Destroyer 126: Air Raid
By Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir
It was only three-quarters of an inch long, but it was more destructive than a billion atomic bombs the size of the one dropped on Hiroshima. At least that's what the scientist sitting before him claimed. But if there was one thing he'd learned in life, it was that a lot of times scientists said things that weren't exactly the unvarnished truth.
"Are you sure? Are you absolutely, positively, one hundred percent sure?" Hubert St. Clair asked.
"I wouldn't say it if it wasn't true, Dr. St. Clair," replied the young scientist. The precious object was clamped snugly between the slender steel tips of a small pair of medical forceps.
When he saw the sudden withering look on Hubert St. Clair's face, the scientist suddenly remembered whom he was talking to.
Dr. Hubert St. Clair was the head of the Congress of Concerned Scientists, a group of pseudoscience worshipers that specialized in issuing dire predictions on epic, global scales, none of which ever seemed to actually come true.
"Oh," said the young scientist, offering a weak apologetic smile.
Dr. Brice Schumar was still holding his tight smile as St. Clair wordlessly pulled the forceps from the embarrassed scientist's hand. Lifting his glasses up to his forehead, he brought the tiny object close to his nearsighted eyes.
It looked like an ordinary plant seed.
The seed was a bluish purple. The two halves of its perfectly symmetrical bifurcated body were separated by a deep groove. One end was round; the other terminated in a blunted point. At the rounded end sat a fat blob of perfect azure.
St. Clair had never seen a more beautiful blue. His sour expression slowly melted back to joy. He stared, captivated by the little blue seed and all it represented. "It's magnificent," Dr. St. Clair said softly.
Squinting his right eye, he held the seed up to his left. It was just small enough to blot out his pupil. His reddish-brown iris and bloodshot white were still visible.
"It was a lot of work," Dr. Schumar replied.
The tiny seed shifted, and Hubert St. Clair's pupil reappeared. "I wasn't talking to you," he said, his look of intense displeasure returning. "And this seed coat looks tough. You better not have the same coumartling problem you had a couple of years ago."
The scientist shook his head. "Coumarin," Schumar corrected. "And there are virtually no antiauxins present at all. Didn't you, um, read my report?"
"No time," St. Clair said with a dismissive wave of the seed-gripping forceps. "We in the governing body of the CCS can't be bothered with dusty old reports. We're out there in the scientific trenches, verbally engaging the Katie Courics and Oprah Winfreys of the world. And ever since the tragic, untimely end of our latest and greatest member, we've all been pulling double duty."
Of course Dr. Schumar knew precisely whom St. Clair was talking about. None other than the legend himself, Sage Carlin. At one time the most famous scientist in the entire world. The deceased CCS elder had been an outspoken member of the scientific community and a celebrity mouthpiece for the Congress of Concerned Scientists since the 1960s. Carlin had also-to Dr. Brice Schumar's knowledge-never once let his passion for environmental issues be clouded by a single fact. His version of science was all conjecture and hope masquerading as truth.
When he was alive, Carlin had wagged a hectoring finger at the world about everything from ocean warming to dumping toxic waste to deforestation. His had been a life of easily digestible factoids and buzzwords, embraced by the ruling cultural class and fastfood, quick-fix Americans with MTV attention spans.
In his darkest heart, which he dared not reveal to anyone else within the CCS, Dr. Brice Schumar had hoped that with the passing of Sage Carlin five years earlier, the congress would abandon its former leader's love of sloppy science and turn to a more reasoned approach of addressing the ills of the world. Even though Carlin's showy claims garnered much attention, they were ultimately very destructive to the credibility of real scientists. After all, a mile-wide asteroid hadn't destroyed Atlantic City, cow flatulence wasn't depleting the mesosphere and the sun hadn't exploded. Schumar knew that this last claim of Carlin's had relied on particularly sloppy science, seeing as how it was made after he'd watched a screening of the film Superman in the CCS theater.
When he learned Carlin had died, Dr. Schumar was ashamed of the quiet relief the news gave him. His hopes for a return of serious scientific thought in the world headquarters of the CCS in Geneva were shortlived.
He couldn't exactly remember when he first noticed the trend, or who started it. He only realized what was happening one afternoon at the Swiss headquarters when he spotted a fellow scientist sporting a dusty corduroy jacket with wide lapels. In the ensuing weeks, a handful of similarly clothed men became a dozen. Then a multitude. Until nearly everyone in the Geneva labs and offices was wearing the same uniform.
It was the curse of Sage Carlin.
The world-famous scientist and activist had a unique sense of style. Dr. Schumar had always thought of it as a sort of antifashion. In addition to an omnipresent corduroy jacket, Carlin wore a thick turtleneck sweater, always in the darker shades of green or earth tones. He wore powder-blue jeans that were always hopelessly out of fashion. They were tight in the thighs and rump and wide as church bells around his sandals. The 1970s lived on into the nineties, at least sartorially, on the body of Sage Carlin. In homage to their fallen leader, his troops at the CCS adopted Sage Carlin's mode of dress.
Dr. Hubert St. Clair was no exception.
As head of the CCS, St. Clair ensured his lapels were always the widest, his bell-bottoms the biggest. To preserve some sense of scholarship, his jackets always seemed to smell vaguely of chalk dust, even though it had been a long time since the former professor had seen an actual blackboard.
In Brice Schumar's lab, Hubert St. Clair was still studying the single blue seed.
"I see," Dr. Schumar said, clearing his throat. "If you haven't read my report, then there's something that you might be interested in seeing." An anxious smile flickered at the corners of his lips.
"What?" St. Clair asked.
"Trust me," Dr. Schumar insisted, a flush of excitement rising in his cheeks. "You have to see this." St. Clair reluctantly put down the forceps and the beautiful blue seed. He allowed Dr. Schumar to lead him out into the hall.
They traveled deep into the bowels of the CCS complex, stopping outside the sealed double doors to the greenhouse.
"We know absolutely now that the problem with the last batch was overproduction of antiauxins," Dr. Schumar said as he punched the code into the keypad of the greenhouse doors. "The growth hormones couldn't be released. So while the plants we engineered grew to maturity, they couldn't reproduce without monumental help from us. In effect, they were sterile."
"No kidding," St. Clair muttered.
There seemed something more behind his words. St. Clair kept far from the door as Schumar entered the code. He eyed the panel with mistrust.
A red light above the door winked out and a green light clicked on. There was a hiss as the hermetic seal on the door popped. The two thick plastic panels parted.
"Those early trees were a learning experience," Schumar stressed as they stepped inside.
The double doors shut automatically behind them. St. Clair almost jumped out of his skin when they did. They were in a small control room. A second set of doors-this one of thicker plastic compositeblocked their path.
"Learning is overrated in science these days," St. Clair said as Dr. Schumar entered a second code into the next security pad. "The smartest people I've ever known are complete morons."
Another hiss and the main greenhouse doors whooshed open.
The first thing that hit Hubert St. Clair was the smell. It burned his nostrils and seared his eyes. "Sweet Georgia Brown, what is that?" St. Clair demanded, gagging on the fumes. His eyes watered. "Ammonia with a touch of methane," Schumar explained.
The burning air didn't seem to bother the young scientist. He had spent too many hours in the greenhouse to even notice it any longer. He ducked inside. Dr. St. Clair trailed reluctantly.
"Smells like my grandma's bathroom closet," St. Clair complained, pulling a handkerchief from the pocket of his corduroy coat. He stuffed the hankie over his nose and mouth.
"She stored cleaning materials there, I imagine," Schumar said. "The skylights and fans can clear most of the air in here in less than a minute, but the ammonia lingers. We might have made this greenhouse unusable for future projects."
St. Clair merely grunted beneath his handkerchief. The CCS greenhouse was colossal. Sunlight sparkled off the angled roof far above. Fans, sprinklers and sensory equipment were attached to the fat girders that spanned the massive structure. All helped to carefully control and maintain the artificial environment.
The skylights were all open, a necessity given the unique danger the greenhouse presented.
At the center of the huge greenhouse, hundreds of trees were lined up like patient soldiers. Schumar led St. Clair into the meticulously maintained forest.
The trees in the CCS greenhouse were unlike any seen in nature. Although the shapes of leaf and trunk were familiar, the color was all wrong.
The leaves were the thin blue of a cloudless lateafternoon summer sky. The trunks were a dark midnight blue.
"You haven't been here since before the most recent growth cycle, have you?" Dr. Schumar asked.
"No," St. Clair replied.
He hadn't been to the greenhouse in months. The trees stretched up from a series of squat rectangular boxes filled with chemically treated soil. The tallest was now almost thirty feet high. The last time St. Clair had seen them, the biggest was less than ten feet.
St. Clair was struck by the beauty of the trees. "Only God can make one of these, my ass," he said under his breath.
They were breathtaking. Absolutely breathtaking. The instant the word formed in his brain he realized how true it was. On every level.
"They're growing faster with each passing cycle," Schumar was saying. "Frankly, the growth spurts in a tree this age are incredible. And even a little disconcerting when you think about it." As he looked up at the soft blue leaves of the trees, his face was grave. "I'm glad we have them under lock and key. There's no telling what might-"
"Wait a minute," Hubert St. Clair interrupted all at once. "What the hell is that?"
Even as he pointed up under a tightly bundled knot of leaves, he was scrambling onto the edge of a planting box.
It became more difficult to breathe the closer he got to the trees. He had been told they needed to be spaced far apart in the beds. If they were any closer together, it would be impossible to breathe while standing between them.
Head tipped back, St. Clair examined the underside of the leaf cluster.
Some kind of blue growths had sprouted up on the branches. Hidden beneath the leaves, they looked almost like bumpy beehives. He didn't see any insects.
"Dammit, you've got some kind of infestation here," St. Clair snapped. "Get some DDT before we lose these blasted things altogether."
Brice Schumar didn't move. He just stood there on the greenhouse floor, an idiot's grin plastered across his face.
"Look closer," he suggested.
Nose crinkling, St. Clair peered more carefully at the cluster of abandoned hives clinging together on the underside of an overhanging branch. When he realized what he was looking at, he nearly fell off the raised plant bed.
It was the sheer number of them that had thrown him. But he saw now that they were all identical to the one he'd seen just a few minutes before in Schumar's lab. Seeds. Tons of them.
"Are these all seeds?" Hubert St. Clair croaked.
"They came with the latest growth spurt," Schumar said. "Thousands on each tree. It was in my report."
St. Clair slipped around the far side of the tree. Another cluster of seeds clutched a branch on the other side. Still others were visible higher up.
A second tree grew a few feet away in the same bed. St. Clair saw more of the teardrop-shaped blue seedlets clinging all over the branches.
Numbly, he climbed down from the bed. His mind was reeling.
"What about the seed coats?" St. Clair asked. "They look like leather."
"Not a problem," Schumar said excitedly. "They're tough-looking but easily penetrated by water. We had a lingering of some chemical inhibitors prior to germination, but that's been eliminated. Now the growth inhibitors are easily bleached away by the introduction of water."
"Just regular water?" St. Clair asked.
"Tap water, rainwater. It's all the same," Schumar said. "Of course, that's not going to be good enough for all alien climates. And at this point it wouldn't even work for some of Jupiter's moons or Mars, since we've got ice to contend with there. The next generations of the plants will have to be weaned from water."
"Weaned?" St. Clair asked, coming back around.
"Well, that was the whole point of growing them," Schumar said. "Eventually developing an oxygen-producing strain that could help terraform an alien world."
"Yes, yes. Of course," St. Clair said gruffly. He stabbed a finger at a seed cluster. "Get me a bunch of these. I want to dissect them in my office."
Schumar was surprised and relieved by St. Clair's sudden interest in legitimate scientific inquiry. Maybe with this one, great project the Congress of Concerned Scientists could return to its founding principles and finally put to eternal rest the destructive ghost of Sage Carlin.
"Yes, Doctor," Schumar said. He scurried obediently onto the nearest raised plant bed.
As he happily picked seeds, he saw Hubert St. Clair hurry out the open door of the greenhouse. Probably the ammonia smell. Most people couldn't take it for very long. Even the little seeds he was slipping into the pocket of his white lab coat smelled vaguely of the stuff.
His hand was snaking for another clutch of tiny seeds when he was startled by the sound of the overhead alarm.
Dr. Schumar thrust his face out through a bundle of blue leaves. The red light was flashing a warning even as the greenhouse doors were sliding slowly shut.
Of all the people on the face of the planet, Dr. Brice Schumar understood best what it meant to be on the wrong side of those closing doors.
The seeds in his hands slipped from his terrified fingers. Jumping down from the plant bed, he ran for the door, lungs burning from the ammonia in the air.
The thick plastic doors clicked shut just as he reached them. There was a hiss as the automatic seal inflated to prevent vapor from seeping out of the greenhouse to where Hubert St. Clair sat uncomfortably.
The warning alarm switched off.
"Dr. St. Clair!" Schumar shouted, pounding on the door.
There was an environmental control panel in the alcove between the two sets of double doors. As Schumar watched helplessly, Hubert St. Clair began picking at the buttons. The very act of touching them seemed to bring him pain.
Schumar heard a rumble from above. Spinning, wild-eyed, he saw the skylights begin to slide remorselessly shut. Like the thick greenhouse doors, they clicked then hissed, becoming airtight. Even as the skylights were sealing, St. Clair was switching on the interior speakers.
"You've done a good job," St. Clair said, his voice distorted by the speaker next to the door.
"Let me out," Schumar begged. "Please." The air was already growing thin. Panic flooded his chest as he struggled to breathe.
Carlin shook his head. "Can't," he said. "I know you've done a lot of tests, but there's really only one we're interested in. And you're the perfect subject. You never really fit in around here, Schumar. You and your scientific method and your facts this and facts that. Always looking down your nose at the rest of us like we weren't real scientists." His expression suddenly grew as cold as ice. "Do I look like a real scientist to you now, Dr. Schumar?"
There was touch of madness deep in his red eyes. Brice Schumar began beating his fists against the plastic door. His lungs were on fire, his throat raw. The air was evaporating.
His hands and wrists ached. He stopped hitting the door.
"Please," Brice wept. The word was inaudible. Beyond the pane, Hubert St. Clair watched, growing more disinterested with each passing minute. He seemed more concerned with the equipment he was using. As if there were some infection he could get just by touching it. He wrapped his finger tightly in his handkerchief to avoid direct contact with the buttons.
Brice Schumar didn't know how long it took him to die. With each labored breath he felt the air grow thinner. Slipping out until the last oxygen was gone. Until all that was left was poison.
The air was thick with ammonia and methane. The worst was the carbon dioxide. The colorless, odorless gas flooded the interior of the greenhouse.
His lungs were lead as he sank slowly to the floor. A crimson rash decorated his face around his nose and mouth. With dying eyes, Dr. Brice Schumar gazed over at the small grove of trees. Trees he had helped create.
Amazing that so few could do so much damage. In a lucid part of his rapidly clouding brain, he felt relief that he hadn't grown more. Obviously, Hubert St. Clair was a maniac. With more trees he could-
Schumar suddenly caught sight of a cluster of seeds.
The seeds. St. Clair had thousands of seeds.
Dr. Brice Schumar's lungs pulled one last time at the oxygen that was no longer there, and he tipped over onto the plain dirt floor of the CCS greenhouse.
IN THE SAFETY of the control room, Hubert St. Clair looked at the digital clock buried in the console. He kept his distance from the device. He liked clocks about as much as he trusted the buttons on the control panel.
"Precisely thirty-one minutes," he announced to himself. "Now who's the real scientist?" His proud smile evaporated. "Oh. Wait." He scrunched up his face as he examined the clock. "Or was it forty-one? Oh, damn, I lost count."
He pulled his eyes away from the clock. Like most digital devices, looking at it made him extremely uncomfortable.
With an angry frown he wrapped his finger in his hankie once more. Reaching for the control panel, he began to vent the alien atmosphere from the greenhouse.
His name was Remo and he was trying to do his good deed of the day. But, to his increasing annoyance, the day was stubbornly refusing to cooperate.
The sidewalks of New York were packed with people. A steady stream filled the slushy walkways and flooded the crosswalks. Cars clogged the streets, all spewing smoke and honking horns and cursing drivers. Unlike the people, the cars never seemed to move. They were part of the backdrop, like the towering buildings or the glimpses of grimy gray sky that lurked above the entire scene like the billowing cape of some wintry phantom.
Remo wasn't watching the sky or the buildings or the cars. As he strolled along the sidewalk, he was watching the people. Few pedestrians returned his gaze. Most were too wrapped up in the holiday bustle to give a stranger a second glance. Not that there was anything extraordinary about Remo to warrant more than a single quick look.
Remo was a thin man of indeterminate age. He was of average height with short, dark hair and a face that regularly skirted the line between ordinary and cruel.
The only two things outwardly odd about him were his abnormally thick wrists-which he rotated absently as he walked-and his clothes. In spite of the fact that it was mid-December, Remo wore a thin black cotton T-shirt and matching chinos. Odd, yes, but in New York City, odd was fairly easily accepted. After all, there was a lot worse than Remo.
And so the man in the T-shirt was either seen and dismissed or not seen at all as he glided alone up the packed sidewalk.
As a general rule Remo didn't like Manhattan. Worse was Manhattan at Christmastime. The whole holiday rush was a nightmare he would have just as soon avoided altogether. But the circumstances of his life had conspired to plop him down into the busiest city in the world at the absolute worst time of the year.
Remo was a Master of Sinanju. On the verge of becoming the Reigning Master of Sinanju, the titular head of the most ancient house of assassins in the history of mankind.
He thought he had already become Reigning Master two months ago. After all, the time had felt right. And he had been told that every Master knew instinctively when the time was right. So that should have been that. But things never worked out so easily for Remo Williams.
He soon learned that he was technically the Transitional Reigning Master. There were obligations prior to his ascension that would have to be met before he could officially assume the title of Reigning Master and all of the awesome responsibilities the position entailed. One of those things, which had brought him to Manhattan this day, seemed to be at odds with everything he had been taught.
Sinanju assassins were the pinnacle of the profession. Only two existed per generation-Master and pupil-and the training regimen they endured endowed them with abilities that seemed superhuman to the average man. The fear and mystery that surrounded the very thought of the Sinanju Master had been carefully cultivated over five millennia. Remo sometimes thought the perception had as much to do with marketing hype as it did with the truth.
