, Calize was under new management. Suddenly those drug cartels who’d been shipping through Calize found that avenue blocked. There were other ways of getting their product to market, of course, but they weren’t as cheap. So they had a certain interest in seeing Gurrera reinstated.
Foremost among them was Georgio Domingo, who had managed the Calizean import-export business on behalf of his General. While not Calizean himself, Domingo was a staunch supporter of the Gurrera regime and had helped the General disappear when it was evident that he’d be unable to stop the coup. Gurrera was staying with Domingo now, on his large and heavily fortified estate on the coast of southern Mexico.
* * * * *
Up near the house, the lights blazed. Under these lights, women danced around the ornate pool, dressing in nothing but tiny G-strings. Men in various states of intoxication laughed, ate and pinched the cavorting girls, making lewd suggestions about what forms the entertainment was likely to take, later in the evening.
“That’s some party,” Jigen observed, crouching low in a tangle of brush which afforded an excellent view of said house. “Which of those clowns is Gurrera?”
“That one there,” Lupin replied, pointing a black-gloved finger at a bloated, balding figure who looked just exactly like a toad. While we watched, the “General” confirmed our opinion of him by reeling drunkenly to his feet and dropping his swim-trucks, displaying himself to the dancing girls, who giggled appreciatively. With a roar like a rutting elephant, Gurrera commenced to chase them.
Jigen chuckled. “That’s one charming bastard, all right. I wonder how he ever ran a country.”
“If you follow the popular logic, he didn’t. Domingo was the man in charge.”
“Which one is Domingo?” I asked.
“The tall man over by the table,” Lupin told me. “The one talking to the burly character in the dark trunks.”
I saw Domingo immediately. He was everything Gurrera was not. Tall, well-muscled and handsome with commanding visage and a head full of thick black hair. Dressed in a white silk robe and a pair of tight blue trucks, his already dark body browned to the color of teak, he looked like nothing so much as an ad for men’s cologne.
Domingo was staging a get re-acquainted party, hoping to reawaken interest in Gurrera’s regime. If he could convince his guests of how cooperative the regime had been, and how much money they’d saved in dealing with it, perhaps he could convince them to attend Gurrera’s “religious” festivities, which were scheduled for next month.
“Enough of this sightseeing,” Lupin decided. “Let’s go.”
He slithered off through the underbrush, with Jigen and me right behind him.
Dressed in skin-tight black bodysuits, our hands gloved and our faces smeared with lampblack, we were well-attired for slithering. We were well-equipped, too. Each of us wore goggles with night-vision lenses. Each wore a utility belt complete with lock-picks, glass-cutters, and hand-grapples and each carried a dart-gun equipped with syringe-cartridges, each dart charged with enough sedative to drop a moose.
“Laser-trip,” Lupin reported, flattening himself on his belly. “Watch your butt, unless you want them toasted.”
These lasers were becoming more frequent now that we had entered the inner perimeter of Domingo’s estate.
Domingo’s seaside mansion was the bull’s-eye in a series of concentric rings of fortification, employing such things as electrified fences, anti-personnel mines, and blood-hungry Dobermans. Fortunately, it wasn’t necessary to approach the house. Several days of intensive observation and the judicious bribing of servants had convinced us the crate was not in the mansion, but in his boathouse further up the beach. Why Domingo had done this with something of a mystery, since the boathouse was less secure. We had speculated as to Domingo’s reasoning, of course, but come up with only three possibilities: One, Domingo was keeping the crate in his boathouse in case he had to move it quickly. Two, he was keeping it there because the boathouse was less of a target. Three, Domingo had simply not wanted the thing underfoot because it made him nervous.
Whatever his logic, we were grateful for his eccentricities. It was going to make our job a good deal easier.
Since the boathouse provided access to the Gulf, we planned to remove the crate that way. We would approach the structure from its north side (the one furthest from the house), dart the guards, then switch clothes with them. Once disguised, we would slip inside, dispatch whatever resistance we met with tranquilizers and load the crate onto one of the three speedboats we knew to be stored there. Having scuttled the two other boats, we would then ease our craft out of its slip and travel south to a cove where we had a truck waiting.
The terrain shifted, changing from the plateau on which the house sat to a series of rugged natural steps curving down in the beach. The beach itself was shaley, rock-strewn with grainy patches of mica-rich sand. The water was calm, flat and oily, curling into small breakers as it slapped languidly at the shore.
The boathouse was almost more of a barracks. It was a big structure with two floors of living quarters over a huge covered quay. Directly off the back was a boxlike extension housing the machinist’s shop and storage. Out the front extended thirty feet of pier. The whole business overhung the water some sixty feet, leaving only the back extension still on dry land.
While we watched, one of Domingo’s guards came sauntering out onto the pier. He was a big man dressed in a khaki shirt and cutoffs and wearing a discreet Smith and Wesson revolver tucked in the back waistband of his shorts. Having surveyed the Gulf of Mexico with a certain practiced indifference, he unzippered his fly and proceeded to relieve himself into the sea.
“Let’s see if we can lure him over this way,” Lupin decided. “I don’t want to get his clothes wet.”
I moved first, picking up a small stone and flinging it into the Gulf. It skipped twice, then settled into the water with a distinct plunk some ten or twelve feet to the guard’s left.
I rather doubt his saw the stone, but the guard definitely heard it. His head snapped around, although his body remained in position, contributing fractionally to the volume and the pollution of the Gulf.
I threw another stone. This one skipped only once and settled much closer to shore.
That was enough for the guard. He finished his business and zippered his fly. I saw the light above the quay flash on the chromed surfaces as he drew his gun and started back along the catwalk in a crouch.
I chanced throwing a third stone. This one struck the rock-strewn shore with a click.
The guard broke into a trot, vaulting over the wooden railing and landing, ankle-deep in the surf. Then he paused, picturesque and threatening, before wading up onto the beach.
This showboating ended abruptly with the bee-sting thump of a tiny dart in the guard’s left shoulder. There was little impact and no sound to speak of. On the top of that, the sedative was very fast-acting. The man barely had time to glance at the dart in surprise before collapsing flat on the beach.
Lupin and Jigen dragged him off into the shadows under the catwalk.
When Lupin stood up again, he was transformed. Gone was the skintight black infiltration suit. In its place, Lupin was wearing a khaki shirt and cut-offs. The transformation wasn’t entirely complete, however. The guard had been a man of considerable bulk and he’d had a good sixty pounds on Lupin. His clothing hung from that slender thief’s body like a tent.
Jigen giggled. “And they say clothes don’t make the man.”
“Oh, shut up!” Lupin snapped, wiping at the lampblack on his face with a moistened towelette. “It’s not going to matter once we’re inside.
“It’s gonna matter plenty if you drop your pants. Be sure and cinch ‘em tight while you’re at it.”
“Estaban? You okay?”
The voice came from above. The wooden catwalk creaked as someone moved along it. I saw their shadow appear on the ground as they leaned over the railing.
“Estaban, you sum’bitch! Where are you?”
“Takin’ a link!” Lupin replied in a guttural growl he thought appropriate to a man of Estaban’s size. He’d never heard the voice, of course. The best he could do was estimate it.
It seemed to work. “Who’re you talking to?”
“Myself, shithead!” Lupin snarled, gaining confidence. “Come down here. Have a look at this.”
“What is it?”
“Come down, I said. See for yourself!”
The catwalk creaked again as the shadow left the rail and made its way back to the steps. I saw a pair of legs appear, wearing jeans this time, and Adidas. “You’re always such a bossy bastard…”
The second guard presented himself. He was a young man, both smaller and slighter than “Estaban”, wearing in addition to his jeans and running shoes, a threadbare green T-shirt with a tattered picture of Daffy Duck on the front. He made no pretenses to a macho image. When confronted with the scene under the catwalk, he reacted with indecision.
Jigen and I had ducked back behind the pilings supporting the boathouse, but Lupin had remained in plain sight. He’s also made no attempt to hide the now disrobed body. He knelt next to it with his backed turned, wearing Estaban’s clothes.
“Blessed Mary!” the younger man gasped, taking a couple of steps forward. “Who is that?! What happened?!”
He never got an answer to either of his questions. An instant later, another dart shot out from behind Jigen’s piling and hit the boy in the back. The boy gave a single convulsive yelp of dismay before falling over unconscious.
“Tu fals vite!” Lupin urged. “We must get moving!”
The boy was quickly stripped and the clothing passed to Jigen, who soon found himself with troubles of his own. Whereas Estaban had been both taller and bulkier than Lupin, the younger guard was considerably smaller. The green T-shirt fit Jigen like a second skin and he could barely get the jeans buttoned.
Of course Lupin was delighted. “Better too thin than too fat!” he decided with a smirk. “Perhaps you should watch those desserts at dinner!”
Jigen geared-up for some vitriolic reply, but never got a chance to use it. Lupin had already bounded away, flapping along in his borrowed clothes like some sort of scarecrow.
Naturally we assumed if the crate was in the boathouse, it was being kept in the storage area, since this was the best-secured portion of the structure. The quay and its attendant pier were made of wood, but the machinist shop and storage area were build of masonry. The only access to this extension was through the quay itself, or through a single re-enforced door in the rear of the building.
Lupin reached that rear door and ran a slim, pen-sized object along the frame. There was no warning bleat. The gauge on the probe never wavered.
“Nothing,” Lupin reported. “It’s not wired. Or, if it is, the grid’s been turned off.”
“That’s kinda strange, ain’t it?” Jigen wondered. “Considering ho careful Domingo’s been otherwise.”
“Yes. Very strange.”
Zantetsu-ken slipped free of his scabbard with the sound like a whisper of wind through the branches of a pine. “Then it’s best we move quietly,” I decided. “I will cut, then…”
“Mate,” Lupin countermanded. “Wait.” He reached out and turned the knob. Then gently, using a single finger, he pushed the door open. It swung back on its hinges without a sound.
“Jesus…” Jigen murmured. “Definitely not good.”
“D’accord,” Lupin agreed. “But now that we’ve started, we can’t really stop. If we do, Domingo will know his security has been breached and he’ll move the crate to safer quarters. So let us continue, but let us be careful. Every man watch his back, n’est-ce pa ?”
Directly inside, we found a concrete corridor lined with a double rank of metal doors. Like the back door, these all had been opened and the rooms beyond discreetly searched. Although we could see signs that the storerooms had been rifled, nothing appeared to have been taken. Nothing was out of place.
Except in one closet I came to. This closet, more of a cupboard really, held the unconscious body of a very large man. Something happened. To this day, I’m not sure what. Suddenly my katana started to vibrate. It felt as if a powerful alternating current was coursing up the blade.
I looked down at it.
On any katana of worth there are markings called ”shadows.” These are the layerings of metal created when the steel used to make the sword is folded and refolded and refolded again to give the weapon its legendary strength. When the finished blade is sharpened, the “shadows” appear along its edge like grain in oiled wood. In those shadows, it is said an intuitive man can read the intentions of his enemies.
At that moment, the shadows on Zantetsu-ken were shimmering with unnatural life. They actually appeared to shift and change. Like reflections on running water.
Given the odd predicament in which I presently found myself, this had a profound effect on me. I looked up, seeking a certain reassurance from the presence of Lupin and Jigen, and discovered they were both gone…
I heard a dull thud, followed by a groan and the sound of a body falling. Someone cried: “Arsene! Oh my God!”
The voice belonged to Dorian, Earl of Red Gloria.
Breaking into a soft-footed sprint, I dashed down the corridor and into a storage bin we hadn’t searched yet. The room was a cinder block fortress, windowless and unlit, containing boxes of recreational material and stinking of charred wood. The only like came from Lupin’s hand torch, which was lying on the floor. Lying facedown next to it was Arsene Lupin III. And bending over Lupin’s body, clothed in glove-tight black, his blond hair entirely hidden by a stocking cap, was the English Earl who called himself Eroica. Beside him was the large screw-driver which had done second duty as a cudgel.
Dorian was oblivious to me as he shook the unconscious Frenchman gently. “Arsene! Speak to me!”
I glanced at Zantetsu-ken and found him quiet. No vibrations; no shifting. No shadows on the blade or in my heart.
With a quick look around, I stepped in and closed the door.
The Earl finally became aware of me. He reacted instinctively, positioning himself between me and the helpless Frenchman. I saw a flash as a dagger appeared in his hand.
Then he saw who I was and slumped with relief. “Goemon, darling, you gave me quite a turn!”
“Eroica-sama,” I acknowledged, kneeling beside Lupin to conduct a brief examination. The thief had a lump on his head bie as a baseball. “You struck him.”
“Well, yes, but not intentionally. I thought he was one of Señor Domingo’s guards.”
“Is the Major here?”
“Of course. I came on his insistence.”
“To do what?”
Dorian smiled, appraising me with sparkling blue eyes. “I might ask the same of you, mightn’t I, darling?”
There was a commotion outside. I heard the faint sound of a bid man running. Those sounds stopped right outside the door.
With a gesture, I ordered the Earl to drag Lupin out of harm’s way, then knelt in the middle of the floor, blade drawn.
The door came open, but no one appeared. The doorway was empty. I continued to crouch right where I was while the Earl huddled to one side, clutching the unconscious Lupin.
When the ma appeared, I was ready. I launched myself at him, katana first, as he brought his hands up. In those hands I saw the long-barreled shape of a silenced Luger.
It may have been the Lugar which warned me, or some vague feeling of familiarity. Suddenly I knew the figure of this tall, long-haired man and I stopped my blade short of cutting.
As he stopped himself just short of shooting.
Major Klaus von Eberbach and I stared at each other like two fools in an off-Broadway farce.
“Ishikawa,” the Major growled. “What…?”
Then he gave a grunt of surprise and took a half-step towards me. I saw the briefest expression of dazed annoyance cross his face before his eyes glazed-over and he fell. I tried to catch him, but he weighed considerably more than I did. We both sprawled on the floor with me on the bottom.
“Klaus!” Dorian cried. “God! Is he hurt?!”
No, he was sleeping. As I wiggled out from under, I saw the gleaming tranquilizer dart buried in the German’s right buttock. Klaus von Eberbach was down for the count.
This from Jigen, who was now standing in the doorway with the dart-gun in his hand. He stared at the Earl for a moment, then glanced at the body lying on top of me. “Then this is…”
“Dagwood,” Dorian agreed miserably. “Yes.”
“Come in, “ I advised with a snarl as I pulled myself out from under. “Close the door.”
Jigen did so. “What happened?”
“What hasn’t? Lupin surprised Eroica, so Eroica struck him. You surprised von Eberbach…”
“And you shot him,” Dorian concluded, leaving Lupin to kneel beside the Major. He plucked the dart from the German’s posterior, examined the inch-long point and winced in sympathy. I can’t say as that was very friendly of you, darling.”
“I didn’t know!” Jigen argued. “All I saw was this big guy running! I thought he was one of Domingo’s goons!”
Lupin groaned, shifting on the floor. He brought a hand up, felt gently of the lump on his skull and flinched. “Mon Dieu…”
“Are you all right?” I asked him.
“I think so. What hit me?”
“I’m afraid I did, darling.”
Lupin moved slowly, turning to look at the Earl with an expression of bedraggled surprised. “Petticaris…?”
“C’est moi,” Dorian sighed. “And, yes, I know. I’m a lot of trouble.”
“No,” Lupin insisted, sitting up. “No need to explain. It makes an odd sort of sense. First you kiss me; then you slug me. It’s all part of this weird love/hate relationship you English have with us French!”
“What’re you doin’ here anyway?” Jigen demanded, still flustered. Shooting someone by mistake wasn’t something he did often and he was embarrassed.
“I’m not sure I can explain, darling,” Dorian replied. “I’m here at the Major’s insistence and I doubt very much if he’d want me to. Therefore, I must decline all questions until he wakes up. And how long will that be? Do you know?”
Jigen shrugged. “An hour. Maybe two.”
“Too long to wait,” Lupin decided, nursing his skull. “And it would be pointless in any case. I already know what they’ve come for. They’ve come for a crate the size of a steamer trunk and they’re here at NATO’s request. Though why NATO would be interested in a heap of moldy papyrus is beyond me.”
“Papyrus?” Dorian wondered. “But that’s not…”
“Ha! Thought so!”
The Earl gave Lupin a reproachful glance, then turned away to pout, his arms folded across his chest. “I shan’t say another word. I’m fearfully cross with you anyway. First you nearly frighten me to death, then you tranquilize poor Klaus. And what are we to do with poor Klaus, if I might ask? We can’t very well leave him here.”
“No,” Lupin agreed. “We can’t…”
Another shiver of vibration, up the sword and into my arm. I didn’t look down because I knew what I would see: The shadows on Zantetsu-ken were shifting again.
I kept my eyes riveted on Dorian’s face. In a way, that was just as bad. When the vibrations started, the Earl shivered in sympathy. The blood drained from his cheeks and he clutched at his throat with a trembling hand.
Lupin had a sore head, but he wasn’t oblivious. He reached towards Eroica. “Petticaris-chan! What’s the matter?”
“Can’t…” the Earl squeaked in a tiny voice. “…Can’t breathe…”
Then as quickly as it started, the vibration stopped. It left me frosted with a glaze of cold sweat and the Earl of Red Gloria gasping for air.
“It’s…it’s as if I have asthma,” Dorian explained with a shudder. “And that’s dreadfully disconcerting because I’ve never had asthma. Not ever in my life.”
“Lupe,” Jigen said quietly, “we’d better get out of here.”
“But we haven’t got…”
“Screw it. Someone’s comin’.”
Jigen turned towards the door. From outside came a sound, all too human, of someone moving along the corridor.
“Pacho? Is that you? Estaban? Stefen? God’s balls! Where is everybody!?!”
I tried to remember if I’d shut that cupboard containing the unconscious guard and decided I’d forgotten to do so.
There was a gasp of discovery, followed by a cry: “Pacho!”
Lupin lurched to his feet, almost losing his cut-offs in the process. “I think you’re right,” he whispered to Jigen. “It’s time for a strategic retreat. Can you manage der Major?”
“I think so.”
“C’est bien. Petticaris?”
“Right with you, darling.”
Jigen pulled the German into a fireman’s carry as the guard broke into a sprint. I hear him slap hard on a large, plastic button. Immediately an overhead light came on in our storeroom and an alarm began to sound.
“Missed on,” Lupin remarked to Eroica and I wasn’t sure whether he meant the guard or the alarm system.
Meanwhile, Jigen heaved himself to his feet, grunting under the weight. “Geez, this is a big boy! I hate to say it, Lupe, but I ain’t runnin’ no marathons with Dagwood on my back.”
“You wont have to. We’re taking a boat as we intended. We’ll just have to leave without the merchandise.”
Now that there was light, I glanced quickly around the storage area. The room was about ten feet square with heavy, wooden shelving on three of the four walls. There were several crates stored here, but all were in a worn condition. Several were water-stained and one looked as though it had been burned.
“Goemon!” Jigen hissed at me. “Come on!”
Lupin started out the door, only to be brought up short by three bullets which went sailing past his nose. He immediately fell back into Eroica, who graciously retreated. They scrambled into the room, using their combined weight to slam the door.
“That isn’t going to work,” Lupin decided.
“Then where to, love?” the Earl wondered. “If we can’t use the door, it leaves us slightly short of options.”
Zantetuken flew, executing first a Migi-Ichimonfi-Giri, and a Suichyoku-Giri. Across to the left and down towards the right. Wooden shelving collapsed, followed by an outward tumble of cut cinder block, and a patch of starlit sea appeared, its water still placid, lapping against the rocks.
“When in doubt,” Lupin gleefully asserted, “ask le Samurai!” The he added “Oof!” as the door behind him bucked with considerable force. The guard had garnered support and he was trying to gain entrance. “Petticaris, hayaju!” Lupin pleaded as the door bucked again.
Dorian grabbed the burned crate and, with my help, got it wrestled up against the door. “I doubt that will hold them long, darling,” the Earl decided. “We’d better go.”
Lupin was first out of the hole, followed by Eroica, with the over-burdened Jigen right behind. I, by virtue of the draw, was last. Since Domingo’s men were literally beating at the door, I should have been quick to leave, but I hesitated. For some odd reason, I felt compelled to look back at the crate we’d used as a doorstop.
When I did, I saw the box hadn’t been indiscriminately burned; it had been selectively scorched. The only side defaced was the one bearing a plastic packing envelope. The one that had held Domingo’s address. Around the shriveled remains of the plastic pouch, the wood was still smoldering…
“GOEMON!” Jigen snarled, nearly startling my out of my skin. “Get your fancy ass movin’! come ON!”
Starlight glimmered on the bared length of Zantetsu-ken as I dropped three feet to the rock below. I could hear the sounds of alarm in the distance; The wail of electronic klaxons, the bray of men’s voices and the bay of angry dogs as their handlers brought them over from the house.
Lupin sprinted to the left, his clothes flapping, and dove into the darkness between the pilings. Since the guards had no inkling of our improvised exit, they concentrated their efforts on the corridor. Lupin met no resistance. He splashed into the water and started to swim.
Eroica stripped off his stocking cap and gloves and dove in after him.
“Dammit, Lupin!” Jigen panted as he stumbled down toward the beach, heavy with his unconscious burden. “I can’t…”
“You can if I help you,” I insisted. “This way!”
Domingo’s wooden boathouse sat over a U-shaped impression in the shore. This tiny natural cove had been deepened with excavation and dredging to offer anchorage for a private fleet. This fleet consisted of one thirty-foot yacht and three sleek speed boats. Foremost among these was a dark blue Staer-Lechner hydrofoil, one of the fastest vessels on the surface of the sea.
One gained access to these vessels by the means of a second pier, which hung down under the belly of the boathouse like a wooden umbilicus. At one point, this second pier actually did touch land, but part was blocked off by a heavy wooden portcullis. That portcullis dissolved into kindling, victim of the tender mercies of Zantetsu-ken.
As I helped Jigen onto the pier, I heard an angry deprecation in Spanish. Domingo’s troops had finally entered the storeroom and found the hole I’d cut.
I looked quickly for Lupin, but didn’t see him.
A gleaming figure did heave itself out of the water and clamor wetly aboard the Staer-Lechner, but from the dripping tangles of long, blond hair, I knew it to be the Earl.
“This way, darlings!” Eroica called.
Jigen thumped over towards him as I heard the search grow desperate. Feet pounded the floorboards above us. The baying of dogs became hungry yowls as the pack was turned loose.
And still no Lupin. Anywhere.
“There they go!” someone cried and I felt rather than heard the bullet zip past me. I turned, ready to do battle, as Jigen unceremoniously dumped the Major into Eroica’s lap.
The man who’d spotted us was pounding toward me across the rock, full of arrogant confidence because he had a gun and I had only a sword. It never occurred to him that a sword which could cut cinder block and weather-hardened wood might part flesh like water. He saw only a blade and, without thought, discounted it, convinced of his gun’s superiority.
Call me impetuous, but I live for moments like this…
I was robbed! Before the man had gone another stride, the gun was torn from his hand by the sudden intrusion of a bullet. The guard immediately reconsidered his situation. He retrated.
I turned and saw Jigen kneeling in the aft of the Staer-Lechner, a smoking Magnum in his hand.
“What’s your problem?”
“I’ll thank you not to meddle in my business!”
“Well excuse me all to pieces! I was just trying to help!”
“Not to be intrusive, darlings,” the Earl said evenly, “but mightn’t you save this discussion for later, when we’ve more time?”
Dorian was right, of course, but it wasn’t his even-tempered logic which inspired me to drop the matter. It was the retort of a shotgun, followed by the resounding splat of shot peppering the hull of the yacht behind me. Any closer and it would have torn the seat out of my hakama, had I been wearing one.
I flew, gaining the boat with a single, great leap. On my way in, I parted both mooring ropes with a flourish, so my move wouldn’t seem too…impulsive.
“Where’s Lupin?” Jigen asked as Dorian brought the Staer-Lechner throbbing into live.
“I’ve no idea,” the Earl replied, “but I do wish he’s hurry?”
A second shotgun blast tore the air above us and Jigen stitched three shots out across the night, driving two shadows into cover. A Doberman scrambled out onto the pier with a great clicking of nails and proceeded to rail at us, teeth bared. The animal bunched its haunches, prepared to leap, but aborted the jump prematurely. It jerked forward with a yip of dismay and sort of deflated, its final growl turning to a snore.
I saw a tranquilizer dart in its side. I also saw a murky shape submerge beneath the pier.
“Move out,” I told the Earl. “Slowly.”
Dorian did so and I heard a cry of frustration from the pilings. Gunfire re-erupted as two sets of whitened fingered appeared, clinging to our port rail.
“It’s about time!” Jigen growled, moving to haul Lupin into the hydrofoil. “Where the hell have you been?!”
“Taking care of business,” the grinning thief replied.
That thief might have taken care of “business,” but he hadn’t taken care of the second Doberman, who bounded onto the wharf and launched himself into the water like a torpedo. In an instant the god had a firm grip on the seat of Lupin’s pants.
The Doberman had his prize. Lupin let him keep it. He slithered out of the water and out of the cut-offs in the same motion, flopping down into the cover of the afterdeck like a gaffed fish.
“GO!” Jigen roared.
The Earl of Red Gloria opened the throttles and the Staer-Lechner screamed with sudden fury, inundating the dock with a gout of white spume. We came bolting out of the quay like a rocket. We hadn’t cleared the pier before be bounded up on our hydrofoils.
There were further shouts of outrage, I’m sure, but I couldn’t hear them over the howl of the engine. I’m equally sure Domingo’s men dashed quickly to take command of the remaining speedboats, but I couldn’t see that through our enormous cocktail of glittering spray. I really couldn’t see much of anything from the bottom of the boat, which was where our sudden takeoff had thrown me, but I did spot Lupin. He was lying with his head propped on the back of the unconscious Major, fiddling with his watch.
“Got your Walther?” Jigen yelled at him.
“Of course,” he replied.
“They you’d better get it out. We’re in for a fire-fight if those bastards even get close.”
“They won’t,” Lupin decided. “Never fear.”
Lupin’s watch was a Citron International, a complicated gizmo featuring seven individual clock-faces with a separate sprue to operate each one. Now that he had the watch off, Lupin extended one of these sprues to form a miniature aerial. Then he pressed the remaining sprues in a coded sequence. The clock-face directly under the aerial started counting off five minutes intervals as though they were seconds.
“Twelve,” Lupin announced, “eleven, ten…”
I got to my knees and watched Domingo’s two speedboats come flying out of the quay, reaching their stride before they cleared the pier. Neither was a Staer-Lechner, but one was recognizably a CrissCraft and that was almost as good.
“Eight,” Lupin continued, “seven, six…”
I saw a man stand up in the CrissCraft, bracing himself against the forward bench. He had a high-powered rifle poised against his shoulder. That rifle discharged and, almost instantly, a burst of fiberglass erupted from our stern panel. For all that a Staer-Lechner was a fast boat, it wasn’t faster than the speed of sound.
“Three!” cried Lupin with certain diabolic glee. “Two…one…!”
I heard two distinct hollow thumps, like something heavy falling into a washtub, and the CrissCraft actually sprang backwards in the water. The rifleman was immediately unseated and thrown into the Gulf. The other two men aboard managed to hand on as they tried to bring their boat under control. The CrissCraft bellyflopped into the water…and just kept going. It sank beneath the waves with its crew of two stared with disbelief.
The other speedboat did likewise, rolling over with an agonized spoosh. Its four-person crew dog-paddled about it in confusion while one of them thumped its wounded hull in frustration for having failed them.
Altogether, it was a very satisfactory display, yet Lupin looked disappointed. He tapped the Citron with a finger as he frowned reprovingly at it. “This thing is supposed to be water-proof!”
Four other hollow whoumps sounded and the thirty-foot yacht, resting all inoffensive in the berth, caromed over onto its side. Its super-structure whacked into the portside pilings and tore the left catwalk from its moorings. The catwalk collapsed, the pier crumbled and the entire wooden fore-structure of the boathouse sagged dangerously to the left.
Jigen chuckled. “I’ll give you one thing, Arsene,” said he. “When you make a mess, you don’t fool around.”
“I dislike being shot at,” Lupin decided amicably, replacing his watch. “It spoils my digestion.”
“This respite is likely to be temporary, darling,” Dorian called from his place at the helm. “If your intelligence was as good as mine, then you know Señor Domingo has a helicopter. Given the breakage, I don’t doubt he’ll use it.”
“Neither do I,” the French thief agreed, hoisting himself to his feet and vaulting over the forward bench. “Therefore it is paramount that we ditch this hydrofoil and seek less conspicuous transportation. I have already arranged some. Shove over, Petticaris. I’ll take it from here.”
“Not a chance, dear heart. I’ve seen the way you drive.”
“Let him alone,” Jigen decided with a sigh. “Blondie ain’t doin’ so bad. Besides, if we take time to change captains, it’ll just slow us down.”
Lupin frowned, finding himself out-voted. He knelt on the bench, glowering petulantly back at Jigen, disappointed not so much by our opinion of his driving as by our refusal to let him play with a Staer-Lechner, one of the fastest boats in the world.
“Don’t take it to heart, darling,” Dorian soothed. “I think you’re perfectly splendid otherwise. And Mr. Jigen is absolutely right. Changing pilots at this stage would slow us down. Besides,” the Earl added with a mischievous smirk, “if you took command, I could no longer be able to enjoy the scenery.”
“Scenery?” Lupin wondered. “What…?
Then he looked down.
The Frenchman discovered to his chagrin that the Doberman had not only deprived him of his cut-offs, but of his underwear as well. All of the private Lupin was open to public view.
Lupin immediately revered himself in the seat, pulled the cavernous shirt down around him and sat, knees together. Even in the darkness, I could see a flush of mortal embarrassment rouge his cheeks.
Eroica burst out laughing.
“Petticaris!” Lupin thundered.
“Don’t be angry, dear heart. You know how I admire you. I am gratified to discover not only are you an accomplished thief, a distinguished thespian and adventurer par excellence, but you also have positively stunning assets.”
* * * * *
“GOTTVERDAMMT INTERFERING FRENCHMAN!”
Major Klaus von Eberbach was not happy. As a matter of fact, he was mad as a scalded cat. Mad because he had stumbled over Lupin, mad because (in stumbling over Lupin) he had been thwarted in his goal, and mad because he’d had an allergic reaction to the venom of our tranquilizer which left his muscles smarting. At the moment, the Major from NATO was having great difficulty sitting down.
Since he couldn’t sit, he paced, storming back and forth across the dimly-lit room with a limp he tried to conceal.
While he did this, he heaped abuse on a figure splayed facedown on the room’s single couch. This person wore a loose white shirt, white cotton pants, and an icepack. He also made no attempt to defend himself as the Major flayed him. In fact, it was possible to believe that man was sleeping, if anyone could have slept through the unholy din.
“THIS JOB IS A COMPLETE BOTCH AND IT IS YOUR FAULT!! A SIMPLE OPERATION AND YOU’VE COMPLETELY MUCKED IT UP!”
Again, nothing. Not a word to calm the troubled waters or sooth the gathering storm. One could almost believe the victim was desirous of his punishment, as if he held himself to blame.
Then again, Lupin often reacted this way when things didn’t turn out for him. After a successful theft, he was always a bundle of energy, but after a failed attempt, he was usually limp as a rag.
Besides, now that the adrenaline-rush of our escape was over, Lupin had a crashing headache. He languished on his dingy couch like a larcenous Camille.
The rest of us weren’t exactly bubbling over with enthusiasm, either.
Jigen sprawled in a threadbare armchair opposite Lupin, with hat pulled low and cigarette in hand, aiming smoke-rings at the ceiling. I sat in the companion to that armchair, clad in my perennial silks, trying not to look too disapproving.
The only one of us who didn’t seem particularly upset or disappointed was Dorian Red Gloria, who lounged at the head of Lupin’s couch, pealing the skin off a tangerine. Dressed in some of Lupin’s clothes, his long, blond hair laundered and combed, the Earl looked positively chipper.
Major Klaus von Eberbach had declined such creature comforts as a shower and a change of clothes. In his present frame of mind, accepting gratuities would have been tantamount to calling a ceasefire. And he was loathe to declare a ceasefire just yet.
Although we’d made good our escape by guiding the hydrofoil into our prearranged cove and claiming the truck we had already stored there, we had earned the unreserved wrath of a drug lord. Now not only was that drug lord on full alert, he was looking for us. We’d had to withdraw to a Nest Lupin had rented south of Veracruz.
The house was small and homely, with but a single bedroom and an L-shaped common area which took up the bulk of the space. It had working plumbing, though, and Lupin’s usually well-stocked larder. And this was all to the good since we were apt to be stuck here for a while.
The Major stopped beside Lupin’s couch and glowered down at him. Lupin didn’t respond, but Dorian did, gazing up at the German with adoring eyes. The Earl popped a wedge of tangerine into his mouth and chewed it lovingly.
Von Eberbach’s expression darkened, but instead of venting his wrath on the Earl, he bent over the prone thief. He brought his mouth close to Lupin’s ear and roared: “I’M WAITING!”
Lupin raised his head a little, and winced. “For what?”
“For an explanation, Luderjahn! Why were you at Domingo’s estate? And don’t tell me you were after the silverware because I won’t believe you!”
“If I tell you,” Lupin wondered, rolling over,” will you tell me?”
Von Eberbach frowned. “I will consider it.”
“I suppose that’s fair enough. All right, I’ll be frank. I was commissioned to retrieve a crate which disappeared from a Defense Department warehouse in Washington, D.C. ten days ago. I’m being paid good money to do this, though why anyone would be anxious to recover a box of moldy papyrus is beyond me.”
“That’s what you were told the crate contained?”
“Yes. I was also fed some drivel about the contents dissolving to powder if exposed to air, I don’t believe that anymore, frankly, but since my contract stipulates the crate be returned unopened, I will deliver it in that condition.”
The Major reared back in surprise. “You expect me to believe that?”
“I agree it isn’t a likely story,” Lupin admitted, “but why would I make it up?”
“BECAUSE YOU’RE A THIEF!” the Major roared. “Because you’re a self-serving, thoughtless, undisciplined…!”
“Klaus!” the Earl warned. “Name-calling isn’t necessary. On the contrary, it’s rude.”
“Stay out of this, idiot! You’re as bad as he is!”
“Well!” huffed the Earl, munching another wedge of fruit. “I can’t say I like that, darling. Perhaps I ought to catch the next flight back to London, since you feel that way.”
Which, of course, didn’t sit well with the Major’s plans. He glowered at the Earl imperiously. “We’re not finished!”
“Unless you apologize to Monsieur Lupin, we are.”
The Major set his teeth, but knew himself out-maneuvered. He turned his baleful eye on Lupin, who had the good grace not to gloat. “If I spoke out of turn Herr Dieb, I regret it. You will, however, admit your story doesn’t sound plausible.”
“No offense taken, sir,” Lupin replied with a smile. “And yes, I agree the story doesn’t sound plausible. That’s the chief reason I’d be inclined to believe it. When one looks closely at a bad lie, one often finds the truth.”
“I suppose that will have to do,” Dorian sighed. “It is more of an apology than I’ve ever gotten out of him.”
The Major gifted the Englishman with a passing snarl and returned to the matter at hand. “CIA,” he snorted “Why you?”
“For reasons of discretion, or some I was told. The company, as I believe you call them, didn’t want to appear interested in the crate.”
“Who was your contact?”
“A man named Sylvester Fox.”
“I see…” the German murmured, turning away. “Now I believe you.”
“Lemme guess,” Jigen growled tiredly, sinking back into the dingy armchair and pulling his hat down even lower over his face. “Fox is another one of Mischa’s goons.”
“No,” von Eberbach disagreed. “Fox is CIA. He has a reputation as a maverick, however. If he told you the ‘Company’ doesn’t want to appear involved in this affair, it is because he doesn’t want to appear involved with it. As a guess, I’d say he was warned off and didn’t like it.”
“’Warned off’ why?”
“Because he is reckless, Mr. Jigen. Because he doesn’t think before he acts.”
The thief in question glowered at the two of them. “I’ve shown you my cards,” he decided. “You show me yours.”
The Major didn’t answer. The German’s face was grim; his expression, unreadable.
“C’mon, Dagwood,” Jigen urged. “Fair’s fair.”
For a moment, I thought the German would refuse, then he sighed and nodded. “In October of 1990,” he began, “Germany became one country. When it did, certain documents became available which NATO hadn’t known existed. Some of them were truly incredible.” He glanced over at Jigen with mirthless flexing of his mouth that could have been either a smile or a frown. “Germany wasn’t always an ally of the United States, you realize. During the Second World War, we were bitter enemies.”
“That was a little before my time,” Jigen conceded with a shrug, “and I’m not one for carrying grudges.”
“Perhaps you aren’t, others are. Some with excellent reason. It is difficult to justify or excuse those often heinous things done, or allowed to be done, by people who should have known better. Because it is, one can only apologize. As an individual, or a nation. This West Germany tried to do. East Germany, on the other hand, felt it had nothing to apologize for, so certain files in their possession weren’t destroyed. They have passed into our hands. In large part, they are only historic curiosities, but a few have present day significance.
“Perhaps you are aware of Herr Hitler’s eccentricities. Not the least of which was his passion for the occult. He would not mount an attack, for instance, unless his astrologer told him it was safe to do so. He was brilliant in some ways, but he was also completely mad.
“One of his more noteworthy obsessions was his fascination with religious artifacts. He’d dispatch whole regiments to look for these relics. More often than not they found nothing, but occasionally they did. One expedition headed by a man named Hans Dietrich was particularly successful. They had found their objective and were on their way home when they suddenly vanished. An entire German garrison disappeared without a trace.”
“What happened?” Lupin wondered.
“We have no idea.”
“And the artifact?”
“It was eventually taken to the United States by an American archeologist and his fiancée. After that, the SS lost track of it.”
“And you think this lost relic is in the crate I’m chasing,” Lupin decided. “That’s what you’re doing here.”
The Major said nothing, allowing Lupin to believe what he would.
“I’ll admit your explanation dove-tails nicely into mine, but what evidence have you got that my crate and your relic are one and the same?”
“None whatever,” von Eberbach admitted. “But I ask you this: If you were the government of the United States and you suddenly found yourself in possession of a valuable religious object during a time of war, what would you do with it?”
“Stamp it Top Secret and squirrel it away,” Jigen inserted. “Jesus-everlovin’-Christ!”
“Je ce concede, “ Lupin said. “I will not argue. However, I will ask : What is this relic supposed to be ? And what is your interest in it?”
“Second question first,” the Major replied. “My motives are what they have always been: The protection of NATO and its allies. I have a keen interest in seeing this object returned, either to its rightful owners or to obscurity, since possession of it could cause considerable political unrest. As for what that object is…” he added with a grim smile. “I doubt you would believe me.”
“It is the Ark of the Covenant.”
“Of course,” Lupin freely agreed, “and I’m Donald Trump.”
Von Eberbach smiled. “I knew you wouldn’t believe me. When I first received this assignment, I had trouble believing it myself.”
“Ark,” Jigen repeated. “We’re not talking about the thing Noah rode around in, right?”
“The Ark of the Covenant,” Lupin explained, retrieving his icepack and toying with it thoughtfully, “was supposed to contain the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. Or, rather, the fragments of same. When Moses saw the children of Israel breaking the Commandments, he threw the tablets down in disgust and they shattered. The Israelites gathered up these pieces and built an elaborate box to hold them. This box was credited with supernatural powers.”
“Its power is not supernatural,” von Eberbach corrected, “it is political. Possession of an important religious relic can cause great upheaval. Gentlemen, I ask you: What do you think would happen if an ambitious dictator was a gain control of the Great Mosque of Mecca?”
“He’d set the entire Middle East on its ear,” Jigen admitted. “I read you.”
“Let’s say I believe this,” Lupin decided, tossing down the icepack and getting to his feet. “Have you any pictures of the Ark? Can you even tell me what it looks like?”
“There were pictures taken,” the German conceded, “but none survive. Some anomaly in the chemical processing burned the photographs to ash right in their folders. As for a description: I can tell you it was a gold-covered vessel standing perhaps a meter tall, a meter and a half long and one half meter wide, surmounted by a pair of angels. And if you are asking could this vessel fit into a large crate, the answer to absolutely yes.
When Lupin continued to hesitate, the Major smiled at him. “If Herr Dieb is still reticent,” he said, “I point out to him what he told me about finding the germ of truth in all bad lies.”
Lupin was amused. “Alors, je ce concede! I confess this is more interesting than a box of moldy papyrus.”
“Let’s get a couple things straight,” Jigen decided. “We were ordered to see it returned to its ‘rightful owners.’ Just who are the ‘rightful owners’, huh, Dagwood? They wouldn’t happen to be Germany?”
Von Eberbach sighed. “Not specifically. Under the circumstances, I can see objections being voiced to such a claim.”
“Then you don’t care if we return it to the CIA?”
“No. The United States is, after all, a NATO ally. However, I must confess a certain professional dismay in knowing sly Fox will claim credit for its return.”
“Excellent!” the Earl ejaculated. He finished his tangerine and vaulted up off the floor. “I do so hate having to work at cross-purposes with someone I admire. I would particularly hate having to work against you, dear love, you’ve such…”
“Stunning assets,” Lupin grudgingly conceded. “I know.”
Dorian giggled. “I was going to say you had a way about you, but that will certainly do.”
I cleared my throat. “It’s time we concentrated on business. Our business is that crate. After tonight, Domingo will move it. Does the Major have any ideas where?”
