Authors: Tom Wallace
For Julie Watson: No brother could have a better sister.
Published 2010 by Medallion Press, Inc.
The MEDALLION PRESS LOGOis a registered trademark of Medallion Press, Inc.
If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment from this “stripped book.”
Copyright © 2010 by Tom WallaceCover design by James Tampa
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.
Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Typeset in Adobe Garamond ProPrinted in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1First EditionACKNOWLEDGMENTS:
The author wishes to thank Kerry Estevez, an early and ferocious champion of the book. Also, two superb and enlightening books by Joseph J. Trento—The Secret History of the CIAandPrelude to Terror: The Rogue CIA and the Legacy of America’s Private Intelligence Network—provided valuable insight into the darker involvement of the CIA during the Vietnam War. Thanks to Brooks Downing for guiding me through Florida. And a big thanks to the usual suspects, Amy Reynolds, Sarah Small, Wanda Underwood, Ed Watson, and Denny Slinker. And, always, Marilyn Underwood, my companion and confidante. Thanks to my editors, Emily Steele and Helen Rosburg, for smoothing out the wrinkles and pushing me to go the extra mile.TABLE OF CONTENTS
Nguyen Van Luc stood on the riverbank, shifting nervously from one foot to the other, watching intently as the small boat silently cut through the murky water. In the darkness, with the dense jungle at his back and a cold moon overhead, Nguyen, a notorious Vietnamese operative and black marketer, had but two things on his mind: pass along the message, and get away as quickly as possible.
He didn’t care for these men. Didn’t trust them. Most of all, though, he feared them.
Especially the leader, the one called Cain.
All Vietnamese, North or South, friend or foe, feared him.
The fuckin’ man was a legend on both sides of the DMZ. A stone-cold assassin known for killing with his bare hands. A “Cain kill” was rumored to be so quick, so perfectly executed that the victim seldom experienced pain. It was also said that Cain never killed a man he couldn’t look squarely in the eyes.
Skeptics questioned whether this was the truth, or merely another fabrication of the U.S. mythmaking apparatus.
Not Nguyen. He knew it was true. He’d seen the man in action, killing with precision and cold indifference. Cain’s reputation was not built on falsehoods; it was built on body count.
Nguyen wanted nothing to do with a man like that.
With the boat only a few yards from shore, Nguyen lit a cigarette, took two deep drags, and then tossed it into the water. Rubbing his hands together, he squinted into the darkness, silently counting the men in the boat. Five.Oh, shit. Fear stabbed at his heart.That many here this time. Even that crazy goddamned Indian, the one called Seneca. This must be big.
He plucked another cigarette from the pack and tried to light it. He couldn’t. His shaking hands wouldn’t cooperate. Frustrated, he threw the cigarette into the water and watched it float away. As the boat finally slid into the bank and the men came into focus, Nguyen’s fear overwhelmed him. He felt the warm piss stream down his legs.
Nguyen forced a smile, stepped back, and watched as the men silently climbed out of the boat. They were dressed in dark pajamas, and their faces were painted black. Each one carried an M16, a machete—and a knife.
Together, Nguyen thought, they looked like five faces of death.
When all five men were on the bank, Nguyen quickly pulled the boat behind a mango tree and covered it with bamboo and grass. His task completed, he took a deep breath, tried to steady his nerves, and then turned to face the five assassins.
The one called Snake, wiry and wild-eyed, put a hand on Nguyen’s shoulder. Nguyen spun around, terrified, heart beating rapid-fire.
“Lucky, my man,” Snake said. “Good to see you. We had our doubts about the fidelity of your commitment to our side.”
“Not to worry. Lucky always on side of money.”
Snake snickered. “A true patriot, huh, Lucky?”
“Patriot, yes. Lucky a patriot for sure.”
Cain moved forward. “Did Houdini give you the map?”
“No need map.” He shook his head. “Lucky born near here. Village less than three kilometers away.”
“There’s supposed to be a map,” Cain said.
“Map in Lucky’s head.”
“Forget this shit, Cain,” Seneca said, stepping forward. “This ain’t playin’ out like we planned.”
“Yeah, Seneca’s right, man,” Deke said. “If this sorry slopehead is lyin’, we’re screwed. I may be just a dumb nigger from Chicago, but I ain’t stupid. No way we should go in blind.”
Holding up both hands, Lucky said, “I no lie. Village three kilometers west. Meeting in school building. Wife’s cousin work there. I know this area good.”
Nguyen looked into the faces of all five men, his eyes finally coming to rest on the one man who had remained silent, the only one who exhibited any degree of understanding or sympathy—the one called Cardinal. Nguyen’s scared eyes pleaded for a friend.
“What do you think, Cain?” Cardinal said, sensing Nguyen’s silent plea. “You trust him?”
“Trust him? No. Believe him? Yes. He has no reason to lie. He hates the North Vietnamese more than we do.”
“Yeah, and he hates us even more,” Seneca said. “I say, no way we go in. Houdini scrounged us a map. We use it, or we pull the plug.”
“We’re too close to pull out,” Cain said.
“Maybe we should have brought Rafe and Moon,” Deke said. “Maybe we’re travelin’ light.”
“We don’t need them,” Cain responded. “We’re going in.”
“No fuckin’ way,” Seneca said.
Gray eyes narrowing, Cain moved two steps toward Seneca.
“With the gooks, you’ve got a chance,” he said, looking hard at Seneca. “With me, you don’t. Your call.”
The two men glared at each other for almost a minute. Seneca’s right hand touched his knife, his fingers dancing up and down the handle. The other four men watched, barely breathing, paralyzed, as though they stood in a minefield.
After several more seconds of thick silence, Seneca grinned slightly and then backed away. “Have it your way, Cain. You have the most stripes. And as we all know, stripes rule.”
“Don’t challenge me, Seneca. Ever.”
The Indian sneered, “Yes, sir, Captain.”
Cain grabbed Lucky by the arm and pulled him close.
“If one of my men dies—one—I’ll hunt you down like a dog. And when I find you—and Iwillfind you—I’ll cut your gook heart out and feed it to your children. Then I’ll kill them. Understand?”
Trembling, Lucky nodded and backed away. “General White speak to me this morning. Say give message to you.”
“Lucas? What message?”
Lucky dug into his shirt pocket, took out a piece of wadded paper, unfolded it, and handed it to Cain.
Cain read it silently, then out loud. “Tuez le messager.”
He carefully folded the note, looked at Seneca, and gave a slight nod. Seneca pulled Lucky forward, flashed a quicksilver smile, and then plunged his knife into Lucky’s chest. Eyes wide and registering total and absolute terror, Lucky staggered toward the water, dropped to his knees, looked around quizzically, and then collapsed into a spreading pool of his own blood.
“Dumb little slant-eyed bastard wasn’t so lucky after all,” Seneca said, wiping blood from his knife.
“Wonder what’s in his head now,” Snake said, laughing. “Wonder if that map will guide him into gook heaven.”
“You believe gooks got their own heaven?” Deke asked.
“Nah, not really, ‘cause they ain’t got a soul.”
“All God’s children got a soul, Snake,” Deke said. “Even the gooks.”
“Yeah, and all rats have fleas,” Snake answered.
Deke bent down and began rummaging through Lucky’s pockets. He stood up, holding a wad of U.S. money. Most of the bills were hundreds.
“Goddamn. Look at this,” Deke said. “Must be ten grand here. Where’d a little dink monkey like him come up with this kind of scratch?”
“War’s a profitable enterprise,” Snake said. “Everybody knows that.”
“Yeah, profitable for everybody but the killers,” Cardinal answered.
“Here. Take some,” Deke said, offering a handful of bills to Snake.
“Money’s not what I want,” Snake said, moving toward the river’s edge. “What I want is to waste every dink in this fuckin’ shit-hole country. Every fuckin’ dink, regardless of what side he’s on. They’re all useless, chickenshit, untrustworthy slopeheads. I wouldn’t give you a drop of spit for any of them.”
Snake yanked Lucky’s body into a sitting position and, with a single swing of his machete, separated head from torso. He held up Lucky’s head, kissed his cheek, and then tossed the head into the river.
“Rest in pieces, Charles.”
The head hit the water and rolled over, eyes open and looking toward the night sky.
Deke said, “You is one cold motherfucker, Snake. One hard-hearted white dude.”
“Don’t pay to have a heart in this place,” Snake said.
“Pocket the money, Deke,” Cain ordered. “We need to move. It’s blood time.”
“My favorite time,” Deke said, stuffing the cash into his pocket.
Snake rolled Lucky’s body into the water. “One down. A million to go.”
Their destination: an old school building in the North Vietnamese village of Hoa Binh.
Their mission: kill nine high-level ARVN generals and two Russian advisers.
The final test; a preview of coming attractions.
Arnie Moss cursed out loud. The phone was going to ring. Don’t ask him how he knew; he just did. And he was seldom wrong. Knowing when the blasted phone would ring was a special knack he’d had since he was a kid. His mom always told him his intuition was a blessing from God. He wasn’t so sure. A true gift, he felt, should extend beyond knowing when the phone would ring. If he only had the same ability with picking ponies at the racetrack or the Lotto numbers, he wouldn’t be stuck in this crappy job. He’d be on the inside looking out.
He especially didn’t want a phone call now. Not while he was watching a recording of Jack Nicklaus winning the 1986 Masters championship. Moss considered Jack the most incredible friggin’ golfer to ever stride down a fairway—Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, or Arnie notwithstanding. What the Golden Bear accomplished during his career swamped by a mile anything any of his predecessors had ever done. Or ever dreamed of doing. Sure, those other guys were great, but there is great and there isgreat. And Jack was the greatest of them all, even at age forty-six, when he won the Masters for the sixth time. The Golden Bear had the goods, which was all that counted. Jack Nicklaus was Michael friggin’ Jordan in golf shoes. The best of the best.
But at this particular moment, Jack was in deep trouble. His second shot lay hidden behind a tree, his view of the green obstructed. Moss took some comfort in Jack’s predicament, in knowing the greatest golfer of all time could produce a hacker’s result. Right now Moss knew exactly how Jack felt.
Jack’s third shot, which he somehow managed to curve around the tree, landed on the edge of the green and rolled to within four feet of the cup. Quickly, Moss’s connection to the Golden Bear was broken. Watching, he could only shake his head in amazement, awe, and wonder.Jesus, how can one human body possess such extraordinary ability? Incredible. Simply incredible.
Ten seconds later, the phone rang.
Well, at least the caller had the decency to wait untilafter the Golden Bear‘s latest bit of magic.
“Pinewood Estates. Moss speaking.” He pulled the phone away from his ear and eyed the TV screen again. “What can I do for you?” he asked, hoping the answer would be short and sweet. He didn’t want to miss Jack’s hard-earned birdie putt.
What Moss heard wasn’t an answer. Indeed, what rattled his eardrum and caused him to flinch barely qualified as a man’s voice. It was shrill, high-pitched, and extremely loud. Obviously panicked, the caller threw out words in bunches, making absolutely no sense. In the background was hysterical screaming. Probably a woman’s, Moss guessed, although he wouldn’t swear to it. It could just as easily have been coming from a mortally wounded animal.
“Bungalow nine, hurry, the man’s been shot, looks like he’s dead, hurry, God, please hurry!”
Moss put the phone directly against his ear. “Slow down a little, willya? I can’t make out a word of what you’re saying.”
“He’s dead, been shot in the head, hurry!”
“Who’s dead?” A feeling of dread began to work its way up Moss’s spine. Jack’s golfing adventures had faded into the distance.
“Bungalow nine, please hurry!”
Moss could barely hear the man’s words above the woman’s screaming. “You said nine?”
“Yes. Oh, God, hurry!”
Moss processed the information. “Nine. That’s Taylor. And you say he’s dead?”
“Dead … yes.”
“Have you called 911?”
“Well … hell … I guess I’d better do it.”
“Please, just hurry.”
“I’m on my way. Don’t touch or disturb anything. Hear me?”
“No, we won’t. Please hurry.”
Moss placed the phone back on the receiver. Considering what he’d just been told, he was surprisingly calm—no fear, no panic at all. Fear, for him, was little more than an imposter once the unknown was revealed. Death he could handle. Death he had seen. Death he understood. But the unknown—that’s a different ball game. It was spooky and unsettling.
He dialed the police, gave them the details of what he’d been told, hung up, gave a nod as Jack sank his putt, then jumped into his battered red Pontiac.
Two minutes later, he walked into bungalow nine.
Three people were waiting in the living room. Two men stood on either end of the couch on which a woman sat and sobbed into a Kleenex. Moss noticed the woman’s raven black hair, the apparent result of a recent dye job. With her head down and eyes covered by tinted glasses, she looked to Moss like Roy Orbison. Not exactly a compliment, Moss knew, but … the truth is the truth. When she looked up, Moss found himself staring into the face of a woman who had seen her share of summers and was making one last attempt at outrunning the clock. It was a race, Moss decided, that she had lost long ago.
The two men stood still as statues, flanking her like a pair of gargoyles. They were similarly dressed, wearing khaki shorts, loose-fitting flowery shirts, sandals, black socks that stretched to their knees, and grim looks. Not natives of the South, Moss concluded—not with those threads and that chalky, pale skin. These were big city folks all the way. Quintessential snowbirds, retired, vacationing in the sun, living the easy life.
“He’s in the upstairs bathroom,” the man nearest Moss said, his voice quivering and barely audible. He started to say something else but hesitated, instead putting a hand on the woman’s shoulder.
She burst into louder sobs, sending a fresh stream of black mascara tears racing down her cheeks.
Moss hurried up the stairs and went straight to the bedroom. It was no trouble finding it; all of these bungalows had practically the same design. Connected to the master bedroom, the bathroom was to the left as he entered. He looked around the room. The bed was still made, the curtain closed. He noticed a dark spot he guessed to be a bloodstain on the comforter. The television was on, its volume turned all the way down. Moss glanced indifferently at the TV screen. Golden Bear Jack had pulled off another miraculous shot. This time, however, Moss wasn’t interested in Jack’s magic act.
Moss opened the bathroom door and looked down at the body lying on the floor. It was Taylor, all right, and he was a goner. He was on his back, eyes open, head ringed by a ghastly scarlet halo. Moss knelt down and felt for a pulse. For an instant he thought he detected one, but there was no way. He’d seen plenty of dead men in Korea, and he wasn’t mistaking this. Taylor was history, done in by the bullet that had crashed into the side of his head.
Moss stood, careful not to touch anything, and began looking around the bathroom for a gun. He couldn’t find one, and that bothered him. He had automatically leaped to the conclusion that this was a suicide. But how could there be a gunshot suicide without a gun? There couldn’t be, which meant it had to be something else. But what?
Murder? No way. A murderer would have to come through the front gate, past him—and that damn sure didn’t happen.
Of course, there was a second possibility: the murderer could be one of the residents living at Pinewood Estates.No, that‘s an even more ridiculous notion, Moss thought.The folks here may be old, wealthy, and somewhat cantankerous, but they aren‘t killers.
Had to be a suicide, Moss finally concluded.Definitely. Okay, so where‘s the damn gun?
As Moss turned and started to walk out, he heard a groan. Pivoting, he looked behind him and then down at the body on the floor. Several seconds passed before he realized Taylor wasn’t dead. He knelt down next to the wounded man, whose groaning had given way to a rattling sound deep in his chest.
“Taylor, it’s me—Moss. You’re gonna be all right. You gotta hang on. Hear me? I’m going for help.”
Moss tried to rise but felt a violent tug from Taylor. The grip was surprisingly strong for a man who was only seconds away from death.
Moss drew close enough to feel Taylor’s breath on his face. Blood began to trickle from Taylor’s nostrils and the corner of his mouth. The groaning was now a hollow, gurgling sound.
Death may not have arrived, but it hovered close by.
“Fallen,” Taylor managed to whisper.
“Don’t try to talk. I’m going for help.” Moss tried to stand, but Taylor again drew him closer.
“Fallen angels,” Taylor said, his voice fading.
“Fallen angels,” Taylor repeated, this time sending the wordangelsinto eternity on the winds of his final breath.
All signs of imminent death vanished. The rattling and gurgling ceased; the eyes, fixed and dilated, stared straight into nothingness. The dark angel had descended. There was no mistaking it this time. Taylor was gone.
Two uniformed police officers rushed into the room with weapons drawn. Close behind was a plainclothes detective. Moss looked at them and then stood.They needn’t hurry, he thought.Hurrying ain’t gonna do nobody any good. No one was going to be saved tonight.
“Dead?” one of the officers asked, seemingly to no one in particular. He had to repeat the one-word question before Moss responded.
“Who are you?” the detective asked, stepping between the two officers.
“Arnie Moss. The night watchman.”
“You find the body?”
“One of the clowns downstairs.”
The older of the two officers knelt beside the body, felt for a pulse, briefly examined the wound, and then looked up at the detective. “Gunshot. Pretty heavy duty, from the looks of it. Body’s still warm, too. Couldn’t have happened much more than an hour, hour and a half ago.”
The detective’s eyes scanned the room. “Where’s the gun?”
“Didn’t find one,” Moss answered.
“Really? That’s interesting.” The detective motioned to the two officers. “Start a canvass of the neighborhood. Maybe somebody heard something. And when CSU gets here, make sure they go over this place with a fine-tooth comb. I mean, scour the place. You ever been printed, Moss?”
“Yeah. When I was in the Army. Why?”
“We’ll need to eliminate your prints from any others we might find.”
“You sayin’ I’m a suspect?”
“You and everyone else who wasn’t with me the past two hours.”
Moss immediately disliked the detective. The smugness, the arrogance, the better-than-thou demeanor. Moss saw enough of that from the folks living at Pinewood Estates. Old farts with fat bank accounts, healthy stock portfolios, and overblown opinions of themselves. He tolerated it, barely, because he had to. It went with the job. But seeing the same attitude in this jerk detective almost made him sick to his stomach. There was no excuse for behaving in such a disrespectful way.
The detective, whose name was Randy McIntosh, walked over to the bed and looked down at the small dark stain. He stood perfectly still for a moment, then abruptly started out the door, signaling for Moss to follow.
Moss seethed inside with anger.
“Which one of you found the body?” McIntosh asked before reaching the bottom of the steps.
“And who are you?”
“Clyde Bennett.” The man paused, then looked at the other man and the sniffling woman. “That’s Landon Walker, and the lady is Loretta Young.” Again he paused, before adding, “Just like the movie star.”
“Never heard of her.”
“She was before your time.”
“Tell me about it,” McIntosh said, removing a notepad from his coat pocket. “Why are you folks here?”
“Taylor is … was … a friend of ours from the old days,” Clyde Bennett said. “Sometimes the four of us got together and played cards. Gin rummy, you know? Penny a point. Nothing serious. That’s what we were going to do tonight.”
“I take it you’re not from around here,” McIntosh asked.
“New York. Syracuse. Not the City, which everyone assumes when you tell them you’re from New York. We come down to Pawleys Island three, four times a year. Have for more than twenty years. When we do, we always make it a point to see Taylor.”
McIntosh looked at Moss. “You verify that?”
“Yeah.” McIntosh’s question fired Moss’s anger. “What do you think? That I let strangers pass through the gate?”
McIntosh glared at Moss for several hard seconds, then turned back toward Clyde Bennett. “How long since you found the body?”
“What? Twenty, twenty-five minutes now? I don’t know exactly. As soon as I did, I called the guard shack. Mr. Moss was here almost before I hung up.”
“Did you see a gun or weapon of any type?”
Clyde Bennett looked puzzled. “No, sir. Come to think of it, I didn’t. But I have to confess I didn’t spend much time up there. When I saw Taylor on the floor, I ran straight down here and called Mr. Moss.”
“How’d you get in?” McIntosh asked. “You have your own key?”
“The door was unlocked. I called out several times, and when there was no answer, we figured Taylor was out by the pool and simply couldn’t hear us. When I saw he wasn’t out there, Landon suggested I check upstairs, that maybe he’d fallen asleep. I went up there. That’s when—”
“He was dead when you found him, right?” McIntosh asked.
“No, he wasn’t,” Moss interrupted. All eyes quickly shifted to him. “He was still alive when I got to him. Barely, but still alive.”
McIntosh moved closer to Moss, who was leaning against a bookcase. “You’re positive of that?”
“I’m positive. He tried to tell me something before he died.”
“He muttered something about fallen angels.”
“Fallen angels? You sure about that?”
“Yeah, I’m sure,” hissed Moss through clenched teeth. “Fallen angels.”
McIntosh wrote something in his notepad, then looked around at the other three.“Fallen angelsmean anything to any of you?”
McIntosh’s question was met with silence. Finally, after a few seconds, Clyde Bennett said, “Means nothing to me. How about you, Landon?”
An ashen Landon Walker shook his head and looked down at the floor.
“You said you’ve been coming down here”—McIntosh looked at his notes—”more than twenty years. How did you know Taylor?”
“Through Loretta,” Clyde Bennett said. “She and Taylor went to high school together.”
“In St. Louis,” Loretta Young whispered. “A long time ago.”
“Landon and I first met Taylor right after he got back from his last tour in Vietnam,” Clyde Bennett said. “That was sometime in the early seventies.”
“When was the last time you saw Taylor?” McIntosh asked.
“About four months ago,” Clyde Bennett said. “That’s right, isn’t it, Landon?”
“Did he know you would be here tonight?” McIntosh asked.
“Oh, sure, I spoke with him last night,” Clyde Bennett said. “Just after eight. Told him to expect us sometime around five thirty or six.”
“Anyone else know you were coming?”
“Not that I’m aware of.”
McIntosh turned to Moss. “Anybody been here to see Taylor lately? Say, within the past week?”
“I’ll need to speak with the three of you again tomorrow at headquarters,” McIntosh said. “Around ten. To take your statements and get fingerprints. That includes you, Moss. It would also be helpful if you folks could stick around these parts for a few days. That pose any problem?”
“No, no problem at all,” Clyde Bennett answered. “We’ll do anything you ask of us.”
McIntosh closed his notepad and crammed it into his coat pocket. He walked toward the door, stopping along the way to check his appearance in the oval mirror hanging on the wall. After deciding his hair needed combing, he continued toward the door.
“Fallen angels.” Rhetorically, he asked, “What was the guy? Some kind of a damn poet?”
Dark clouds were beginning to drift in from behind the fine arts building, a sure sign heavy rains were on the way. The area forecast had called for a pleasant, sunny weekend, with almost no humidity and temperatures in the mid-70s. However, the reality was proving to be something quite different. The clouds now heading for the campus looked like they were coming from the skies of hell. The folks analyzing the weather data really blew it this time around.
So much for all that super radar, Dual Doppler nonsense.
Michael Collins turned his chair toward the window and watched the rain begin to come down, slowly at first, then in windblown sheets. It never failed: Friday, only a few more papers to grade, a big weekend planned, then seemingly out of nowhere, a three-day deluge. As one colleague said, “When tennis or golf calls, rain falls.” It was God’s eleventh plague, sent to vex teachers. Collins was convinced that educators were the latest recipient’s of God’s wrath. Ramses only happened to be first.
Collins picked up a blue exam book and began reading. The exam, which covered Eliot’sFour Quartets, wasn’t a final, but it did carry heavy weight. With finals less than two weeks away, the eight grad students in this seminar had undoubtedly put forth their best effort. Better to enter finals week with room for slippage than to have a mountain to climb. Collins used this bit of logic to lessen the disappointment of another dreary weekend. He’d stay inside and give the students his best effort rather than fight this downpour.
He was well into an examination ofBurnt Nortonwhen Kate Marshall came into his office, walked up behind him, and kissed him on the cheek. She leaned over and kissed his lips.
“Passion inside the hallowed halls of academia,” he remarked. “What would the chancellor say if he knew such hanky-panky was going on behind closed doors? He’s a Republican, you know. And Republicans aren’t big on pleasures of the flesh.”
“He’d say, ‘Damn, Collins, you’re one lucky dude,’” Kate answered, laughing. “‘Where can I find someone as lovely, intelligent, sexy, and charming as Miz Marshall?’”
“No, what he’d do is tell you to forget about tenure.”
“Yeah, you got that right.” She kissed him again, more playfully this time. “I have a theory. Want to hear it?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“Not really,” she said, sitting on the edge of his desk.
“Well, I suspect if some of these stuffy, staid old professor types, our beloved chancellor included, would only get laid a little more often—say, once every two weeks instead of every six months—things would be a damn sight better around here. It would relieve all the unwanted pressure and stress that builds up. Make them all a little more pleasant, more agreeable.”
“What you’re saying borders on treason,” Collins said. “And you know the penalty for treason.”
“The penalty for horniness is far more severe.”
