Randall Yearwood opened the door with his foot.
The action saved his life.
Five slugs from a silenced .22 tore through the wooden slats. Splinters blasted from the doorframe hurtled past him into the Indian night, the air moist from an onshore breeze.
He dove to the ground with agility surprising for a man nearing fifty.
In the split second he’d eased the door open, Yearwood glimpsed smoke curling from the closet at the back. Still prone, he fired his own weapon, an odd pistol the color of goldenrod and made of a Celazole, a space-age material. The weapon discharged with a loud CHUFF. Acrid smoke, smelling more like a welder’s torch than gunpowder, unfurled from the barrel like bluish spider silk.
Yearwood slithered toward the door with the caution of an aging athlete. His weight was close to two hundred pounds, mostly muscle, held in check by exercise and discipline. He pressed his body flat, grimacing as the damp sand ground into his tailored linen suit.
With a surgeon’s meticulousness, he extended his gun hand onto the cement stoop.
He fired three more times. CHUFF. CHUFF. CHUFF.
Wheezing grunts followed a sharp yelp. His bullets had struck their target.
Yearwood cautiously eased the door open with his pistol barrel.
A simple room. A bare incandescent bulb jittered from the uncertain electricity, illuminating an iron-frame bed draped with mosquito netting. Crude teak furniture.
His foe, still concealed behind the half-opened closet door, made no response other than the rasping grunts.
Yearwood wriggled backward on his stomach, dirt working its way into his salt-and-pepper beard.
The murmur of the surf blurred into the buzz of insects and faint strains of a celebration wafting from the outskirts of nearby Panjimi. The night was astonishingly dark, penetrated only by streaks of distant lightning and the glow from waves lit by phosphorescent plankton. The air was dense, redolent with the fragrance of night-blooming jasmine.
Yearwood’s breath came easily as he slowly rose, unhastened by either exertion or fear. Mugginess, not sweat, brought a sheen to his espresso-colored skin.
Something crashed through the underbrush behind him.
Yearwood dropped into a crouch, his pistol tracking the commotion.
A smile split his fierce concentration as a wild sow and three piglets broke through the bushes. They scurried back into the darkness,
Relieved, he brushed the sand from his beard and suit.
He circled stealthily around the stucco building, searching for an open window.
No movement nor even a sound from his adversary.
Yearwood paused. He resembled a philosopher, contemplating some obscure and perhaps frivolous problem rather than a professional assassin pursuing a man who wanted to kill him.
Only insects and bats stirred in the scattering of one-storey buildings – the staff and remaining guests had all gone into town for the festival.
He stooped beneath the far window, then jiggled the screen sash just enough to ensure the man inside would notice.
Leaping away, he awaited another hail of bullets.
He wiggled a log loose from its garden-border mooring, hefted it to his shoulder, then hurled it through the screen.
In the gap made through the curtains, Yearwood spotted his quarry, doubled up in the closet. He returned to the front of the bungalow and eased himself through the door.
Yearwood sprinted around the edge of the room, pistol at the ready. Taking a deep breath, he flung open the closet door and jammed his pistol into his victim’s temple.
Groaning softly, arms clutched around his middle, the man did not reach for the suppressor-equipped .22 that lay beside him.
Exit wounds had flared into a large crimson blossom on the back shoulder of his camouflage tunic. The man was darker-skinned than Yearwood, though his features had a distinctly Oriental cast. His coal-black hair lay in thick waves across his head. His face was full, the lips plump, and even in agony his eyes had a soft languor. His features made his age ambiguous. He might have been in his early thirties. Or maybe late forties. He certainly did not fit the image of a hardened guerrilla leader who had spent the last decade slogging through jungles evading helicopters and native trackers.
Though that was indeed who he was.
The man’s eyes flickered as he struggled to work his expression into a smirk. Agony won, forcing him to settle on a grimace.
“It do not matter,” the man wheezed. “Money you people give bullshit government . . .”
A slug had punctured one of his lungs. Maybe it had collapsed.