“’The Major’ can guess,” von Eberbach replied. “Domingo also owns an island south of Jamaica. It is tiny and rugged, with no modern facilities. There is a house on this island, however, and source of fresh water. If Domingo’s feeling threatened, he may retreat there.”
“What is the name of this island?”
“It is called ‘Mercy.’”
“Mercy…” Lupin mused. “How poetic. How like some ancient mariner to want to find Mercy on a map.”
A change in atmosphere. The crunch of a misplaced step on the gravel outside and my head came up. “Lupin…”
“I heard,” the thief agreed. “Lights out.”
Jigen killed the light on the table between us. Dorian switched off the lamp at the head of the couch. This left only the bathroom light and the Major quickly extinguished it. Now lit only by moonlight, the weapons shimmered as they came out.
“Jigen. Goeman. You take the back. The Major and I will take the front. Petticaris, you get the keys to the truck, just in case we need them.”
“Right you are, darling.”
Jigen and I moved quickly through the shadows of the main room, back through the angled turn of the kitchen, to where the rear door sagged on its buckled hinges. Quietly as we could, we pulled that door open and stared into the tangled darkness, silvered by the glow of the moon.
The moon was only in its first quarter, but out here in the country, it had no competition. Its pale glow showed us a primeval forest delineated in gray and black.
The ground behind our Nest sloped away from the house at first, then rose abruptly to the summit of the small hill. This slope was bare, strewn with pebbles, pierced only occasionally by fledgling yuccas which had been flattened in last night’s rain. It wasn’t until the ground began to rise again that the forest started, but once it started, it thickened quickly, becoming an impenetrable snarl of trees, vines and thorny underbrush.
Jigen went left; I went right, crouching in a deep pool of shadow cast by the overhanging eaves. A yucca clutched with serrated leaves at the hem of my hakama. A lizard, startled in its nocturnal prowling soundlessly skittered out of sight.
I saw nothing.
As I neared the front of the house, I heard the screen door creak. A second later, the bent shape of the German Major limped quickly toward our truck. He was carrying a Walther PK, one of Jigen’s extra weapons, his own Luger having been forgotten on the floor of a storeroom earlier that night.
I did not see Lupin.
Another crunch of gravel and the Major stopped short of his goal, dropping into a crouch. A moment later, the big German pounced, releasing his coiled muscles with a snap. He sprang forward in one great leap, fell upon something lurking near the rear of the truck and threw it out onto the open gravel of the parking area. The intruder tumbled twice, then fetched against a rock, stunned and weaponless. Von Eberbach approached him, gun ready, only to rear back again with a loud cry of: “YOU!”
The intruder rolled over with a groan and became a small, dark-haired Scot wearing a threadbare tweed jacket over a pair of mis-matched pajamas. He checked himself gingerly for injuries, then frowned up at the German with a pair of reproachful blue eyes. “Damn it, Major! What did you hit me for?!”
“Hit you, you little nit?! I might have killed you ! What the hell are you doing here?!”
Dorian left the cover of the screened porch and strode forward quickly, keys in hand. “What brings you here, my darling twit? I thought I told you to wait at the hotel.”
The German glowered at the Earl in indignation. “You brought him?! Against my orders?!”
“What was I to do, love?” the Earl asked. He was so insistent. He pines so terribly whenever I’m away from home.”
“GOTTVERDAMMT ENGLISHER-IDIOT!I You’re not as bad as the Frenchman, you’re worse!!”
I sheathed my katana with a sigh and left the shadow of the eaves, walking over to Jigen, who had already tucked his gun away and now stood with his hands in his pockets, watching the argument. “False alarm,” he told me.
“Un,” I agreed. “Where’s Lupin?”
“Damned if I know. I haven’t seen him.”
“But I couldn’t wait at the hotel, your Lordship!” James complained. “Some men came to our room! They positively wrecked the place!”
“Domingo’s men?” von Eberbach wondered.
The little man looked peevish. “How should I know that? They were big, they were ugly, and they broke things. I didn’t bloody bother asking them their names!”
“The men came to our door right after I’d gone to bed. They said they’d come from room service. I hadn’t ordered room service, mind you, but they claimed the food had already been paid for. So I let them in. Waste not, want not, you know.”
“Of course,” the Major groaned. “Go on.”
“Well, the moment I had the door unlatched, they came pushing in! And they had guns, your Lordship! Which they immediately pointed at me! They locked me in the washroom, then they proceeded to ransack everything in sight!”
“Goodness, James! However did you get away?”
“There are advantages to being small,” the little Scott admitted. “I fit through the washroom window. They didn’t. By the time they came down the service stairs, I’d found the car and driven away.
“When did all this happen, love?”
“An hour ago,” James sighed. “Two hours. I’m not sure. It seems like I’ve been driving forever. I thought I’d never get here.”
“How did you get here?” Jigen asked. “How’d you find us?”
“The Earl has a failsafe.”
“It’s a homing device,” the Earl explained, kneeling next to the little man. “My assistant Bonham got it for me. I was to carry one part; James the other. Either of us could activate the device, should there be trouble. My part of the failsafe was in my pocket and, of course, I changed clothes right after my shower. Then, in all the excitement of our reunion, I simply forgot it. A prophetic oversight on my part,” he added, turning to James. “Are you quite sure you’re all right?’
The Major frowned thoughtfully at the little Scot, then his dark eyes swept outward, scanning the gravel drive. “Señor Domingo works quickly,” he observed.
“Yes,” I agreed. “Doesn’t he?”
“You said you drove in,” Jigen said to James. “Where’s your car?”
“Back on the road,” the little man replied. “I took that last turn too quickly and wound up in a ditch.”
The big German turned to me, eyes narrowed. “Where’s that damn French pastry of yours?”
“Lupin? I’ve no idea. I thought he was with you.”
The fronds of the forest stirred faintly in the breeze. Somewhere, not too far off, another lizard scurried through the underbrush. None of this meant anything to me until I realized there was no breeze and for a lizard to make that much noise, it’d have to be the size of a Komodo Dragon.
“James was followed,” I whispered to von Eberbach.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” the Germany replied with a grim smile. “That’s the reason I wanted to locate Mr. Lupin.”
The faint sounds of movement continued around us, coming from both sides of the gravel drive. There were three of them. Perhaps four. Their approach was cautious, partly because we outnumbered them, and partly because they’d probably been ordered to take us alive.
I glanced at Jigen, wondered how I could communicate my discovery without making a huge production of it, then saw he was already aware of the situation. He’d shifted his shirt-tail away from the butt of the Magnum in preparation for a quick draw. Only the Earl seemed oblivious to the danger, his attention focused on James.
Fight of flight, those are the two laws of nature. Flight was impossible without Lupin, therefore we’d have to fight. Which was just fine with me.
I toyed gently with the hilt of my katana.
My sensei once told me I had no patience. I was a hot-headed youngster and this was the chief flaw in my form. I’m a grown man now, but I’m still something of a hot-head. So whenever I need to practice patience, I think of my sensei, God rest his worthy soul.
I envisioned that old man, clucking his tongue and me in gentle reproof, telling me to curb my energies until it was time to release them with a snap.
The rustling in the underbrush ended with the click-slide-click of a pump-action shotgun. Arrogant bastard! The gunman had left cocking his weapon until he could use it to effect.
“Throw down your weapons, por favor!”
The voice was baritone and growling, a veritable study in what the Spanish call “machismo.” I had no doubts it was Estaban. The arrogant idiot had delusions of grandeur. He wouldn’t miss the chance to revenge himself personally.
“Weapons down! Now!”
I turned just a little, scanning the glade out of the corner of my eye. I fully expected to see the big lout standing out in the open, like some bullfighter poised in the moonlight, but no. Even Estaban wasn’t that stupid.
My belly-muscles tightened as I prepared myself to fight, then the sensei-voice spoke to me again, reminding me of my impatience. A Samurai is both fire and water. Goe-chan, it told me. Sometimes he burns with intensity; other times, he must flow. This time, go with the flow.
I dropped my katana.
I saw the briefest flicker of surprise cross the Major’s face, then he gave me one of those tight-lipped smiles which were his specialty. His Walther hit the gravel with a clatter.
Jigen was last, releasing his Magnum reluctantly. His expression told me I’d better know what I was doing. I’d catch hell later if I didn’t.
Estaban ought to have been satisfied, but he wasn’t. “The blonde lady, too, please.”
“I beg to differ with you ,sir,” said the Earl. “I’ve never been a ‘lady.’ And I haven’t anything. Merely a set of keys.”
“Pretty boy!” Estaban’s contempt was obvious. Eroica offended his sensibilities, adolescent as they were. “Throw the keys away, pretty boy, and maybe I won’t blow your fancy ass off!”
“As you wish.”
The keys hit the ground with a jingle.
Finally, Estaban was satisfied. He swaggered into the open. He was a bearlike man, heavy with muscle, but hovering dangerously close to fat. At the moment, he was wearing jeans and a sleeveless dark shirt and was carrying a shotgun. He had a big smile on his face and the sprawled beginnings of a nasty bruise decorating his left shoulder.
Two others emerged from the woods when he did, but they were more circumspect, staying near the cover of the trees.
This didn’t please Estaban. “You!” he snapped at one. “Get their weapons! And you!” he told the other. “Radio Stefen. Have him bring the truck up!”
Before either of them could move, Stefen brought their vehicle bouncing into the open, bumping it across the rough terrain on its double-wide tires. It wasn’t a truck at all, actually. It was an Isuzu 4x4, black and gleaming, its grill a polished mask of showroom-perfect chrome.
High-beam headlamps played across the gravel of our parking area, blinding everyone momentarily as the 4 x 4 made its turn and pointed its nose back towards the road. It stopped about level with the five of us and I finally got a glimpse of the driver. And he wasn’t Stefen. He was a slender man of average height, wearing a baseball cap and a big, foolish grin.
Estaban was oblivious to the substitution. He shook his fist at the 4x4. “Stefen!” he thundered. “You stupid ass…”
Estaban was a strong man and I’ve no doubts he was brave, but brute strength and animal courage do not a Warrior make. He must also have flexibility and versatility. If he concentrates on the former to the detriment of the latter, he ends up being a battering ram and not a Warrior.
I cannot express the satisfaction one feels in having neglected neither side of one’s training. I had my katana in hand and had launched myself at the incredulous Estaban before he’d finished uttering his sentence. By the time he’s recovered enough to depress the trigger of his shotgun, it was too late. The gun was in two pieces, the barrel separated from the butt and the cartridge separated from its primer cap.
When I moved, so did the Earl, releasing one of his daggers with a whiplike snap. He aimed that dagger not at our attackers, but at our truck. It pierced the sidewall of the truck’s left front tire. The truck gave a whoosh of surprise, then settled to its left with a hiss of dismay.
Meanwhile, both Jigen and von Eberbach recovered their weapons. They lay down a covering fire as Dorian hustled James into the 4x4. Domingo’s other two men retreated, ducking back into the woods.
Estaban was an arrogant bastard, but he wasn’t stupid. Having lost the ability to use the shotgun as a projectile weapon, he immediately elected to use it as a club. He dropped the wooden butt in favor of the metal barrel and swung at me, putting the considerable force of his muscles behind the blow.
I feinted, cutting a sausage-like slice off the barrel. In the next four passes, I managed to whittle Estaban’s weapon down to a blued-steel stub. Options gone, the man heaved this stub a me and took off running. I immediately moved to give chase.
“Screw it, Goemon!” Jigen shouted to me. “This bus is leavin’! C’mon!”
I didn’t want to break off the engagement, but I really didn’t have much choice. The importance of our job outweighed my personal satisfaction. Besides, it was bad form to cut down an unarmed opponent. There was definitely no honor in that.
Lupin released the brake and set the 4x4 to rolling downhill as I dashed to intercept it. His food touched the accelerator just as Jigen caught my outstretched hand and pulled me in over the tailgate. I hit the bed of the Isuzu and heard its engine howl with sudden power. We bounded off down the gravel drive, leaving a shower of pebbles in our wake.
The popcorn-like bursts of handguns chased us as far as the road. After that, Domingo’s men left their cover and raced to claim our truck. But, thanks to the Earl’s quick thinking, the truck was useless until they changed that tire. By the time they were finished, we’d be long gone.
Lupin pulled off his baseball cap and placed it on James’ head. “Bon soir, mon petit fils. I was wondering when you were going to get here. »
“You knew I brought him?” Dorian wondered in surprised. He occupied the front seat with Lupin, James sandwiched in between. The Major had sole ownership of the back seat, while Jigen and I were sprawled, somewhat haphazardly, in back.
“Let’s just say I suspected it,” Lupin replied. “Some people belong together. It’s Karma, neh?”
“I would have called it a curse,” von Eberbach inserted with a grim smile, settling himself tenderly on the seat. His backside was still bothering him. “Where to now?”
“There’s a private airport I know of thirty kilometers north of here. Since this part of Mexico has grown too hot for us, I suggest we take ourselves elsewhere. As you’ve already pointed out Herr Major, Señor Domingo will certainly move that box after tonight’s debacle. There isn’t much point in our hanging around.”
“You have a plane waiting?”
“No, but I doubt I’ll have much trouble arranging one. I’m a resourceful man, non?”
“You’re an appalling opportunist,” the Major corrected, “but one can’t help admiring your self-reliance. So you ‘arrange’ a plane for us. Where to then?”
“Miami to start, I think,” Lupin decided. “Then Kingston, Jamaica. If Domingo moves his treasure to Mercy Island, and I don’t doubt he will, Kingston should be our next port of call.”
It was one of those days when the heat seemed a tangible thing. A curtain of humid misery drawn across a world of glittering mosaics and baking concrete. Those who ventured out in it lay in a kind of stupor, there bronzed bodies motionless under a glaze of coconut butter and sweat. The sky wasn’t blue; it was silver. The ocean was a pool of liquid mercury only slightly cooler than the air. Palm trees stood in silent ranks along the beach, their fronds limp and disinterested.
It was ninety-five degrees in Kingston and the humidity was stifling. It was now the sixth of June.
Dorian, Earl of Red Gloria, sprawled in decadent abandon at poolside, wearing swim trunks which were exactly the color of his eyes. Occasionally, he’d stir on his bed of pain, mumble something about the weather being intolerable and pour iced mineral water all over himself. Then he’d roll over on his stomach and drop back to sleep, having proved conclusively that only mad dogs and Englishmen stay out in the noonday sun.
On the other side of our table, his lounger shaded by a huge umbrella, Jigen Daisuke lay wearing surfer’s trunks with his hat pulled low over his eyes. He hadn’t moved at all, leading one to suspect he might have expired from the heat. His cigarettes sat untouched on the table. His Coke had long ago been reduced to an inch of tepid water with a sediment of brownish ooze.
Under the table sat the little Scotsman known as James. He was awake, dressed in a tattered sport shirt and a pair of cutoff jeans, playing with a calculator which had seen better days. Every now and then, he’d steal a sip from the Earl’s store of mineral water. Aside from this, he displayed no interest in anything other than the figures he was compiling.
As for myself, I spent my time in the pool, on one of those floating lounge-chairs. Wearing red swim trunks and a pair of polarized glasses, I sat up to my chest in water with Zantetsu-ken resting against my left shoulders and my fingers on my right hand around a glass of orange pop. Like James, I was wide awake. Unlike James, I was vigilant. I kept a careful eye on the comings and goings around us. So far, I hadn’t seen anything the least bit suspicious.
Lupin and Major von Eberbach weren’t present. They’d gone off to make the rounds. They’d decided to do their spying separately, then meet later to compare notes. Each had his own reasons for keeping his complicity private.
Lupin didn’t want to jeopardize our payday by admitting his involvement with NATO. Von Eberbach was his alliance with Lupin as an odd sort of tactical advantage. By working with Lupin, without acknowledging the fact, he hoped to keep Domingo off balance.
I yawned. The heat was starting to get to me. So was the inactivity. We’d been in Kingston over a week and not a damn thing had happened.
I gulped my soda, abandoned the floating lounge and dunked myself. When I surfaced on the other side of the pool, I was looking up at a pair of neatly-creased white linen pants and a pair of topsiders. Craning my neck, I followed the crease in those pants up to a belt of gray leather and a gray cotton shirt with a modest pattern of black. Wearing all this was a tall, strongly-built German with a stern, no-nonsense sort of face and black hair that fell gleaming to his shoulders. He had a linen jacket flung over one shoulder and the half consumed butt of an American cigarette dangled from his lip.
“Isn’t water harmful for the blade?” von Eberbach wondered.
“The scabbard is water-proof,” I replied, “and the habaki-saya is water-tight. I am careful to keep the blade oiled, in any case.”
“An ounce of prevention, eh?”
“So. Where’s Lupin?”
“Where’s Lupin…” the German repeated, taking a last drag on his cigarette and tossing it aside. “That’s the question of the hour, isn’t it? I suspect he’s around here someplace. Like a cockroach hiding in the walls.”
As if on cue, there was a squeal of female indignation followed by a resounding smack. A second later, the thief in question toddled in our direction, nursing his cheek.
Lupin had abandoned his usual bright costume in favor of a salmon sport shirt and khaki-colored trousers. He’d have looked sincerely inconspicuous if not for the red welt in the shape of a woman’s hand decorated the left side of his face.
The Major chuckled. “You must be damn lucky at cards, monsieur.”
“No,” I sighed. “Not really.”
Lupin shot me a reproving look, then turned his attention to von Eberbach. “Your morning has been fruitful?”
“I believe so. Yours?”
“A bit. Let’s find some cool, quiet place and talk about it. I suggest our rooms. I also suggest we order lunch. I’m starving.”
“You’re always starving,” I remarked offhandedly.
“Get Jigen,” Lupin insisted. “Before he melts.”
I turned to swim back, but Jigen was already showing signs of life. With a yawn and a shuddering stretch, the gunman peeled himself off his lounge, pilfered a bottle of Dorian’s mineral water and took a long gulp from it. Having satisfied his thirst, Jigen took that icy bottle and touched it to the small of Dorian’s back. The Earl gave a yelp of alarm and rolled over, fixing Jigen with a regal glare.
“You are a beastly cad, sir.”
“Wake up call, Blondie,” Jigen told him. “The advance guard just got here.”
Dorian looked over, saw Lupin and von Eberbach, and the incident was forgotten. He got up, wrapping himself in a white cotton robe. “I must say it’s about time, darlings,” he said. “I was ready to die from boredom.”
“Yes,” the Major agreed. “You looked very uncomfortable.”
“What did you find out?”
“Not here. We will talk in Mr. Lupin’s room. Get your things together and come along.”
I pulled myself out of the pool and got hit in the face with the towel Jigen tossed at me. I frowned at him, then rubbed myself dry while he collected his cigarettes.
“C’mon, Snooks,” he told James. “The bus is leaving.”
“Five thousand, eight hundred sixty-three dollars and seventy-four cents!” James announced. “That is what it’s cost us to stay here! That’s the clothes, the food, the rooms, the car rentals and the frivolous gratuities! All of this in addition to the air fare plus in money we spent in Florida. This is outrageous, your Lordship! This job might even finish costing you money!”
“No it won’t,” the Major decided. “After all, we are Mr. Lupin’s guests. I’m sure he’ll take care of everything.”
Lupin had been frowning pensively to himself while he soothed his reddened cheek. Now he snapped back around to stare at the German with a stunned expression on his face. “Huh?!”
Von Eberbach smiled. “If you want expert help, you must expect to pay for it. Come along now and we’ll order lunch. You’re the one who said he was starving.”
“I don’t know,” the thief admitted. “I think I’ve just lost my appetite.”
* * * * *
There wasn’t anything wrong with Lupin’s appetite. There’s never been anything wrong with Lupin’s appetite. He’s something of a magician where food is concerned. Put it in front of him and it just disappears.
By the time I’d finished my modest portion of rice and broiled fish. Lupin had consumed two dozen spiced crab legs, a cold lobster salad, a quarter carafe of house white, one Napoleon and two chocolate éclairs and an entire pot of black coffee. When the debacle was over, I was all for counting the silverware to make sure none was missing.
Satisfied at last, Lupin flopped back on his bed with a sigh. “Business,” he decided.
“Business,” von Eberbach agreed, lighting a cigarette. “You first.”
“From what I was able to glean from my contacts,” the thief began, “Domingo left Mexico immediately after we did. He spent some time with a friend in Guatemala, then chartered a yacht. This yacht left Belize two days ago. Neither the yacht, nor Domingo, has been heard from since.”
“I don’t suppose he’s forgotten about us,” Jigen mused. He was standing by the window, staring down at the opalescent water.
“Not at all,” Lupin yawned. “If anything, his interest is keener. It seems some of Domingo’s guests were put off by our intrusion. They have declined his invitation to Gurrera’s festivities. Since their refusal amounts to several million in lost donations, Señor Domingo is royally peeved.”
“It may interest you to knew that Domingo has offered a substantial reward for information regarding us,” the German Major added calmly, tapping his cigarette on the edge of a glass ashtray. “Many undiscriminating souls have fallen all over themselves trying to provide it. By now, Domingo certainly knows we’re on Jamaica. He probably knows we’re in Kingston. It’s only a matter of time before he locates our hotel.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Lupin decided, and yawned again. “I’ve rented a boat. We’re leaving tonight.”
“Tonight, darling?” Eroica wondered. He’d changed out of his suit and was now wearing an over-large T-shirt and pair of soft muslin pants. The bristling undercurrent of danger had made him playful. Flopping down on the bed, he half-sprawled across Lupin, resting his chin on the heels of his hands and his elbows on Lupin’s chest. “Where might we be going?”
“To Mercy Island, of course,” Lupin countered with a sleepy frown. “If Domingo’s hired a boat, that’s where he’s going. Since we don’t have as far to travel, we ought to get there first. Get up, Petticaris. You’re crowding my lunch.”
“You shouldn’t eat so much, love. It makes you lethargic.”
“I’m not lethargic. I’m conserving energy.”
“Conserve any more energy,” Jigen remarked, “and you’d be dead. So you got us a boat. Where is it?”
“That’s for me to now and Domingo to find out,” Lupin decided, twisting away from Dorian and rolling over on his belly. The Ear wasn’t discouraged. He began to knead Lupin’s shoulders. A groan of exasperated pleasure escaped the thief.
“You seem to have settled on a course of action,” von Eberbach concluded. “Shall I tell you my news? Or aren’t you interested?”
“Of course we’re interested, love,” Dorian volunteered for Lupin, who had settled into that somnolent realm where speech was too much trouble. “Pray continue.”
“Gurrera has moved his date up. He will hold his ritual not on the twenty-first of June, but on the tenth.”
“What?!” Lupin rolled away from Eroica and sat up. “Who told you that?”
“A contact within the DEA. He says there has been a good deal of activity on the part of several Miami drug lords who were known to have ties to Calize. It seems they’ve all been doing last-minute housekeeping so they can take a week-long retreat in the southern Caribbean.”
“But you don’t know if this has anything to do with…”
The Major stopped Lupin with a single dark stare. “Come now, Mr. Lupin. Six drug lords leaving town at the same time, with the same destination? Hardly a coincidence, non? Besides, the date was mentioned. My contact told me Señor Domingo was to hold a party on the tenth.”
“Sapristi dieu!” Lupin bounded off the bed and made for the closet, where he kept an extra clip for his Walther and other toys stored in a spare shaving kit. Again I was bemused by the extremes of his behavior. Not only was Lupin a human vacuum cleaner; he could go from zero to sixty in two seconds flat. “We can’t afford to wait! We must leave now!”
“Leave?” James wondered, looking up from the table where he’d been scraping the last crumb of meat from a discarded crab leg. “Now?”
“This minute,” Lupin agreed. “We don’t have half a fraction of the time I thought we did.”
Jigen and I were used to Lupin’s sudden changes of tempo. Dorian more or less delighted in them. And James would have been confused, whatever he was. But Klaus von Eberbach was a methodical man who did things in a thorough, methodical way. Having a human pinball like Lupin around annoyed him.
“Come to earth, for God’s sake!”
The Major had a snarl a Doberman would envy and while it didn’t actually stop Lupin, it did slow him down. The thief frowned as he removed the shaving kit and pocketed the things it contained. “I have both feet on the ground, Herr Major,” he replied. “You’ll observe: I hit the floor running.”
“Like a hamster in a wheel,” von Eberbach agreed. “So you’ve procured a boat. Have you actually given any thought to what comes next? Or are you just going to run blindly at the problem and hope inspiration strikes you?”
“If you have a point to make, I will listen.”
“Domingo has changed his plans. What make you think he hasn’t changed his destination as well?”
Now Lupin stopped. “You’re the one who mentioned Mercy Island.”
“True, but I am (as you are so fond of saying) a pragmatic man. I know Domingo owns an island, so I presume he will retreat to that island if threatened. So might everybody else. Yet, in the drug trade, predictable behavior is likely to get one killed. Sometimes it behooves one to change his plans unexpectedly, as Herr Domingo has already done.”
“Where else could he have gone?”
“Who’s to say he went anywhere, darling?” Dorian mused, sprawling on Lupin’s bed and tracing the pattern on its coverlet with his finger. “If the yacht he hired is large enough, what’s to prevent him from having his quaint little ritual on board?”
Lupin looked out the window at the blue expanse of the Caribbean which, although not the vast Atlantic, was certainly large enough to hide a single boat.
“He’d have to communicate this change to his guests,” Lupin decided, “supply them with charts and details of his position.”
Von Eberbach shrugged, sinking deeper into chair and kicking her feet up onto the foot of Lupin’s bed. Dorian’s finger traced its way towards those feet and the Major withdrew them. “Domingo could have ‘communicated’ his charge as early as the evening of our aborted break-in,” he concluded, scowling at the Earl. “Charts could easily have been provided in the interim and as for the details of his position… He could have given separate parts of his longitude and latitude to his different guests, thus keeping any one of them from knowing his exact location and forcing all of them to work together.”
“Very clever, these Calizean drug lords.”
Jigen cleared his throat. “One thing bothers me. Why would these guys listen to Domingo? Even if this box is what we think it is, why would they care? We’re talking about drug lords here. Paranoia personified. Why would they let the yes-man of a deposed dictator coax them out into the middle of the ocean where there’s nowhere to go if things turn sour?”
“Domingo is a wealthy and powerful man,” the Major replied, taking another drag on his cigarette. “He also has a reputation for a certain quiet ruthlessness.”
“So? They’re wealthy and powerful, too, and plenty ruthless even if they’re not always quiet about it.”
“Jigen has a point,” I agreed.
“Humanity,” Lupin said in a quiet, reflective voice which forced us to listen by the very nature of its unobtrusiveness. “They listen because they are human.” He looked at us and smiled at our bemused expressions. “Contrary to popular belief, criminals are human and, therefore, subject to the same doubts and insecurities which haunt honest men. They, like honest men, desire justification for their existence. The ‘I am’ of living isn’t sufficient. They want to know, ‘why I am.’ The human psyche simply cannot accept the idea of random creation. Therefore, mankind grasps at whatever straws will force a rational schematic of the chaos of the universe. And since the criminal element hasn’t the moral approval of society to sustain it, it grasps at very thing straws indeed.”
Von Eberbach was surprised. “That’s a remarkably profound statement, coming from you. Tell me, Mr. Lupin: Do you desire justification, too?”
“Of course. I am human.”
Lupin shrugged. “I am a thief. I was a thief before I was born. I’m a Lupin and all Lupins are thieves. It’s in out genes.”
That doesn’t sound like a moral justification, Herr Dieb. That sounds like an excuse.”
“Of course. What do you think moral justification is?”
Dorian shifted on the bed. Facing condemnation on two sides of mankind’s moral barricade and no less human, the Earl found the present discussion uncomfortable. “All of this is simply fascinating, darlings, but it doesn’t solve our problem. What are we to do if Señor Domingo has indeed changed his destination? I point out he wasn’t kind enough to supply us with an itinerary.”
“There’s a lot of ocean out there,” Jigen agreed. “It’s gonna be easy for Domingo to hide in it and just as easy for him to spot us if we’re lucky enough to find him.”
Both men looked to Lupin for a solution to this seemingly insoluble problem, but Lupin ignored them, gazing contemplatively out the window.
“We have two possible courses of action,” the Major decided, filling the vacuum created by Lupin’s seeming indifference. “One, we can locate one of Domingo’s invited guests and follow him to the rendezvous point. Two, we can rely on aerial reconnaissance. Both options have their difficulties.”
“The DEA’ll maintain some kind of surveillance, right?”
“They may, but I doubt it will matter since no drugs are involved.”
Dorian was still looking at Lupin. With a toss of his head, the Earl sat up and confronted the Frenchman directly. “Darling?”
Lupin took something out of his pocket and dropped it in the Earl’s hand. It was an anchor-fobbed keychain with two keys attached. “Dolphin Point Marina, slip twelve,” he said, never taking his eyes from the window. “The name of the ship is the Amanda may. I’ve specified the galley be stocked, but you’d better check it. Make sure we have everything we need.”
“Of course, darling, but what about you?”
“I’ll be along in a while.”
The Major frowned. “Where are you going?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll know when I get there.” Lupin finally turned from the window, gifting the German with a dazzling smile. “You may call in your aerial reconnaissance if you like, but if you don’t spot Domingo’s flotilla in the first thirty-six hours, their help may be superfluous. After that, we’ll have to maintain a strict radio silence.”
“Because by then we’ll be getting close.” He winked at the Major. “Trust me.”
“Indulge me, then. Bon Soir, mes infants. I’ll catch up with you later.” And Lupin trotted out of the room without so much as a backward glance.
Major von Eberbach crushed out his cigarette with far more vehemence than was necessary. “Insufferable egotist!” he growled as he got to his feet. “I can’t understand how either of you tolerate him!”
“Believe me,” Jigen sighed, “sometimes it ain’t easy.”
* * * * *
The Amanda May was a grand old lady. Seventy-five years young, she had originally been used to ferry supplies to the more isolated islands of the West Indies. During her colorful life, she had also done turns as a mail packet, a touring boat, and the home of an itinerant writer, Recently, she’d been put up for hire, since her present owner was a busy man and couldn’t bear the thought of her rotting neglected at dockside.
Amanda May was a two-masted sloop sixty-three feet from stem to stern and a trim nine feet across her beam. Made to sleep six comfortably, she could sleep eight in a pinch and her galley had all the amenities. She also had a compact 300 h.p. engine, capable of pushing her along at an unspectacular eight knots. This didn’t matter. Amanda May wasn’t a motor-launch; she was a sailing ship. And cruising along with her wings spread, her pitiful eight knots jumped to twenty.
I think I fell in love with Amanda May the moment I saw her. I know Jigen must have. He ditched his cigarettes in favor of a pipe, which was something he did only when he was feeling “nautical.”
As for von Eberbach and company, their reaction was mixed. Dorian Red Gloria fairly glowed with approval as he stepped on deck, but the Major boarded wearing a grim frown.
“My,” the Earl declared, “isn’t this lovely?”
“I’d think it was lovelier if it had a more powerful engine,” the German decided. “That little four cylinder isn’t sufficient.”
“Y’know what your problem is, Dagwood?” Jigen ventured, leaning across the boom with his new pipe clenched in his teeth. “You think like a soldier; you don’t think like a thief. Engines are powerful, but they make noise. Sails don’t.”
The Major’s expression changed as he considered this point. “There’s that, I suppose. But I must say Mr. Lupin never struck me as a stealthy type. His style is more flamboyant. Like a bull in a porcelain factory.
“Take this,” the Major ordered, thrusting his duffel bag and jacket at Jigen. “I have some shopping to do. I think I’ll also have a look around. I didn’t like the smell of the air when we left the hotel this afternoon.”
“You see something?”
“No, but Mr. Lupin has his instincts and I have mine. If there’s no trouble, I’ll be back shortly.”
“Yeah, take it easy.”
Without further discussion, Major von Eberbach swung over the rail and dropped back to the wharf. For a large man, he was remarkably agile.
James watched him depart wearing a sour expression. “Mr. Lupin has his instincts and I have mine…” the little Scot snarled as he heaved aboard a battered suitcase containing his meager possessions and all the towels from both our hotel rooms. “That man thinks he’s so bleeding superior! It’s no surprise to me he’s been sniffing the air. He always has his nose up in it!”
“Now, now, dearest twit,” Dorian soothed. “We’re going to be living in close quarters for at least a week. It will be nicer for all of us if you and Klaus don’t squabble.”
“I don’t know what you see in that conceited clot,” James fumed as he mounted the ladder. “He’s so consumed with his own importance, he can’t possibly see the value in anyone else!”
The little man’s temper was flaring, stung by the undercurrent of urgency and the unremitting heat. As his temper waxed, his reflexes waned. He misstepped on the ladder and nearly fell off, almost splashing into the narrow space between ship and dockage.
Fortunately for James, I was directly behind him. I caught him and, placing my free hand squarely on his backside, gave him a single hard shove. Since James was small, this served not only to propel him up the ladder, but over the rail. He did a quick somersault and landed with a thud. He reappeared a moment later, nursing his posterior.
“I suppose I should thank you.”
“You should,” I agreed, “but you won’t.”
Jigen cleared his throat. “Y’better get that stuff stowed, Snooks. We’re leavin’ as soon as Lupin and Dagwood get back here.”
James said something under his breath, retrieved his suitcase and dragged it aft, bumping it down the steps as he disappeared below decks.
“While you’re at it,” Jigen called, “you’d better open the ‘fore hatch and let her air out. It’s damn stifling down there.”
“Yes,” James agreed. “So I noticed.”
“I’d better help him,” Dorian decided. “While I’m about it, I’ll conduct inventory, to make sure we’ve everything ordered.”
The Earl went below and Jigen assumed his place at the helm.
I climbed up to join him. “Ho much fuel do we have?”
“We’ve got a fifty gallon main tank, a twenty gallon emergency reserve, plus the five gallon can for the pinnacle.”
He poked a thumb aft and I hid a smile. The “pinnacle” wasn’t a pinnacle at all. It was a raft equipped with a tiny outboard. Rigged out on two little davitlike contraptions which overhung the stern, it was intended as an emergency boat as well as a means of reaching shore when the harbor was too shallow.
“Is that enough?”
“On how much of a hurry you happen to be in. When she’s driving her screw, she’ll drink her juice. When she’s sailing along, she’ll sip it.” He shrugged. “As a guess, I’d say she’s got about six hundred miles in her; under sail, she’ll do at least twice that.”
There was a commotion on the dock and I snapped into defensive posture. When I did, I saw a slender man in a salmon sport shirt and khaki pants carrying a dozen packages wrapped in brown paper. He was being escorted toward our slip by a small brown terrier, who alternated its time between yapping at this man and tugging fretfully on his pants-cuff. The man replied by shooing the dog away with sharp words and ineffective kicks, trying desperately to keep from tumbling into the harbor.
The resulting disturbance was enough to bring Dorian up form below. “What on earth is all that noise?”
“It’s Lupe,” Jigen replied with a grin. “Dagwood’s right. He is about as subtle as a bull in a china shop.”
On the dock, Lupin’s confrontation with the dog continued. The dog, sensing its advantage, changed tactics and began darting in and out between Lupin’s legs, yapping furiously. Lupin frowned up at us. “Is it too much to ask, or could one of you help me?”
“Having trouble, darling?” Dorian asked.
“No! I’m dancing the minuet! Isn’t it obvious?!”
With lithe movement, the Earl Red Gloria swung himself down to the dock, clapped his hands and whistled. “Here, boy!” he called. “Good old chap!”
The little dog took one look at the indulgent Earl and abandoned Lupin. Bounding forward, it flung itself into Eroica’s arms and proceeded to show him with affection.
“Good chap!” Dorian praised. “My, what a fine lad!”
Lupin frowned, unconvinced his tormentor was a “fine lad.” With a last pensive glance at his torn cuff, he held out his packages to us. “Take these.”
“What are they?” Jigen wondered.
“Never mind, just take them.”
Lupin was in no mood to argue. I took the parcels and handed them to Jigen. I also offered Lupin a hand up, but he refused it.
“Where’s der Major?”
“He went off to get something at the tackle shop,” I explained. “He also said he wanted to have a look around.”
While we spoke, Dorian did his best to make friends with the dog. He was completely successful. “Where did you find him?”
“Nowhere,” Lupin replied. “He found me.”
“Has he a name?”
“I’ve no idea, but if it was left up to me, it would be ‘Shark Bait;.”
The dog growled. Dorian, too, seemed offended. “Now is that nice? He seems a perfectly charming dog! He can’t help it if his tastes are discriminating!”
Lupin grinned. “He’s a tenacious cur, I’ll give him that. He followed me all the way from town. Didn’t you…Shark Bait?”
It was almost as if the dog sense insult. It railed at Lupin with fangs bared, straining to get away from Eroica and making such an ungodly noise, I felt sure the dead could hear us.
“Lupe,” Jigen warned, “I don’t think…”
But Lupin was oblivious and so was the dog. The thief continued to smirk and the dog to yammer. The Earl of Red Gloria started looking worried. He was having trouble restraining the dog, but was afraid to let go for fear it would savage Lupin. “Darling,” Eroica pleaded, “oughtn’t you to get aboard?”
“No,” Lupin countermanded, “not just yet.”
Of course I was mystified. Since I worked for Lupin, I was often mystified. I waited to see where this would lead while people along the dockage stared at us in wonder.
“Hey, you!” shouted one of them. “Shut that mutt up!”
In a short time, a considerable number of passersby had assembled on the wharf. Among them was a large man wearing tailored sports clothes and mirrored sunglasses. He was getter dressed and he’d grown a mustache, but there was no doubt in my mind it was Estaban.
“Lupin!” I hissed. “Are wa abunai zo!”
But Lupin, the incredible twit!, refused to acknowledge my warning. He bent dangerously close to the snarling dog and whispered: “Shark Bait!”
That was the last straw so far as the dog was concerned. It tore out of Eroica’s arms and launched itself at Lupin. There was an immediate free-for-all as Lupin was chased about the wharf by an outraged terrier.
Our crowd of spectators found this hysterical. There was a good deal of laughter and several shouts of encouragement to the dog.
Estaban was nonplused by the confusion. He started forward, only to be brought up short by the presence of the gathering crowd. It was evident he wanted to approach, but was reluctant to do it in front of witnesses.
About that time, von Eberbach emerged from the tackle shop with a newly-purchased carton of cigarettes. The noise was such that he couldn’t help but notice. He stared in outraged amazement, as if he couldn’t quite believe what he saw.
Meanwhile, Lupin continued to race in circles just ahead of the dog. Finally he leaped for the boarding ladder and missed. He whacked into the sloop’s hull and slid down to land in the water with a splash. He thrashed about while the dog danced along the edge of the pier, barking in triumph.
The crowd cheered its victory.
Dorian tried to come to the rescue, only to be elbowed aside by a towering German, who came boiling down the pier to take command. Tossing his cigarettes to Jigen, von Eberbach knelt on the wharf and fished Lupin out of the harbor by his collar, lifting him with one hand. Before Lupin could utter a peep of complaint, the Major seized him by the belt as well and heaved him aboard the Amanda May. Lupin smacked into the decking, tumbled once and ended fetched up against the mainmast. Meanwhile, the Earl stood silently watching this display of temper with an ashen face and even the terrier cowered back, sensing itself in the presence of superior outrage.
The crowd grew uncomfortable with the violent end of what had seemed a harmless bit of mischief. It broke up and wandered away. Estaban favored us with a satisfied grin before he vanished.
Wearing an expression stormy as a thunderhead, Major Klaus von Eberbach hoisted himself aboard and glowered down at the disheveled Lupin. Without a glance backwards, the Major snapped a monosyllabic order to Eroica: “Komm!!”
The Earl didn’t like the tone of that order, but knew better than to disobey it. With a haughty sniff, the Englishman mounted the ladder, then drew it up after him. Afterwards, he went over to see if he could help Lupin. “Are you all right, dear heart?”
“Fine, Petticaris,” Lupin agreed. “Only slightly rumpled.”
The Major looked at me. It was a hard look, sharp as a dagger. “Cast off!” he ordered, then added to Jigen: “Start the engine. Get us out of here.”
“Now wait a damned minute!” Jigen protested. “Who elected you queen?”
“There was no election! This is a dictatorship! Or perhaps you’d like to sit here while the whole world stars at us? Thanks to that idiotic leader of yours, the entire world is watching!”
“It’s worse,” I agreed as I cast off the bow and went aft to release the stern line. “I saw one of Domingo’s men in the crowd.”
This announcement had a galvanizing effect on the two men. The Major’s expression darkened still further while Jigen started up the engine without another word.
Free at last, Amanda May nosed out into the harbor.
Politely accepting Eroica’s help, Lupin regained his feet and stood, inspecting the points of his disabille. He looked up with a cheerful smile as the German came towards him. “You incredibly stupid idiot!” that German began. “You still think this is some sort of game and even your little sojourn with Mischa failed to convince you otherwise! How much pain does it take, Herr Dieb, before you see things clearly? Tell me and I will gladly inflict it!”
Lupin was undaunted. “Tell me, Major,” he replied. “Do you fish?”
“FISH?!” the Major roared and wavered dangerously close to mayhem. “What does fishing have to do with this?!”
“Everything,” Lupin declared. “When you fish, you must use bait. In this particular case, shark bait.”
There was a yip from dockside.
Glancing back, I saw the brown terrier standing alone on the abandoned pier. Its previous animosity was entirely forgotten. When Lupin looked at it, it sat up on its haunches and pawed its stubby forelegs at the air.