She stood and straightened her skirt. Kate Marshall was medium height with dark hair, hazel eyes, and the figure of a Ford Agency model. Slender legs, nice breasts, killer lips. In male parlance, the total package. But what Collins liked most about her—and had from the first time he’d met her four years before—was her quick, agile mind, her fearlessness and her wonderful sense of humor. Kate Marshall could hang with anyone, male or female.
And yet … there was a twenty-year age difference, which he saw as a problem. He’d brought it up on several occasions, hoping for a frank discussion, but she’d quickly dismissed it. Age, she said, simply wasn’t important. Not when it involved two slightly weathered adults. It was a viewpoint he didn’t entirely agree with.
“Why are you still hanging around this late on a Friday?” he asked.
“Same reason you are—grading papers.” She went to the door. “What about tonight? We still on?”
“Can we make it a little later? Maybe nine? I’d really like to get most of these papers finished.”
She nodded. “Oh, yes, dedicated educator. I will wait for you until the lastAis awarded.”
“But not past 9:30, right?”
“Right. A girl has to set limits or she risks being labeled a pushover. And … I’m no pushover.” She started out, then turned back to him. “Oh, I almost forgot. There’s a gentleman here to see you. Says it’s extremely important. He was rather insistent about it, too. No, actually, he was downright rude.”
“Have any idea who he is?”
“No, but his name tag says Nichols.”
“Yeah, on his uniform.”
“What kind of uniform?”
“Army or Marines. I don’t know. Military.”
“Wonder why some military guy wants to see me.”
Kate smiled. “Maybe you flunked his beautiful little daughter.”
“I never flunk the beautiful ones,” Collins said. “Oh, well, show him in.”
He closed the exam book and laid it on top of the others. Too bad he couldn’t finish it now. Spillage from the keen mind of young Bradley R. Alexander III was just getting interesting, and now it had to be put on hold.What the hell, Collins reasoned,if it took old T.S. five years to write theQuartets,surely young B. R. Alexander’s promising interpretation could wait a few more minutes.
Kate led the man into the office, but he quickly brushed past her and extended his right hand to Collins. He was stocky-going-on-pudgy, maybe five foot ten, and dressed in full military uniform (Army), complete with a multicolored jigsaw puzzle of commendations pinned to the front of his jacket. On his collar, a single star glistened.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Professor,” he said. “I’m General David Nichols.”
Collins shook the general’s hand, then motioned for him to take a seat across from the desk. As Nichols found his way into the chair, Collins winked at Kate. “Nine, right?”
Before she could answer, the general said, “And please see that we’re not disturbed.”
Kate backed out of the office without acknowledging his command.
Collins picked up a can of orange juice and took a sip, letting his eyes examine more closely the cluster of medals on the general’s jacket. At first glance they were impressive. But to someone familiar with such matters, there was nothing of real consequence, nothing of genuine merit, nothing that would distinguish the general as an exemplary soldier, like a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, Silver Star, or Purple Heart. This was dime store jewelry. Junk. Obligatory gifts for time wasted. Collins’s term for such commendations: chest candy.
“What can I do for you, General?” he said. “Sign you up for one of my classes?”
“We’re studying the Beat writers next term. Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs. Sure you’re not interested?”
The general paused—a little too dramatically, Collins thought—while lighting his pipe. He sucked in a couple of times, exhaled a white circle of smoke, and smiled. “You don’t fit the image I had of you. But then, shadows can be deceptive, can’t they?”
“Depends on the shadow.”
“I hadn’t been in Nam more than a week when I first heard of you. I wasn’t infantry—just a clean-faced second lieutenant assigned to an ordnance and supply outfit in Qui Nhon. Fairly safe gig, all things considered. Primarily, I was responsible for making sure supplies made it to various parts of the country. And everywhere I went, your name was mentioned.Cain. Strange how the men always whispered your name. Like they were praying.”
He leaned back, the pipe in his right hand.
“It was all hush-hush, of course,” he continued. “The Phoenix Project, Armageddon, Silent Night. No one was supposed to have any knowledge of those ops. But you know the military grapevine. Things have a way of filtering down. Secrets, even top secrets, are seldom well kept. Especially ones that deal with a legend.”
Collins finished the orange juice, crushed the can in his right hand, and tossed it into the wastebasket. His eyes remained fixed on the general. “I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, General. I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
The general smiled one of those fraternal smiles that says,Sure, let’s keep this between brothers, between confidants. His eyes gleamed; his smile widened. “You know, stories about you were passed around like an opium pipe. Everybody wanted some. Give us a fix. Shoot us up with the exploits of the great Cain. Tell us what you’ve heard about him lately. We couldn’t wait to hear about the midnight missions, the kills. You were the rage, I must say.”
“Opium pipe, shooting up, fix—terrific imagery, General. Sure I can’t interest you in that Beat writers class? I think you would enjoy it. Especially Burroughs.”
“Then I’m afraid you’re wasting my time. And yours. You see, I don’t know what in the hell you’re talking about.”
“That’s precisely the response I expected,” Nichols said. “Indeed, I would have been terribly disappointed had you responded otherwise.”
The general reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. He studied it closely for several seconds, folded it, and put it back in his pocket. “Major Collins.” He paused, a look of betrayal in his eyes. “Do you mind if I call you Major?”
Expression unchanged, Collins said nothing.
“Major,” Nichols continued, “an old friend of yours, Anthony Taylor, was killed sometime yesterday afternoon. Make thatmurderedyesterday afternoon. Before—”
“General, I don’t know anyone named Anthony Taylor,” Collins said, his expression still stony.
The general nodded slightly, again offering his fraternal smile. “Before Taylor died, he said something I’m sure will be of interest to you.”
“If I don’t know Taylor, how can anything he said interest me?”
“What Taylor said before he died was ‘fallen angels.’”
“Fallen angels? Very poetic. This Taylor—perhaps he was a former student of mine. I’ve had so many; maybe I’ve forgotten him.”
Collins leaned his chair back against the chalkboard, keeping his icy stare directly on Nichols. He could tell the general was becoming unsettled, unsure of his next move. Things weren’t going as expected, as rehearsed. The general’s primary plan was crumbling like a melting icecap, and apparently there was no plan B to fall back on. Collins could see the panic gather like storm clouds in the general’s eyes.
Silence is a great weapon against the arrogant and phony tough. It’s an unwanted burden capable of identifying and crushing imposters. Collins knew it would be only a few more seconds before the general became an emotional casualty.
Collins was wrong. It didn’t take that long. Nichols stood and began pacing the room. His cool, confident attitude was gone, replaced by a rising sense of uncertainty.
“Fallen angels,” Nichols repeated. “You are familiar with that, aren’t you?”
“Don’t have a clue what you’re talking about, General.”
“I’m fully aware of your disdain for someone like me, Major,” Nichols said. “Your feelings of superiority. I can’t change that. Nor do I care to. The reality is, you have every right to feel superior to me. But you are making a mistake by not talking to me. I’m not the enemy. I’m on your side.”
“Can’t help you, General. Sorry.”
“If this is how you choose to play it, that’s your business,” Nichols said. “Obviously, I can’t make you talk to me. But you’d be well advised to hear me out, to be more cooperative. This is an urgent matter of grave importance. I can’t stress this point enough.”
“You’ve got the wrong man.”
“Okay, I’ve got the wrong man.” Nichols opened the door. “You’ll be hearing from Lucas White within the next twenty-four hours. Maybe he’ll have better luck than I had. Good evening, Major.”
Collins sat at his desk for almost two minutes after Nichols left. Finally, he stood and scooped up the eight blue exam books. As he reached out to open the door, he looked over his shoulder and caught a glimpse of his own reflection in the darkened window.
Taylor, Phoenix Project, Armageddon, Fallen Angels,Lucas White.
Moss opened a can of Coors, grabbed a bag of Doritos, flopped down in the reclining chair, and stared blankly at the television screen. Seldom did he drink this early in the day, but last night hadn’t been a typical night. Truth was, if he had some bourbon in the apartment he wouldn’t waste his time with the Coors.
He had spent the past two hours at the police station, answering basically the same questions he had last night. Why it had taken so long was a mystery to him. What he had to say hadn’t taken more than ten minutes. There was one consolation, however. He hadn’t needed to deal with that asshole McIntosh. Moss had told his story to a Detective Connors, who was, all things considered, a nice enough young fellow.
Moss looked at the TV screen—Judge Judy was scolding some poor mutt for damaging his neighbor’s car—but the images and sounds failed to make much of an impression. His thoughts were on Taylor.Poor Taylor.
Of all the residents living at Pinewood Estates, Taylor had been Moss’s favorite. Perhaps that was because Taylor wasn’t like the rest. Not spoiled or selfish or self-absorbed. He wasn’t arrogant, either. Taylor would take the time to talk, ask how things were going, inquire about your life. He seemed genuinely interested, too. The others … they wouldn’t give you the time of day. If they did speak, it was usually to bark an order or complain about some petty annoyance disrupting their tranquil universe. In their eyes, a poor night watchman didn’t exist. It’s hard for a person to speak when his nose is aimed straight up in the air, and upturned noses were a fact of life at Pinewood Estates.
Perhaps loneliness was another reason Taylor acted so friendly. Not counting the widows and widowers, he was the only single resident, and unmistakably the most solitary. There were no women in his life, or at least none Moss was aware of. Seldom did he entertain visitors. Save for the two or three times Taylor had his card-playing group over, Moss couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone visit the bungalow.
Moss smiled sadly.
Fallen angels. He wondered what that could possibly mean. It meant something important: this much he was sure of. A dying man’s final words always mean something important.
Poor Taylor. Poor friggin’ Taylor.
Moss flashed back to a morning last fall, to the day when Taylor unexpectedly appeared at the guard shack dressed in shorts, a tank top, and tennis shoes. Moss remembered thinking how Taylor, who was sixty-three at the time, had held up so well physically. Wide shoulders, trim waist, not an ounce of fat or flab on him. And strong-looking, too, like a former athlete who hadn’t let himself go. But what really caught Moss’s attention were Taylor’s arms. Big, powerful arms easing down into hands that looked equally powerful. Moss had seen his share of tough men in his lifetime, and Taylor was a tough man. It didn’t take Sherlock Holmes to deduce that Taylor was not someone to tangle with.
Taylor had stopped at the guard shack that morning and asked Moss if he’d be interested in joining him for a walk along the beach. It was the first time anyone at Pinewood Estates included him in anything. Moss, who had finished his shift, quickly said yes. The two men walked for nearly an hour as the reddish-orange sun sprang from the ocean with majesty and splendor.
Only now did Moss realize how little was said during that walk. A couple of times Taylor had remarked about how much he loved the ocean. “It’s so free,” he’d said. “So restless and free. Not even God himself can tame the ocean.” But beyond that, there were few exchanges between the two men. Only silence.
During their walk, Taylor did make a couple of remarks that perhaps provided a glimpse into his past. One, in particular, had stayed with Moss. Taylor said he had spent a great deal of time in the military doing some things that were “nasty but necessary.” The phrase had haunted Moss like a bad dream.
“Nasty but necessary.”What the hell could it mean?Moss now wondered.
At police headquarters, Moss had asked Detective Connors for permission to look through Taylor’s file. Connors gave his okay, adding almost apologetically that there really wasn’t much to see and wouldn’t be until Taylor’s full military records arrived later in the day.
Moss learned Taylor had been born and raised in St. Louis, joined the Army at age eighteen, served three hitches in Vietnam, earned a battlefield promotion to first lieutenant, and eventually risen to the rank of captain. He retired in 1990 after twenty-seven years of active duty.
Connors had said there wasn’t much to discern from the file. Moss frowned.How wrong. How very wrong. The one page detailing Taylor’s military career spoke volumes about a man who had dedicated his entire adult life to serving his country. Connors, a cop, should have seen that. He should also appreciate it better than most. If he couldn’t, then maybe he should take another look at the section detailing the awards and commendations Taylor had earned along the way. Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart (three times), Medal of Freedom, special citations from Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Ford, etc., etc. Connors had to be blind to miss all that.
“Looks to me like Taylor was a helluva soldier,” Moss had said. “A real warrior.”
“Yeah, looks like it,” Connors answered, not turning his attention away from the form he was filling out.
Now, as Judge Judy laid down her ruling, Moss sat sipping beer, thinking how little he knew about Taylor and how he wished he’d taken the time to really get to know him. But isn’t that the standard lament when someone dies? We wait too long, and then it’s too late and we end up racked with regrets for what wasn’t done or said.How sad, Moss thought.How very sad.
Of one thing Moss felt certain: when Connors and that asshole McIntosh did finally receive the full military records, they would see that what was written on the single sheet of paper wouldn’t qualify as much more than the tip of the iceberg.
They would learn Taylor—Captain Anthony Leon Taylor, United States Army (Ret.)—had been in deeper shit than most of us could begin to imagine.
Frances Casey was nervous.
She wasn’t used to having foreign dignitaries in her restaurant. For that matter, she wasn’t used to having dignitaries from anywhere outside the D.C. area in her restaurant. And most of the D.C. crowd? Well, she didn’t consider them to be all that dignified, despite the high opinion they had of themselves. But this … this situation, with real foreigners and big-shot government folks—well, it wasn’t her cup of tea.
Frances went to the front window and looked outside, the rising sun hitting her directly in the eyes. She lowered the blinds and closed them. Turning, she looked at the clock: 7:45. Her guests were scheduled to arrive in less than four hours.
She’d already been at it for two hours despite the promise she’d made to herself to keep things simple, as always, and to basically stick with the regular menu.The food that had earned her place its great reputation. Lasagna and veal parmesan and those big Caesar salads. Those were her specialties. Still, she felt the need to do something out of the ordinary. But what? What do people from Saudi Arabia eat? She couldn’t serve someone from that country a hamburger and french fries. And she certainly didn’t want to risk offending them by serving something that went against their religious beliefs. Again she looked up at the big clock: 7:50. “Come on, girl,” she muttered under her breath, “get your ass in gear.”
Frances went into the kitchen, filled three huge pans with water, and put them on the stove. She opened the walk-in freezer and was about to go inside when she heard the bell above the front door ring. It startled her. She was positive she had locked the door when she’d arrived that morning. The restaurant didn’t open for business until promptly at ten, and she never unlocked the front door until she heard the chimes from the old grandfather clock in the corner. That was a tradition her late husband, Harold, had followed for more than thirty years. And Frances believed in upholding tradition.
Feeling somewhat apprehensive, she peered over the swinging door separating the dining area from the kitchen. Standing just inside the front door was a well-built man of medium height with coal black hair and deeply tanned skin. He was dressed in an expensive, blue pinstriped suit, white shirt, red tie, and black shoes. In his right hand, he held a black attaché case. His eyes, which Frances guessed would be as dark as his hair, were hidden behind Armani sunglasses. Her quick inventory revealed one final detail: in her sixty-four years, she had never laid eyes on a more handsome or distinguished-looking man.
“You’re a little on the early side. We don’t open for another two hours.” She moved behind the counter. “Wasn’t the front door locked? I’m sure it was.”
“No, it was unlocked,” he said, his voice deep yet soft.
“Well, I must be slipping in my old age.” She came out from behind the counter and extended her right hand. “I’m Frances Casey. I own the place.”
“Oh, I know who you are,” she interrupted. “From the way you’re dressed, you’re either a lawyer or a government man of some sort. My guess is government.”
“Very good. My name is George Armstrong. I’m with the FBI, and I’m here to—”
“Check out the security,” Frances said. She held up both hands in a forgive-me gesture. “That’s twice I’ve interrupted you. How ill-mannered. If my daddy were here, he’d swat my behind real hard. I’m truly sorry.”
“Now, go on. You’re here to do what? Make sure everything is safe for our guests?”
“An excellent observation. You should be in my line of work.”
“No, thanks. It’s all I can do to come up with something decent enough for those folks to eat.”
“From what I hear, you do that just fine.”
Frances smiled. She liked this man. And not only because he was quick with a smile or a compliment. There was something genuine about him. Something real, solid. He certainly didn’t seem to be at all like the legions of standard-issue government officials and Yuppie lawyers she usually came in contact with. This one was a different breed altogether—a breed she much preferred.
“Whatever it is you have to do, you just go right ahead,” she said. “Consider the place yours. I’ll do my best to stay out of your way. If you do have any questions or need any help, give me a yell.”
“Would you care for a cup of coffee before you get started?”
“No, thank you. Never drink the stuff.”
“My God, man, I don’t see how anyone can function without a minimum of two cups of coffee first thing in the morning.”
“Coffee just isn’t my cup of tea.”
“Now, that’s clever.” She laughed.
Frances occasionally cast a discreet glance at the man as he went about his business. He was thorough; that was for sure—much more so than the men who were in there the day before. He inspected every corner, every crevice, every forgotten cranny, including several she would rather he left alone. As Frances watched him, she reminded herself to give the kitchen area an extra-good cleaning on Sunday.
“It’s a good thing you’re not from the health department,” she said, laughing. “You’ve looked into some places I didn’t know existed. I apologize for any mess you find.”
The man removed his Armanis, revealing eyes even darker than she suspected. He was, she surmised, a Native American and, most likely, a full-blooded one at that. Also, she judged him to be even more handsome without the glasses.
“No problem at all,” he said, looking behind the oven. “Actually, the place appears to be in tip-top shape from a security standpoint.” He folded his sunglasses and put them into his shirt pocket. “Where are your restrooms? Better not forget them.”
“Right this way,” Frances said, leading him back into the dining area and down a small hallway. “Would you like me to tidy up the ladies’ room a little before you go in?”
“That won’t be necessary.”
Frances returned to the kitchen, leaving the handsome, dark-eyed man alone to do his business. She simply had to get on with her cooking. Time was fleeting; the big shots would be here before she knew it. She had to get hopping.
More than thirty minutes passed before it dawned on Frances that she hadn’t heard a peep from the man. She put down the knife she was using to peel potatoes and went into the dining area, then on to the restrooms.
Tapping on the door to the ladies’ room, Frances said, “Mr. Armstrong, you in there?” No answer. She opened the door and looked inside. Empty. She repeated the same routine at the men’s room, again getting the same results. The man was gone.Peculiar, Frances thought,him leaving without saying goodbye.
She walked to the front door. It was locked. Nice gesture on his part. No, he wasn’t at all like the usual self-absorbed, always-in-a-hurry hot shots who are too busy to show kindness or gratitude.And what a damn fine-looking man. Handsome in every sense of the word. A real hunk. Frances smiled.Oh, to be a few years younger.
Standing alone, Frances was struck by a strange sensation, a feeling that the past hour had been a dream, the Indian hadn’t really been there, and the front door had been locked from the beginning.
She frowned and shook her head. “You’re going bananas, girl; that’s all there is to it.”
Everything had gone smoothly, perhaps a little too smoothly, and that had Frances worried. She didn’t trust good times any more than she trusted a used car salesman. That was especially true when the situation presented so many possibilities for disaster. But so far, knock on wood, there hadn’t even been the slightest hint of trouble, of the disaster she feared.
Two things stood out: how much her guests appeared to be enjoying the food and how little they appeared to be concerned about security. The last part probably surprised her the most. After all, the guest list was heavy-duty: Sheik Abdul-Nahir, the number two man in Saudi Arabia; Ambassador Richard Froning; two U.S. Army generals; and a deputy chief of staff. For all this combined importance, they were behaving like regular folks out for an afternoon picnic.
Frances Casey was worried. Something just had to go wrong.
“My dear, this food is absolutely splendid,” one of the generals said to Frances’s niece Cynthia. “Simply marvelous.”
“Thank you, sir,” Cynthia said.
“Don’t let him fool you, young lady,” Ambassador Froning said in a voice heavy with Texas twang. “The general has been eating Army chow so long, he thinks McDonald’s is gourmet. He has no idea just how good this food is.”
Cynthia smiled awkwardly and walked back into the kitchen.
“Everything going okay?” Frances asked.
“So far, so good,” Cynthia answered.
“Well, keep on your toes.” Frances carried a pitcher of iced tea through the swinging door. “Anyone need a refill?”
“I could use another shot,” Froning said. “How about you, Abdul? Care for more tea?”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
His perfect English surprised Frances. “How did you learn to speak our language so well?” she asked.
“I’ve spent a great deal of time in this country,” Abdul said. “Most of it during my college days.”
“Oh, so you went to school in the United States?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Mind if I ask where?”
“I earned degrees from Georgetown and Princeton. After that, I worked for several years at the United Nations.”
“Well, little wonder you speak English better than I do.” Frances finished filling the ambassador’s glass. “I’m surprised there isn’t more security.”
“There’s more than you might guess,” the ambassador said, looking around. “You simply don’t see it. Here but not here, if you know what I mean.”
Frances nodded. “I guarantee you one thing—if your people here now are half as thorough as the man who was here this morning, then you have no reason for concern.”
The ambassador put his fork down. “What man?”
“Oh, George something or other. Let me think for a minute and maybe his last name will come to me. I’m just terrible with names.”
“What time was he here?”
“Can you describe him?”
“Oh, medium height, dark, very handsome. He looked Native American.”
“General Marshall, did you have someone in here at that hour?” Froning asked.
“We had no one here until ten hundred hours. And no one fitting that description.”
The ambassador looked at Frances. “Did the man specifically say he was with the government? That he was here to inspect the security?”
“Yes, sir, he did. Said he was with the FBI. He sure gave the place a good going over, too.”
Froning’s expression hardened. “You’re positive he said he was with the FBI?”
“FBI … yes, that’s what he said.”
“And you can’t recall his name?”
Froning stood and said, “General, why don’t you have a couple of your men come in and take a look around? Just to be on the safe side.”
“I think that’s a good idea.” General Marshall rose and walked outside. He returned seconds later, followed by two military policemen.
Frances looked at the grandfather clock: 12:28. Now she was more than worried; she was anxious, tired, frazzled. What she wanted most at this point was for the ambassador and his entourage to finish up and move on. This business of playing host to government leaders and foreign big wigs was for someone else. Her blood pressure was high enough without the added stress and strain that went hand in hand with entertaining a group like this.
One of the MPs asked Frances to show him the way to the alley out back. She forced a weary smile and led him through the kitchen. While he made his way outside, Frances went into the walk-in freezer to get some steaks that needed thawing for tonight’s customers. The coolness of the freezer felt good. Finding an upturned Coke case, she pulled it beneath her and sat down, deciding her frazzled nerves needed a rest and the goings on out in the restaurant could proceed for a few minutes without her. She leaned back and closed her eyes.
At least, thank God, the disaster she feared had not come about.
Frances Casey couldn’t have been more wrong.
The explosion was so violent it blew Frances off the Coke case and backward into the steel wall. Fortunately for her, a stack of empty cardboard boxes served to soften the impact. As she rolled to the floor, she was acutely aware of the ringing sound in her head, a sound that intensified with each heartbeat. She was equally aware of the pain gripping her body, especially the sharper pain in her left leg and left shoulder.
Feelings are good at a time like this, she reminded herself,because it means everything is still alive, still functioning. She tried to roll over but couldn’t. Lifting her head, she looked outside the freezer door. A thick cloud of black smoke casually drifted by. Frances again made an effort to stand, only to fall back against the boxes. Although the pain was becoming more and more intense, she was certain of two facts: she was going to live, and she was going to pass out. There was yet another fact, one final truth, and it filled her with great sorrow.
She was the only survivor.
The shapely redhead paused to check the hem of her skirt. During her inspection, she lifted her eyes and smiled at Collins as he entered Pete’s Bar. “Damn thing is forever coming loose,” she said.
“Need some help? I have killer hands.”
“I’m sure you do.” She motioned to an empty chair at the table. “Care for some company?”
“I’m waiting for someone. Sorry.”
“Lucky girl.” She touched his arm. “I assume it is a woman you’re waiting for?”
“You can never be too sure these days,” she said. “Oh, well, if things don’t work out, give me a buzz. Amy Brandenburg. I’m in the book. I’d love to meet you for a drink sometime.”
Yeah, me and the rest of the first infantry, Collins thought as he watched her walk away.
“Some dish, that Amy,” Pete Daley said, slipping into a chair next to Collins. Pete, a heavyset man with a perpetual grin and dark bushy eyebrows, owned the bar. “Know what her nickname is?”
Collins shook his head.
“Target. Know why?”
“Because everybody takes a shot at her.” He laughed loudly. “Hell, Mick, she’s been invaded more times than France.”
“You could get sued for a line like that, Pete. Better watch your tongue. We live in PC times.”
“You know, I’m surprised you haven’t had a sample of that,” Pete said. “Big man on campus like you. How come you haven’t given her a ride?”
“Too much competition; that’s why. Besides, I’m getting too old for the chase.”
“That’s some crappy philosophy you have. If every guy adopted that line of thinking, we’d never get any nookie. We’d all be sitting at home playin’ with ourselves.”
“There’s worse things than not having sex.”
“Oh, yeah? Name one. Other than dying, of course.”
“Let me think about it,” Collins said.