The one constant that had persisted throughout the ages was that Masters of Sinanju were consummate professionals. They were paid handsomely for their services, since only fools and amateurs worked free. And yet, here was Remo Williams, professional assassin, looking this day to deliver a freebie.
Just what he had to do, he had no idea. But according to his teacher, he had to do something nice for someone. Of course, his teacher didn't come right out and say that. No. That would have been easy. Instead, he had prattled on for three hours about honor and obligation, duty and commitment, before finally getting around to the point. And so after three hours-180 of the longest, most painful minutes he had endured in years-Remo had culled the word nice.
Maybe it was something simple. As he walked along, face drawn in a deep frown, he noticed a woman struggling near the curb. In her arms she balanced a stack of boxes wrapped in shining green-and-red Rudolph paper. A cab was parked near her. The driver sat at the wheel, refusing to help.
Remo trotted up to the sweating woman. "Can I give you a hand, ma'am?"
He was amazed at how fast she moved.
The woman wheeled like a street fighter. "This is my cab," she snarled, even as she flung her precious packages to the snow. From her pocket she whipped out a can of pepper spray which she proceeded to squirt at Remo's eyes.
Remo ducked away from the spray. "Geez, lady, I was only offering to help," he complained.
Behind him, the squirted stream struck a hapless pedestrian square in the face. Screaming in pain, the unlucky businessman dropped to the ground in the fetal position. The moving crowd didn't even see him. People stepped right over him and continued down the sidewalk.
Before Remo, the woman scowled. She wasn't used to missing a target. "Stand still," she commanded.
Another squirt hit a superthin, impeccably dressed female pedestrian in the side of the face. Yelping in pain, the injured woman whipped out her own can of pepper spray. The two women proceeded to spritz each other like gunslingers at the OK Corral.
Remo danced lightly between them. Other pedestrians caught in the cross fire weren't so lucky. "Mine, mine, mine!" the first woman screamed.
Half-blinded now, she whipped the door open and began flinging packages inside the back of the cab. The second woman hadn't even wanted a taxi, but the unprovoked attack, as well as the first woman's loud proclamations, had triggered some base territorial urge. She suddenly decided that she wanted the cab, too. When Remo turned away, the second woman had the first in a bear hug around her ample middle while the first whacked her over the head with a roll of infant-Jesus Christmas paper.
"Try to do something nice for someone," Remo muttered.
Shaking his head in disgust, he headed down the street.
On the corner, a man dressed as Santa rang a bell for charitable donations. As Remo approached, he saw a scruffy-looking pedestrian grab Santa's donation bucket from the metal tripod where it hung. The man took off.
As Father Christmas yelled obscenities, the mugger ran down a nearby alley.
Remo was off like a shot. The crowd seemed suddenly charged with some electrical current that repelled them from Remo's path. They split instinctively up the middle as he raced down the sidewalk. Remo flew past the still screaming Saint Nick and ducked down the open end of the dark alley.
He caught up with Santa's mugger twenty yards in. The man was still running full-out.
"You know," Remo said as he grabbed the startled man by the scruff of the neck, flinging him into a grimy wall, "as stupid crimes go, it's pretty dumb to rob a guy who keeps a list of who's been naughty or nice."
The mugger spun on Remo, a demented gleam in his eye. Dropping the bucket he'd pinched from Santa, he clicked open a switchblade.
"I'd say assault with intent to commit bodily harm falls into the naughty category, too," Remo advised him. "You're bucking for a lump of coal in your stocking, pal."
The mugger lunged at Remo's belly with the knife. Dodging the blade, Remo snagged the man's wrist between two fingers, guiding the thrusting hand toward the alley wall.
In a twinkling, the solid brick seemed to go soft. To the mugger's amazement, the blade of the knife somehow managed to penetrate deep into brick before coming to a stop at the hilt. When he tried to pull it free, he found it stuck more firmly than Excalibur in the stone.
With a look of fear washing over his pale face, the mugger backed away from Remo. He bumped the wall behind.
"Not that nice is all it's cracked up to be," Remo grumbled. "Here I am, supposed to do something nice, and I don't even know the what or the who." He shook his head. "It's always the same thing. Always about tradition. First he says I've become Reigning Master just because I say I'm Reigning Master, then he pulls all this traditional rite-of-passage crapola out of his pocket. And not even right away. Oh, no. That'd be too painless. He eases into it during the month of hell I spend recovering from third degree burns. That's what he's like. Korean water torture. Drip, drip, drip."
"He who?" Santa's mugger asked anxiously. His eyes darted to the mouth of the alley. It seemed very far away.
"The pain in the ass who taught me," Remo said. "And don't think I haven't spent the last I-don't-know-how-many years of my life trying to figure out if he's an okay guy who's also a pain the ass or if he's a pain in the ass who just happens to sometimes be okay. On days like this, I just think he's a plain old everyday run-of-the-mill pain in the ass, and that's that. End of story."
"Yeah. Wow. That's too bad," the mugger commiserated. He would have begun inching to the street, but this wacko with the flashing hands and the fingers that could stick steel through brick was standing right in his path.
"It is, isn't it?" Remo agreed. "So I'm supposed to be Reigning Master, right? Wrong. Now I've got this whole Master Nik tradition to deal with."
The mugger's face brightened hopefully. "Nick?" he asked. "That's my name." He smiled, hoping to establish some kind of a connection with this crazy man.
"And if I was your parole officer or the guy who used the free needles after you, I just might give a fat flying Kringle," Remo assured him. "This Nik lived about twenty-seven hundred years ago. Didn't do anything to distinguish himself as Master, except establish one tradition." His voice grew mocking as he repeated the words passed down from Master Nik. "'No disciple of Sinanju shall attain the title of Reigning Master without he first deliver the proper act of kindness.'"
The mugger blinked, sensing opportunity. "Kindness?" he asked.
"Yeah, can you believe it?" Remo asked, shaking his head. "Vague as all get out. And what's with that 'without he first'? Is that even proper English?"
The mugger didn't hear. "So you've got to, like, do a good deed?" he pressed.
Remo nodded. "All of a sudden now I'm a freaking Boy Scout," he said. "As a kid I was a Cub Scout for barely one day. Mrs. Callahan was the den mother. She smoked cigars, had fifteen mooching Callahan kids running all over the place and her kitchen floor had more sand on it than Pismo Beach at low tide. I quit after the first meeting."
"So this good deed you gotta do," Santa's mugger said, steering Remo back to the topic at hand. "You sure you don't know what it is?"
Remo scowled, annoyed at the interruption. "No." The man's face was hopeful.
"Maybe it's that you should let me go," he offered brightly.
Remo considered for a long moment. As he mulled over the man's words, the mugger grew increasingly optimistic. His hopes were dashed the instant Remo opened his mouth once more.
"Nah," Remo concluded firmly. "I'm pretty sure that isn't it. Besides, it's time for Santa's revenge." Even as the mugger's face fell, Remo was reaching out.
The mugger didn't have time to run.
Remo spun the man, tapping a spot at the top of his fifth vertebra. The mugger's arms went slack. "I hope you got all your Christmas stealing done for the next five years, because that's how long it'll be before you get back use of your hands," Remo announced as he deposited Santa's mugger headfirst into a garbage can.
Scooping up the small donation pail the mugger had stolen, Remo headed back out the alley. Someone had run into a nearby store to call the police, but a cruiser had yet to arrive. Santa was standing anxiously near his tripod. He was cautiously relieved when he saw Remo appear with his bucket. Relief became amazement when he found it still full of coins and bills.
"You're a real lifesaver, buddy," Santa said, pawing a green mitten through the bucket of money. "Here, have a five-spot. Hell, it's Christmas. Take ten."
"Isn't that for the poor?" Remo frowned.
"Yeah, and reindeer can fly," Santa said with a broad wink. He stuffed some of the bills in his pocket. Remo saw the pocket was already bulging with Christmas cash.
Realizing that there was little hope that this was the good deed he was after, Remo let out a frustrated sigh before sticking the bucket firmly onto Santa's head.
Loose change rained onto the sidewalk. Pedestrians promptly prostrated themselves on the pavement, their grabbing hands scooping up wayward coins. The last Remo saw of Saint Nick, the portly man was stumbling blindly into traffic, his belly jiggling like a bowlful of panicked jelly.
By the time Remo heard a squeal of tires and a Santa-size thump, he wasn't even looking. Chin in his hand, he sat morosely on the curb.
"Maybe it's something even simpler," he muttered.
He noticed a nearby stray dachshund on the sidewalk. He tried to pet the dog. With snapping fangs, the little dog tried to take his finger off. When the owner of the dog-which was apparently not so stray after all-saw someone near her precious Poopsie, she started screaming "Dognapper!" at the top of her lungs while simultaneously attempting to strangle Remo with her Gucci dog leash.
Remo snapped the leash in two and, resisting the urge to kick both dog and owner, slouched off down the street.
He wandered the city for another two hours. He was ready to call it quits and head back home when he came upon a crowd outside the theater on Seventh Avenue.
The men and women heading into the building looked exceptionally affluent, even by New York standards. Remo was surprised to find that he recognized quite a few of them.
There were pop music performers and movie stars. He spotted a fat woman from a popular television legal drama who was allegedly proud of her gross obesity and whose mouth he would have liked to fill with cement if it would have had time to harden around all the moistened pizza crusts.
Falling in with the crowd, he melted through the open theater doors. A sign in the lobby advertised the event as a fund-raiser for something called Primeval Society.
Tables had been set in a great hall before the stage. A lot more celebrities were packed inside. Remo saw many people who had been successfully annoying him for decades.
He wondered briefly if the nice thing he was supposed to do was to tie everyone to their chairs and set the building on fire. Deciding that the attendant risk to the theater staff and fire department made this unlikely, he wandered the hall, eventually finding his way backstage.
In the wings he found performers hurrying in every direction as they got ready for the night's entertainment.
For some reason two tiny barefoot men in loincloths lurked sullenly in the shadows. They looked as if they'd be happier spearing fish in some South American jungle.
A table was piled high with hair tonics, mousse, curling irons, crimping tongs, coloring agents and a hundred different plastic bottles filled with scented salon products. Fighting for both bottles and mirror space were ten young men whose attention to the intricacies of personal grooming would have made a primping Liberace look like a rugged lumberjack.
A theater employee with a radio headset was walking by. Remo collared the man.
"Hey, don't I know them?" he asked.
"Are you kidding?" scoffed the harried stage director. "Those are the two most famous boy bands in the world."
Remo blinked. That's where he'd seen them before. Prancing on television and preening on magazine covers. Although Remo couldn't fathom why, the bands Glory Whole and But Me No Butz were American cultural phenomena.
He nodded as he recognized the poodle-haired one with the mushed-up face and the doughy bleached one with the granny glasses and the muscle shirt.
"What are they doing here?" Remo asked.
"For one night only they're forming a supergroup called Harmonic Convergence to raise money for the rain forest."
"Oh," Remo said. "Haven't we paved over that yet?"
But the stage director was no longer listening. Barking orders into his headset, he hurried off into the darker recesses of the wings. The two natives exchanged a few words in some guttural language before trailing after him. They each carried spears in their hands.
For a moment, Remo watched the ten young men preparing for their act. And in a moment of sheer maliciousness, Remo suddenly decided that he'd had enough of trying to figure out what this nice thing he was supposed to do was. He decided to do something nice for himself.
The two bands suddenly got into a scuffle over a can of particularly heavy-duty Vidal Sassoon mousse. The instant they were distracted, Remo fell in with them.
There was a lot of pinching and slapping as the fight escalated to include other hair-care products. So bitchy did it become that they failed to notice the tap just behind the right ear Remo gave each one of them in turn. Once he finished with them he slipped away. He took up a sentry post in the wings, a contented smile on his face.
Ten minutes later the concert began with polite applause when a thin woman in a long black gown took center stage. She was apparently the wife of the benefit's organizer. In a British accent that was obviously phony, she droned on and on about the importance of trees and rocks and butterflies and fluffy clouds and Mother Earth. Only when some of the crowd began to nod off into their soup did she finally introduce Harmonic Convergence.
The boys from But Me No Butz pranced in from stage left. Those from Glory Whole minced from stage right. When they met in the middle of the stage, it was less a harmonious convergence than it was a postpubescent pileup.
They couldn't seem to find their equilibrium. Every time they tried to dance, they stumbled into one another. After a few vain, bumbling tries, their frustration and embarrassment changed to anger. The boys from the bands redirected their energies toward one another. The fight from backstage erupted anew, this time with biting, kicking and hair pulling. By the time the nipple twisters started, the crowd was already breaking up.
As he turned from the pile of goatees and leather writhing on the stage, Remo was nodding in satisfaction.
"If that doesn't get me honorable mention in the annals of good deeddom, I don't know what will." Whistling happily to himself, he ducked out the stage door and into the dimly lit alley.
The traffic out of Manhattan was worse than it had been going in. Still, Remo didn't mind.
The highway was a crawl to Rye, where he took a clogged off-ramp. The traffic situation in town wasn't much better than it had been on I-95, yet Remo remained unbothered.
He soon broke away from the mass of humanity that was heading home for the day. A lonely road that snaked alongside the black waters of Long Island Sound eventually brought him to a sedate, ivy-covered brick building. Humming happily to himself, he steered his car through the gate and up the great gravel drive of Folcroft Sanitarium.
Folcroft was cover to CURE, the supersecret government organization for which Remo functioned as enforcement arm. Folcroft had also been Remo's home for the past year.
Remo parked his car in the employee lot and headed for the building's side door. He was whistling as he danced down the stairwell to the basement.
The quarters he shared with the Master of Sinanju were tucked away from the rest of the sanitarium. As he pushed open the door, Remo didn't sense a heartbeat or breathing from the rooms beyond.
He stuck his head in the Master of Sinanju's bedroom. An unused sleeping mat was rolled tight in the middle of the room. Aside from a bureau, the room was otherwise empty.
"Hmm," Remo said.
He headed back out into the hall. He took the stairs up to the top floor of the sanitarium, coming out into a dusty hallway that looked as if it hadn't seen a living human being in fifty years. At the far dark corner, an enclosed wooden staircase led to a warped door. The ancient steps made not a single creak as Remo mounted them. The door opened silently.
Folcroft's attic was a time capsule to another age. Medical equipment that had been modern seventy years ago looked like medieval torture devices. Metal had rusted and leather straps were rotting from age. A single bare overhead bulb hung from a low lintel.
At the far end of the long room, three tall windows looked out over the black night. Through the trees, Long Island Sound washed the frozen shore. Above, stars like shards of cold ice twinkled in the winter sky.
As Remo had expected, a familiar figure sat before the ceiling-to-floor windows.
The wizened Asian seemed as old as stars or sea. At the roof of the house Remo had lived in for ten years, there had been a glass-enclosed cupola that the Master of Sinanju often used as a meditation room. The house and its tower sun room were now gone.
Lately, the Folcroft attic had been a poor substitute for his teacher's beloved retreat.
Dried flesh speckled with age was pulled tight over a skull of fragile bone. Twin tufts of yellowing white hair jutted from above shell-like ears. On the back of the old Korean's flaming orange kimono, coiling green dragons framed a bamboo pagoda. The body that moved beneath the shimmering silk kimono was reed-thin and frail.
The old Asian was writing again. He'd been doing a lot of that lately.
Over the past few months the Master of Sinanju had been carting a stack of ornate gold envelopes around wherever he went. He had been writing letter after letter. He didn't have to worry about secrecy, since most times he was writing in languages Remo didn't understand. But at one point when he was peeking, Remo swore one of the envelopes was addressed to the queen of England. The envelope had been quickly pulled away and hidden from his prying eyes.
From what he had managed to see, it almost looked to Remo like the Sinanju version of a resume.
There was a stack of the envelopes on the floor now. A pile of smaller silver envelopes sat beside it. The Master of Sinanju had been including one of the silver envelopes with each of his carefully inscribed letters.
This evening it was not the mysterious letters that held the old man's attention.
The Master of Sinanju seemed oblivious to Remo's approach. Yet when the younger man was nearly upon him, he shook his aged head. His soft hair quivered at the motion.
"You are white," said Chiun, Reigning Master of the House of Sinanju. He spoke the words with sadness, not malice. He did not turn to face his pupil.
"Guilty as charged," Remo replied.
He saw his teacher's face now. A thread of beard quivered at the tip of Chiun's pointed chin. Hazel eyes that still appeared young, despite the Korean's advanced age, stared solemnly out the dirty windowpanes.
Chiun offered a forlorn sigh. "Long have I danced around the subject of your rampaging whiteness."
"What dance?" Remo asked. "You've been griping about me being white for as long as I've known you. You called me an albino at breakfast this morning and a snowman on my way out the door. I should have known something was up. Even for you, that seemed a bit much for one day." He nodded to a parchment on the floor. "This has something to do with my place in the Sinanju Scrolls, I assume." Chiun was no longer writing letters. A sheet of plain rice paper was rolled open at the Master of Sinanju's crossed knees. Near it was an open bottle of ink. The old man held a quill in one bony hand. Although he'd dipped pen to ink hours ago, he'd yet to make a single mark on the paper. The ink had long dried to the quill's tip.
"White," Chiun lamented. "You are not 'fair' or 'pale' or any of the others things I have said you are to avoid stating the absolute truth. You are white."
"White as Michael Jackson," Remo agreed. "And I thought we were over this. Once we found out my family had a Master of Sinanju in the woodpile, I thought you'd finally given all that junk a rest."
"A drop of good in an ocean of you can only offer small comfort. It cannot dissipate the rest of the youness which--it pains me to admit is white. Yes, white, Remo. There, I have said it. You are white. White, white, white."
"Big whoop, I'm white," Remo said. His face was slowly drooping into a scowl. "Why are you so worked up about this all of a sudden?"
"Because I have reached a turning point in my recording of Sinanju history," Chiun replied. "I must finally address your sad condition in the Sacred Scrolls."
"What's so different about today?" Remo asked. "You've been lying in those scrolls for years. Who'd know the difference if you just pulled one of your usual cover-ups?"
Chiun's face and tone grew cold. "I do not lie," he said. "Yes, on occasion I have left a fact unrepresented. But that is not the same as lying. Avoiding the absolute, unvarnished truth is sometimes necessary, Remo, and is not automatically or necessarily a lie."
"All depends on what your meaning of it is, I suppose," Remo said dryly.