“Ah!” Lupin cried. “I almost forgot! A bargain is a bargain, isn’t it?”
The dog barked once in agreement.
“Here you go, the. Payment for services rendered!”
Lupin removed a rawhide chew from his pocket and tossed it to the waiting dog. The chew was damp and salty, but the dog didn’t mind. It caught the chew while still on the fly, then trotted off, ears perked and stumpy tail waggling, heading home with its booty.
Von Eberbach stared after the departing dog, dumbfounded with outrage. “You staged that whole ridiculous spectacle?”
“Of course,” Lupin agreed, peeling off his wet shirt and wringing it out as best he could. “I knew it would be nearly impossible to locate Domingo, so I made it possible for him to locate me. Now that he has, I’ll arrange for him to lead me to the treasure.”
“And how will you manage this?”
“I have my ways, never fear. For all that he pretends to be a clever rogue, Señor Domingo is a victim of his own social programming. He can’t help but react in certain ways to certain things, and I shall be there to take full advantage of it.”
The Major frowned. “And I don’t suppose it matters that in making bait of yourself, you’ve made bait of all of us. You’ve placed all our lives in danger.”
“You’re not in danger, Major,” Lupin argued, handing von Eberbach the wrung-out shirt. “You’re with me. I’ll see no harm comes to you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really ought to get out of these wet things.”
Lupin turned his back on the Major, heading for the forward hatch.
There are times when I’m appalled by Lupin’s behavior, but I’m never surprised by it. Lupin’s a self-infatuated schlump and I know it. I’d thrown my hands up in dismay long ago. But Klaus von Eberbach wasn’t used to being treated cavalierly and he resented it. He wanted redress for his grievances and right now!
There wasn’t time for talk. Talk wasn’t likely to grant the Major satisfaction. So he voiced his argument physically. He coiled the damp shirt into a lash and struck out with it, dealing the unprepared Lupin a stinging smack across the backside.
Lupin jumped at the contact with a disconcerted yelp and immediately vanished down the forward hatch. There was a resounding crash, followed by a squeal from James, who’d been hiding in the pantry.
The Major was doubly satisfied, having felled two birds with one stone (as it were). He tossed the lip shirt to Eroica, then sauntered aft, finally sprawling in the cockpit next to Jigen.
“Steady as she goes, Mr. Jigen,” spake he.
“Aye aye, sir,” agreed our redoubtable gunman.
* * * * *
Few places on earth are as beautiful as the Caribbean. Nowhere else is the water so clear, so warm, so teaming with life. Even far away from land, where the bottom is no longer visible, the water is a translucent jewel-like blue. Elsewhere the oceans are green or gray with an opalescent murkiness which masks their depths in concealing layers. The Caribbean is a transparent azure which lets the eyes see as far as the rays of sun can penetrate. Even when one is deep beneath that azure veil, where the light can no longer go and everything is shadowed, it is possible to look up and see the beams dancing in the sea like living fronds, a Sargasso made of sunlight.
By evening, we were well outside Kingston, riding a low swell which rocked us gently. Jamaica was a purple shadow off our starboard side; the sun was an amber ball before us. An isolated thunderhead hung low over the Gulf to the northwest, trailing a wedding-veil of downpour.
Occasionally the sun would glance off the rain, turning drops to sparks of rainbow-colored fire. Lighting would flash from cloudtop to cloudtop, too, and every now and then a distant, but self-satisfied rumble would reach us.
Aside from that isolated storm, the sky was clear. The breeze was warm and moderate, coming from the south, and the sea was oily-calm in appearance. The waning moon was high overhead and stars were already sparkling.
We could have made better time if we’d set sails, but Lupin wouldn’t have it. He said you couldn’t attract sharks if you didn’t leave chum. Any speed and they might lose us.
I was ambivalent about Lupin’s plans. Although I wasn’t one to avoid trouble, I wasn’t entirely willing to court it. Lupin was trying a dangerous trick and one which could backfire on him.
And on us by association.
But I hadn’t voiced an objection because I had no alternative. Neither had Jigen, as he sat sucking on his new pipe behind the ship’s wheel. Even Major von Eberbach seemed accepting. As for Eroica, he was content to trust himself to the whims of Fate…and into the hands of a crazy Frenchman.
Only James thought this was a stupid idea and sad so. Rather loudly.
Lupin was oblivious. He settled himself in the galley with half the packages he’d brought and immediately began to dismantle them.
An odd lot they were, too. One was a child’s plastic model; another was a radio-controlled toy car; a third was a heap of miscellaneous electronics. One was a large pack of batteries and another was a tube of waterproof glue. The last was a collapsible fishing rod with reel. I didn’t ask Lupin what he was going to do with all this junk and he didn’t bother to explain. In fact, he said nothing at all, expecting us to work around him.
Because of Lupin’s presence in the galley (and the attendant stench of glue), we were forced to take our supper on deck. Not that any of us minded. Even with both hatches open and a moderate breeze, it was still stifling below.
Content, soothed by a full belly and the peaceful evening, I stood on the prow and watched the Amanda May cut her way through an unresisting sea. It was all so calm, so perfectly pristine, it was hard to believe sharks were out there, waiting just below the surface.
Behind me, Dorian Red Gloria sprawled on the foredeck with his head on a coil of rope. I thought he was asleep. Then suddenly he raised his arm and pointed to the heavens. “Southern Cross,” he announced. “Ursa Major. Ursa Minor. Cygnus… And that one is Cassiopeia, I believe. It’s a bit hard to keep them all straight when you’ve two hemispheres of stars to pick from.”
I looked skyward, too, at the velvet deep all sparkling. “Yes,” I agreed. “Very pretty.”
“When I was a child,” the Earl began, “I thought the stars were quite within reach, so I pleaded with nanny to bet me one. When she refused, I was inconsolable. I think perhaps this is why I became a thief. It was for want of a childish fancy.”
“Phah!” von Eberbach declared. “You steal because you’re bored and spoiled! There’s no blaming it on your nursemaid!”
Dorian frowned. “I do so adore you, Klaus. You’re the very soul of romance!”
“Stop engine,” Lupin ordered, coming up from below.
Jigen did so and the throbbing died away, leaving us with the whisper of breeze and the lazy slap of water. “What’s up?”
“I’ve some experiments to run and I don’t want the engine interfering.”
Lupin brought up the fishing rod, weighed down by the odd contraption suspended from its line. That thing was a combination toy car and yellow plastic model. It resembled a tiny, paddle-driven submarine; the sort George and Ringo used to live in.
“What’s that?” James wondered.
“A weapon of last resort,” Lupin replied. “One could call it a ‘failsafe.’”
Having said this, Lupin proceeded to examine the phosphorescent swell of the sea. Then he licked the tip of his finger and stuck it in the air. Finally, he eyeballed the storm sitting off to the starboard. “That hasn’t shown any signs of blowing this way, has it?”
“No,” von Eberbach said. “The breeze is from the south. Unless there’s a change, that storm should be over Havana by midnight.”
“Good. I’m not one for rough weather. I get seasick.”
Actually, I’d never known Lupin to be “seasick” in his life. His stomach and his inner ear were made of cast iron. He could gobble pork rinds and cherry cola in the middle of a gale and never feel the least bit queasy.
Lupin waited until the sloop was coasting slowly before launching his unlikely contraption. He lowered the thing into the water on the end of his line, then sat on the deck and let the reel go. The line played out as the Amanda May swept slowly along with her own inertia, leaving the tiny submersible a hundred feet astern of us.
I expected Lupin to lock the reel, but he didn’t. Instead he flipped a switch and a light came on. Lupin had attached the car’s remote to the handle. He’d fixed a tiny liquid-crystal display just above it. He watched this with sincere concentration as he tinkered with the control knob.
Abaft of us, the little submersible whirred to life, kicking up spray with its tiny paddles. A second later it had submerged. I neither saw nor heard anymore of it.
Lupin saw it as a microscopic blip on his display. He manipulated the controls and the little blip cavorted across the screen, responding to his orders.
Lupin chuckled. “Perfect! Truly splendid!”
“Here come your sharks, Mr. Lupin. Off the part beam.”
I’m loathe to admit anyone’s hearing is better than my own, but I confess von Eberbach’s must be. His sense of danger was superior, too, because he hadn’t allowed himself to be lulled by the perfect evening.
Shame-faced, I gave my attention to the gloom on our left, where the Major was pointing.
Focused now, I heard it, too: The high whine of an inboard ending. Someone was coming towards us with considerable speed.
“Set sails!” Lupin commanded.
We did, but nothing happened. The sun was down and the breeze had died. Even with mainsail, gibbets and spankers set, the Amanda May sill rolled listlessly. We were becalmed.
“Great!” Jigen decided. “Real-ly great! All dressed up and nowhere to go! Next time you invite me to a birthday party, Lupin, remind me to tell you to go to hell!”
“Take the helm, Petticaris,” Lupin ordered. “Start engine and head us to landward. Better our stern in danger than our broadside.”
“Aye aye, captain, darling.”
The throb of our engines started again as the Amanda May heeled around to the north. It wasn’t enough to drown out our pursuer. The whine of his inboard was louder now and I could hear the slap of the water off his hull. Not only was he close and traveling fast, he was big.
A shape materialized out of the gloom. Tall and black against the darkening sky, its prop kicked up a spray of white water. It was a great bull of a cabin cruiser cutting through the sea like a sword.
The intruder was running dark so it’d be difficult to see him. While still outside firing range, he cut to port, attempting to run alongside us.
Dorian responded by putting our helm hard over, keeping our stern to the enemy.
As we turned, I glimpsed the isolated storm still sitting to our north. It looked odd. The rain had stopped. The clouds had spread and flattened. Bluish lightening flashed across the maelstrom and those clouds began to churn, twisting around like a vortex.
Another flash, followed by a sharp retort and a spray of wood splinters from the aft rail.
The Amanda May turned sharply by virtue of her inferior speed. The cabin cruiser was going to fast to make an abrupt turn. It dipped into firing range only to go flashing out again. While they had the opportunity, they unloaded on us. In addition to the wound in our stern, they poked several holes in our canvas.
James dove below deck while Jigen and von Eberbach took up positions behind the main cabin. Sword drawn, I leapt into the cockpit and prepared to defend Dorian. Only Lupin stayed where he was, struggling with his plastic model as if it was a marlin.
“Baka yaroo!” I yelled at him. “Keep your head down!”
Jigen spent a couple rounds in return fire although he knew it was pointless. In the wink of an eye, the cruiser was out of range again. There was little chance Jigen could actually hit it.
“Save it,” the Major ordered. “He’s gone.”
“I know,” the gunman agreed, “but he won’t be gone long. With his kind of horsepower, he’ll double back and hit us again. Fortunately, these hit-and-run tactics don’t allow for careful aim, so there’s a half a chance we’ll outlast him.”
“And if he slows down…?”
“If he slows down, I’ll stitch some holes in his gas-tank.”
“Heads up, darlings!” cried the Earl. “He’s coming back!”
The cruiser swung out in an arc, spraying up cocktails of white spume. Docile waves buffeted it s hull as it turned towards us and its bow bounced over the sea like a charging stallion.
Gunfire re-erupted, flaring spontaneously on both sides. Twice I cut bullets out of the air. Once an automatic rifle stitched a line across the deck to my right. The landing raft took a mortal blow and expired with a stuttering blatt like a whoopee cushion.
All the while Lupin stood exposed, oblivious to the danger.
“Down!” I yelled again, praying God really did take special care of fools and children.
We took damage, but so did the cruiser. As it passed, Jigen evaporated its windscreen with his fourth shot. There were cries of consternation as the boat veered off again.
“Good shot,” the Major complimented.
“Not so good,” Jigen disagreed, reloading quickly. “I was tryin’ for the helm.”
As the cruiser darted away again, Dorian moved to correct our course, heading us to landward. In the process, we turned a complete circle and the coruscating storm with its churning center passed once more across my vision.
“Careful,” Lupin admonished. “You’ll run over my line.”
“I’ll run over your line!” Jigen snapped. “Next time you want to go trolling for sharks, we’ll use you as bait! Of all the stupid, idiotic, dumb-ass ideas! I…”
WHAM! The whole ship jarred as a fist-sized hole appeared in the cabin left of Jigen. We had a volunteer porthole.
“Jesus!” the gunman gasped. “They’ve got an 82!”
“An ‘82’ what?”
“A Barrett Model 82. Thing’s a damn cannon. It’s got enough punch to poke a hole right through our hull!”
“Why wait until now to use it?”
“It’s so big, it’s hard to aim. It also has a hell of a recoil. It has to sit on a tripod and it ain’t easy to use a tripod on a pitching boat.”
“So he’ll have to slow down.”
“Yeah. Unfortunately, an 82’s range is better than anything we’ve got. He can just sit out there and plug away at us like a frigging piece of field artillery!”
Lightning flashed, racing with bluish fire over the length of Zantetsu-ken. The storm was closer. Funny, though. There was no smell of rain on the air. There was only a faintly acrid scent. The gunpowder-like smell of ozone.
A second retort from the Barrett and one of our painters burst free of its rings. The sail collapsed, hanging limply from its surviving ropes with its tip trailing in the water.
“A little more,” I heard Lupin say. “Just a little more!”
The sound of the cruiser’s engine dipped from a scream to a growl as the big motor launch eased back on its throttle. As if sensing its advantage, it began to circle abaft or us, matching our speed. After months of fruitless searching, Estaban and company were taking a moment to enlarge on their sport.
I saw the Barrett. It was deployed along the prow of the cruiser while its marksman crouched behind the helm with his head and shoulders through the shattered windshield. Towels had been spread over the wreckage to protect him from broken Plexiglas. Sheltered by distance and the mass of his boat, the man could now shoot at us in comfort.
It was probably Estaban himself. He wouldn’t have allowed anyone else to interfere with his pleasure.
A third retort from the Barrett followed by an instantaneous fire-flower of expended powder. It was aimed at Dorian.
I caught that round with my katana, but only just. The force of the deflected bullet was so great, its impact sent me spinning. Thrown off my feet, I smashed into the deck and almost tumbled into the ocean.
“Go!” Jigen cried. “Doo shite?”
I hardly knew. My arm was numb and my right hand was stinging. My body felt bruised to the bone from its collision with the deck and my head was still spinning.
It had to be spinning because when I looked up, I saw the damnedest thing. The storm which had been sitting isolated in the northwest had reached out to engulf the sky. It didn’t look like a storm, really. It was a flattened, crawling, half-maddened thing across which lightning flashed in green and blue and every wrong-color. Thunder rumbled, growled in its depths, like a great beast justly angry.
The throbbing of Amanda May’s engine was like the beating of a heart. It sent tingles of feeling into my fingers and toes. The pain in my sword-hand eased while a buzzing vibration of outrage continued along my arm-muscles. When I sat up, I fancied I glimpsed a tremor of movement on Zantetus-ken’s blade, but decided it had to be a reflection.
The Barrett continued blazing away, a counterpoint to the thunder. Jigen and von Eberbach returned fire, but without much effect. Dorian stayed fast by his helm and Lupin still struggled with his fishing rod, trying to land his plastic model.
I got to my feet.
While the cruiser chugged along behind us, matching our sad eight knots, it ran over Lupin’s plastic toy. I didn’t see this happen but, with the noise, I couldn’t hear it. But I did see Lupin’s line got suddenly limp. The rod snapped back like a whip as the thief lost his balance and landed hard on his bottom.
“And stay down!” I told him.
Lightning split the sky, crashing with spontaneous thunder. As the thunder rolled, I heard the Earl groan as if in pain.
Turning to check on him, I felt the air grow cold, as if we’d wandered into a renegade thermal. With it came a spontaneous downpour of icy rain and a restless stirring in the air. The breeze which had deserted us came back to fill our sails. Canvas bellied out and we began to dart across the water.
Suddenly, miraculously, Amanda May had wings.
“Yeah!” I heard Jigen shout, pounding the cabin roof with his fist. “Absolutely!”
Caught unprepared by our sudden flight, the crew of the motor launch scrambled to pursue us. Estaban fell back into the cabin, taking the Barrett with him, and I heard the cruiser’s engine roar back to life. Waves dimpled with rain smashed and split as that cruiser plowed into them.
Thunder rolled again, not so angry now. Rain poured, soaking me. Ropes creaked as our canvas strained, trying to contain the wind, and our loose sail cracked like a pennant.
“Go for it, mama!” Jigen rejoiced.
Now the storm broke in earnest. The night became so black, the rain so heavy, it was impossible to see. In minutes we’d left the cruiser far astern as the wind pushed us onward.
I could no longer see our enemy. I listened for his inboard and couldn’t hear it, either.
“Gone,” I murmured.
“Yeah,” Jigen grunted, “but gone where? I don’t like it when I can’t see.”
“He’s two hundred yards astern of us,” announced Lupin-sansei, sitting on deck with his back against the mainmast, “and, at the moment, he’s maintaining an intercept course. If we take a turn to the southwest, I daresay we’ll lose him. He’s running completely blind.”
“How do you know?”
“Failsafe,” the thief replied, holding up the display he’d detached from this fishing rod. On it, a tiny liquid-crystal blip was still winking. “Glued to the hull of our ardent pursuer with enough epoxy to gum-up a four-inch cannon. As long as that glue holds, we’ll know exactly where our adversary is. This little darling has an operative range of twenty miles.”
Jigen was surprised. He stared at Lupin as rainwater dripped from his hat. “Where’d you get that?”
“From Dorian’s pocket. When I heard him explain the virtues of Monsieur Bonham’s homing device, I knew it was too good to be left behind. So while you were busy, I slipped back into the house and took it. You don’t mind, neh, Petticaris?”
But “Petticaris” didn’t reply. He looked terrible. Drenched and shivering, the Earl was half-bent over the wheel as if racked by cramps, haggard as a patient in the last stages of consumption.
“T-take her,” Dorian gasped.
The Major stood. “What’s the matter?”
“I’m not certain. I feel dreadful. Please.”
The big German stepped into the cockpit to take the helm. “Let go,” he said gruffly. “I’ve got it. Go sit down.”
The Earl didn’t sit; he collapsed, flopping down so suddenly I had to jump to catch him. With Lupin’s help, I eased him to the deck, then sat behind him to bear his weight, offering him the support of my body.
Eroica was trembling. His clothing was soaked and his flesh was clammy. Unfortunately, I was drenched, too. I had no warmth to give him.
The Major beat on the cabin hatch with the toe of his shoe, dealing it a half dozen shout kicks. “Wake up down there, you little twit! Bring a blanket! Your master’s ill!”
The hatch came open. James’ silhouette appeared, framed in a square of yellow light. “Ill?”
“Never mind the blanket,” Lupin countermanded. “Let’s take him below. It’s warmer down there and I can see what I’m doing. Goemon, help me.”
Sheathing my katana, I slid my arms around Dorian’s chest while Lupin took hold of his legs. With Lupin leading the way, we eased him down into the cabin and over to the galley table.
The cabin was still warm from the heat of the day. It began to thaw out half-frozen bodies at once. As Dorian warmed, his shivering stopped. He shifted, frowning plaintively.
“There’s no need to fuss, lover,” he told Lupin. “I can walk.”
“Perhaps,” the thief agreed, “but for now you’re going to sit and behave yourself while I pour a cup of hot tea down you.”
“Hot tea sounds good up here, too,” Jigen called, “but, in my case, make it coffee.”
“Yes,” the Major concurred.
“At once,” Lupin replied. “I’ll see to it. Here. Take this.” He handed Jigen the readout. “Keep an eye on her for me. And remember, Major. Thirty degrees southwest. Et c’est fais vite. N’est-ce pas?”
Amanda May swung south as Lupin prepared a kettle of water for boiling and James brought towels from his illicit supply. He gave most of these to the Earl, but handed one to me when I frowned at him reprovingly.
“What happened, Petti-chan?”Lupin wondered, lighting the propane stove. “Did you have another asthma attack?”
Dorian dried his hair with the purloined towel, pausing listlessly to examine the hotel emblem embroidered in it.
“It’s like a bloody great fist closing on my lungs,” he said. “You try to breathe, but nothing happens.”
“No, but there was a sort of vibration in the pit of my stomach. Like a deep voice murmuring.
Lupin looked up. “’Murmuring’ what?”
“I’ve no idea, love. I don’t hear this thing; I feel it.”
I frowned uneasily and finished drying off as best I could. To accomplish this, I set my katana on the galley table. Once done, I discarded the towel to reclaim my sword…and felt a low vibration course through the scabbard. Dorian was right. It did rather feel like a deep voice murmuring.
I did something I’d never done before in all my life. I dropped Zantetsu-ken.
The katana hit the deck with a loud whack which immediately captured everyone’s attention. They all stared at me; particularly Lupin.
My cheeks burned. “The saya is wet. It slipped.”
“Uh-huh…” Lupin agreed, still staring.
Bending stiffly, I scooped the sword off the deck. The mysterious vibration had stopped.
“I’ll go help Jigen,” I decided.
“But you only just came down,” Dorian said. “Wouldn’t you like to get warm first? Have a cup of tea?”
“No, thank you. It isn’t necessary.”
As I mounted the ladder, I heard the Earl whisper to Lupin: “Have I said something to offend him?”
“No,” Lupin sighed. “He’s doing penance. Whenever he thinks he’s made a fool of himself, it’s time for self-flagellation.”
This observation annoyed me, however true it might have been. At least I had enough grace to feel ashamed when I behaved like a fool. Lupin never felt the least bit sheepish.
Jaw set and expression closed, I went back into the storm.
* * * * *
The storm lasted only twenty minutes, but that was long enough to separate us from the cruiser by at least a mile. We watched the readout all night and that cruiser never got any closer. By daybreak, it was obvious Estaban was lost. He didn’t have a clue where we were.
The man vacillated for some time, wondering what to do. He’d given Domingo his word he would deal with us and was afraid to go back empty-handed. But, eventually, we were relieved to see him head west. His sense of duty was greater than his fear. He was going to warn Domingo.
We’d no idea where Domingo was, of course, but Estaban didn’t know this. He’d seen us hire a boat; he’d observed us sailing west with confidence. Presumably we knew where we were going. Now he was convinced he ought to get there first and prepare for our arrival.
For most of the following day, we trailed Estaban at a distance of six miles, far enough for our sail to appear only as a white speck on the horizon. The wind remained steady and the weather warm and clear. We had no trouble keeping pace with the cruiser although it was funning flat out.
Then, shortly after sunset, Estaban stopped. He cut power and drifted, riding the swell.
“Tack sails,” Lupin ordered, retrieving his field glasses from their box beside the helm. While Jigen, the Major, and I worked to reef Amanda May’s canvas, he clambered out onto the prow and pointed those glasses west.
“What is it?” von Eberbach asked.
“Our friend has stopped,” the thief replied. “He’s cut his engine.”
“Maybe he’s out of gas,” Jigen volunteered.
“I doubt it. Their fuel reserve is greater than ours. Besides, I can’s see that their behavior is in any way agitated and they aren’t the sort of men to accept adversity quietly.”
“What’re they doing?”
“They have congregated in the stern of their boat.”
“Perhaps they’ve found your homing device,” the Major suggested, “and are getting rid of it.”
“Unlikely, Herr Major. The failsafe is attached to the underside of the hull and I don’t see anyone prepared to go swimming. They… Ah! Here we go!”
Before any of us could question Lupin, we saw a streak of red fire dart up from the gloom on the horizon. It flew into the sky and burst in a red fireball. This flare was followed immediately by two more.
“Uh-huh,” Jigen countered. “That’s not a cry for help, it’s a request for communication. Someone wants to talk and doesn’t want to use his radio to do it.”
The German joined Lupin on the prow. “Any answer?”
“Not yet. There’s a lot of Gulf out there tonight and the person they’re appealing to may be inattentive. If they don’t receive an answer, they’ll try again. They’re nothing if not persistent.”
Five minutes passed and there was no answer. A volley of three more red flares was fired, this time answered by a responding volley of three green ones. These came from about ten miles away, along the southern horizon.
Lupin giggled. “The plot thickens!”
“What now, darling?” Eroica asked.
“Estaban and company have received permission to approach. We will follow them at a respectable distance, waiting for the moment to strike.”
“And how will you manage this, Mr. Lupin?” von Eberbach wondered. “There are more of them and they are better armed. You can only succeed through stealth and your friend was correct when he said it wasn’t easy to hide on the open sea.”
“Tsk, Major! You do me an injustice! I have no intention of ‘hiding’ at all. I will approach them openly and I fully expect to be captured.”
“Captured, my friend. Served up like squab on toast. Buttered, browned and done to a turn. La specialité du Lupin!”
The German stared. “I always knew you were an idiot, monsieur, but I never suspected you were mad.”
“No! I forbid it!”
Lupin was surprised by the vehemence in Eroica’s voice. For all his social standing and larcenous expertise, the Earl wasn’t one to assert himself. Apparently he’d decided to assert himself now, and the determined gleam in his eye brooked no arguments.
“Petticaris…?” Lupin ventured.
“I said no!” Dorian insisted. “I shan’t permit you to sacrifice yourself as you did the last time! Whatever has been said, this is not your fault and I’ll not have you throwing yourself into Perdition’s Fires because of it!”
“Last time?” the Major wondered. “What happened last time?”
“And you have the audacity to accuse this man of self-flagellation!” the Earl continued, pointing at me. “You’re trice-times a glutton for punishment! If you’re planning to throw yourself into the lions’ den, then you’d best prepare for company, because I’m coming with you!”
Lupin sat stunned for a moment, then he grinned. “Arigato, Dorian-chan,”he said. “I knew I could count on you.”
“What is this nonsense about ‘last time’?” von Eberbach demanded, his patience at an end. He glowered at Lupin. “Is he saying you gave yourself to Mischa deliberately?”
“It’s a long story, Major,” Lupin replied with a rueful smile, “and a bit complicated in the telling. We’ve no time for such things, in any case. You’ll observe: Our quarry is moving.”
The thief held the tiny display up in front of the German’s face as if it was a talisman of protection. Indeed, the blip had changed position. It was now pointed towards the southwest.
“Estaban is moving towards his rendezvous,” the thief drawled on, “probably with Domingo himself. We need only follow. We need only wait. Then I will launch myself at them like a missile.”
“You are mad,” the German concluded, getting to his feet, “and I am twice as insane for having listened to you. But I’ve come too far to back out now, so I am condemned to this madness. You can mark my words, though, Mister Thief, when this is done there will be an accounting. This time you will have to account to me. I warn you, I will not be a sympathetic judge. You are a greedy and self-infatuated liar and I am Gottverdammt sick of the way you use people!”
“That isn’t entirely fair, Klaus,” Dorian sighed. “You see…”
“Enough!” the Major roared. “I have no interest in feeble excuses! I’ve never once forgotten that you’re a thief, too! Your sympathies are already colored!”
“It doesn’t matter,” Lupin decided, getting to his feet. “If, when this is over, the Major still wants a piece of me, I shall try to make a slice available. In the meanwhile, I have preparations to make. Preparations which will take time. So if I might impose upon you, Major, I’d like you to keep an eye on this for me.” He handed the homing readout to von Eberbach.
Naturally the German was suspicious. If he’d ever had any trust in Lupin, that trust was seriously strained. Lupin wasn’t about to win it back with a single gesture of good faith.
Von Eberbach frowned. “And what would Herr Dieb like me to do with it?”
“Just watch it,” the French thief replied with a shrug. “And follow at a respectable distance. Take no reckless chances, eh, mon commandant? Even if Estaban reaches Domingo, do not approach. I won’t be ready for my little ploy before daybreak.”
The Major grunted with taciturn agreement and Lupin vanished below. He gave Dorian a quick pat of affection on his way down.
* * * * *
Lupin had said his preparation would take time. In fact, they took the better part of three hours. Sounds echoed up from below at first: The gush of water in the head and Lupin’s broken crooning as he did a rank imitation of Carol Channing’s Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. After that came silence. A great and concentrative silence, punctuated only by isolated syllables of frustration or delight.
For the most part, we paid no attention. Whatever Lupin’s plan, he wasn’t willing to share them. Inquiries were met with evasions and attempts to help were scorned. In fact, Lupin was insistent we not come below at all. This would spoil the surprise, he said.
So we left the man to himself, slept on deck, and took turns watching Estaban. We passed most of the night in this fashion.
Then, at about a quarter of three in the morning, Estaban again came to a stop, and this time he didn’t have to send up any flares. He’d reached his destination.
“Very interesting,” von Eberbach mused, studying the distant shape of Estaban’s boat through field glasses. “Our quarry, as Mr. Lupin calls him, has acquired a friend. A very big friend: A yacht many times larger than he is.”
He passed the glasses to Jigen, who also had a look. “That’s no yacht,” the gunman decided. “That’s a friggin’ ocean liner. It must be nice to have that kinda money.”
“One must spend money if one hopes to impress,” Dorian said quietly, “and drug lords are know for their extravagance. They wouldn’t take Domingo seriously if he wasn’t prepared to lavish the same extravagance on them. They expect luxury and, if he’s to win their support, he must grant it.”
The Major grunted. “There is a difference between luxury and decadence.”
“Absolutely true, Klaus, and as members of old, aristocratic families, we understand this. These ruthless men have no history to draw from and no one to teach them the basics of good taste. For them, biggest is best and opulence is a fair substitute for elegance.”
“How like these silly men, yes? They always like to see who is bigger.”
It was a stranger who spoke, which was surprising enough, but we were enve more surprised because that speaker was a woman. She suddenly appeared next to Dorian in the cockpit well and leaned her slender elbows on the cabin roof. Gazing seductively out from under the tumble of her dark hair, she smiled at our discomfiture.
She was a tall girl, slim and well-proportioned, with black hair which fell in insolent tangles to her shoulders. Her eyes were dark and sultry and her skin had an olive hue. She could have been Spanish, French or any combination of the two. It was hard to tell. At the moment, she was wearing a pair of very brief shorts and a T-shirt cut off just below her breasts. As clothing, it wasn’t very much and what little there was looked disheveled, as if Lupin had been at her.
Of course I was stunned. We were all stunned. If any thought crossed our minds at all, it was to wonder how Lupin had managed to smuggle her on board. It wouldn’t have been unlike him to do so.
It was left to Dorian Red Gloria to discount the ridiculous in favor of the obvious. “Arsene…?”
The woman blew a kiss at the Earl. “Bravo, mon Coeur l’adroit,” she cooed. “You English are always so clever, yes ? »
While we stared, speechless, the transformed Lupin left the cockpit to parade along the stern rail, displaying his obvious assets.
The Major shook his head in wonder. “That is a splendid disguise,” he confessed. “How on earth did you manage it?”
“A lady has her secrets, yes?” Lupin purred. “And she is not without experience. This is not the first time I give such a performance. If you like, ask Jigen.”
The gunman cleared his throat. “That’s right, Dagwood. He’s done it in drag a couple of times. I gotta admit, though: This is the first time he’s done it so well.”
Lupin frowned at that, then turned and batted his eyes at the Earl. “Domingo will be expecting a brash French thief, yes? He will not think twice about a sorry little castaway like Marguerite, even if she is accompanied by her English friend Penelope.”
Dorian smiled. “Of course not. He will be the very soul of sympathy…the toad!”
“Then you must get ready, Penny darling. We haven’t a lot of time, yes?”
“Absolutely and at once, dear heart! James! Come help me!”
Earl and entourage disappeared below.
Von Eberbach scowled out at the night where Domingo and his minions were lurking. Clearly he didn’t like Lupin’s plan, but since he had nothing to offer in its place, felt condemned to accept it. “So you two will go alone…?”
“Non. Two women alone might not fair well in the hands of a man like Domingo. However, if there is a third person, they might do better,” Lupin glanced at me.
“No!” I cried. “Absolutely not!”
“Marguerite” thrust out her lower lip as “she” traced patterns on the deck with her tow. Slowly “she” sidled towards me with her hands clasped behind her back and her shoulders drawn up in a half-shrug, like a little girl pleading for candy. “But, Goemon,” “she” pouted. “I need you.”
“I will not wear a dress!”
“Marguerite” giggled; her arms twined around my neck. I felt the rounded shapes of her stupid rubber breasts. They were almost as bad as the real thing. “You don’t have to wear a dress, mon ami,” “she” purred. “Three women might be suspicious and in no less danger than two. I think Domingo will behave better if poor Marguerite is traveling with her father.” “Marguerite” rested her head on my shoulder and sighed. “I can always count on you, can’t I…Papa?”
There was a bray of laughter from Jigen, who leaned against the mainmast in sudden mirth. Klaus van Eberbach stood nearby looking bemused and thoughtful while Jigen had conniption fit at my expense.
I glowered at him.
“Don’t sweat it, Go,” he gasped. “If you don’t want to play daddy, I’ll do it.”
“Nein,” the Major countermanded. “For once I agree with Mr. Lupin. You and I rely on firearms; Mr. Ishikawa doesn’t. And no one is going to care if an old man supports himself with a cane.”
The Major was right. There was no arguing with Lupin’s logic.
“As you wish,” I growled at “Marguerite.” “Just see you behave yourself, or Papa will exercise his parental prerogative!”
The “woman” released me. “Don’t worry, Papa. I’ll be good. As a matter of fact, I’ll be splendid! Come with me and I’ll fix your face…”
* * * * *
Lupin did more than “fix my face.” He fixed my hair and my clothing, too. By the time he was done, I looked like a decrepit old fart. Zantetsu-ken was likewise transformed, from a stately katana to a gnarled walking stick.
Our story was this: My name was Alexandre Mazerouz. I had been born in Paris, but now made my home in Key West. For the last three weeks, I had been touring the Caribbean with my daughter Marguerite and her schoolmate Penelope Corsette. Our trip had been pleasant and uneventful until the night before last, when our boat had been swamped in a storm. We’d become separated from our shipmates and had been drifting for two days.
I’m not French, of course, but by the time Lupin was through with me, you’d never have known it. Sags and wrinkles hid most of my face and what little was left was masked behind a thatch of white hair and outlandish brush moustache. I looked like a cross between a Parisian patriarch and an aged English sheep dog.
Eroica fared better. Slender and fair, his hair long and his mannerisms already tempered toward the feminine, he required only a minimum of re-sculpting. A touch of padding here, a bit of shaping there, and he was reborn. He looked quite the proper English Mss, even if he was a little tall for a schoolgirl.
At half past five that morning, we reinflated and launched Amanda May’s emergency raft. “Marguerite,” “Penelope” and I were put aboard it. Cast adrift, we began to scull our way into Domingo’s path, hoping he’d be gentleman enough to “rescue” us.
Once safe aboard Domingo’s yacht, we would do what was necessary to secure the crate. If we needed help, we could summon Jigen and the others with tiny emergency beepers we all carried. Hopefully we wouldn’t have to do this until we were away from the yacht with our treasure.
It was no small job to row a boat six miles even if that boat was only an emergency raft. By the time we’d gone most of the distance, “Marguerite’s” girlish good humor had worn rather thin. She was hot and bothered by the work, and twice as annoyed because I refused to help with it. She didn’t buy my excuse that I was a tired old man and better off leaving such strenuous tasks to my daughter.
“’Tired old man!’” Marguerite grumbled as she continued to row. “You’re a stubborn, self-righteous old goat! You won’t help because it’s your way of punishing me for past indiscretions!”
“But I am feeble, Rita, dear,” I groaned, “and my heart isn’t what it used to be. I would certainly collapse if I had to row any distance. It was never my thought to ‘punish’ you. If you feel ‘punished,’ perhaps you think you deserve it.”
“Kono yaroo no baka!”
“Is that nay way to speak to your father?”
“Penelope” giggled again. She wasn’t really helping matters any. Although perfectly willing to row, she had a tendency to sing cute little boating songs while she did it. Marguerite tolerated these cheerful interludes with even less patience than she tolerated the work, and always finished by snatching the oars back again.
“Don’t be so cheerful, Penny darling,” she scolded. “This is a shipwreck, not a picnic.”
The fair Penelope looked distraught. “I’m so sorry, dear! What shall I do? Shall I languish?”
With that, the English girl fell back against the bow of the raft in a half-swoon, trailing her hand in the water. “Oh,” she sighed. “Woe is me…”
Marguerite collapsed across her oars and began to giggle in spite of herself.”
Marguerite’s head came up.
“…we’ve been noticed.”
We were not within a half-mile of Domingo’s yacht, close enough to see Estaban’s cruiser lying moored alongside the gangway. There was a group of men standing in the stern of the yacht, staring at us. Even without glasses, I could see them.
The dark-haired woman smiled a lopsided smile I had seen a thousand times before on a hundred different faces. For all that the face changed, the smile did not. It was a perpetual facet of the restive heart within that breast and a dead giveaway to those who understood it.
“Hold fast, my children,” this woman whispered in French. “Hold fast for the game has begun! And the best of luck to all of us!”
A second later, Marguerite was up on her knees in the raft, waving her arms wildly. “Alors!” she cried. “Alors dans le bateau! Nous avoirs besoin votre assistance!”
There was no movement among the men. They were uncertain of what they was and couldn’t hear the woman’s cries.
Marguerite quickly realized this. Having little else, she stripped off her shirt and waved it over her head like a flat. “ALORS!” she creamed. “Nous avois besoin de votre assistance. HELP!”
That brought a reaction all right. I saw the stern of the yacht sparkle as several pairs of binoculars were focused on us. There was a great flurry of interest because little Marguerite wasn’t wearing a bra! And her physique was perfect, right down to her wine-dark nipples.
There was a sudden avalanche as our would-be rescuers clamored for the gangway, heading for Estaban’s boat.
I smacked my “daughter’s” bottom. “Put your clothes on, girl! Have you no shame?!”
“No,” Penny sighed. “Not a bit of it.”
Marguerite frowned at us prettily then went back to waving at the scrambling men, obviously pleased by their attention.
With a resigned shrug, Penelope moved to do the same.
The engine of the cabin cruiser split the morning with a roar as it wheeled around, kicking up a wall of white water. In a heart-beat it was headed back towards us. It would reach us in seconds.
I glanced back at the horizon, where I could just see a tiny white sail coasting along on the breeze. It looked no larger than a snowflake and seemed every bit as fragile. In a moment the tropical sun would melt it away, along with the safety it represented.
Once rescued, we would be beyond help.
Yet, for the Warrior, the world was a battlefield with damn few havens of rest or safety. He quickly learned to do without dither. He thrived on danger, or he didn’t survive. That was his Karma.
I forgot the tiny white speck of relative safety sitting on the horizon to our east. For the time being, I wasn’t Samurai; I was a doddering French ex-patriot with a buxom and willful young daughter.
The cruiser had almost reached us. I heard its engines throttle back as its skipper heeled around to eyeball us. The resulting wash of water almost upset our little raft, nearly dumping the willfor Marguerite into the ocean.
There were perhaps a dozen men aboard the boat, all of them Hispanic and all of them transfixed by the half-naked girl. They grinned at Marguerite, lifting their expensive sunglasses for a better look. Marguerite, struck by tardy feelings of modesty, did an ill-considered job of covering herself with the tattered shirt. She fluttered and blushed as she gazed back at them, but left a good deal of cleavage showing.
“Having trouble, señorita?” one of the men called.
“Oh, yes!” cried Penny. “Our ship sank! We’ve been branded for two days! Won’t you help us?!”
“Si! Take my hand!”
A hand was extended and Penny sculled towards it while Marguerite knelt in the forepart of our raft like a figurehead. We were almost within reach when someone muscled our would-be savior out of the way. There was a good deal of uncomfortable shifting among his friends as that someone came up to take his place. When he reached the rail, this new person stood with his hands on his hips, glowering down at us.
It was Estaban.
While the other men had been inclined to smirk at Marguerite’s nudity, Estaban was not. The others seemed eager to play the role of rescuer for the benefits it might offer. Estaban did not. His expression was as cold as a glacier and his eyes were as hard as two chips of anthracite coal. Indeed, he seemed entirely unsympathetic to our plight, as if we were nothing more than a damned inconvenience.
Immediately, I began to wonder. The other men had been misled by Lupin’s trick. Maybe Estaban hadn’t been. Maybe that great oaf was a lot smarter than I thought. Maybe he had seen right through us.
After all, Domingo was an international felon of a very ruthless stripe. He wouldn’t surround himself with idiots.
Estaban continued to glower and I felt my hands begin to sweat on the scabbard of my disguised katana. I wondered at the foolish turn of mind which had led Lupin to quit the deck of the Amanda May. To fight within the confines of a ship was bad enough; to fight on the yielding surface of a rubber raft was impossible. Yet, the more I studied the cold gleam in Estaban’s eye, the more convinced I became that he hadn’t bought Lupin’s trick. In a second, he might indeed have to fight and, by God, we’d picked a bad place for it!
The sea around us was placid, rippled with only the gentlest swell. The sky above was the sort of cornflower blue one encounters only in fairy tales and travel brochures. Since it was early, the baking heat of the Caribbean summer was no more than a warm glow. Although my face was encased in a latex mask, the sweat breaking out on me was more to do with tension than discomfort.
The cruiser, still missing the wind-screen Jigen had shot to flinders two nights before, rode with engines idling an arm’s length to our right. Although the boat was close and it would have been easy for someone aboard that boat to reach out and grab us, no one did. Of the perhaps dozen young men who had come bounding to our assistance, not one of them made any attempt to complete the rescue. They all stood poised along the rail, as if waiting for some signal to begin.
The man they were waiting on to give that signal was a hulking, mustachioed brute named Estaban and, at the moment, Estaban didn’t look like a rescuer; he looked like a man who smelled a rat.