“Think all you want, Mick, but you won’t come up with a satisfactory answer. Know why you won’t? ‘Cause there ain’t nothing better than sex. Nothing, I’m telling you.”
“What about the absence of art in the world?”
Pete frowned. “You’re putting me on, right?”
“No, I’m dead serious. Think about it. No Michelangelo, da Vinci, Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Citizen Kane. That would make for a pretty grim world.”
“Maybe for you, but for this old infantryman-turned-bartender, not being able to score a little snatch would make my world a whole lot grimmer. You keep Citizen Kane. I’ll take the dames.”
“Huh? Rose who?” Pete leaned forward and pointed a finger at his own face. “See this mug, Mick? It ain’t no threat to George Clooney, right? Women don’t break down walls to hang out with me. Never have, never will. I’ll do whatever it takes to score, anytime, anywhere. I have no shame.”
“I never thought you did, Pete.”
“Know what your problem is, Mick? You’ve been sitting behind a desk too long. You need to come down out of that ivory tower, get to know the common folks. Forget all that theory bullshit, and spend some time in the trenches. See what warfare is like in the real world.”
“Like I said, Pete, I’m too old for any more wars.”
“You’re only too old when they put you in the ground or when you can’t get it up anymore. Otherwise, you gotta keep pluggin’ on.”
“And now with Viagra, one of those concerns has been put to rest. Right?”
“Tell you one thing, Mick. If I ever get a hard-on—I mean, anerection—that lasts more than four hours, I ain’t goin’ to see no doctor.”
“I would hope not.”
“I’m takin’ full advantage of those four hours; that I can promise you. I’d have me some serious fun.”
“And make the dames smile, right?”
Pete quickly bounded out of his chair. “Would you look at that?” He began walking toward the end of the bar, where a tall, bony man was violently shaking a woman. “Hey, asshole, leave the lady alone.”
The man, his slender arms covered with cheap tattoos, pushed the girl away and began moving toward Pete. “Who you callin’ an asshole?” he shouted.
“Who am I looking at, genius?” Pete retorted. The two men stood face to face in the center of the dance area. Pete reached out, grabbed the man’s arm, and began leading him toward the front door. “Put ‘em on the pavement, pal. I’m not so desperate that I need your business.”
The man jerked free of Pete’s grasp. “Bad mistake, tubby. No one lays hands on me ‘less I want them to.”
“Tough guy—is that it? Well, let’s see how tough you really are.”
The man backed away several steps, dug into his pants pocket, brought out a switchblade knife, and flicked the blade open. “Keep your fuckin’ hands off me or I’ll carve my name on your fat ass.” He spit out the words with venomous anger. Then, emitting a loud, primal scream, he jabbed the knife forward, making contact. Having inflicted damage, the man, now even more wired and fanatical, brought the blade to his mouth and licked away the blood.
Pete clutched his forearm, stepped back, and saw the blood begin to ooze through his fingers. “You lousy cocksucker.”
The wild-eyed man drew the knife back, prepared to strike again, when he suddenly realized Pete was no longer his primary concern. Someone else was about to enter the equation; someone closing in rapidly from his left—a blurry figure moving at blinding speed. He whirled toward this new threat, cognizant of a terrifying reality: this was a challenger of a different sort.
“You want some of it, too?” he snarled, lunging forward in the general direction of the new threat.
But the man’s attacking movement amounted to nothing, his strike coming two full seconds after his target had disappeared. As the knife sliced through empty space, and long before he could comprehend what was happening, he felt his legs begin to buckle, the result of a sweeping kick. He struggled to keep from tumbling backward, but a second blow—he couldn’t tell if it had been administered by hand or foot—ended those hopes. He crashed to the floor, and it wasn’t until three seconds later that he realized two things: first, he had dropped the knife; second, it didn’t really matter.
His kneecaps, both of them, were shattered beyond repair. It took only a second after those messages hit his information center for him to feel the unbearable pain shooting through his body.
“Oh, goddammit, my legs! They’re broke! They’re broke!” he screamed. “Help me, please! Somebody help me!”
Pete, wide-eyed and holding his bleeding arm, looked down at the screaming man writhing on the floor, then up at the man who had expertly inflicted such damage. His brain circuits were overloaded with a mixture of excitement and disbelief.
“Damn, Mick, you made scrambled eggs out of that poor bastard’s knees,” he said, his voice filled with awe. “He’ll be lucky to ever walk again.”
Pete continued to shake his head. “You didn’t learn shit like that sitting behind a desk. No way.” He looked down at the man on the floor, then up at Collins. “Wheredidyou learn that?”
“High school judo class.”
“High school was a long time ago.”
“It’s amazing how quickly some things come back to you.”
Itwasamazing how quickly things came back. Amazing and exciting. Perhaps even mystical. Things never forgotten: riding a bicycle, kissing, easily dismantling a knife-wielding attacker. How long had it been now? How long since he had executed a serious martial arts move, especially one against an armed and dangerous opponent?
He couldn’t remember.
All the critical elements were still present: the instincts, the quickness, the maximum use of energy and space, the look in his eyes.
That’s what Pete zeroed in on after the initial rush of excitement had abated. “Goddamn, Mick, you should have seen the look in your eyes,” Pete said, shaking his head. “You looked like one cold-blooded killer, man, like some kind of icy-eyed executioner. I’ve never seen you look like that before.”
After wrapping a towel around his wounded arm, voice still filled with excitement, Pete again said, “Damn, Mick, you should have seen the look in your eyes.”
Collins didn’t have to be told. He’d seen the look—beenthe look—more times than Pete could ever know. Or ever begin to suspect.
The look was crucial. Without it, all the other skills somehow didn’t matter, regardless of how sharp they might be. He understood this perhaps better than any living man. The look, he knew, was why he had survived. Anyone in the killing business would tell you an assassin without the look is destined to become a victim.
Funny thing about the look—it can’t be taught. You either have it or you don’t. Some of his finest pupils, top-of-the-line talents, though in possession of great killing skills, simply didn’t have the look. Without it, they had no chance of succeeding. Not in this business. And he couldn’t tell them to go work on it, to sharpen it like a physical skill. It didn’t work that way. It was in your DNA, or it wasn’t. And without the look, reassignment was the only alternative.
Collins left Pete’s place a little past midnight and drove home. Turning onto the darkened, narrow street that led to his house, he recalled how one of his most talented students, code name Cobra—Collins never forgot a code name—had reacted upon learning he was a washout: “What the fuck do you mean, I’m out? I’m as good as anyone in the house, and you know it.” It was the standard response, one Collins had heard countless times.
“Sorry, Cobra, you don’t have what it takes. You think you do, but trust me, you’re badly mistaken. You can’t cut it when it counts the most—when it’s blood time.”
That’s really what it all comes down to: how you react at the last split second. When it’s your life or the other guy’s.
Blood time, as it was known inside the Shop.
Collins looked in the rearview mirror. A thin smile danced across his face. Pete had remarked how Collins’s eyes looked like gray shadows. An excellent observation on Pete’s part, much keener than he could ever imagine. For in those gray shadows, Pete had seen the very essence of what Collins and others like him were all about.
Every assassin’s eyes are gray at the moment of the kill.
But now, at this moment, Collins’s eyes narrowed, his smile faded. Thoughts flashed forward, past bled into present. Something wasn’t right. He knew it, could sense it, even though he was still several hundred feet from his driveway. It wasn’t the yellow taxi turning around at the end of the street that caused concern; rather, the black sedan parked across from his house set off the warning signals.
Collins pulled over to the curb, turned off the lights, and cut the engine. He sat in the darkness until the taxi passed and turned onto the freeway ramp. After exiting the car, he quickly moved to within twenty feet of the house. A light in the living room flickered briefly, then went out.
Who turned on that light? Who was this intruder? What nameless fool had been dispatched to take him out?There was no way he could answer that. His list of enemies was long, going back decades. Two countries—Russia and North Vietnam—were reputed to have put a two million-dollar bounty on his head. There was never a shortage of takers when that kind of money was involved.
But thewhowas irrelevant. All that mattered was that someone had finally come to collect.
He smiled. These were the moments he coveted and appreciated, the minutes and seconds of uncertainty, when plans and contingencies were open to endless possibilities. The moments before actual confrontation, before fates and outcomes were decided.
Before blood time.
He loved nothing better than the combat, the killing.
How long had it been?
Collins sprinted toward the back door, staying low to the ground, a shadow among shadows. He felt good … confident. The intruder, whoever he might be, wasn’t a foe of equal stature. Too sloppy, too indifferent to details to be considered a worthy foe.
And yet, one never takes a foe lightly. Never. Regardless of the situation.
In his world, that was the first commandment.
Collins opened the back door wide enough to slide through. Once inside, he crawled to the end of the hallway, reached up to a table, and took down a crystal decanter. He removed the lid. Running his fingers gently across the rim, he felt the serrated edges. Sharpened by endless hours of meticulous, patient work, they were more deadly than a hundred razor blades.
He eased down the hallway like a rat staying close to the wall, the decanter in his right hand. As he crept forward, he realized that at no time did he consider the intruder to be anything other than an opponent. The realization pleased him. The killer’s instincts, likethe look, were alive and well.
What more did he need?
Once he reached the door to the living room, he rose to a kneeling position and peered into the darkness. He couldn’t see ten inches in front of him, yet he knew precisely where the intruder was—standing next to the oak bookcase in the right corner of the room.
But this was too easy, too much like a setup. A trap. Probably more than one person waited. That was fine with him. The more, the merrier. In the end, it wouldn’t matter.
The critical element was speed. The opponent by the bookcase had to be exterminated swiftly. That would be easily accomplished; sharpened crystal twisted against the jugular is messy but remarkably efficient. Then his attention could be shifted to any other foes who might come at him. For them, he would use his best weapon: his hands.
Under cover of perfect darkness, ready to move, Collins suddenly felt young again—quick, alert.Check it out now, Pete. No ivory towers, no desks. This is the real me, the man you’ve never known. Memories of countless similar situations flooded his brain. Memories connected to a dark and bloody past. Back to those times when he was poised on the edge of a kill. Or possible death.
It seemed like a lifetime ago.
The look; the cold, gray eyes—they were here, now. The past had become the present.
But this was blood time—he wouldn’t have expected anything less. Neither should the fool, or fools, waiting in the darkness. By his calculations it would be over for them in less than ten seconds, regardless of how many lay in wait. Numbers were irrelevant. There could be one or five—it didn’t matter. He had often taken care of that many at one time, and he could do it again. It was simply a matter of doing the things that needed to be done.
But only milliseconds before he moved, before the deadly dynamics were set in motion, the stillness was broken by an old and familiar voice.
Collins turned on the light. “That’s not the smartest thing you’ve ever done, Lucas. Coming in here like that.”
Lucas White nodded but didn’t answer. He was in his late seventies, tall, slender, with closely cropped hair, a white mustache, slate blue eyes, and the bearing of a proper English gentleman. Indeed, most people meeting him for the first time mistakenly assumed he was English. And for good reason. Lucas had always looked more like a character in a Noel Coward play than a four-star general from Davenport, Iowa.
“Men have been killed for much less,” Collins said.
“No doubt.” Lucas took the decanter from Collins and inspected it closely. “But it had to be done. As a sort of test.” The tension in his face softened; his narrow lips relaxed into a smile. “I see you’ve not lost your touch.”
“A test? For what?”
“Are all of your decanters empty?” Lucas asked, handing the piece back to Collins. “I’m dry as the Sahara. Any Scotch on the premises?”
Collins motioned toward the liquor cabinet across from the bookcase. “You didn’t answer my question. A test for what?”
“Clearly, the years have not lessened your impatience. Any ice?”
“What kind of a host fails to keep ice close to the booze?”
“A surprised host.”
“Jolly good answer, my boy. It’s a pleasure to see that you have retained your sardonic sense of humor. I always treasured that aspect of your personality.”
Lucas brushed past Collins and went into the kitchen. Collins could hear the sound of ice clinking against glass. Moments later, Lucas reentered the room, carrying a glass of Scotch and a bucket of ice. He sat on the sofa, took a drink, and smiled at Collins. “Why so tough on General Nichols?”
“Why send a second-rate amateur?”
“Nichols isn’t second rate. He’s a desk wizard, a paper pusher; that’s all. Even the mightiest military power on Earth requires office lackeys.”
“He’s a joke.”
“Now, now, my boy, be kind. He’s no joke. Furthermore, he worships the ground you walk on.”
“So I gathered.” Collins sat in the leather chair across from Lucas. “You should have come, Lucas. I’d like to think I still deserve the best.”
“I concur wholeheartedly, my boy. But urgent matters prevented it.” Lucas took a drink before continuing. “I’d apologize, but such a hollow act is beneath both of us.”
“Those ‘urgent matters’ have anything to do with Cardinal’s death?”
“And with his final words.” Lucas sipped. “What do you make of that?”
Lucas swirled his glass. “Cardinal lived alone, seldom went out, entertained on few occasions. He was, it would seem, merely playing out the string. Then this …” He took another drink. “You knew Cardinal. Why would he say ‘fallen angels’ unless he was trying to tell us something?”
“Who knows what thoughts go through a dying man’s head?”
“That’s wonderfully philosophical, but not very helpful.”
“It’s the best I’ve got.”
“There’s another matter you need to be aware of,” Lucas said. “Last week an explosion in an Arlington restaurant killed twelve people, including—”
“I still read the papers, Lucas. I know about Arlington. How does what happened there connect with Cardinal’s death?”
Lucas lifted himself off the sofa and shuffled to the liquor cabinet. He refilled the glass with Chivas Regal.
“I’m not sure there is a connection,” he said.
“Then why are you here?”
“Oh, caution, I guess.”
“Come on, Lucas. You can do better than that.”
Lucas sipped at the Scotch before returning to the sofa. “There was a survivor in Arlington. The lady who owned the place had the good fortune to be in the freezer when the blast went off.”
“She told the investigators a man claiming to work for the FBI had been there earlier that morning. He apparently stayed about an hour, then disappeared. She also said Froning and his people were awfully concerned when they heard about him.”
Lucas fell silent.
“What is it you’re not telling me, Lucas?”
“How she described the man.”
“Dammit, Lucas, cut the melodrama. What did she say about the man?”
“That he looked like a full-blooded Native American.”
“And he told her his name was George Armstrong, right?”
Lucas nodded. “It’s comforting to know we continue to think alike.”
“Look, the lady’s probably right, but …”
“What’s troubling you, my boy?”
“The use of explosives—that’s just enough of a worm in the salad to cast a cloud of doubt. Seneca prefers more intimate methods of killing.”
“The use of a knife, if memory serves.”
“Arlington is a question mark, but one thing is for certain: Seneca didn’t waste Cardinal.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Careless work. Seneca never went one on one with a target and left him breathing. Never. No, Lucas, someone else took out Cardinal.”
“Maybe he’s slipping.”
Collins eyed Lucas hard and laughed.
“Do those marvelous instincts of yours detect a connection between Seneca, Cardinal, and the bombing in Arlington?” Lucas asked.
“You can wager those four stars and your pension on it,” Collins answered. “And since Seneca didn’t take out Cardinal, that means he’s not working solo.”
“My, my, what is one to make of such nasty business?”
“Fallen angels. Our mission into North Vietnam. Into Hanoi.”
“And a dying man’s last words.”
“Cardinal was obviously telling us someone has been targeted for a hit.”
“Yes,” Lucas said. “And if Seneca is involved, that someone must be big.”
Collins briefly stared at the decanter, then set it on the table. After several seconds of silence, he looked at Lucas.
“I tried to warn you people about Seneca, but you wouldn’t listen. Tried to tell you he was a time bomb waiting to go off. I begged you to let me cut him loose, but you said no. The only time in all those years that you bucked me, and now this.”
“Seneca had the tools, the skills. He was a useful, effective soldier. You know that.”
“He was a psycho.”
Lucas set his glass on the table and leaned forward. He smiled a weary smile. “Hell, man,you’rea psycho. You had to be a psycho to do the things you did. It was one of the job qualifications.”
Collins knew that what Lucas said was both right and wrong, but at the moment he was in no mood to debate the distinction. He suddenly felt overwhelmed by fatigue.
“Why have you come to me?” he asked, leaning back, waiting for an answer he already knew.
“Because it’s time for Cain to be born again.”
Lucas White picked up the leather briefcase, opened it, pulled out a swollen folder, and handed it to Collins. “This is only a refresher course,” he said. “There’s nothing in it you don’t already know.”
Collins placed the unopened folder on the table, walked to the liquor cabinet, took a piece of ice, and popped it into his mouth. “Your timing couldn’t have been worse,” he said. “I still have a week before the semester is over. I can’t just up and leave.”
“A week shouldn’t be a major problem,” Lucas said, “although time is of the essence. There’s no chance you can finish early?”
Lucas took a drink. “Seneca will be a problem, won’t he?”
“Seneca will be a problem.”
Collins stood next to the window and looked outside. The night was darker now than it had been when he was racing toward his house, toward blood time. Darker than the first night he met Seneca. All those years ago.
All those deaths.
Collins felt a hand on his shoulder. “The killing never ends, does it, my boy?” Lucas’s voice was soft, sad. “It just goes on and on.”
“Tell me about Seneca. The last I heard, he was working for the Russians as an adviser in Afghanistan. But that was twenty, twenty-five years ago. What’s he been up to lately?”
“It’s all in the file. At least as much as we know, which isn’t considerable.”
“To hell with the file, Lucas. Tell me.”
“Fact is, no one knows for sure. Afghanistan, Libya—we’ve heard rumors, but nothing we could nail down. There had been previous intel connecting him to bin Laden, back when Osama was fighting the Russians. Back when he was on our side. The most persistent rumor had him married to a KGB agent and living in Moscow. Personally, I have my doubts about that one. It doesn’t fit with Seneca and, hell, if he was working against the Russians, like we suspect, he certainly wouldn’t have been in Moscow. He could be anywhere. We just don’t know. Hell, we don’t even know if he’s behind Taylor’s death or the bombing in Arlington.”
“He’s behind it.”
“Then the question begs, who’s he working for? And why?”
“Whyis the easy one, Lucas. Because he lives for the kill. For a high body count. Seneca’s a predator. He’s not alive unless he’s cutting some poor slob’s heart out. As for who’s calling the shots, that’s your concern. It means nothing to me.”
“Naturally, we’ll give you all the support you need,” Lucas said. “That includes manpower. I’ll assign Nichols to you, along with a young captain I’m impressed with, a kid named Raymond Fuller. I believe you knew his father, Thomas Fuller. Anyway …”
Collins began to laugh.
“What’s so amusing, my boy?” Lucas asked.
“No excess baggage, Lucas. It would only slow me down. Keep your desk jockeys. I don’t need them.”
“Always the loner, right?”
“I travel best when I travel alone.”
“Have it your way. But the support will be available if you need it.”
“Same rules as before. I’ll work directly with you and no one else. All communications will be strictly between us.”
“My boy, these are different times we live in,” Lucas said. “A post—Twin Towers world. The CIA, Homeland Security, FBI … they’ll want their voices heard, and they will demand to be involved. I’ll do everything in my power to limit their involvement, but that won’t be easy to do. My challenge will be to keep them in the loop, but only on my terms. There’s a lot we don’t know, so the fewer people involved, the better. At least for now.”
Lucas lifted a card and a pen from the briefcase. He scribbled something on the card and handed it to Collins. “You can reach me at this number. Night or day. I’m on twenty-four-hour call. Just like the good old days.”
“I’ve got a bulletin for you, Lucas. The good old days weren’t all that good.”
“What’s this I’m hearing? A reluctant warrior?”
“I like the peace.”
“My boy, peace is the one enemy you can’t handle.”
“You’re wrong about that.”
Lucas closed the briefcase, looked at Collins, and smiled. “No, I’m not. You see, you’re overlooking one crucial factor, my boy. You’re the original predator. Just like your code name says. Cain. History’s first assassin. And you more than honored your predecessor’s legacy. No one lived for the kill more than you.”
Collins stood in the doorway and watched Lucas drive off into the night. A good man, Lucas White. Always had been, always would be. No field soldier could ask for a better man to have calling the shots during crisis time. And this was crisis time. A man like Lucas White didn’t come out of retirement unless something big was going down. Of course, he hadn’t laid all his cards on the table. He knew more than he was telling. But that’s the way it should be. Information, especially early on, shouldn’t be dispensed too soon. Too many chances that it might be inaccurate, too many opportunities for leaks. Occasional whispers are better than loud screams during the early stages of any mission. Lucas would fill in the blanks when the time was right.
Hell, man, you‘re a psycho.
The killing never ends, does it, my boy? It just goes onand on.
The smile widened.
You‘re the original predator.
The summer was going to be a scorcher. Only the second week in May and the temperatures had settled in at the mid-80s. Forecasters were already warning that a hot, dry, uncomfortable summer lay ahead. If this was any indication, it looked like they might be right on the money.
Collins loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. He’d just dispatched his grad assistant to the registrar’s office with the final grades. After she left, he opened a bottle of orange juice, picked up the phone, and dialed Lucas White’s number. Lucas answered on the first ring.
“All done with the dirty work,” Collins said.
“My boy, I’m afraid the dirty work is only beginning.”
Collins said nothing.
“Is it safe to assume you took time out from dispensing great works of literature to study the contents of the file I left with you?” Lucas asked.
“Haven’t opened it.”
“Why am I not surprised?” Lucas muttered.
“Because you know me.”
Such a response would have provoked an outburst from most military commanders. But Lucas White wasn’t like most commanders. He was unique, wise as an owl, pragmatic. He did what the situation demanded, always. His theory: whatever it takes is what you do. That pragmatism enabled him to understand and tolerate what others often referred to as “Cain’s fucking unorthodox ways.”
“Should you get a couple of free minutes, you might give it a quick glance,” Lucas said. “If for no other reason than to justify the expense and effort involved. And to please an old man. Will you do that for me?”
“I trained Seneca. There’s nothing about him I don’t already know.”
“I’m aware. But, please, humor me. Who knows? Even someone as omniscient as you might eventually stumble upon a hidden kernel of information. Stranger things have happened.”
“Enough, already, Lucas. I’ll look at the damn file.”
Such verbal sparring was old hat between the two men, and given their respective personalities, it was perhaps inevitable. It was their way of communicating, of bridging the wide gap separating them, of overcoming their many differences.
And there were many.
Lucas White was a by-the-book soldier, but one who could, when times dictated, bend enough to offer a certain amount of latitude. He could handle those soldiers who drove his fellow officers to early retirement, alcoholism, or both. Soldiers like Collins, who detested everything associated with by-the-book restrictions. The rebels, the hard cases.
There was another reason Lucas could be lenient toward this particular rebel: rebellion was typical for a career soldier’s children. Collins’s father, like Lucas, had been a thirty-five-year military man. Historically, military brats either followed closely in their father’s footsteps or rebelled completely. Seldom was there a middle ground when it came to children raised on military posts around the world. With them, it was either West Point or Haight Ashbury.
Collins rebelled. At least, initially. Later, drawn by some inexplicable pull—perhaps an ironic manifestation of his rebellious nature, Lucas concluded—he broke from his anti-war comrades and, at age seventeen, with his father’s blessing, signed up for a three-year hitch in the Army. The war in Vietnam was heating up, and within eight months after enlisting, Collins was sent into those jungles. It was there, during the final weeks of his first tour of duty in Nam, that his special “talent” became apparent.
The talent for killing.
A talent so enormous, so expert, that any commanding officer with the least bit of wisdom would gladly accommodate it, even if it meant accepting unmilitary behavior. Whatever it takes is what you do. After all, Lucas reasoned, men with such rare gifts are exempt from certain rules that apply to the mediocre among us.
“Jolly good,” said Lucas. “When you finish slogging your way through it, call if you have any questions.”
Collins was silent.
“Advise me as to your planned course of action,” Lucas added. “Most of all, be careful. And may God grant you his blessings.”
“Does God grant his blessings to killers, Lucas?”
This time it was Lucas who was silent.
Lucas White was lenient for reasons beyond peaceful coexistence with Collins. Lucas cared deeply for the younger man. Loved him, really. He regarded Collins as the son he never had. It was a feeling he’d had almost from the beginning.
They first met when Lucas and the boy’s father were stationed together at Fort Benning, Georgia. The two men, both full-bird colonels at the time, had known each other in Korea, but it wasn’t until they were at Fort Benning that they became close friends. Collins was fourteen at the time and a source of great concern to his father, who naturally assumed his son would choose a career in the military. Three generations of Collins men had been career soldiers, and young Michael—the elder Collins refused to call his son Mickey—was expected to follow in their footsteps. At the time, and given Michael’s anti-establishment leanings, neither his father nor Lucas White could see that happening.
“Richard, you may as well get that notion out of your head,” Lucas said to the elder Collins during a lengthy drinking bout. “The more you push him in that direction, the wider the gap between you will become.”