Yearwood’s expression softened, sympathetic in the knowledge that his enemy’s suffering was genuine. Nevertheless, he kept his pistol tightly aimed.
The man’s voice was barely louder than a whisper and his thick accent made his speech almost unintelligible.
Yearwood froze. “What money, Jobim?”
He drew closer, his face tensing. He drilled the pistol into Jobim’s temple.
“General Maningrat seventeen million dollar. You company pay to kill our people. You piss it away. General never get it.” The man chuckled hoarsely, the sound rattling in his chest. “Never never never.”
The blood-spumed coughing fit that followed was a small price to pay for the malice he derived from taunting Yearwood. Around Jobim’s neck was a knotted leather thong with some sort of ivory amulet. Obviously, the talisman’s protective power was bogus.
“What are you talking about? How do you know who I work for?”
Yearwood could no longer resist. He shoved his pistol into his belt and grabbed Jobim by the lapels. Blood from entrance wounds converged like crimson anemones across Jobim’s front.
Yearwood dragged him into the middle of the room.
“Where is our money?” he demanded.
Jobim’s head lolled in the collar of his tunic, He flinched in pain and refused to answer, biting his rich, full lips.
“Tell me and I’ll save your life. I’ll get you to a hospital.” Yearwood’s well-modulated voice grew ragged, echoes of a Brooklyn accent coarsened from the strain of unkeepable promises.
He crouched and ripped Jobim’s tunic open. Buttons skittered across the pale flagstones. Distress puckered Yearwood’s expression at the quantity of blood soaking his victim’s undervest.
“We rebel . . . also . . . have most good friend in you company. Not sonbitch like you.” Jobim was forced to gasp for breath, at first between his words and finally between each syllable. “Most . . . good friend to . . . my people . . . help us get our country back . . . drive . . . drive . . .”
“Someone inside the company? A traitor? Who?” he shouted at the dying man. Tell me!”
Yearwood was an individual who loathed surprises and rarely encountered them because he micromanaged away all uncertainty before embarking on any mission. Jobim’s revelation provoked him into a state approaching recklessness.
“I’ll see you get a decent burial. Provide for your family. Please, please. Give me his name. Her name. A clue. Just one initial.”
Jobim’s lips contorted into a wobbly gash of triumph. His eyes slid upwards in their sockets.
Yearwood dropped to his knees and cradled Jobim’s head between them.
Jobim coughed hoarsely, sighed.
Oblivious to the blood staining his fine linen suit, Yearwood straddled the unbreathing man and forced his own breath through Jobim’s now pliant lips. Pressed the motionless chest.
To no avail.
He knew a hundred ways to terminate someone’s life but was a complete amateur at prolonging it.
After several minutes he rose, breathing heavily, disgusted by his own now bloody face and clothes.
He pulled a pair of latex gloves from his pocket, he donned them and searched the room in an organized frenzy.
Jobim traveled light; Yearwood discovered little.
Camouflage clothes hanging in the closet. A cheap canvas bag under the bed. Nothing in it nor even space for secret compartments. A nylon shaving kit with Indonesian toiletries. A carton of clove cigarettes.
Yearwood stood in the center of the room, contemplating.
The light bulb continued to flicker with a dozen different shades of brightness. It animated Jobim’s cooling corpse with a peculiar ersatz simulation of life.
Suddenly inspired, Yearwood crossed to the bed and started to unroll the mosquito netting.
There was indeed a lump in the upper left hand corner. He withdrew a Damascus Laguiole knife from his pocket and slashed the netting away. A string-tied bundle fell out.
Yearwood cut the string with the knife and carefully separated the items.
Jobim’s billfold, fat with rupees. An Australian passport made out to Joseph Ng. An around-the-world plane ticket, originating in Port Moresby, and continuing through Goa, Frankfurt, London, New York, San Francisco and Honolulu.
One-half of a torn Asahi beer coaster.
It had to be the token Jobim would have presented to his contact. The traitor inside Yearwood’s firm who would possess the matching half.
Two Swiss passports in the names of Caspar and Judith Schütz.