My hand tightened on my disguised katana.
Nor was I the only one to have misgivings. Beside me, the thief who called himself Eroica derw his legs back under him, tightening like a spring. Through presently disgused as a woman, he, too was prepared for a fight.
Only Lupin seemed confident. “Por favor, monsieur,” he entreated shyly, reaching out towards Estaban with Marguerite’s hand
As he did this, Lupin let his T-shirt slip seductively, uncovering the nipple of one foam-rubber breast.
One of the men aboard Estaban’s cruiser tittered appreciatively.
Estaban finally reacted. He turned and glared at the giggler in red-faced outrage. The offending thug fell immediately silent. There was a general shifting among the others as Estaban took care to glare at them, too.
“SHUT UP!” Estaban roared, just to make sure they understood, then he reached down and seized “Marguerite’s” wrist. He pulled the “woman” up into the boat with a single great yank.
Marguerite gave a thief-like yelp of dismay as she was manhandled to safety. She also dropped her shirt. For once, I don’t think it was a calculated gesture. For the pinched expression on Marguerite’s face, it was clear the sudden rescue had almost dislocated her arm.
Estaban judged that he might have been a little rough and set the “woman” down gently. He hovered attentively while Marguerite made an attempt to cover her nakedness while rubbing her wrenched arm.
“Marci, monsieur,” Marguerite purred. “You are very strong, yes?”
Yes, Estaban knew he was very strong, but he was pleased to hear her say it. In a gesture not altogether unchivalrous, he shrugged off his shirt and gave it to her. “Here. You’ll get sunburned, you stand around like that.”
I heard a soft, English chuckle as the Earl relaxed. “I do believe our darling girl has made a conquest.”
“Ssssh!” I hissed.
“Merci again, monsieur,” Marguerite cooed as she slipped into the gargantuan shirt and stood gowned in it like a child playing dress-up. Somehow she managed to leave just the right amount of cleavage showing as she batted her big brown eyes at Estaban. “You are also very kind.”
Estaban blushed with embarrassed satisfaction and one of the other men snickered. Embarrassment turned instantly to outrage as Estaban leveled another deadly glare at him. “Don’t just stand there, you lazy turds!” he thundered. “Get those others on board and let’s get out of here!” And to emphasize his point, as well as his territorial imperative, Estaban wrapped a possessive arm around Marguerite and dragged her forward, finally sitting her down in the helmsman’s seat.
There was a certain amount of grumbling as the other would-be rescuers came forward to help us. They resented Estaban’s imperious attitude as well as his claim to Marguerite. Nonetheless, they didn’t argue. They merely helped us on board with exaggerated dignity, using the solemnity of the occasion to bathe their wounded prides.
Once this was done, our raft was set adrift. I watched it disappear astern as Estaban wheeled the cruiser about, leaning against the back of the helmsman’s chair with his arm around Marguerite.
You know, it was funny. All the time I was on that raft, I cursed it for its frailty. Now I was sort of sorry to see it go. Someone gave me a plastic bottle of orange juice. I muttered my thanks as I took a sip. When I lowered the bottle, I saw Marguerite smirking back at me in satisfaction. Someone had given her an identical bottle and Estaban was being more than politely solicitous so, all in all, she looked smug as hell.
I frowned at her reprovingly. I wasn’t as confident of success as she.
* * * * *
Domingo’s chartered yacht was a massive, sleek, forbidding thing called the Santorini. White-hulled, with a crimson stripe around her upper works and a superstructure radiant with polished brass, she was elegant without being the least bit charming. She was more edifice than ship, unmindful of the water lapping against her hull. The sea was calm this morning, rocked only by an oily swell, but the cruiser still swayed gently in its grip. Santorini was oblivious, too huge to be bothered with such trivialities.
According to the gregarious young man who brought me my orange juice, the Santorini possessed a crew of tem, including one full-time cook and two stewards. This, combined with Domingo’s entourage of guests and personal flunkies, made for a ship’s compliment of thirty-four. In the shady world of drug trafficking, thirty-four bodies made for (at least) thirty-four guns. Though I saw no weapons in evidence, I found the thought sobering. After all, I was the only one among us who was armed.
When we reached the yacht, we were hustled up the gangway and taken to the bridge. Estaban protested, but the crewmen in his entourage were quietly insistent. The Santorini was a vessel in international waters. This mad her captain absolute lord and master of her circumscribed world.
The master of the Santorini was a dour-faced Mexican named Sanchez. He was a man of slightly less than average height with a bland physique which tended towards fat. I might have found him a completely unprepossessing figure if not for the wary gleam in his eye and the way his mustache bristled like a startled cat every time he suspected he was being lied to.
I gave him our story as we’d rehearsed it. I told him my name was Alexandre Mazeroux and that I had been traveling on holiday with my daughter and her companion. Night before last, our boat had been swamped in a sudden storm. We’d been drifting on the open sea since then.
Sanchez listened to my story, then pursed his lips, making the hairs of his mustache stand up like quills on a porcupine. “You seem to be in pretty good shape, considering.”
“We were well provided for,” I hastened to add. “Our crew saw to it we had a survival package. Water, food and the like. You understand.”
Sanchez’s mustache still didn’t subside. It stood up, rampant and quivering, like some sort of weird antenna. “Of course,” he grunted. “And what about your crew? What happened to them?”
“I’m afraid we have no idea,” Eroica/Penelope inserted, regarding the captain with mournful blue eyes. “We drifted apart during the storm and couldn’t find out way back. Things were fearfully confused and the weather was just awful.”
“It was a bad storm” Estaban grumbled in agreement, annoyed Sanchez had detained him. “It rained like a son of a bitch.”
Sanchez’s eye shifted to Estaban. The mustache (which had been so active) now lay still, but the bright, dark eyes remained wary. “Yes, so you said…”
There was nothing particularly acid about this remark, but it stung Estaban anyway. I got the impression relations between these two frequently chaffed. That Sanchez, though he captained Domingo’s ship, was not one of Domingo’s flunkies. The same might also be true of Sanchez’s crew. If it was, then they might not feel more than a nominal loyalty to the men who had hired them. If it came to a fight, which I certainly couldn’t count on them for help, they might be convinced to stand out of the way.
Estaban’s arm went around Marguerite in a gesture as defiant as it was protective. “You done yet? Can they go in and sit down?”
“In a moment,” Sanchez replied. “Now, Señor Mazeroux, I don’t suppose you recall your ship’s position before she sank?”
“Non, so sorry,” I replied. “I’m not a sailor. I have no idea.”
“That is indeed unfortunate.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “It is.”
By now, Estaban’s annoyance was starting to devolve into anger. He had street-tough’s instinctive dislike for any sort of authority. He now rebelled against that authority with all the machismo at his command. In short, he threw a tantrum.
“If it’s so bad, why don’t you fix it?” he raged, pushing his face close to Sanchez’s. “Go out and look, if you want to find the crew! Leave these people alone! They’ve been through enough already!”
Sanchez was unruffled, as placid as the sea lapping the hull of the Santorini. “That is an excellent idea,” he conceded. “I will do precisely that.”
For a second, Estaban was nonplused. He’s expected resistance and encountered none. Momentarily confused, Estaban eventually came to the conclusion that he had (somehow) made his point. He dew back with a sneer of triumph. “Right. I’ll take these people to the lounge so they can sit down. You tell Señor Domingo. Okay?”
Radiant with satisfaction now that he was the victor in this battle of wills, Estaban picked up Marguerite and carted her off, looking like a caveman in possession of a bride. The previously smug Marguerite shot me an imploring look, but I’m afraid I wasn’t entirely sympathetic.
Neither was the fair Penelope, who was finding it difficult not to giggle. After offering Captain Sanchez her demur thanks, she followed Marguerite and her paramour, pink-cheeked from suppressed amusement.
I could have followed them. It would have been appropriate, since I was Marguerite’s “father.” But for some reason I lingered. When I looked back at Sanchez, I saw him studying me. The wary gleam in his eye had turned elfin.
“I will do what I can for you,” he said.
“I’m sure you will,” I replied. I believed him and I wasn’t sure why. “For that, I thank you. I’m afraid you must excuse me now. My daughter…”
I shuffled off in pursuit, “cane” in hand. As I left for the forward lounge, I could almost feel Sanchez smiling.
* * * * *
The forward lounge was a large rectangular room with big windows down each outside bulkhead providing a panoramic view of the sea. Carpeted and furnished in white, it was saved from coldness by teak paneling and oiled ceiling beams. An entertainment center occupied the forward bulkhead, surmounted by a barometer and a framed map of the Gulf of Mexico; the aft bulkhead was taken up by a small, well-accoutered bar. Built-in couches ran along under the windows, interrupted at either end by table-like cabinets of teak. Those couches were fronted by coffee tables of brass and glass. This seemed a dangerous concession to fashion until I saw the “glass” was really Lucite and the tables were bolted right to the deck.
There were two men already in the lounge when we arrived. They were middle-aged men, casually but expensively dressed. When we entered, they stared at us in amazement, then scrambled to their feet.
Estaban ignored them. He carried Marguerite to the portside couch and plopped her down on it. “Relax,” he suggested. “I’ll call the galley. They’ll send something up for you.”
“Merci, mon coeur,” Marguerite agreed, sufficiently recovered now to flutter he eyes at Estaban. “Je vous attend.”
The big ape beamed with pleasure. He even gifted me with a sappy smile before lumbering off toward the bar.
I sat next to Marguerite. “Aren’t you overdoing it just a bit?” I whispered to her in French.
“Not at all,” Marguerite replied in the same language. “As my dear grandfather used to say: Paint with bold strokes if you want to command the canvas. Besides, I very much doubt these dolts understand what I’m saying. They don’t speak the language. Do you, you big dumb ox?”
This last was addressed to Estaban, loudly enough and to be heard by everyone present. I experienced a second of vertigo as my heart took a powerdive.
But Estaban only waved cheerfully at Marguerite as he picked up the barside phone and proceeded to ring the galley. The two men in the expensive clothes continued to stare.
Marguerite was right. They didn’t speak French.
I decided I wasn’t going to have a heart attack.
“Remind me to kill you later,” I whispered.
She stuck her tongue out at me.
It occurred to me that Penelope was being awfully quiet. While not intrusive as Marguerite, she usually had something to say. That she had elected to remain silent during the previous conversation struck me as uncharacteristic. I looked to see what her problem was.
Penelope had not taken a seat on our couch. Instead she was half-kneeling on it with her body turned so she could watch out the window. Her attention was fully absorbed by what she saw.
I glanced out the window, too, and saw a line of eight men marching down the gangway to the cruiser, carrying provisions. From what I could see, two were crewmen and the rest were flunkies. They were the men who had been assigned to search for our non-existent crew.
One of the two expensively dressed men had stepped forward. He was a waspish little fellow who managed to look eager and uncomfortable, all at the same time.
“Excuse me,” he repeated. “I’ve not seen you before. Are you guests of Georgio’s?”
“Inadvertent guests,” Penelope responded brightly, tearing herself away from the window to gift him with a perky English smile. “I’m afraid we had a little accident. Our ship sank. This gentleman and his friends were kind enough to rescue us.”
She indicated Estaban, who continued to speak self-importantly into the telephone without acknowledging her.
“That’s wonderful,” the little man decided, then quickly added: “That you were rescued, I mean. Not that your ship sank. Which, of course, is terrible.”
“Yes, it is,” Penelope agreed, her smile faltering bravely. “It was a dreadful thing.”
There was something about the “woman’s” demeanor which inspired our little friend to look more eager and less uncomfortable. He greened expectantly at us until his companion cleared his throat.
“Excuse,” the bigger of the two men said. He looked at me. “You have not spoken to Georgio?”
“I haven’t had the pleasure,” I replied.
“Then we may have a slight problem, Señor. We are on a religious retreat. Women passengers are not permitted.”
“That doesn’t matter!” Estaban declared, returning the phone’s receiver to its cradle with a self-righteous bang. “These women are guests, not ‘passengers’!”
“I wonder if Georgio will see the difference.”
“What a difference is that, my friend?”
It was a new voice which spoke’ a thick and rumbling voice that rolled over one like a wave of warm oil. There was power in it, and cruelty, and a weirdly amused conviction. The sort of weird conviction that could persuade whole populations to drink poisoned Kool-Aid or burn heretics at the stake.
A man had appeared in the doorway which opened to the left of the bar. He was shorter then I, but weighed three times as much, and all that fat was concentrated around his middle. His arms were slender; his hands delicate. His legs were hidden beneath the hooded robe he wore. This robe was black in color, lined with red, and secured with a sash patterned in scarlet and gold. His stomach protruded through the open folds of his robe like the belly of a Hotel Buddha. His chest converged on that belly in a lava-flow of fat. His neck was a mere eruption built to accommodate a head that was bullet-shaped and shiny bald. Two tiny, misshapen ears protruded from either side of this head, while pockets of melted flab held dark eyes as beady and cruel as vulture’s. His mouth was wide, with thick, sensuous lips. Beneath the lower lip was a trim square of gray hair which looked like a misplaced mustache. When he smiled, his rubbery lips pulled back to reveal teeth which were so white and perfect, I suspected they weren’t real.
This man was ugly. I do mean supremely ugly. So ugly, I almost forgot I knew him. I’d seen his face in a CIA dossier and I’d watched him cavort naked on a beach in Mexico. He was General Pedro Gurrera, dictator of Calize.
“What difference is that, Tonio?” Gurrera repeated mildly.
Tonio looked distinctly uncomfortable at having been singled out. He waved a hand at us. “Mi General…” he stammered. “These women…”
“Yes. Very lovely.”
The General came towards us, smiling. For a man of his size, he moved with surprising grace. He almost appeared to float across the carpet.
“Do not concern yourselves, lovely ladies,” he rumbled. “The rules of man are always victims to the whims of fate. If you are here, then you I have no doubts that you are meant to be here. Perhaps you were sent to test our resolve. Isn’t that right, gentlemen?”
There was a murmur of agreement from the three flunkies present and the General beamed, confidant that no one would dare contradict him. Positively glowing with self-satisfaction, he continued towards us. As he did, I saw he was wearing a crucifix. A gold crucifix with rubies at its four points and a little skull carved out of ebony at its center.
“I am Pedro Gurrera,” the General said, extending his hand to me. “I am so sorry to hear of your misfortune.”
“Alexandre Mazeroux,” I stammered, forcing myself to take that hand. I found it difficult to reconcile this smooth, soft-spoken man with the drunken imbecile I’d watched cavorting on a beach. The two halved didn’t match. I had to admit Gurrera was a more complex and dangerous man than I’d imagined. “Did I hear the other man call you ‘General’…?”
Gurrera made an abjuring gesture. “A honorary title. I am retired.”
Although the former dictator was politely dismissive of his title, he didn’t give me any alternative, making it obvious that he wished me to use it, honorary or not. “General,” I agreed. “Please allow me to introduce my daughter Marguerite and her friend Penelope.”
“Lovely!” Gurrera repeated, smiling at the two “women” in a way that wasn’t entirely saintly. “These are two very pretty girls! You must be very proud.”
The muted roar of a boat engine interrupted him. He frowned slightly and glanced out the window. I did likewise and was just in time to watch the cruiser puling away from the Santorini’s gangway. With a deep churning gurgle from her twin screws, the cruiser darted off across the water, leaving a line of white foam in her wake.
“What is this about, I wonder,” Gurrera growled.
“They’re going out to search for other survivors,” Penelope volunteered. “From our ship, you know. We were separated from our crew and Captain Sanchez said he’d send out a boat to look for them.”
The General didn’t sound entirely happen when he said: “Yes, of course. That is the first thing he should do…”
I looked back and found myself staring into a vast expanse of flabby chest naked of everything but a bizarre crucifix. The black skull’s eyes were glowing a fiery red. It took me a second to figure out its eye-sockets had been set with tiny rubies.
“You like it?” Gurrera rumbled, pleased at my interest. “I had it made specially. The four red stones on the points represent the Blood of Christ. The little skull… Well, that is to remind me of man’s mortality. We are but clouds on the wind, are we not?”
“Yes,” I agreed. “That is so.”
Talk of man’s mortality didn’t sit well with Tonio and his friend. Perhaps it made them wary of the way they lived their lives, or perhaps they just didn’t like the way Gurrera spoke of death so easily. Whatever the reason, they wanted very much to be elsewhere.
Tonio cleared his throat again. “Mi General… With your permission…”
Gurrera didn’t even look at them. “Yes, yes. You are dismissed.”
The two men departed, leaving Estaban standing alone behind the bar. He looked nervous, too, but he was reluctant to quit his claim on Marguerite.
Marguerite, for her part, looked a bit subdued, as if she’d drawn back into herself to think a little. She sat sideways on the couch, awash in the cavernous folds of Estaban’s shirt, studying the General with her lips pursed.
“Mon General,” she finally said, “forgive me if I probe into things which are none of my business, but this Tonio…he said you were on a religious retreat. This means you are part of a church, yes?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Gurrera agreed. “Although I think people would say we were more an association than a church. You see…”
Gurrera was interrupted by a sharp rap from the forward hatchway. Standing in that hatchway, as if he had just come from the bridge, was a tall, slender man dressed in shipboard whites. He was not a member of the crew. His clothing was too expensive and too finely tailored. He was wearing a heavy gold chain bearing a duplicate of Gurrera’s crucifix. Somehow I didn’t think this was standard wear, even among the members of Gurrera’s “association.”
The man had a handsome face, finely chiseled and dark, as if it was cut from mahogany. The man’s eyes were cold blue and his black hair was streaked with gray at the temples. His was a singular face and I knew it well. It had been alongside Gurrera’s in the dossier.
The General’s annoyance at being interrupted dissipated like a frost before the sun. He threw his arms wide in a gesture of welcome. “Ah! Georgio! There you are! Señor Mazeroux, please allow me to introduce my associate, Señor Domingo. He…runs things for me.”
Domingo ignored the two “women” and directed his attention to me. “You realize, of course, that this is most inconvenient.”
“Georgio!” the General cried. “Is that any way to behave?! These people are out guests.”
“This is most inconvenient,” Domingo repeated, “but I suppose it can’t be helped. Captain Sanchez has informed me of your misfortune, Señor Mazeroux. He has already sent out the boat to search for your shipmates. If they haven’t been found by midnight, we will have to inform the authorities.”
“Forgive me,” Penelope inserted, “but why not inform the authorities now? They could help you search.”
Domingo finally acknowledged her, but he did it with a frown. “Unfortunately, señorita, we have been experiencing certain…technical problems. Our radio hasn’t been functional for the last three days. In order to inform the authorities, we must put into port and, as I’m sure you know, we are a long way from land. In the time it would take us to reach port, your shipmates could drift even farther from the shipping lanes.”
“Besides,” Gurrera added with an expansive gesture, “now that the boat is gone, we can’t call it back. We must wait where we are until midnight.”
So Domingo claimed his radio was out. I wondered if that were true, or if it was just an excuse to keep us isolated.
Suddenly the blender on the bar switched on. It jumped in its niche, emitting an angry, high-pitched whine that startled everyone present.
Estaban leapt immediately to silence it. He grinned at the rest of us apologetically.
“Careful, idiot!” Domingo admonished.
“But I didn’t touch it!” Estaban protested. “It went off by itself!”
Domingo still wasn’t convinced. After favoring Estaban with another frown, he turned back to me. “We will do what we can to provide for your needs,” he continues, “but I will have to ask that you confine yourselves to your staterooms or to this lounge. Under the circumstances, the presence of your daughter and her friend could prove disruptive.”
“Now, I have asked that staterooms 14A and 14B be cleared for you. Perhaps you will be kind enough to go there and wait until we’ve explained your presence to the other guests?”
“But their food!” Estaban cried. “I just called the galley and asked them to send something up!”
Then call back and have the food sent straight to their cabins!” Domingo snapped. “Our friends are probably too tired for company anyway.”
“Yes,” I agreed completely. “We are tired.”
Overridden on two sides, Estaban was forced to concede. He nodded and a little of the starch went out of him. “Yes, sir…”
“Now if you would be kind enough to take these people below, I’m sure they’d like to rest a little.”
“Yes, sir,” Estaban repeated. He came and took Marguerite’s arm, more gently this time. “Come on. It’s this way.”
We said our goodbyes and expressed our thanks, then followed Estaban aft. We left behind aus a room frozen in odd tableau, with Gurrera smiling softly at our departing backs and Domingo staring sourly at the blender.
“It’s not my fault,” Estaban insisted in a tight whisper to Marguerite as we started down to the deck below. “About the blender, I mean. The thing really did turn on by itself. Stuff like that has been happening for the last three days. It’s as if this damn ship is haunted.”
* * * * *
The staterooms we’d been given were small, but comfortable, each furnished with a double bed, a built-in wardrobe and its own tiny bath. Clothing and towels were also provided, and each bath was equipped with appropriate toiletries. We had everything we might need without once having to ask for it and while I would normally have considered this to be charmingly thoughtful of our hosts, on board the Santorini I found it just a tad sinister.
Marguerite, on the other hand, was happy as a clam. When our food arrived, seconds later, she tucked into it with gusto.
Estaban hovered for a moment, waiting for an invitation to join her. When no such invitation was forthcoming, he looked slightly crestfallen and excused himself, saying he’d come back to check on us later.
We were alone now and I should have felt relieved, but I didn’t. I felt irritable and nervous and not well disposed to eat. I forced myself to take a little of the food, though. I hadn’t eaten since late the previous evening and I had to keep up my strength.
Penelope didn’t eat so much as she nibbled, taking tidbits from her plate to much on as she prowled about the cabins. She inspected the bathrooms, the wardrobes, the bedside cabinets and the beds. She also explored the air conditioning vents and the two portholes, opening the one in the other room to stick her fine English nose outside. After scrutinizing the hull briefly, she pulled her head back in and shut the porthole. “Too small,” she called to us in French.
“It doesn’t matter,” Marguerite replied, talking with her mouth full. “We’re not going out that way.”
“I didn’t think we were, darling.” Penelope swept into our cabin, selecting another morsel of chicken from her plate and collapsed across the bed, nibbling daintily. “I was thinking more of an emergency exit. You never know when you might need one.”
Marguerite waved the notion away with an expressive stab of her fork. “If we need a quick exit, we will make one. That’s why we brought the can-opener.”
I glared at her. “Zantetsu-ken is not a ‘can-opener’!”
“Of course not, but you must confess he does have an impressive number of, ah, utilitarian functions.”
I wasn’t mollified, but I let the matter go. There’d be time to argue about it later. “So, what now?”
“Now, I’m going to finish my lunch.”
“And after that?”
“I’m going to have a nap.”
“This isn’t a pleasure cruise, Rita dear!”
“I know, Papa, but there won’t be much we can do before dark. In any case, we are supposed to be castaways. They will expect us to be exhausted. –Besides, I am hungry and I am tired. As you recall, I was the one who did all the rowing!”
“I also recall you’re the one who came up with this stupid scheme. If you are now suffering, it isn’t because the blame lies elsewhere.”
“Now, now, now, dear friends and gentle hearts,” Penelope cooed. “This isn’t the time to quarrel. I happen to think dear Rita is right. We should wait and rest a little.”
Again I wasn’t mollified, but, again, I let it go. I tried returning to my food only to find the chicken in bland butter sauce insipid. I forced myself to take two more bites, then set the plate aside.
Marguerite looked up, hopeful. “Are you finished?”
“Then I’ll take it. Waste not; want not, you know.”
Without so much as a by-your-leave, Marguerite took my plate and dumped my leftovers onto hers. She then proceeded to devour everything with all the decorum of a starving piranha.
Even Penelope was appalled. “How in Heaven’s name do you eat like that and still maintain your figure?”
“I have a hollow leg.”
“He has a hollow head,” I corrected.
“She, Papa dearest. ‘She has a hollow head.’ Why must I always correct your grammar?”
I said something in Japanese that defied grammatical correction.
Penelope retrieved her plate before Marguerite could make off with that, too. “Enough of this,” she decided. “We should decide what we’re going to do once we’re sufficiently rested.”
“The plan of attack is simple,” Marguerite said between mouthfuls. “We wait until evening, then we slip out and have a look around. We locate the Ark. We also locate a means of transporting it. Then we return to our cabins and wait until two in the morning. At that time, while the ship is sleeping, we’ll merely grab the goods and steal away.”
“That’s just a trifle too simple, darling. The Santorini is a large vessel. It will take us forever to find what is wanted if we’ve no idea where to look.”
“Oh, we’ve some idea,” Marguerite protested. “For one thing, we know it’s not likely to be in any of the guest cabins. It’s also unlikely to be in the crew’s quarters, or in any working location where it’s apt to be damaged. By the same token, it can’t be in any of the public areas. It’s too big to hide in a paint-locker, so that limits our choices nicely. It’s either in Domingo’s or Gurrera’s private quarters or it is in one of the cargo holds.”
“That would prove a bit dicey, wouldn’t it? If it’s in their quarters.”
“True, but I don’t think it is. Remember: Domingo didn’t store the thing in his house in Mexico. It would’ve been safer to do so, but he didn’t. He stored it in his boathouse. Frankly, I don’t think he likes having it underfoot.”
Gurrera is too arrogant to care. He is also too arrogant to worry about details. He would leave them to Domingo.”
“Which leaves us with the cargo holds,” Marguerite continued, pushing her empty plate aside and sipping from her cup of coffee. “On a ship this size, there are two: One in the bow and another one back by the engines. The one by the engines is usually used for refrigerated storage, so this leaves us with but one possibility.”
“Yes,” Penelope agreed. “It does, rather.”
“You are forgetting three things, my daughter.” I growled. “One, we need transportation. If we aren’t lucky enough to commandeer a lifeboat hanging in its falls, we’ll have to find some means of lowering one into the water. Two, the object in question is not small. We’ll either have to commandeer a derrick or try to sneak it down the gangway. I don’t think we dare pitch it overboard. For one thing, this would make too much noise. For another, the item might sink. Even if it doesn’t, I don’t think our clients will be pleased with soggy merchandise. Three, the cruiser is due back by midnight. Once it’s back, Domingo will ship anchor and set sail. It will be impossible to launch any craft, loaded or unloaded, once Santorini is underway.”
Marguerite was unruffled. She took another sip of coffee. “The third problem is the easiest. We’ll simply do something ‘artistic’ to the engines’ electrical system. Since they’re already having electrical problems, they won’t view an engine malfunction as strange. As for problem two… It isn’t a problem at all if we are indeed able to capture a lifeboat in its falls. This leaves us only with problem number one, and I’ll think of something. I always do.”
“Do you know something, my darling daughter? You are as arrogant as Gurrera.”
She shrugged. “Perhaps, but I’m much better looking.”
There was a chuckle from Penelope, who finished up her supper and set her empty plate on top of Marguerite’s. She also gathered up the other dishware, arranged it neatly on our dinner tray and placed that tray out in the passage. She peered carefully up and down the passageway before coming in and closing the door again.
“Anything?” I wondered.
“There’s a young man down at the end of the passage having a cigarette and trying not to look too obvious. I didn’t see anyone else.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Marguerite yawned, flopping back on the bed. “That young man’s mind will wander once he’s bored. We will now proceed to bore him and lull our hosts into a feeling of false security by taking a nap. You can have that room, Penny dear. I’ll stay here with daddy.”
“No you won’t,” I disagreed. “Domingo will expect you to sleep with your girlfriend and that’s what you’ll do. We will do nothing which might make him suspicious.”
Marguerite shot me a startled look and Penelope giggled.
“You’ve slept with her before,” I pointed out.
“In the same room, yes, but not in the same bed!”
“I’m shattered!” Penelope cried in mock distress. “You don’t trust me!”
“Of course I trust you, Penney dear. It’s juts that I, uh…”
Marguerite wanted to argue, but couldn’t think of anything to say. Finally she shot me another wounded glance and got to her feet. “Very well,” she decided. “I wouldn’t want to upset Monsieur Domingo.” She turned to her “girlfriend.” “Just you remember, though, Penny dearest: I’m not that kind of girl!”
“I’ll be good as gold,” Penelope promised. She waited until Marguerite had moved through the interconnecting doorway into the room beyond before adding: “but with a little encouragement, I could be even better.”
Marguerite stopped for a second, then she sort of slumped. She continued moving on her way with the determined, but weary tread of a man on his way to the scaffold.
Penelope gifted me with a twinkling smile before closing the door behind them.
* * * * *
In the practice of Kendo, there is a thing called zanshin. It is a meditative state in which the sword becomes part of the body. If oneness isn’t achieved, the student will never become a master, no matter how hard he practices. A Samurai can’t be divorced from his sword and still be a Samurai.
Zantetsu-ken and I never had a problem achieving zanshin. He was as natural to me as breathing. As I sat in seiza position with my right hand lying palm-downward on my right thigh and my left hand closed around my katana on my left, I could feel the oneness throbbing through me like the beat of my own blood.
It was late spring and the sun was golden. The petals of fallen cherry blossoms were scattered in the dust of the practice yard. A gentle breeze was blowing, causing those petals to chase each other like children dancing in a ring. The air was sweet with warmth and the only sound was the distant ringing of a wind-bell. The vibrations of that bell passed through me as if I were as transparent as the air itself.
Four paces in front of me was a practice target; a dummy made of baled rice-straw bound around a bamboo stake. As I sat, I let my concentration shift to that target. I felt the target as I felt my body and the warm sun on my back.
When Zantetsu-ken left his scabbard, a part of me took flight. I flew at my target without thinking. The blade was a flash of lightning as it came arcing down.
My blade bit easily into the sweetness of the rice-straw only to strike against something hard. The katana gave an agonized cry as the impact sent pain shooting up my arm.
I was thrown sideways and landed badly. Only many years of dedicated practice kept me from cutting myself with my own blade.
When I looked up again, the sky was black. The practice yard had become a shelf of naked stone. The only light came from my katana. Zantetsu-ken, making him pulse like a quasar while violent vibrations shook my arm.
The peace of zanshin was shattered. For once, I felt no communion with my sword. The thing in my hand had a life of its own and it was fighting to get away from me. With a howl of rage, it tore itself free and went flying up in a long, glowing arc, flashing end over end in the darkness. When it landed, it drove itself point-first into a rock.
For a second, it stood there, conversant with flickers of blue, lavender and pink, then the tremors began. They spread out in waves from the sword, shuddering the landscape. They were so bad, I had to throw myself facedown on the stone and cling for dear life.
The rock turned to the consistency of dough as the convulsions continued. It softened under me and I sank. I was going to be smothered, I thought. I was going to be crushed. Because of my own sword!
As I sank below the surface, a voice called out to me, speaking from the depths of the rock itself;
Goeman, wake up!
Somebody was shaking me. Someone had a hand on my shoulder and was shaking it gently. I wanted to slap their hand aside, but I couldn’t. I was mired too deeply in sleep.
“Wake up! It’s time to go!”
My eyes came open and I saw the curve of the pillow stretching away from me. I saw the shadowed depths of the wardrobe across from my bed. I also saw a figure bending over me. It was a man’s figure, slender and naked to the waist.
“Yes. Come on now. We’ve got to go.”
“What happened to Marguerite?”
“She’s still asleep in bed. So’s dear Penelope. Sit up a little so I can fix your face.”
I sat up. My body felt like led and my brain was a mass of wet cotton. As I sat, half=sensible, fingers came out of the darkness and gently peeled the latex mask off my face.
“What time is it?”
“Half-past seven. Time we did a little reconnaissance.”
I rubbed my eyes and picked off the last bits of spirit-gum. Finally, I began to feel human. “Why are you out of character?”
“Because there are no other women on board,” Lupin replied, peeling additional mats of latex off the backs of my hands. “If I went skulking around in drag, I’d attract too much attention. Therefore I have found it expedient to leave dear Marguerite in bed. Which is also where I intend to leave daddy.
He pushed the covers back and I sat up, lying my katana across my knees. The saya was still covered by a lumpy coat of dental wax that made it look like a piece of gnarled wood and it felt strange to me. I remembered my dream and shuddered.
Then I saw the cabin was dark; much to dark for half-past seven on a summer evening. The porthole above my bed was open, providing the only light in the room. The sky framed by the porthole was mottled black. A storm was coming in.
I turned the switch on my bedside lamp, but it didn’t work.
“They’re having another electrical problem,” Lupin explained. “Power is out all over the ship. Both the main generator and the batteries. I heard the crew talking about it out in the passageway.”
“No one seems to know. Personally, I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. This blackout’s to my advantage, so I’ll use it.”
“Right behind you, darling.”
I turned and saw the Earl standing on the opposite side of my bed. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt and his long hair was hidden beneath a bandanna of some sort. That made sense. Of the thirty-eight men aboard Sanorini, he was the only blond.
Lupin threw a pair of jeans at me. “Get dressed,” he commanded. “Pull that wig off, too, and tie your own hair back in a ponytail. Remember: You’re a member of the crew. Try to think like a Mexican sailor.”
I had no idea what a Mexican sailor thought, so I contented myself with just looking like one. I pulled the jeans on, my wig off and secured my own hair with the rubber bank Lupin provided. I also tied a square swatch of cloth around my neck like a kerchief and stood impassively while Lupin daubed my face with smears of dark ink taken from a pen he had found in a drawer.
“Estaban has been back to check on us twice,” Lupin reported, whispering. “The last time he did so, he locked us in. They obviously don’t want us wandering around during an emergency so we’ll oblige them by doing just that.”
“Do we still have a guard?”
“Undoubtedly, but I don’t expect him to be any trouble. It’s dark, things are confused and people are nervous.”
Which only meant they’d be twice as likely to shoot first and ask questions afterwards. I didn’t say anything to Lupin, though. He’s already made up his mind.
“We’ll need light,” I pointed out.
“And there is light. Show him, Petticaris-chan.”
Two tiny stars twinkled in Dorian’s hand. They were tiny squeeze-flashlights you could buy in any novelty store.
“Isn’t it wonderful what you can hide in a size-B cup?” Lupin asked, pleased with his own ingenuity. He pulled me around into the dim light so he could examine my face. “Yes,” he decided. “You look very scruffy. How do you feel? If you’ve got your wits about you, we should leave now.”
“I’m fine,” I growled.
“Très bien! Petticaris, if you please.”
“My pleasure, darling.”
The Earl passed one of the tiny flashlights to Lupin, then drew a hairpin from his bandanna and knelt beside the door. Within seconds, I heard the faint click of a sprung lock and Dorian eased the door open just a little.
Now that it was open, I could hear a voice arguing in Spanish. The sound was coming from somewhere far to my left.
Eroica peered in that direction, then stood and beckoned to me. Before moving to join him, I glanced back at Lupin and saw him putting the finishing touches on a lump he’d constructed in my bed. Pillows and my wig mad for a reasonably convincing likeness of a human figure.
I tapped him and he nodded. Silent, we both joined Dorian at the door.
Dorian was the first one out, I was second, and Lupin was last. Careful not to make a sound, Lupin closed the door behind us. We were now alone in a passageway that was black as pitch.
Well, we weren’t entirely alone, nor was the passageway entirely black. There was an orb of light at the aft end of the corridor and in that orb of light stood a young man who was speaking into a walkie-talkie. His conversation was animated and he used his flashlight as a debating tool. As a result, the light-globe produced by the flashlight bounced and jiggled all over the passage terminus like a drunken firefly.
I’ve no idea what the argument was about. I’m not fluent in gutter-Spanish. On top of that, the man was turned away from us. I heard only a reference to Domingo and something about a “ceremony” up front.
Lupin watched him for a moment, crouched in the safety of the shadows, then he tapped both Eroica and me with a finger and crept up the corridor towards the bow.
Obediently, we followed him.
The three of us were barefoot and the passageway was thickly carpeted. The young man remained oblivious to our departure. By the time he thought to give the corridor a purely perfunctory sweep of his flashlight, we had already reached a ladder and disappeared from sight.
We emerged into a narrow maintenance passage thick with humidity and reeking of chlorine somewhere near the ship’s pool.
“What was all that about?” I whispered to Lupin, jerking a thumb back the way we’d come. “What’s this about a ‘ceremony’?”
“It’s nothing,” the thief replied. “Domingo’s arranged a little diversion for his guests while the crew works to correct the malfunction. Something to keep them occupied. After all, it wouldn’t do for him to appear to have lost control.”
Except maybe of an overconfident thief, I thought to myself as Lupin flashed me another impish grin. I restrained myself as he slipped down the passage away from me. There was no time.
Santorini was a large yacht and sumptuously furnished. She came equipped with a minuscule sauna and a modest gym. We passed both, dark and deserted, on our trek forward. We also passed a double rank of lockers standing at grim attention before we came to the pool.
The pool was located just forward of the bridge in a recessed area called a “well-deck.” Although small by most standards, this pool contained enough weight in water to have a noticeable effect on the roll of the ship. To negate this effect, the pool had been placed in this recess, lowering the Santorini’s center of gravity and making her more stable in stormy seas.
Not that the sea was stormy this evening. In spite of the lowering sky and the occasional flickers of lightning that glimmered coyly from behind the clouds, the Gulf was flat as a mill pond. Even the surface of the pool was free of any sympathetic swell.
Lupin stepped tentatively out onto the decking, casting a quick, experienced eye around at the abandoned deck chairs, the darkened water and the presently empty poolside bar. Suddenly he saw something that sent him scampering for cover. He dashed back through the hatchway like a fox being pursued by hounds.
“That won’t work,” he decided.
“Why?” the Earl wondered. “What is it?”
A second later, the answer reached us without Lupin’s having to say anything. A low rumble of male voices chanting and a flicker of light came from the deck above. While we watched from the shadows, a procession of robed men appeared, moving single-file along the port side. Each was dressed in a long hooded gown similar to the robe Gurrera had been wearing and each was carrying a red candle about two feet long. Leading this procession was another hooded man different from the others only in that he carried no candle. From the swagger in his step and the fat around his middle, I guessed that to be Gurrera himself.
They reached the bow and Gurrera took his place on the raised dais of the fo’c’sle. He waited for his followers to arrange themselves and, once they had, threw back his hood so they could all see his face. He spread his arms wide in benediction, taking in the whole grouping a single sweep of benevolence, then clapped his hands together and began to pray. The prayer was loud enough for me to hear, but not to understand. It was either in a language I didn’t know or some oddly garbled version of Latin.
“The Lord’s Prayer backwards,” Lupin snorted. “How very unoriginal! After all the trouble he’s gone to, you’d think the dear General could create a ceremony of his own!”
When the prayer finished, two acolytes joined Gurrera on his dais. They, too, put their hoods back and I saw one was Domingo and the other was a big man I didn’t know. Domingo passed his candle to the big man and bowed his obedience to Gurrera, who accepted it with a lordly not. Then Domingo ducked out of my line of sight for a second. When he returned, he was holding two objects. One was a large, black rooster bound in a straw carrier and the other was a black iron bowl.
Only the head and neck of the rooster were visible, poking through the open end of the carrier. With its wings and legs bound tight to its body, it couldn’t possibly move. All it could do was glare at the assembly with beady-eyed hostility as Domingo passed it to Gurrera.
The General held the bird aloft and was greeted by cries of approval, as if the poor creature was the prize in some sort of tournament. The cock puffed out its neck feathers in reaction to the noise. The rooster was outraged, but it didn’t have to suffer the indignity long. In a gesture so fluid and deadly it froze me, the General drew a knife from his sleeve and struck off the bird’s head. Blood came pouring down as the rooster’s body convulsed. Domingo caught it in the black iron bowl.
We were revolted, of course, but we were also transfixed, enthralled by the sheer perversion of it. Silent, we watched as the cock poured out its life and then was discarded overboard.
Domingo passed the bowl to Gurrera, who again held it aloft as he had held the bird. This time the cries that greeted him were more hushed and reverent. Hands that were raised, were raised more in supplication than in triumph. The death of the bird had had the desired sobering effect on the assembly. Although it was just a “little death” and these men thought nothing of killing one another over territory and selling poison to children, they suddenly grew sober. Death was death, be it a rooster’s or a man’s.
The General left the dais to pass among his flock. He used the still-warm blood to draw crosses on the foreheads of his faithful.
Dorian shrank back against the bulkhead with a shudder. “That is disgusting!”
“Yes,” Lupin agreed. “But it’s also an interesting polyglot of symbolism. The General performs a baptism of blood to bind the faith of his followers and to confirm their loyalty. He washes them clean, so to speak, of all past associations and at the same time marks them as his own. It is a combination communion an blood-oath all tied up with the ritual strings of a Black Mass. Now if Gurrera wants to drive this thing to its proper Saturnine climax, he should take the blood and drink from it, at once swallowing the sins of the assembly and consuming part of their mortal souls.”
While Lupin spoke, Gurrera finished daubing blood on the foreheads of his followers. He returned to the fo’c’sle and stood for a second, contemplating the half-full bowl. Then, as Lupin predicted, he brought the bowl to his mouth. He didn’t drink from the blood, though; he drained it. He guzzled it with such avarice, red trickles appeared at the corners of his mouth.
Now it was Lupin’s turn to flinch. He wrinkled his find French nose. “You know,” he remarked, “there are times when I’d rather not be right.”
“Let’s get on with this, love,” the Earl insisted softly. “Let’s find what we’ve come for and leave. This is not a nice place and these aren’t nice people. The sooner we are shed of them, the happier I’ll be.”
“Right,” Lupin agreed. “We’ll try back this way. Come on.”
We slipped back into the maintenance corridor, circumnavigating the pool in the other direction. After two minutes in the chlorine-ripe darkness, we came at last to another door.