The elder Collins had only nodded. He knew his friend was right.
Lucas, not bound by the chains of family tradition, recognized from the beginning that a career in the military would serve only to waste a near-genius intellect.
Here was a boy barely fourteen who already had a staggering grasp of philosophy, history, music and literature. Condemned to the life of a nomad by his father’s frequent transfers, Michael Collins found friends not in the various military outposts, but in the books he read. Friends as diverse as Socrates and Spinoza, Kierkegaard and Kafka, Thomas Aquinas and T. S. Eliot. Ask him about music, be it Mozart or Dylan, and you could expect a discourse lasting long into the night. Here, Lucas knew, was a mind more fertile than any he’d ever encountered, a mind rich with potential.
More than anything, though, Lucas loved the boy’s audacity. How else can you describe someone who, at the tender age of fifteen, dared to take a graduate class on Nietzsche at the University of Heidelberg? Taking on the great German philosopher on his home turf. How could Lucas not be fond of this child?
Lucas also recognized in Collins an almost total isolation. The boy either didn’t need or didn’t want contact with other human beings, using his books and music to lock them out of his world. Lucas had seen this behavior in other military brats. Indeed, it was a common defense mechanism. To a child who might have to move at a moment’s notice, friendships were heartbreaks waiting to happen. After enough sudden good-byes, a child learned to isolate himself, to back away from making friends. To build walls for protection. But never had Lucas seen this behavior taken to such extremes. With Michael Collins, the isolation was total.
Never in a million years would Lucas have imagined this boy in the military. Yet, it happened. Without warning and completely out of the blue, like a bolt of lightning.
Given the clarity of hindsight, Lucas should have predicted it.
The hint came during a dinner party. One of those informal and boisterous affairs where old warriors discuss past battles through the haze of too many years gone by and too much alcohol consumed. During the course of the evening, when the discussion turned to the Battle of the Bulge, one of the men—Lucas could never recall which one—praised the brilliance of a bit of strategy employed by a certain Army colonel. Upon hearing the comment, young Collins flew into a rage, accusing the officer of a serious tactical blunder that had, only because of a series of outside variables, worked out in his favor. Collins then proceeded to lay out the plan as he would have implemented it, demonstrating with forks, knives, and salt and pepper shakers exactly how his plan would have looked, why it was the proper course to follow, and why it would have succeeded.
Lucas was spellbound by what he was hearing, not only by the boy’s understanding and passion, but by the correctness of what he was saying. Lucas had studied that particular battle and was familiar with the officer in question. Lucas knew that in the early hours after the battle, Eisenhower had recognized the serious nature of the blunder and the great good fortune that followed. Had it not been for luck or divine providence, many GIs would have died needlessly. Lucas also learned that only a handful of officers in high command had this knowledge. The blunder had been well covered up. Or so Lucas assumed until he sat and listened to a fourteen-year-old give a remarkably accurate view of what did happen, what should have happened, and why.
Here was a boy who professed his distaste for anything military yet had a profound knowledge and understanding of military history and strategy.
Lucas should have seen it then. He should have looked beyond the anti-military rhetoric, the rebellion, the screw-all-authority attitude. Perhaps if he’d only dug a little deeper, gotten further inside that iron curtain, he wouldn’t have been so surprised by Michael’s decision to enlist in the Army.
But hindsight isn’t always 20/20. Some things simply are beyond seeing, regardless of the situation. This was one of those instances when perfect vision wouldn’t have been good enough. For nothing, no amount of digging or psychological probing, not even the highest level of imagination, could have prepared Lucas for the way things turned out.
Pete’s place was really jamming, even by the usual Saturday night standards. College kids and professors, thankful for having survived another semester of mutual mental warfare, celebrated together on an almost-equal footing. The curtain of separation had been lowered—at least until next semester. “A temporary détente,” one professor termed it.
Collins spied an empty booth in the corner and led Kate in that direction. The waitress was there before they settled in.
“Pepsi for me,” Collins said, “and a vodka and cranberry juice for the lady.”
Kate reached under the table and squeezed his thigh. He smiled; she winked. “Just a Pepsi?” she said. “You’re being awfully conservative.”
“Conservative is my middle name.”
“You couldn’t prove it by me.”
“Perhaps you don’t recognize it when you see it.”
Kate laughed. “If you were conservative, I wouldn’t be with you.”
“I don’t see you as the all-out left-wing radical type. You don’t strike me as someone who stirs the shit.”
“How do you see me?”
“A middle-of-the-road centrist. A pragmatist. You may lean a little left, but not much.”
“Ouch. What a nasty assessment.”
Collins laughed. “Not really. Radicalism, in either direction, is not usually a good thing. Being in the middle may resonate like an uneventful roll of the dice, but it is generally the best bet to make.”
Kate eyed him hard. “You’ve never been a centrist in your life. I see you as nothing but a lifelong rebel.”
“There are plenty of folks who would heartily concur.”
The waitress brought their drinks, told them to wave if they needed anything else, then walked away.
Kate stirred her drink. “Rumor has it that you’re taking a sabbatical next term. True or false?”
“It’s possible. Depends on how some things play out this summer.”
“Came rather suddenly, didn’t it?”
“Anything serious going on that I should know about?”
“Not really. I only need a break; that’s all. Too much T. S. Eliot can wear a person down.”
“T.S. would be hurt to hear you say that.”
“Good. It’ll give him something to whine about to his old buddy Ezra Pound.”
“What about the Beats? Don’t you have them on tap next term?”
“They’ll still be here when I get back.”
“Are you sticking around here, or are you planning on leaving town?”
“Anywhere in particular?”
“Not sure yet.”
“More uncertain than mysterious.”
“That man, the one dressed in the Army uniform—it has something to do with him, doesn’t it?”
Collins leaned back against the wall. “You didn’t like General Nichols very much, did you?”
She shook her head. “Too arrogant, too pushy for my taste.”
“He’s a small man who’s spent his life doing secondary jobs. He tries to give an impression of authority, of being important. It’s his way of feeling necessary.”
“How come you know so much about a man like that?”
“I’ve known a thousand men like him.”
“You haven’t always been a teacher, have you?”
“What were you before you became a teacher?”
“What do you think I was?”
Kate took a drink, leaned back, and sized him up. “A business executive … a salesman of some sort.”
“Now, that’s a nasty assessment.”
“Okay, what were you, then?”
“An infamous mass murderer.”
“So, I’m dating Jeffrey Dahmer?”
“Just call me J.D.”
“Seriously, I’ve always been a teacher. Different subject; that’s all.”
Pete broke through a crowd of dancers, spotted Collins and Kate, and walked quickly to their booth. A mile-wide smile crossed his face.
“Just the fella I’ve been looking for,” Pete said.
“How’s the wound?” Collins asked, pointing to the bandage covering most of Pete’s left forearm.
“Few stitches, but otherwise it’s fine. No permanent damage, praise the Lord. But you know what? That bastard is threatening to file suit against both of us. Some beady-eyed shyster was in here two days ago talkin’ it up pretty good. I took about three minutes of his jabberin’ then ran his ass outta here. I told him to do what he had to do; just get outta my face or I’d give him a reason to file his own damn suit.”
“I wouldn’t worry about him, Pete. He doesn’t have a case. Too many witnesses saw what happened.”
“That scumbag don’t worry me none.” Pete nodded to Kate. “Little lady, you’re runnin’ with a questionable character, hangin’ around with the likes of Michael James Collins.”
Kate shifted her eyes to Collins. “He’s all bluff, Pete. A piece of cake.”
“Mind if I join you for a few seconds?” He squeezed into the booth next to Kate. “I need to take a load off. Old Arthur has about got the best of these knees.”
Collins spied his old redheaded friend standing in front of a table, talking with two men. The conversation, whatever the subject, didn’t appear to be cordial. She was spitting fire at the younger man sitting to her left.
“Amy looks pretty upset, doesn’t she?” Pete asked. “Not to worry; it’s all an act. That’s her standard M.O. She acts real ticked off at some guy, makes him feel like shit, then turns it all around and takes the guy for a ride. Hell, before the night’s over, that bum will be eating out of her palm. She’s some worker, that Amy.”
Kate looked over her shoulder. “A hooker?”
“Hooker, schmooker,” Pete said. “No, I wouldn’t classify Amy as a hooker. A hooker takes the offer. Amy offers the take. That make any sense?”
“Ah, hell, you’re too young to know about such things.”
“I’m not sure I want to know,” Kate said.
“Good for you.” Pete shifted his attention to Collins. “By the way, Professor Cake. About the other night—how long you been doin’ that stuff?”
“That chink stuff. You know … judo, karate, whatever you call it.”
“Since I was about five.”
“Who’d you learn it from?”
“You really interested?”
Pete nodded his head eagerly. “Damn straight. Hell, man, I was impressed. I mean, I’ve seen that shit on TV and in the movies, but that’s the first time I’ve actually seen it for real.”
“I learned it from a man named Chin.”
“A chink. Figures.”
“He was only half Oriental. His mother was an American, the daughter of a Marine colonel.”
“You get a black belt?”
Collins laughed. “Yeah, Pete, I got a black belt.”
“Well, after what you did to the poor bum, I can believe it.”
Pete struggled out of the booth and hitched up his pants. “Well, better get back to the wars. Plenty of drachmas to be taken in tonight.” He put a hand on Collins’s shoulder. “God, how I love to make a buck.”
Kate watched Pete shuffle back to the bar. “What’s he talking about? Were you involved in a fight?”
“Not really. Some drunk cut Pete with a knife. I helped break it up. No big deal.”
“Knife? That sounds serious.”
She took another drink. “Mind if I ask you a question?”
“Go for it.”
“It’s kinda personal.”
“Is there any other kind?”
“You’ve never been married, right?” she finally said.
“That’s two questions.”
Collins ran his hand through his hair. “It simply wasn’t in the cards, I guess. Anyway, it wouldn’t have worked out.” He looked away. “My work wasn’t conducive to married life.”
Kate started to ask another question, caught herself in mid-sentence, let it go unfinished. Something in his eyes said she had intruded into territory best left uncharted.
“Well, if you ever change your mind, I know an excellent prospect.”
An hour later, after dropping Kate off at her apartment and making a quick stop at a 24-hour grocery store, Collins walked into his house. He stood motionless in the darkness, letting several minutes pass before turning on a light.
This time there were no tricky shadows, no plans and contingencies. No Lucas White.
But he wasn’t alone. Ever. The ghosts were forever with him.
He sat on the couch and reached for the brown folder marked “Eyes Only.” In it was a history of his prize pupil, his oldest adversary.
The breeze was soft, the sun blazing like the fires of hell.Perfect, Hannah Buckman thought, as she loosened the bikini strap and removed the top. Her breasts, free from their confines, seemed to defy gravity. She liked her breasts. Always had. The best thing about her body. Large but not too large, firm, round, and, most important, created by Mother Nature herself, with brown nipples forever erect. Men continually raved about her Hollywood looks or her long, toned legs or her firm butt or her thick, pouty lips. But to Hannah, her breasts were the only part of her anatomy that rated a ten.
After five minutes of carefully applying sunscreen, she lay down on the lounge chair, lowered her sunglasses, and began reading the latest Danielle Steele novel. She had concluded by the end of the second chapter that this wasn’t one of Danielle’s better efforts. About a B minus up to now. But with five chapters remaining, who knew? Maybe it would improve. It was getting more interesting, no doubt about that.
Hannah made a mental note to keep an eye on the time and not forget to turn over. Her breasts were easy prey to a quick sunburn. Ten minutes at a time were about all they could handle, sunscreen or not. Any longer and they would be cooked. That had happened a couple of times before, and it was damn painful.
Hannah finished a chapter, the best one thus far, when she felt her breasts begin to sizzle. Time for more lotion. As she sat up and reached for the bottle, she saw the two men who were about to board the yacht. They were an odd-looking couple, the medium-built dark-skinned man wearing shades and the mammoth, round-faced black man walking on unsteady legs. She lowered her glasses and peered over the top. The man with the shades was so strikingly handsome she had to get a better look at him. As they approached, she realized he was an American Indian. She also realized her uncovered nipples were fully erect and it wasn’t from the sun.
“Hello, I’m Hannah Buckman,” she said, offering a well-manicured hand. “I assume you’re here to see Simon.”
“That’s correct,” the Indian said.
“He’s below, in the cabin.”
The Indian squeezed her hand, gently. She couldn’t see his eyes through the dark lenses, but she knew he was staring at her breasts. The black man, clearly embarrassed, looked away.
“Simon’s expecting you,” she said. “And he’s not a man who likes to be kept waiting.”
The Indian released her hand and grinned. She followed him with her eyes until he and the black man disappeared down the steps. When they were out of sight, she sighed and went back to reading Danielle.
Below, Simon Buckman lay sprawled on an oversized couch, his face covered by a sailor’s cap. He was sixtyish, bald, and not nearly tall enough to accommodate his weight, which long ago had surpassed three hundred pounds. Simon was a man suffocating in the quicksand of his own flesh, a man whose every breath was labored, whose every movement was a struggle. Even the task of lifting himself to a sitting position to meet his two guests was accomplished only by using a cane to hoist himself up.
“Come in, come in,” he said. His accent was clearly old South. Alabama, maybe Mississippi. The words escaped through a reptilian slit barely visible within the mounds of fat. “Did you meet Hannah?”
“Yes,” the black man said. “Your daughter is very beautiful, very … uninhibited.”
Simon convulsed in laughter, his flesh shaking like a vat of Jell-O.
“What’s so funny?” the black man asked.
Pounding the cane on the floor, Simon bellowed, “She’s not my daughter; she’s my wife.”
“Pretty amazing, isn’t it?” Simon said. “It just goes to show you: if you’ve got money, you can marry anything you want. Women are drawn to money like my old grandpappy to a Klan rally.” He looked at the two men, his eyes gleaming. “I know what you’re thinking: how does a fat SOB like him service a young kitten like that? Hell, I don’t. It’d kill me if I tried. But it’s goddamned impressive to walk into someplace with her hanging on my arm. Makes me the envy of every young hard dick in the room.”
With great effort, Simon struggled to his feet and moved closer to the two men. He paused, then walked behind the black man. “That’s some scar you have there,” he remarked. “How’d you get it? One of them police dogs in Selma get a little too close?”
The black man, his right hand touching the scar on his cheek, glared hard at Simon. “Car crash, when I was a kid.”
“You know, you’re the first black person—I mean, Afro-American—who’s ever been on this vessel,” Simon said. “Except, of course, for the servants.”
“I’m honored,” the big black man said.
Simon circled the two men again, slowly, finally stopping in front of the Indian. “You must be Seneca. I’ve heard a lot about you. Why, there are those of my acquaintance who speak of you in almost reverential tones. They say you’re the best, that no one comes close. That true, or is it only a lot of talk from your fork-tongued redskin brothers?”
“He’s the best, make no mistake about that,” the black man said, turning toward Simon.
“I don’t recollect asking for your opinion, spade. I asked the man himself. Well, how about it, Cochise? You as good as they say?”
The Indian flashed a quick grin. “Better,” he replied, his voice barely above a whisper. Just as quickly, the smile vanished and his right hand shot out and grabbed Simon’s testicles. “And the name isn’t Cochise, fatman. It’s Seneca. Got it?”
He increased the pressure. “Got it?”
“Yeah, yeah, I got it, I got it,” Simon belched. “Take your fuckin’ mitts off my balls.”
“What’s the name, fatman?”
“Seneca, goddammit … fuckin’ Seneca.”
The Indian released his grip and pushed Simon back against the bar. Simon’s face was bathed in fear. He grabbed a napkin and wiped sweat from his forehead.
“I didn’t come here to listen to your redneck bullshit,” the Indian added. “I’m here to find out where Karl wants to meet. Tell me that, and I’m gone.”
Before Simon could answer, Hannah walked into the cabin, looked around at the three men, and smiled. “Sounds like you boys are getting a little rowdy down here.”
Simon coughed. “Get enough sun, Kitten?”
“Don’t I look tan and lovely?” she answered, turning toward the Indian. “Simon, why don’t you introduce me to your friends?”
“The one in front …”
“Seneca,” the Indian said, cocking his head in the direction of the black man. “That’s Deke.”
“Pleased to meet you, ma’am,” Deke said, relieved to see her fully clothed.
Simon coughed again, louder this time. “Honey, I have important business to discuss with these gentlemen. Why don’t you take a shower? Freshen up a bit before dinner.”
“She can stay if she wants,” Seneca said.
“It goes against my beliefs to talk business in front of a woman.”
“Maybe you need some new beliefs.” The Indian looked at Hannah. “Have a seat.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” Simon grunted.
“Simon is right,” Hannah said. “I do need a shower, but thank you for offering to let me stay. A lady always likes to feel wanted.”
The three men were quiet until she left. Simon followed, locked the cabin door behind her, then turned back toward his visitors. “Dumbest broad on God’s green earth. But you can’t argue with a body like that. Makes up for a lot of those missing IQ points.”
“You ought to treat her better,” the Indian said. “If you don’t, she might not be around much longer.”
“She’ll be with me when they’re kickin’ dirt on my coffin,” Simon growled. “She’s not that dumb. She’s read my will.”
Simon opened a drawer and pulled out a bottle of Tennessee whiskey. “I understand everything went well in Arlington.” He took a drink straight from the bottle. “That true?”
The Indian slid past Deke and sat on the couch. “Karl. When do we meet him?”
“You don’t. Not yet, anyway.”
“He has another assignment for you. Another run-through to make sure everything is hunky-dory.”
The Indian stood. “Doesn’t work that way, fatman. I don’t audition for anyone, including Karl. Tell him that. And while you’re at it, tell him I said he can fuck off.”
“You’re making a big mistake, my Indian friend. Karl won’t take kindly to attitude.”
The Indian walked to the door and unlocked it. “Tough shit. Tell Karl the next time he wants me, he’ll have to come looking.”
Simon laughed. “What makes you think there’ll be a next time?”
Seneca reached up and grabbed Simon by the throat. “Because what he wants done is big. Big enough that he knows I’m the only one who can do it.”
He released his grip and pinched Simon’s sweating cheek. “See, when you’re the best at something, fatman, there’s always a next time. But being the best isn’t something you’d know much about, is it?”
Lucas had been right. There was nothing in the file on Seneca that Collins didn’t already know. Nothing he couldn’t recite from memory. He leaned back on the couch and tossed the folder onto the table. An 8×10 black and white photo slipped out and fell to the floor. He bent down, picked it up, and held it in front of him.
Dwight David Rainwater. Full-blooded Cherokee Indian, born on a reservation in Oklahoma, son of a chief, descendent of warriors.
Code name: Seneca.
Profession: hired assassin.
Weapon of choice: knife.
Those were the only bits of information that counted. The rest of the data was insignificant.
Collins leaned the picture against the crystal decanter. Even now, even in a photo, Seneca’s dark eyes radiated hatred. Hate and power.
It has often been said that the eyes are the windows to the soul. There was no doubting that Seneca’s eyes surely revealed the truth about the man within. They always had. No mysteries there, nothing hidden. But in this case, the philosophers and poets were only half right. Seneca’s eyes were windows not only to the soul; they were also a portal to some dark, forbidden place. To look into his eyes was to glimpse hell.
No one understood this better than Collins. Seneca was a killer, pure and simple. And in his twisted mind, killing had nothing to do with duty or survival or right and wrong. He killed because he loved the act itself, the slaughter, the bloodletting. For him, politics never figured into the equation. For him, there was nothing more satisfying than the taking of a human life. There were no conventional enemies, only a world filled with potential victims waiting to be eliminated, swiftly, brutally.
For Seneca, there was an unquenchable thirst that could never be fully satisfied, no matter how much blood was shed.
And that made him the most dangerous opponent possible.
Collins dug deeper into the folder. He couldn’t remember the year Seneca came to him at the Shop—he thought maybe it was summer 1968, but he suddenly wanted to know for certain. He found the record sheet and ran his forefinger down the page until he found what he was looking for. Close. Seneca came to him in February 1968. Valentine’s Day, to be exact.
The notation jogged Collins’s memory. How could he have forgotten? A snowstorm had shut down all transportation, delaying the arrival of new recruits for at least twenty-four hours. Bored, he’d gone to the officers’ lounge and shot some pool before retiring to the barracks. On his way back, he heard footsteps crunching the snow behind him. Instinctively, without thought or hesitation, he turned, moved his body slightly to the left, and reacted to the arm he saw stretching toward him. Grabbing it at the elbow, he lifted it skyward, moved his right leg behind the man’s right hip, and using the leverage he’d created, sent the man sprawling into the powdery snow. Standing above his attacker, his breath coming out in dying clouds, killing hands drawn back with fingers extended, he stared down at the stunned man lying on the ground.
“Wait, Major, I’m one of your recruits,” the man said, breathless but strangely unaffected by what had just happened. “My name is Rainwater. Sergeant David Rainwater. From Fort Campbell, Kentucky.”
Collins helped the man to his feet. “How did you get here? I was told all transportation was down.”
“Hitchhiked,” the man said without adding the requiredsir.
The man brushed the snow off. When he looked up, his face was illuminated by a light coming from a barracks window. It was the first time Collins looked into the face of Dwight David Rainwater.
Into those dark and penetrating eyes.
The same dark and penetrating eyes now staring back at him from an old 8×10 black and white photograph sitting on the table.
He reached out, picked up the photo and brought it close to his face. He could almost smell the stench of death, hear the laughter, that ancient and primal sound of a predator announcing another kill.
And now this predator was on the prowl again. Doing what he did best.
Collins dropped the photo onto the table, leaned back, and rubbed his eyes.
Yes, Lucas, Seneca will be a problem.
Moss shut off the Pontiac’s engine, took a final drag on his cigarette, then ground the butt into the ashtray. He rested both arms on top of the steering wheel and stared straight ahead. Only after a few seconds did he finally turn to look at Bungalow nine. Taylor’s bungalow. He wasn’t anxious to get started, but he could no longer put it off. The remainder of Taylor’s belongings had to be shipped to a cousin in St. Louis. Moss should have taken care of this task two weeks ago, but it was one of those dreaded chores that only get done when there is absolutely no more time for procrastination.
Some of Taylor’s belongings were shipped three days after the incident occurred; the rest had been boxed. All that remained was for Moss to make a couple, maybe three trips to the post office. He should have borrowed the Pinewood Estates van and taken care of the matter in a single trip. But he hadn’t and it was no big deal. These days, when many residents were back up north for the summer, he had plenty of free time on his hands.
A white BMW drove past Taylor’s driveway. The driver offered a friendly wave and an ear-to-ear smile. Moss liked the young man, Brad McGregor. What he didn’t like was the idea of Brad and Kelli living together outside of marriage. Of all the broken traditions, that one bothered him the most. If two people love each other and want to live together, it should be as husband and wife. Whatever happened to the term “living in sin” anyway?
Moss sighed. What the hell difference did it make in the long run? The world’s going to hell in a hand basket. Terrorism, hunger, pollution, drugs, kids killing kids in schools all across the country, disrespect, politicians banging young interns … Let us count the ways. Look what happened to a nice guy like Taylor. Living alone, minding his own business, harming no one, then—murdered. Further proof that the world is heading down the toilet. With so many real troubles, what could possibly be wrong with a couple of fairly decent kids living together? Nothing. Yet, for whatever reason, however old-fashioned or outdated, Moss was bothered by it.
He opened the door, put on his L.A. Lakers baseball cap, got out of the car, and walked down the brick path leading to bungalow nine.
The bungalow was dark and smelled of musk, so Moss opened the curtains in the living room, then went into the kitchen and opened the blinds covering the window that looked out over the inlet. After getting a drink of water, he went into the living room and counted the boxes stacked in the corner. Six, plus two small ones still upstairs. Definitely three trips, he figured. The old Pontiac might be roomy—Taylor once called it an ark—but it wasn’t nearly roomy enough to get the job done in two trips.
Moss decided to get the two boxes in the upstairs bedroom first. When he reached the top of the stairs, he waited a few seconds to catch his breath, adjusted his Lakers cap, then took one last look in the hall closet. Satisfied none of Taylor’s belongings had been overlooked, he went into the bedroom.
He wasn’t alone. A man was standing by the large window that opened to the balcony.
Moss surveyed the intruder. Tall, lean, handsome; dressed in Levis, a T-shirt, and white Nikes. Brown hair on the longish side, bluish-gray eyes.
And perfectly calm. He smiled, nodded as though he anticipated Moss’s arrival, and continued what he was doing.
Moss didn’t react so nonchalantly. He took a step back, looked to his right, spied a brass candleholder on the dresser, picked it up, and clutched it tightly in both hands.
“Who are you?” he stammered. “And how the hell did you get in here?”
“Relax, Moss. I’m—”
“How’d you know my name?” Moss interrupted.