"Precisely. And I can no longer not tell the full truth. I must record for future Masters of Sinanju the truth of the is that is you, lest some blabbermouth tell it after me and cast a shadow on my entire Masterhood. For the scandal of deceit could taint my reputation posthumously. Therefore, I must divulge your secret now. Woe is me." Releasing another long sigh, his shoulders sank pitifully.
Remo's eyes narrowed. "Wait a second," he said. "I'm the guy who takes over the scrolls next. You're afraid I might spill the beans, aren't you?"
Chiun gave him a baleful look. "Wouldn't you?" Remo considered.
"Maybe," he admitted. "Since I'm not the Korean version of Al Sharpton like you are, I doubt the subject of race will come up for me as much as it did for you, but if it's relevant I'd say so. I don't have any reason to be ashamed of who and what I am."
"A distinctly white thing to say," Chiun said, crinkling his nose in displeasure. "I knew this would be your feeling because you have never seen your white skin as the social disease that it is. And so I am left with my great dilemma."
"The truth will set you free, Little Father."
The lightness had returned to his tone. The Master of Sinanju glanced up in suspicion at his pupil. "Where were you all day?" he asked, eyes narrowing.
"Drove into the city," Remo replied. "It's a real zoo this time of year." He squatted, picking up one of the gold envelopes. The scrawl of a foreign language looked familiar. "Is that Russian?" he asked.
Chiun snatched the envelope from his hands. On the back Remo saw briefly the symbol of Sinanju. A trapezoid bisected by a vertical line. It had been formed in a single drop of melted wax that sealed the envelope.
"None of your business," Chiun snapped, sweeping a hand across the pile of envelopes. The entire stack vanished up the broad sleeve of his kimono.
Remo didn't seem very bothered by the old man's harsh tone. He was thinking of the benefit concert he'd just left. Without knowing it, a smile stretched across his face.
Chiun's eyes narrowed. "You seem very pleased with yourself," he said slowly. "Have you fulfilled the tradition of Master Nik?"
"Nah," Remo said. "I just did something nice for me and I'm happy."
The Master of Sinanju's eyes grew flat. "I am glad that you are happy, Remo," he said.
"It is important that you are happy."
"Here it comes," said Remo.
"Whether or not I am happy is unimportant." Remo was relieved at that moment to hear the sound of footsteps on the stairs leading to the attic.
"Saved by the bell," he muttered.
Across the cluttered attic, the ancient door opened. While it had opened silently for Remo, it creaked now on its rusty old hinges. A familiar face peered into the attic.
"There you are. I saw your car in the parking lot, but you weren't in your quarters."
Remo wasn't a big fan of Mark Howard, the new assistant director of CURE, but at the moment the young man was a welcome sight.
"Just got in," Remo said. "What's up?"
"Dr. Smith said you might be up here," Howard said. "He'd like to see you both in his office as soon as possible." Still at the door, he was looking around the dingy attic. "I thought I'd taken a complete tour of the building, but I somehow missed up here. Some of the corridors in the older wing are like mazes."
Remo wasn't interested in the assistant CURE director's architectural observations. From what he'd seen of the young man in action, he wouldn't be surprised if Howard got lost every time he tried to pull on a sweater.
"Tell Smitty we'll be right down," Remo said. With a nod, Howard backed from the attic. The stairs groaned as he descended.
"We better see what he wants," Remo said to Chiun.
"Of course," Chiun sniffed, gathering up his ink bottle and blank parchment. "Jump the moment a member of your own race calls, but do nothing for the one who has given you everything."
"I can't be anything but white, Little Father," Remo said, shaking his head. "Not even for you."
The Master of Sinanju rose to his feet in one fluid motion. "Yet another example of white ingratitude."
In a flurry of orange robes, the old man headed across the attic floor and swept out the open door.
DR. HAROLD W. SMITH sat rigid in his comfortable leather chair behind his familiar black desk in his Spartan office in Folcroft's administrative wing. A canted monitor just below the desk's onyx surface displayed lines of tidy text.
The monitor couldn't be seen except from Smith's vantage point. As long as they stayed on the far side of the desk, visitors to the office would not even know it was there. The big picture window at Smith's back was made of one-way glass, preventing anyone from sneaking a peek from behind.
The shadows of night hugged his gaunt frame as he studied the data on his computer. Every now and then as he read, a low hum of concern rolled from deep in his throat.
Smith was a gray man with a face like a squeezed lemon marinated in grapefruit juice. To match his natural disposition, he dressed exclusively in suits of gray, most of which had been lurking among the mothballs in his closet since somewhere near the middle of the previous century. The only dash of color that had been allowed to creep into his wardrobe was his green-striped Dartmouth tie. Although it was late in the evening and all of the regular Folcroft staff had gone home, the tie remained knotted tightly at his neck.
His rimless glasses were clean of dust, the flint gray eyes behind them sharp and piercing. When the knock sounded at his door, the director of the supersecret agency known as CURE did not raise his head. "Come in," Smith called.
Only when the door opened did Smith lift his eyes. His thin lips pursed in annoyance when he saw that the young man entering his office was alone.
"They'll be here in a minute," Mark Howard promised when he saw the expression on his employer's face. He crossed the room and took a seat before the desk.
Even before he had sat on the hard wooden chair the office door was swinging open again.
"Why you couldn't make life easier for me and just be born Korean I will never know," the Master of Sinanju was saying as he breezed into the room.
Remo came in behind him. "For the same reason I wasn't born a schnauzer," he said, peeved. "My folks weren't Korean. And in case you haven't heard, only Koreans can make Korean babies."
Chiun's weathered face grew thoughtful. "Emperor Smith, perhaps your experts can do something about this problem," he said as he padded up before the desk.
For countless centuries Masters of Sinanju had hired out to thrones around the world. Even though he did not want it, Smith was awarded the title of emperor, for the simple reason that Chiun refused to work for anything less.
"What problem is that, Master Chiun?" Smith asked.
Chiun stroked his thread of beard wisely between tapered fingers. "This terrible and pervasive lack of Koreanness among your subjects. I have heard on the television how women may go to a place where they are made to be with child without lying with a man."
"Fertility clinics, yes," Smith said.
The old Korean nodded. "That is the name they go by. I have also heard that mistakes have been made causing white women to give birth to black babies and hapless black women to bear ugly screeching whites."
"Yes, I have heard of such mix-ups," Smith said slowly.
"Then your course is clear. Issue a decree for the workers at these places to throw out the inferior white and black bottles and save only the one that makes babies Korean. Within a generation you may begin to wring the whiteness from this land so that future Masters of Sinanju need not be vexed as I have."
Smith cleared his throat. "That is simply not possible, Master Chiun," he insisted.
Chiun's voice lowered. "In that case, is there a procedure by which Remo could be made more Korean?"
Beside him, Remo shook his head. "Doesn't matter if there is, because Remo ain't volunteering."
"Hush," Chiun snapped under his breath. "You will become Korean if I tell you to become Korean. What's more, you will thank me afterward."
"I'm not going to become some freaky Tan like Me sociology experiment just because you don't like having a white pupil," Remo said. "Tell him, Smitty."
Smith was shaking his head firmly. "I am sorry, Master Chiun, but that is simply not possible, either," the CURE director replied.
The old man's face crinkled in displeasure. "You can put a man on the moon, but you cannot turn a white man right. Why bother to have all your science if you are not going to give priority to the things people actually want?"
Still frowning, the wizened Korean sank to a lotus position on the threadbare rug.
Grateful for the silence, Smith quickly turned his attention to Rerno.
"Remo, are you aware of an organization called the Congress of Concerned Scientists?" Smith asked.
"Not that I know of," Remo replied. He settled cross-legged to the floor next to his teacher.
"It is a politically active group whose membership includes scientists from around the world. They are concerned with global and national environmental policies, in addition to having a political component."
Remo shrugged. "Sounds like the kinds of nits who tell freezing old ladies in Vermont to turn the thermostat down to zero and put on a sweater 'cause the squirrels in the chimney might not like the soot."
"They are oftentimes extreme in their positions," Smith admitted. "Until now, however, they had remained harmless enough. Some of the personnel at the CCS headquarters in Geneva have recently fallen victim to misfortune. There have been several deaths, as well as a number of disappearances."
"Let's all rev up our SUVs to celebrate," Remo said.
"There is no cause for celebration," the CURE director said, his voice deadly serious. "The victims were all involved in the same project. Apparently, the CCS has spent the past few years developing a genetically altered tree called the C. dioxa. Unlike its counterparts in nature, this plant produces carbon dioxide."
Remo scrunched up his face. "That's a twist," he said. "Plants are supposed to make oxygen, right?"
Smith nodded. "What's more, they clean carbon dioxide from the air. The CCS has turned nature on its head. In addition to carbon dioxide, their tree also produces ammonia and some methane."
"That's bad?" Remo asked.
"The potential for destruction is unimaginable," Mark Howard interjected.
Howard had read a lot of the material the CURE director had forwarded to him on the CCS and the C. dioxa project. He couldn't pretend to understand all that was said about covalent hydrogen compounds or methane and ammonia-producing organisms, but that wasn't necessary. He understood enough to know why Smith was concerned.
For his part, Remo kept his irritation in check. Howard was a change to CURE that Remo had not yet accepted. These days he was doing his best to acclimate himself to the young man's presence by ignoring him as much as possible. The same could not be said for the Master of Sinanju.
"How grave must be the danger to crown and country for the Emperor's young Prince to speak with such passion," Chiun intoned. "Yet even with talk of peril, the sweetness of your voice fills my soul to overflowing."
Remo had been putting up with a lot of kissing-up these past few months. Too much, in fact.
"Can you ratchet that down, Little Father?" he griped.
"Just pretend to care about whatever idiocy they are babbling about," Chiun said in Korean. "Look. The old fidget has made the young one a worrywart like him."
Remo glanced at Howard. Chiun was right. The young man was looking a little frayed around the edges. There were dark bags under his greenishbrown eyes that weren't there when he started at CURE almost one year ago.
"You okay, kid?" Remo asked, brow drooping.
Mark seemed surprised at the attention. "Yes," he said cautiously, expecting a punch line to Remo's setup.
There was none. Remo only nodded. He returned his attention to the CURE director.
"Mark's assessment of the C. dioxa is correct," Smith said. "Unleashed on the world, it could disrupt or even destroy the oxygen cycle."
Sitting, bored, on the floor, Chiun asked Remo what that was. Remo told him he thought it was one of those stationary bikes fat people pedaled at health clubs.
"You join a gym, Smitty?" Remo asked.
"Actually," Smith said thinly, "the oxygen cycle is the name for the process by which photosynthetic organisms synthesize carbohydrates from water and carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the atmosphere as a byproduct. At the same time, aerobic organisms-mankind included-use up oxygen and give off carbon dioxide and water through a variety of complex metabolic processes. The one feeds the other on a planetary scale."
"So you're saying you didn't join a gym," Remo said.
Smith took a deep breath. "Animals breathe out carbon dioxide," he explained slowly. "Plants clean the carbon dioxide from the air and release the oxygen that the animals breathe. If the plants didn't do this, we would all die."
"Hey, I think I got that," Remo said.
"Good," Smith said seriously. "Because we are facing something that could reverse part of that process. If that happens, we cannot begin to contemplate the damage."
Remo waved a dismissive hand. "Aw, I've been hearing stuff about the world imploding for years, and we're still here. It can't be that bad, Smitty."
"Yes, Remo, it can. The threat to the environment this plant represents is incalculable. If released into the wild, it would flood the atmosphere with deadly carbon dioxide and ammonia gas. As a consequence, our air would eventually be rendered unbreathable. All life on Earth-plant, animal, marine, everything-would go the way of the dinosaur. The planet would literally suffocate."
Although Remo had heard doomsday predictions before, the types of people who made them always seemed to have some ulterior motives. Harold W. Smith, however, was a man who dealt with cold, harsh reality and was not the type to indulge in acts of wild speculation. If Smith thought this was serious, in all likelihood it was.
"Okay," Remo sighed. "So now I'm a lumberjack and I'm okay. Gimme an ax and tell me where it is."
"The CCS maintains a headquarters in Geneva," Smith said. "But it might not be so simple a thing as merely destroying the existing plants. In fact, it might not be necessary for you to do so at all."
"They're gonna kill us all, but you want me to save them," Remo said flatly.
Smith removed his glasses. "It is a little more complicated than that," he said, rubbing his eyes. "The C. dioza was actually developed for a reason. It offers a way to study the earliest stages of plant formation and evolution on this planet. It is conceivable that the data collected could have future scientific applications."
Remo didn't seem convinced. "Like what?" he asked.
It was Mark Howard who answered. "They might eventually be able to create a plant that can survive in a completely alien atmosphere," the assistant CURE director offered. "If they can do that, we could send seeds to other planets or moons in our own solar system that could eventually create oxygen atmospheres like ours."
Remo felt a pinch at his thigh. The Master of Sinanju was tugging at his pant leg with slender fingers. "It is worse that I thought," Chiun whispered quietly in Korean. "The big one has driven the little one mad."
Remo shot him a quieting glance. "So what's our involvement, Smitty?" he asked.
"Go to Geneva and see who or what is behind the murders of the C. dioxa scientists," the CURE director said. "If someone has evil designs on the tree, it may become necessary to destroy it. However, it is entirely possible that someone merely wants the research stopped. In either case, until you determine which it is, I want the two of you to protect the remaining scientist on the CCS team."
"Maybe chop tree, protect CCCP scientist, save world," Remo said. "Got it."
He stood. Beside him, the Master of Sinanju floated to his feet. Remo was turning to go when a thought occurred to him.
"What's the name of the guy we're supposed to be bodyguarding?" he asked.
Replacing his glasses, Smith glanced down at his monitor. "Her name," he said, "is Dr. Amanda Lifton."
Dr. Amanda Lifton, of the Massachusetts Liftons, was frightened out of her Brahmin, Ivy League-educated Mensa brain. The utter, stark, unbearable terror had left her almost beyond the point of all reason. It was only due to her oppressively reserved Lifton upbringing that she didn't run screaming into the tidy streets of Geneva.
If she had been back home in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, she would have been able to work out some of her anxiety on one of the servants. Old Nan, the prim Englishwoman who had raised Amanda, had taken more than her share of clouts to the head during those troubled teen years. Nan was long gone now, but there had to be some dusty butler or upstairs maid who could fill in.
Amanda considered calling Daddy to ask him to send over Reginald for a good old-fashioned shoe beating, but she knew that she couldn't. Not after the very public display of temper she had given vent to at her sister Abigail's wedding. Most of it had been directed at Daddy, but for good measure she'd tossed in a fairly hefty helping of invective for the rest of the Lifton clan.
It had happened six years ago.
"I'm an adult!" she had proclaimed loudly and angrily to the ballroom full of Lifton relatives.
She did this for two reasons. First and foremost was that younger sister Abigail had the gall to go out and get married first. Second was Abby's insistence that Amanda wear the same hideous turquoise gown as the other bridesmaids. Amanda waited for the reception for maximum dramatic effect.
In her tirade, she insisted that she wanted to be treated as an adult. She'd had it with the entire Lifton family. She yelled at her startled relatives that she was going to finally make a clean break from them all. She started her new life on the dance floor, stripping off the appalling gown that Abby knew full well made a Lifton derriere look much bigger than it actually was. Amanda left the dress that malice bought on the floor and, in her underwear, marched proudly from the reception.
She was still reveling in her act of emancipation the next day when the phone rang.
It was precisely 9:00 a.m. Amanda knew it was important when it was Daddy on the line and not some servant or secretary telling her to hold for her father.
She was lounging back in bed, the delicate pink phone pressed to her pale, perfect ear.
"That was quite a performance yesterday, Amanda," Daddy said. "Bravo." He spoke in the lockjaw manner of old New England money.
"I meant every word, Daddy," Amanda huffed.
"Of course you did, princess. That is why as of five minutes from this moment you will be cut off from the rest of the Lifton family."
"No great loss," Amanda said, her tone snippy. She flopped one of her fuzzy pink slippers against the soft wrinkled skin on the underside of her pumiced foot.
"That includes the money, Amanda."
The slipper went flying as Amanda shot up in bed. "I was completely out of line, Daddy!" Amanda insisted. Her free hand clutched a panicked knot of pink sheets. "Is Abigail there? No. Honeymoon. She'll be in the islands. I'll fly down, Daddy. I promise. I'll apologize in person. I'll even wear that damnable dress to do it."
"You will do no such thing," Daddy Lifton said. "You were most impressive yesterday. And you have no idea how much it takes to impress your father."
"Let me find another way," she said fearfully.
"Too late. I've decided to take you up on your exciting little challenge. You are going to be our own little lab experiment, Amanda. You are going to be the first Lifton in more than five hundred years to have to actually go out and earn a living. Isn't that just thrilling, princess?"
"Is Mother there?" Amanda asked weakly. "She's with the man from Tidwell Vintners. Problem with the '91, don't you know. But she sends kisses and a hearty 'job well done.' This will be our last chat for a while, I expect. The phone company will be terminating service after I'm through."
"Daddy, you can't do this," Amanda pleaded. "I can't go out and make a living. I don't know how." Her father laughed in that constipated, ultrarefined way of his that sent shivers down her spine. Amanda had only heard him laugh two other times in his life. Once when Gran Lifton had been found face-down in the azaleas, and once during the stock-market collapse of 1987.
"You'll show us all the way, Amanda," Daddy said.
And with that, the line went dead. There wasn't even a dial tone.
Amanda stared at the eerily silent phone.
"I don't want to show anyone the way," she cried to the pink papered walls of her bedroom. "I'm an heiress."
The walls cared as little for her plight as Daddy and Mother Lifton. A moment later there came a pounding on her apartment door.
Amanda slipped a fluffy pink bathrobe on over her shimmering pink silk pajamas and answered the door. On her doorstep was her landlord, four movers and a pair of highly paid Lifton family lawyers.
Amanda Lifton was on the street six minutes later. Daddy let her keep her wardrobe. Everything else went back. Credit cards, jewelry, furniture. The works. She never had a savings account. Never needed one.
Her checking account was vacuumed clean by Daddy's shysters.
Penniless, Amanda found herself on the outside of an empty apartment surrounded by suitcases filled with a lifetime's worth of clothes.
Actually, it was worse even than that. The clothes were only a month old. She had thrown the older stuff out when she'd gotten her new spring wardrobe. As she trudged the streets of Boston, she found herself wishing she'd kept a few of those older things. Maybe some rag merchant somewhere gave cash to indigents for old Versace.