This door lead into what could only have been the crew’s quarters. It bore a vague resemblance to the passenger areas, but its deck was not carpeted and its bulkheads were bare. A threadbare calendar bearing the picture of a naked girl was the only decoration. It hung beside the hatchway to the tiny cubicle that formed the crew’s mess.
There was no one in sight. The quarters were vacant. Cups of coffee on the tables of the crew’s mess told us just how suddenly the men had been called away.
“They’re probably all off hunting up the electrical problem,” Lupin speculated. “With a storm coming in, they’ll need to make repairs right away. A ship this size should withstand a squall nicely, but the ride will be rough. Gurrera’s flock isn’t used to discomfort and they don’t strike me as the sort of brew you should stir.”
“And what about us, darling?” Eroica wondered. “How are we apt to fare if it storms? Maneuvering a large crate into a small boat and getting away from here would be difficult under ideal circumstances. I shudder to think how impossible it night become if the weather should turn foul.”
“Courage, Petticaris-chan. The tempest hasn’t started yet and, if it does, I don’t think it’s destined to last long. It’ll probably be over by midnight. So might our lovely little power-failure. We’d better look while we have the chance.”
We searched the crew quarters and found nothing. It wasn’t until we worked our way back towards the passenger area that I heard Lupin whisper, “Voilà!”
“What is it?” I hissed back.
Lupin didn’t answer. Instead, he shined his tiny flashlight on a sealed door just forward of the linens cupboard. There was a warning stenciled on this door. Even in the dim light, I could read it. It said: ACCESS FORBIDDEN WITHOUT PERMISSION OF THE PURSER.
Lupin had found the hatchway to the forward cargo hold.
The lock on this hatch was pin-activated, accessed through a numbered keyboard similar to a telephone pad. There were two lights positioned above that keyboard, one green and the other red. One of them should have been glowing, but it wasn’t.
Eroica played briefly with these keys, but got no response. “No good, darling.”
“I didn’t think so,” Lupin agreed. “An electronic lock won’t work without electricity. We’ll have to cut our way in.”
“What about the alarm system? Might that not have its own autonomous power source?”
“I doubt it. This thing is probably designed to lock automatically during a power failure. Once sealed, the only way a potential thief could get in is to burn through the dogs with an acetylene torch. Average thieves rarely travel with that much equipment. That’s what the men who designed this ship were counting on.
“Of course,” Lupin continued, smiling, “we aren’t your ‘average’ thieves and we have resources the designer couldn’t possibly have foreseen. Neh, Goemon?”
I frowned at him.
He wanted me to cut that door and I resented his presumption. I resented the casual familiarity he betrayed when he called poor Zantetsu-ken a “can-opener.” I had the feeling this was all my sword was to him. Some sort of combination picklock and slicer-dicer. He was all but blind to the poetry the blade represented. That blade wasn’t a piece of metal; he was my very soul.
So if Zantetsu-ken was a tool, then I was a tool. That’s what Lupin thought of me.
I was angry. I wanted to say “No!” just so I could see the expression on his face. But I was also Samurai and, for good or ill, I had elected to follow Lupin. I couldn’t just abandon him, even if he was a thoughtless idiot.
However, I couldn’t blindly obey him either. That would have confirmed his opinion of me.
I didn’t move.
Eventually Lupin came to understand that he had, perhaps, trod too hard on my sensibilities. For a moment, he looked confused, then he had the surprising good grace to look ashamed. He ducked his head a little in a gesture of entreaty.
It was enough. I took my position in front of the cargo hatch as Lupin pulled Eroica out of the way.
The feeling of zanshin came quickly. In a way, I suppose, it was never really gone. It was a pulse through my body like my heartbeat. I only became aware of it when I centered my concentration there.
The blade flew, light on the dark air. Silver tension whirling with the faint ringing of steel. Up, out, flying and home.
I sheathed the katana with a click of its tsuba. In front of me, the cargo hatched stood as if untouched.
Eroica was confused. He’s seen the blur of light, heard the ring of the blade, cutting, but he found no visible effect. Unwilling to claim I’d failed, yet unable to accept that I’d succeeded, he stood without making a sound.
It was Lupin who moved. He went to the hatch and touched it with a single finger. Soundlessly, the great metal door swung back on its hinges, revealing the utter blackness of the cargo hold beyond.
“Perfect!” he told me.
“Of course,” I agreed.
“Attendez, mes infants,” Lupin called, stepping through the blackness. “Time is fleeting and our treasure awaits!”
The forward cargo hold was a room about twenty feet square with re-enforced metal bulkheads and a deck covered by a raised steel grating. It was pitch dark and about half full. The air was close, since the ventilators weren’t presently working, and the triple reek of creosote, burlap and rope was nearly suffocating.
Most of the cargo present was lashed to the bulkheads, secured against shifting by heavy ropes and bungee-cords. Most were crates of medium size, while some were big as steamer trunks and others were small as hatboxes. In places, they were stacked three deep. Since it was to Domingo’s advantage to disguise the Ark as something it wasn’t, it behooved us to inspect every parcel of an appropriate size, no matter how deeply buried. And since we expected this fortuitous power-outage to end any moment, we were forced to work as fast as we could.
It was clumsy work, given the limited light we’d brought with us. In a very short time we’d each experienced a share of bruised toes and barked knees. Tempers grew strained as our search continued to be unsuccessful. They reached their breaking point when I accidentally overturned a carton on Lupin’s foot.
Lupin said some things in French that were not only vulgar, they were anatomically impossible.
I was about to fire back with a round of my own when Eroica cried: “Here, I think I’ve found it!”
What he had was a heavy wooden crate about two meters long, a meter and a half high, and one meter wide. It had been freshly painted a uniform gray, but across the top a former stenciled inscription stood out in faint relief. It read: PROPERTY: U.S. ARMY.
I watched Lupin’s lips move as he struggled to decipher the string of serial numbers just beneath that. This was difficult, because the numbers were nearly obliterated, but Lupin saw enough to convince him of success. He smiled.
“You’re right, Petti-chan. I think you have it.”
“It’s bigger than I thought it would be,” the Earl replied. “Do you think we can manage?”
“We’ll have to, won’t we? Come on. Let’s dig it out.”
The crate in question was buried behind a double layer of smaller boxes. To free it, we had to clear these boxes out of the way. Dorian and I did most of this. Lupin stayed beside the crate, inspecting the top edge carefully.
“Has it been opened?” the Earl wondered.
“I don’t think so,” Lupin replied. “It’s kind of hard to tell, though, now that they’ve painted it. But the nails are old and they’re not at all loose, so I think it’s probably intact. The General hasn’t seen fit to monkey with it.”
“Do you think we ought to?”
“Ought to what? Open it?”
“Well, yes. After all, it’s only a box. What if it’s the wrong box? It would be a shame to come so far and risk so much only to make away with the wrong door-prize.”
“You have a point,” Lupin agreed.
“Fox did say we weren’t to do so,” I pointed out with a grunt, shifting the last two intervening boxes aside. “He said the contents might disintegrate if exposed to air.”
“They’re not as volatile as Fox is likely to be if we bring him the wrong present. Raconteur though I am, I’m not likely to talk my way out of that. If this turns out to be the wrong box, I’ll have saved us some costly embarrassment. If it’s the right one, and Fox was correct about the contents dissolving, we’ll simply tell him the General did it.
“Goemon, you give me a hand with this thing. Eroica love, see if you can find us a crowbar.”
“Right away, darling.”
The Earl went off to search and I stepped in to help Lupin. I took one end while Lupin took the other, the tiny flashlight gripped in his teeth. We took a count of three and then we lifted. The crate came up more easily than I expected. It was heavy, to be sure, but not a heavy as I’d thought. With relatively little trouble, we carried it out into the center of the hold and set it down.
“It’s light,” I remarked.
“Only eighty or ninety pounds,” Lupin agreed. “And since half of that is container, this means the object inside weighs a maximum of fifty pounds. That doesn’t seem enough for a wooden vessel covered with gold. Unless the wood is very dry and the gold is only ‘leaf.’”
I said nothing. I was silent because I’d seen something which now absorbed my whole attention. On my end of the crate, under the fresh coat of paint, was a melted plastic packing envelope.
It suddenly occurred to me that I’d seen this damn thing before, in Domingo’s boathouse. Lupin had used it to block the door. Mesmerized, I reached out to touch the thing and felt a dim pulse like a heartbeat coming from my katana. My soul rang with sympathetic vibrations and I snatched my hand away.
Then Lupin cried, “Merde!” and the light went out. There was a clink as something dropped through the floor-grate.
Instantly I was alert. I leapt to the top of the crate and assumed a defensive posture, wating for Domingo’s goons to overwhelm us.
But Domingo’s goons never arrived. The only one to show up was Dorian. The Earl stood transfixed in his tiny nimbus of light, watching Lupin dance a jig. From the perplexed look on the man’s face, you’d have thought he’d stepped through into Bedlam.
Lupin certainly gave every evidence of having gone insane. He capered, gibbered, growled and danced, tearing wildly at the front of his pants as if they’d suddenly come alive and bitten him. In a final burst of frenzied activity, Lupin managed to rip something out of his right front pocket. Successful at last, he slumped to his knees. He knelt there for a moment, pinch-faced and panting, then glared at the thing he was holding in his hand.
It was a round, flat object about as big, but twice as thick, as a silver dollar. I recognized the thing even though the light was dim. It was a beeper.
All three of us carried beepers. We were to use them to summon Jigen and von Eberbach once we’d secured the Ark.
“What happened?” Dorian wondered.
“Damn beeper shorted out,” Lupin huffed. “It started arcing against my lower belly.”
“Are you all right?”
Lupin sighed. “Just slightly singed. I don’t think there’s any permanent—YEEOW!”
The beeper arced again while he was holding it. I saw the blue flash as it snapped out and burned his hand. Lupin immediately dropped the thing and it fell through the grate. When it his the deck, a foot below, it started blinking.
“Oh, no!” Lupin gasped. He strained to reach the fallen beeper, but he couldn’t. The spaces between the steel struts were too small for his hand. “It’s gone off!” he cried. “It’s sending out a signal!”
“Klaus will hear it,” Dorian concurred. “He’ll think we’re ready!”
And we weren’t ready. Not by a long shot.
I leapt down off the crate and pushed Lupin out of the way. “I’ll get it,” I told him, going for the hilt of my katana.
Lupin caught my wrist. “Wait!” he pleaded. “Let me think.”
“What’s there to ‘think’ about? If Jigen hears that signal, he will come!”
“He may come even if we shut the beeper off. He may assume we’ve been discovered. If he thinks we’re in trouble, he’ll move heaven and earth to get to us. You know he will, Go. He’s like that.”
“The same is true of Klaus,” Dorian quietly agreed. “Although the Major and I don’t always see things in the same light and although he roundly disapproves of my methods, he’d never abandon me in time of need. He’s always ready and willing to help, if only for the pleasure of screaming at me afterwards.”
I glowered at Lupin. “So what would you like me to do?”
“Nothing,” Lupin decided. “Leave the thing where it is. Fate has thrown us the ball and I think we’d better run with it.”
“Now? With a storm coming?”
“Now is as good a time as any. The lights are out and our hosts are occupied. As for the storm… It may work to our advantage. We’ll be harder to follow in a downpour.”
“What about the contents? Aren’t we going to check those?”
“No. Ripping the top off, then nailing it back on will take a lot of time and make a lot of noise. Now we can’t afford to do either. If this is the right box, then we’ll do well to get away with it quickly. If it isn’t… Well, I’ll just have to think of something. Won’t I?”
“Petticaris, give your light to Goemon and come help me with this. Goemon, you take the lead since you’re the one best equipped to deal with obstructions.”
The Earl obediently passed the tiny squeeze-light to me. My first action was to shine the little thing in Lupin’s eyes. “And where, might I ask, are we going?”
“Aft. While we were pulling in this morning, I noticed two pinnacles hanging in their davits off the after deck. Each was equipped with an outboard motor. Since they’re separate from the Santorini’s power-system, they should be just fine. We’ll simply cut one and take the other.
“What about the cruiser?”
“What about it? It’s only eight o’clock. They’re not back yet. Don’t nitpick, Goemon! It’s a waste of time! Take the lead and let’s get going!”
I waited with the light until they’d picked up the crate, then I went to the hatch and peered out into the passageway. There was no one about. The crew’s quarters were still empty.
Carefully, we slipped our parcel out of the hatchway and started at towards the passenger section with myself in the lead, Dorian supporting the front of the crate and Lupin bringing up the rear.
* * * * *
Being a steward aboard the Santorini was a thankless job. It meant playing nursemaid to a bunch of spoiled millionaires. It meant picking up their messes and catering to their whims, knowing all the while you had no more value for them than a coat-hanger or a shoe-tree. At best, they were indifferent. At worst, they were abusive. Good service they accepted without comment, while mistakes drew their immediate attention. The seamen, the officers, and even the cook could avoid contact with these pampered guests, but not the stewards. They were the first rank of hospitality which represented the ship even more than the captain did. If a moneyed patron didn’t think service was good, the ship wouldn’t be patronized.
A steward’s life wasn’t an easy one. Not even on a “normal” cruise with “normal” clientele. I can only imagine what it was like to serve on a ship where the lights kept going out and where they made blood-sacrifices on the foredeck.
The stewards of the Santorini may well have become immune to odd shocks and unexpected happenings because when a half-naked man leaped out of a dark cross-passage to confront one, he didn’t make a sound. He only stared with mild disbelief as the man raised something that looked like a cane and whacked him upside the head. He was still wearing that same bemused expression as he dropped unconscious to the deck.
I pulled both him and the flashlight he’d been carrying out of sight.
When next I appeared, I was wearing his crisply-pressed white pants, his polished shoes and his equally crisp white jacket. My hair was tucked down into the collar of his shirt and my face was a s clean as we could get it with his spit-dampened handkerchief. With the flashlight tucked under my left arm and the katana in my left hand, I straightened my collar and looked around carefully.
There was no on in sight.
“It’s all right,” I whispered back into the cross-passage. “You can come out now.”
Slowly, two men carrying a crate lumbered around the corner into plain sight. The one in front had a red bandanna tied around his blond hair while the one in back was dark and bare-headed. Both were flushed and sweating. The ninety pounds, which had seemed so relatively light in the cargo hold, was starting to feel a good deal heavier.
“Come on,” I urged. “It isn’t far now.”
“God, I hope not,” Lupin grunted. “This thing is starting to leave a permanent dent in my breast bone!”
“Courage, love,” Eroica whispered back. “Think of the Children of Israel. They used to carry this think all over the Holy Land.”
“Bully for them!”
“Ssssh!” I hissed sharply. “Someone will hear you!”
Actually, our trip through the passenger section had been remarkably uneventful. Aside from the steward I had waylaid, we’d seen only two crewmen, and they’d been far too preoccupied to notice us. As we watched from the shadows, they’d tromped quickly down the passage on their way aft, grim expressions on their grease-stained faces.
I was beginning to hope Lupin was right. We might just be able to do this. Captain Sanchez’s men were busy in engineering and Domingo’s brood were still out on the bow. That left the rest of the ship almost vacant.
We started up the stairway leading aft and I glanced back to see how Lupin and Dorian were doing. In the process, I almost collided with the man who was on his way down. He stumbled back half a step, nearly dropping the tray he was carrying.
On his tray were three covered dishes and a half-carafe of wine. I thought he was the other steward at first, then realized I was wrong. He wasn’t in uniform and I could see the butt of a pistol protruding from his waistband.
It was Estaban.
I froze, bringing our procession to a halt.
After a split-second of staring like a stupid idiot, I shined my flashlight into Estaban’s eyes. He winced at the glare. “Watch where you’re going, you clumsy shit!” he roared. “And get that light out of my face!”
“Sorry, sir,” I replied, lowering the flashlight, but not quite enough. “Please excuse me.”
“I’m the steward, sir.”
“What’re you doing here?”
“Housekeeping, sir. Captain’s orders.”
Estaban paused, squinting at me over the flashlight. To him, I was only a dark blur in a white suit.
He probably didn’t recognize Lupin or Eroica, either, but he was immediately suspicious about the crate.
“What have you got there?” he demanded.
“Nothing, sir. Just some spoiled fruit. Captain’s ordered it pitched overboard.”
It was a trite lie and Estaban didn’t buy it. He thrust his tray at me. “Hold this,” he commanded, “while I have a look. I don’t think I like your explanation.”
He shoved on past me, his hand on the butt of his pistol.
He didn’t draw that pistol. He didn’t get the chance. Immediately a tray laden with three covered plates and a half-carafe of wine smashed him in the back of the head. It didn’t knock him our, but it did knock him off his feet. He careened down the stairs, just barely missing Eroica.
“Go,” I hollered, pressing myself to the wall so they could get past. “Run!”
The thieves didn’t have to be told twice. They double-timed it up the steps and out through the hatchway above as I crouched and drew my katana.
Estaban hit bottom with a great clatter of pans and plates. He floundered there in a welter of spilled food as Eroica and Lupin pushed past me. By the time Estaban had gotten to his feet and drawn his gun, the two thieves were safely away and I was waiting for him on the staircase.
Naturally he fired at me. He was the sort who believed in guns the way some men believe in religion. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t have Jigen’s sensitivity or his skull. His first shot was wide. His second, I deflected.
The shot ricocheted back at Estaban and sent him diving for cover. About this time, he recognized the blade I was holding in my hand. If he didn’t know me, he certainly knew it. That blade had nearly cut him to sushi.
“Thief!” he began to shout. “Thief!”
It was this cry rather than the accompanying gunfire which caused me to abandon my position. Knocking another bullet aside, I turned and ran, dashing up through the hatchway on my way aft.
The stairway emerged into the ship’s dining room which had, until a few moments previously, been laid for a late supper. Now the table lay on its side and fine china and crystal were scattered. The one remaining steward and cook huddled in a far corner, clinging to each other in terror.
I bowed to them. “Sh’tsurei shimasu,” I told them both. “Please, excuse us.”
“THIEF!!” Estaban trumpeted, pounding up the stairs in hot pursuit. “Don’t any of you assholes understand me?!!”
Actually, probably not. Domingo and Gurrera were out on the bow and Captain Sanchez was preoccupied. They undoubtedly heard the noise, but they probably couldn’t tell what it was about. It was possible they didn’t even know where it was coming from. Just “aft.” And there was a lot of “aft” on the Santorini.
I ducked out the rear as Estaban appeared and pumped another two shots at me.
I appeared on a covered area of deck crowded with lounge chairs. Kicking some of those chairs over to block Estaban’s path, I raced to join Lupin.
Lupin and Eroica had reached the port pinnacle. The Earl hunched behind the crate as the Frenchman worked frantically to pull the cover off the boat. He wasn’t having much success. The tracings were tied with seamen’s knots and Lupin, the fool, hadn’t brought anything to cut them.
I cut them for him, parting the first four tracings with a delicate slice that didn’t even mar the pinnacle’s paint. Lupin grinned at me.
“Save it!” I shouted back. “Get that boat loaded quickly!”
A crash and a curse announced Estaban’s arrival. He’d been so anxious to get to me, he’d fallen over one of the deckchairs. I was on him before he could get to his feet. Bu the time he reached his knees, his gun was missing its whole front half and his shirt had been sliced to ribbons.
That backed him off for a moment.
I thought maybe he would cut and run, but he didn’t. I’d forgotten he was such a macho clod. Rather than admit defeat, he started grasping at straws. He picked up a deckchair and tried to brain me with it.
I cut the thing to splinters.
That didn’t stop Estaban, either. He grabbed another chair. If he hadn’t been such an offensive jerk, I might have admired his tenacity.
A bullet whizzed past me, so close I could feel the hot breath of its passage on my cheek. It hadn’t come from Estaban, but from overhead. I looked up and saw someone standing on the roof of the dining room, holding a high-powered rifle. It was one of Gurrera’s acolytes.
The next bullet actually ruffled my hair. I ducked to my left and just avoided being brained by Estaban.
Behind me, the work of loading and launching the pinnacle continued. The crate was safely aboard now and both thieves were laboring to crank the boat out in its falls so that it would be ready to lower into the water. With the sniper on the roof above, of course, this was very difficult.
I still had the steward’s flashlight. I took a moment to heave it at the assassin. It flew like a shuriken, end over end, and popped him right in the forehead.
The man went down.
So did I, I’m ashamed to say. While I was concentrating on the sniper, I neglected Estaban and he was only too glad to oblige me.
The edge of an aluminum lounge chair slammed into my side, bruising my ribs and knocking the wind out of me. I hit the deck with a great whoosh of breath and rolled to get out of reach. Staggered by my own stupidity, I lurched back to my feet and stood for a moment, gasping.
Estaban was flushed with success. Grinning at me in an evil way, he lifted the chair and thundered forward.
I was ready to take him, but I never got the chance. He took two steps, then this surprised and vacant look came over his face. Without a word, he just fell over.
Behind him stood the English thief who called himself Eroica. He was holding one of the metal crank-handles he’s been using to help Lupin launch the boat. Apparently he’d found another use for it.
“Are you all right, darling?” he asked.
“D-daijobu,” I grunted, still a little short of breath. “Is that idiot Frenchman ready yet?”
“Quite. We were just waiting for you to join us.”
And I saw I’d have to join right away. The alarms of the nigh had finally spread. I could hear curses and yells as the party on the bow started to stampede sternwards.
“Get in the boat,” I ordered. “I’ll be along in a second.”
“Do hurry, love. It’s apt to get quite warm around here very soon now.”
Dorian ran to join Lupin and I sprinted over to make kindling of the other boat. I didn’t stop for niceties; I just sliced the thing in half. Three Quick cuts and it broke in two, sagging forlornly in its davits.
By the time I was done, Gurrara’s faithful had arrived and I had to sprint again as automatic weapons fire chased me across the deck. With a single great leap, I landed atop the crate as Lupin and Eroica ducked below the gunwales.
“Hold on!” I cried.
Zantetsu-ken lashed out, parting both falls within a second of each other.
The pinnacle belly-flopped into the water with a horrendous splash that threw me off my feet. I tumbled down onto Eroica. We sprawled in a hopeless tangle in the front of the boat as Lupin pounced on the outboard and pulled its starter rope. God must have been with us, because he got it on the first try.
The outboard roared with wet fury as Lupin pulled clear of the Santorini’s stern. Bullets plucked into the water as we beat a path seaward. Deprecations followed us even longer than the bullets did. When last seen. Gurrera was standing up on the broken remains of the other pinnacle still dressed in his long, black robe. He was shaking both fists at us.
I sat up once the gunfire had stopped, wincing at the pain in my ribs. Estaban hadn’t broken those ribs, but he’d bruised them. He’s also torn the skin. There was a red smudge on the steward’s shirt where he’d hit me.
Dorian watched with concern as I sheathed my katana. “Are you quite sure you’re all right?”
“Yes,” I grunted. “Don’t worry about the blood. It’s nothing.”
“Blood?” Lupin called from his place in the stern. “What happened? Is one of you bleeding?”
“Goemon is, darling. Just a little. He says it’s nothing.”
“Were you hit?” he asked me.
“Only by a deckchair,” I replied. “As I told Eroica, it’s nothing.”
“You take it easy anyway. The party’s over and we’ve come away with the door-prize. There isn’t anything Domingo can do about it now. His engines are down and his other boat’s disabled. By the time his cruiser arrives at twelve, we’ll have rendezvoused with the Amanda May. We’ll be home free with nothing to stop us.”
“You hope so!” I hollered back. “We don’t know if we’ve grabbed the right ‘door-prize.’ If we didn’t, we’re going to look like complete fools! After this, Domingo will quadruple his security! You may never have a chance to correct your error!”
“We’ve got the right prize,” Lupin said with a smirk I could hear. He patted the crate. “Tonight, I just feel lucky.”
Somehow I didn’t share his enthusiasm. Maybe it was because of the pain in my side and maybe it was because I was haunted by misgivings. Lupin’s plan had been too fragmentary to meet with such success and the power outage seemed too convenient. As I sat brooding, the outraged roar from the Santorini’s after deck seemed to change. It took on a vaguely mocking sound, almost as if those men were cheering.
God takes care of children and fools, I thought to myself, and Lupin is a little of both. Maybe he was “just lucky.” I certainly hoped so. I wanted very much to settle this matter for good and all. I didn’t like the doubts crawling about at the edges of my thoughts. They made me very uneasy.
Soon, I told myself. Soon we would rendezvous with the Amanda May. Then we could pry the lid off our crate and have a look. We would lay all our doubts to rest. Finally.
* * * * *
The Santorini never did give chase. This was fine with me, because the storm we were anticipating never materialized. The wind came up and the clouds dissipated. A star-strewn sky was revealed at last, exultant in its blackness.
At a quarter past ten, a gibbous moon rose, silvering the water. Its crystalline light glowed on the spread wings of the Amanda May as she rode out to greet us.
With our outboard, it was easier for us to maneuver, so we went to the Amanda May rather than let her come to us. We settled alongside as Lupin throttled back and Dorian threw von Eberbach the bow line.
“That was fast,” Jigen called from his place at the helm. “We didn’t expect to see you before daybreak.”
“We had some unexpected good luck,” Lupin hollered back. “Domingo’s ship has been having electrical problems for the last three days. As about seven this evening, they experienced a complete electrical shutdown. Everything stopped, including their engines.”
The Major frowned. “That was pretty verdammt convenient, wasn’t it?”
“Not for them,” Lupin replied. “As for me…” He shrugged. “I saw my chance and I took it.”
“I thought you’d bought it for a while there,” said Jigen, as he tacked around to put the sailboat between our pinnacle and a rising swell. “When your beeper went off, I figured Domingo had nailed you. You said to expect a call at twelve. When it came in at eight, I was convinced something bad had happened.”
“I thought you might,” the French thief agreed. “I know you, Daisuke. You’re a worry-wart. You always suspect the worst where I’m concerned.
“Do you blame me?”
“No. Not really.”
“I don’t blame him, either,” the Major growled, rescuing our aft line form James, who was having trouble securing it. “If I had to rely on you, I’d have gone insane long ago. You are the most self-centered, inconsiderate an manipulative fool it has ever been my displeasure to know. In fact, I’d have to say you’re even worse than he is and, Gott knows, I’ve always thought he was bad enough!”
He nodded his dark head at Eroica.
The Earl looked stricken. “Bad?!!” he cried. “Am I ‘bad’?! I always thought I was splendid!”
“You are splendid, Dorian-chan,” Lupin soothed. “Don’t mind them. They’re only peeved because they’ve been left out of the action.”
“Action-schmaction!” James put in. “I’m just glad not to be shot at, thank you! We’ve been put through a lot of grief for damned little reward and I, for one, will be more than happy to get back to our regular business!”
“’Regular business’!” the Major snorted. “Your idea of ‘business’ is pilfering silverware from restaurants and raiding hotels for linens!”
Lupin laughed. The loud, appreciative laugh that signaled the release of his tension. His war had been fought; his battle won. He was home now, among friends.
“Come on now, my children,” he said. “Let’s not fight. Pass down some ropes so we can secure this thing and get it on board. I’d like very much to get out of here.”
* * * * *
There was no derrick on board the Amanda May. To lift the crate required a rope sling and a good bit of muscle power. With Jigen, von Eberbach and I to do the lifting and Lupin and Eroica to steady it, we carefully eased the thing up over the rail, settling it onto the deck with a mutual grunt of satisfaction.
“Now,” said Lupin, scrambling up to help us pull the ropes off. “Let’s see what we’ve got here. Somebody get me a crowbar.”
The Major frowned. “You’re going to open it? Here?”
“Why not? We have to verify the contents, don’t we? Besides, I’m fearfully curious about this thing. If it really is the Ark of the Covenant, I’d like to see it.”
The big German shrugged. If truth be told, he was curious, too. Too curious to really argue.
Jigen produced a crowbar and a hammer. While I watched, Lupin held the bar as Jigen used the hammer to drive it under the lip of the wooden lid. The wood gave grudgingly. It was old and hard and the nails which held it had rusted in position. It took a lot of work for them to pry it loose and it complained piteously the entire time, creaking and groaning in protest.
What they uncovered was a bed of crumbling excelsior, redolent with the smells of dry-rot and age. Tenderly, Lupin shifted this disintegrating mass aside, exposing a sculpted lid that gleamed softly in the moonlight.
Jigen lifted his lantern higher and that soft gleam became a dazzling golden glow. The lid lay revealed in all its shimmering splendor, surmounted by a pair of gilt angels.
“Oooo!” James cooed. “Pretty!”
He reached out to touch the thing and the Major slapped his hand aside. “No!” he ordered sternly. “Don’t do that!”
“Let him touch it if he wants,” Lupin countermanded. “We’ve gone to a lot of trouble to get this and before very long we’ll have to surrender it to Fox. In the meantime, we might as well enjoy it. Get on the other end of this, Jigen. Help me lift it.”
Jigen positioned himself on the other end of the crate, then he and Lupin reached down into the rotting excelsior. With infinite care, they lifted the gilded box out and set it on the deck beside its packing crate.
It was a splendid thing. Entirely covered in gold, it stood about thirty inches high and forty inches long, supported by four short legs ending in animal-paws. Rings protruded from each long side, guides for the carrying poles which no longer existed. Its design was mostly Egyptian with some Byzantine elements thrown in, giving evidence that other owners had mad their own contributions. The angels on top were certainly of a later vintage than the Ark itself. Though they wore Egyptian garb, they were far too sensitively rendered to be original. There was something truly touching about the way they faced each other across the lid with their wings stretched out protectively.
Lupin was beside himself with glee. He did a war dance around the Ark, finishing up with a back-flip and cartwheel. Exultant, he shook his fists at the night, bursting with more enthusiasm than even his wiry body could contain. “Yes!” he cried. “Absolutely!”
There was a general murmur of approval as the spell was broken. Jigen grinned, Eroica laughed, and even the Major looked satisfied. James joined Lupin in his impromptu dance, for once convinced there was more than gold which glittered.
I should have shared their happiness, but I didn’t. As I stood looking at the Ark, I felt a coldness begin to grow inside me. I felt divorced from everything I knew. The happiness and revelry aboard the Amanda May were closed to me; its people were no more than shadows. Their laughter reached me only as an echo of something far away. I was out side and cut off, adrift in a featureless wasteland.
For comfort, I turned to Zantetsu-ken, reaching out to him through zanshin. But, when I touched him, I found him cold and still. He was aloof from tonight’s goings-on and, somehow, I felt he shouldn’t be.
I don’t know how I knew, but I did. Suddenly the conviction just popped into my mind. I didn’t try to argue with it because I knew I was right. Slowly, I began to back away from the Ark.
“Lupin…” I said. “This is the wrong box…”
The thief was flabbergasted. He stared at me. “What are you talking about?! Of course it’s the right box. Look at it!”
“No…” I insisted. “Wrong box…”
Something in my voice hit a responsive chord in Jigen. He took Lupin’s arm and tried to pull the Frenchman away.
Lupin angrily shrugged his hand off. “Stop it, both of you! You’re acting like frightened old women! I don’t know what delusions you’ve convinced yourself of, but this is the Ark! It’ meets exactly with the Major’s description!”
I shook my head. “No. Wrong box. Run, Lupin! RUN!!”
Overcome by the feeling of menace, I turned on my heel and dashed for the stern. I knew I couldn’t convince Lupin with words and time was running out. I sensed it.
My departure had a chilling effect on Lupin. Suddenly doubtful, he looked down at the Ark. Slowly, he began to back away from it.
A second later, the true exodus began. Thieves, their sense of self-preservation heightened by years of clandestine adventure, broke as a group and ran for the rail. Only von Eberbach hesitated and even he didn’t hesitate long. He’d been a NATO operative as long as I had been a thief. His instinct for self-preservation was almost as good as Lupin’s.
Two long strides carried the Major to the rail and over it. The others were long since gone. Only after I was sure my example had been followed did I quite the Amanda May myself. Then I dove in and started swimming.
I swam as hard as I could for as long as I could. I knew I would need the distance.
The explosion which rocked Amanda May lifted her right out of the water. Broken shreds of her upper works flew like rockets into the sky as flaming debris was scattered. The hull, the upper deck entirely gone, settled back into the sea and began to burn. The resulting fire raged like an inferno.
I was lucky. I was hit only once by a small piece of wreckage, but it had enough force to open my shoulder like a knife. I sand momentarily as bubbles of pain swarmed around me.
When I surfaced again, the fallout was over. The wreck of the Amanda May was riding low in the water while flames licked at it hungrily. The fire ran in red reflection over the surface of the sea, making the bits of shattered flotsam stand out in black relief. The view from my position was hellish.
“Lupin?!” I cried. “Jigen?! Are you all right?”
There was no answer.
I scanned the wreckage frantically, looking for survivors. The only person I saw was Eroica. He surfaced about ten yards away, holding something against his body in a lifeguard’s grip. As he reached for a piece of the boom to support himself, I saw that object was von Eberbach. The Major’s face was slack and still. Dorian appeared to by crying.
“LUPIN! DAMN YOU!”
But Lupin didn’t answer. As I looked for him, I saw a light on the horizon heading towards us. It was a big ship, attracted by the glow of our burning hulk. They’d reach us in about twenty minutes.
I might have been relieved, but I wasn’t. The only “big ship[“ in the immediate area was the Santorini. That this ship was under power didn’t change my mind. Domingo had manufactured a false Ark. Why wouldn’t he manufacture a false power outage?
The fool had been fooled, I realized with a sickening sinking of soul. Domingo had played us for idiots. He’d known from the very first who we were.
Now he was coming back to finish things up. He’d deal harshly with any survivors.
I thought briefly of how good it would be to rest, to slip softly beneath the surface, but that though was only a momentary one. Eroica was still alive. So might Lupin be. If there was a chance, I owned him what little help I had to give. If there was no chance, I owed him vengeance.
Gripping the scabbard of my katana in my teeth, I swam over to help Dorian.
I have only a vague recollection of being lifted from the water. I know I came up angry and spoiling for a fight. I have memories of cold cocking whichever one of Domingo’s thugs was unfortunate enough to grab me. He went flying over backwards as I splashed down onto the boards of the Santorini’s gangway and landed with a satisfying thud.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t sustain my charge. My body was sore from being blown into the Gulf of Mexico and my right arm felt like lead. I couldn’t wield my katana with anything approaching my usual skill. Still, I suppose I did well enough, all things considered. In addition to gold cocking the thug who pulled me aboard, I cut the guns out of the hands of two other hoods who were covering him. I was actually charging up the gangway with an eye on Domingo when a collective tackle by half the goons present finally brought me down.
They took Zantetsu-ken. They also tied my hands behind my back. Then they marched me up the gangway to the deck of the Santorini. After that, Estaban took over. He beat the tar of out me.
The beating wasn’t enough to knock me unconscious or leave me half-narcotized with shock. Estaban wanted me awake, so I could appreciate my situation. So he confined himself to bruising me, mostly the area of my midsection, then he dragged me below decks and tossed me in the brig.
I say “brig” advisedly. The Santorini was a luxury vessel and didn’t come equipped with anything so pedestrian. Domingo had to make do with the forward crew cabin, which he’d had stripped of anything useful. It was down to four bare bunks and a tiny sink by the time they tossed me inside.
I was hardly in the mood to criticize my surroundings; I felt like I’d been run over by a truck. Not since I’d been shanghaied by the CIA in the first place had I felt so flattened and disoriented. When I hit the deck, I just lay there.
There was no rest for the wicked and certainly none for me. Immediately, someone was at my side. They removed the thin nylon cord binding my wrists and I was lifted. They sat me down with my back against the edge of a bunk and pressed a pad of some kind to the wound on my shoulder.
“Hold that there,” said Jigen Daisuke.
“Right,” someone replied. It took me a moment to recognize the speaker as Dorian, Earl of Red Glroia.
I opened my eyes.
The Earl who called himself Eroica knelt on the deck next to me, looking damp and grim. His blond hair was a mass of wet tangles clinging to his shoulders, his jaw was set and his blue eyes were hard as lapis. His chest was bare. His shirt had been cannibalized to make the compress for my shoulder. When he saw I was conscious, he tried giving me a smile, but there was no humor in him. He was too worried to be anything but businesslike.
“Where’s the Major…?” I croaked.
“On the bunk behind you, love. Still out cold.”
That was a bad sign. The explosion which wounded him had been over an hour ago. If he was still unconscious, then his head injury was serious. A concussion at the very least.
I tried turning, so I could look at von Eberbach, but shuddered as pain stabbed through me. Estaban hadn’t spared so much as a thought for my lacerated shoulder and now it was a shambles. Blood slicked the right side of my chest and ran in sticky ribbons down my arm.
“Easy, dear heart,” the Earl soothed. “Don’t push. Just rest now.”
I rested. While I caught only a glimpse of von Eberbach, I’d noticed something else. Dorian hadn’t left the German unattended. Seated at the head of the Major’s bunk was the little man known as James.
That left only one still missing.
“Lupin…?” I wondered.
“I don’t know,” Jigen grunted, kneeling on the deck in front of me with a wet rag in his hand. “I haven’t seen him.”
Doran peeled away the folded pad of damp T-shirt and Jigen leaned forward to bathe the exposed wound. The gash was perhaps seven inches long, running from the point of my shoulder back at a forty degree angle towards my right scapula. It was a half-inch deep in places and still oozing. Soon as he got it cleaned up, Jigen had Dorian press the pad back in place.
“That needs stitches,” Jigen observed, “but they’ve left us nothing to stitch with or use as disinfectant. We’ll have to bandage it with Dagwood’s shirt and hope that’s good enough.”
I sat silently as they went about the task of bandaging my shoulder. I wasn’t so much impassive as I was exhausted. Recent hardships had combined to numb me physically and mentally. The possibility of Lupin’s death had taken more starch out of me than Estaban’s beating ever could.
I couldn’t imagine life without him.
But I never mentioned such possibilities to Jigen and he never offered any comment of his own. Like me, he didn’t want to think about it. We’d invested twenty years of our lives in that crazy Frenchman. If he was truly gone, we’d both be aimless. We’d drift without direction like a pare of abandoned boats.
After they got my shoulder bound with strips torn from von Eberbach’s sport shirt, Jigen took off his own shirt and used it to make an improvised sling. Once he had my arm secure, he helped me up and deposited me on the bunk opposite the Major’s. There I sat, trying to recoup myself while Dorian returned to von Eberbach’s side.
Finally, I got a good look at the German. He didn’t appear at all well. His face was pallid and slack, and there was a rag bandage around his head which was splotched with blood on the left side. There were no other marks on him, but there didn’t need to be.
“He’s been unconscious the whole time?” I asked Dorian.
“For the most part,” the Earl agreed. “He’s been restless once or twice and he’s also spoken to me in German. But he’s not coherent. His brains are scrambled, poor darling. Part of the rigging fell on him; gave him a nasty bump.”
“Are his pupils dilated?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Are they equal?”
“Yes to that too. Thank God. I don’t think there’s any hemorrhage, but I don’t doubt he’s got a concussion. He’ll probably be all right, depending on how quiet and warm we’re able to keep him. If he does wake up, we’ll have to do our best to keep him that way.”
“Look at me,” Jigen ordered.
I did so and the bearded gunman made a cursory examination of my face. There wasn’t all that much to see; Estaban had confined himself mostly to my ribs and belly. I did have a mouse under my left eye, though, and a badly swollen lip.
While Jigen examined me, I studied him. He was both hatless and shirtless. Without a belt, the jeans he wore hung limply from his hips. Bare-chested and bereft of his gun, Jigen seemed out of place. Anachronistic. The absent hat added to the impression. That hat was so much a part of Jigen its loss was more an amputation. Without it, he looked incompletely; stripped of personality.
“They took your hat?”
“I lost my hat. It was gone before they pulled my sorry ass out of the water. They took my gun, but I kinda figured they would. Lie down.”
I didn’t. “What now?”
“You got me,” Jigen sighed. “I’m kinda surprised they haven’t killed us. It’s my guess they want us for something, but damned if I know what it is.”
“Hostages?” Eroica suggested.
“I doubt it. Hostages are only valuable if you can trade them for something. I’ve got a feeling we’re going to be some kind of centerpiece. An added attraction for whatever weird religious hoopla that fat slob of a General has got dreamed up.”
Dorian gave a shudder of distaste. “This wouldn’t surprise me at all, darling. After what he did to that poor rooster.”
“What ‘poor rooster’?”
Before the Earl could answer, we heard the squeak of sneakers on the deck outside and the heavy clunk of a metal bolt being drawn. A moment later, the door came open and Lupin was thrust into the cabin. He took a couple of shaky steps, then fell flat on his face.
His hands were bound in front of him with electrical wire. A double loop protruded beyond this tangle, from which he’d obviously been hung. Then someone had gone at him with the buckle-end of a belt. There were at least a dozen diagonal lacerations across his bare back. Enough blood had trickled down to saturate the waistband of his jeans.
I looked up and saw Estaban lingering in the hatchway with a satisfied smirk on his greasy face. He was wearing an automatic pistol in his belt and he had my katana tied across his back like some kind of damned trophy! Estaban looked particularly pleased when he saw my glowering at him. He was convinced he had me beaten into submission. I wouldn’t dare try anything.
Namu amid Butsu. I said a prayer for the dead. And he was dead. That was a promise. Just as soon as I got half a chance.
Estaban didn’t say anything. After gloating for a moment, he went on and closed the door.
The bolt locked down again.