“It’s my business to know things.” Striding across the room, the man put out his hand. “I’m Mickey Collins. And you can put down that weapon. You won’t need it.”
Moss looked at the man’s large hands, still unsure of what exactly was happening and even less sure of how he should deal with it.Cautiouswas the first word that came to mind.Dangerwas the second. After all, one man had already been murdered in this bungalow. He had no intention of becoming victim number two. Not if he had anything to say about it.
He took another step backward. “Okay, so your name is Mickey Collins. You still ain’t told me why you’re up here and how you got in.”
“I’m here to look around. As for getting in, I picked the back door lock.”
“That’s known as breaking and entering. People go to the hoosegow for doing that.” Moss stared at Collins’s hands. “Just what is it you’re lookin’ for, anyway? And why?”
“Cardinal was a friend of mine.”
“Who was a friend of yours?” Moss asked.
“Cardinal.” Collins saw the confused look on Moss’s face. “Taylor. Taylor was a friend of mine.”
“Then how come I’ve never seen you here before?”
“Because I’ve never been here. I haven’t seen Cardinal for many years.”
“Why do you keep calling him Cardinal?”
“Cardinal was Taylor’s code name.”
“Code name? What was he, some kind of James Bond spy?”
“What about you? You got a code name?”
“Cain? Like in the Bible?”
“He murdered his brother, didn’t he?”
“So the story goes.”
“Well, how can I be sure you ain’t a murderer?”
“Because I’m not.”
Moss thought about it for a few seconds, then said, “Listen, mister, I’m not sayin’ you’re lyin’ to me or anything like that, but I’m in charge of security around here. So I gotta check you out.”
“No need to bother. I’m kosher.”
“Look, man, even if I did believe you, I’d still need some proof. I could lose my job if you don’t check out A-OK. This job don’t pay much, but it’s all I got.”
“You won’t lose your job, Moss. Promise.”
Moss cut his eyes downward. “From the look of those hands of yours, maybe I ought to be worried about more than losin’ my job.”
Collins reached for his wallet, hesitated. “You’re gonna have to trust me, Moss. Just like I trusted you.”
“Trusted me?” Moss said, his interest suddenly piqued. “How’d you trust me?”
“By telling you Taylor’s code name. And mine. There aren’t ten people in the world who possess that information.”
“I’ve heard you’re a good man, Moss. I also heard you were pretty close to Cardinal. I’m banking on all that being true.”
“Why?” Moss asked, leaning slightly forward.
“I may need your help somewhere along the way.”
Making an outsider think he’s being brought into some secret inner circle is the greatest of all baits. Collins knew from the look in Moss’s eager eyes that the bait had been snapped up and swallowed. But offering the bait was only half of the proposition. Now came the closer—a dash of fear.
Always throw in fear.
“In my business, trust isn’t something one can assume. I have to be very careful who I give it to. When I do extend that trust, and if it’s broken, well, let’s just say bad things happen.”
Collins paused briefly, then said, “really bad things,” in a stern whisper.
Moss leaned forward like a deaf man straining to hear. When he was sure nothing more was coming, he took the bait a second time. “What kind of bad things?”
“Like what happened to Cardinal.”
Moss glanced down at Collins’s hands. “You didn’t kill Taylor, did you?”
“No. But I’ve got to find the man who did. And fast.”
“You a cop?”
“I’m no cop.”
“It’s not important who or what I am, Moss. What is important is finding Cardinal’s killer.”
Moss put the candleholder back on the dresser. His face was set in that frown that accompanies deep thought. Finally, he looked up at Collins. “This may be the dumbest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m goin’ along with you on this. It’ll probably end up bein’ my ass.” He paused, looked around the room. “What the hell? Anyway, you stand a better chance of catchin’ Taylor’s killer than those peckerhead cops downtown.”
“Those peckerhead cops are not to know anything at all about me. That clear?”
“Right, perfectly clear.”
Collins went into the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. Except for two loose Tylenol capsules on the bottom shelf, it was empty. He bent over the tub and ran his forefinger around the inside of the nozzle. He unscrewed the showerhead, raised himself up on his tiptoes, and inspected it.
“If you’ll tell me what it is you’re lookin’ for, maybe I can help you out. Save you some time,” Moss said.
“I don’t know what it is I’m looking for.”
“Then how will you know when you find it?”
Collins laughed. “Good question.”
“Want me to unpack the boxes downstairs?” Moss asked.
“How do you know?” Moss said, adding, “unless you’ve already checked them.”
“You fox,” Moss said. “You know, I had you figured for bein’ a sharp cookie the very second I laid eyes on you. What else have you done?”
“Let me ask the questions, Moss.”
“Fine by me. Only one thing, though.”
“Did you know three boxes of Taylor’s stuff have already been shipped? To a relative in St. Louis.”
“They’ve been checked.”
“I should have guessed.” Moss sat on the bed. “Okay, fire away with your questions.”
“For starters, I need the name of every person who came to see Cardinal during the last six weeks or so leading up to the time he was killed. Everyone. Visitors, delivery people, maintenance, anyone you can think of.”
“Wow, that’s a tall order. I don’t know if—”
“Don’t you keep records at the guard shack? A log of some sort?”
“Only after six at night. But I can plainly remember the ones who came to see him after dark.”
“Well, naturally, there was that dippy trio who found the body. They came here two or three times. I can’t remember exactly, but I’ll look it up for you when I get back to the shack.”
“Forget them, they’re clean. Anyone else? Think hard; it’s important.”
“Let’s see. Yeah, I remember a couple of times when Taylor ordered pizza from the Pizza Hut down on the strip. Both times it was the Hendley kid who delivered them. He’s in and out of here all the time. Early last month, Taylor’s air conditioning shut down and old Elvis Chandler had to come and work on it. Other than that, I can’t recall anyone else comin’ to see Taylor after dark. He pretty much stayed to himself. Day and night.”
“Did he ever have a visitor who was an Indian?”
“An Indian? You mean like Ghandi?” Moss asked.
“No. A Native American Indian.”
“Nah. Nobody like that came to see Taylor.”
“Who’s the one person living here who knows the most about what goes on around the island? The island gossip, so to speak.”
“That would have to be …” Moss’s eyes widened. “Hey, wait a minute. I do remember one other person coming to see Taylor at night. He came twice, in fact. How could I have forgotten him?”
“Who was he?”
“I don’t know his name, but Taylor must have known him. He called the guard shack to let me know the man was on his way and for me to let him in.”
“When was this?”
“First time … about three weeks ago. Second time … maybe four or five days later.”
“Can you remember anything about him? What he looked like? How he dressed? Anything at all?”
Moss laughed. “Sure can. He was a black dude.”
Collins’s eyes darted. “A black guy?”
“Yep. Big as a mountain, too.”
“Did you log in his name?”
“Nah. When Taylor okayed him, I didn’t bother getting a name. Sorry.”
“Anything else, Moss? Think hard.”
“Did he have an L-shaped scar on his left cheek?”
“Sure did. Hey, how’d you know that?”
Collins headed out of the bedroom and down the stairs. Moss followed close behind.
“Did I do something right?” Moss asked as Collins opened the front door.
“You did good, Moss. Very good. Cardinal would be proud of you.”
Moss was still beaming when Collins drove away.
“So, my boy, it looks as though you knew what you were talking about,” Lucas White said. “As usual, of course.”
Collins pressed the phone against his left ear and covered his right ear with his free hand. “Speak up, Lucas. I can barely hear you.”
“You and your damn penchant for pay phones,” Lucas said, chuckling. “The rest of the world long ago entered into the era of the cell phone. You should consider joining us.”
“Old habits are like old friends. Besides, I feel safer doing it this way.”
“You need not worry. This line is static free. You can take my word on it.” Lucas tapped the bowl of his pipe into the ashtray. “You’re convinced it was Deke?”
“But Deke and Cardinal were close, weren’t they?”
“At one time, yes. But I’d say they had a falling out of sorts, wouldn’t you?”
“Looks that way.” Lucas paused to light his pipe. “Where do you figure Seneca fits into this little scenario?”
“And you are convinced he’s involved?” Lucas said, exhaling a puff of smoke.
“More than ever. Deke would never do something like this on his own. He never could say no to Seneca.”
“That damn Indian. What the hell could he be up to?”
“A hit, Lucas, a takeout. And whoever it is must be big. Very big. Seneca and Deke are involved, and obviously they were trying to recruit Cardinal. But Cardinal would never hitch on with those two. So he said no. When he did, his fate was sealed. They had no choice but to eliminate him.”
“I am truly sorry about Cardinal. I know you were especially fond of the man.”
That was true. Collins had always cared deeply for Cardinal. Perhaps it was because Cardinal was the oldest and most out-of-place member of that first (and best) group of recruits. Out of place because he, unlike the others, detested killing, hated it to the very fibers of his soul. Seneca thrived on the kill. Deke did it blindly, obediently. It was simply part of the job for him. The same with Snake and Moon and Rafe, the only one to die in combat. Not so with Cardinal. The taking of a human life was abhorrent to him, even in a combat situation. He did it, reluctantly, and he did it for those long-forgotten reasons of duty, honor, and patriotism. Even with that to fall back on, he seldom succeeded in convincing himself the killing was justified. Cardinal was the odd duck in that first group, the one who probably shouldn’t have been there. He was too decent, too humane. Yet, when you got right down to it, he was the one whose reasons for being there were the soundest. If, indeed, there is ever a sound reason for killing.
“You there, my boy?” Lucas finally asked.
“Where do you go from here? There seems to be precious little to go on.”
“I have Taylor’s last words. ‘Fallen angels.’ You do remember that, don’t you?”
“I remember. What was the term you once used to describe it?”
“Yes, that’s it. How did you put it? Let’s see, I think you said something very poetic, like ‘Operation Fallen Angels will always go down as a great magnificent maybe.’ That may not be precisely verbatim, but it’s close.”
“Operation Fallen Angels, had it been given the green light, and had it been successful, which it would have been, would have ended the Vietnam mess three years earlier. Ended it favorably, I might add. You know I’m right, too.”
“My boy, we’ve debated this a million times. Another debate is useless. I have always said the payoff would have been great, but the risks were too high. I was never able to convince myself that it could have been done successfully. Maybe I was right, maybe not. It was a judgment call.”
“Lucas, we could have been in and out of Hanoi before anyone had a whisper of what was happening. You know that. Old man Ho and his bunch would have been history. We could have taken them out. Without them, there would have been total chaos in North Vietnam for months. No way they could have recovered.”
Lucas sighed out loud. “Perhaps. But we’ll never know.”
“No, I don’t guess we ever will.”
Lucas sensed the old fire was gone from Collins’s argument. For that he was thankful. It was a debate that had gone on long enough, a debate that had no final resolution.
“How do you go about finding Seneca?” he asked.
“By finding Deke.”
“Where do you start?”
“Chicago. Where else? Go to enough blues joints and you’ll eventually run into Deke. He can’t stay away from them.”
“Keep me posted. If you find out anything concrete, let me know about it. The same applies here. If we learn anything, I’ll get it to you pronto.”
“Why the jocularity?” Lucas asked.
“You work in military intelligence, Lucas. You guys never get anything first.”
Collins stood at his office window and looked out. The threat of rain hung over the campus like a dark blanket. Thunder rattled in the distance. Lightning creased the sky with streaks of gold.
“Pepsi, Diet Coke, orange juice, or Gatorade. What’s your choice?” He turned and opened the small refrigerator on the floor next to his desk.
“Doesn’t matter,” Kate said. “Whatever you give me will be fine.”
“You don’t get off that easily. Life is filled with tough choices. What’ll it be?”
“Diet Coke.” She took the soft drink from him. “When are you leaving?”
“So soon?” Collins shrugged.
“When were you planning on sharing this little tidbit with me?” Kate asked, a hint of sarcasm attached to every word. “Or were you just going to sneak out in the night and not say anything?”
“I’m telling you now.”
“You’re working for that Army guy, aren’t you? The one I didn’t care for?”
“Men like him work for me.”
Kate set her Diet Coke on his desk. “Could I ask you a question?”
“More questions? You should be a reporter.”
“Am I being nosy?”
“Yeah. But ask anyway.”
“That bucket of gravel behind your desk. What’s that for?”
“It’s for an exercise that strengthens my hands.”
“Exercise? What kind of exercise?”
“You asking for a demonstration?”
Collins swiveled in his chair, grabbed the bucket, picked it up, and put it on his desk. He stood, looked down at the gravel, took several long, deep breaths, drew his right arm back, straightened the fingers on his hand, then violently thrust his arm forward. When the tips of his fingers made contact the gravel parted like water.
Kate watched, fascinated and frightened, as he repeated the action, alternating hands in rapid succession. She looked up into his eyes, and for a split second she could have sworn they were gray.
He continued, his hands ripping the gravel with increasing intensity. After more than a minute, he stopped. “That’s how it’s done,” he said, wiping his hands on a towel. “No big deal, really.”
“Don’t the rocks cut your hands?”
“No.” He bent down, picked up an old fruit jar, and opened it. Almost instantly, a pungent smell filled his office.
“What’s that?” Kate asked.
“It’s calleddida-jou,” Collins answered. He poured some of the dark liquid onto his hands. “This hardens my hands.”
“What’s it made of?”
“I’m not sure. Alcohol and a variety of herbs, I think. Or so I’ve been told.”
“Where do you get it?”
“China. I get mine from Chin, the guy I told you and Pete about.”
“I never realized until now just how large your hands are,” Kate said.
“All the better to explore every inch of that marvelous body of yours.”
She reached out and took both of his hands in hers. “I’m afraid to ask what these hands have explored in the past,” she whispered.
The heat was oppressive, heavy. Simon Buckman removed his coat, tossed it onto the back of a chair, and walked straight to the bar. He scooped up a handful of ice cubes and mashed them against his face. Water dripped from his chin to the floor.
“Hannah, get in here,” he growled.
Hannah Buckman descended the steps from the deck into the cabin. Her hair was pulled back and tied in a ponytail, and a blue bandana was tied around her head. She wore a white bikini that contrasted vividly with her sun-baked skin.
“For God’s sake, Simon, what do you want this time?”
Simon held up an empty bottle of Jack Daniels. “How many times have I told you? Never let me run out of whiskey. The only damn thing you have to do around here, and you can’t even do that.”
“There’s plenty in that cabinet,” Hannah said, pointing to a glass door beneath the bar. “You’re just too lazy to look for it; that’s the problem.”
Simon attempted to bend over, judged the task an impossible one to complete, straightened up. His breathing was heavy and strained. “Would you get it for me, darlin’?” he said.
“You’d better lose some of that weight or one of these days you’re going to keel over dead from a coronary.” Hannah opened the door, removed the Jack Daniels, and ceremoniously handed it to Simon. “You’ll croak like an old water buffalo.”
“No doubt that would cause you a great deal of grief.”
“Yes, it would.”
Simon grumbled something under his breath, poured a drink, and gulped it down. He refilled his glass two more times and drained the whiskey in a matter of seconds.
Hannah opened the cabin door and started up the stairs. “And another thing,” she remarked, looking over her shoulder. “You’d better cut down on your drinking. You’re going to become an alcoholic if you’re not careful.”
“Hell, I already am an alcoholic,” Simon shouted, refilling his glass again. “Charter member of AA and damn proud of it, too. But don’t you worry your pretty little self about it for one minute. It don’t affect you in the least.”
Hannah left without answering, went to the deck, found her favorite recliner, and spent the next five minutes adjusting the back to a comfortable upright position. She sat down and was about to unbutton her bikini top when she saw the man coming toward the boat. Her heart fluttered with excitement. It was the Indian with the dark, movie star good looks.
She thought about giving the Indian a good show—let him see her breasts again—but quickly decided that wasn’t such a wise idea. Simon was down below drinking like a fish, and when he got drunk he could become violent and dangerous. The last thing she wanted was to cause trouble for her or the Indian.
She tapped on the cabin window.
“What do you want now?” Simon said gruffly.
“Someone is coming.”
“That man who was here before.”
“You mean that crazy goddamn Indian?”
“Is that damn big black shadow with him?”
“No, he’s alone.”
“Wonder what the hell he wants.”
“How would I know?” Hannah said, picking up a paperback. “He’s here to see you, not me.”
“Send him down here.”
Simon drained the last drops of whiskey from his glass. He opened a drawer, pulled out a Beretta, checked to make sure it was loaded, then tucked it into his back pocket. He wanted to be ready. Any trouble, even the slightest hint, and he’d blow that crazy bastard Indian’s ass back to the happy hunting ground where it belonged. No sense taking any shit from him again. Simon put his right hand in his pocket and let his fingers touch the cold steel of the gun.
“Just watch your step this time, Indian,” Simon said aloud. His right foot tapped nervously against the bar rail.
Hannah watched the Indian jump from the dock to the boat. He moved with the ease and grace of a ballet dancer. And, damn, what a looker. This was a man who was delicious enough to eat.
“Hello again,” she said, smiling.
“Ah, beautiful, bright, and with a good memory.” He moved next to the recliner and put his hand on Hannah’s shoulder. “A trifecta.”
“Thanks for the compliments,” Hannah said. “They’re few and far between around here.”
“I can believe that.”
“Guess you’re here to see Simon.”
The Indian nodded.
“Too bad,” Hannah teased. “I’d be much more fun.”
“I can believe that, too.”
“Maybe later, then?”
“You never know.”
“He’s waiting for you in the cabin.” Hannah touched his hand. “Until later.”
Simon was standing at the end of the bar. His foot tapped the brass rail with increased tempo as he watched the Indian descend the stairs.
“Well, well, the mighty brave returns.” Simon’s voice barely held, despite his firm grip on the Beretta.
The Indian was silent, his expression unchanged. Those dark eyes bore into Simon.
Simon giggled nervously. “Looks to me like that business about letting Karl find you was just a lot of talk. So much hot air. Leads me to believe your reputation’s been padded somewhat.”
The Indian bent down, picked up a silk nightgown, looked at Simon, and smiled. “Bet the wife looks nice in this. Must drive you crazy to have a fox like that and not be able to do anything about it.”
“Never give it a second thought; that’s how much it bothers me,” Simon grunted. “Know what does bother me, though? You bein’ here. See, I don’t like Indians any better than I like niggers.”
“Where’s Karl?” Seneca demanded, tossing the gown onto the couch.
“You’re shit outta luck, squaw lover. I don’t know where he is, and if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”
“Oh, you know where he is, fatman. And you’ll tell me.”
“You’re pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you, redskin?”
“Karl? Where is he? I want an answer now.”
“Check the smoke signals. Maybe they’ll tell you where to find him.”
The Indian moved forward. When he did, Simon took a step back and pulled out the Beretta.
“One more step, Cochise, and you won’t need to know where Karl is.” Simon’s voice was steady, controlled. The gun in hand gave new life to his nerves.
“It’s Seneca, remember?”
“It’s ‘Dead’ if you take another step.”
“I don’t think so, fatman. You see, if you’re going to use that thing, you really ought to take the safety off.”
“The safety is off,” Simon said. His words came fast and strong, but lacked much conviction.
“You trying to convince me or yourself?”
“I don’t need to be convinced of anything—I know I’m right.”
The Indian took two more steps forward, his dark eyes focused on Simon with blazing intensity. “But you’re not real sure, are you?”
Great droplets of sweat fell from Simon’s face. The hand holding the gun began to tremble. “I can take care of that problem,” he said. “It’s as simple as flicking this switch.”
The instant Simon turned the safety upward, the Indian made his move. Stepping forward, he grabbed the gun with his left hand, straightened Simon’s arm and lifted it upward, then hooked his right arm behind the big man’s elbow. It only took a minimum of pressure before Simon let the revolver fall to the floor. The Indian moved behind Simon, taking the big man’s arm with him. He bent the arm at the elbow and applied upward pressure. The hammerlock elicited a loud pig-like squeal from Simon. The Indian took his left hand and covered Simon’s face, plunging his forefinger and middle finger into the groaning man’s eyes. “You fool, who do you think you’re dealing with? Some rag-ass redneck clown?”
“Please, Seneca, don’t kill me,” Simon begged. “I wasn’t going to shoot you. I was scared … just protecting myself. I swear.”
“I don’t know.”
“Not good enough,” the Indian said, driving his fingers deeper into Simon’s eyes.
“I swear, I swear I don’t know where he is. But I can find out. Give me two days.”
The Indian exerted more pressure on Simon’s arm. “Tell me where Karl is or I’ll tear your arm off. Then I’ll rip out your eyeballs and feed them to the fish. Think about the pain, fatman; think about the agony I can cause you.”
“Please, Seneca, I’m not lying. I don’t know where he is. I’ve never even met him. Only talked to him on the phone.”
The Indian released his grip and pushed Simon hard against the bar. Simon hit the bar, reeled to his left, and tumbled onto the couch. One of the couch’s legs gave way, causing him to roll onto the floor. He quickly righted himself and began rubbing his eyes.
“Twenty-four hours, fatman; that’s all you’ve got. You don’t find out by then, that pretty little thing upstairs will be a widow this time tomorrow.”
Simon reached for the silk nightgown, brought it to his face, and gently pressed it against his eyes.
“Got it?” The Indian stooped down and picked up the revolver. “Got it?”
“Yeah, yeah, I got it. What do you think—I’m fuckin’ deaf or something?”
“No, I think you’re an idiot.” The Indian pointed the gun at Simon. “The safety was off. You let me talk you into putting it on.”
He ejected the magazine clip, emptied the bullets into his hand, cleared the chamber, and tossed the gun onto the floor. It landed with a loudclunk.
“Twenty-four hours, fatman. No more.”
Nearly ten minutes passed before Simon was able to clear the blurriness from his vision and another ten minutes before he was able to stand. On unsteady legs, he went to the bar, picked up the phone, and began dialing. Things had to be done. Without further delay. That damn Indian had to be eliminated. He was too fuckin’ crazy to deal with.
Simon continued to rub his eyes, listened to the phone ring, and waited. After half a dozen rings, he heard the cell phone click on.
“Jesus God, did you see that?”
“Yeah, I saw.”
“The look, did you see the look in his eyes?”
“I saw, I saw. The little dink bastard never knew whatwas happening.”
“No, not him, not the dink. The captain. Did you seehis eyes while he was wasting the little motherfucker?”
“No, I wasn‘t watching his eyes. “
“They were cold, like a cobra. Like a wild animal.Scary, man. I‘m tellin you, it was spooky.”
“Forget his eyes, man, did you see that dink’s head tumbleinto the river? It hit the water so hard it bounced. “
“Look at the captain now. “
“Yeah, he‘s out there, man, out there in that killer‘s zone.”
“First kill, sir?”
“Forget it, man, he‘s too far out there to hear you. I sawone other guy with that look, and he sometimes didn‘t comeback for hours. He‘d stand there, like the captain is now,lookin’down at the victim‘s body, studying it, you know,like he was sizing it up, analyzing it. It‘s almost like he waslookin’ for ways to kill more swiftly, more efficiently.”
“You can’t kill more swiftly or efficiently than he just did.”
“No, you‘re wrong. Guys like him make killing a game,something personal. They‘re always lookin’to find ways tostreamline it, to execute it perfectly. A‘masterpiece kill’—that‘s what they call it.”
“First kill, sir?”
“I‘m tellin’you to forget it. He‘s not hearing you.”
“Sir, sir.““Sir, sir.”
Collins’s eyes snapped open.
“Sir, would you please fasten your seat belt? We’ll be landing in Evansville in ten minutes.”
Collins smiled at the flight attendant, yanked his seat to the upright position, and clasped the seat belt buckle together. His head ached; his mouth was as dry as a sand dune. He stared out the window, hypnotized by the setting sun and dreamy from his own fatigue. Closing his eyes, he listened as the plane’s engines groaned their familiar, monotonous tune.
Seconds later he found himself once again poised on the banks of that muddy river in Nam, kneeling next to a headless corpse, hearing from a distance the whispered voice calling out to him, hearing again—how many times, now?—that singular question, “First kill, sir?” as it pierced the darkness and hung suspended, waiting for an answer.
But he hadn’t answered, not then, not ever. He didn’t need to. The answer was in the question.
Every kill is a first kill.
The plane’s rough landing jarred him awake, mercifully retrieving him from the river’s edge, from a past littered with the bones of countless dead, drenched in a sea of blood. This return, he knew, would be brief, a stopover. The past summoned him, and before this journey was finished, he would have to find that river of blood once again. Find it and embrace it.
Assassins are only given a one-way ticket.
The killing never ends, does it, my boy? It just goes onand on.
An hour later, Collins stood in a small strip mall parking lot, staring at the front of a red brick building with a large tinted front window. On the window, written in gold letters trimmed in black, was the name of the man he’d come to see.