Her endless, terrible wandering proved to be the most dreadful eight minutes of her entire life. She had heard an awful rumor that there were people who stayed out here all the time. She had no idea why. Probably a tax dodge. There couldn't be that many spiteful daddies out there.
Half a block from her apartment Amanda spied a familiar sight. The call letters of the local PBS affiliate shone down on her from the front of an office building like a beacon of hope.
For years Amanda had been volunteering at the station answering phones during its annual pledge drive. Like all good blue-blooded Boston liberals, Amanda Lifton was no hypocrite. For one hour one night a year-whether convenient or not-she actually practiced what she preached. It was her way of staying grounded.
She staggered into the foyer of the station under the weight of a dozen Gucci suitcases and demanded a job. And, in the great PBS tradition of wasting money and not caring, the woman with zero qualifications and a stack of luggage that was vomiting Armani and Christian Dior all over the lobby was hired on the spot.
She started as a receptionist. A day later, when the station manager discovered she was a Lifton, she was promoted to producer of a local-affairs talk show. Two days later, when the same man learned that she was indeed one of those Liftons, she was promoted to public-relations director, where her duties consisted of looking out the window and long lunches. Sometimes she was trotted out to wine and dine the various celebrities who showed up at the station, usually around pledge time. One such celebrity was the famous and respected astronomer Sage Carlin. Although it had happened six years ago, Amanda remembered it as if it were yesterday.
Carlin arrived in an old corduroy suit jacket with patches on the elbows. He had a comb-over that looked like a helmet of hair, an overbite, no chin and black-rimmed buzzard's eyes.
In spite of his creepy appearance and his vague odor of fish, Amanda knew Dr. Carlin was brilliant. She wanted to prove to him that she was no intellectual slouch herself.
Amanda explained how she had graduated at the top of her class at Yale. She had taken her degree in botany to the Massachusetts University of Technology, where she received doctorates in morphology, cytology and palynology. Dr. Lifton had been actively courted by some of the biggest pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in the country. But because Liftons frowned on women in the workforce, Amanda had been encouraged to turn her attention to finding a man of adequate social standing and sire a male Lifton child. "To begin this wretched mess all over again," Daddy had said in one of his more honest moments.
Now all that was gone thanks to her silly outburst at Abigail's wedding.
She was happy during her long diatribe on the travails of her life to find that Sage Carlin was a terrific listener. The whole time she spoke, the famous scientist never took his eyes off her. Granted, he was staring at her chest and not her eyes, but you really couldn't blame him. In addition to being brilliant and beautiful, Amanda Lifton knew precisely how to fill out a sweater.
"I'm sorry to go on like this, Dr. Carlin," she apologized. "It's just that my daddy has been very, very mean to me."
"No need to apologize," Sage Carlin said. "Of the billions of people on this overpopulated planet, you're the one I most want to talk to right now. What's morphlology?"
"You mean morphology," she replied with a smile. "It's the branch of biology that concerns the form and structure of plants and animals."
"Plants?" Carlin asked, intrigued.
"That was a particular interest to me. That's why I went on to palynology and cytology. Palynology is the study of mold and spores-cytology is cell structure and function." She suddenly realized whom she was talking to. "But of course you know that already," she said, face flushing red. "I'm humiliating myself, aren't I?'
"Not at all," Sage Carlin said. "I do some work for a group called the Congress of Concerned Scientists. Perhaps you've heard of it? If you're interested, I might have a job for you."
It was, according to Sage Carlin, a one-in-a-billion chance meeting. That very afternoon he hired Amanda as a palynologist for the CCS.
The team in Geneva soon learned how lucky it was. All her life Amanda had been hiding her light under a bushel basket. She was a natural in her field. In her first months in Geneva, her brilliance put her fellow scientists to shame.
She helped lay the groundwork on the C. dioxa. It was she, along with Dr. Brice Schumar, who improved and refined the seed design. The last two seed cycles had only gotten better.
But the greatest victory was personal. She had done what she had-albeit inadvertently-set out to do. She had proved to Daddy, Mother, Abigail and all the rest of the Lifton family that she could stand on her own two feet.
But, sadly, her success was marred by tragedy. Dr. Carlin passed away. While tragic, it was five years old now, and truth be told, he had always given Amanda the willies. A more recent death and one far more disturbing was the unfortunate accident of her team leader, Dr. Schumar. How he had gotten himself locked in the C. dioxa greenhouse was a mystery to everyone. He above everyone else at the CCS in Switzerland should have known enough not to go inside the greenhouse with the skylights closed. The police were saying it was suicide. Amanda had reluctantly accepted their conclusion. Until the next body turned up.
This one was a young American botanist she had recruited herself. Fried to a crisp when a carelessly dropped appliance landed in his bathtub. That the appliance was a microwave and the dead scientist had been fully clothed at the time was glossed over by the authorities. Amanda might even have accepted the official verdict on the tragedy if old Dr. Cross hadn't been found the next day.
The English geneticist had been cooked to death behind the steering wheel of his car. No one quite knew how it happened, but apparently he had been burned to black slag. His fillings and most of his car had partially melted.
Dr. Lewandowski went the same way the day after. When the Geneva police declared both bizarre deaths to be unfortunate skiing accidents, Amanda began to suspect that their hearts weren't in uncovering the truth.
It became epidemic after that. CCS scientists were all dying or disappearing, taking with them to their graves all knowledge of the process by which the C. dioxa had been created. The bodies mounted until there was only one left.
The thought that, at any minute, she might join her deceased colleagues gave Amanda Lifton an involuntary shudder as she walked along the chilly abandoned halls of the CCS headquarters.
The complex was like a high-tech ghost town. The corridors were a tidy white. Color-coded stripes on the floors directed visitors around the buildings: blue was for the administrative offices, red for the labs and green directed one to the greenhouses. Amanda walked nervously along the green line. At one point the sole of one lab sneaker squeaked on the concrete floor, and the resultant echo nearly caused her to jump out the nearest window.
She had a right to be jumpy. All the deaths couldn't be coincidental.
Amanda had finally worked up the nerve to phone the head of the CCS about her theory. Dr. Hubert St. Clair seemed very interested in what she had to say. He asked her to meet him at the main greenhouse in twenty minutes so they could discuss the matter.
As she walked, Amanda checked her watch.
It was a cheap digital knockoff she'd picked up in the States. Nothing like the expensive watches she'd had for the first thirty years of her life.
She was thinking evil thoughts of Daddy and the dangerous situation his pettiness had put her in as she passed an empty security desk. The monitors were dead screens. A pile of laminated security passes sat in a box next to a pair of silent telephones.
"No need for security in a building full of dead people," she muttered anxiously as she passed the desk.
She followed the green line around a corner. As she rounded to the next hall, the heel of her shoe squeaked shrilly again on the coated concrete floor.
Her heart skipped and she glanced down at her own clumsy feet. It was in this position-head down and with a scowl on her face--that Amanda Lifton walked straight into the man who was heading up the next corridor.
As she stumbled back, shocked, strong hands grabbed her by the biceps.
Looking up with a start, Amanda found herself staring into the deepest, darkest, deadliest eyes she had ever seen. They were a killer's eyes. Confronted by the death she so feared, Amanda Lifton reacted in the only manner she knew how. Throwing back her head, Amanda screamed.
Amanda kept screaming even after the hands released her.
"What's the hell's your problem?" the killer demanded.
"What did you do?" another voice asked.
There was someone else with the killer. He stood behind the first man, a deeply displeased look on his face.
"I didn't do anything."
"Then why is this thing with the balloons on her chest shrieking?"
"Beats me. She must be self-activating. Maybe they're like air bags with built-in alarms. Big as they are, they've gotta run out of air eventually." Amanda finally stopped screaming to catch her breath.
"Who are you?" Amanda panted fearfully. "What do you want?" Her face held a look of a frantic, hunted animal.
The killer began to speak, but paused. Frowning, he glanced over his shoulder.
"Chiun, who are we supposed to be today?" Remo asked.
The Master of Sinanju padded up beside Remo. "We are doctors," the wizened Korean said. "I am the esteemed Dr. Marcus Welby and you are my assistant, the bumbling Dr. Kiley."
"Nah, that's not it," Remo said. "Eh," he shrugged. "Close enough for government work." Amanda looked from one man to the other. Neither made a move toward her. Still, she remained cautious, ready to bolt at a moment's notice.
"How did you get in here?" Amanda demanded. "This is a secure facility."
"Tell that to the no one who wasn't guarding the unlocked front door," Remo said. "You got Swiss cheese for security around here, kitten."
Some of the tension drained from her body. In spite of her initial reaction, these two seemed harmless enough. Probably just lost tourists or CCS contributors. And, in truth, she found the company comforting.
"It's no wonder they left," Amanda exhaled. "Everyone here is afraid for their life right about now."
"Oh, yeah," Remo said, nodding. "What with all those scientists getting bumped off. You're Amanda Lifton, right?"
Amanda's panic returned full force.
"No," she insisted quickly, backing away.
"Says so on your name tag," Remo pointed out. "Not a good picture. They left off your two best attributes."
"She would need to lug a billboard to include those monstrosities," Chiun sniffed.
She was thinking she could outrun them. The old one definitely. The younger one possibly. If she could just get to an office, lock the door. A call to the police or Dr. St. Clair, who she knew was somewhere in the CCS complex.
Dr. St. Clair! He was in danger, too. She had to warn him.
"Okay, buster," Amanda said, forcing strength into her cracking voice. "I want to know who you are and what you're doing here, and I want to know right now."
Remo shrugged. "We're the guys who are here keep you alive," he said.
The words were so shocking, delivered in such an offhanded way, that Amanda felt the fear drain from her.
She cast a tired eye up and down the thin man who stood before her. The same for the tiny, kimono-clad Asian standing placidly next to him. When she was through appraising them, Amanda did something she hadn't done in weeks. Dr. Amanda Lifton threw back her head and laughed out loud.
The laughter lasted only until she started sobbing uncontrollably.
"What'd I do now?" Remo complained.
Chiun slipped around Remo, taking Amanda's hands in his own. "There, there, young lady," he said, patting her hands comfortingly. "Do not let the paleness of his skin alarm you. Remo, go stand in that shadow lest your excessive whiteness give this poor child the vapors."
"Vapors, my ass," Remo groused. "We're in Switzerland, for crying out loud. This is where Aryan clouds are born."
Amanda was still blubbering. Now that she'd started there seemed no way to turn off the waterworks.
"Geez, lady, put a cork in it, will you?" Remo said. "It's not like your dog died. Tell you what. We'll stop by the pound and pick you up a brand-new tweedy scientist to play with."
Amanda shrieked as if in pain. She was going into some kind of hysterical fit, bawling and gulping for air.
Seeing there might be no quick end in sight if he just let her go on leaking like that, Remo sighed loudly. Reaching around behind Amanda, he manipulated a cluster of nerves at the base of her spine.
The crying dried up at once.
"Oh," Amanda said, surprised by the sudden cessation of tears. She tried sniffling, but there was nothing to sniff. She looked up, bewildered. "What did you do?"
"Kept the Alps from flooding," Remo said. "Can we talk now?"
Amanda blinked away her drying tears.
"I'm sorry," she apologized. "It's just been, well, terrible around here lately. Are you really here to help?"
"I am here to help," Chiun said. "We have yet to figure out his purpose."
Amanda blinked again. Her eyes were dry. The hysterical attack was over. Biting her lip, she nodded to the two strangers.
"Let's go to my office."
They followed the green stripe back to blue. Amanda's office was in a corridor with many others. The rest were dark and silent.
Amanda took her seat behind her desk. Her pretty face was haggard in the unflattering glow of the table lamp.
Remo noted a photograph on the wall. It was of a single blue tree. Large blue clumps of seeds clutched the undersides of some of the branches.
"That the farting tree?" Remo asked.
Amanda nodded. "That's one of the latest specimens. I took that myself two weeks ago."
"Huhn," Remo grunted. "Doesn't look so tough."
"It isn't," Amanda explained. "The earliest ones were felled by blight. We've created a heartier strain since then, but as with all species where there are only a handful of specimens, we have to exercise great care. Now, are you with the CCS?"
Remo shook his head. "Nope. Got all my brain cells."
"However, he has yet to use either of them," Chiun said. He stood at the door, hands tucked deep in the voluminous sleeves of his crimson kimono.
"But you were hired by the CCS," she insisted. "As security after the tragic deaths."
"Would you prefer coyness or outright lying?"
"So you weren't hired by the CCS," Amanda said carefully. She no longer feared these two, but she realized she should still exercise some caution.
"Let's just say we were hired by a friend to see that nothing happens to you," Remo said.
It hit Amanda all at once. She didn't know why she hadn't thought of it before.
"Daddy!" Amanda cried. "I knew he wouldn't abandon me in my hour of need. He sent you, didn't he? He must have been keeping an eye on me all along. Isn't that right?"
Remo glanced at Chiun.
"Don't look at me," the Master of Sinanju said in Korean. "She is part of your demented race, not mine. If it keeps her from squalling, tell her whatever pretty song she wants to hear."
Remo turned back to Amanda. "Daddy sends his love," he said.
"Really?" Amanda asked. "That doesn't sound like Daddy. Must be a bear market." She looked Remo and Chiun up and down, this time with a more critical eye. "Are you two the best he could do? No offense, but you look like I could take you. Daddy's probably kept the best bodyguards for his precious Abigail. She's the perfect one, after all. She's the one with the husband and the baby. She's the one who doesn't strip at wedding receptions and insult the whole perfect Lifton family. Well, Daddy can just go die and rot in poo for all I care." She folded her arms and slumped in her chair.
"I've changed my mind. I liked her better crying," said the Master of Sinanju.
"Are you the last one left from that tree project?" Remo asked, steering her way from the topic of patricide.
"The last one who isn't in hiding, anyway. Everyone else working on the C. dioxa at the CCS is dead or vanished."
"How about those stupid trees of yours?"
"I don't like you calling them stupid," Amanda said, bristling. "They represent a great step for science."
"So has every dippy dingdong thing you eggheads have ever come up with. While you're in here making all your great steps, the rest of us schlubs wind up having to paddle through H-bombs and ten versions of Windows."
Amanda's brow sank low. "How little is Daddy paying you?" she demanded. "He must have gotten a great bargain for someone so hostile and closeminded."
"I throw that in no charge," Remo said. "Tell me, are all the trees here?"
"What kind of silly question is that? Of course they are."
"No chance anyone's transplanted some to somebody's backyard?"
"What?" Amanda asked, shocked. "Of course not. That would be suicide on a planetary scale. Who would want to do something so insane?"
"Just a guess? Maybe the guy who's killing off all the people who might be able to stop it from happening."
Amanda considered his words.
This hadn't occurred to her. She assumed that someone opposed to the project was behind the sinister goings-on here in Geneva. It had happened in the world of science before. Within the past few years vandals had been destroying genetically altered crops in particular throughout the world. She just figured this was another of those cases, brought to the extreme.
Amanda hesitated for a moment, finally shaking her head. "That's silly. Of course no one would want to do such a thing, Mr.... What's your name?"
"Forgive him the whiteness of it," Chiun interjected.
"It's Remo," Remo said, shooting a glare at Chiun.
"In Korean that translates into 'slackwit' and 'pasty,'" Chiun confided to Amanda.
"No, it doesn't," Remo said.
"It does now," Chiun insisted blandly, "Remind me to show you the Sacred Scrolls I recorded in the first months of your training."
"You're Remo and you're Chiun," Amanda said. "Remo mentioned your name in the hall." She nodded, locking the information away in her well-ordered brain. "I realize, Remo, that people like you sometimes fear scientific progress. Here at the CCS we have a great respect for the impact of science on nature. I actually helped create a new variety of C. dioxa that has a breeding capacity a thousand times greater than the original generation of plants."
"And this dispels my concerns how exactly?" Remo asked.
"Don't you see?" Amanda insisted. "It's a love of the environment that drives our research: We're draining the life from this planet. We need to develop alternatives before eco-catastrophe here destroys everything and everyone. The C. dioxa and what comes after it could hold the key to our survival. Not in the immediate future, but hundreds of years from now."
Remo was surprised. Most people in the West thought of time in Western terms-days, weeks, months. Amanda Lifton was a ditz, but she was a ditz who thought in terms of centuries.
"So what?" Remo sighed. "We'll all be dead and buried by then."
"Speak for yourself," Chiun said.
"This is how you have to think when you're talking about the environment. Bad science will tell you there are quick fixes to everything. There aren't. I've conditioned my mind to be patient. And believe me, I've had to. You know, originally the C. dioxa seeds were as big as your thumb. I was able to refine them to the size of a raisin."
"Big deal," Remo said.
"It will be for future generations," Amanda said. "When terraforming becomes a reality. My small seeds break open after just a few days on the ground, releasing hundreds of tiny seedlets that can be carried on the air. Forestation of an entire planet could take place in a few decades."
"The same true if these things get loose here?" Remo asked.
Amanda frowned. "I don't like your attitude or your insinuations," she said. "Everyone who comes to work for the CCS signs a confidentiality contract. Our work is known only to us, and we are all above reproach. No one in this organization would wish any harm to come to this planet."
"If no one outside here knows about your plant, how come I do?" Remo asked.
Amanda faltered. "Well," she said, "obviously Daddy would have his sources."
"For someone passing herself off as a brainiac, you're pretty dense," Remo said.
Amanda sat up straighter in her chair. Her dark Lifton eyes peered condescendingly down her long Lifton nose.
"I don't care where Daddy found you, I will not be spoken to in that manner. I am a Lifton and you, sir, are the hired help. What's more, you are a crude, nasty moron." She folded her arms firmly.
"This moron's your best bet at staying alive."
"And you're an imbecile," she snapped.
"Although right now the imbecile and the moron are thinking about leaving you to the wolves and heading back home."
"And you're a mean, mean, mean meanie," Amanda Lifton concluded. "And I don't know why Daddy would hire someone as nasty as you to watch out for me. He must hate me."
Somewhere in the middle, her tirade had stopped being about Remo. The tears were starting to well up in her eyes once more. Before the floodgates could fully open, and to Remo's eternal gratitude, someone chose that moment to knock on Dr. Lifton's office door.
When the man stuck his head in the room, Amanda stopped her latest outburst in midsniffle.