Jigen went to Lupin then. “Easy, boss,” he said. “We got you. We’ll take care of it.” He began examining Lupin’s back.
“Never mind that,” the thief grunted. “Get my hands first. The damned wire is cutting off my circulation!”
Indeed it was. Lupin’s hands were swollen and bluish-purple. The wire around his wrists was smeared with blood where it had bitten into the flesh.
With Eroica’s help, Jigen got the wire off. I heard Lupin gasp with relief as blood flowed back into his fingers. He sat on the deck, refusing to answer any of Jigen’s questions, as I lifted myself off the bunk and limped over to the washbasin. I used my good hand to rinse out the rag Jigen had used to bathe my shoulder. Once I had the thing clean, I carried it over to him.
“Thanks,” Jigen said, taking it. “Now go back and lie down.”
“Iie,” I replied. “Not yet.”
Lupin continues to ignore us, concentrating on his hands. Although they were stiff and still throbbing from renewed blood flow, he soon succeeded in coaxing some movement out of them.
Dorian took Lupin’s hands and chaffed them to stimulate the circulation. While he was about this, Jigen began sponging Lupin’s back.
The Frenchman jumped. “Maa, Jigen-chan! Mo yasahii-o onegai, neh! I’m afraid I’m still quite tender!”
“Sorry, boss. I’ll take it easy.”
“I don’t understand, poor love,” Dorian said. “Why were you beaten? What did you do for them to have singled you out?”
“I’m Lupin III. This is enough to earn me special attention. Besides, I wasn’t the only one to have suffered. O-genki desu ka, Goemon? Daijobu?”
“Well enough,” I replied.
“They started pounding on Go because he was raising hell,” Jigen explained. ‘You raise hell, too? Or was this something in the nature of revenge?”
“General Gurrera wanted some answers and he decided I might be thoughtful enough to provide them. So he questioned me.”
“Huh! Some questioning! You’ll be lucky if this doesn’t scar.”
“I never scar Ji-chan. In that, I am quite fortunate. If I did, I’d look like a road map. Ah! Careful…”
“So you were questioned,” I growled. “Did you refuse to answer? Is that why they did this?”
“It was all remarkably cordial to begin with,” Lupin told us. “The minute I was fished out of the water, I was escorted to the forward lounge. Gurrera was waiting for me. The General was in an expansive mood, because of his little victory. He offered me a chair. He also provided me with a cigar and two fingers of decent brandy, and he said he was honored by the attentions of so infamous a felon. He wanted to know to what did he owe those attentions. My interest in the Ark could hardly be spiritual, since I didn’t strike him as religious. Was it perhaps monetary? Had someone hired me to steal the thing?”
“What did you tell him?”
Lupin shrugged, and immediately regretted it. “I, ah, told him my interest was indeed monetary, but no one had hired me. I had hoped to take the thing to sell to the highest bidder. To Gurrera himself, if he was willing to meet my price.
“Of course he didn’t believe me. When I refused to change my story, Gurrera said he was sorry, but he didn’t have time to indulge me. I could either tell him the truth, or endure the consequences. I think you can guess what my answer was.”
I nodded. “You didn’t tell him.”
“Oh, I told him all right. He was quite willing to beat me to death if I didn’t. So I described all the particulars of our agreement in minute detail. I explained how we’d been contacted by a rival drug dealer in Mexico, who had en eye towards seizing Callize for his own. This person had asked me to take the Ark as a way of discrediting Gurrera. Not only would this make Gurrera look foolish, it might well be seen as a bad omen. If the Ark was to suddenly vanish, the potential investors in his little coup might believe God was no longer on Gurrera’s side.”
Jigen frowned. “He bought that?”
“Of course. Tyrants are paranoid. They much prefer a plot of intrigue to a case of simple theft. Gurrera asked me who this rival was, but I said I didn’t know. I’d never met my employer. All negotiations had been handled through a third party known only as Vasquez.
I described Vasquez as a big man, well dressed with slicked-back hair, a thin mustache and a penchant for gold jewelry. Since every drug lord knows at least a dozen men of this description, the general accepted this without question.
“After my ‘confession,’ Gurrera had me taken down off my hook. He explained that he bore me no personal animosity. He understood my desire to make a buck. It was just too bad I hadn’t confessed earlier. I could have saved him considerable heartache and spared myself a good deal of pain.”
“Why didn’t you?” Dorian asked.
“Because Gurrera wouldn’t have believed me. Like a said, tyrants are paranoid. They believe the only way to wring the truth from a man is under duress.”
“Why bother to invent such a story in the first place?” James demanded. “Why not tell him the truth? Why protect the CIA? They certainly wouldn’t do the same for you!”
“Louder, idiot. The guards in the corridor can’t hear you.”
Dorian left Lupin to return to the Major’s side. The German’s face was set with a ferocious grimace. His eyes were squeezed shut and his teeth were bared. But, in spite of his pain, he seemed lucid. When Eroica sat down beside him, he opened his eyes and gave the Earl an accusing glare.
“How are you feeling, love?” the English thief asked. “How is your poor head?”
“Wretched! It feels as though all the demons in Hell have been using my skull for a soccer ball! What the devil happened? What hit me?”
“Part of the rigging apparently. You’ve got a nasty contusion above your left temple, with a laceration and considerable swelling. You’ve been unconscious for more than an hour.”
Lupin smiled to himself, then put a hand out, seeking Jigen’s assistance. The gunman got him gently to his fee.
“Greetings, Major,” said the French thief. “From the sound of it, you’ve had a nice nap. How clear are things now? Do you know where you are?”
Von Eberbach blinked. “Gurrera’s ship. The, ah, Santorini. I have some vague memories of an explosion. Am I to assume our yacht sank?”
“Yes, unfortunately. Gurrera’s men fished us out of the water. We’re his prisoners now.”
“Then why aren’t we dead?”
“An excellent question, darling. I’m afraid we really don’t know. Mr. Jigen has suggested we might be held as a sort of sacrifice, to dramatize the General’s little religious ceremony. From what I’ve seen of our loathsome host, I’d have to say he’s probably right.”
“So would I,” Lupin agreed with a thin smile. He took the damp rag from Jigen and soothed his lacerated wrists. “In fact, I’d say we’re bound for Mercy Island at this very moment. It is, after all, the tenth of June and Gurrera is supposed to unveil the Ark tonight. Explosions and mayhem have made his guests nervous. The General will want to waste no time getting them back under control.”
The Major’s dark eyes narrowed. “He’s not in control…?”
“O course he is, but his natives are restless. His crew has a drawn and wary look. If Gurrera doesn’t do something to distract them, his guests may begin to regret trusting him. He’s quite mad, you know. And people are beginning to realize it. Even Domingo. I got a good look at Gurrera’s lieutenant while they had me up in the forward lunge for questioning. I do believe dear Georgio was worried. He looked like he’d rather be anywhere but here.”
“So Gurrera plans to bleed us on his alter…” von Eberbach mused, and sat up a little. It was a painful process and he did it carefully. “I must confess I’m not honored by the prospect. What do you suggest, Herr Dieb? What would you have us do?”
Lupin smiled. “I thought you didn’t like my ‘suggestions.’”
“I don’t. You’re self-centered and contemptible and, if there was any justice in this grim world, you would be in jail. But your instinct for survival makes you one of the slipperiest characters I’ve ever dealt with. At the moment, I lack inspiration. Perhaps listening to your scheme will help me forge a plan of my own.”
“Fair enough,” the Frenchman agreed. “All right, my suggestion is this: We do nothing, for the moment. We’re in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico with no means of transportation, we have no weapons and half our number are injured, two seriously. We don’t stand a snowball’s chance in a blast furnace until we get to the island. Once there, we might be able to overpower our captors. Then we can escape.”
“And go where?” Jigen demanded. “From what I saw, this island is a tiny place. It’s not even a half-mile long. And Gurrera knows it; we don’t.”
“True, but the night will be dark and things will be confused. In the confusion, perhaps we can grab some weapons. You’ll feel better once you’ve got a gun in your hand.”
“You got that right!”
“That’s not a plan,” the German observed. “It’s barely a rough sketch.”
“It’s the best I can do at the moment, dear Major. This is a think-on-your-feet kind of job. The alternative is to sit here and let Gurrera do…whatever he’s going to do to us. I’m not inclined to let that happen. Are you?”
“Of course not.”
“Then we’ll just have to watch for opportunities and take advantage of them as they arise. In the meanwhile, I suggest we rest. It’s been a long night and we’re not in the best shape.”
James shuddered. “Rest? Not bloody likely! What’s to stop the General from murdering us in our beds?”
“He won’t,” Lupin said. “Goemon proved that.”
Certainly. You raised hell and all they did was beat you. It would have been simpler to shoot you and dump you overboard. Since they didn’t, that means they plan to keep us alive until they get to Mercy Island. Until then, I think we’re safe enough.”
“We are unless a certain farthing-pinching Scot can’t keep his mouth shut…” von Eberbach agreed in a soft growl, fixing little James with a basilisk glare. “Continue blathering about the CIA and they will certainly kill us. It was the Company’s coup which ousted Gurrera. He must be insanely paranoid where they’re concerned. Of Gurrera thought we were connected with them in any way, he’d never risk taking us to his island. He’d cut our throats right here and feed us to the fish!”
“Of course, fool! Why do you think Mr. Lupin gave them that story? Do you think he enjoys being flayed.?”
“Sometimes I wonder,” Eroica sighed, eyeing Lupin obliquely. “He never seems to have much trouble finding the bloody end of the stick.”
“Okay,” Jigen grunted. “We get away from these guys; we make it to the island; we even grab some guns. What then, kemosabi? We’re still stuck in the middle of fucking nowhere with no place to go.”
“Domingo keeps a house on the island,” Lupin said slowly. “Bing a conscientious sort, I think it’s safe to assume he has stocked this house with everything necessary for survival, including water, food, petrol, and cashes of weapons. And, if we are lucky, a working radio. If we can secure that house before our hosts do, then we’ll probably be all right. We send for help, then settle down for a long siege. The next move is Gurrera’s. He either remains to confront the authorities, or he leaves. I think this will be up to his guests. They’re already nervous and I don’t think they’re going to want to hand around, under the circumstances. Since they’re the source of Gurrera’s money, it’s doubtful that the General dares refuse them. If he doesn’t understand that, Domingo certainly does.
Von Eberbach smiled just a little. “What if the help you summon happens to be InterPol?”
“Then I surrender,” Lupin replied lightly. “Felon though I am, InterPol isn’t likely to kill me. The same isn’t necessarily true of Gurrera-chan.
“Besides,” the French thief added with a wry grin. “I don’t think InterPol is quite the bugbear you believe it to be, dear Major. I’ve fallen into their hands at least a dozen times and they’ve never managed to hand onto me yet.”
The German’s smile faded.
“Never mind that now, love,” Dorian decided. “This is one of those times when we must take things as they come. And dear Arsene was right about one thing. We really should rest. If you’ve got a concussion, you really shouldn’t sleep.”
“Why not?” James wondered.
“Because, if Dagwood sleeps,” Jigen sighed, “he might not wake up. Concussions are tricky. If you don’t watch ‘em, they can go sour.” He took me by my good arm and steered me back towards my bunk. “You take the first shift, Blondie, and I’ll relieve you in an hour. We’ve only got four bunks, so I’ll share one with Snooks there. He’s the smallest. He’s also not hurt.”
“I am, too!” James insisted. He lifted his left arm and displayed an abrasion on his elbow.
The Earl frowned. “James, dear darling twit, as an ‘injury; that hardly qualifies. Get to bed now and stop being such a nuisance. It’s not polite to fish for sympathy.”
James wasn’t pleased, but he obeyed, lifting himself into the top bunk wearing a dark frown on his boyish face. Once there he huddled on the bare mattress with his legs drawn up and his arms wrapped around them, giving Eroica a petulant look. “If I’m murdered in my sleep,” he pouted, “I’m coming back to haunt you!”
“Help yourself, darling. I hardly think I’ll mind, since it’s entirely possible that I shall be a ghost myself. As for you, dear heart…” The earl turned his cool British gaze on Lupin. “You should get to bed, too.”
“In a minute,” Lupin agreed. “Just as soon as I talk to Goemon. I’ve a question I’d like to ask him.”
“You do?” I wondered as I sat on my bunk. “What’s that?”
“I want to know how you knew.”
“That the Ark we brought aboard wasn’t the real Ark. You said it was the wrong box and you were right. How did you know?”
I sighed. “I didn’t. My sword did.”
“Ever since this damn business started, Zantetsu-ken has been reacting to something. I’d no idea what this was at first, but now I believe he is somehow attuned to the Ark. All things of age and power have an aura that surrounds them. This is certainly true of the Ark, and it is also true of Zantetsu-ken. Apparently they have a…’sympathy’…for each other. When in proximity, they react.”
“And when we brought that crate on board, Zantetsu-ken didn’t react. You, being sensitive to the sword, sensed this lack of reaction and knew instinctively what it meant.”
Lupin pursed his lips. “Interesting.”
“Now that big ape has your sword,” Jigen observed sourly. “Too bad. It might have told us where the real Ark is.”
“I know where the real Ark is,” Lupin said. “It’s in Gurrera’s cabin. It’s been in his cabin all along. The dear General was kind enough to tell me while I was having the crap beaten out of me. Señor Domingo may have reservations about the thing, but the General doesn’t. He’s Moses, after all. Why should he fear the Ark?
“Besides,” the thief continued, “even if I didn’t know where the Ark was, I could easily find it. Goemon isn’t the only one who’s sensitive to its vibrations. I know someone else who is.”
He looked over at Eroica.
The Earl flinched, then countered with a rueful smile. “Don’t be silly, darling. Why would I be ‘sensitive’ to a religious artifact?”
“I don’t know why,” Lupin confessed, “but you are.”
Dorian frowned. “Well, it’s all moot now, isn’t it? We know where the Ark is and it won’t do us a bit of good. If we wish to survive, we must turn our minds to more practical matters. Foremost of which is sleep.”
“True,” Lupin agreed, smiling gently. “I concede the argument. I will get to sleep, just as soon as Jigen is through with me. We really ought to put something on my wrists.”
“There’s that,” Jigen sighed. “C’mon, then. We’ll fix you up with the rest of Dagwood’s shirt.”
* * * * *
There was enough cloth to make bandages for Lupin’s wrists, but not enough to protect his sore back. I offered to let them cannibalize my sling, but Lupin said no. He could manage. The air would be better for his cut anyway.
Once his writs were bandaged, he climbed into the bunk over top of mine and lay down on his belly. In seconds, he was asleep.
I’m afraid it wasn’t as easy for me. I was exhausted, true, but I was also restless and I ached. And I never have had Lupin’s God-given talent to fall asleep anywhere, under any circumstances. It’s one thing I truly envy in him.
For a while, I lay and fretted about my sword, then I had a nice, long stew about Estaban and what I was going to do to him when I got the chance. This got my heart beating so fast, I thought I’d never get to sleep. But, just as I was about to give up, sleep finally came stealing over me. With a sigh, consciousness left me and I sank into the dark.
While I slept, I dreamed, but I’m afraid I don’t remember them. It’s probably just as well, because my dreams were frightful. Ghastly visions of fire and fury, of darkened skies and men screaming and flesh melting just like wax.
I came awake with a start and found myself staring at the underside of a ship’s bunk. The cabin was dark except for a small light over the sink, which Jigen had left burning. In this light, long shadows danced across the inner bulkhead, distorted and grotesque.
On the bunk opposite mine, Jigen Daisuke sat tensed and ready, his right hand poised half behind him to grab a gun which wasn’t there. Beside Jigen, Major von Eberbach had raised himself on one elbow. Both Jigen and the Major were staring at the door.
Somebody was at the door, although they didn’t open it. Instead, I heard a soft scraping. The stealthy friction of a bar being drawn aside.
I wondered at how loud this seemed, then realized the Santorini’s engines had stopped. The thrum of her triple screws was silent. The only other sound was the lapping of water against the hull.
There was a stirring from the mattress over top of mine and a half-naked shape leaped down to land on the deck, cat-silent in his bare feet. As he straightened, I saw the dark streaks of blood on his torn back. They were only slightly less grim than the expression on his face.
I rolled over and sat up. While I did so, Lupin gave a silent order to Jigen, pointing up at the bunk where James and Eroica lay. But James was alone. Eroica had vanished. It wasn’t until I saw one of the shadows on the inner bulkhead move that I realized the Brit had positioned himself on the near side of the door.
The scraping noise continued, followed by a soft clunk as the bar was set on the metal deck. Gently, the knob began to turn.
Dorian slid closer, lifting his left arm across hi body, ready to strike the first intruder with the edge of his hand. If there were only three or four of them, thigh might do it. The first one would go down and we would rush the rest. If the confusion was sufficient, it might be five or six seconds before they were able to fire a shot.
The knob finished turning and there was a soft scrape as the door cracked open. A yellow oblong of light appeared at the door’s near edge, painting a vertical line of thin gold down Eroica’s Donatellean face.
The Earl tensed to deliver his blow, blue eyes bright as sapphire. The rest of us waited motionless, except for James, who sat up when Jigen touched him with a soft gasp.
“Wha’ th’ bloody…”
Jigen put a hand over his mouth.
Nothing happened. The door didn’t continue to open, nor was it sealed shut again. Whoever was on the other side left it barely ajar, then backed away. I heard the soft slap of naked feet as they hurried down the passage, heading aft.
The Earl cast a puzzled look at Lupin, who spread his hands as if to say “damned if I know.” While we crept up to join him, Dorian pulled the door open another inch and peered out. Golden light bathed his aristocratic features and blazed in his flaxen hair.
“Guards…?” Lupin whispered.
“Two,” Eroica replied. “Both dead asleep from the looks of them. I don’t see anyone else.”
“Unquestionably. We have a benefactor on board.”
“Who?” This was from von Eberbach.
“How should I know, darling? I’m as surprised as you are.”
The Earl reached forward carefully. When he retracted his hand, he was holding a pistol. He passed it to Lupin.
Who, in turn, passed it to Jigen. The pistol was a Beretta, and smaller than a Smith and Wesson, but Jigen was pleased to get it. He grinned like a wolf as he flipped the safety off.
The guards had another pistol and an automatic rifle. Lupin took the second pistol, then thought a moment before advising Eroica to keep the rifle for himself. The Major and I were injured and James was out of the question. This left only the Earl.
“Just don’t point the thing at any of us,” Lupin insisted.
Eroica grinned. “As you say, dear heart. Don’t worry. I’ll be careful.”
Lupin was first through the doorway, followed by Dorian, then von Eberbach and James. I came next, with Jigen behind me. After we were outside, Lupin turned back to fasten the door.
The passage was stark and gray and empty, lit by florescent work-lamps. The two guards sat in folding chairs on either side of the door, looking like a pair of deflated beach balls. One with coffee. The other had dropped his. That cup lay on the deck beside him, rocking gently with the motion of the ship.
There was a large clock fastened to the inner bulkhead three paces down the passageway. It read five-fifteen.
The sun would be up soon.
“Come,” Lupin commanded. “We haven’t much time.”
He started off at a stealthy trot, not back towards the stern, but up towards the bow.
“Where are you going?” the Major whispered as he fell into step behind Lupin. “Do you actually have a plan? Or are we playing it by ear?”
“Process of elimination, Herr Major,” Lupin replied. “We can’t use the gangway and we can’t go near the stern. Since the launch hasn’t returned, Domingo will have to use rafts to ferry Gurrera and his guests to the island and he will need his aft davits to launch them. The Santorini herself has too deep a draft to get in close. I’m afraid we’re in for a little swim. Can you manage?”
“I can if we get away without being shot. How are you planning to get us up on deck?”
“We’re going out the only way open to us, via the ship’s pool. The pool’s in a recess up by the bow. And there’s a maintenance access on this level. Since nobody’s likely to be bathing at this hour, I doubt anyone will notice us until it’s too late. With any luck, we’ll be over the rail by that time and pulling for shore.”
“While Gurrera and his army shoot at us. Yes, Herr Dieb. That’s a lovely plan.”
“If you have a better suggestion…”
“Screw it!” Jigen hissed. “Someone’s coming!”
We bolted forward en masse, moving at a soft-footed canter down the passage to where a cross-corridor intersected it. Jigen ducked for cover just as our intruders hove into view.
There were two of them, both adjutants of Gurrera’s from the way they were dressed. One was speaking rather loudly to the other. My Spanish wasn’t that good, but I understood he was complaining. Something about not being a damned stevedore.
Abruptly the conversation stopped and there was a brief period of silence. After this, I heard the other man call out. He was talking to our guards, teasing them for being lazy. Neither he nor his companion were close enough to see that anything was wrong.
When the guards didn’t reply, the man grew concerned. He called out again. This second challenge also went unanswered and the two adjutants started forward to see what the trouble was.
“We’ve had it,” Jigen whispered to Lupin. “Let’s go while we’ve got the chance.”
“Right! This way…”
Lupin led us forward at a gallop, to the parallel corridor and farther up towards the bow. I smelled the place before I saw it. The reek of chlorine was intense in the tiny passage. It burned my nostrils and made my eyes smart.
The door to the pool was secured with a padlock. Lupin took the lock in hand, then looked for something to pick it. He was still looking when a commotion erupted astern of us. There were cries, curses and the sound of feet running; every indication that our presence had been missed.
Jigen decided there was no time for niceties. He shouldered forward, pushed Lupin aside and pointed his pistol at the lock. Two rounds from the Beretta smashed the padlock to flinders. By the time Jigen was through with it, there was nothing left but the hasp.
Lupin glared at him. “That was subtle!”
“Yep,” the gunman agreed, pulling the hasp loose and kicking the door open. “and so are the guys behind us. They ought to be here in a second or two.”
The cool morning air came flooding in, washing the passage clean of the overwhelming reek of chlorine. It eased my burning nostrils and cooled my smarting eyes. It was so sweet, I almost forgot the danger for a moment. Although I hadn’t yet seen the island, I could smell it. It had a rich scent, sharp and tangy. A perfume combined of scrub pine, seaweed and shallow water. More perverse and seductive than the salt-smell of the sea.
Dorian was seized and thrust forward, followed by von Eberbach and James. I was next, with Jigen hard behind me. Lupin was last. After he was through, he shut the door and shoved a table in front of it to complicate pursuit.
The sounds of that pursuit spread across the morning, punctuated by the cries of men who were demanding to know what the hell was going on. Doors banged and feet pounded up ladders. With the decorum of a ruptured ants’ nest, men cam spilling on deck.
The chaos was utter, but mostly behind us. Gurrera’s men knew we were missing, but they’d no idea where we’d gone. Not even the two shots from Jigen’s gun were enough to let them pinpoint our location. They ran in every direction, looking for some sign of us. It took a full twenty seconds for some Einstein to realize we were over by the pool.
By that time, Dorian had already mounted the ladder and pulled himself up on deck. Then he turned back to help von Eberbach and James, holding the rifle in his right hand. He helped lift the German and the little Scot to the teak decking of the fo’c’sle and dispatched both of them towards the rail with a smack on the behind.
The major paused to give the Englishman a murderous glare, then Jigen growled; “Move it, Dagwood!” and shoved me up the ladder. I glowered at Eroica as he reached for me and saved myself a slap on the backside.
Up on the foredeck, the air was slightly cooler, stirred gently by an offshore breeze. The sky above was cobalt with morning, dusted lightly in the east with a sugaring of lavender. Mercy Island was a dark slab to starboard, feathered with scrub pine and thorn bushes, its beach a tiny strip of pale gray. It couldn’t have been more than a quarter-kilometer away from us, but it looked impossibly distant. Especially since the low tide had partially exposed several heads of fire coral. These lay strewn in patches, looking like spiny sea urchins, between us and the safety of the beach.
A face appeared, framed in the safety glass of the pool access, and scowled out at Lupin, who was waiting for Jigen to finish his climb. I heard a bang, then a scrape, as the owner of that scowl tried to force the door open. But the door was wedged firmly and simply wouldn’t budge.
With a grin, Lupin waved back at the thug and started up the ladder.
Of course, the thug was furious. He decided that if the door wouldn’t budge, the safety-glass certainly would. There were several smashing sounds, then the muzzle of an automatic rifle protruded from the wreckage. Fire and brimstone rained upon Lupin as he scrambled madly up on deck.
Dorian Red Gloria immediately shouldered his own weapon and returned fire, spraying the well-deck in an effort to cover Lupin’s retreat. And I do mean sprayed. The weapon he was holding was a Heckler & Koch MP5 semi-automatic, capable of firing 800 rounds a minute. Fortunately for all concerned, the magazine held only thirty. Eroica shot his entire wad in two seconds flat.
He destroyed the table, stitched a line of holes across the far bulkhead and murdered several folding chairs. He also killed a fire extinguisher, which bled all over everything. Streams of white foam poured onto the decking and dribbled into the pool.
Eroica was thrown backwards by the force of the recoil. He retreated three stumbling steps and sat down with a thud.
“I say…” he gasped.
Lupin had thrown himself flat the instant he saw Dorian shoulder his weapon. Now that the mayhem had stopped, he dared to lift his head. He seemed surprised to find himself intact.
“Mrs. Petticaris,” he sighed, “you’re not only a lot of trouble, you’re out of your frigging mind!”
The Earl looked offended. “No need to be so cheeky, darling. I was only trying to help.”
“Then help yourself over the side!” Jigen ordered, catching Lupin by the waistband of his jeans and yanking him back to his feet with a vehemence that brought a yelp of pained complaint from the thief. Lupin tried to protest, but Jigen didn’t let him. He propelled the erstwhile leader towards the starboard rail with a firm, underhand toss.
The Earl, seeing how dissidents were treated, decided not to argue. He got to his feet and quit the field of battle. As a final gesture of complete surrender, he gave Jigen his gun.
The MP5 was empty, but this didn’t stop Jigen from using it as a weapon. He decided if it couldn’t shoot, he could still break heads with it. Taking the semiautomatic in his left hand, Jigen turned to face the onslaught. He brained the first two in a series of three thugs to leap down from the flying bridge.
Major von Eberbach and James had reached the rail by this time. James glanced down at the water and hesitated, complaining that the height was too great. The German didn’t waste time trying to convince him otherwise. He picked the little Scot up and dropped him over the side.
Then leaped in after him.
Dorian and Lupin reached the starboard rail together, but the Earl was first to jump. He left the Santorini with a flawless jack-knife, cutting the water with barely a ripple. He surfaced some thirty feet from the hull and swam away like a mink.
Lupin hesitated, ducking quickly when a pair of bullets tried to make a double-part in his hair. He fired back once, to discourage such impositions, then turned and hollered for me.
I’m afraid I didn’t hurry. I’d seen something which distracted me. In spite of the breakage and bedlam, Captain Sanchez stood quietly on his bridge, looking unconcerned by the whole business. While I watched, he calmly lit his pipe.
The image was surreal. It looked as though Sanchez didn’t care. Then I remembered what he had said: “We’ll do the best we can for you…” Apparently this extended to quietly unbolting doors and looking the other way while I escaped.
Eroica was right. We did have a benefactor on board.
There was a flash and Jigen’s MP5 fell into pieces. I looked over and saw that the first three thugs had been joined by Estaban. Estaban had his pistol in one hand and my katana in the other. He wielded Zantetsu-ken without grace, chopping with him as if he were a machete. But even in his hands my sword was deadly. He cut the semiautomatic rifle as if it was made of cheese.
Only Jigen’s superior reflexes kept him from being carved in two.
Seeing my sword in someone else’s hands sent a torrent of rage boiling through me. I wanted to kill that son-of-a-bitch! I had no weapon and I was half-lame, but I had already started forward. I was going to wring the life out of Estaban with my bare hands!
Then I came up short as someone grabbed me around the middle. I was carried three flopping strides and up-ended over the railing. The white hull of the Santorini flashed past me as I dropped into the sea.
Water closed over my head, dark and salty-warm like a womb. I kicked out as I sank, throwing off the sling Jigen had made for me. By the time I broke the surface, I had both arms free.
I was also furious. “Lupin! God-damn-you!”
“Shut up and swim,” the Major advised.
Boku wa Samurai desu yo. But nowhere is it written that a Samurai should be stupid. There was nothing I could do, either with Lupin or about Estaban. Soon Gurrera’s men would reach the ship’s rail and begin shooting. Then they’d probably kill me. I would die with my Honor unavenged.
I caught a deep lungful of air and submerged.
Above me, the morning erupted into a chaos of curses and gunfire, punctuated randomly by the burbling zip of bullets plunking into the sea. The noise was absolute, without form or direction. In the pre-dawn dark, the water was a rippling blanket of opaque grayness in which we were only shadows. Domingo’s men couldn’t really see and their aim was terrible.
I went as far as my lungful would take me, then blew it out as I rose to the surface to gulp more air. I’d have a look ‘round while I was at it. I had some vague idea of direction, but I wasn’t clear on where I was going. I needed another quick look if I wanted to be sure.
The world was a war zone when I emerged. The sounds of gunfire seemed even more angry and confused. I looked quickly for the island and saw it as a dark blot on the horizon. I also saw James. The little Scot was about four meters to my right, sputtering on the surface. He looked absolutely terrified.
While I watched, a slender English arm erupted from the water and wrapped itself around James, dragging him down again.
I submerged myself, diving into the muffling warmth of the sea. The bottom couldn’t have been more than twelve feet below, but I couldn’t see much. It was dark and I had no mask. The seabed appeared a mottled abstract of shape and shadow, sprinkled with the blurry dots of browsing sea urchins.
My sore shoulder was already aching from the exertion and my body felt battered and spent. For a while, the glow of adrenalin had sustained me, but that glow was beginning to fade. I could feel myself becoming weary and disoriented; I knew I’d have to find cover and grab a moment’s rest.
I reached an outcropping of fire coral exposed by the tide and surfaced behind it, careful not to touch its stinging spines. When I did, I heard a new sound undercutting the pandemonium of the morning. It was the tinny rattle of a small outboard engine. Someone had been bright enough to launch a raft.
I heard the raft, but couldn’t see it. I knew it was near the bow of the Santorini, though, because the hail of gunfire was easing. Gurrera, mad though he might be, didn’t want to shoot his own men.
A hand touched my good shoulder and I whipped around, ready to fight. It was only Lupin. He splashed back, hands rising momentarily from the water to show his peaceful intent.
“Maa, maa, tomodachi!” he soothed. “Motto yasashi wa, onegai shimasu. Neh? Forgive me, but you shouldn’t rest here. Your shoulder is bleeding. We’ve got to get you to the beach.”
I looked at the bandage on my right shoulder and saw that it was dark. The gash had reopened and it was seeping. Even if sharks didn’t get me, shock and fatigue might.
Lupin was right. I had to get to the beach.
A quarter-kilometer is not a great distance. Walking, you can traverse it in about ten minutes. Running, you can probably do it in one minute flat. Swimming, however, is another story. Without fins, it’s unlikely that you’re going to swim faster than you can walk. And swimming places a far greater strain on the body, especially if that body is injured. It’s the equivalent of doing ten or fifteen minutes of strenuous aerobics. Hard enough, even when people aren’t shooting at you.
Lupin resisted the urge to slip an arm around me. Not only would this have been an insult, it would have slowed us down. So he grinned, then turned and plunged under the water.
I followed immediately.
Once I was submerged again, the sound of the outboard seemed to come from everywhere. It completely obscured the retorts of enemy gunfire, which had now tapered off, confined only to those weapons carried aboard the raft. It had been the idea for the men in this raft to intercept us, but there were six of us and only one raft—so far. We could split up and the men on the raft couldn’t. On top of this, we could dive and make ourselves almost invisible. Unfortunately, we also found it necessary to breaths, and so were unable to stay down indefinitely.
I went until I could go no further, then blew my reserves and headed for the surface. As I did, I heard the spluttering thrum of the raft’s engine growing louder. I knew it was close, but I had no idea how close. When I broke through, I was no more than forty feet away from it.
I saw one of the thugs grin as he took aim at me.
There was a shot, but not the one I expected. With a howling whoosh of air, the raft’s stern blew up. The whole back of the raft collapsed, sagging under the water. The engine was drowned immediately. Men cursed and yammered as they were pitched into the drink.
I looked around and saw Jigen treading water about twenty meters to my left, the tiny Beretta in his right hand. The gun might be small, but it was big enough to punch a hell of a hole through rubberized canvas. That one shot had torn all four of the aft air-cells. While the forepart of the raft remained floating, its back end had gone as limp as beached seaweed.
Lupin caught my arm, tugging me onward. There was no time to express gratitude; we had to get ashore while we still had the chance.
The floor of the sea rose slowly to meet us, climbing out of the hollows and strange protuberances of an alien landscape to become a mottled patchwork of pebbles, shells and weed. Even when it was shallow enough to walk, we hesitated to do so for fear of stepping on sea urchins. Once the spine of an urchin went into you, it took surgery to get them out.
Eventually, I came upon an area of clean sand and was able to stand up. When I did, the water was only to my waist. With the grim resolution of one nearing exhaustion, I finally slogged ashore.
The angle wasn’t steep and the surf wasn’t particularly rough. All the same, the water sucked at my legs, making me stumble. I barely kept my feet as I staggered up across the wet sand and collapsed on the beach.
The dry sand was soft, cooler than the water. The breeze wafted over me, raising bumps on my wet skin. The smells of pine and drying ‘weed were everywhere. I could hear the cries of seabirds rising to greet the sun.
God, it felt so good to rest!
Something plopped heavily down in the sand next to me. It was Lupin. He, too, was exhausted. For a long moment, he lay on his belly, ribcage heaving, his forehead cradled on an out flung arm.
Then he lifted his head and looked around. No one was on the beach, but there soon would be. Gurrera had had plenty of time to launch a second raft.
The thief pulled himself to his knees, reached out and touched my good arm. “Come on, Go. We shouldn’t dawdle.”
“So…” I agreed and made it to my feet without help. Even a tired, beat-up Samurai has his pride.
The sun was nearing the horizon. The sky had turned from cobalt to milky lavender. The pines of the island’s interior stood out in stark relief against the pale morning. The squalling of sea birds competed with the distant sound of yet another outboard engine and the occasional muffled bursts from a rifle. Someone about Sandorini was trying his hand with a scope.
Fortunately, he wasn’t Jigen. None of his shots were even close.
As for the gunman in question, I was relieved to see him come stumbling out of the surf. He looked just as worn, just as tired as anyone of us, but, to his credit, he didn’t collapse as we did. He stayed on his feet and kept a hand on his Beretta as he staggered up the beach.
There was an expression of incredulity on Jigen’s face and I heard him curse. Twenty paces in front of him was the thief Eroica, and the Earl was running (actually running!) across the soft sand, dragging a half-deflated, but very resolute German with him. He was followed by a bedraggled-looking little Scot who was complaining in loud, barely comprehensible gasps about brass farthings and common cents.
Lupin steered a course roughly parallel to Eroica’s, heading for the trees at a kind of soggy trot. It wasn’t just a question of his wanting to appear as vigorous as the younger and less battered Eroica. The second raft from the Santorini was advancing rapidly, ignoring the pleas for assistance from the first batch of castaways in their effort to reach the shore.
There was damn little I could do, so I decided discretion was the better part of bushi and followed Lupin. In about five strides we’d reached the thorny seagrass which marked the change-over between island and beach.
Jigen probably should have come, too, but instead he held his ground. I saw him turn in spite of the gunfire being aimed at him and face the on-coming horde. He brought the Beretta up two-handed.
The raft was still thirty meters away, extreme range for such a tiny handgun, but Jigen was Jigen and he had the cool eye of a man with over a quarter century of expertise in firearms. The little Beretta barked once and the raft answered with a sharp, asthmatic whooshing. Then it nosed under and flipped, dumping yet another half-dozen toadies into the sea.
They’d still make it ashore, of course, but not as quickly as they would have liked.
I lost sight of Jigen as we plunged into the trees.
Like others in the area, the outcropping called Mercy Island had begun as the tip of an underwater mountain; part of the chain know as the Great Antilles, which included Jamaica, Haiti, and other islands of note. Over the years, sand and coral had built up around the island, giving it a skirt of cretaceous material and slowly it had grown. Its mountainous beginnings were still visible in the two modest ridges which rose from its interior, but its outer perimeter was flat as a pancake. Its profile, therefore, was hatlike. It resembled a stepped-on fedora, or a dessert plate heaped with two scoops of melting ice cream.
The palm trees on Mercy Island weren’t the tall, sculptured plants we’d seen in Jamaica. They were short and dumpy, with thick, shaggy coats of desiccated fronds. What I’d first thought were pines were actually some distant relatives of cedar, with bark which was gray and shready and branches as twisted as the boughs of a bonsai. These trees were huddled in clumps, separated by patches of seagrass interwoven with mats of spiny thistles. These angry-looking snarls of dark green and purple came armed with enough thorns to pierce the hell out of unprotected feet.
When he reached the first clump of trees, Dorian’s strength flagged a little. He slowed to a walk, continuing on only until he found a safe place to set the Major down. Then he knelt beside von Eberbach, breathing raggedly.
James straggled up to join him, flopping carelessly onto the nearest patch of green. He rose immediately, clawing onto his backside. Dorian caught his arm and pulled him over, laying the little Scot across his lap. He spent the next half-minute plucking thorns from James’ bottom as the accountant made loud and bitter complaint about the unfairness of the world.
Dorian wasn’t entirely sympathetic. “Be more careful next time, James dear,” he scolded. “Look before you sit.”
Lupin and I tottered in soon after. The Frenchman remained standing while I dropped heavily to my knees. Not only was I tired, I could feel the start of a burning thirst building inside of me. Before long, I’d have to have water and quite a lot of it.
No doubt Lupin could have used some, too. But he couldn’t think of water; he couldn’t even let himself rest until he was sure Jigen had made it safely up from the beach.
Dorian finished with James, then set him aside and turned his attention to von Eberbach. “Look at me,” the Earl commanded.
Von Eberbach did so, favoring the Brit with a reasonable imitation of his usual black glare. Eroica wasn’t any more impressed by the imitation than he was by the real thing. He studied the Major’s eyes for a moment, then pursed his lips as if unsure of what he’d seen.
“How do you feel?”
“I’m fine! Stop your verdammt fussing!”
“I doubt that, love. You look perfectly ghastly. Rather like something the dog dragged in.”
Dorian was right. Von Eberbach’s face was chalky and he had gray smudges under his eyes. A runnel of bloody water was weeping down from his bandage. Although he was determined to present a good front, it was obvious that Major von Eberbach was stretched to the limit. There wasn’t much more we could ask of him and he’d be no good at all in a fight.
“Thank God…” Lupin sighed.
With a rustle of brush, Jigen slid down to join us. He crouched beside me, puffing from exertion, and wiped the water from his eyes. Without pausing to acknowledge us, he then popped the clip on the Beretta, checking to see how many shells it still contained. There were three altogether: Two in the clip; one in the gun.
He looked up at Lupin. “How many have you got?”
The thief checked. “Four.”
“Dandy!” Jigen concluded. His face was expressionless as he slapped his clip back in place.
Lupin gave him a tired smile. “We’ve seen worse.”
“Not by much! When they’re gone, we’ll be down to throwing rocks. I wish to Got you’d told the CIA to go to hell.”
“I would have, if I’d known how difficult this was going to be.”
“What made you think it wasn’t gonna be difficult? I mean, all we had to do was screw with a buncha drug lords and ripoff a banana general who thinks he’s Jim Jones.”
“Enough!” the Major barked. “What’s the situation? How long before Gurrera’s men reach the shore?”
“Not long,” Jigen replied. “They weren’t really that far away when I drilled their rafts for them. Another ten minutes and I’m sure we’ll have company. Lots of it and real pissed off.”
“Then we shouldn’t waste time with pointless recriminations. Where is this house, Herr Dieb? How far is it from here?”
“If my map was accurate,” Lupin panted, “then it’s on the western-most point of the island, nestled in a clear area of land at the base of the western ridge. There’s a harbor of sorts, but it’s too shallow for something as large as the Santorini. The closest they’d be able to bring the ship is into the open bay on the island’s northern side. If this is what they’ve done, then the house is about four hundred meters that way.”
“You’re sure of this?”
“As sure as I can be, under the circumstances. I remind Herr Major that I’ve not had time to make a proper reconnaissance.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad, love,” Dorian observed, rising to his feet and brushing at the sand clinging to his wet knees. “We ought to be able to reach the house in ten minutes, if we push.”
The French thief shook his head. “It’ll be harder than you think, Petti-chan. The area around the house is clear, but the rest of the island is still in its natural state. It’s wild and overgrown and we haven’t so much as a penknife between us. The only road I know of runs from the house down to the dock. If there’s any other route inland, it’s hardly more than a goat trail. Even if we’re lucky and don’t get lost on the way, it’s going to take us at least thirty minutes to reach that house.”
“Then we’ve already spent enough time arguing.” Major von Eberbach pulled himself to his feet with a black determination I couldn’t help but envy. He hurt and his legs were rubbery, but he managed to hold himself upright, glaring off into the trees as if his stare alone was enough to burn a bath for us. “Since you know the way, Herr Lupin, I must insist that you lead. I will follow, with the Earl behind me. James and Mr. Ishikawa will come next. Mr. Jigen, I’m afraid it will fall to you to cover our rear.”
“No problem,” the gunman agreed.
“Un,” I said. I would help him, as soon as I found a suitable branch. Miyamoto Musashi used to fight with a club. Why not Ishikawa Goemon? It wasn’t the same thing as wielding a sword, but under the circumstances I couldn’t afford to care.