SNAKE’S POOL HALL&GRILL
The interior was exactly what Collins expected: heavy with atmosphere, smoke filled, dark, and dingy. A dining area to the left, consisting of a grill, counter, and five stools. Two booths, both empty, next to the big window. Like a hundred pool rooms he’d been in over the years. Standing there, he half-expected Willie Mosconi or Minnesota Fats to tap his shoulder and challenge him to a game of straight pool.
A tall, thin, fortyish-year-old woman sat in a chair behind the counter, talking to a balding man wearing an Evansville Aces baseball cap. She smiled at Collins. “What can I do for you, stranger?” Her voice was deep, rusty. “We’ve got the best homemade bean soup in the tri-state area. I know because I made it. Like some?”
“Nothing, thank you,” answered Collins.
The smoky playing area was spacious enough to accommodate five Brunswick tables, one snooker table, two old-fashioned pinball machines and a jukebox, out of which The Righteous Brothers belted “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”
Two twenty-somethings were at the front table playing nine ball for fifty bucks a game. Collins watched the taller of the two miss an easy shot on the seven, leaving his opponent with a simple run out.
“Shit, how could I miss a shot like that?” the man asked, looking at Collins. “That was a gimme.”
Because you‘re a lousy pool player; That‘s why. Collinsshrugged, moved past the front table, easing his way toward a group of four men sitting in a circle a few feet past the jukebox. Two of the men, both wearing solemn expressions, were lost in a game of chess. One of the players, the one whose chair leaned against the wall, was the man Collins had come to see.
Without realizing it, Collins wiped his watering eyes with the back of his hands. He wasn’t sure if the tears were caused by the heavy smoke or by his old friend’s appearance. What he did know was that he suddenly felt very sad, depressed.
He also felt betrayed by his memory.
In Collins’s mental scrapbook, Snake was tall and wiry, with the sinewy, defined muscles of a well-conditioned athlete in his prime. Snake had been considered the best pure athlete in that first class. He lacked Seneca’s brute strength and great agility, or Deke’s quickness, or Cardinal’s brains, but in the overall analysis, taking everything into consideration, Snake was judged the best all-around athlete.
In no way did this man resemble that once-great athlete. Snake had changed—drastically. And in ways not measured strictly by years, by the passing of time. It was something else. He was a stranger now, someone Collins had never seen before and likely wouldn’t have recognized under other circumstances.
Snake was only a shell of what he once was, a skeletal outline covered by a layer of skin stretched so tight it looked ready to snap. His bony shoulders, once wide as goal posts, sagged forward, pitiful victims of gravity’s relentless forces. His gray-speckled hair, pulled tight into a ponytail, fell to the middle of his back. His eyes, once wild and filled with life, were deep and dark-circled. His face was mostly hidden by a thick, bushy beard. But most striking of all was his weight, which couldn’t have been much in excess of a hundred pounds.
He looked like a biblical prophet or a concentration camp survivor.
“I believe that’s what is known as checkmate,” Snake declared to the man sitting across from him.
His opponent studied the board carefully for several seconds, removed his cap, scratched his head, then said, “Yeah, kinda looks that way.”
“That’s another sawski you owe me.”
The man dug into his pocket, pulled out a ten, and slapped it into Snake’s palm.
“Nice doing business with you,” Snake said. He took a long pull from a bottle of Smithwick’s. “Come back anytime. I’m always here.”
As the group began to disperse, Snake stuffed the bill into his shirt pocket, peered up, saw Collins, looked back down, then quickly glanced up again. It took another look before recognition hit. Smiling, he stood and walked slowly toward Collins. It was, Collins thought, a very sad smile.
“Goddamn, I can’t believe it. Cain. What brings you to this crummy part of the world?”
“Well, damn, that’s great … terrific. Hell, I never expected to see you again.”
“Here I am.”
“No shit. Here you are … a ghost from the past.”
The two men hugged, stepped back, and stared awkwardly at each other for nearly a minute. Collins finally broke the silence. “You have a place where we can talk? In private?”
Snake’s expression turned serious. “Sure, sure, right this way. My office in the back. Ain’t much, but it’ll do.”
Snake’s assessment of the office as “ain’t much” was more than modest. In fact, the office was large, cool, and surprisingly clean. And judging from the casino-like furnishings that filled the room, this was probably where the big profits were raked in. A card table surrounded by six chairs sat in the center of the room. To the left stood a craps table. In the right corner were two slot machines.
Collins sat in one of the chairs, picked up a deck of cards, cut the deck with one hand, and turned over the top card. It was the ace of hearts.
“Looks like this is where the real action takes place,” he said.
“It’s the money room.”
“You run a high-stakes game here?” Collins asked.
“Too big for me; that’s for sure. I just let ‘em play, then take my cut off the top. Straight ten percent. They’re pretty big high rollers, so I do okay.”
“I don’t see a license, so this has to be illegal.”
“Yep, a definite criminal enterprise.”
“How do you avoid the law?”
“The D.A. has a serious love affair with the dice.”
Collins laid the cards on the table. “You look like shit, Snake. What’s going on?”
Snake sighed and looked away. His eyes were hollow, distant. “Can’t you guess? Smart guy like you ought to know.”
“I’m not that smart. Tell me.”
“What kind of junk?”
“What kind? Coke, heroin, meth, pills. You name it, I’ve done it.”
“Man, I’ve been fighting the monkey man for years. Hell, practically ever since we got home. He’s tough, man. Always there, waiting. Some days I wake up and say, ‘Okay, Snake, today’s the day. You’re gonna whip that bastard. You can do it.’ And I will whip him for a while. Then something happens, or I’ll have a dream, or flash on some memory, something like that, and here comes the monkey again. The laughin’ motherfuckin’ monkey. Believe me, Cain, he’s one heavy, persistent bastard.”
“Have you tried to get help?”
“Help? Man, there’s not enough help in the world to rid me of my nightmares. You’re bound to have them, too. There’s no way you can’t. I mean, look at all the shit we did. We were savages, beasts, mercenaries fighting our own private war, keeping our own personal body count. Hell, what we did had nothing to do with Vietnam, or our country, or any of that American flag shit they talked about. You know that. Keepin’ our country free? Free from what? Those scrawny dinks in pajamas? What the hell were they gonna do to us? Come over here and rape our mothers? Fightin’ the tidal wave of Communism? Man, we wouldn’t know a commie if we were introduced to one. What we did wasn’t about patriotism or Communism; it was about killing. That’s it, pure and simple. Killing. And, man, we were wild, crazy, and ruthless, and there’s no other fuckin’ way to describe it.
“Then …boom!We come home one day and it’s over. Finished, just like that. The fun and games are called off, the body-count scorecards torn up and thrown away. What are you left with after that? Besides the nightmares? And the bloodstains on your hands? Nothing; that’s what. What comes after the killing? How do you match the high you get when you chop off a man’s head? Or cut off his ears to keep as souvenirs? Where do you find that kind of rush again? You don’t. It’s not possible. So you turn to something else. For me, that something was dope.” Snake leaned forward, his elbows on the table. Tears streamed down his sunken cheeks.
He continued, “Remember how you used to talk about ‘the look’? About how a successful assassin had to have it or else he couldn’t make the grade? Eyes of the predator, isn’t that what you called it? Well, one day you wake up, look into the mirror, and realize the person looking back at you doesn’t have it anymore. It’s gone, history, just like the war. Then it hits you that you’re really nothing more than a cold-blooded murderer, that killing is what you’ve been trained to do, and that those skills, your body count, mean nothing in the real world. That’s when you understand it was all just a game run by politicians and businessmen, and that we were the fools who played the game for them.
“Crazy, man, it’s all so fuckin’ absurd. And look what it did to the players. None of us ever married. We have no family, no real friends, no close attachments of any depth. We’re adrift, man, adrift on a sea of blood and bodies and bad memories. It’s no fun, man. No fun at all.” Snake paused, held out his right arm, opened and closed his fist. He stared at it absently for nearly a minute before he spoke again.
“You’re the only one who came out of the shit okay. Know why? Because you were a natural, a born killer, just like your namesake. Whoever christened you Cain knew exactly what he was doing. The perfect name for the perfect assassin. The ability to kill was God’s gift to you. Some irony, huh? Did you know I used to say a prayer before every mission? I did. And it wasn’t a prayer for safe deliverance, or even for forgiveness. I prayed I could kill like you did. You know why I prayed for that? Because your kills were humane. So swift, so sudden, without pain. You were the best, Cain, the absolute top-of-the-line assassin. Compared to you, the rest of us were rank amateurs. Only Seneca could even dare to dream the dream of Cain. You were something, man, really something.” Snake fell silent, his haunted eyes glassy, tired, wet with tears.
Collins put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. There were a thousand things he wanted to say—should say—to help ease Snake’s suffering. To try one last time to bring Snake back from those jungles. But—”Listen, Snake, have you heard from Seneca recently?”
“Not since we left Nam. Why?”
“I need to find him.”
“The last I heard he was in Africa, or Russia, someplace like that.”
“What about Deke?”
“He was around here a month or so ago. Just popped up one morning, like you did today. Surprised the hell out of me.”
“What did he want?”
“Nothing, really. We talked for a couple of hours, then he left.”
“What did you talk about?”
“Mostly, we talked about the past, about the guys. Some of the things we did over there. Nothing serious.”
“Did he ask for your help?”
“Help? No. Why? Is somethin’ going down?”
“Yeah, but I don’t know what,” Collins said. “That’s why I need to find Deke ASAP.”
“Chicago, man. That’s where he lives. He’s a bouncer at one of those blues clubs he loves so much. He shouldn’t be hard to find.”
Collins looked straight into Snake’s eyes. “Did you hear about Taylor?”
“Taylor? No. What about him?”
“The Cardinal? Dead? No, I hadn’t heard. When? How?”
“Murdered. A couple of weeks ago.”
“You know who did it?”
“Cardinal was a good guy. He …” Snake looked down. “It’s all bullshit, man, bullshit by the bucket loads.”
Collins went to the craps table, picked up the dice, and tossed them. Boxcars. “What can I do to help?” he asked.
“Erase the past; make the dreams go away.”
“Sorry. That’s beyond me.”
“And I thought the great Cain could do anything.”
“Is the monkey close?”
Snake snickered. “He’s always close, man. Always ready to climb right up my ass and gnaw at my heart.”
“If you need anything—anything—call me at this number.” Collins handed Snake a card. “Anytime.”
Snake opened the office door, and they walked into the pool hall, now empty except for the woman behind the counter.
“How’s the Grey Fox doin’ these days?” Snake asked.
“You know Lucas. Same tough old bird as always.”
Collins stepped outside into the darkness, turned, and looked back at Snake. “If you happen to hear from Deke again, let me know. And don’t wise him to the fact that I was around here asking questions. Okay?”
Collins climbed into his car and drove away, leaving Snake standing framed in the darkened doorway. Seldom had he felt such overwhelming sadness. Sadness for Snake’s pain and anguish, for his personal horde of demons, for the nightmares that wouldn’t fade, for the torment that would never end.
For his inability to conquer the most devastating enemy of all.
The enemy within.
On certain nights the District of Columbia is a spectacular sight, magnificent and majestic, a spit of land more worthy of Olympus and the Greek gods than the very human politicians who run America. To see it on one of those special nights, to walk within that beauty, is to be awed. There is no way to remain unmoved; the delicate blending of light, shadow, moon, and marble is enough to humble even the most indifferent observer.
Simon Buckman was the exception. Never one to see beauty in inanimate objects, he gave no thought to the glorious mixture of time and place, of history and legend, as he pulled himself from his car and shuffled apprehensively toward the Tidal Basin in Potomac Park. To his left, across Independence Avenue, was the Lincoln Memorial. To his right, safely tucked behind the south corner of the Basin, was the Jefferson Memorial. Those sculpted monuments to two towering figures in American history were of no concern to Simon now. Not at night. Not at 2:30 in the morning.
For Simon, night meant shadows and sound … especially sound. Night sounds had always terrified him. Trees jostled by a soft breeze, leaves brushing against objects hidden by the darkness, grass whispering—sounds he associated with nightmares, with some inner fear that left him gasping for breath. Simon Buckman preferred the safety of daylight.
On his way through the park, he had to step aside to avoid collisions with midnight joggers. Not once, but twice. “Stupid idiots,” he mumbled.What kind of fool would jog at this hour, in this city, with its outrageously high homicide rate?Without realizing it, he reached inside his coat pocket and felt the small-caliber pistol. Small-caliber, maybe, but big enough to do considerable damage. He felt reassured.
Simon pushed his way to the edge of the Basin. Another jogger, a young man running hard to keep up with a Great Dane, sped past. Simon scooped up a handful of water from the Basin and splashed it onto his face. Relief from the stifling heat was instant.
A sudden gust of wind whipped through the park, stirring the cherry trees. And his imagination. Those nightmare sounds surrounded him, engulfed him. Half-turning, hand on pistol, he met the darkness.
“Goddammit, man, would you please hurry up?” he whispered. “I’m not fuckin’ stayin’ here all night.”
Standing alone in the Washington night, plagued by his worst fears, he couldn’t help but question the wisdom of this trip. Maybe he should have waited, let things pass, maintained the status quo. That would have been the prudent thing to do: to leave well enough alone. Most certainly, standing here alone in the middle of the night was anything but sane. It was crazy, ridiculous. Only an idiot would have made this trip.
Not true, he quickly told himself. This meeting was essential.
Simon had flown to D.C. to meet with Karl. There were grievances that needed to be addressed, issues resolved. Simon hadn’t been anxious to make this trip—he detested flying, a fear even greater than his fear of night—but these were important matters. Urgent matters. This trip also served a second purpose: he would finally meet Karl. At last, he would match a face with the voice he’d heard countless times.
He had tried to paint a mental picture of Karl. The portrait he invariably came up with was that of a short, thin, perhaps effeminate, middle-aged man. It was the voice that triggered the image: high-pitched, reedy, supremely confident. Karl’s speech was different, too: clipped, distinctive, English-sounding, always spoutin’ those big fuckin’ fifty-cent words. Simon saw Karl as an actor, a slight figure alone on the stage, Gielgud-like, a fuckin’ fairy reciting Shakespeare to a theatre full of fairy watchers.
Standing alone in the darkness, Simon heard with surprising clarity that familiar voice calling out his name—once, twice.Jeezus, that fuckin’ voice sounds close, Simon thought,like it’s real, like it’s … oh, fuck, it’s coming from behind me.
Startled, Simon whirled, his hand clutching the pistol. “Karl? Is that you?” Simon tilted his head, straining to see into the darkness. Nothing. He took a small, tentative step forward, his fingers now squeezing the pistol. “Is that you, Karl?”
“Don’t come any closer.” That voice, distinctive, confident. Gielgud at the top of his game. “What you have to say can be said from there.”
“I prefer to see who I’m talking to.”
“What you like or don’t like is of no consequence to me,” Karl snapped. “Just do as you’re told. Understand?”
“Sure. You bet,” Simon said.
“You buffoon. This—”
“But, Karl, I—”
“Never interrupt me, do you understand? Never.”
“This meeting is unnecessary,” Karl said, his tone still nasty. “I’m growing weary of your alarmist attitude. Your … weakness.”
Simon slumped against the side of the Basin, stunned by Karl’s words. He felt tired, beaten, as if everything—the flight, the shadows, Seneca, Karl’s anger—were suffocating him. He gulped the hot night air.
“I don’t mean to sound alarmist,” Simon said. “It’s just that we have a problem that needs to be taken care of immediately.”
“It’s not your job to worry about problems. You’re to follow orders and nothing more.”
Simon took out a handkerchief and wiped his face. “Yes, yes, I’m aware of that. But there’s this problem.”
“That crazy Indian.”
“You called this meeting to tell me you think Seneca is a problem?”
“I did,” Simon admitted, meekly. His hands were shaking, and beads of sweat had begun to collect on his upper lip.
“You fool. I should have you shot for such an imbecilic move.” Karl’s voice was deeper now, more hard-edged, with a hint of controlled fury. Gielgud had given way to De Niro.
“I just thought—”
“Shut up. In the first place, you don’t think; I doubt you even possess that particular capacity. Second, I’m the one who decides what’s a problem and what isn’t. And third, I’m the only one who takes care of problems. Right now you’re the only problem I see.”
“Look, I don’t mean to make waves or anything, but I’m the one who has to deal with that crazy bastard. It was my balls he nearly pulled off. I know what I’m talkin’ about. He’s crazy out of control. He needs to be taken care of.”
“You’re overreacting, as usual,” Karl said. “Seneca will follow orders. If he doesn’t—”
“If? You mean ‘when.’”
“If hedoesn’t, he’ll be dealt with accordingly. Same as you, if you interrupt me again.”
“Well, you’d better be prepared, because he’s a renegade who has no loyalty or respect.”
Karl said,“Loyalty? Respect?Those are rather nebulous terms, don’t you think? Especially in our line of work. Myself, I prefer more concrete words, likeefficient, cunning, resourceful. Words that accurately define thatcrazyIndian, as you like to call him.”
“I don’t know from nebulous, or whatever the fuck that word means. I’m just tellin’ you how it is.” Simon was relaxed now, his fears having been somewhat assuaged by Karl’s less-menacing tone. “Out of curiosity, what is our line of work?”
“You’re to act as intermediary between Seneca and me. Right now that’s all you need to know.”
“Have it your way. But don’t forget I warned you.”
“I always have it my way,” Karl said. “Never forget that.”
“By the way, the Indian said he needs to know when and where you want to meet. Said he needed to know yesterday.”
“Seneca has many wonderful attributes, but I’m afraid patience isn’t among them. Tell him I’ll be in touch within the next two weeks. Tell him I’ll know by then the precise time and location of his next task.”
“He said no more dress rehearsals.”
“That sounds like Seneca,” Karl said. “You inform my Cherokee friend that this is no dress rehearsal. Make it clear to him that this is the real thing. That he’ll be more than pleased.”
Simon Buckman stood at his hotel window and watched the sun rise out of the eastern sky, a bright orange avenger come to drive away the demons of night. Simon’s eyelids drooped as he stared at the expanding orb. He had never felt more exhausted, yet sleep wouldn’t come. His body, indeed his entire being, was spent, worn. He needed to crash, to sleep for hours, but it wasn’t going to happen. There were too many thoughts crisscrossing in his head, too many ideas, too many words. No way sleep could break through that mental wall.
He was especially troubled by Karl’s words.
What you like or don‘t like is of no consequence to me.
Simon sneered, paced, still smoldering from what Karl had said four hours earlier in the frightening D.C. night.
You‘re to follow orders and nothing more.
Simon’s blood boiled inside him. He didn’t have to take that kind of shit from anybody, and that included Karl. Who was this Karl, anyway? Some kind of a god? Hell, no. And even if he was some big hotshot, that didn’t give him the right to treat people in such a shabby, disrespectful manner.
Right now, you‘re the only problem I see.
That one particularly galled Simon. How dare anyone challenge him, or admonish him, like he was some amateur? Hadn’t he performed countless tasks over the years, often with little or no monetary remuneration? Dirty, thankless tasks, some of which were plenty hazardous? Had he ever complained? Never. Had he once asked for special favors? No. He had always been a good soldier, had always done as he was told. He deserved respect.
Simon went into the bathroom, filled a glass with cold water, gulped it down. The liquid cooled his throat but not the fire that burned within, or the stinging resentment he felt for Karl. Nothing could quench that.
Karl. What rock did he slither out from under? What hole? It bothered Simon that he knew so little about the man. In all the years, through all the jobs he had performed, Simon had never so much as heard Karl’s name mentioned, not even in passing, until three months ago. Until then, for all Simon knew, the man didn’t exist. Then, like some fiery meteor, Karl appeared, a king barking orders and treating a loyal warrior like some second-class citizen.
It wasn’t right. It had to stop.
Simon fell back onto the bed and closed his eyes. The weariness he felt was overwhelming, almost painful, yet any thought of sleep was out of the question.
Karl’s words kept getting in the way.
After tossing and turning for another two hours, Simon swung around and sat on the edge of the bed. He looked at his watch: 8:30. Three hours until his flight departed. He looked out the window. The sun, now clear of the horizon, made its steady climb upward. The day held great promise.
At that moment, Simon made his own promise. He would see that Karl paid dearly for his disrespect, for saying those hateful words that refused to go away.
The morning dawned much differently in Sarasota, Florida, than it did in the nation’s capitol. A midnight storm, the last remnants of a major hurricane south of Cuba, had drenched the area and sent the temperatures tumbling nearly twenty degrees. By mid-morning, little had changed. A steady drizzle fell, and thick, gray clouds kept the chill in the air. Florida weather forecasters were promising a less-than-beautiful weekend.
Hannah Buckman awoke to the sound of waves slapping against the sides of the yacht. She lay on her back, eyes closed, and listened as the rain assaulted the deck with increasing intensity. It was a sound she loved: the rain. So romantic. She also loved the rocking of the yacht, the peaceful swaying back and forth. It was so soothing, like being in a hammock gently caressed by the breeze. But those weren’t her feelings this morning. Today, she felt anything but peaceful. She had consumed too much alcohol last night at the Old Salty Dog on Siesta Key, and now she was paying the price. Her stomach was angrier than a live volcano, her eyes sandy as the desert. Probably, she was going to throw up, no matter how hard she fought it. For the moment, until the inevitable occurred, she decided remaining perfectly still was the best course of action to take.
It wasn’t until she dozed off and awakened again nearly an hour later that the volcano erupted. She dashed for the bathroom, making it just in time. Throwing up was bad enough; the dry heaves were worse.
After splashing cold water on her face, Hannah lifted her head and looked in the mirror. And flinched. The face staring back was virtually unrecognizable. A horror movie queen in full makeup. A trickle of dried blood curled from the corner of her mouth to the bottom of her chin, a narrow thread giving her mouth a slanted, lopsided look. Both lips were noticeably swollen; there was puffiness under her left eye and a series of bite marks beneath her right ear. Even more prominent were the bite marks on her neck and breasts. Several were ringed with dried blood; all had left deep bruises. She closed the bathroom door, removed her robe and examined her body in the full-length mirror. What she saw repulsed her, caused her to shake with fear. Her flesh, from shoulder to ankle, front and back, was a mass of purple bruises, bites, and welts. Nearly every inch of her skin had been battered mercilessly.
Hannah struggled to remember. Had there been an accident? Had she slipped and fallen? Had she…? She couldn’t remember. She shook her head, blinked her eyes, as if that would somehow lift the alcohol haze and allow her to remember. But it didn’t help. Last night was a million years ago, distant, unreachable.
Jesus, what happened to me?
She waded into that haze again, pushing hard to break through. It lifted, briefly, revealing fleeting impressions, grainy, flickering newsreel scenes that lingered teasingly, then faded. One image—the Indian, dark eyes burning like hot cinders, his skin hard, smooth. A second image came, then disappeared as quickly—hands around her throat, contracting, suffocating.
Finally, the dam broke, releasing a wave of images, faster, each one clearer, longer. His mouth covering her breasts, teeth biting into her nipples. Her hands and legs tied to the bedposts, spread-eagle, helpless. The long knife blade, glistening as it trailed across her body. The numbing fear she felt when the Indian guided the blade from her sternum to the top of her pubic area. Through the rapidly disappearing haze, she heard the grunting sound he made when he entered her. She felt his savage thrusts, the strange, yet exquisite pleasure she experienced as he drove deeper inside her. Pleasure mixed with pain and fear. She felt his climax, heard his deep, guttural groan, the most primitive sound she’d ever heard. She remembered being untied, flipped onto her stomach. She could see him take the long strap of soft leather, feel him flog her, softly at first, then with frenzied enthusiasm. She tried to scream, but he silenced her by covering her mouth with a scarf. And always the knife in plain view promising pain, maybe even death. He entered her again, stayed inside for what seemed like an eternity, climaxed, his breath coming fast. Then he slept, his body covering hers, a deep, peaceful sleep. An animal fully sated. Sometime during the night, her pain and fear dulled by the alcohol, she too found sleep.
Hannah leaned over the sink, retching. For ten minutes, her body tried to purge the alcohol and the memory and the terror of last night. When there was nothing left inside her, she covered herself with the robe and returned to bed.
She closed her eyes, softly whispered the Indian’s name, then drifted off to a troubled sleep.
Sitting at a booth in an Indiana truck stop, a half-empty cup of cold coffee in front of him, Collins stared absently at the television set perched high above the counter. His brooding eyes saw the pictures, his ears heard the words, but nothing registered. He was tired, drained. The television images and sounds flew by like a hurried dream.
The History Channel—what else at this hour?—was replaying a special on the current war in Iraq. Collins listened with growing interest as various personalities, some military, some civilian, all with proper credentials and speaking with absolute authority, dissected the reasons for our second incursion into that faraway country in a little more than a decade. And there was no shortage of reasons. Eliminate Saddam, regime change, locate and destroy weapons of mass destruction, spread democracy and democratic ideals in that region of the world. Take your pick.