"Dr. St. Clair," Amanda said. "Oh, I'm sorry. I'm late, aren't I?"
Although Remo had never met him before, there was something familiar about the man at the door.
The turtleneck, the jacket with the elbow patches, the bizarre lump of combed-over hair.
"I got worried when you didn't show up at the greenhouse," Hubert St. Clair said. He was eyeing Remo and Chiun. "Hello."
"What's that on your head?" Remo asked.
Amanda shot to her feet. "These are private bodyguards," she explained quickly. "My father hired them to protect me."
"Ah," St. Clair said. His eyes twitched back and forth between the two Sinanju Masters. "This has to do with your theory. It's groundless, I'm sure. We've just had a string of bad luck here at the CCS. Nothing sinister here at all."
"I wish I could be so sure," Amanda said.
"Tell you what," St. Clair said. "I've got something I need to show you in the greenhouse. You can try to convince me something's wrong on the way there. Your friends are welcome to come along."
Remo shot the Master of Sinanju a glance. The old man, too, had detected the anxious undertone in Hubert St. Clair's voice.
"What the hell," Remo said. "I'd like to see the thing that's going to kill us all."
Amanda gave him a silencing glare.
The four of them left the office together. Amanda and St. Clair led the way, she insisting that something nefarious was going on at the CCS. Remo and Chiun followed.
The main CCS complex fed into an ultramodern corridor that looked like an oversize version of the plastic tubes hamsters run through. The clear hallway led to a blockish structure that was attached to the side of the greenhouse.
Hubert St. Clair had wrapped a handkerchief tight around his finger by the time they reached the doors. As he led them through both sets of doors, both Remo and Chiun noticed his agitation-level rising. It seemed to have more to do with their high-tech environment than anything else.
When the second set of doors slid open, revealing the vast interior of the greenhouse, Amanda Lifton let out a shocked gasp.
"The trees!" she cried.
In the center of the huge room were the remains of the only existing C. dioxas. The trees had been chainsawed. The trunks sat in a tangled pile of limbs on the floor. Soft blue leaves revealed pale undersides, drooping in withering clumps. Naked stumps spotted otherwise bare planting beds.
There was still a sharp taste of ammonia in the air. Amanda ran inside the greenhouse.
"I'm sorry, Amanda," St. Clair said as the rest of them crossed over to the remains of the C. dioxas. "I had to have them destroyed. While I don't think there's anything sinister going on, with all the terrible coincidences that have hit your team, there wasn't anyone left to see to it that the proper safeguards were maintained. It was too dangerous to allow them to live."
"I'm still here," Amanda insisted.
"Yes, you are," St. Clair said vaguely. "Would you excuse me for a moment? I have to make an important call."
With a tight smile plastered unnaturally across his face, he headed for the door.
Chiun's eyes trailed him suspiciously.
Amanda dropped to her knees next to the pile of blue wood. "Six years of my life, gone," she moaned.
With slender fingers she caressed a wilted blue leave.
"Yeah, that's rough," Remo said, unconcerned. Hands on his hips, he was looking around the big chamber. "What kind of greenhouse is this? It isn't even hot in here."
The skylights were rolled open, revealing a blue patch of clear Swiss sky. Glass pipes affixed with hundreds of nozzles latticed the vaulted ceiling.
"This is a natural climate as much as possible," Amanda replied sadly. She didn't look up at him as she spoke. "We keep it open to the elements when we can."
"So what's all that junk?" He waved a finger at the elaborate networks built into the ceiling.
"We can shut off the outside world and create any of dozens of microclimates of our own choosing in here," she explained. "All that is used to simulate the various environments. Mostly we just use it for watering the plants. Or used it," she corrected bitterly. "The C. dioxa cannot yet extract enough water to survive from the air. That would have come in future generations. Those nozzles provide seeding for the clouds."
"Get outta town," Remo said. "You grow actual clouds in here?"
Amanda didn't answer him. "I can't believe this is happening," she said to herself.
When Remo looked down he found her still crouching next to the trees. The panicked daddy's girl had fled, replaced for a moment with a coolly professional young woman.
Remo squatted beside her, taking a withered C. dioxa leaf between his fingers. It felt warm to the touch.
"It's hot," he said. He rubbed his fingertips together. They tingled.
"A chemical reaction," Amanda said absently. Her mind was somewhere else. "Actually, most people shouldn't be able to feel it. Where's Dr. St. Clair?" she asked, standing abruptly. "Maybe we can still salvage this somehow."
"That little twitchy guy?" Remo asked. "He just went out there to try to kill us or something. Hey, you ought to try touching one of these leaves, Little Father. It's pretty weird."
"What do you mean 'kill us'?" Amanda asked. Chiun was standing imperiously next to them, his eyes directed on the greenhouse control room. "My pale son is correct," the old Korean said. "That one means you harm."
"Are you two nuts?" Amanda said. "You're talking about Hubert St. Clair, the head of the Congress of Concerned Scientists. Oh, this is it. I'm calling Daddy. He probably got someone else to hire you for him. He has no idea he's throwing away perfectly good, potential trust-fund money on two flimflam-"
She was interrupted by a sudden loud clanking sound. It rattled throughout the greenhouse. When she looked up, she saw that the skylights were rumbling shut.
"What's going on?" she asked.
"First guess would be your boss trying not to kill you," Remo said blandly.
Amanda spun toward the greenhouse doors. Like the skylights, they were sliding shut. They closed, followed by the hiss of the hermetic seal inflating. Through the special plastic panel next to the closed doors, Amanda saw Hubert St. Clair sitting uncomfortably at the control panel. He held an interoffice phone gingerly to his ear.
Feeling the first thrill of worry, she hurried over to the door, Remo and Chiun in her wake.
"Hubert," she said into the speaker next to the door, "could you please open the doors? I'd like to get out now."
On the other side of the glass, St. Clair hung up the phone. He unwrapped the handkerchief from his hand.
"You've been a big help, Amanda," the CCS head said over the speaker. "The pristine world of the future will thank you for your contribution."
"Hubert?" she asked, worry changing to panic.
"Hubert!" she yelled when he got up and walked from the room.
The second set of doors slid shut, sealing the airtight outer chamber.
Eyes wide, Amanda wheeled on Remo and Chiun. "Told you he wanted to kill us," Remo said. Amanda couldn't believe what was happening.
"This is insane," she gasped. "Dr. Schumar died in here, but he was asphyxiated by the C. dioxas. The trees are all dead. They've stopped producing carbon dioxide or ammonia. What does he think he's doing?"
As if in response, a new mechanical sound echoed throughout the greenhouse. When they looked up, they saw the massive fans that were positioned high up on the walls chugging to life. At the same time, thick mist began pouring from a network of twisted cones.
"Mind telling me what that's all about?" Remo asked.
"I told you. It's for the clouds," Amanda explained. "They're part of the artificial-environment program."
Propelled by the fans, the mist was swirling into the center of the ceiling. The sky beyond the glass faded as the cloud cover thickened.
"Okay, this has gotten too creepy even for me," Remo said. "Little Father?"
The Master of Sinanju nodded agreement. Twirling, he faced the closed door. Bony hands appeared from the folds of his kimono, daggerlike fingernails unfolding like desert blooms. With nail edges sharper than titanium glass cutters, Chiun attacked the plastic pane.
To the old man's shock, the surface gave. The glass refused to cut.
Remo was stunned when his teacher's deadly nails left little more than a scratch on the hard veneer. "What is this substance?" Chiun demanded.
"It's a special polymer," Amanda explained. "We needed to create a totally incorruptible environment."
"Anyone else here wish we'd run for the doors when we had the chance?" Remo asked.
The Master of Sinanju's wrinkled face had grown concerned. "Remo, help me," he snapped.
Chiun placed his palms flat against the pane. Remo joined his teacher. The surface of the door felt alien to the touch. Whatever it was made of, it wasn't ordinary plastic. Still, it was on a frame and so should pop free. With a shared nod, the two Masters of Sinanju exerted pressure against the door. The door met them with as much force as they put out. They pushed harder. Still nothing.
"It does not move," Chiun hissed.
"Reverse pressure," Amanda insisted. "The door frame is built to withstand vastly different interior pressures. It's part of our simulation of different atmospheres."
"It extends to the walls, too," Remo said. "They would have buckled otherwise."
"The ceiling's the same," Amanda offered worriedly.
She was eyeing the ceiling as she spoke. Sparks of electricity crackled within the swelling storm clouds. "Lightning?" Remo asked, his voice flat.
"I keep telling you, we had to have a natural environment," Amanda insisted.
Chiun's face was harsh. "There is nothing natural in this chamber of horrors," he spit. Hazel eyes watched the blackening clouds.
There was an overhang above the door at which they were standing. It would protect them from the rain.
"No biggie," Remo said. "A little rain never hurt anyone. Still, we better get out of here before winter sets in. I left my snow pants back home."
Glancing around, Remo's gaze fell on the pile of C. dioxas.
"One battering ram coming up," he said. Ducking out from under the small overhang, he raced back across the greenhouse to the trees.
The biggest trunk was nearly two feet around. Remo dumped it from the pile. With the flat edge of his hand he sheered off the branches and chopped off the top.
As he worked, he watched the clouds from the corner of his eye. Whites and blues flashed like indoor fireworks. He was flipping the bare, eight-foot-long tree trunk into his arms when the first crackling roar sounded above him.
The short hair on his neck and arms shot to immediate attention. An explosion of electricity lit the room. Before the lightning bolt could eat up the inconsequential space between floor and ceiling, Remo was already reacting.
He flipped the trunk in his hands straight up and flung himself to the floor. The bolt sought the tallest object in the room which, a moment before, had been Remo. It slammed the top of the C. dioxa trunk, pounding down into the packed dirt floor. When Remo scrambled to his feet an instant later, the end of the trunk was charred black and smoking.
A squeaky voice called to him from across the greenhouse.
"Remo, stop your tomfoolery!" the Master of Sinanju shouted.
Thunder bellowed too close to be real. The ground beneath Remo shook as if struck by the colossal foot of some gigantic primordial beast.
"I'll tomfool you, you old buzzard," Remo grumbled.
He was grabbing up the log when he noticed something in the dirt near one of the plant beds. With a deeply worried look that had nothing to do with the storm raging above his head, he snatched up the small object and stuffed it in his pocket. He grabbed up the trunk and was heading back for the doors when the first drop of rain fell.
The thick droplet smacked into the blue tree trunk in Remo's bare arms. Unlike normal rain, it hissed. The raindrop spit and smoked, burning his nostrils as he ran. A hole as big around as a quarter burned the log.
"This ain't water," Remo snapped as he rejoined Amanda and Chiun under the overhang.
Amanda examined the hole burned in the trunk. "I think it's acid," she said, fear tripping her voice.
"Acid rain," Remo muttered. "Gotta admire him for sticking with what he knows."
Amanda shook her head. "This can't be," she said to herself.
"Is," Remo said. "And unless you want all of us to be was, you'll get out of the way."
Numbly, Amanda backed to the wall.
Chiun grabbed the smoking end of the log. The two Masters of Sinanju steered the blunt end into the greenhouse door. It struck with a wall-rattling thump. They brought the log back, slamming it into the plastic once more.
Behind them, the rain was opening up. Heavy droplets splattered the ground, fizzing and popping wherever they struck.
Remo and Chiun steered the log at the space where the two doors met. On the third try, Remo thought he felt movement. They brought the trunk back, pounding again and again. The log began to splinter. Blue slivers of bark sheered away, revealing powder-blue pulp.
"It isn't working!" Amanda insisted. She was watching them work, eyes darting now and then out to the greenhouse.
The storm was worsening. Sloppy acid droplets spattered onto the trunks of the felled trees. The wood steamed as holes ate through the tough bark. Amanda jumped when an acid raindrop struck the floor near her foot.
"This roof won't hold if it gets worse," she said, troubled eyes directed up at the small overhang. Remo and Chiun brought the log back, slamming it forward one last time. The room shook and Remo heard a tiny hiss.
"That got it, Little Father," he said.
The Master of Sinanju nodded curtly. As Remo held the log in place, Chiun hurried to the door. The seal had cracked. Chiun attacked the opening. As he pried the space larger, the inner seal inflated to fill it.
"What the crap?" Remo groused. He jammed the end of the log into the space between the doors.
"It is attempting to seal itself," the Master of Sinanju said tightly even as he began assailing the securing lip with his long fingernails.
"That's a special security feature," Amanda explained. "To keep the environment pure."
"You know, lady, I'm getting pretty tired of hearing that," Remo griped. "By the sounds of it, you thought of everything except how to get out of this goldfish bowl."
His words sent a cold shock of memory through her fear-rattled brain. "There's an emergency switch that opens the door!" Amanda announced frantically. "I forgot all about it." She shrank from Remo's glare. "We never needed it in our work," she explained hastily. "I don't think anyone on the team even knew it was there. I only found it when I was studying the greenhouse schematics after Dr. Schumar's death."
"Where?" Remo snapped. He glanced around the door. All he could see was the speaker.
"There." She pointed across the greenhouse floor to a series of support columns that rose from the floor, stretching to the vaulted ceiling.
"It's on the third or fourth column," she said. Remo wheeled on the Master of Sinanju. The old man was still trying to pierce the inflated seal between the doors.
"Go," Chiun commanded. "But have a care." Remo nodded tightly.
The acid was splattering mostly the main floor. If he hugged the walls, he might be okay. A rumble of thunder shook the greenhouse, and a desperate crackle of lightning screamed into the pile of C. dioxas as Remo slipped out from under the protective overhang.
As he moved, he felt the telegraphing waves of something familiar zeroing in on him. A video camera.
Somewhere in the dank depths of the CCS building, Hubert St. Clair was watching him.
Remo saluted the camera with his middle finger even as he ducked and dodged the raindrops. He was right. They drizzled out to almost nothing at the edge of the greenhouse. The nozzles were concentrated in the center of the room.
There was an artificial randomness to the rainfall. Remo's body tuned to the mechanical pattern. Twirling and skittering at the storm's edge, he managed to avoid the fat raindrops.
He found the emergency switch on the third column. A padlock and chain secured it in place. Remo snapped the chain and pulled the switch.
When he glanced back, he saw that the switch hadn't worked. Chiun was still crouched before the doors. Standing next to the Master of Sinanju, Amanda Lifton was growing frantic.
"Stupid geniuses," Remo muttered.
From where Remo danced amid the raindrops, he had a clear view of the roof that was protecting Chiun and Amanda. It was held in place by twin bands angled to the wall. Pooling acid was burning away the securing braces. Even from this distance, his keen eyes could see the metal dissolving.
"Damn," he grumbled. "Chiun, that thing's gonna-"
He never finished. Even as he was shouting, a band snapped.
The roof twisted to one side, spilling a wave of acid. A split second after the first band broke, the second followed suit and the entire overhang collapsed.
Remo could only stand and watch, helpless, as the Master of Sinanju was buried beneath a ton of hissing metal.
He took a step forward. But the room seemed to anticipate his move.
All around him the storm seemed to find sudden focus. The spitting nozzles shut down on the far side of the greenhouse. All at once, they opened up above him. And as Remo stood alone and defenseless on the greenhouse floor, a downpour of acid washed down from above like liquid fire.
Herr Hahn knew death. He knew it up close. Had kept quiet company with it for years.
The blood, the anguish, the final screams. He knew all the familiar faces of his old companion. He wasn't some dime store philosopher who would have claimed death as a friend. Herr Hahn had no friends.
No, death to him was not a friend, but an ally. It had worked with him, at his side since his youth. In one sense it was a protector, for without the deaths he inflicted on so many others, Herr Hahn would surely have himself died long ago.
To some he was known as an assassin. He rejected the term. These days an assassin conjured up images of maniacs with political or social motives. The trade, as practiced by Herr Hahn, had no such pretenses. Someone could hire him to kill a president or a plumber. Hahn wouldn't care either way. Of course, the money was the same in each case. For this expensive reason he rarely found work killing plumbers.
In such a skilled profession as his, Herr Hahn was unique, for he was content to be called a murderer.
After all, a murder was a pure and honest-sounding thing.
Professional murder had paid the bills a long time now. And as long as his old ally death continued to see to it that others died instead of Herr Hahn, he would be murdering for many more years to come. Dealing death was on his mind this day.
Herr Hahn was tucked safely away in the security room of the Congress of Concerned Scientists building in Geneva. On closed-circuit TV, Hahn watched as the drama unfolded within the big greenhouse.
Herr Hahn had set up the elaborate greenhouse system for his employers here at the CCS. As he watched the three people in there now, he realized he might have been unintentionally sloppy. Of course, he couldn't be blamed. After all, these visitors deviated from the norm.
When Hubert St. Clair had instructed Herr Hahn to oversee the death of the woman, Hahn didn't anticipate anything interesting. Even with the addition of the two others he didn't expect anything other than the usual. They'd all three cower underneath the overhang for a time. Eventually and inevitably the acid would do its work, and that would be that.
It should have been the same as the rest of the scientists he'd eliminated. Perhaps this was a little more dramatic than some of the others, but the end result would be identical. Boring and inevitable.
Yet as he studied the monitor, he was finding things a little less predictable than he had come to expect.
These three were lasting longer than he ever would have thought.
When the young one suddenly raced out from beneath the overhang, Hahn sat up straight.
This was new. Such behavior went against every survival instinct Hahn had seen in his many other victims. To leave an area of safety-even a temporary one-ran contrary to normal human behavior.
It was panic. Had to be. Sheer, blind panic. That was the only logical explanation.
In such circumstances panic always killed. The young one would soon die in the artificial storm. When he didn't, Herr Hahn felt the first tickle of some strange alien emotion deep in his round belly. The young one seemed unharmed by the growing storm. More incredibly, he had cleared one of the trees of limbs, lifting it with seeming ease. Without a sign of strain on his face, he'd raced back to the others.
Hahn had no great control over where the rain fell or lightning struck. The random program that controlled the storm was intended to mimic the real thing so as to give the trees the closest thing to a natural environment as possible.
All Hahn could do was ratchet up the acid output in certain quadrants. He did. As the liquid sprayed from specially designed nozzles through which water ordinarily flowed, the two intriguing men in the greenhouse were already ramming their log against the thick plastic door.
It was incredible to watch.
They were obviously possessed of physical strength far greater than appearance indicated. They had the perfect camouflage, these two men. Nothing about them would indicate anything extraordinary. And yet here they were, battering the door to their final prison.