So the traitor had an accomplice. According to the documents, Caspar was forty-one and his wife thirty-two. The passports were already colorful with visas and entry permits, but lacked photographs. There were also two plane tickets for Mr. and Mrs. Schütz, one-way from JFK to Dominica the following Wednesday evening. The same Wednesday Jobim had been scheduled to land in New York.
Yearwood returned to the passports and studied the blank spaces where the photographs were to go. He tried to visualize the faces the gaps might contain. His brow furrowed, his lips tightened from withheld curses.
At last, he broke away.
He took a plastic bag filled with grey clay-like material from his jacket pocket and removed it. He kneaded the mass until it was pliable. He then coated Jobim’s motionless face with oil from a small vial, rubbing it carefully from the fallen man’s brow to chin.
With an artist’s delicacy, Yearwood applied the grey substance to Jobim’s unbreathing features, shaping the material until an even layer spread from chin to scalp.
As Yearwood waited for the substance to harden into a striking death mask, he again studied the Schütz passports, the minimal clues to the turncoat or turncoats inside his organization.
His concentration was so intense that a dozen mosquitoes landed on his exposed flesh and, unmolested, feasted on his blood.
“Bring a passport photograph but not your passport,” Thomas Catherton Lockhart had instructed Meghan Joyce the previous week.
Which was easy because, like so many Americans, she never had one?
“And a small carry-on with a few clean knickers and your favorite cosmetics,” he continued. “We’ll buy you a complete new wardrobe and whatever it is in all those bottles when we get there. We should be gone for three weeks.”
He smiled the wry smile that so endeared him to her. “Let us see how many shades of wonderful we can attain.”
She had spent several days in a cycle of excitement. Of speculative eagerness as his words attenuated into feeling, then yet other bursts of happiness as she mentally replayed his instructions.
“You have gorgeous red hair,” a young banker proclaimed.
His smug voice disrupted Meghan’s reverie, and she tried to bring her surroundings back in focus: the grand ballroom of the Lady Liberty, a triple-decked party ship that plied the waters around Manhattan. On a seemingly endless circuit upon the Hudson and East Rivers, the vessel catered singles dances and corporate office parties. Although the Lady Liberty had all the charm of a chain motel, the tightly-knit crew was the closest Meghan had ever come to a family.
She turned her attention to the banker, finding it difficult to tell where the storm-aggravated yaw of the ship ended and his drunkenness began. Filaments of scotch sloshed from his glass onto his crimson stirrup tie.
He took her disorientation to mean that she had not heard the compliment and repeated it loudly. “You have the most gorgeous red hair.”
“I’m afraid it’s tawny,” Meghan corrected him.
Though its shade was closer to strawberry blonde, she had a redhead’s temper, especially when called one. Nevertheless, storms brought out forgiveness in her, and delicious anticipation of her impending rendezvous with Thomas rendered her giddily immune from suggestive overtures, even insults.
“What?” asked the banker, befuddled by her response.
“Haven’t you ever heard the word ‘tawny’?”
“Like a lion?” The banker could not have been older than twenty-five, but he ogled Meghan as if she were eighteen, a more than dozen years younger than she really was.
“Exactly,” she replied. “But thanks for the compliment anyway.”
When she spoke slowly, it was hard to tell that she had been born and spent most of her life in Queens. She wondered why it was that, until recently, the only men who ever seemed to find her attractive were either very drunk or very desperate.
With a swirl of black taffeta, she hurried away.
The banker called out half-coherent entreaties, his drink-flushed face turning a deeper pink.
Meghan resumed her hostess duties, smiling appropriately at the queasy guests, but her thoughts immediately returned to Thomas. Never in her life had she had anything to anticipate, neither holidays nor honors or anniversaries.
Meghan was thirty-five years old and ground down by grim experience. By meeting so many jerks. By meeting seemingly nice men who later turned out to be jerks. By futilely pursuing secret jerks who did not wish to be pursued and remaining oblivious to their rebuffs. The more she tried to deny her desperation, the more desperate she had become.