There is, Collins knew, never a shortage of reasons for going to war. Some real, some imagined, some manufactured. In this particular case, the one that mattered most was seldom mentioned—oil. No matter what the so-called experts said, if Iraq had no oil, the United States would have no interest.
But Iraq did have oil, so young Americans were once again put in harm’s way for questionable reasons.No, Collins reminded himself,that doesn’t even rank as a questionable reason. Blood for oil is a devil’s bargain in every respect.
“Victory in Baghdad” was the cheesy B movie title they’d tagged it with. An entire war condensed into a neat, one-hour package. With plenty of commercials, of course. Leave it to the media to trivialize something as deadly and ugly and horrific as war, presenting it as though it were nothing more than a glorified video game. War must never be taken lightly, and no one knew this better than Collins.Shock and awemay have a nice ring to it, but it translates to death and destruction. Soldiers on both sides fight and die. The dead come home in flag-draped coffins. Families are shattered, cities and villages torn apart. Blood is spilled. That’s the reality.
War is the ultimate truth, and to portray it in such a clean and antiseptic manner is a lie. The dead and wounded deserve better. The country deserves better.
Collins was convinced that if politicians worldwide were forced to spend fifteen minutes in actual combat, war would become a thing of the past. That was an observation he once shared with Lucas many years ago.
“That’s a wonderful sentiment, my boy,” Lucas responded. “Wonderful, but inaccurate. Money is the engine that drives warfare. Politicians are only puppets on a string. So long as billions of dollars can be made, wars will continue to flourish. Never allow yourself to think otherwise.”
Staring up at the TV screen, Collins wondered how long it would take before the History Channel aired the sequel to this ongoing military entanglement, which would include Iraq, part two, and the war in Afghanistan. No doubt it was already in the works.
“We have kicked the Vietnam Syndrome,” commentators and politicians proclaimed after the first Gulf War. “America can feel good about itself once again.”
Hearing that, Collins could only wonder how many future war syndromes lay in store for the country.
That haunting question only added to Collins’s already heavy mood. What did it mean, anyway, kicking a war syndrome, be it Vietnam or Iraq? Nothing. They were only words spoken by a cheerleader with short-term memory and a long eye on popularity. Taken seriously, the statement was yet another slam at the veterans and the job they performed in shit-hole countries thousands of miles away. Men and women sent into combat with hands too often tied behind their backs, with shabby equipment, and for the most tenuous reasons. Soldiers fighting despite an appalling lack of support from the folks back home. It pissed him off to hear shit about how we “lost” in Vietnam. We didn’t lose in Vietnam. No way did we fuckin’ lose. And we won’t lose in Iraq. What will eventually happen is there will be a replay of what happened in Nam: our leaders, “the best and the brightest,” will one day simply decide to take the ball and go home. We won’t lose; we’ll quit.
Then we’ll be left to wonder why. To ask ourselves what it was all about and whether or not the results were worth the price we paid. All the while, as we seek answers to those questions, our next generation of the “best and brightest” will be looking around for the next war.
“We sure kicked ass big-time, didn’t we, Sally?”
Collins initially thought the question came from one of the History Channel commentators. It was only when he looked up that he realized the speaker was a man sitting alone at the counter. Tall—maybe six-five—and thin, he wore tight jeans, a tank top, leather cowboy boots, and a black Peterbilt cap. There was a tattoo on his left shoulder: a cross, under which was written, “Glory to Jesus.”
“I’d say you’re right,” Sally agreed, placing a cup of coffee in front of him.
The man wheeled on his stool, coffee cup in hand.
“We kicked old Saddam’s ass, didn’t we, partner?” he said to Collins.
Collins smiled, indifferent to the man and the question.
“Well, you do agree with me, don’t you, partner?” the man insisted, sipping coffee.
“Wrong enemy, wrong war,” Collins replied. “Bin Laden is the guy we want.”
“Yeah, whatever. But you gotta agree; taking out old Saddam was easy as takin’ candy from a baby.”
“Kicking ass is never easy,” Collins said.
“I don’t buy that,” the man said. “And I don’t imagine Saddam did either, especially when he was standing on the gallows with a rope around his neck.”
“You ever been in a war?”
“Nah, but I’d dearly love to have been in that first one. Or the one we’re in now. I’d like nothing better than to hunt down that coward bin Laden.”
“It’s an all-volunteer army.”
“Believe me, I gave plenty of thought to joining. Talked to the recruiter about it a couple of times. But I doubt they’d have me. See, my blood pressure tends to run a little high.” The man paused to stir his coffee. “But, hell, they don’t need me. Those boys did just fine. Women, too, although I have to admit I’m not all that keen on sending females into a war zone. But, shit, old Saddam didn’t know who he was messin’ with. Neither will Osama. We’ll blast him out of those caves. Wait and see. Before all is said and done, that Muslim lunatic will regret the day he decided to go against us.”
The man took a sip of coffee. Judging it too hot to drink, he added more cream.
“These Gulf wars—they ain’t like Nam,” he said quickly. “Over there, we let those little bastards push us around pretty good. Not this time. This time we went in there and showed ‘em who was boss. We flexed our muscles, you know? Showed the world we’re still the baddest ass-kicker on the block.”
Collins felt a strange mix of feelings toward this man-child. There was a certain appreciation for his simplicity, for that concise black and white outlook toward complex issues. Collins had long ago come to realize his own world would be easier if there were fewer gray areas. Conversely, he detested the man’s kick-ass mentality, the tough-guy posturing. Of all the misconceptions, that was the biggest. Tough guys don’t posture or bluff. They don’t feel the need. Tough guys merely do the job and let the job do the talking. Joe Louis didn’t brag. Lou Gehrig didn’t brag. They beat your brains in every day. Tough guys don’t stand on a ship and tell you, “Mission accomplished.” Of course, Collins understood the man was caught up in the fervor of an ongoing military campaign and the residual anger of 9/11. He was riding on a new wave of patriotism that had swept through the country like napalm on a hillside. In Collins’s view it was Super Bowl pizza party patriotism, more fashionable than heartfelt. But maybe that was okay. Maybe that was what the country needed. It wasn’t his style, or to his liking, or something he could relate to, but that didn’t really matter. How could it? He was from another time, another era.
The killing never ends, does it, my boy? It just goes onand on.
Collins signaled for another cup of coffee. The waitress brought it, answered his frown with a cheery smile, then sashayed away. He gazed deep into the dark liquid, his thoughts swinging like a pendulum, forward to Deke, backward to Snake.
At some point the machinery broke, causing the pendulum to become stuck in the past.
There was no mystery why Collins felt so down. Meeting Snake again, listening to his old friend’s troubled words, looking into those cadaver eyes—how could he not be down?
Snake had been to the abyss, peered into the darkness, and seen absolute evil. They all had seen the same darkness, the same evil. Been to the same abyss. They had negotiated its unique confines, performed their duties, then withdrawn to the light and its safety. All except Snake. The darkness followed him, pursued him relentlessly, trapped him, and ultimately swallowed him.
Snake was being held hostage by countless ghosts from his past. By the secrets left behind in those steaming jungles of death. His soul was on fire, and the flames were unquenchable.
“I hope you find peace.” Those were the last words Collins said to Snake.
Snake, his head lowered like a monk in prayer, didn’t answer for almost a minute. Finally, he lifted his head, directed those sad, hollow eyes at Collins, and said, “Not in this world, my friend. Not in this lifetime.”
Snake nailed it. There would never be peace, not for him. There would only be more pain and suffering. The Angel of Death offered the only means of escape, the only end to all his agony. Collins could envision it—Snake with a gun in his hand, his head in a halo of blood, or a rope around his neck, or a dirty needle in his arm … some shabby way to lay the monkey to rest, to finally set himself free. To leave the ghosts behind. One more casualty of the Vietnam War. How many more would there be before that war’s long arm of death ceased to harvest victims?
The killing never ends, does it, my boy? It just goes on and on.
Those dark thoughts followed Collins all the way to Chicago. So did the image of Snake’s tortured eyes. Even as Collins lay sprawled on the huge bed in his motel room, he heard Snake’s words rumble through his head like a locomotive. Words that pleaded for redemption and peace. Words Collins couldn’t allow himself to hear. They had to be erased, like the enemy.
Sympathy, pity, concern—the inevitable signs of weakness. And weakness led to defeat. There was no place for sympathy or pity, now or ever, not even for a wounded comrade-in-arms. He had to forget Snake; the man was lost. He had to be cold, indifferent, distant. There was no other way. Somewhere out there, Seneca was waiting. And Seneca pitied no one.
Neither could Collins.
Because it‘s time for Cain to be born again.
Pity was foreign to the great Cain. That’s why Lucas called for his resurrection. Pity, sympathy—they simply didn’t exist within him. Neither could they exist within Mickey Collins. In truth, Mickey Collins could no longer exist. He had to be discarded like an old suit of clothes, laid away until this drama was finished.
This was Cain’s time.
That meant journeying back to the riverbank, to the abyss, and looking once again into the darkness. For there, on the edge, he would rediscover the assassin’s heart.
Collins eased closer to sleep, his curtain of consciousness rising and falling delicately. Noises from outside the motel mingled with scattered, broken voices heard during a firefight. Automobile horns were in harmony with helicopter rotors. Dogs barked, water buffaloes bellowed. The chill air from the air conditioner was a cool answer to the hot breeze of the jungle. Two maids exchanged pleasantries in the hallway; two shadowy figures on a riverbank whispered in the early morning mist.
Because it‘s time for Cain to be born again.
As the abyss neared, a question arose: was he closing in on it, or was it closing in on him? He hoped for the former, would accept the latter. Either way was fine because, ultimately, it wouldn’t matter.
Cain was there … waiting.
First kill, sir?
In combat, life and death are always at the mercy of chance. Nothing else figures in. Odds against living or dying can’t be computed; therefore, any contemplation is a waste of time. The randomness of death is such that all calculations are useless. A mortar shell explodes fifteen yards to your right: you walk away unscratched; a soldier to your immediate left becomes hamburger meat.
How do you begin to account for such absurdity?
You don’t. You move on, hopeful that chance is on your side when the next shell explodes.
Collins seldom dwelled on such matters. He instinctively understood war, thus eliminating questions concerning matters beyond his comprehension. Understanding erased the mystery. Anyway, questions seldom led to answers, only to more questions. Questions also led to doubt, to undue caution: deadly traps for any soldier.
What he did know was this: he was still alive. Four months in Vietnam, countless firefights, and he was still breathing, still in one piece. In the end, it was all that mattered. Being alive, healthy, still functioning. He had been in country, in confrontations with the enemy, face to face with death enough times to understand war is a very elemental enterprise. War isn’t about nations or philosophies. It’s not about right or wrong. War is about surviving, about staying alive. It’s about killing the other guy before he kills you.
Pleiku was scalding on that March afternoon in 1967. The monsoons had ended two weeks earlier, replaced now by unrelenting heat. It was as if the whole world had become hell and the jungles of Vietnam were at the center. Lucifer himself would have trouble breathing in this furnace.
Collins guided his company through the steaming jungles surrounding a small village several kilometers east of Pleiku. The village, inhabited by fewer than two hundred people, was a suspected Viet Cong stronghold. Collins, only nineteen and already a captain in the First Air Cav, had been ordered to infiltrate, look for signs of Viet Cong activity or sympathizers, kill the sympathizers, and torch the village if positive evidence was found.
They entered the village at fourteen hundred thirty hours. An emaciated old man came out of his hut, approached rapidly on spindly legs, and in broken English told Collins that no Viet Cong sympathizers lived there. He cursed Ho Chi Minh, praised the United States, railed against the war’s toll, saying in a voice choked with emotion that he had lost two sons, a daughter, and a grandson.
Before the old man could finish his tearful litany one of Collins’s men emerged from a small building, holding a large burlap sack in each hand.
“It’s the mother lode, Captain,” the man said. “Weapons, Army rations, more than five grand in cash, clothes. Don’t listen to what he says, Captain. These dink pricks ain’t pure.”
Collins aimed his M16 at the old man’s head.
“Viet Cong?” Collins asked.
The old man backed away. “No Viet Cong,” he said, shaking his head frantically. “G.I. boo koo number one. United States boo koo number one.”
“He’s boo koo full of shit, Captain,” the soldier said, holding up the sack.
“Viet Cong?” Collins repeated, pushing the old man to the ground.
“No, no, no Viet Cong,” the old man screamed.
Then came the shots,pop, pop, pop, from behind and to the left. Automatic rifle, probably a single shooter. Collins dropped to one knee, let the old man go, then motioned for his men to fan out in all directions. More shots rang out—five to be precise, one smashing into Willie Dickinson’s chest. The young corporal fell backward, dead before he hit the ground.
Pandemonium was unleashed. Villagers ran screaming for shelter, women yanked crying babies out of harm’s way, soldiers struggled to find cover.
Pop, pop, pop.
Collins heard—felt—a bullet whiz past his head. He fell to a prone position and began crawling toward a water trough. To his left, maybe fifteen feet away, another soldier took a hit in the lower abdomen. He fell to the ground, screaming. Someone called for the medics, but a second bullet, this one to the fallen soldier’s temple, arrived first.
“How many you figure, Captain?” someone asked.
“One,” Collins replied.
“You’re fuckin’ nuts,” the soldier mumbled.
The next few seconds seemed to happen in slow motion, and Collins would always remember it that way. Images moved in a halting, almost poetic way, voices and noises sounded as though they might be coming from a phonograph record played at the wrong speed. His own movements, slow and precise, were more dreamlike than real.
Straight ahead, directly in his line of vision, Collins saw the sniper darting between huts, running low, rifle in hand. Collins scrambled to his feet, raced to his right, intent on intercepting the sniper before he could disappear into the jungle or the network of tunnels running underground. Collins knew if that happened, the shooter, and any chance of killing him, would be lost.
When Collins came around the last hut, he saw the man running toward him, not more than thirty feet away, struggling to insert a banana-shaped clip into his AK-47.
The sniper stopped dead in his tracks. Collins raised his M16, sighted, squeezed off a single round. The sniper’s head exploded, coming apart like a watermelon dropped from a skyscraper. The bullet entered directly below the man’s nose, blowing out the back of his head, opening a hole the size of a grapefruit. Most of his teeth were splintered by the bullet’s impact, and his left eye, blown free from its socket, dangled on his cheek. Although he died instantly, his right leg continued to twitch for several seconds after he hit the ground.
“Goddamn, what a mess,” one of Collins’s men said.
“Served the little gook motherfucker right,” said another.
Collins looked down at what seconds before had been a human face, but was now a grotesque mixture of dark red blood, flesh, brain matter, and bone fragments. He pushed his foot against what remained of the dead man’s head. It rolled to the side like the broken head on a child’s doll. Several teeth worked their way through a glob of thickening blood and dropped to the ground.
It was his first confirmed kill, although he suspected there had been others. In combat you didn’t always know for certain. Combat is chaotic, given to sudden bursts of high energy and uncontrolled madness. Bullets fly, bodies fall. Which bullet kills what enemy is not always clear. Accurate scorecards are impossible to keep. More often than not, the killer is as random as the victim. Seldom is the equation clean and simple. But with this kill there could be no question, no doubt. He had squeezed the trigger, seen the bullet do its damage, and watched the target fall.
Collins felt total exhilaration. He also felt a strange calm inside, a sense of detachment, like he was standing outside the scene looking in. There was no voice inside his head pleading for compassion, for empathy. Those were signs of weakness, and in this moment, in the searing heat and dust of some shitty gook village, he understood with clear certainty that weakness did not reside within him.
He possessed the stone-cold heart of a killer.
“First kill, sir?”
The voice coming from behind him sounded as if it were coming from another planet.
“First kill, sir?” the voice repeated.
Collins didn’t answer; there was no need. Numbers didn’t matter. Something inside him had been set free, some force that had no need for numbers. At that moment he knew what he was going to do, what he was condemned to do: create new and terrible numbers.
The mathematics of death.
Cain had been born at that moment, although neither Collins nor Lucas would know it for many months. That first tour of duty in Nam only fertilized the egg; birth wouldn’t occur until well into his second tour. It was then that his unparalleled ability to kill manifested itself in ways no one could have anticipated; it was during his second tour that Cain grew to manhood. Somewhere in those Vietnam jungles, Captain Michael James Collins shed his own persona like a snake shedding its skin.
Cain was born.
And quickly became a legend, a myth, more feared than any predator in those jungles. U.S. soldiers spoke of him with hushed reverence, invoking his name as if he were a deity. To them, he was godlike. A man above all rules, immune to the stings of conscience, a killer without remorse. Stories of his kills wove their way from the DMZ to the Delta. Much of his legend was fueled by the “midnight missions,” those solitary excursions into the jungle darkness, where, using only his bare hands, he sometimes killed a dozen or more of the enemy before returning to base camp at sunrise.
Among the Viet Cong, Cain’s legend took on a powerful, even sinister force. They saw him as a demon spirit, indestructible, immune to death. He was the shadow that awaited them in the night. He was their nightmare come to life.
Lucas was the first to recognize the change, later noting that he saw it more in Collins’s eyes rather than his actions. At certain moments, Lucas said, those blue eyes turned gray, revealing something dark, hidden, empty. They were, Lucas sensed, the eyes of a jungle predator: cold and keen, brutal, cunning, and savage.
In late 1967 Lucas needed those predator eyes, those killing skills. He had been ordered back to Washington, where he was put into place to oversee a new operation, one that would eventually replace the infamous Phoenix Project. This new project would be highly covert and even more secretive than its predecessor.
The Phoenix Project, also known as Operation Phoenix, was born deep within the belly of the CIA in the mid-1960s. It was designed to identify and “neutralize”—capture, induce to surrender, kill, or otherwise disrupt—anyone supporting the Viet Cong or pro-Communist sympathizers. The operation was introduced as the Intelligence Coordination and Exploitation program (ICEX). Among those running the program was legendary CIA spook Ted Shackley, the CIA Saigon station chief, and Shackley’s long-time friend, General Lucas White.
From its inception, Operation Phoenix was nothing less than an assassination program. Its mission was to cripple the Viet Cong by killing influential local village and hamlet leaders, such as mayors, teachers, and doctors. Guerrillas from the North, or any leader suspected of aiding the South’s parallel government, were also deemed legitimate targets for assassination.
Operation Phoenix was a natural successor to an earlier CIA black op—Project Pale Horse. Named for a passage from the Book of Revelation, Project Pale Horse ran for six years, operating primarily in the northeastern provinces of Laos, where it proved to be so effective against Soviet KGB and Red Chinese military advisors that a $50,000 bounty was placed on the head of the Pale Horse commander.
Pale Horse eventually ran its course, giving way to Operation Phoenix, which proved to be both efficient and highly controversial. Before Operation Phoenix was turned over to the South Vietnamese and spiraled out of control, the estimated death toll exceeded 40,000.
Operation Phoenix was, in the eye of one critic, “the most indiscriminate and massive program of political murder since the Nazi death camps in World War Two.”
“Maybe so,” Lucas commented to Shackley and Westmoreland upon reading that assessment. “But no one can say we weren’t effective.”
With Phoenix flaming out, the need for a new operation became a high priority matter for the generals running the war. Big wars always contain smaller, secret wars, and Vietnam was no different. Thus, the plan for a new assassination operation went into effect. It was to be known as Project Armageddon. Lucas, because of his close association with both Pale Horse and Phoenix, was the natural choice to head the operation.
Lucas wholeheartedly believed in the project and was only too willing to oversee it. In Collins, he had the perfect instructor. Who better to teach the art of killing than a man with a doctorate in death?
“You don’t need me, Lucas,” Collins had argued at the time. “I’m needed here, in-country. This is where I can do the most good.”
“You’ll return, my boy. I promise.” Lucas countered. “And when you do, you won’t be alone. You’ll bring your heirs with you.”
“I don’t know.”
“Come with me, my boy. Let us make full use of your special talent.”
Collins went with Lucas, reluctantly leaving Vietnam for the first time in two years. The real world held no interest for him anymore; his home was the jungle. That’s where he wanted to be—needed to be. That’s where Cain had come of age. Where he had carved out his legend.
He declined a lengthy leave, arguing in favor of immediate reassignment. Lucas was more than happy to oblige. The school, or “Shop,” as it was called, officially began operations in February 1968.
Lucas and Collins spent many weeks carefully screening potential candidates. More than one hundred were given initial consideration. Of that number, after further screening, fewer than half were called in for an interview. None were told the true purpose of the interview, or the nature of the project. That would happen only after acceptance.
That first class, which convened in the snows at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, consisted of thirteen men, ranging in rank from captain to private first class. All had served at least one hitch in Vietnam. Nine were Army, three Marines, one Navy. There were six Caucasians, four blacks, two Puerto Ricans, and one Native American Indian.
Of that original group, only six survived the cut.
Collins could remember every face, every code name. He had taught them, christened them, unleashed them. Now, four decades later, he could see them clearly, as if they were standing in front of him. Cardinal, Snake, Deke, Rafe and Moon.
The heirs of Cain.
But it was the Indian, standing slightly apart—always—from the others, arms folded, black eyes burning, that he saw most clearly. Dwight David Rainwater.
From the beginning, Seneca had been a different animal in every way. He never sought comradeship, never forged alliances, never relied on a fellow soldier. He was a lone wolf trapped in a pack. There were other differences, as well. He had instincts the others could never acquire. Natural instincts. While they were learning various killing techniques, he was honing skills that somehow seemed innate. Skills that accompanied him from the womb. But the biggest difference was his thirst for blood. While the others wondered,In the end, will I be able to do this?Seneca never doubted himself or his ability to kill. He knew.
Collins saw a madness in Seneca that went beyond what was needed. Assassins kill, but they don’t have to be crazy. Collins argued strongly for Seneca’s dismissal from the Shop, but Lucas adamantly refused the request. After all, Lucas reasoned, Seneca was precisely what was needed: the perfect killing machine. No guilt, no hesitation, no conscience. What more could you want in an assassin?
Seneca would stay.
“Okay, Lucas, have it your way,” Collins said. “But someday you’ll regret it.”
“That’s a risk I’m willing to take,” Lucas responded.
“It’s not a risk, Lucas. It’s a certainty.”
Now, after all these years, that day had arrived.
As the afternoon shadows began to sweep through the room, Collins stood in front of the mirror and studied his naked body. It had held up well. The muscle tone, the definition, the strength—he looked good. Better than most men half his age. Except for the two scars—one on his left shoulder, one on his right side—he looked no worse for wear than he had twenty-five years ago.
He still had the predator’s body.
The predator’s mentality.
He stared at his face in the mirror, beyond his own cold blue-gray eyes, into the deepest recesses of his own being. Into the darkness of his heart.
Blood time was about to begin.
Vietnam, November 1967
The jungle heat attached itself to the skin like a blanket of fire. Mosquitoes and other insects swarmed with impunity. Silence screamed.
Cain leaned against a large tree, waiting until the sun moved beyond the jungle canopy, waiting until darkness fell.
Waiting for blood time to begin.
This was the first of what would become legendary midnight missions. On this night, the ultimate assassin made his debut. The night predator was unleashed. In the deep jungle darkness was the genesis of Cain’s legend.
He knew, even at this moment, that he was entering into a different realm. That from this night onward, his life would be changed forever. That once he began the killing, there was no turning back.
Cain would be more assassin than soldier. A ghost. A shadow among shadows.
Lucas had approached him with the idea, arguing that certain types of “nocturnal killings” were more valuable and would carry more weight. They would, he contended, make a “more emphatic” statement, play on the “enemy’s psyche” like a nightmare come true.
“I will find you targets,” Lucas said. “Get you locations. You, with those marvelous skills of yours, will do the rest.”
“Your confidence is reassuring, Lucas.”
“My boy, the level of confidence I have in you does not come close to matching your talent,” Lucas answered. “As I have said on many occasions, what you have is a very unique gift indeed.”
“Has this been cleared?”
Lucas chuckled. “My boy, this is Vietnam. Nothing needs to be cleared. If we want to do it, we simply proceed.”
Cain’s first two targets were a North Vietnamese captain and the mayor of Da Lat, a small village west of Cam Ranh. The mayor, a distant cousin of Vietnam’s flamboyant vice president Nguyen Cao Key, was a CIA asset who had been supplying the North with valuable U.S. military intelligence plans for almost a year. The two men had a 3:00 a.m. meeting scheduled in the back room of a small bar right off the main street.
Cain left Cam Ranh Bay by chopper and was dropped off in a clearing three kilometers from Da Lat. He worked his way through the jungle, eventually reaching the edge of the village an hour before sunset. There, back against the big tree, he waited until darkness fell. Until he was merely one more shadow in the night.