Their great efforts wouldn't matter. The doors and walls had been designed to withstand pressure greater than any mere mortals could produce. Even men as unique as these two obviously were.
Hahn watched them work, almost grateful that he hadn't met them some other way. Although he was the best at what he did, these two could present-
A light flashed on his monitor. Blinking disbelief, Hahn leaned forward in his chair.
The door to the greenhouse was open. Just a hair so far-and so far the seal was still secure-but these two had somehow managed to do something the engineer of the greenhouse had insisted would be impossible. And Hahn trusted this particular engineer's word, for it was Herr Hahn himself who had designed the room for the CCS.
On the monitor Hahn saw that they'd pried the edge of the trunk between the doors. The old Asian attacked the inflating hermetic seal with his long fingernails.
For the first time in his professional career, Herr Hahn felt his certainty in his inevitable success begin to fade.
This couldn't be. They had to die.
As Hahn watched, the Lifton woman suddenly pointed back out across the greenhouse.
She obviously knew where the emergency switch was. Not that it mattered. Yes, he had gone out to get the log, but the young male would never go back out again.
Hahn watched, stunned, as the young American darted back out into the greenhouse. He grew even more shocked when the thin man with the abnormally thick wrists threw an obscene gesture toward Herr Hahn's security camera.
How could he possibly have known he was being watched?
The American made it to the switch. The acid had to have chewed through the lock and chain, because he simply plucked them off and threw them to the floor.
Others in his business thought Herr Hahn cautious in the extreme. Today, Hahn was grateful for his care and planning. He had disabled the emergency switch before his targets had even entered the greenhouse.
He watched on the monitor as the young one yanked down the switch. When the doors remained closed, Hahn allowed a slip of air to pass his thick lips.
Not that he really expected anything to happen. It was just that, given the strangeness of this situation-
A green light suddenly winked on in the security panel.
Hahn's eyes grew wide. His hands sought out control buttons even as he stuffed his feet back inside the open well beneath the desk. He swept the panel with his eyes.
A breach in the doors. But that couldn't be. The emergency switch was dead. He was sure of it.
The old Asian was still attacking the seal. But now plastic shards had begun to fly like string confetti in a homecoming parade.
Impossible! He was using his fingernails to whittle away at the supposedly invulnerable polymer. Somewhere, somehow, a break had been made in the airtight seal.
He glanced at the monitors. This couldn't be happening.
Hahn was watching two screens at once. The young one was across the room while the old one and the girl stood under the door overhang. Through the murky air Hahn thought he saw something that gave him hope. He zoomed in on the roof.
Yes. There it was. The acid was rotting away the securing bracket. No sooner had he focused the camera than the metal twisted and snapped. The roof lurched and collapsed.
Two dead, one left. Hahn reached for the control panel.
The overhang was no longer there. There was no protection, no way out. Hahn could cut off the sprinklers on half of the room, concentrating the downpour where the young one stood.
Hahn flipped the last switch. Gripping tight the edge of the control panel, he threw his attention back to the monitors. To watch the younger man finally do as he was supposed to. Melt into a pile of steaming flesh and bone.
THE DELUGE that would have turned a common man to sludge failed to kill Remo Williams for one simple reason. Remo Williams was not a common man.
He was off at a sprint even as the acid was falling. It hadn't even touched ground before he was nearly out of range.
The nozzles had been turned off to the right of the greenhouse. That was where Remo ran.
Remo was running full-out even as he felt the first drops of acid kiss the back of his T-shirt.
As he ran, he rolled the skin of his back, flexing and twisting the muscles. His skin became a life-form independent of the rest of his body, rippling in undulating waves. The movement kept his shirt out of complete contact with his skin, preventing the acid that was bleeding into the disintegrating fabric from finding root in soft flesh.
He was at a crouch once he reached the storm line. With a fall and a roll he was out of it. Acid that had pooled on the floor chewed away at the knees of his pants.
The nozzles where he'd been standing clicked off with a drizzling hiss. In another moment he was sure the ones directly above him would switch on.
He was out in the open now. Exposed. There was no longer any place for him to hide. His eyes strayed to the remnants of the door arch.
Even if Chiun had survived under all that metal, it would only be a matter of time before-
Remo blinked. The twin doors into the control room were no longer closed. The clear panes had been pried apart. A narrow gap opened into the room beyond.
A weathered face appeared in the narrow opening. Chiun's worried expression changed to a look of agitation.
"Remo, act your age," the Master of Sinanju admonished. "It is unseemly for the Transitional Reigning Master of Sinanju to be stomping around in rain puddles."
With that, Chiun disappeared.
Above Remo, the nozzles switched on. It no longer mattered. Remo was already gone.
He took a running leap over the collapsed roof. "Banzai!" he yelled as he dove over the twisted debris and through the open door. His palms hit the floor in the small control room and he flipped up and over, landing on the soles of his smoking loafers. "Tah-da!" he announced, throwing his arms out wide.
Amanda was standing next to the Master of Sinanju. Rather than be impressed, she wore a frightened expression.
The instant Remo hit the floor, the Master of Sinanju jumped forward, tapered fingernails flashing out like deadly knife blades.
"What are you doing?" Remo asked, twisting away.
"Stay still, imbecile!" Chiun barked.
Like a demented tailor, the old man attacked Remo's steaming T-shirt. The cotton sheered away in long strips. As it fell to the floor, the acid continued to chew at the material.
Once the shirt was gone, Chiun sliced off the growing holes at Remo's knees. He came away with two circles of cloth with widening holes at the center. He threw them to the floor with the steaming T-shirt strips.
When Chiun at last stood back, Remo looked down on his tattered outfit. He was shirtless with two holes in his knees and a pair of smoking loafers. He glanced sheepishly at the Master of Sinanju.
"You think maybe you could skip over this part in the Sinanju Scrolls?" he asked.
"If not for the ever vigilant eyes of my dead ancestors, I would be tempted to throw out the entire chronicle of your apprenticeship and claim the records were lost when you burned down my house," Chiun replied thinly.
"That sounds like a no," Remo sighed. "And I didn't burn down our house."
Scuffing his soles on the concrete floor to remove the excess acid, he turned his attention to Amanda.
She stood panting near the door. Beyond, the storm still raged in the greenhouse.
"I-I can't believe this," Amanda stammered.
"Yeah, my boss has tried to kill me a couple of times, too," Remo commiserated. "If he's thinking of making it a regular thing, I'd ask for a raise and a better parking space. Say, you wouldn't have a spare shirt around here?"
Amanda glanced at him. "Oh," she said. "There might be some clothes in the offices."
She pressed a button on the control panel and the outer doors hissed open. In a daze, she headed into the hallway. Chiun followed her out.
Remo cast a final glance into the greenhouse.
The storm was powering down. The electricity had been cut to the lightning and the fans. Only a little liquid still drizzled from the overhead nozzles. The ground steamed. The acrid air burned Remo's nostrils.
Whoever was operating the environmental controls was admitting failure and shutting off the systems. Remo left the small control room, his face as dark and doom-filled as the dissipating clouds in the big glass greenhouse.
IN THE SECURITY Room on the other side of the CCS complex, Herr Hahn switched off the monitors one by one.
For a long moment he sat alone in the silent room, staring at the dead black screens.
This simple killing was apparently going to be more difficult than he had originally thought. Without realizing it, a smile slowly spread across his broad face. In the pit of his stomach, a new emotion.
It had been a long time since Herr Hahn had faced a real challenge. These two promised to give him something his professional life was sorely lacking.
Like a man with renewed purpose, Herr Hahn got to his feet and waddled out into the dimly lit corridor.
The sunrise was new.
He had been in this place many times now and it was always night. But there it was. Or nearly was. Although the sun had not yet actually peeked over the horizon, Mark Howard knew on some instinctive level that it was coming even as he walked along the empty Folcroft corridor.
Through the closed and barred windows he could see the sanitarium grounds bathed in the purple of predawn. The same color streaked the sallow sky.
It was always winter in this place. It remained the same even as the rest of the world enjoyed the change of seasons. Dark shadows painted the land. The tree trunks were arms, their dead branches fingers. Grasping, clawing for the dawn that had been so long coming. Finally, almost here.
Mark was used to the dream by now. It had started the first week he'd come to work at Folcroft. For months it was a nightmare, but he'd had it so frequently now that he had built up a callus in his mind.
When he passed the same window at the end of the hall, the same owl sat in the same branch of the same tree. Its eyes glowed the same color as the sky and the land. He saw for the first time that the swollen moon was gone.
Mark was looking out the window when, with a loud hoot, the owl suddenly flapped its big wings. His heart tripped when the night bird took flight. It vanished in the pale darkness of early morning.
That was new, too. He had gotten used to everything being the same. The changes in the dream this time were bringing back some of the earliest feelings of dread.
He pulled his gaze from the window.
Mark could see now that the hallway was not as misshapen as it usually was. The angles were normal, not twisted. The lines of ceiling and floor led straight to a single door at the far end of the dusty corridor.
It was like any other hospital door at Folcroft. Wires crisscrossed the off-center Plexiglas window. The Beast lived beyond that door. For a year now Mark had almost glimpsed it in his dreams. It was a thing that lived on fear and in shadow. It played at the fringes of his unconscious mind, never stepping into the light, never taking a form that Mark Howard could fully understand.
He was only happy that the Beast was trapped. The door was a prison that kept it locked away.
As Mark approached the heavy door, he expected to feel the chill that always came at this point in his dream. Along with it, the same inhuman rasping voice he always heard.
They never came.
More changes. A corruption of the familiar that made all of the old terrors seem as fresh as that very first dream all those months ago. His steps growing more cautious, Mark approached the door.
Before he even reached it, he saw that it was ajar. Another first. A small security chain hung slack in the space between door and frame. So fragile. Not enough to hold the monster within.
His heart thudding, Mark reached the door. Hands framing the small window, he leaned in close. Most of the familiar shadows had fled. He saw now that the room was tidy, like the rooms of all Folcroft patients. A thin sheet draped a plain hospital bed. And on the bed was an emaciated figure with a face as pale as the crisp white linens under which it lay. Mark blinked. There was no sign of the Beast. And when the voice spoke, it came not from the figure in the bed but from Mark Howard's own mind. The time is nearly here....
Something stabbed into Mark's shoulder. He jumped, grabbing for whatever had touched him. His fingers wrapped around something cold and dry.
Nearly here... nearly here. .. nearly here...
"MARK, WAKE UP. "
The voice spoke with crisp irritation. The dream fled and Mark Howard's tired eyes blinked open. He was sitting in the office of Dr. Harold W. Smith. The CURE director stood over him, shaking Mark with one arthritic hand. Smith's lemony face was drawn tight with annoyance.
"Dr. Smith," Mark said, embarrassed. He suddenly realized that the thing he had grabbed on to in his dream was Smith's gnarled hand. He released it, his face flushing.
Smith straightened. "We were in the middle of our morning meeting," he said. "I had taken a moment to retrieve something from the mainframes. When I looked up, you were asleep."
"Oh." Mark cleared his throat. "I'm sorry. I've been having a problem with..." His voice trailed off. "I'm sorry, Dr. Smith," he repeated.
A notch formed on Smith's gray brow. "Is there something that you wish to tell me?" he asked. When Mark looked up, he found Smith peering intently down at him. The look of accusation of a moment before had begun to change to one of concern. There was almost a paternal glint in those cold eyes.
"It's something-" Mark shook his head. "I can't really describe it right now. It's something strange."
"I see," Smith said slowly. "Does it have anything to do with your, er-" he hesitated "-ability?" Although the CURE director chose not to discuss it much, he was aware that his assistant was possessed of a unique intuitive sense. In the past Howard's gift had given them foresight into some CURE-related matters.
"I don't think so," Mark said. "If it is, it's not in any way I'm familiar with."
Smith nodded. "Very well," he said. He began to turn away when he abruptly paused. "Mark, you've been working nonstop since you started here. Perhaps it might be a good idea for you to take a few days off."
Howard seemed surprised at the offer. Before he could respond, they were both interrupted by the jangling of one of Smith's desktop telephones. The CURE director noted that it was the blue contact phone.
"That will be all for now, Mark," Smith said. Howard was grateful to be dismissed. As he hurried from the room, Smith rounded the desk. Howard was shutting the door as Smith settled into his cracked leather chair.
"Smith," the CURE director announced into the phone.
"Hey, Smitty," Remo said. "I'll give you three guesses who just escaped certain death by the skin of his teeth, and the first two don't count."
Smith leaned forward in his chair. "Did something go wrong?" he asked.
"Depends on your perspective," Remo said. "Since I'm not a French fry right now, that Humbert Humbert guy who runs the show around here probably thinks so."
Smith raised an eyebrow. "Remo, are you saying Hubert St. Clair tried to kill you?" he asked.
In the Geneva headquarters of the Congress of Concerned Scientists, Remo leaned back against Amanda Lifton's desk. Chiun and Amanda had left him alone while he placed the call. He looked down at his tattered clothes.
"Technically, kill," Remo said. "Specifically, acid dip. Six of one, half dozen of the other. I think he was just going after that dingbat lady scientist, and me and Chiun got caught in the cross fire. And speaking of her, the Ivy League must have started passing out diplomas with every bikini wax."
"Dr. Lifton is supposed to be quite gifted," Smith said.
"She's a flaky debutante with boobs till Tuesday," Remo replied. "I doubt she could invent her way out of a bra with both hands." He tipped his head, reconsidering. "Actually, that's probably how she got the job here."
Remo quickly briefed Smith on the events in the CCS greenhouse, including the destruction of all the C. dioxas.
"You said St. Clair was on the phone before the attack against you began?" Smith asked once Remo was finished.
"Yeah, but I wasn't listening to what he was saying," Remo said. "Could have been calling his bookie. It sure as hell wasn't his dry cleaner."
As he spoke, he picked up a framed photograph from Amanda's desk. Dr. Lifton was posing with Hubert St. Clair and a half-dozen others. Although he could have picked her chests out of a lineup blindfolded, in this picture it wasn't hard to tell which one was Amanda. The rest of them were all dressed like St. Clair. They all wore bell-bottoms and corduroy jackets. Remo frowned at the picture.
"Must be the office Halloween party," he muttered.
"Nothing, Smitty," Remo said, putting the photo down. "I don't know what the what is here right now, but I searched the place and came up empty. That Dilbert guy flew the coop. I need you to track him down."
He heard the sound of Smith typing rapidly at his computer. "There is an executive committee that oversees the CCS," the CURE director explained as he worked. "While the current director is Dr. St. Clair, he is answerable to the rest of the leadership. They could be involved." The typing stopped. "The CCS owns a home for St. Clair's use when he is in Geneva," Smith said. He gave Remo the address.
"Thanks, Smitty." He started to hang up.
"Remo," the CURE director said. "Are you certain all the trees were destroyed?"
Remo snapped his fingers. "Thanks for reminding me," he said. Digging in his pocket, he pulled out a tiny object.
It was as big as a pea. This was what had caught his eye in the greenhouse when the lightning struck. Remo held up the blue seed for inspection.
"Is something else wrong?" Smith asked after the dead air had gone on between them too long.
"Maybe," Remo said. "Although it could just be the end of the world. I'll get back to you." Slipping the lone C. dioxa seed back into his pocket, he hung up the phone.
"Where are all the seeds?" Remo announced when he rejoined Amanda and Chiun in one of the CCS labs.
He had brought a framed photograph with him from Amanda's office.
The Master of Sinanju was sitting cross-legged near a big picture window that offered a breathtaking view of the snowcapped Alps. He had removed a handful of his special gold-and-silver envelopes and a stack of writing paper from his kimono folds. The old man was ignoring the scenic view, concentrating on composing another of his mysterious letters.
Amanda was laying out a dress shirt and a pair of pants she'd scavenged from the CCS offices. "What?" she asked, looking up.
When Amanda saw the picture Remo was carrying, she frowned. It was the photo of the C. dioxa that had been hanging on her office wall. The same one Remo had asked about when she first brought them to her office.
"What are you doing with that?" Amanda demanded.
"The seeds," Remo pointed out. He held up the photo in one hand; in the other was the seed he'd found in the greenhouse. "These seeds. You said this was a picture of the latest trees. Well, in the picture they've got seeds. The ones that were chopped down in that nutcase greenhouse of yours didn't have any. So where did they go?"
Near the window the Master of Sinanju paused in his writing. When he lifted his head, his hazel eyes caught a good, hard look at the Alps.
"I don't like Switzerland," the old Korean announced.
Scowling, he returned to his writing.
"The seeds must have been there," Amanda said to Remo. "Hubert had the trees destroyed. It wouldn't make sense for him to do that without destroying the seeds, too."
"I don't know if you missed all the fun back there, Chesty LaRue, but Hubert was that weird-looking little troll who just tried to turn you into a silicone puddle."
Amanda's pretty face puckered in annoyance. She tried pushing her shoulders forward to cave in her chest.
"I don't appreciate sarcasm or insults from the help," she said unhappily. "And I've been thinking about all this. Something's wrong here, I know it. But I just can't believe that Hubert St. Clair is behind it."
"Believe what you want," Remo said. "But you need to get those things checked. Your reception's way off."
Remo picked up the dress shirt, shrugging it on. He rotated his shoulders. "This doesn't feel right," he said.
"Well, it was the best I could do," Amanda said, trying to pretend she wasn't watching him dress. "That was Dr. Riviera's. He died a month ago in a snorkling accident in the Bahamas."
"Your boss probably stuffed shark-nip down his skivvies, and tapped a cork in his pipe," Remo said. He wasn't used to long sleeves. And the shirt was too tight at the wrists. He'd have to pick up a new T-shirt.
"The Swiss are forever professing their neutrality," the Master of Sinanju proclaimed near the window. "Tell me, Remo, what use is there for an assassin in a land where everyone is afraid to choose sides?"
"No use at all, Little Father."
Chiun nodded. "And their mountains are ugly," he said.
"A blight on the land. We should bulldoze them flat and make the whole damned country a parking lot for Germany."
A thin smile touched the old Korean's wrinkled lips. "Sometimes, Remo, you are almost not a disappointment to me," Chiun said.
"I like you, too, Little Father," Remo said. "Care to tell me what all those letters are for?"
"Still none of your business," Chiun replied ominously. He offered Remo the top of his bald head.
"I have a feeling they are," Remo muttered. He grabbed up the pants Amanda had found for him and ducked behind the open door of the lab.