“C’est bon,” Lupin sighed. “Form up ranks and follow me. And, for God’s sake, keep your heads down!”
* * * * *
The sun rose above the sea with a green flash as we started our trek. The sky turned an opaque blue and shadows lost some of their definition. The air stirred, restless with dawn, smelling of salt and seagrass. It was still cool, but the atmosphere had developed a tang of coming heat. Before long, the sun would begin to sing along the beach, working its way inland, and soon the entire island would lie shimmering under the full impact of a sultry tropic summer.
Gulls and terns could be heard squabbling along the tideline, their shrill cries often interrupted by the hoarse shouts of angry men. There was occasional gunfire, too, as some trigger-happy idiot took a potshot at a suspicious-looking log or treacherous mat of seagrass. None of this sounded very close, however, and I began to think we might make it. The cover was dense and we had a reasonable headstart. We’d probably be all right if we could just keep moving.
It wasn’t too bad, at first. The terrain was level and though the grass was thick, it wasn’t anything we couldn’t handle. But before too long, we’d left the cretaceous shelf which formed the island’s outer perimeter and reached the stony protrusions which comprised its central core. Here the land took a sharp upward turn and the trees which had once grown in isolated clumps now massed to form impenetrable walls. The undergrowth was dense, too, built up of prickly hedge and island creeper, interspersed here and there with stalks of elephant ear, its huge leaves nodding above the rest like some sort of weird antenna. We couldn’t go through this mess, we could only go around it. And what had begun as a straightforward tramp turned quickly into a series of confusing switch-backs. If not for the low angle of the sun, we would have become hopelessly lost.
But if we were confused, so were Gurrera’s men, most of whom were unfamiliar with the island. As we continued on in silence, se could hear them crashing about in the trees, shouting and shooting and generally behaving as though they didn’t have a lick of sense. They were street toughs and though they knew how to search through alleys, they were completely lost in the forest of an isolated tropic isle. They had no idea how to mark a trail, how to navigate by the sun or how to track us by the faint prints we left behind in the sandy soil. So they stumbled around, peppering the woods with automatic weapons fire. They made a great deal of noise, but the only victims they were able to flush were several brightly colored birds and an irate land-crab.
I found a club. It was a slender piece of wood about a meter and a half long, the same general size and shape as a bokken practice saber. I took a couple of swings and decided it would do. If it wasn’t a sword, at least it was a weapon. I could give a decent accounting with it.
It was the duty of a Samurai to practice self-control and not to inflict his suffering on others. His distress is secondary and must not be allowed to distract those around him. Though weary and hurt, I was determined to give no sign of it. I marched along, marching step for step, and kept my mouth shut.
Beside, I wasn’t the only one injured. Lupin hurt, too, and this morning’s difficulties had been equally hard on him. And they had been positive murder on Major von Eberbach. Yet the Major never said a word, never missed a stride, never asked for a moment of respite. He continued on with jaw set and expression grim, the very picture of cold determination. I had heard from Dorian that he was called “Iron Klaus” and I was more than willing to believe it.
Yet even an iron man has his limits and von Eberbach was treading on the ragged edge of his. When we came to a spring, I saw him sway. He might have fallen, if Eroica hadn’t caught him.
“Easy love,” the Earl cooed as he and Lupin lowered the German to the ground. “You’ll feel better once we’ve got some water in you.”
“Verflught noch mal! Stop mothering me! You know I can’t stand being mothered!”
“You know perfectly well I can’t ‘mother’ anyone. Things being as they are, I doubt I’ll ‘father’ anyone, either. So behave yourself and sit quietly. Let Arsene and me handle things.”
The spring was a small torrent of water which welled from a crack high in the rock and spilled down in a thin cascade to be caught in a series of pools formed by tree roots. Filtered by the island itself, this water was clear as snow-melt and almost as cold. Dorian didn’t bother with the catch basins, though they looked clear enough, and instead confined himself to the cascade, collecting the water in his cupped hands as it flowed transparent and pure from the mountain.
He presented this to the Major, who responded with a dark look, but didn’t say anything. Iron though Klaus might be, he was still thirsty. Without another word, he lowered his head and drank, cupping Dorian’s hands in his own as he did so.
The Earl’s face softened with an expression of true tenderness. “There now,” he said gently. “That’s a good boy.”
“Oh, shut up…”
“Jigen gave a grunt of laughter and thrust me forward. “You next, Go.”
Sometimes Jigen annoyed me, he was such a protective clod. He had no idea how often his gaijin concern bordered on offensive. By insisting that I drink, he was actually calling attention to injuries I’d done my level best to ignore. This shamed me, of course, and it made me mad. I think I might have cut him, if I’d anything to cut with.
My first instinct was to say no, I was all right, but this would have been useless vanity on my part. While a Samurai must keep his suffering to himself, he must also practice common sense. If there wasn’t anything to be gained from martyrdom, he mustn’t seek it.
So instead of biting Jigen’s head off, I stepped forward and drank my fill. Afterwards, I moved out of the way and sat down to rest, waiting for the others to take their turns.
Lupin, by virtue of his being leader, had the dignity of going last. He drank deeply, then ducked his head under the cascade and let it run cold down his back, washing the salt from his sore shoulders.
He flexed those shoulders once and closed his eyes, giving a soft grunt of relief. Then, suddenly, his eyes came open, his head snapped up and his body went taut as a bowstring.
“What is it?” Jigen asked.
“I don’t hear anything.”
“Right,” Lupin agreed. “It’s quiet now. A moment ago, Gurrera’s men were making all sorts of noise. Now they’ve stopped.”
“Maybe they’ve wandered off,” James suggested.
Lupin shook his head, sending a spattering of droplets down across me. “No. Jigen was right. This island is too small. Even if they were on the other end of it, we’d hear them. If we don’t, it’s because something’s happened.”
Von Eberbach wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “The General’s come ashore…?”
“That would be my guess. It’s also my guess he’s reorganizing things. He may be insane, but Gurrera-chan’s not stupid. He knows this island even if his men don’t and he’ll have some idea of our objective. If I was him, I’d move to cut us off. I’ve a very nasty feeling that’s what he’s doing.”
“We should go.” The Major pulled himself to his feet using a sapling to steady his rubbery legs. Dorian offered him a helping hand, but he shrugged it off as his dark eyes fixed on Lupin. “How much further?”
“Not far, I think Just the other side of this hill. But we must go now, mes infants, and make very little noise. We stand our best chance if Gurrera remains ignorant of our position. On your feet and follow me. Quickly!”
We obliged him, moving off through the trees in a silent half-crouch. Now that we had reached the hill and begun to climb, we saw the underbrush thin out a little. Patches of bare rock appeared, cracked by the intrusion of thickening roots. There were occasional holes in the forest canopy as well. Beyond loomed a summer sky that now seemed strangely grayer. It wasn’t dark, you understand, just not as bright as it had been. It was as though something translucent had come between us and the sun, filtering its light, but not obscuring it.
The air smelled different, too. Drier; sharper; almost combustive. It had the most elusive kind of scent, as if someone had perfumed the atmosphere with danger.
Don’t ask me how I knew. I just did.
The thief looked back at me, surprised because these were the first words I’d uttered in some time. At first he wondered if I was getting ready to collapse or if I’d seen something he hadn’t. Then he decided it could be neither of these things and, having nothing to replace them with, was left only with naked instinct. And Lupin trusted my instincts as mush as I did.
He seized von Eberbach’s arm, pulling it across his shoulders. “Help me, Dorian!” he cried. “Take the other one!”
The Earl obeyed without question and the two of them bolted up the slope, pulling the Major with them at a dead run. Von Eberbach was startled, but didn’t’ resist. As soon as he could get his feet under him, he hobbled along as fast as he was able. Jigen didn’t ask any questions, either. He bounded forward and grabbed me around the waist with his left arm while keeping the pistol ready in his right hand. Then he, too, started to run up-hill, dragging me with him.
This left James to fend for himself. With a yip of fear, the little Scotsmen came dashing after us.
Of course, Jigen’s grabbing me and dragging me away was every bit as much an insult as his insistence that I drink first. But this time, I didn’t care. My shame would mean nothing if we didn’t reach that house before Gurrera did.
It was often quite remarkable what adrenaline can do. We were tired, we were hurt and none of us had had anything to eat in twenty-four hours, yet we cleared the intervening twenty meters between the spring and the crest of the hill in less than thirty seconds.
Coming over the rise, I saw the heretofore impenetrable curtain of trees part and land sprawl, revealed before me. There was an abrupt, precipitous drop, then a gentle, rolling descent to the island’s western end. In the middle of this lush slope was a large patch of open grass and, in the middle of that grass, was a huge flamingo-colored house: Domingo’s island fortress.
It was an odd combination of plantation-Gothic and ultra-modern, with tall, narrow windows which looked like arrow slits. Its roof was white ceramic tile and its ground floor was protected buy an eight-foot wall of glistening Bermuda pink. The needlelike spire of a radio aerial protruded from a cupola on its northern wing and to the left of it, I saw a large square of asphalt that could only be a helicopter pad.
“Yatta!” Lupin panted. “C’est voila!” And he started searching along the edge of the cliff for a way to get our party down safely.
Jigen attempted to follow him, but I dug my heels in and refused to budge. The scene was idyllic in the golden morning light. There was no movement around the house and no outward signs of danger. Logic told me that Gurrera could not have reached this house before we did, but logic had very little to do with what I was feeling at the moment.
Again, I caught a faint scent on the air. A peculiar, transparent stink. Like lighter fluid. Or aviation petrol.
Immediately I dropped, pulling Jigen down with me.
“Un…?” Lupin wondered, then abruptly decided not to argue. He pushed both von Eberbach and Dorian flat on the ground and covered them with his body.
There was a soft thump from the direction of the house, as if someone had dropped something, then there came this enormous, shattering BANG! Windows vaporized; doors exploded from their frames. The walls, four feet thick, built of coral and re-enforced concrete, withstood the initial force of the blast and channeled that blast upwards. A huge mushroom of fire rose, taking out three floors of Spanish marble and mahogany fittings, to finally come bursting through the roof. That roof blew off, scattering tiles like pieces from a mahjongg set. There is no proper comparison for the noise which accompanied this carnage. It wasn’t a noise, really. It was an elemental force which pounded the surrounding land in hard waves of fire and brimstone.
A wave of hot air hit us, half-scalding our exposed flesh. Then there came this concussion which all but beat the breath from us. Afterwards, an aching stillness prevailed, broken only by the slow-motion slap of debris hitting the ground and the circumspect roar of a great fire raging.
The atmosphere was sickly sweet with the reek of burnt cordite.
Jigen lifted his head and stared, slack-jawed, at the remains, which consisted of four cracked and blackened walls and a huge column of smoke rising skyward.
“What was that?!” James cried. The explosion had caught him while he was still on the sheltered side of the hill. Although he’d been blown off his feet, he wasn’t hurt. “What happened?!”
“The house,” Jigen gasped. “That crazy motherfucker just blew up his house rather then let us have it!”
“But why?! If he was already there, we couldn’t have taken if from him!”
“Who the hell knows! Gurrera’s got the ship; maybe he decided he didn’t need the house. Maybe he just wanted to hear it go bang. Maybe he’s completely bonkers and doesn’t give a shit! All I know is our ticket just got punched! We had on chance and now it’s burning!”
Lupin lifted himself off von Eberbach and sat slumped on the grass, panting. His chest and face were smeared with dirt. One of the cuts on his back was bleeding. In silence, he stared at the wreckage of the house wearing no expression at all. Then he put on this grim little smile, as if he found the desperation of his plight amusing.
“Touché, General,” he said. “Check, but not mate I think.”
“Checkmate, schmeckmate!” Jigen growled, getting to his knees. “If you’ve got any other bright ideas, I’d like to hear them!”
“Our plans haven’t changed, my friend. We continue.”
“Continue where? The house is gone!”
“En boco lupo.”
“En boco lupo,” Major von Eberbach repeated, lifting his head. “Into the wolf’s mouth…” The German grinned. With his face so pale, the effect was ghastly. “Herr Dibe is suggesting we continue down to the house because it is the one place in the verdammt world Gurrera would never expect us to go.”
“That’s insane!” James insisted. “There’s nothing left!”
“Exactly,” Lupin agreed. “That’s why we’ll go there.”
Dorian looked hopeful. “You have a plan, darling?”
“Mr. Lupin never has plans,” the Major said. “He has schemes. He is a creature of instinct and, therefore, his thoughts never really crystallize. The only reason I think we should obey him now is because, as your little twit so correctly observed, he is crazy. So, I point out, is Gurrera. The only chance we have is to fight fire with fire. The only way to beat a lunatic is to be crazier than he is.”
Lupin grinned. “Exactement, mon commaddant. Bravo.”
Jigen got to his feet. “Okay,” he grunted. “We go down to the house. What then?”
“Tailor a defense according to what we find. If we don’t find anything useful, then we just lay low for a while.”
“And after that?”
“You worry too much, Jigen-chan,” Lupin decided. He raised himself on one knee and reached down to help von Eberbach. The Major, iron though he was, sat up slowly. “I’d never get anything done if I worried as much as you do.”
“If you ‘worried’ at all, we wouldn’t be in this fucking mess! We’d be back in a Manhattan bar getting loaded!”
Lupin’s wry grin softened. For the first time, I saw a trace of regret to it. “One thing you must admit,” he said. “I do throw one hell of a birthday party.”
“Yeah. So much for my fortieth. I was kinda hopin’ to see forty-one. C’mon, Go.”
Jigen held out his hand to me, but I disdained it, staring instead at the ruin which had once been Domingo’s house. While I watched there was another, much smaller explosion from the southern wing. Apparently the flames had found the kitchen area and a previously unmolested canister of propane.
Flakes of fire rained out across the grass.
Lupin and Eroica got the Major to his feet and began to search again for some way down. They found it some twenty feet further to our right, where several large blocks of stone had cracked loose from their parent slab. They’d fallen in a rough approximation of a giant’s staircase and trees had grown up between the pieces. By clinging to those trees, it was possible to lower oneself, a step at a time, until one reached the gentler landscape below.
Lupin jumped down to the first “step” and reached up to take the Major from Dorian.
I got to my feet without Jigen’s help. “Go help Lupin,” I told him.
The gunman shook his head. “That wasn’t the deal.”
“Never mind the ‘deal.’ Go help Lupin. He needs to know you don’t hate him.”
Jigen stared at me, his face blank with surprise.
I frowned. “Baka! I snarled at Lupin all the time and it doesn’t matter. He expects this from me ant it rolls right off his back. It’s different coming from you. When you get mad at him, it hurts. He’s tired, he’s injured and he’s running out of ideas. If he has to die today, there’s no reason he has to do it feeling unloved.”
“Go!” I spat. “Give your concern to someone who needs it!”
Jigen backed away, still searing that ludicrous expression. He blinked once, then went over to the ‘steps’ and jumped down to help Lupin with the Major.
I sighed. There was that done. Happy birthday, both of you.
James gave a squawk as he was half-lowered and half-dropped after the Major. He landed with a thump in Jigen’s arms, who deposited the little man back on his feet and propelled him towards the next “step” with a gentle shove.
I stumbled after them, leaning on the bokken which was now as much a cane as it was a cudgel. My strength was nearly spent, but I’d make it all right. I’d been making it on my own for thirty-six years. A couple more hours wouldn’t matter.
It was possible for me to negotiate the “steps” alone by sitting on the edge of one, then sliding down on my bottom to the other. I even managed to do it without tearing the seat out of my pants, although I got those pants damned filthy. Once back on level ground, I was able to manage a stumbling trot and so caught up with the others.
Once we were within fifty meters of the house, Lupin grew cautious. He approached the wreckage commando-fashion, crouched low with his pistol in his hand. He took frequent, furtive glances about, looking for any signs of movement.
He saw nothing and neither did I. And as for hearing anything, that was impossible. At close range, the fire filled the air with a sustained, guttural roar. Heat beat in the air around us like demon’s wings. The only sound to penetrate the hungry crackling of the fire was the heavy groan followed by the heavier thump when part of the house’s outer shell finally gave up and collapsed to the ground. The northern face was gone now and most of the eastern wall with it.
“Do you see anyone?” the Major asked Lupin.
The Frenchman shook his head. “Not a soul.”
“But they have to be nearby, don’t they?” James quavered in a ragged voice. “After all, someone had to set the bombs.”
“Not necessarily,” Jigen inserted. “I’ve been thinkin’ about that and the more I do, the more I figure it was some remote device. Something that’s been there all along, even before this business with the Ark got started. Gurrera didn’t have to bust his chops getting here and he didn’t have to risk his ass planting explosives. All he had to do was press a button and…poof!...bye-bye baby.”
“But isn’t that going to rather annoy Domingo?” Dorian asked. “I understood this was his house, not the General’s.”
“You think General Gonzo cares? He’s so far in left field, nothing matters.”
“A breakdown in command,” Lupin mused, smiling slightly. “That’s a hopeful sign. Perhaps, if we can just hold body and soul together long enough, the strain caused by Gurrera’s excesses will split his group. Domingo may even try to usurp command. If that happens, the General will certainly forget we exist. We’re not half the threat Domingo is.”
“Wishful thinking, Herr Dieb. You’re assuming Domingo is sane. It’s my experience this is often not the case. Lieutenants are frequently more fanatic than their leaders.”
“Lupin! Abunai ha!”
I cried out because I’d seen something out of the corner of my eye: The brief, silvery flash of sun off a reflective surface. It could have been anything from the house, but somehow I knew it wasn’t. I knew because the dazzle resonated in my soul. He was part of me and I could not help but know him.
Estaban broke cover first. I knew he would. He was not a creature of patience. Besides, he wanted to see the look on my face when I saw my own sword turned against me.
My emotions ran the color of death; stark white with no shadow to them. My pain was forgotten; my fatigue ignored; my body became transparent. There have been time when I thought I might die by my own sword. But not in another’s hand. Ever.
I don’t know what happened to Lupin and the others in those first seconds. For that moment, I had only one point of focus. I’d given the alarm, now I turned to indulge my rage. An icy rage handled coldly.
Estaban rose from the grass with my katana in one hand and a pistol in the other. He was wearing khaki-colored clothing like a soldier’s. His trousers had a black strip down their outside sems and he had a strip of black cloth tied around his head like a hachimaki. The smile he wore was shark-like.
Zantetsu-ken would have been deadly in any fool’s hands. The bigger the fool, the more potentially deadly. Deadly because an idiot will take chances a wise man would never take and this makes him unpredictable.
Estaban was an overconfident clump with cahones where his brains ought to be. He was so convinced of his own prowess (and o dismissive of mine), that he came at me with the sword in his right hand, intending to cut me into ignominious strips rather than finish the matter quickly.
Fire glowed in reflection off the katana’s blade, painting him red in anticipation. Estaban brought him straight down in an overhand cut, slashing western fashion. Unfortunately for him, he had confidence, but he didn’t have my expertise. He chopped vertically, like he was wielding an axe, while I cut across horizontally with a Migi-Ichimonji-Girl. He didn’t touch me at all, while I not only tipped his pistol aside, I dealt him a fair crack on the inside of his descending sword-arm near the elbow. The only surprising thing was that he didn’t actually drop my katana.
Now that first cuts had been exchanged, the focus of my concentration relaxed, allowing me to see the whole battlefield and not just my opponent. I heard the retorts of firearms and the cries of men. A couple dozen of Gurrera’s troops had broken cover. Some were dressed in uniforms like Estaban’s, but most were not. Of those who were not, a few looked slightly soggy. They rose en masse to surround our little group, knowing us to be injured and nearly unarmed, and I saw their intent was to take us alive. The only one with death in his heart was Estaban.
Death, his sword-arm momentarily useless, pointed his gun at me. He fired three shots, then was surprised as hell when I batted those bullets right out of the air. This cost me five inches off the tip of my bokken, but I did it.
Estaban wasn’t the only one shooting. Jigen Daisuke also gave a good accounting of himself. He had only three shots and made every one of them pay. When he was done, two men lay writhing on the ground and another one lay and didn’t. His ammunition now gone, Jigen dove for the nearest of these three, trying to get his hands on another weapon. He was intercepted by a thug in wet denim who hit him from the side and they crashed into the grass, rolling over and over.
There was a resounding bang as Estaban’s pistol fired a fourth time and I turned my body to avoid it. I felt the molten heat of the bullet as it passed under my right arm. It felt as though someone had just missed burning me with a cigarette.
I finished my twist and brought my bokken up in a sweeping Hidari-Joho-Girl. This time instead of tipping the pistol aside, I brought the wooden blade down on the fingers covering the grip. One of the bones snapped. I heard it.
Estaban howled in pain and dropped his gun.
I’d have liked to have retrieved that gun for Jigen, but when I looked, Jigen wasn’t there. Instead I saw James. He ran across my line of sight yowling like a scalded dog, crying the Earl’s name over and over. Three men thrice his size were trying to corral the little Scot, but they weren’t having much luck at it.
Dorian Red Gloria stood a half-bowcast further away, back to back with von Eberbach. Deprived of any weapon at all, the Earl had taken to throwing stones. This he did with satisfying skill. I saw him knock at least one opponent sprawling.
Major Klaus von Eberbach had found a strut of metal some forty inches long and was suing it to lay about him. He swung the thing side to side like a baseball bat, striking anything unfortunate enough to intrude into his radius. Those swings were wild and the Major’s stance was unsteady, but—like me—von Eberbach seemed to have momentarily risen above his pain. Instead of looking like a wounded man, he resembled a cornered wolf. His teeth were bared in a deadly snarl and his eyes were horrifying! They burned deep black, not hot, but cold. The kind of cold that scalds at a touch and withers whatever is held in contact with it.
Estaban, furious at me for having caused him pain and for having destroyed his illusions of swordsmanship, charged again. This time he swung on a diagonal, two-handed. I didn’t bother to meet the cut and instead spun under it, planting the butt of my bokken into his right side between his ribs and hip point. The air went out of Estaban with a grunt as he reeled away to put some distance between us.
I had his gun. I risked a second of exposure to snatch it off the ground, then looked again quickly for Jigen.
The gunman emerged from a clump of weeds, his cheek gashed and blood trickling into his beard. He looked about very quickly to orient himself, then ducked as a thug opened fire on him.
“Jigen!” I yelled. “Totte you!”
And I threw the gun at him.
I’ve no idea whether he caught it or not. As soon as I’d thrown the thing, I had to duck myself. I felt the minute displacement of air which accompanied the passage of a fine blade and, in my mind, I saw the sun flash off him like a fire-fall. In answer, I dove forward, tucking and rolling to avoid the cut. The action was instinctive and I didn’t think about it. If I had, I wouldn’t have led with my right shoulder. Because I did, my arm wound came first into contact with the ground and I was, for a split-second, distracted.
Zantetsu-ken tipped me, very lightly, along the outside of my left thigh. It was just a slight touch, no more than a caress of a soft breeze, yet fabric and flesh parted like butter. He is very sharp, is my Soul, and probably rather peeved at me for ever allowing him to be taken.
It was not a deep cut, but it was tight inches long and there was a fair amount of blood with it. When I didn’t get up right away, Estaban was convinced he’s hamstrung me. He roared with triumph and swung the sword back in what he was sure would be a killing blow.
He wasn’t paying attention. Had he been, he would have seen that the cut was too high to “hamstring” anyone and the blood wasn’t enough to indicate serious injury. He might also have seen the butt of my bokken, which was now flashing up between his legs, heading for the core of his existence.
When a Samurai leads with the hilt of his sword, this is sometimes called a “shin-kata,” or Truce Move. Usually it is done while both opponents are seated and its aim is to prevent the enemy from drawing his sword in the first place. But sometimes it is done to deflect an enemy’s blow and thus give him time to reconsider. In this particular case, I’m not sure you could call what I did a shin-kata. My enemy’s sword was already drawn and I was not in position to deflect his blow, but I gave him pause to reconsider, I think. It’s amazing how reflective a man can become when you smash him right in the yarbles.
Estaban’s roar of triumph became the high-pitched squawk of an emasculated buffalo. His body went rigid in reaction. The descending sword stopped abruptly and hung, flashing, in the air while its wielder’s face turned purple.
I didn’t waste time gloating. My shoulder was hurting and my let was beginning to sting. Besides, I wanted my damn sword back! My bokken snapped around and smacked into the undersides of Estaban’s wrists. The sword left his grasp to go pinwheeling through the air and land point-first in the earth, quivering.
Estaban, now weaponless and still in a state of agonized rigor, sat down in the grass with a thud.
Again, I didn’t hesitate; I raced to collect my Soul.
There was this shriek. This heart-stopping, blood-freeing screech. I hesitate to call it a scream and it certainly wasn’t a shout. It was a wail. A terrible Banshee-like wail, full of loss and death and longing.
It froze me right where I stood, with my hand reaching for my katana. Without bothering to think, I looked immediately for the source of such a horrifying noise and found it almost as quickly.
Von Eberbach was down. One of the thugs he was keeping at bay had finally managed to wedge himself under the Major’s guard. He’s brought the butt of his pistol up and smashed it hard into the side of the German’s skull. The same side, as it happened, that was already injured.
The blow was immediately disabling, of course, and there was an excellent chance it was mortal.
The Major dropped like a stone.
Dorian Red Gloria had seen him fall and that terrible cry was the result. It burst out of the Earl in a cacophony of unbearable grief and indescribable rage. He fell on the Major’s attacker. With a stone still in his hand, he dropped the assailant with a vicious right cross. That he shattered the man’s jaw, I have no doubt.
Then he straddled the Major’s body, prepared to defend whatever was left with the last drop of blood in his body.
Jigen describes this as “going ballistic.” He claims it happens when rage becomes so cold and intense in a man that he just explodes. He’s said that I’ve “gone ballistic” a couple of times myself. Well, if I had, I’d never before seen it happen to anyone else. It made the flesh creep all over my body.
It is a misconception that homosexual men are weak. They are not weak. No more than any man is. Especially when those they love are threatened.
While I watched, the Earl began to lay about him with a determination and a coldness of ki that would have done me Honor.
I took my Soul into my hand.
And felt a tremor of vibration race through him. An undertone of deep movement, like an earthquake. When I looked down at the blade, I saw his shadows begin to waiver and dance.
“MINNA-SAN WA TOMATTE YO, O-KUDASAI! Please do me the courtesy of standing down, gentlemen. Right now and without your weapons!”
He came out of the fire. I swear he did. Like a phoenix from its own ashes. Lupin-sansei appeared atop a rise near the outer wall of Domingo’s house. He was battered, he was dirty, and he was sporting a new black eye, but he was also carrying another Heckler & Koch MP5. From below the rifle protruded the curving shape of two magazines tied together. Another double magazine was tucked in the waistband of Lupin’s jeans.
“My, my, my,” the French thief said. “Just look what I found in the boathouse! Of course, the previous owner was a little reluctant to part with it, but I convinced him that I needed it more. And, if you’re thinking I daren’t use it for fear of hitting my friends, then I caution you to think again. I happen to be an excellent shot. I don’t hit what I don’t aim at!”
He stitched ten rounds across the battlefield, placing each one between the feet of a reluctant thug. Lupin’s not as good as Jigen, but he’s not bad. Especially when he’s pissed off, like he was now.
The struggle ended except for the Earl, who continued to flail around him.
Jigen ran over and caught him from behind. The gunman took several good hits before he was able to pin Eroica against his body. “Easy, Blondie,” he grunted. “It’s over now. We gotta think of Dagwood. He’s hurt and he’s gonna need us.”
Dorian sagged with emotional and physical exhaustion for a moment, then rallied and pushed Jigen gently away. He dropped to his knees next to von Eberbach and began to do what he could.
“Is he alive?” Lupin called.
“Yeah,” Jigen replied. “So far.”
“That is very fortunate for you, gentlemen,” the Frenchmen said coldly. “Now, if you’ll just discard any weapon you happen to have, we can get on with this tawdry little business.”
“I think not.”
It was just one voice, but many came to enforce it. They appeared en masse, raising from the grass, the brush, the very air around us: A veritable army bristling with automatic weapons. There were thirty of them, dressed in the quasi-military garb of Gurrara’s private guard. At their head, sleek in his black camp coat and white riding breeches, was Georgio Domingo. He had a pistol in his hand which was pointed right at Lupin.
“I’m afraid my men won’t drop their weapons, señor,” he said gently. “Instead I must insist that you drop yours.”
Lupin stared without comprehension, wondering where he’d come from. The thief had been banking on Domingo’s unwilling complicity. Now he saw he wouldn’t get it. Lupin also couldn’t believe he’d missed so large a body of men, even in all the confusion.
“And if I don’t…?”
“You’ll die, of course.”
“Forgive me, Señor Domingo, but that’s a rather moot threat. I drop my gun and I die anyway.”
“Perhaps. And perhaps not. You can’t know what plans we have for you. It may be that your intrusion isn’t a death sentence at all. You’ll never know if you don’t cooperate. At least, I can promise you a few more hours of life. Every additional breath, every new heartbeat carries its own germ of hope, is this not so?”
“True…” Lupin’s eyes darted about, looking for possible alternatives to the situation in which he now found himself. “Life is hope. I’ll grant you that. But who are you to make promises, señor? You are only the watchdog.”
“He is more than that, I think,” echoed a voice deep with hypnotic resonance. “He is a confidant. He is an acolyte of the faith. And in matters of life and death, I trust him absolutely. Señor Domingo is a devoted follower of the Great Dark and, as such, I’ve never had much cause to disagree with him because our views are very similar.”
General Pedro Gurrera appeared from behind a vanguard of men wearing the same quasi-uniform as Domingo. Over it, he had draped a black velvet robe lined with cloth-of-gold. This robe hung open down the front and Gurrera’s paunch protruded through the opening like a bow of a dirigible. A wedge of skin was visible in the separation between his coat and breeches, decorated by a few strands of curling hair. His head was bare and sweat had already formed on his bald pate. That sweat ran down his face in great, greasy drops and dripped from his jowls onto his coat collar.
Again I was struck by his absolute ugliness. He was so hideous, he was fascinating.
Lupin pointed the MP5 at him and, instantly, there was a stirring in the air around me as fingers tightened on triggers everywhere. “Check!” Lupin cried. “I place your king in danger! Kill me, and he dies, too. And where will you be then, mes amis? Where is your cause without its leader?”
A flicker of doubt crossed Domingo’s face and he glanced anxiously at Gurrera. The General, however, was unperturbed. He spread his hands in a shrug that was half benediction. “You won’t shoot me.”
“You think not?”
“I know it. You have the eyes of a fox, not a wolf. You can’t bring yourself to shoot an unarmed man. And I am unarmed, monsieur. You can see this.”
Gurrera spread the folds of his robe, displaying himself for inspection. It was true; he wasn’t armed. He didn’t have a gun. He wasn’t even wearing a holster.
Lupin blinked. “Your men aren’t ‘unarmed’…”
“Ah, that is true. I submit it doesn’t matter. We aren’t talking about them; we’re talking about you. And you don’t strike me as the kind of man who is ready to meet God with blood on his hands. You don’t think your poor soul could stand it.
“Shall I tell you about yourself, Mr. Lupin? Since spring, I’ve taken care to study you and I’ve found several weaknesses in your character which are fascinating. If you’ll forgive me, I’ll take a moment to point them out. They are quite illuminating.
“For example: You are a thief of no little skill and you wear your larceny like a banner. As a child of thieves, you claim theft is natural to you and no more abhorrent than breathing. Yet you’re careful to point out that no innocent has ever been hurt by you. You confine yourself to rich bastards and faceless institutions. That you need to make this distinction is a very telling thing. It says to me that, beneath it all, you fear for your soul and quail at the thoughts of what retribution might await you. So you are anxious not to make your plight any worse than it already is. That’s why you won’t shoot me.”
Sweat broke on Lupin’s forehead, running down to make tracks in the dirt on his face. “You would kill me…”
“If our roles were reversed? Certainly. The difference is I’m not afraid. Sinner that I am, I do not fear God. And I have sinned, monsieur. I have done things that you, in your state of half-grace, would never dream of. Given the chance, I’d do them all again and enjoy it just as much the second time. You see, I have taught myself not to feel shame. Once a man has shed shame, then he no longer needs to be absolved. He has entered the Great Dark and need fear nothing.
“What is this ‘Great Dark’? It’s the thing which allows a man to do whatever he likes without the least regret or inhibition. Call it a state of anti-grace, if you like. Enter it and God can’t touch you.”
“Not at all. In Satanism, one is subject to the Devil. In my philosophy, I am subject only to myself. Nothing, good or evil, has sway over me.” Gurrera shrugged again, making that same little perverse benediction. “If I adopt some of the trappings of the Black Mass, I do so for convenience sake. I have noticed that most men will listen more attentively if a sermon comes with a good floorshow.”
“’To do as thou wild shall be the whole of the saw…’” Lupin smiled, but his voice sounded shaky. “All along we thought you were claiming God was on your side, but that isn’t it, is it? You offer absolution by insisting that none is necessary. I now see why your doctrine is popular, mi General. If I was in the business of selling death in little bags, I might be tempted to believe in it myself. But I am curious: Why did you need the Ark? Surely your sales pitch is attractive enough without it.”
“You’d think so,” Gurrera sighed, “but I find people often need convincing. It helps if there’s some physical object they can concentrate on. If I defile the Ark and nothing happens to me, well… I’ve made my point, then. Haven’t I?”
“Defile it in what way?”
“I will open it and remove what it contains. If necessary, I will destroy those contents. But not before I’ve had a thorough look at them. I confess I’m just a bit curious.”
“You haven’t opened it?”
“No, I find that anticipation sweetens the stew, and adds immeasurably to the dramatic element. So I have restrained myself until tonight. Tonight I’ll have its secret for good and all, and you are going to help me.”
“You’re curious, too. I see that in your eyes. For all that you might still fear God, you can’t help but stick your nose in His business.”
All this time Gurrera had held us in a kind of thrall. His appearance was so vile, his voice so modulated and commanding, his logic so perverse, we couldn’t help but stare. When he started to move closer to Lupin, none of us registered it as a potential threat. It just appeared to be part of the snake-dance he was doing.
Lupin was still pointing his rifle at Gurrera, but the barrel of that rifle had dropped and was now aimed at the General’s belly rather than his head. I won’t say that Lupin had relaxed, because he hadn’t. He was too much a survivor for that. But he was also tired, hungry, and sore, and subject to the full impact of the General’s attention. As a result, he’d become partly mesmerized and failed to see the danger coming.
“You’ve thought about it, haven’t you?” Gurrera continued, wearing an oily smile as he glided forward. “You’ve wondered if those fragments are really in there. You’ve wondered what it would be like to hold them. I’m going to give you that opportunity…”
Dorian, Earl of Red Gloria, was the only one of us still possessed of his senses. Distracted by the Major’s injuries, he had been unable to concentrate on Gurrera’s soporific spiel. When he realized what the General was doing, he cried out.
Unfortunately, his shout of warning had the opposite effect. It momentarily startled Lupin. The French thief turned to look at him in surprise and this afforded Gurrera the chance he needed.
I’ve remarked before that General Gurrera was a surprisingly agile man for all of his bulk. When he moved, he was damn quick. Before the Earl’s shout had died away, he’d reached forward and grabbed the barrel of Lupin’s gun. He jerked that gun aside, pulling Lupin off his feet, and followed through with a hard left to the thief’s chin. Lupin’s teeth met with a crack I could hear and his knees turned to water.
The MP5 when off, but the dozen bullets it released did nothing more than pepper the air.
Pandemonium erupted. Armed men rushed at us from all sides. Estaban, one hand still clutching his bruised genitalia, made a grab for my sword arm. He got the butt of my katana right in his teeth and dropped back to the grass as I made a desperate attempt to reach Lupin.
I don’t have any clear recollection of crossing the fifteen or so meters of ground which separated me from the thief. All I know was that when I reached Gurrera, my blade was red and keening with a high-pitched shrill like a deranged cicada. Gurrera saw me and pulled the rifle out of Lupin’s grasp, trying to point it in my direction.
Lupin was three-fourths unconscious, but part of him was still aware. That one-fourth resisted, clinging to the gun, and although he was unable to retain his grip on it, he prevented the General from taking aim at me.
With a cry of fury, of contempt and vengeance, I leapt to cut him down.
And saw that what I thought was blood on my blade wasn’t blood at all. It was some kind of crimson energy. It ran lambent up and down the length of the sword, flickering purple at the edges.
I never completed the cut. All at once the sword was torn from my hand. It flew into the air in a radiant arc and stabbed itself point-first into the earth. It trembled, glowing, for a fraction of a second, then the light faded.
Zan…Zan-chan… Why have you forsaken me?
I don’t remember anything after that. Something smacked hard into the back of my skull and all the world went black.
* * * * *
I was out for a considerable time. So long, that exhaustion had to have mingled with my state of unconsciousness and produced natural sleep. This must have happened because I wasn’t out for minutes; I was out for hours. Had injury alone been responsible, I doubt very much if I’d have awakened at all.
It was dark when I came to, and I was in a little room made of wood. My hands had been bound behind me and I felt exactly like I’d been run over by a train. It was at least another half-hour before I stirred up enough energy to look about me.
They were all there: Lupin, Jigen, James, and Eroica. Even the major, too, poor sod, although no one had bothered to tie him. I watched his chest rise and fall for a minute or two and realized this hadn’t been a mistake. Von Eberbach’s breathing was shallow and his face, or what I could see of it, was masklike. If he lived out the night, I’d be surprised.
But then, if any of us survived till dawn, it would surprise me.
Dorian sat beside von Eberbach, closed-faced and silent. James huddled next to him, too exhausted even to cry. Jigen slumped in a corner staring off into space, while Lupin sat a little apart from the rest, studying the tableau with bleak eyes.
“Insanity,” the thief remarked to no one in particular, “is a misunderstood condition. People tend to view it in terms of raving manias or paranoid delusions. They forget its subtler, deadlier forms, such as a complete lack of conscience. When a man lacks empathy for others, he is termed a sociopath. This is what Gurrera is. I’ve no doubt of it.”
“Meaning,” Jigen grunted, “that I was right. He doesn’t give a shit. He doesn’t care about anyone or anything.”
Lupin seemed not to have heard him. “There were people in that house, you know. Ten servants Domingo had sent ahead to make things ready for tonight. Gurrera knew they were there, but this didn’t matter. He blew them to bits without so much as a twinge of feeling.”
The Frenchman gave a grunt of mirthless amusement. “Yes. Just what I was thinking.” He glanced at Dorian. “How’s Klaus doing?”
“He’s dying,” the Earl replied, voice flat with the venom of suppressed emotion. “His pulse is weak; his breathing shallow. From what little I can see, I’d say his right pupil is fixed and dilated. I believe that means he’s been bleeding into his brain. He’s in a coma now, but that can’t last much longer.”
“I’m sorry, Petticaris.”
Eroica shuddered and his mask of icy indifference broke. His features squeezed into a grimace of pain and stayed that way for a moment. When he looked up, he was crying. “It’s all right, Arsene. I don’t really see this as your fault. He’s beyond it now, poor soul. There’s nothing more they can do to him.”
James shuddered. “But what about us?”
“Oh, they’ve got something good planned for us,” Jigen snorted. “We’re the damned floorshow that fat bastard was talking about. He’s gonna unwrap his box, then he’s gonna hand us over to the mob. They’ll tear us to pieces like a buncha drunken Bacchanites!” The gunman lashed out with his foot, kicking hard at the wooden wall. “It’d be worth it if I could just get my hands around that ugly slob’s nick! I’d send him to his ‘Great Dark’ all right! Overnight delivery, no return requested!”
“Un! I would be happy to help you!”
“Goemon!” Lupin cried. “Daijobu ka?”
“I’m all right. What time is it?”
“I’ve no idea. Late.”
“Where are we?”
“In one of the storage sheds down by the dock. They locked us in here hours ago. Since then, they’ve gone off to see to the preparations for their little fête. Some are over by the boathouse now, getting drunk as lords. If you listen carefully, you can hear them.
He was right. Some distance away, several voices were raised in a drunken song occasionally interrupted by laughter.
“Yeah,” Jigen agreed. “Ain’t it?”
“So what’s the plan?”
“Plan?” Lupin wondered listlessly. “I wish to God I had one. The door’s right out because it’s solid pine and there are four very large men with guns station outside. Even if we could get through the door and overcome our guards, there’d be no place for us to go. The house is gone and I overheard someone say that Gurrera has ordered the Santorini’s crew taken prisoner. He’s got them all locked in the aft hold, just in case they should feel disruptive.”
“Then there’s no hope…”
“There’s always hope, Goemon. Man can’t survive without it. This time, though, I fear we have very little control. We’re in the laps of the Gods tonight. I only pray They don’t drop us.”
“Pray harder,” Jigen observed. “They’ve dropped one of us already.”
“Wait!” James whimpered. “Someone’s coming!”
Jams was right. The drunken singing stopped. In its place was a kind of chant, and the measure tread of feet slowly marching. I’m not at all sure what the chant was about. It seemed a mixture of Latin and Spanish.
The sounds of this procession halted just outside our door, then there was a fair amount of noise as someone fumbled with a chain and padlock. The door swung outward, momentarily framing the silhouette of a man with a gun, then the man stepped aside to make way for Georgio Domingo.
Gurrera’s lieutenant was still wearing his uniform though now he, too, had draped a black robe over it. He smiled when we looked up at him. “Good evening, gentlemen,” he said. “Are you ready?”