His two targets weren’t alone. A third man, armed with a machine gun, stood watch outside the back entrance. Cain was not surprised at seeing an extra body at the site; his faith in the accuracy of Army intel had long ago given way to doubt and skepticism. That led to Cain’s first Golden Rule: never put your fate in the hands of others.
The sentry leaned his weapon against the building, took out a pack of cigarettes, extracted one, and put it in his mouth. As he reached into his shirt pocket to take out a box of matches, Cain closed in quickly from behind. He delivered a sharp blow to the man’s throat, then a second blow to the neck. The man grunted, stumbled, and dropped to one knee. He was dead by the time his second knee touched the ground, his neck broken by a savage snap of the head.
Cain rolled the man’s body behind a large barrel, laid the machine gun in a flower bed, then slowly opened a screen door. As he moved down the narrow hallway, he could hear the sound of laughter coming from a small room to his left. He eased forward until he could see the two men. They were sitting at a table, each with a large paper cup in hand. An almost-empty bottle of Jim Beam rested on the table between them.
Perhaps it was the shock of seeing a black-face intruder coming at them like a crazed panther, or maybe it was the alcohol fog that denied movement, but neither man rose from his chair when Cain entered the room. The man dressed in military clothing fumbled his cup while reaching for his pistol. Cain went for him first, hitting him across the bridge of his nose with a judo chop. Blood spurted from the damaged nose, spraying the table and the Jim Beam. Cain moved behind the captain and snapped his head violently to the right, instantly ending his life.
The mayor sat frozen, immobilized by fear, eyes wide. He seemed incapable of moving, even as Cain reached out and grabbed him by the throat. His mouth moved, but no sounds came out.
Cain’s large right hand increased the pressure on the mayor’s throat, cutting off his air passage. Next, Cain pinched the mayor’s nostrils, eliminated the breathing process entirely. The panicked mayor began to violently thrash his lower body, kicking the table and knocking over the bottle of Jim Beam.
Cain looked the mayor squarely in the eyes and smiled. As the man continued his futile struggle to free himself, Cain tightened his grip. After several seconds, he removed his fingers from the mayor’s nose.
“I have one question for you,” Cain whispered. “Answer it and I’ll let you live. Answer by nodding or shaking your head. Got it?”
The mayor, gasping for air, his eyes wide and filled with tears, quickly nodded.
“Someone has been giving you top secret intelligence. Is that someone CIA?”
The mayor shook his head.
A quick nod.
“Out of Saigon?”
“You’re an honest man for a politician. I like that,” Cain said as he snapped the man’s neck. “But I’m not.”
Two days later, Cain met with Lucas and Westmoreland in Saigon. Neither man was surprised when Cain told them what he had learned.
“We have suspected it for some time now,” General Westmoreland said. “This simply confirms those suspicions.”
“Colonel Maddox has always valued money over duty,” Lucas added. “He’s not the first, and he won’t be the last.”
“This war is unlike any we’ve engaged in before,” Westmoreland said. “It’s certainly far different from the ones I have fought in—World War Two and Korea. The enemy here is strange and complex, but that’s only part of it. I have been here four years now, yet I have no concrete answer. And certainly no concrete solution.”
“The opportunity for corruption is the biggest difference I see,” Lucas said. “Hell, there are more two-legged snakes walking around in this country than there are snakes crawling on the ground. On both sides. I doubt God could tell the saints from the sinners in this country. Colonel Maddox is one bandit among many, and a small one at that.”
Westmoreland sighed. “I’m afraid you’re right, Lucas. This war, this country—it’s a breeding ground for criminal behavior.”
After Westmoreland departed, Lucas filled a glass with Chivas Regal and took a long drink. He moved to the window, stood there silently for several seconds, then turned back toward Cain.
“I know what you are thinking, and the answer to your question is no,” he said. “Maddox will be handled properly, in a military manner. I say that with some reluctance because my instinct is to let you have him. He’s committed treason, been a traitor, and for that he should pay the ultimate price. But … in this instance, that would not be the prudent action to take.”
Lucas set his glass down and moved next to Cain. “Are you okay with your new role? Are you at peace with it?”
“I’m a soldier, Lucas. Killing goes with the territory.”
“Yes … but—”
“Relax, Lucas. It’s blood time, and blood time is my time.”
Collins needed but two stops before finding a link to Deke’s whereabouts—a place called The Blues Cave on Chicago’s Southside. The owner, a rotund white man with large saucer eyes and a hideous hairpiece, was the chatty type, only too willing to provide information.
“Listen. Ask anybody about Big Lonnie. They’ll tell you I don’t want trouble with no one. But the big son of a bitch is just plain bad news. Has been ever since I’ve known him, and that’s been more years than I care to remember. I tried to get along with him, keep the peace, but not anymore. Now I don’t give a shit about him, so long as he stays out of my way.”
Collins ordered a ginger ale.
“Stayin’ away from the hard stuff?” Big Lonnie asked.
“Starting today,” Collins answered.
“Know what you mean. I gave it up years ago. Right before it got the best of me.”
Collins took a drink and looked the place over. Only two other customers were at the bar: a man sitting three stools to his left and a woman at the far end. The jukebox was on, Miles Davis playing soft and sweet and true.
“When was the last time you ran into Jefferson?” Collins said.
Big Lonnie scratched his head, careful not to disturb the hairpiece. “Couple of months ago, I guess. Let me think. Yeah, around the first of March. He was in here lookin’ for Trish.”
“His old lady.”
“I don’t know about that. Who gets married these days? All I know is they’ve been together off and on for about fifteen years. That’s who you need to talk to. She can tell you where he is.”
“How do I find her?”
“Place around the corner, up two blocks. Mariah’s. She’ll be there. Tell her Big Lonnie sent you. Me and her, we’re real close.”
Collins emptied his glass and placed two dollars on the bar. “Thanks.”
“Hey, man, you go easy on Trish. She’s one fine lady.”
Mariah’s Tavern was a small, intimate bar badly misplaced in what was otherwise a gaudy, blues-oriented district. It had an almost genteel ‘50s feel, more Tony Bennett’s kind of place than John Lee Hooker’s. The slightly elevated stage, which was bare except for a Baldwin piano, might have been awaiting the arrival of Frankie Laine or the young Ray Charles. Nostalgia was thicker than the cigarette smoke hugging the ceiling.
Collins walked to the end of the bar, where he was greeted by a tall, elderly woman with white hair, a still-beautiful face, and an aristocratic manner. Like the place she owned, Mariah also seemed to belong to another era.
“Hello,” the woman said, smiling broadly. She offered Collins her hand. “Name’s Mariah.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Collins said, accepting the hand.
“What’ll you have?”
“Actually, I’m looking for someone and I was told she might be here.”
“Oh, yeah? Who told you that?”
“Big Lonnie tends to talk too much.”
“He’s definitely not the shy type.”
“So … who’s the mystery lady you’re trying to find?”
Her smile gave way to a look of concern. “You the law?”
She scrutinized his face with narrow, intense eyes. “What business do you have with Trish?”
“I need her help; that’s all. I’m not here to hassle her. A couple of questions and I’m gone.”
Her face relaxed. “That’s her at the table in the corner. Make it brief. Her next set begins in five minutes.”
The woman sitting alone in the dark was a petite brunette, mid-forties, dressed in blue slacks and a white blouse. A blue silk scarf was tied neatly around her neck, and a large diamond-shaped earring dangled from each ear. The passing years had not been particularly kind to her, yet they hadn’t been so unkind as to erase completely the evidence of a face that had once been truly beautiful.
Looking at her, Collins was struck by two things: the deep sadness etched on her face, and the color of her skin. Trish Underwood was white. He had never known Derek Jefferson to be particularly interested in white women.
She looked up, sensing his approach. Her brown eyes, swimming in sorrow, met his.
She nodded but didn’t speak.
“My name is Mickey Collins. I need your help. Mind if I sit?”
She pointed to a chair across from her. He sat, then leaned forward, elbows on the table.
“What kind of help?” she asked.
“I need to locate Derek Jefferson. Big Lonnie said you might be able to help me.”
“How do you know Derek?” she inquired. Her voice was deep and strong.
“The Army. I was his commanding officer.”
“He told me about the Army. About Vietnam and the things that went on over there.” She breathed deeply. “Truth is, I suspect that’s the cause of most of his problems.”
She unfolded her hands and placed them palm down on the table. They were young-looking hands with unusually long fingers. Her fingernails were painted a deep red.
“Collins,” she said. “I don’t recall Derek ever mentioning anyone by that name.”
“What we did was highly confidential. We were trained to keep secrets.”
She stared straight at Collins. Once again he was struck by the deep sadness written on her face. This was a woman who had been through a lot in life, most of which hadn’t been pleasant.
“You know, some people are beyond help, no matter how hard you try,” she said. “Derek is one of those people. I tried to help him. Believe me, I tried. But he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—change.”
Tears welled in her eyes.
“Do you know where he is?” Collins asked.
“Around. He’s always around.”
“When was the last time you saw him?”
“About a week ago. He came by to let me know he was back from Florida.”
“Did he say why he went down there?”
“Did he mention the names of anyone he knew in Florida?”
“Not that I remember.”
“Think hard, Trish. It’s important.”
“He didn’t say much at all about Florida. About anything, really.”
“What about South Carolina? Did you ever hear him talking about a man named Anthony Taylor?”
“Cardinal. That mean anything to you?”
“No. Listen, we don’t see each other like in the old days. Things have changed.”
“You aren’t together anymore?”
That sad smile again. “Not for several years now. I wanted to make a go of it, make it work, and God knows I tried. But … how much is someone supposed to take? The race thing—we overcame that pretty good. But the violence, the beatings. I couldn’t take it anymore. So I left him.”
She looked at her watch. “I only have a minute or two.” She tilted her head toward the piano. “Gotta sing for my supper.”
“Do you have any idea where I might find him?”
“Butterfield’s most likely. He sometimes works there as a bouncer.”
“Thanks,” Collins said, standing. “If you happen to see him, don’t mention I was here.”
“Still keeping secrets?”
“Don’t worry,” Trish said. “Keeping secrets is something I’ve been doing most of my life. I’m very good at it.”
He turned to leave.
“Derek isn’t a bad guy. He just …” Her words faded into silence.
She rose from the table, climbed onto the stage, and settled in behind the piano. Her sad eyes found his.
“He’s a violent man,” she said, her voice softer than a whisper. “And he’ll die a violent death. I only pray that …”
As he walked away, the sweet melody of “Stardust” began to fill the room.
Two men stepped out into the Chicago night, walked several paces, then disappeared into an alley. The smaller man led the way, walking briskly and purposefully, as though he were late for an important engagement. The larger man trailed behind by a few feet, his eyes darting from side to side. Together, they were a peculiar-looking duo. The smaller man, thin and wiry, resembled a bird. A very nervous bird. He constantly shifted on the balls of his feet, giving the appearance that he was engaged in some type of exercise. The bigger man was black, and moved slowly, cautiously, with a grace belying his enormous size.
Upon reaching the end of the alley, the two men stood several feet apart. Neither spoke. A light from above shone down on them, casting their silhouettes against the side of a building. The smaller man lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, then tossed the match onto the concrete.
“Look, Derek, I’ll have the money for you by Friday. You have my word on it.” He blew a cloud of smoke into the night. “You have to give me until Friday.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” the black man said. “The man wants his money now. I aim to see he gets it.”
“He’ll get it. He always has, hasn’t he? It’s just that I’m a little thin at the moment.”
“You’re always a little thin.”
The little man fidgeted with the cigarette, flicking ashes with his thumb. “Look, I know you’ve got a job to do. I understand that. But you’ve got to give me a break. Square it with the man for me. You can do that. Tell him I’ll have the money by Friday. At noon. No later. The full ten grand. You have my word.”
Deke turned slightly, lifted his eyes, and stared into the light. The look on his face was calm, serene, like that of an overgrown black child praying in an Alabama church. He looked blissful, as though God were speaking directly to him. But it wasn’t God’s voice he was hearing; it was the other voice, the one preaching anger and violence.
In less than a flash he wheeled, slamming his huge fist deep into the little man’s stomach. The force of the punch doubled the little man over, sending him reeling hard against the building. He groaned, coughed, spit up blood.
“Friday, by noon,” the black man said, looming over his stricken companion like a dark cloud. “If you don’t have it—all of it—you’re dead meat. You get my drift?”
The little man struggled desperately to refill his lungs with oxygen. “You’ll have it,” he moaned. “The full ten large. I swear.”
“Good. Then that’s settled.”
Just as suddenly, the calm, serene look returned to the black man’s face. With the gentle fingers of a loving father he smoothed the little man’s tie, straightened his collar, then asked, “Now, what was it you wanted to tell me?”
The little man’s trembling hands lit another cigarette. He took a quick puff, exhaled. “Some guy was looking for you earlier tonight. Over at the Cave.”
“You sure he was looking for me?”
“I’m positive. A friend of mine heard him ask Big Lonnie about you.”
“Did your friend happen to catch a name?”
“No. But Big Lonnie sent the guy to Trish. Maybe she can tell you.”
“Trish, huh? And that’s all you can tell me?”
“That’s all I know.”
“Guess I’ll see Trish, then.”
Butterfield’s rated as the number one blues joint in Chicago, perhaps in all of North America. The best professional singers and musicians—individuals and groups—counted this as one of the must venues on their regular schedule. So did any young artist who harbored aspirations of making it to the big time. A gig at Butterfield’s, like an appearance with Leno or Letterman, could provide that desperately needed shot in the arm for up-and-comers.
Collins sat at a table directly across from the front door. Three hours of waiting had left him numbed by the noise and convinced Jefferson wasn’t going to show. The bartender had said Jefferson left on an errand and should have been back by eleven. It was now a quarter till one. Collins debated calling it a night, decided to give it another hour, then leaned back in his chair just as the band finished its set.
The bartender, carrying a tray filled with shot glasses, worked his way in Collins’s direction.
“Have one. It’s on the house,” he said.
“What is it?”
“I call it The Blues Bomber. A little concoction of my own.”
“What’s in it?”
“That’s top-secret information.”
“I’d better pass. It’s too late for surprises.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing.” The bartender looked around. “Derek hasn’t showed yet?”
“Haven’t seen him if he has.”
“Hell, you can’t miss that big galoot.” The bartender shrugged his shoulders. “He should’ve been back by now. It’s not like him to stay away this long.”
“Must’ve gotten tied up.”
“Shouldn’t have. All he had to do was talk to a guy for me. That shouldn’t have taken more than a few minutes.”
“Could he be at another place?”
“Nah. This is Derek’s joint. I can’t imagine what’s keeping him.”
A pretty woman, late twenties, walked past, smiling at him. Collins kept his eyes on her until she disappeared from his view.
“That’s Jamie,” the bartender said. “She’s a regular. Want an introduction? She’d be better company than Jefferson; that I can guarantee you.”
“Better pass,” Collins said, grinning. “Like I said, it’s too late for surprises.” He stood, feeling the blood flow again in his legs. “Maybe I’ll catch up with Jefferson tomorrow.”
“Oh, yeah, he’ll be here. Saturday nights he helps me out. Keeps the rowdies in line.”
Collins walked outside, thankful to leave the noise and smoke behind. His ears were ringing, his eyes burned, his throat felt like parched bark. He took several slow, deep breaths. The cool, clear Chicago air felt good.
He pondered Jefferson’s failure to show. That was troubling. Unexplained absence usually meant something was wrong. Most likely, Jefferson got wind that someone was asking about him. Perhaps Trish wasn’t so good at keeping secrets. Or maybe Jefferson forced the information out of her.
But the violence …
Walking toward the parking lot, past a crowd heading into Butterfield’s, Collins was dogged by an uneasiness clutching at his insides like a steel claw. He felt observed, the watcher being watched. Eyes trailed his every step. He could feel it, like some special sixth sense working in overdrive. Someone was watching him at this very instant.
His survival instincts, especially his hearing, went to Code Red.
That had always been the case, even back in Nam. When danger threatened, when warning signals flashed, he could detect even the smallest, most insignificant sounds from two hundred yards away. Not only detect them, but identify them instantly as either threatening or non-threatening, then react accordingly.
The sound that saved his life came from fifty feet away—a click barely audible to the average person but louder than a cannon blast to him. It came from behind his left shoulder and was immediately classified as menacing.
He dove to the ground a split-second before the bullet shattered the windshield of a BMW. As he scrambled to the other side of the car, a second bullet blew out the left front tire. A third bullet hit the pavement and ricocheted beneath the car.
Collins worked his way down a row of cars until he was in a direct line with his would-be assailant. He felt safe enough to stand; the assassin had had his chance and failed. There wouldn’t be a second opportunity, now or ever. Collins’s eyes, now gray, continued to study the darkness, searching for the shooter. Off to his right, he saw a silhouette moving between buildings and then vanishing into the night. For an instant he thought of giving chase, but quickly decided against it. There was no need to rush. He would have his revenge.
On his terms.
By this time, several bystanders had begun shouting for someone to call the police. Patrons from at least four nearby clubs, drawn to the excitement like passers-by to a bloody accident, flooded out onto the street, oblivious to the potential danger. One man screamed, “Firecracker!” Another said it was gunfire.
Within five minutes two police cars, a Cook County Sheriff’s car and an emergency medical unit, arrived, lights flashing, horns screaming, giving the scene a carnival-like atmosphere. Several men pointed in the direction of the gunfire, while others pointed toward the parking lot. As spotlights scanned both directions, policemen, weapons drawn, began to fan out over the area. Several gawkers tried to follow but were quickly—and forcefully—herded back into the bar.
Collins was far enough away to avoid being hit by the lights. Remaining in the shadows, he worked his way back toward the crowd, quietly slipping in among the curious. No one noticed—or seemed to care—about his sudden appearance. That was fine with him. The last thing he wanted was to be questioned by the police.
“You’re positive it was Jefferson?” Lucas asked, concern registering in his voice.
“Had to be. I’m in Chicago, and this is his turf.”
“You’re very lucky, my boy.”
Collins looked out his hotel window. “Not really. Deke has become careless. His choice of location was terrible. So was that loud-ass weapon he used. I taught him better than that.”
“I’m thankful he was careless. Otherwise, you might be on a slab right now.” Lucas waited several beats before continuing. “What precautions have you taken to ensure this doesn’t happen again? Have you changed hotel rooms?”
“That’s not necessary.”
“You needn’t take any chances. Next time he might not be so sloppy.”
“There won’t be a next time, Lucas.”
“I understand. Do you think Seneca knows about you yet?”
“Hard to say. Deke will undoubtedly make contact with Seneca as soon as possible. So if Seneca doesn’t know about me, it’s only a matter of time until he does.”
“Which only adds a sense of urgency to locating him.”
“And eliminating him.”
“Who would have thought it would come to this—brother against brother?”
“Ever read the first chapter of Genesis, Lucas?”
“I’m familiar with that story. I’m also familiar with the outcome. Cain survives, if I’m correct.”
Lucas waited another beat. “Be wary, my boy. Study the shadows closely.”
“The shadows, Lucas? They’re my sanctuary.”
Kate Marshall entered Collins’s office, slung her shoulder bag onto his desk, opened it, removed two books, and returned them to the bookshelf. Now came the difficult part: finding an old, tattered paperback copy ofThe Brothers Karamazovburied somewhere amid all the clutter. She searched through a multitude of books, on the floor and the shelves, only to come up empty. Next, she plowed through the desk drawers. Still, the famous Russian brothers remained hidden. It wasn’t until she brushed a package off the top of the refrigerator that Dostoyevsky’s classic tale of family trials and tribulations presented itself.
Kate slammed the book into her bag, silently cursing Ivan and his brood for causing her such consternation. Were a bunch of dysfunctional Russians worth all this trouble, anyway? Probably not, although she damn sure couldn’t tell that to her lit class.
Without thinking, she opened the white package that had fallen onto the desk. Inside was a brown folder containing several pieces of correspondence. There were letters, photos, memos, all held together by a single paper clip. Frowning, she studied the bundle and wondered what in the world it could be. None of it looked related in any way to an English or literature class. Or to the college, for that matter. It was some strange-looking stuff, whatever it was.
She removed the first letter, laid the rest of the papers on the desk, and began reading.
THE WHITE HOUSE
March 3, 1968
Lucas White recently informed me that you have agreed to join us in our new project. I’m delighted. I don’t think he could have made a better choice. Your skills, your dedication to the cause of this great nation of ours, and your good work in the past are well-documented and appreciated. I am excited about the task we are undertaking. It is my firm belief that in today’s world there exists a need for what we are doing. These perilous times demand extraordinary action. The project you and Lucas are overseeing will help us maintain the strength to continue as a beacon of freedom and hope in the world.
I have made a firm commitment to the task at hand, and have full confidence that it will be successful.
Congratulations on your recent promotion to the rank of major. It is well-deserved.
Kate read the letter again, slowly this time, finally letting her eyes come to rest on the scribbled initials near the bottom of the page. LBJ.Lyndon Baines Johnson, for christsakes. Only then did she make the connection—a long-gone president and Professor Michael Collins.
But what was the connection? When? At what point in time could the paths of these two men have possibly crossed? In what way? For what reasons? Her curiosity now in high gear, she dove deeper into the folder, holding her breath like a scholar who had directly stumbled onto a rare and ancient manuscript.
On top were twelve color photographs, two close-up face shots for each of six men. She thumbed through them quickly, looking for a picture of Collins. There weren’t any. Beneath the photos were more letters and other official-looking forms. She removed the clip holding them together, took the first letter, and began reading.
May 1, 1968
I was happy to hear that the laborious task of interviewing potential candidates is nearly completed. As I told you in our Tuesday phone conversation, Rear Admiral Cunningham is sending three Seals he thinks can be of help. I trust you will judge their merits before making your final decision.
Plans here in Washington are being finalized. We will set up shop at Aberdeen Proving Grounds. Several alternate sites were proposed, but APG seems the most logical. Have you decided how many candidates will be needed? My feeling is no more than twenty. Of course, in that matter I will yield to your wishes. I should be finished here NLT Sunday, which means I’ll be available to help in the selection process should I be needed.
Please keep me apprised of the situation. I look forward to rejoining you soon.
June 24, 1968
Your list of thirteen looks good to me. I was particularly pleased to see that you included one of Cunningham’s men. That should make him happy, and keep him off my back. Whether we like to admit it or not, politics are always present, even in a project such as this.
Teach them well.
July 2, 1968
Orders are being cut at this moment for your return to Vietnam. You should have them by Friday. Sorry we had to rush things, but recent events have put a sense of urgency on everything. People are running around the War Room with blood in their eyes.
I’m sure you will be more than happy to return to those God-forsaken jungles. As for me, I have mixed emotions. When I think I fought alongside your father and will now be fighting alongside you, well, you can imagine how old that makes me feel. I’m not sure war is for old men. But duty calls, so you’ll be seeing my smiling face more than you care to.
One other matter. Some are wondering if six men are enough. Are you positive that’s all you’ll need? Remember, even our Savior needed twelve. Give this matter some consideration. If you are comfortable with six, we’ll proceed as planned. Please advise.
January 25, 1969
Just finished briefing Nixon’s people. They appear to be even more enthusiastic about the project than their predecessors were. I have a feeling the kind of work we’re doing is right up their alley. They seem to have a thirst for blood that many in LBJ’s crowd lacked. RN, the “Dark Prince,” is a man I’ve known for almost two decades, since he was a congressman. I’ve never much cared for the man, and I wouldn’t trust him under any set of circumstances. Having said that, I can’t argue with the enthusiasm he and his fellow henchmen showed when informed of this project. It almost rivaled that of the Kennedy brothers, and God knows JFK and Bobby certainly had an affinity for wet ops. As I have learned after many years in this business, you dance with certain devils in order to kill other devils.
I’ll see you in about a month.
August 10, 1970
Everyone here is raving about the success of Operation Clean Sweep. One CIA big shot called it state of the art. Jolly good show. The green light has been given for Operation Silent Night. It is my understanding that you plan to proceed within the next three weeks.
Keep me advised, and let me know if there is anything you or your men need. Lucas
P.S. As for that other matter, it is still under consideration.
March 3, 1971
I have passed along your blueprint for Operation Fallen Angels. It is being met with near-unanimous approval. I must add, however, that I have some reservations, which I shall discuss with you in detail at a later date.
I ran into your father yesterday. He is doing well and sends his love.
It is my understanding that Ted Shackley has informed you that Operation Fallen Angels is off. I’m sure he also informed you that I had the deciding vote and that I cast mine against proceeding. No doubt you are steaming—I know you well enough to know that.
My vote was cast not so much against the mission, but rather in consideration of your safety. I cannot convince myself that it’s anything less than a suicide mission. I simply don’t see how you and your men can get into Hanoi, do what needs to be done, then get out safely. And the logistics trouble me. How would you get to Hanoi in the first place? Up from the South, down from the North, from the West?