"Maybe Hubert-I don't know-bumped the controls with his elbow on his way out the door," Amanda said. "It could happen. He doesn't like to touch buttons or switches. Maybe he doesn't even know what almost happened." Her face grew suddenly concerned. "Oh, or maybe they got to him, too!"
"Fine with me," Remo said, zipping his fly as he came out from behind the door. He tossed his old pants onto a table. "Someone doing my job for me for a change. I'm sick of always doing all the grunt work. We're going, Chiun."
The Master of Sinanju swept up his writing material.
Cradling an elbow in one hand, Amanda was chewing on the back of her thumbnail. "You're absolutely sure there weren't any seeds on the trees?" she asked, her voice very even.
"Picked clean," Remo said certainly. "My guess is we'll find Hubert Appleseed wearing a tin pot on his head and spreading doomsday seeds from the back of his electric car. That is, assuming we don't all asphyxiate first."
With that, Remo and Chiun left the lab. Amanda's face had grown pale. Assuming Remo was right, with the rest of the C. dioxa team gone, she alone in all the world knew the truth of his words. When she pulled the lab door closed a moment later, Dr. Amanda Lifton's hands were shaking.
Remo and Chiun had taken a cab from the airport to the Congress of Concerned Scientists complex. Since they were without transportation, Amanda offered to drive to Hubert St. Clair's Geneva retreat.
"This is your car?" Remo asked when she led them to her economical Citroen.
Some of the color had returned to her cheeks. She fumbled in her purse for the keys.
"What's wrong with it?" she asked.
"For starters, where's the rest of it?"
"There's nothing wrong with economy," Amanda insisted. "Who needs a big Detroit gas-guzzler with a TV, a bar and a chauffeur anyway?" Her eyes welled at the memory of better days. "Not me. Excuse me, I've got something in my eye."
She turned, blowing her nose on her sleeve before turning back to unlock the car.
Chiun sat in the front next to Amanda. Remo had to cram himself in the back on a pile of stuffed toys and with an umbrella stabbing him in the side.
Amanda Lifton drove like someone who was used to giving orders from behind a martini glass in the back seat. When she had taken one too many corners on two wheels, Remo finally snapped the umbrella in two and threw it out the window.
"What did you do that for?" Amanda demanded.
"I'm not getting paid to be shish kebabbed," he said.
"Umbrellas aren't free, you know," she said. "I'm telling Daddy you owe me a new one."
"Take it out of your stuffed-animal budget," Remo grumbled, knocking around the pile of toys. "What are you, five?"
"He's not very nice at all," Amanda said to Chiun.
"No, he is not," Chiun agreed. "And since he is by nature a not-nice person, it is making it all the more difficult for him to do one nice thing for another person as is required by our traditions."
"He has to do a good deed?" Amanda asked. She snorted derisively. "Good luck."
"Thanks," said Remo who, while Amanda and Chiun were talking, had been heaving most of her stuffed toys into the street.
Two miles north of the city they passed the European headquarters of the United Nations. They followed the Rue de Lausanne to where it ran parallel to the shore of Lake Geneva. The snowcapped Alps held up the sky. The Mont Blanc massif cast a looming shadow over the gleaming lake.
"You sure you know where St. Clair's house is?" Remo asked as they headed into the hills.
"Of course," Amanda said. "I practically grew up in Switzerland. Abigail and I used to winter here with Mother and Daddy. I've been to a bunch of CCS functions at Hubert's house. It used to be Sage Carlin's when he was CCS head."
It was the name that finally jogged Remo's memory.
"Sage Carlin," he said, snapping his fingers. "I knew St. Clair looked like somebody."
"Yes," Amanda said uncomfortably. "Dr. Carlin was a legend at the CCS. Some of the men there sort of adopted his look after he died. I guess they think they're kind of a living memorial to Sage."
"You mean they look like that on purpose?" Remo asked. He shook his head. "Trying to end the world is starting to look like the least crazy thing about that place."
Amanda took a sharp turn onto a winding road. The homes grew more palatial as they climbed. The more opulent they became, the more despondent Amanda grew. By the time they stopped at the gate of Hubert St. Clair's chalet, she was practically in tears once more.
The home beyond the fence was one of rich woods and elaborate peaks. It was perched on an outcropping. Far below, the crescent shape of Lake Geneva sparkled in the cold mountain sun.
Porches encircled both floors of the house, one above the other. Big sheets of plate glass reflected sunlight.
When Remo and Chiun got out, Amanda was still sniffling behind the wheel.
"Look," Remo said, trying to strike a sympathetic tone, "why don't you wait here while we check this out."
"No," Amanda insisted. "It's just tough. All this money. I used to have this. This used to be me." She straightened her proud Lifton spine. "But I'll be fine."
"Okay, come. Just stay out of the way," Remo advised.
It was as if her tears were wired to a switch. They just stopped. The old Lifton arrogance resurfaced. "Don't you condescend to me," Amanda ordered. She blinked her eyes clear as she got out of the car. "You work for me, remember?"
"Okay, okay," Remo sighed. He turned to Chiun, pitching his voice low. "Let's keep an eye on the flake, okay, Little Father?"
"What did you say?" Amanda demanded. "Was that about me? I don't appreciate whispering behind my back. Especially when you're doing it right in front of me. If you have something to tell me, you tell me to my face."
Remo rolled his eyes. "I should wait in the car," he said. "And you wanna yell a little louder? There's a pastry chef in Munich who can't quite hear you."
"You've got a lot of attitude for a guy who wears just a T-shirt," she accused.
"You should have seen him when I found him," Chiun said. "He was a naked foundling, even whiter than he is now. Hard to believe, yes, I know. And even after all my years trying to de-white him, this is still only the best I could do."
"Tell you what. Why don't you two wait in the car and I'll go jump in the lake?" Remo snarled. With his heel he kicked open the driveway gate. The brittle lock snapped, and he stormed onto the grounds of Hubert St. Clair's estate.
THE FIGURE was outlined in green.
From his boat moored out in Genfersee-the name his German forebears had given Lake Geneva-Herr Hahn watched Remo head up the driveway. The other two, which Hahn knew were the woman and the elderly Asian, trailed him up to the house.
The two men didn't walk so much as glide. Their grace had been apparent on the security cameras at the CCS, but it was far more obvious here, where he wasn't actually seeing their features. Here, they were only warm green ghosts moving with inhuman grace across his glowing monitor. A beautiful, perfect symphony of movement.
"What are you?" Herr Hahn asked the ghosts on his screen.
After the events at the greenhouse he was being even more cautious than usual. Hahn had assumed they would come here in search of Hubert St. Clair. He had already been given orders to destroy the house and all its contents. He had lingered a little longer in the hope that his assumption was correct. Now that they were here, he felt a fresh tingle of excitement. So new a sensation he wanted to savor it.
There wouldn't be much time to do so. In a few moments they'd all be dead, and Herr Hahn would have to satisfy himself once more with ordinary targets.
His ample stomach continued its thrilling butterfly dance in concert with the boat's rocking motion as the three green ghosts climbed the porch steps.
THE GRAVEL PATH LED from the driveway around to the back of the chalet where the broad deck looked out over the lake. Remo was first onto the porch. When Amanda followed Chiun up, she managed to make four steps squeak three times and nearly put an eye out on a hanging potted plant.
"Did your father disown you because you were a klutz?" Remo asked.
"No," Amanda snapped back as she stilled the swaying plant with both hands. She suddenly frowned. "Why? Did Daddy tell you that was why?"
"No," Remo said. "And be quiet." He was glancing around the area.
Lake Geneva was a living postcard photo, shimmering in the early-afternoon sunlight. Pleasure boats bobbed gently while Mouettes Genevoises-the small motorboats that shuttled between the old and new cities of Geneva-skimmed the silvery surface. A lone cruise ship carted tourists on camera excursions north to Montreux and Chillon. And somewhere down there, Remo sensed the distinct pressure waves of some kind of mechanical equipment directed at them. "You feel that, Little Father?"
Chiun nodded. "Whatever it is, it is farther away than most detection devices."
"Spying at a distance," Remo sighed. "Welcome to the future."
"Why?" Amanda asked. "What is it?" She was squinting around the back of the house.
A cold wind blew up the steep mountainside. Farther down, a road snaked across the hillside. Here and there, a few rooftops peeked out between frozen rock and winter trees.
"Nothing," Remo answered. "We're just being watched is all."
Amanda gripped his arm. "Where?" she whispered, worried once more about joining the deceased ranks of her fellow CCS scientists.
"Can't tell really," Remo said. "The waves are focused as they come at you, but they break down over distance. My guess would be the lake. It's coming from that direction, and it's got a clear shot up at the house. Mountains are way too far for us to feel anything."
Turning from the lake, he headed for the door. "You're still going in?" she asked. "Don't you want to get whoever's down there?"
"Too big an area to search. But you wanna go frisk some flounder, hey, be my guest."
A wall of glass panes lined the deck. One was a sliding door, which Remo pushed open.
Amanda noted as Remo and Chiun slipped inside that the two men failed to make a single sound as they walked. She tried to follow their catlike lead but found the hardwood floor creaking underfoot as soon as she followed them inside.
Amanda cringed at the sound. When Remo caught the look on her face, he shook his head.
"Don't sweat it," he said. "Nobody's here."
"Yes," the Master of Sinanju agreed. "However someone has been here recently."
Remo sniffed the air. "Smells like lard and sausages. One of the rooms back at the CCS smelled like that, too."
Chiun nodded agreement. "A German," the old man concluded darkly. "There was a time, Remo, back during the days of that little man with the funny mustache, when all of Europe smelled like this. To this day there are still corners of France that smell like Germany."
"No wonder," Remo said. "They fling open the door and throw up their hands every time some mailman in Dusseldorf hammers a new spike in his helmet. Still, stinking like a German beats stinking like a Frenchman any day of the week."
"Shouldn't you two be quiet?" Amanda whispered. She was glancing nervously around the big living room.
There were a few pictures on the walls. Remo could tell by their weird Sage Carlin-inspired uniforms which men worked for the CCS.
"I told you, no one's here," Remo said as he tore his gaze from the pictures.
He had detected another scent in the house. Nose in the air, he tracked it like a bloodhound to the cellar stairs.
"What is it?" Amanda asked when Remo stopped at the top of the staircase.
"I smell ammonia," Remo replied. "Back home I'd think it was just the laundry room, but since this is Europe, where washing day comes only after a good healthy round of black plague..."
Voice trailing off, Remo headed down the stairs.
HERR HAHN WATCHED the three glowing figures descend.
They managed to amaze him yet again. There was no searching of the rest of the house, as Hahn had expected. No trial and error of any kind. They entered the house, steered a beeline for the cellar door and went down.
Their certainty was unnerving. It was as if all the old rules were gone. All of his understanding of human behavior and ability, honed by years of experience, didn't apply to these two.
Yet as troubling as it was, it was also exhilarating. To be the best in his field meant so few challenges. Feeling a melancholy twinge for what he was about to do, Hahn placed his chubby hand on the portable console that sat on the map table in the cabin of his boat.
As he watched the silhouettes of the men and woman creep deeper into the basement, one fat finger lovingly caressed a gleaming silver toggle switch.
"THIS IS WHERE he stored them," Remo said.
Amanda saw nothing but a dirt cellar floor. An empty floor. But even she could now smell the thin odor of ammonia that lingered in the musty air. "Judging by the marks in the earth, there were more than thirty sacks stored here," the Master of Sinanju concluded.
"Burlap sacks," Remo said. "Big ones."
"That would probably be enough to hold all the seeds from the greenhouse plants," Amanda said. She shook her head in disbelief. "But he couldn't have. He wouldn't have."
"I thought we were past that," Remo said. He was looking at something in the corner. "Did he use that?"
Amanda saw that he was nodding to an antique wooden butter churn. Souring milk was slopped on the tarp on which it sat. Remo noted an old oil lamp hanging next to the churn. Both appeared to have been used recently.
"Hubert has a thing about machines," she explained. "I don't think he's really comfortable with technology. He uses all kinds of excuses just to get other people to turn on his lights or answer his phone for him."
"Not too crazy," Remo muttered.
His eyes strayed to the rear of the main cellar room. He saw something lying in the dirt near an open door. Going over, he picked up the tiny blue seed.
"That shouldn't be out of the CCS complex," Amanda said, coming up beside him. "God help us, he has gone insane."
"He churns his own butter, won't turn on a light and has dressed like that for how long and you're just noticing?" Remo asked dryly.
The door opened into a separate room off the side of the basement. A few rectangular windows pulled streaks of daylight down to the dirt floor. When the three of them entered the long, dark corridor, Amanda's nose rebelled at the smell. The dirt floors and stone walls had suppressed it in the outer room.
"That's oil," she complained. A thought suddenly occurred to her. "Oil," she repeated. "Oh, my." They were passing by another open room. An old furnace hummed away in the dark recesses. A much newer device had been attached to the front of the ancient furnace.
"What's wrong?" Remo asked.
"Oh," Amanda said. "Maybe nothing. "It's just that when I first started at the CCS I remember seeing schematics for an underground system of oil tanks in Dr. Carlin's office. I thought it was strange because most of the power around here is hydroelectric. I didn't know why he'd want to store that much oil. The tanks were huge."
"Your point being?" Remo asked.
"The tanks were built into the side of a mountain. This is the side of a mountain. And this used to be Dr. Carlin's house when he was at the CCS." Remo stopped dead.
"Oh," Amanda said when she saw the look on his face. "You think it might be something? I only remember because it was right after that prediction he made during the Gulf War. When he said those oil well fires would burn for months and change the environment of the entire Gulf region for years to come." She grew more worried when she saw Remo's expression grow even darker. "They didn't," she added hopefully.
"We should leave," Chiun said evenly.
Remo was thinking of the pressure waves from the surveillance equipment they'd both sensed coming from Lake Geneva. He suddenly felt like a mouse just before the steel bar snapped shut.
"Right behind you, Little Father," he said. Shepherding a suddenly very worried Amanda Lifton before them, the two Masters of Sinanju began to cautiously retrace their steps back out to the main cellar.
Hahn watched the infrared monitor image through excited, unblinking eyes.
They were heading back up the basement hallway. Could it be? Could it possibly be that they had guessed what was in store?
The three green blobs were back in front of the open door that led to the furnace. They were coming back out.
Maybe they had seen the modified furnace. Hahn had rigged it for Sage Carlin years ago. Activated it just this afternoon. Could they know?
He wished he could have asked them, but of course that was impossible. It was time for them to die. The silver antenna was already up on the remote transmitter. It was aimed across the deck of Hahn's boat at the magnificent chalet nestled among the lower Alps.
A cold wind blew across the lake, swirling through the open cabin door, cutting Herr Hahn to the bone. Eyes on the chalet, Herr Hahn flicked the toggle switch.
The monitor flashed bright, consumed from corner to corner and top to bottom by a wash of brilliant green.
And in the rocks above Lake Geneva, an orange fireball vomiting up from the very bowels of Hell itself erupted from the smoking crater where Hubert St. Clair's house had been.
The click saved their lives.
They heard it as they passed the open door to the furnace room. It was a soft thing that became inaudible in the ensuing roar.
A brilliant orange flash burst from the black mouth of the dark room. A wall of searing flame and heat whooshed forward, erupting into the hall.
When the click sounded, Remo and Chiun went from a walk to a sprint. They tore down the slender passage a heartbeat ahead of the blast.
Chiun had scooped up Amanda. In his arms the world around her seemed to slow, then freeze.
Not enough time to make it out into the main cellar. Frozen flames, locked in time, rocketing in at impossible speed.
Amanda suddenly airborne. Remo's arms encircling her waist. Chiun, flames licking at the hem of his kimono, launching himself up at one of the dirty basement windows.
The glass shattering. Then flying at Amanda. No way to avoid it. She was a deadly human spear, fired at speeds greater than the explosion or the flames, faster even than conscious thought.
Out! In the cold mountain air, with bony hands grabbing her once more.
Time tripping back to normal speed.
The house exploded. Windows burst, scattering diamond fragments across the Swiss hillside. The wood splintered apart and spread like burning matchsticks as the ball of orange flame burst from Earth's ruptured molten core.
The intense heat chased them down the driveway and out into the street. Still Chiun ran, Amanda thrown over one shoulder. Even when he stopped, he danced through falling fragments of Hubert St. Clair's chalet.
Chiun set Amanda to the street. She reeled in place as she tried to get her bearings.
It all seemed to have happened in an instant. In a fiery blur she'd gone from standing in the cellar to dodging flaming house chunks out beyond Dr. St. Clair's twisted front gate.
The heat from the oil-fed fire pushed them back. Acrid smoke poured out of the jagged hole where the upper story had been. The roof had been blown off completely.
Amanda fought the fire for oxygen, panting to catch her breath. For a moment, her Lifton pretensions burned away. The money, the cars, the hotelsnone of it seemed to matter as much as her life. She looked gratefully at the two men who had saved her.
She saw only Chiun. Worry formed deep in the lines of his weathered face as he watched the fire. "Where's Remo?" Amanda asked.
She glanced back at the chalet. The bottom-floor walls were starting to collapse into the central crater. Flames of orange crackled and danced.
"He did get out, didn't he?" she asked, her voice growing very small.
Chiun didn't reply. His expression carved in stone, he watched impassively as perdition claimed the sunny Swiss mountainside.
HERR HAHN KEPT his eyes off the thermal-imaging unit from the moment he pressed the toggle switch. With that much heat exploding into light, if he'd seen it he would have been blinking away stars for the rest of the week.
He watched out the boat's cabin window as a thick curl of angry black smoke rose from the hills above the cold waves of Lake Geneva.
Thanks to all that oil buried in the underground tanks, the fire would burn for hours.
An oil-well fire in the Alps.
As the hired killer of the Congress of Concerned Scientists, Hahn had found the notion intriguing. It gave him the opportunity to test his engineering and technical skills. Of course it was an extravagant way to demolish the chalet, but the CCS wasn't lacking for donations. And this method had one side benefit, unknown when the tanks were first installed. The two men who had survived the CCS greenhouse could not possibly have made it out alive.
They along with the pesky girl-who was his true target-were cinders by now.
Savoring the victory over the only interesting targets he had ever encountered, Hahn gathered up his binoculars from the table in his boat cabin. There was a plate of pfeffernuesse next to them. Hahn blew powdered sugar from the lenses before aiming the binoculars at the hillside.