“Sure,” growled Jigen. “Just untie my hands and I’ll be real ready!”
Domingo’s gaze flickered briefly in Jigen’s direction, resting there just long enough to identify who spoke. The man’s mouth twitched once into a slightly wide version of its present cold smile and then relaxed again. “If you would get to your feet, please…?”
As he spoke, Domingo stepped out of the doorway, making room for the two burly guards who shouldered in to make sure we did as ordered. One by one, we were grabbed and tossed outside. Dorian tried to resist. When they made to snatch him away from Klaus, he butted one of his assailants in the stomach. The blow was only marginally effective and it earned the Earl a kick in the ribs. Then the goon grabbed Eroica by his hair and his bound wrists and heaved him outside.
For safety’s sake, another guard gave Jigen a poke in the belly with the butt of his rifle. As the gunman had also expressed an interest in mayhem, this was seen as only prudent.
Domingo watched the proceedings impassively, then turned to view the comatose German with an expression of mild annoyance. “What about that one? Is he dead?”
“Almost,” a guard replied.
“Leave him, then. We’ll see about the body in the morning.”
The guards came out, then the door to the shed was closed and locked. Each of us was taken and thrust between two armed acolytes. When we were secure, we were escorted off to face the General.
For the site of his festivities, General Gurrera had selected a spit of land which projected from the island’s western end like a single pointing finger. It was build of stone, not coral, and stood about fifteen feet above the water. The top of it was flat, platform-like, with a raised area of rock like a dais at its far end. If I hadn’t been so preoccupied, I might have been moved by the incongruous beauty of the choice. Water framed the projection on three sides, providing us with an incomparable vista of emptiness as elegant as it was lonely.
It was about half-past eight in the evening and the golden crescent of the sun was still visible above the agate-colored sea, just below the trailing edge of a mass of clouds which loomed in the sky above us. These clouds were mottled and dark, sporadically lit by distant flickers of lightning. They looked threatening, yet the air was absolutely still. With the sun peeking up from underneath, the atmosphere had an oddly crystalline look, as if everything was frozen.
We were taken to an area next to the dais and made to sit. Our honor guard of armed men formed a cordon around us. Domingo and the rest of his acolytes arranged themselves in two ranks down the middle of the projection, their backs toward the sea. Then they took up their chant again, repeating it ad nauseam.
During the next half-hour, Gurrera’s guests arrived, appearing in small groups. They took their places on either side of Domingo’s aisle silently. Once there, they joined in the chant until the air rumbled with the sound of men’s voices.
“What’re they saying,” Jigen whispered.
“Nothing,” Lupin replied under his breath. “It’s just nonsense, and the word ‘darkness’ repeated over and over. I’ll have to hand it to the General. He’s a damned persuasive blot. He’s made a mantra out of garbage. Ugh!”
A rifle butt contacted sharply with Lupin’s torn back, urging him to silence. After a soft grunt of pain, the Frenchman meekly complied.
By now, most of the congregation had arrived. The sun had set, bathing the sea in darkness. The only respite came from the witch-fires of lightning capering overhead, but these were so dim, they only served to light the clouds a little.
The changing reached a climax, then stopped. In the resulting silence, the surf could be heard whispering around the rocks.
A first flicker of fire, followed by a second, appeared on the road leading back to the dock. These took the form of two torchbearers. They were trailed at a discreet distance by four men carrying a large object covered in black velvet. Golden designs worked into the velvet kept flashing in the firelight as the thing was borne along. Four feet shod in gold were visible below the cloth, faintly gleaming. The six escorts, their heads covered and slightly bowed, brought this box down and the road and carried it up the aisle to set it on the dais. This was done in absolute silence. So quiet were the assembled throng, I could hear the whine of a hand-held camcorder.
Once they had the object safely placed, the four bearers withdrew, leaving only the two acolytes with the torches, who took up positions on either side of the dais itself and cast a restless, leaping light over the proceedings.
I couldn’t see the Ark, of course, but enough of a shape was visible beneath the black velvet cover to suggest that our fake one had been a pretty faithful reproduction. The paw-like feet were the same. So, to every indication, were the two angelic bumps on top of it. The only real difference seemed to be that it weighed far more. The men who carried it had been sweating under their black robes and one of them had actually grunted with relief when they set the thing down.
For the first time, I heard thunder rumble overhead.
The arrival of the Ark had sent a tremor of restless anticipation through the crowd. They didn’t speak, but there was a lot of nervous shifting and fingers fumbling with watches. The mob was obedient to Gurrera, but they were getting anxious. The General would have to make his appearance soon if he didn’t want the spell he was weaving to be broken.
Thunder rolled again long and low, like some gigantic beast growling.
Just when it seemed that discipline would break, Gurrera arrived. He appeared with a personal retinue of three, one of them being Estaban. Estaban and his two cronies were dressed in hooded black robes. Gurrera was not only wearing a robe, but he had thrown a cassock-like thing over it. This cassock was bright red and embroidered in gold with a black cross appliquéd on the front of it. In the middle of the cross was a stylized skull, its jeweled eyes gleaming redly.
Estaban came first, carrying a torch and looking very self-important. He had something strung diagonally across his back which could only have been my katana. Gurrera was next, followed by the two anonymous goons, each cradling a young (and probably tranquilized) piglet. This procession approached in silence until it reached the base of the spit, then the chanting began again.
With exaggerated pomp, Estaban led the way to the dais, but his upright posture and proud stance couldn’t entirely hide the slightly splayed and rolling gait he’d adopted. This was certainly the result of the low blow I’d dealt him. As he passed, he risked drilling me with a baleful scowl, communicating that he’s see to me himself, at some length, later in the evening.
I glowered back. I don’t indulge in staring contests much, but, when I do, I invariably win them.
Estaban almost tripped over the dais, earning a frown of disapproval from Gurrera. Snapping to attention, he allowed the General to pass, followed by his two pig-bearers. Once they were in position behind the Ark, Estaban retreated to the far end, where he stood with torch planted and my sword drawn, defying anyone to leave before the ceremony was over.
Lightning flashed a muted blue; thunder muttered, low and angry. A breeze churned in the still air, catching in the torch flames and in the hem of the cloth covering the Ark. That cloth billowed and shook as if something was stirring to life under it.
The chanting reached its second crescendo and died away.
Gurrera raised his hands. “Patris dexeram ad sedes qui nostrum deprecationem suscipe!”
“Suscipe!” the throng repeated.
“Negro Ultimo altissimus solus tu! Gloria!”
“Things went on like this for some time. Aside from the admonition “negro ultimo” or Great Dark, I didn’t understand a word of it. Probably the rest of the congregation didn’t either. This didn’t matter. Gurrera was a consummate showman and he built the tension one step at a time, until the mood was so intense, the air was positively incendiary. When he finally ripped the black cover aside, a strangled cry of febrile triumph escaped the assembly’s throats and even I felt a chill run through me.
In an instant I was transported back to the deck of the Amanda May and stood watching Lupin and Jigen lift the faux-Ark from its crate. There was no difference between that one and this, and there was every difference. Structurally they were duplicates right down to the angels mounted on their lids, yet this one seemed richer, more solid in its construction. The gold which covered it was so radiant, it almost appeared to glow.
“Negro Ultimo te presenteum!” Gurrera roared with satisfaction. “We offer this, the relic of an aging and weak religion, as sacrifice tonight! To do with as we will! To use as we see fit! There is no God but Man; there is no time but Now; there is no destiny gut Man’s own Will! We are the progenitors of a new age where God will serve Man and man shall do as he pleases!” The General’s black eyes fixed on Lupin. “To do as we will shall be the whole of our Law!”
But if Gurrera was hoping for a reaction, he didn’t get it. Lupin wasn’t looking at him; he was looking at the Ark. The thief fixed the vessel with a fascinated stare, as if it was a cobra he had tripped over.
Lightning rippled, silvering the air. This time the retort of the thunder was explosive.
“Come!” Gurrera commanded.
Domingo started forward, thinking the summons was directed at him, and was mortified when the General waved him back again. He was further chagrined to see his lord and master extended his hand to someone else. That someone happened to be Lupin.
“Come!” the gargoyle repeated.
Lupin’s eyes refocused, drifting from the relic to the man. His face was dream-like, clouded, quite unlike the sharp, amused mug we were used to. He didn’t move.
The General laughed. “Come now! Don’t be afraid! I’m not going to eat you! We’re not really that different, you know. Foxes and wolves are related. So cast off your ragged conscience for just one night. We would be honored if you joined us!”
There was a second of hesitation, then Lupin got slowly to his feet.
“Jesus! No!” Jigen gasped, but Lupin didn’t hear him.
The General gave a triumphant roar, underscored by a surprised shuffling from the crowd and another growl of thunder. The breeze became a gust which caused the torches to snap and gutter. It coiled around me, harpy-like, tearing at my hair.
“One of you!” Gurrera shouted. “Free his hands!”
The nearest guard stepped over to do so. The ropes were cut and Lupin stood for a second, chaffing his bloody wrists, then he started towards the dais.
This bizarre behavior on the part of their General/Priest made the congregation nervous. They didn’t understand what was going on. I confess I didn’t understand it either, unless Gurrera was now so drunk with success he felt he could charm the soul out of anyone, including Arsene Lupin.
Lupin certainly gave every indication of having been charmed. His movements were slow and his eyes were glassy. He approached the dais as if he were gloating in a dream.
Gurrera snapped his fingers, calling over one of the two acolytes with a piglet. As Lupin stepped up onto the platform, the General withdrew a short knife from the sleeve of his robe and presented it to the thief.
Lupin stared stupidly at the knife, then looked up at Gurrera.
Gurrera gestured, indicating the pig and his evident desire that Lupin use the knife to slit the anima’s throat. But the thief didn’t touch the knife. He also ignored the piglet. Instead he turned and put his hands on the Ark, running his fingers tenderly over both guardian angels.
Then, abruptly, he brought those hands down and locked his fingers under the lip of the lid. He tried to lift it off with all the strength that was in him.
“Yes!” Dorian screamed, scrambling to his knees. “DO IT!”
General Gurrera gave an angry shout, but it was lost in a whirl of wind which tore widdershins through the compound and almost blew the General off his feet. Two torches (including Estaban’s) died and the crowd began to mutter. The tense anticipation of a moment before was starting to devolve into panic.
The General understood that he was losing control and screamed again at Lupin. Lupin paid no attention, still straining to open the Ark. With a heavy, grinding sound, the lid began to move, slipping off along its far edge.
Domingo sprang forward, whether to stop Lupin or just to catch the lid, I don’t know. Whichever it was, he was too late. With a final, teeth-grating scrape, the top slid free, collapsing to the stone with a dull thump.
Everything stopped. The wind; the lightning; the murmuring of the crowd. Everything. There was a moment of absolute quiet. During it, both thief and despot stared down into the open Ark wearing expressions of blank bewilderment.
Lupin was the first to come out of it. I saw him blink, then I saw him frown. He bent forward, reaching down into the opening with both hands. When he brought those hands up again, he was holding something which ran with ghostly iridescence through his fingers.
“…Sand…” I heard him murmur. “…It’s just sand!”
He looked at Gurrera as if the General could supply an explanation.
Verily, the General hadn’t any.
There was a soft moan from beside me which set my hair on my neck quivering and I turned in time to see Dorian slump forward. He crouched on his knees, folded up in a fetal position. His body shuddered as he tried desperately to breathe, something he wasn’t having much luck at.
A terrified, quavering, yowl rent the darkness and my attention was snatched away from the Earl. At the back of the assembly stood Estaban, an expression of unbelieving fear on his face. He was holding my sword out away from his body with one hand. The reason for his fear was evident to anyone. Zantetsu-ken’s blade was crawling with light. Even from so far away, I could feel the vibrations running through him.
That light was blue and very faint at first, but, as I watched, it grew brighter. As it did so, the color changed, going from blue, to purple, and finally to red. When it reaches this red stage, there was sharp retort—half whipcrack and half metallic ring—and Zantetsu-ken wrenched himself out of Estaban’s grasp. As he had done earlier that day, he cut a flashing arc through the air and stabbed down point-first into the stone in the middle of the congregation. That congregation retreated from him with frightened cries as his aura flared briefly to a blinding white, then faded again to flickering blueness.
Panic was a real possibility now and Domingo attempted to calm things by making some statement that this was all part of the show. I don’t think anyone believed him. I don’t even think they heard him, come to that, because up on the dais something gray and fog-like was beginning to boil out of the Ark.
There was luminance in this fog. Shreds of blue radiance like tatters of St. Elmo’s Fire. The fog poured over the lip of the Ark and spilled soft as smoke out across the dais. Coiling its way throughout the crowd, it encircled everyone present.
The lights within the fog grew brighter and began to dart about, flashing and flickering. This show was so spectacular, so evidently harmless, the feeling of panic began to ease. There were cries of wonder and incredulity. Up on the dais, Gurrera stood with his mouth open, watching these ghosts cavort, apparently at a loss to explain them.
Lupin needed no explanations. He watched these dancing lights with the delighted rapture of a child who has seen fireflies for the first time. When one ventured near, he put out his hand to touch it and giggled like a kid as it curled around his fingers.
Then, without warning, the mood changed. The lights began to grow in size and their dance became less fairy-like. Gone were the feelings of play; now everything was business. The fox-fires dove and soared around the participants with a not altogether friendly sense of purpose.
“No…” Dorian choked. “Don’t watch anymore… Look away! Cover your eyes!”
“Huh?” Jigen grunted. He sounded scared.
I’m not sure why I knew Eroica was right; I just knew he was. Something was happening here. Something bad. If we continued to watch, we’d see something we shouldn’t.
“Lupin!” I cried. “Mimasen you!”
But Lupin didn’t hear me. He was still staring with wonder at the streamer of light coiling around his hand. That streamer was now considerably larger and call me crazy, but I could have sworn I saw a woman’s face floating in the midst of it.
“Dame, Lupin! Mimasen!”
Something hit me from behind, pushing me flat against the rock. I think it was Jigen. I’m not sure. All I know is that once down, I stayed down. I squeezed my eyes shut and curled up into a bail.
I don’t know what happened after that. I’m not sure I want to. There was a lot of noise: Wind rushing: men crying, first in surprise, then in horror, then in pain. Lightning forked and thunder pointed. Waves beat with wild frenzy at the rocks. Thermals hot and cold churned about, tearing at us with cobweb fingers, while spasms of multicolored light danced across our closed eyelids.
The last scream I heard was Gurrera’s. It was an ungodly shriek of horrified disbelief. I can’t imagine what he saw, but it must have been terrifying, because the last mortal sound he was ever to utter was a single, reverberating syllable: “NO!!!”
Then, as quickly as it started, it was over. The maelstrom of light and fury spiraled tightly down and ended with hollow, echoing clump!
After this came silence. Soft silence. Dark silence. Interrupted only by the gurgling hiss of surf.
I finally opened my eyes.
They were gone. All of them. Every black-robed acolyte; every well-armed thug. The stone projection was completely deserted except for the four of us, the Ark and Zantetsu-ken.
The one remaining torch sizzled, flickering candle-like in the breeze off the sea. In its light, the Ark was once again quiescent, its golden decoration glimmering. And it was no longer open. Its lid was back in place.
Dorian Red Gloria was the first to move. He sat up slowly, trembling, and brushed the tears from his eyes. It was only then he noticed that his hands were free. The ropes on his wrists had been burned through. The ends were still smoldering.
With a sob half of fear, half of relief, the Earl pulled the remains of the rope off and threw it away from him. Then he gathered James into his arms and held on tight.
“Where’s Lupin?” Jigen gasped.
That was an excellent question, because I didn’t see him. Like I said, the isthmus of stone was empty. There didn’t appear to be a living soul anywhere. Except the four of us.
I sat up, bracing myself with my arms so that my hands wouldn’t shake.
Jigen wasn’t concerned with appearances. He lurched to his feet, staggered like a drunkard, and looked about wildly for some sign of life. “LUPIN! Oh, Jesus… It didn’t get him, too…”
Get him…I thought stupidly, my mind the consistency of rice gruel. Maybe it had. After all, he’d been right next to it. He’s certainly seen whatever we weren’t supposed to see.
Zantetsu-ken was about five meters to my right, his blade quiet now, twinkling in the firelight. He was a solid object, a recognizable piece of sanity, and I instinctively made for him. Once I had my sword back in my hand, everything would be better. I would be prepared to face whatever came.
I went to the sword and pulled him loose. He came free of the rock with a chime-like ring that sounded almost like an affectionate laugh.
Jigen was still stumbling about like a hen-goose in search of her gosling. His reactions grew more and more distressed as his quest continued to prove fruitless. Then he looked at the Ark more carefully and cried: “Thank God!”
He took off towards the dais at a tottering trot and I went tumbling after him.
Lupin-sansei lay on the cold stone directly behind the Ark of the Covenant, curled into a fetal position with his back towards us. He was evidently still unconscious, because he didn’t respond when Jigen called out to him. He continued to be unresponsive even when Jigen fell to his knees beside the thief and touched him with a hand.
“Loot at his back!” I gasped.
I cried out because the lacerations on Lupin’s back had faded. They were almost completely healed.
Jigen shook the Frenchman gently, so he rolled Lupin over on his back and I heard him utter a soft expletive which sounded almost like a prayer. You see, there were these marks on Lupin’s bare chest. Two marks, one on each breast. They looked like the imprints of a pair of small hands.
These “hands” were placed thumb to thumb with fingers spread, as though someone had pushed Lupin…
I went gooseflesh all over.
Jigen gently examined one of these marks and they both immediately vanished, leaving no trace.
“You okay, boss?” Jigen gurgled. “You feel all right?”
The thief’s eyes came open slowly. “Jigen…?”
“Yeah, boss. I’m right here. You okay?”
“Where’d she go…?”
“The girl. The girl with the white hair. She was real pretty…”
Jigen stared for a moment, then gave a bark of relieved laughter. He fell across Lupin in a wrestling hold which was more then half embrace. “Doesn’t that fuckin’ figure!” he cried. “The world goes to hell in a hand basket and all he sees is a pretty girl!”
Lupin endured this affectionate stranglehold until his senses cleared, then he squirmed in Jigen’s grasp and gave him a slap on the back. “Dame da, Jigen-chan! Let me up! I can’t breathe.”
Jigen did so. “You’re okay?”
“Scared shitless, but I’ll live.”
“Un,” I agreed.
Lupin glanced at me; half-smiled. “What happened?”
“It ate them,” Jigen said, jerking a thumb back at the silent Ark. “It swallowed the lot of them whole, just like it did those Nazis fifty-some years ago.”
“Gurrera; Domingo; everybody. They’re all gone!”
“Here, love,” called the Earl. He was standing right behind us, carrying James perched on his hip like a child. The accountant had his face buried in Eroica’s hair. On the one occasion he did look up, James saw the Ark and immediately dove for cover. For once the little miser was completely unattracted by the glitter that was gold. “James and I are well, but we want very much to get out of here. I want to go back and get Klaus. Perhaps, if we can just get him to the ship…”
“Yes,” Lupin agreed. “Why don’t you do that? We’ll follow along as soon as we can.”
“Follow…?” the Englishman wondered.
“Of course. We have to clean up here first. You go see about the Major. We’ll be along in two minutes, tops.”
Dorian didn’t quite understand, but perhaps he didn’t want to. His mind was already on von Eberbach and he left us with little more than a nod.
Lupin watched until he was out of sight, then lurched to his feet with the vigor of a fifteen-year-old. “Come help he!” he commanded.
“’Help you’ how?” Jigen wanted to know.
“We’ve got to move the Ark. Hide it. So we can come back later and pick it up.”
“Pick that up?!! Are you nuts?! That thing chews up guys like us and doesn’t even bother to spit them out!”
“Look,” Lupin reasoned, “I fully agree that this box, whatever it is, is dangerous. If we leave it here, someone is going to notice. There’s an excellent possibility that the CIA may hear about it. Do you want the CIA, do you want any government agency, to have possession of so very powerful an artifact?”
“No ‘buts’ about it, Jigen-chan,” Lupin decided, retrieving the black cloth and using it to cover the Ark. “No government I know is wise enough, or righteous enough, to list this thing in its personal arsenal. I must find somewhere safe for it to go. To do so, I must study the problem. In order to have the time, I must cache this thing. That’s all there is to it.”
“Cache it where?”
“Unless I’m mistaken, we passed a shallow cave on our way up from the dockage. We’ll put the Ark there. A couple of cuts form Zantetsu-ken should loosen enough stone to cover the entrance. It won’t take us five minutes. Come along. We’re wasting time.”
* * * * *
Actually, it took us closer to ten minutes to carry the Ark up to Lupin’s “small cave,” tuck it inside, and cover it. By the time we were done, I was beginning to worry about Dorian. The Ark had certainly…uh, dispensed with…all the thugs in its immediate vicinity, but I wasn’t sure about elsewhere. Surely there were one or two left lurking around. If one of them spotted Dorian, he wouldn’t think twice about murdering the Earl.
But we saw no one. Indeed the only trace of humanity we found was Zantetsu-ken’s scabbard, which was lying in the roadway next to a burned-out torch. It lay on one side with a thong still tied around it, as if Estaban had run for his life without bothering to take it off.
Wordlessly, I reclaimed it, sliding my katana back in place.
It was slowly beginning to dawn on me that we were alone on the island. If that was so, I didn’t understand why Dorian hadn’t rushed back to check on us. Surely he would have been impatient out of concern for von Eberbach.
I got the answer to my question before we were even within sight of the docking compound. I heard a series of loud thumps, followed by a blistering tirade in German. Major Klaus von Eberbach (of NATO) was obviously feeling a lot better. He was in fine voice, and mad as a scalded cat.
“OPEN THE VERDAMMT DOOR, IDIOT!” he roared. “LET ME OUT OF HERE!”
The Major was still shut in the shed, held prisoner by an external padlock. Dorian Red Gloria was trying to pick that lock, but he wasn’t having much luck. It was dark and I’m sure he was having trouble seeing what he was doing. It would have been difficult for him even if he hadn’t been alternatively laughing and crying with relief.
“Sh’tsuree,” I said gently as I pulled him out of the way.
Zantetsu-ken took care of the padlock. He took care of the door as well. One more blow from the Major’s fists and the door crumbled, collapsing into a pile of kindling wood.
Von Eberbach looked surprised, but only for a moment. Then his expression resumed its usual blackness and he stomped his way outside. “It’s about time! AWK!”
He said “awk!” because he was now wearing a British art thief. It was an interesting ensemble, albeit a slightly cumbersome one. Some might have thought it attractive, but the Major obviously didn’t. He tried to peal off Eroica, but was having a good deal of difficulty doing so. In fact, Br’er Rabbit had better luck getting rid of de Tar Baby.
“GET OFF ME!”
“You’re all right,” Dorian whispered, oblivious. “Thank God, you’re all right…”
“I’m fine! Now just let GO!!”
With one last Herculean effort, the Major finally thrust Eroica away. The Earl took a couple of stumbling steps backwards and was caught by Lupin, who continued to support him gently.
“My, my, Major-chan,” said the thief. “You are in good voice this evening! You must be feeling better. How’s the old head?”
Von Eberbach replied by ripping off his bandage and flinging it to the ground. In the process, he revealed a laceration which had shriveled to a scab. “There’s nothing wrong with my head!” the German raged. “I had a headache, but it cleared up. Now I’d like some answers! What happened? Where’s Gurrera? Where’s the rest of his unholy mob?”
“I’m not sure what happened,” Lupin replied smoothly, still holding Dorian. “As for Gurrera and company, they appear to be gone. I have no idea what happened to them. I was knocked out for a while and, when I came to, they had vanished. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of them since.”
This rocked the Major back a little. His anger began to cool. “Gone?! You’re certain?”
“Absolutely. I doubt I’d be alive to talk to you if they weren’t.”
“What about the Ark?”
“That’s a good question, because I haven’t seen it. Maybe Gurrera’s still got it. Maybe he took it with him, wherever he went.”
Dorian gave a gasp of surprise at this obvious lie, but didn’t have anything more to say about it. Perhaps this was because Lupin put a hand over the Earl’s mouth.
“The Ark gone…?”
The major was confused, poor sod. His memories of the past two days had to be fragmentary at best. Now he was trying to wring answers from this incomprehensible Frenchman. What Lupin was telling him didn’t make a great deal of sense, but then neither had anything else he’s endured lately. Religion, established or un-, wasn’t a topic made for logical analysis. Neither was Lupin’s reasoning, which the Major saw as just short of lunatic. Trying to make sense of it now had the German so befuddled, he didn’t even bother to wonder why Lupin was clutching his English associate in a half-Nelson.
Von Eberbach decided the only way to approach the problem was by an immediate exercise of physical energy. He turned and took several running strides, down across the compound and out onto the wharf. From there, if one looked to the northeast, it was possible to see a lighted shape which could only have been the Santorini.
“The ship’s still here!” the Major declared, using an accusatory town which saw this as a definitive conclusion.
But Lupin was unflustered. “So it is.” He released Dorian with a pat on the bottom. The Earl studied him speculatively for a moment, then evidently decided to go along with whatever game Lupin was playing, because he didn’t say a word. “I find that remarkable,” Lupin continued. “I can’t imagine where Gurrera could have gone.”
The German had been boiling for some kind of fight. When Lupin wouldn’t fight, he lost some of his momentum. He glowered at Lupin with a thoughtful frown, then turned to study the ship again. “Maybe he’s there…” von Eberbach muttered. “Maybe he doubled back while we were unconscious and now he’s planning to ship anchor and withdraw, leaving the lot of us stranded. But that just doesn’t make sense! It would be simpler to kill us. Something must have happened?” He scowled at Lupin. “Haven’t you any ideas?”
“Maybe something spooked him,” Jigen volunteered with a slow smile. “Maybe someone showed up and ran him off. Some rival drug lord, mebbe. Or Fox and his CIA clowns. Maybe they’re still on the island somewhere, playing peek-a-boo with assault rifles. Maybe it would be a dandy idea if we got the hell out of here.”
This made the most sense of anything von Eberbach had heard so far. He could grok Gurrera’s being run off at gunpoint. That he didn’t actually hear any shooting didn’t necessarily mean Jigen’s theory was wrong. The fighting could have reached a lull, or it might be too far away. In either case, Jigen’s suggestion we withdrew was a prudent one. If your enemy had other things on his mind, it was only sensible to take advantage of his distraction.
The Major took a quick inventory. “I see we’re all present and accounted for except for one,” he observed. He focused on Dorian. “Where’s your little twit?”
“Right here!” James quavered, stepping out from behind the shed. “I was just waiting for the hurricane to blow over.”
“Hurricane?” I wondered.
The German bristled for a second, then decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. His anger settled back into a low boil. “Do any of you have weapons?”
I held up my katana.
“That good, of course,” von Eberbach agreed, “but it’s hardly going to be enough. We’ll have to search the grounds for whatever we can find. Guns are preferable, but clubs will do. We’ll also need a raft, if we’re to return to the Santorini. We will split up into groups of two. Mr. Jigen, you come with me. Dorian, you go with Mr. Lupin. Ishikawa-san, I am fearfully sorry, but this leaves you with James. Please try to make the best of a bad situation.”
“And we thank you, sir!” James cried. “You’re no prize yourself, you know!”
The Major swept this outrage aside as if it was a cobweb, annoying, but of no consequence. “Quickly now, gentlemen. We don’t have all night. Find what you can and be back here in twenty minutes.”
We murmured assent and hurried off in various directions. We’d play the game out because, even if Gurrera and his army were gone, thee might still be one or two stragglers left aboard the Santorini. And we would need the ship if we were ever to get home, with the Ark or without it.
Not all of us were totally comfortable with Lupin’s ruse, though. As James and I went scuttling off, I heard Dorian whisper to him: “I don’t mean to be critical, Arsene love, but I do hope you know what you’re doing.”
We found only one gun during our search. A rifle, which was immediately given to Jigen. Aside from that, we were able to scrape together two fishing spears and one boat hook. We also found a total of three rafts, two equipped with minuscule outboards. Confiscating the two motorized ones, we set off to take the Santorini.
Actually, we never had to “take” the ship at all. If Gurrera had left any guards aboard, they were gone without a trace by the time we got there. The only living souls on the Santorini were the ship’s crew, who had been locked in the aft hold. Since that aft hold was the refrigeration unit, they were pretty damned glad to see us.
As it turned out, Sanchez and his crew weren’t sailors; they were members of the Mexican police assigned to an international drug unit. They’d had hopes of gathering evidence on as many as two dozen ranking drug dons, but, to their chagrin, there were no drugs on board and the conversations they were privy to involved only sports and hocus-pocus.
Then we came along and things became more complicated. Gurrera’s twisted mind turned to games of sabotage and murder. Sanchez decided he was out of his depth. He wanted re-enforcements, but Domingo had disabled the radio. So Sanchez arranged to hijack Estaban’s cruiser. Unfortunately, things went to hell long before any help could arrive.
It was Sanchez who let us out. Unbolting the door and drugging the guards was the best he could do without breaking cover. And breaking cover would have been a very bad idea. The crew was outnumbered three to one and out-gunned ten times over.
Once Gurrera and his party had gone ashore, Sanchez had nursed hoes of reclaiming the ship or at least repairing the radio, but he’d gotten himself locked in the cooler before he could do so.
Now that he was out, Sanchez ordered an immediate and thorough search of the ship. He also organized an armed party to scour the island. This party searched until noon the next day and didn’t find a soul. The only inhabitants appeared to be two rather bemused piglets.
The Santorini patrolled the waters offshore for another two hours before Sanchez declared he was out of his depth again. He wanted to confer with his superiors, but the radio, alas, was irreparable. In the tradition of a true bureaucrat, Sanchez decided to withdraw rather than act without orders. That evening, the Santorini set sail for the port of Teracruz, where we would all be held for debriefing.
We told the Mexican authorities about the CIA, but the CIA (when contacted) refused to acknowledge us. Our “arrangement” with them was hogwash, they claimed. They were a government organization and didn’t traffic with felons.
NATO, on the other hand, did claim von Eberbach. It also confessed that it did, occasionally, have dealings with a thief named Eroica. It hadn’t sanctioned him for this particular assignment, however, and so refused to take responsibility. It would be grateful for the return of Major von Eberbach, but Dorian was on his own.
There were warrants outstanding for Lupin in Mexico, just as there are warrants outstanding for him in most countries of the world. Since the CIA wouldn’t intercede on our behalf, the Mexican politician felt they had no choice but to throw us in jail. Dorian included.
Von Eberbach argued against this, but found himself overwhelmed by an avalanche of legal rhetoric, both national and international. Finally he was forced to retreat to Berlin, where he threatened to start extradition proceedings.
Lupin wasn’t particularly dismayed by this turn of events. He never is when he’s imprisoned. He’s never liked it, mind you, but he never gets depressed. He knows that, sooner or later, an avenue of escape will open for him.
One such avenue opened while they were transferring us to Mexico City. The van we were traveling in blew a tire between Teracruz and Popacatepell. While the guards were trying to fix the thing, we jumped them.
We then took off for Central America with Eroica and James in tow.
It was half-past September before we were able to return to Mercy Island. A lot had happened by then. New drug lords had emerged to replace the ones who were missing and the CIA had other fish to fry. And for general Gurrera, he had been entirely forgotten. A deposed dictator never stays newsworthy very long.
Now it was the first of October and the breezes coming off the Caribbean were cooler than they had been. The white coral beach of Grand Cayman Island was shell pink in the evening light. The fronds of the shore side palms fluttered, whispering lazily as I watched a figure walking towards me. It was a man wearing a brief, blue swimsuit and a white cotton robe.
Two months of vacation in a tropical clime had browned Eroica the color of mahogany. His long blond hair was bleached nearly white. His attitude, as he walked, seemed one of supreme indolence. After all the weeks of warmth and sunshine, Dorian was bored out of his mind.
The Earl now understood about the Ark and was in complete agreement with Lupin. Whatever “Arsene love” wanted to do with the nasty thing was just fine with him. His only reservation stemmed from how long it was taking. Dorian, like Lupin, was an excitement junkie. And there was nothing exciting about waiting around.
Now the waiting was almost at an end and Eroica was prostrate with relief. One more rendezvous, and Lupin’s business would be over. There we could divide the proceeds and get on with things.
Dorian reached the inflated raft lying next to my beach chair and collapsed upon it, sprawling languidly like a supple Cheshire cat. He immediately fixed his bright blue eyes on a table ten meters away, where Lupin sat talking to a man in a battered hat.
The man in the hat wasn’t Jigen Daisuke and the hat in question was brown, not gray. Jigen and said gray hat were slumped in the chair on the other side of me, struggling with a Times crossword puzzle. James, his nose in the financial section, was seated at the gunman’s feet.
“How’s it going?” Dorian wondered.
“Fine,” I replied. “They’re almost done.”
“Good,” James decided. “It’s about time. I need to get back to London and transcribe two of our TD’s into gold shares before the pound takes another drop against the yen.”
“What’s a five-letter word for ‘capricious’?” Jigen wondered.
“Lupin,” I declared. “But I doubt that’s it.”
Jigen gave me a brief, lop-sided smile.
“Who is that fellow he’s talking to?” Eroica asked. “Arsene’s never said.”
“He’s never told us the guy’s name, either,” Jigen grunted. “All I know is he’s some kind of professor. He’s retired now, but he used to teach in the Midwest. One thing I’ll give the guy, though. He’s got good taste in hats.”
I could understand Jigen’s reaction. In many ways, the brown fedora was a duplicate of Jigen’s own. But if Jigen’s hats were battered, this one was more so. It was sweat-blotched and frayed around the edges. It looked, quite literally, as though it had been to Hell and back.
The same was true of the man wearing it. That man was old and lean as whipcord, dressed presently in a pair of dungarees and a khaki sport shirt. On his feet, he wore field boots with the bottoms of his trousers bloused inside them, the way scientists on expedition often did. That was the only thing “scientific” about him. Although I guessed him to be nearly eighty, this man still carried himself with the same loose readiness of a soul used to trouble. His brown eyes were clear and his reactions were quick. I also noted the way he held the serpent-headed cane he’d brought with him. He dept the thing across his lap, not as a source of support, but as a recourse in times of danger. In other words, it was a weapon, not a tool.
Now, as I watched, this man removed a folded manila envelope from his back pocket and gave it to Lupin. Lupin, in turn, took a key from the pocket of his cut-offs and passed it to the man. It was the key to a storage stall in a facility about one half-kilometer to the west of here. In that tall was a large crate as innocuous as it was sturdy. It has sat there for over a week and no one had paid the least attention to it.
The man was very pleased. He dropped the key into his breast pocket and gave it an affectionate pat.
Lupin tucked the envelope away and stood, stretching. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you, sir,” he said with his usual wide grin. “I wish you happiness with your new acquisition and the very, very best of luck.”
“I’m not so arrogant as to believe I won’t need it,” the man replied. “I understand what a grave responsibility it is.”
“Yes,” Lupin agreed. “I know you do.”
The man studied Lupin before climbing slowly to his feet. The slowness of his movements was due not to age, but to the heaviness of the thoughts within him. He was thinking and real hard.
“Mr. Lupin,” he said, “I don’t want you to misunderstand me. I’m extraordinarily grateful you took the trouble to seek me out. But I’m just an old rock-hound on a fixed income. Even with the help of some interested friends, I can’t begin to give you what this item is worth. On the Black Market, you could get ten or twenty times what I’m able to pay for it. And so I have to ask you: Why me?”
The Frenchman responded with a smile. “To answer that, let me paraphrase Shakespeare: What I believe belongs to God, I render unto God. And what belongs to Caesar…” Lupin shrugged. “…I give back to Caesar. From what I can see, this thing was always yours. I look upon your little honorarium as a reward for the return of lost merchandise.”
The man grinned, showing teeth. “Fair enough. Good-bye, Mr. Lupin. Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome.”
The man left the thief and headed inland. Jigen nodded to him as he passed. “Nice hat.”
“Yeah. Yours, too.”
We watched in silence until the man was out of sight.
Then Lupin approached, looking very pleased with himself. “Shall we go to dinner now? I’m famished. Afterwards, we can retire to my room and divide the booty.”
“Such as it is!” James snorted. “That fellow was right, you know. You could have gotten at least ten times as much!”
“Perhaps,” Lupin mused, “but I wouldn’t feel nearly as satisfied. Money isn’t everything, you know.”
“The hell it’s not!”
“James!” Dorian scolded. “Watch your language! Besides, we all agreed to leave the matter in Arsene’s hands. I, myself, think he did very well.”
Lupin basked in the glow of Eroica’s approval. It was rare for an associate to lavish him with unqualified praise. Jigen and I often agreed with what Lupin did, but we rarely praised him for it. We’d both discovered early that outright approval mad him insufferable for weeks.
But Eroica, unlike Jigen and me, enjoyed a unique position in Lupin’s social hierarchy. He wasn’t a colleague; he was a friend. As such, he could praise with impunity because Lupin’s sense of etiquette demanded he demure.
“Not at all, Petticaris,” Lupin responded. “I only did what I thought was best for everyone concerned.”
Dorian’s smile continued for another moment, then it wavered, as if some tardy shadow had crossed the twilight of his thoughts. “I did rather hate lying to Klaus, though,” he admitted. “I know he’s a very intense man and quite intolerant sometimes, but he truly does card about the welfare of others. If he’s boorish or inflexible, it’s the only way he knows to get his job done. And that job is everything to him. You know it is.”
“I know,” Lupin agreed gently. “In this particular case, his job was to make sure the Ark remained in neutral hands. No hands could be more neutral, or more careful, than those I have placed it in. If he knew what I’d done, he would probably approve. But he’s just as happy not knowing. Je tu comprend, n’est-ce pas?”
“Someone mentioned food,” Jigen decided. ‘Let’s eat.”
“Right!” James concurred, springing up like a jack-in-the-box. “Since Mr. Lupin’s got the money, he can pay the bill.”
But Dorian held up a hand, not so much to admonish James for his incipient greed, but as a request for patience. The clouds were not gone from his thoughts yet. Something was still troubling the Earl.
We waited as Dorian sought to find words to express the troubles nagging him. While he did, and we did, I saw that what I’d mistaken for indolence was instead a kind of self-doubt. And Eroica was like Lupin. He didn’t indulge in self-doubt often. When he did, the effects of it were subtle, but insistent. The Earl wouldn’t be comfortable until he got them ironed out.
“Klaus von Eberbach is a very dedicated man,” Dorian said slowly. “If necessary, he’d sacrifice his life for NATO, not because he hopes to profit, but because he believes NATO holds the key to world peace. As this is the case, I can understand completely why he was spared. What I fail to understand is why we were. It could have destroyed us, and it didn’t. And I refuse to believe it’s only because we didn’t look.”
Lupin lifted an eyebrow. “Are you suggesting Gurrera was right? That there wasn’t any difference between us?”
“I’m saying that we are thieves. Whitewash it however we like, we live off human suffering. If we champion a cause or correct an injustice, it is merely an addendum to lives lived mostly for self-gratification. We’re not Robin Hoods forced to steal because of circumstances. We chose our avocation. We even glory in it. While I can’t see myself as being as bad as Gurrera, I wonder if I’m really that much better. I wonder why it must have thought so. I wonder why I’m still alive.”
“Yeah,” Jigen concluded. “Good point.”
Lupin considered this, then shrugged. “I’ve no answer for you, Petti-chan. I don’t know. I suppose it could be argued that, unlike the General, we’re still possessed of somewhat tattered, yet perfectly serviceable souls. Your distress at this moment is proof of that. And I suppose it could be argued that the Ark, being an instrument of Power, has the perceptions of that Power and can see ahead to another time when we might possibly be of use. But as much as I might like to believe this, I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to do so. I believe much more in the third possibility, even though it hurts my pride to do so. That possibility is this:
“I am a thief of wide reputation. In my checkered life, I have stolen enough to fund the treasury of a small nation. I have also left a certain amount of breakage in my wake. I have danced and dined and fornicated shamefully. And yet, when placed in contrast to a Gurrera, I disappear. Gurrera and his minions believed not only in self-gratification, they believed in wanton cruelty and destruction. The world wasn’t their oyster, it was a whimpering animal they could vivisect at whim. Compared with that, what is Lupin-sansei? Nothing. In other words, mon cher ami, we were too little to be worth anything, so it just threw us back.”
The Earl stared at him blankly at first, then smiled. It was a rueful smile, though, with none of the usual spice of it. “You make it sound so very simple, love, and just a trifle cold.”
“Well, here’s a possibility that’s not so cold.” Lupin knelt by the side of Eroica’s raft and put a hand on the Brit’s shoulder. “You love Klaus, do you not?”
“And I love these two louts here…” Lupin poked a thumb at us. “…as much as they might argue against it. Maybe that’s the answer. Maybe it’s love. Which spells the salvation of all lost souls.”
Again, Dorian stared for a moment, then I heard him gasp. He reached forward quickly and put his arm around Lupin’s neck.
Lupin closed his eyes. “Maa, Petti-chan! Don’t cry. Be a good boy and I’ll take you night-clubbing later. We’ll hit all the most fashionable spots.”
Eroica pulled away then, sniffling a little. “Can we go dancing?”
“I suppose so,” Lupin conceded with a shrug. “But only if you let me lead.”
END NOTE: If you didn’t figure it out, (or haven’t seen the movie) the nameless man Lupin gives the Ark to is Indiana Jones.