Her outlook had not been improved by her happily married cousin Moira’s warning: if Meghan were not careful, she would soon reach the age when an unmarried woman was more likely to be struck by a meteor than find a sane and healthy unattached male.
Meghan had dismissed her cousin’s prophecy with an uneasy laugh.
Then suddenly Meghan was twenty-nine. Though she finally had a job that did not fill her with self-loathing, she had arrived at a drab plateau, filled with millions of other women, all searching for the same elusive Prince Charming. Women who had far more to offer, with whom she claimed no kinship beyond gender but who nevertheless provided a troubling projection of her own future. In a number of women several generations above her, she saw a trajectory of loneliness laid out before her. A life not uncomfortable, but fulfilling nothing in particular, until she passed into oblivion, isolated and unnoticed except for perhaps a pet cat or twenty.
As she shielded herself from the drunken revelry around her, Meghan realized her tolerance for solitude was now far greater than her tolerance for masculine idiocy. Fending for herself instilled an exhilarating independence. The gnawing and nagging doubt ceased, replaced by freedom to work on all the neglected aspects of herself. She felt as if she had been Mrs. Marley’s ghost, suddenly shedding massive iron chains of doubt and depression.
Life in Manhattan, cleansed of desperation, became joyous instead.
Her exalted state lasted only a few weeks, not to collapse, but instead to be elevated to a higher level.
Another banker, mojito in hand, staggering more from alcohol than from the sway of the boat, approached her.
Sensing his presence, she stared even more intently through the sliding glass doors onto the afterdeck.
Exactly one year ago, during a similar dinner cruise, she had met Thomas.
After three years working for the cruise line, Meghan had already been promoted to hostess.
The previous July, Captain Hofmeister, a ruddy man in his fifties, professionally crusty and personally warm, had informed her that the cruise that evening was for their most important Wall Street client.
To her, the cruise evening seemed like any other corporate event, the clientele wealthy, jejune, completely interchangeable, especially in their dismissal of the enormous effort the crew exerted into ensuring they enjoyed their affair.
Through the glass doors leading to the afterdeck, she had spotted Thomas, in tuxedo and cummerbund, perched absurdly atop the taffrail.
An impending storm was already spattering the deck. The breeze was light and the swell moderate, not enough to be dangerous, but enough to make his position precarious.
She had rushed out onto the stern. “Listen, sweetheart,” she cried out. “Whatever you’re planning to do, you sure as hell aren’t going to do it on my ship, on my watch.”
Thomas’s concentration made him oblivious to Meghan as he declaimed into the night. “‘My spirit’s bark is driven, far from the shore, far from the trembling throng, whose sails –’”
His rich English baritone enchanted Meghan. Nevertheless, she grabbed his damp tuxedo coattails.
“I can’t very well topple gracefully into the river,” he protested, “if you won’t let go of my tuxedo,”.
Meghan refused to release her grip.
“You are not going to –”
She yanked him back onto the deck with the force of an angry schoolmistress.
Thomas allowed himself to teeter back onto the deck. He stumbled and righted himself. Brushing his coat back into smoothness, he stared down, nearly a foot taller than she.
The George Washington Bridge, glowing behind him like a misty Gothic vision, granted his profile a chiseled jauntiness. Raindrops bejeweled his curly black hair.
“– screw it up,” Meghan managed to finish, her reprimand reduced to a mumble, her breath taken away by Thomas’s classic features.
He turned again to the Hudson.
“‘– were never to the tempest given. The massy earth . . . ’” and then to Meghan. “Shelley, you know.”
Meghan swayed, unable to take her eyes off his face.
He paused, placing his hand on her arm. She felt her body tingle, as if some exotic electricity were coursing through her.
“Are you unwell?”
He seemed oblivious to her concern for his own safety.
“I don’t know,” Meghan mumbled.
Their roles reversed; she was now the tongue-tied schoolgirl.
“There now. Relax,” he reassured her. “The wind’s calming.”
“Were you trying to commit suicide?”
Even in the darkness she could see his wry, rueful smile,