The sound of emergency vehicles already rose in the distance. Sirens howled over the cold wind. What was left of the wooden house was engulfed in flames. As Hahn watched, the burning walls fell into themselves.
It would be days before fire officials learned about the oil tanks, days before they realized why the fire had taken so long to put out. By the time it was extinguished, there wouldn't be so much as a tooth or scrap of bone left of Herr Hahn's latest victims.
Herr Hahn was about to lower the binoculars when he caught a brief flash of movement near the driveway of St. Clair's chalet.
Fire and police officials wouldn't be there already. Probably gawking neighbors.
Hahn shifted his great bulk in his creaking chair, backtracking with the glasses.
When he found the source of movement, Herr Hahn shot to his feet as if someone had wired his chair. The pfeffernuesse plate tumbled to the floor along with a stein of thick German beer. The plate shattered, and little cookie balls rolled across the cabin floor.
It couldn't be.
The old Asian stood at the mouth of the driveway. Along with him was the Lifton woman. As Hahn watched in shock, the Asian ran back up the driveway.
The old man rounded the ruins of the house. The heat from the fire should have been unbearable. Yet he seemed unmindful as he ran.
Hahn's brain could not reconcile this with the world he knew.
He couldn't have gotten out. Hahn had tracked them with the thermal sensors to the last possible instant. They were trapped in the basement. He had detonated the explosive cap attached to the furnace when they were standing in front of the door. In Herr Hahn's world, men did not outrun explosions.
Maybe there were two old men. Another woman who resembled Amanda Lifton. He didn't see the younger man. Maybe he didn't have a twin. Maybe the sole young one had been properly killed in the blast that had obliterated the twins of the old Asian and Amanda Lifton.
This ludicrous speculation flitted through Herr Hahn's brain in a shocked instant. All such conjecture ended the moment Hahn saw a new figure race out from behind the wall of flame.
It looked as if the fire was holding on to him, but Herr Hahn soon realized that the young one's shirt was ablaze. He stopped, did a little pirouette, and the flames winked out. It was as if that simple move had created a vacuum, extinguishing the fire.
The old Asian raced up to the young American. Sharp hands slapped furiously at the back of the young one's shirt.
They appeared to argue for a moment, the young one pushing away the old one's slapping hands. But then the attention of both seemed to be drawn in another direction. Like two heads controlled by a single mind, the two men turned their eyes down the hill.
They didn't search the waters of Lake Geneva. There was no uncertainty. No hesitation at all. It was as if they were possessed with an ability to focus in like laser beams on something that was breaking into their conscious sphere.
They found the boat.
They found the man on the deck of the boat. Together, they stared down the binoculars of Herr Hahn.
And then they began loping down the hill toward him.
"YOU DIDN'T HAVE to slap me like that," Remo complained as they bounded down the steep hill toward the distant lake.
"True," Chiun replied. He leaped over a boulder, landing at a sprint. "I could have left you to cook like a pig on a spit."
A broad black rock surface appeared suddenly on the hill before them. Remo's legs split like a hurdler's as he soared over an angled crevice in the rock face. Chiun bounded down after him. They continued on. "I was already out," Remo snarled.
"I thought I saw an ember."
"Ember shmember. You were ticked because you thought I'd got myself blowed up real good. If Amanda had slowed me down a second more, I might have."
"Do not blame the woman," Chiun said, leaping down over a knot of pines that was growing up from a sheer rock face on the mountainside. "And if I am upset with anything, it is your new habit of causing every dwelling we enter to spontaneously combust. Really, Remo, how do you expect me to get home insurance for any future Castle Sinanju if you persist in playing with matches?"
Remo ignored him.
The mountain angled flat. Remo vaulted a hedge, landing in someone's backyard. Chiun floated in after him.
They flew past another chalet set into the hill and exploded out onto a narrow road. The lake was closer than it had been, but it was still too far away. More rooftops peeked from pine trees below. Beyond, the boat still sat in the cold waters of Lake Geneva. The man with the binoculars was no longer on the deck. Both boat and lake vanished as they raced into another grove of trees.
"That wasn't St. Clair," Remo said. "If he's the one at the greenhouse, too, I can't wait to get my hands on him."
"We may not get the chance," the Master of Sinanju pointed out.
In spite of an area of over two hundred square miles, Remo's keen ears isolated the same, lone sound Chiun had detected over all the other lake noise.
It was the sound of a boat engine misfiring. Remo's face grew grim. Feet flying over treacherous rock, the two men continued racing down the steep slope.
"START, DAMN YOU, start!" Herr Hahn snapped.
As a rule, he rarely spoke. But with no one around to hear him, it didn't matter. And right now, maintaining his habitual silence was the least of his troubles.
A choking splutter sounded at the rear of the boat. He stabbed the ignition switch. Nothing. No time to check the engine. The last he had seen, they were halfway down the hill. The two men were still three-quarters of a mile up on rough terrain, darting in and out of tree cover and between tidy Swiss homes. But the speed at which they were descending was inhuman.
In the boat cabin, Hahn's round face glistened with sweat. His armpits were moons of freezing perspiration.
"Start, start, start..."
The boat engine coughed and spluttered but wouldn't turn over. Herr Hahn didn't believe in prayer, but at that moment he said a silent entreaty to every thief, pirate and murderer who had come before him to deliver him from the two men who were running at him with death in their eyes.
Holding his breath, Hahn struck the button again. The engine coughed once and roared to life.
Hands shaking, he grabbed frantically at the steering column and the throttle stick. Shoving the throttle to the max, he sent the boat bobbing and zooming across the frothy waves of Lake Geneva.
BY THE TIME Remo and Chiun crossed the last lawn and broke through the tree cover at the shore, the boat was already halfway across the section of lake that separated the new and old cities of Geneva.
Remo was heading for the water, but Chiun touched his arm.
"He is too far gone," the Master of Sinanju said. Remo stopped, squeezing his hands in impotent frustration at the rocky shore. The boat weaved through shuttle traffic and sped toward the big white shape of the cruise liner.
"Damn," Remo said. "Judging by the whiff in the air, that's definitely the guy who was in St. Clair's house. If he'd used binoculars instead of some electronic whatsit in the first place, we could have had him."
Chiun nodded tight agreement. He watched the distant boat through narrowed eyes before finally turning away.
"Come, Remo," the old man said. A long nail flicked at the holes burned in the back of Remo's shirt. "Even the Swiss must have laws against exhibitionism."
Remo looked up the near-vertical hill they'd just descended. A cloud of black smoke belched high into the clear blue sky. He sighed bitterly.
Together, the two Masters of Sinanju began the long climb back up to the burning chalet.
Young Chim'bor feared the Sky Forest.
It wasn't the same as the other fears he had lived with all his life. Those were old and familiar.
As a member of the Rsual tribe, which lived in small encampments in the dense jungles where the Jamunda River met the mighty Amazon, Chim'bor had spent much of his adolescence identifying fears-both real and imagined.
Where Chim'bor grew up, there were fish so small that they could swim up a man while he bathed in the waters of the Amazon and kill him from the inside. There were mosquitoes that carried diseases that poisoned the mind and snakes with darting fangs and a taste for flesh.
These were real fears.
There were also fears of a supernatural nature. Animals that inhaled the life's breath from tribesmen, gods that punished with torrential rain or blistering sun, shadowed ghosts armed with spears that stalked those who were alone.
These fears were imagined.
Some fears were a combination of both. The pulp of certain trees was stuffed with larvae that were a feast for the tribe. Others caused death the instant they touched the tongue. Legend had it that the succulent larvae had been mixed with the poisonous by tricky gods to test the Rsual men. It was a life test to see who could choose wisely.
Another fear in a world of fears. All known. Everything-from the great white rapids in the north to the mossy valley in the south-was known to the Rsual. It was only a span of a few miles, but it was the entire Rsual world. Everything to fear within that small area had been identified and classified by tribal elders generations ago.
To know one's fears made one master of them. That was what made this new fear so terrifying to Chim'bor.
The Sky Forest.
To the Rsual, it was alien. Like one day discovering a river or rock that had not been there the day before.
It had been brought to the land of the Rsual by whites.
Chim'bor was fourteen when the invaders first arrived five years ago. A man by the standards of his tribe. He would never forget that first frightening day.
Chim'bor and his brother Sor'acha had been searching for gualla near the valley far from the main village. This juicy fruit was difficult to harvest. Since it grew so far up the trunks of the trees, it took two natives to collect it.
They were using the network of vines they'd installed when they were children. Chim'bor climbed while Sor'acha waited on the ground to catch the dropped fruit. When Chim'bor grew weary later in the day, the two brothers would switch places.
Early in the morning Sor'acha was watching as Chim'bor stretched from tree to tree far above. Taking hold of one of the upper branches in his small hand, Chim'bor shook it violently. Green fronds rattled an angry protest, and three of the fat yellow fruit plopped to the ground.
When Chim'bor looked down, he found that Sor'acha wasn't there to catch them. His brother no longer stood amid the great gnarled roots at the base of the tree.
He found Sor'acha standing a few yards away, an ear cocked to the jungle. Strange noises rumbled from the thick undergrowth of the valley.
On callused hands and feet, Chim'bor scampered down the tree trunk. He hurried over to his brother. "What is wrong?" Chim'bor asked.
Sor'acha silenced him with a raised hand. "The ghost faces have returned," he whispered. He was peering intently through a gap in the brush.
Bright sunlight flooded the region beyond. Strange for a land where sun rarely reached past the thick treetops.
The vast valley beyond had been largely cleared over the previous season. There had been many days of toil for the whites and their earthmoving machines. The jungle canopy had been hacked down for miles within the valley. What had been dense jungle was transformed to desert.
"You should not look there," Chim'bor warned. Like most of the Rsual, he avoided the valley since the arrival of the whites.
"I am the older brother," Sor'acha replied. "You do not command me. Besides, do you not wish to know why they are here?"
Although Chim'bor didn't, Sor'acha was determined.
At nightfall, they crept out of the jungle and entered the barren valley. The moon hung bright and big in the sky as they slipped across the barren ground. A man-made hill rose in the center of the valley, its top flat.
The whites were gone. What they'd left behind intrigued Sor'acha and troubled Chim'bor.
A small forest of trees had been planted atop the wide flattened hill. The plants were of an unnatural blue. It was as if the color had bled from the sky to stain the trees.
The small trees were all roughly the same height-twice as tall as Chim'bor and his brother. In the bright moonlight the forest stretched off as far as the night eye could see.
Sor'acha laughed. "Only whites would cut down trees to plant trees," he said. He took hold of one of the saplings. It was warm to the touch.
"This is a place of evil," Chim'bor warned. "The whites have stolen the sky for their trees."
Sor'acha lingered at the edge of the new forest for a time, but there was nothing more to see. Eventually, Chim'bor convinced his brother to leave.
They returned for the harvest six months later. Again, Sor'acha let his curiosity get the better of him. Although Chim'bor was reluctant to visit the Sky Forest of the whites, his brother insisted. The two traveled back through the jungle to the valley and the hilltop forest.
They crossed the wide stretch of parched land that separated jungle from hill. The earth was hard-packed as they scampered up the side of the valley's central hill. When they reached the top, Chim'bor couldn't believe his fearful eyes.
The trees were now as tall as the ones in the jungle far behind them. A dense forest of blue stretched across the flat hill at the valley's center.
"White sorcery!" Chim'bor hissed.
Sor'acha wasn't listening. From where they hid at the edge of the hill, he spied what looked like blue fruit clinging sparsely to the undersides of some of the branches.
Although the whites were nowhere to be seen, there was still activity at the forest's edge.
Dozens of squirrel monkeys jumped and screeched at the periphery of the blue forest. They had come out of the jungle to venture across the clear-cut plain and climb the hill. Pounding the ground and hissing at air, the monkeys looked possessed by demons. None dared enter the field.
All he saw filled Chim'bor with dread.
"Please, Sor'acha," Chim'bor implored. "Let us leave this place."
But his brother wouldn't budge. "For all the work they have done, the fruit of these trees must be even more sweet than the gualla," Sor'acha insisted.
He thought they should pick some of the fruit, but Chim'bor would not be persuaded. The younger native stayed back while his older brother crept over the hill's edge to the forest of blue trees.
Shrieking, the monkeys scampered away from his feet, clearing a path to the woods. They flooded back in behind him. To Chim'bor, it looked almost as if the monkeys were trapping his brother in the white man's forest.
Sor'acha made it to the trees.
As Chim'bor watched, his brother took the bark in his strong hands and began climbing. He cupped his feet to the rough surface, pushing off. With quick, even strokes, Sor'acha scampered quickly up.
He was halfway to the top when Chim'bor realized something was wrong.
Sor'acha was moving too slowly. As though he was having a hard time climbing. It looked as if he was forcing himself to go higher and higher. As he went on, the struggle to climb became more obvious. It was with great difficulty that he finally made it to the top of the tree. One hand snaked out to a piece of blue fruit.
As his brother climbed, Chim'bor had slowly climbed up over the edge of the hill.
Something was very wrong.
Before he even knew it, Chim'bor was running. He was halfway to the Sky Forest when Sor'acha looked his way.
His brother was still stretching determinedly for the blue fruit. But on his dark brown face was a look of deep confusion. His cheeks bulged as if he was holding his breath.
When Sor'acha finally plucked a single piece of fruit from the rest of the cluster, he held it in triumph for only a second. The breath exploded from his lungs, and he let go of the trunk.
He dropped twenty feet from the treetop, hitting the hard-packed ground below with a bone-crushing thud. Chim'bor ran through the pack of screeching monkeys. The animals parted in fear, scattering as he kicked at them with his bare feet. When he slid to his knees next to his brother's lifeless body, a lone monkey was plucking the blue fruit which Chim'bor now saw was a small cluster of several seeds-from Sor'acha's dead hand.
The other monkeys immediately attacked the one with the seeds, clawing and biting at it. Shrieking, the monkey raced down the hill and across the plain. The other animals chased it back into the jungle.
Chim'bor didn't care about the monkeys. Sor'acha lay flat on his back, his dead eyes staring glassily up at the cluster of blue seeds in the tree high above. He had taunted the demons of the Sky Forest, and they had exacted the ultimate price.
Had he only listened to Chim'bor. Had he only left the blue seeds to the demons of the Sky Forest.
As the tears burned hot in his eyes, Chim'bor looked up. The instant he did, his anguish turned to terror. For, as he knelt over the body of his dead brother, a demon appeared in the Sky Forest.
The screeching monkeys might have drawn it out. More likely it was Sor'acha's theft. Either way, he saw a white shape slowly coming toward him.
It vanished amid the blue tree trunks. Frozen in fear, Chim'bor heard a ragged, heavy breathing coming from among the trees.
The demon reappeared. Closer now.
Chim'bor's heart pounded. He couldn't breathe, couldn't move.
The demon emerged into the light.
It was taller than a Rsual native. It had the limbs and body of a man but no face. The demon was wrapped from head to toe in a strange white garment.
The faceless demon loomed above Chim'bor. It struggled to breathe through an invisible mouth. When it spoke, the demon's language sound almost like that of the whites, who had summoned it to Rsual land.
"Sweet Georgia Brown," the demon rasped, "what do you termite eaters think you're doing here?"
With the words, Chim'bor finally found his feet. More demons were coming out from the depths of the Sky Forest. Some had faces. Tanks were strapped to their backs, clear plastic covering their mouths. It no longer mattered. Sor'acha's body was nothing. The whites and their demons could have the jungle. As more of the creatures emerged from the Sky Forest, Chim'bor ran screaming from them. When the Amazon jungle swallowed him and the Sky Forest and the faceless demons were long behind him, he still ran. He ran all the way back to his village.
After that day, he couldn't stay in the land of the Rsual. Chim'bor left his tribe. He fled the forest to the white man's city, hoping distance would extinguish the flame of constant fear.
He stayed there for five years, working at a boat-rental shop at the mouth of the Amazon. Sometimes he would pilot a charter boat himself.
Every now and then he would hear stories out of the jungle. How the Sky Forest had claimed a few other Rsual lives. How the valley became choked with smoke for a full year, so that no one could see for miles around. And how it had been decreed that the entire region was to be avoided by all future generations of Rsual for the dark magic that had been performed there.
Chim' bor heard it all. And stayed away.
For a long time he and his fears lived a life of self-imposed exile. Then one day the Sky Forest came to him.
A group of whites arrived at the docks in Macapa. They brought with them many provisions stored in bags and crates.
He assumed they were tourists, since these were the only ones still fascinated by the Amazon jungle. If they were tourists, they were part of some strange white adventurers' club, for all the men wore the same strange outfit. They perspired heavily in their corduroy jackets.
Brazilian natives struggled to load their cargo into three rented boats. The last items aboard were three dozen large burlap sacks.
Chim'bor was carrying the last of the sacks to the final boat when it slipped off his shoulder and dropped to the rotted wharf. When it hit, one stitch in a corner seam popped open and a single small object launched free. It rolled across the dock, tapping against the side of a big crate.
The skipper of one of the Amazon tour ships had a small squirrel monkey as a pet. Before Chim'bor had even seen what came out of the sack, the monkey had scooped it up. After devouring it, the animal scurried up to the bag Chim'bor had dropped.
Chim'bor was hefting the bag back into the air when the monkey reached out and clawed at the corner seam of the sack. The bag split open, and dozens of seeds spilled onto the warped dock.
When he saw them, Chim'bor dropped the sack in shock. The seam split wider. Hundreds of small seeds scattered across the ancient dock.
"What are you doing!" one of the whites yelled. The monkey threw itself into the pile of seeds. As Chim'bor backed away, the animal was shoveling them into its mouth. It took the boot of a sailor to get the animal to stop.
"Sweet Georgia Brown, what's wrong with you?" the leader of the whites demanded.
He and the others began desperately shoving the seeds back into the torn burlap sack.
That voice. Chim'bor knew that voice. Although he hadn't been able to see a face at the time, the man on the Macapa dock had the same voice as the demon from the Sky Forest.
"I know we're supposed to embrace the simplicity of the native, but I just don't see it," the demon said to his companions as they picked up every last seed. "Give them half a chance, and they'd be just like everyone else on this planet. With air conditioners and chlorofluorocarbon fridges in their mud huts. They're not fooling anyone. You're not fooling anyone," he repeated to Chim'bor.
Chim'bor just stood there as the demons-who now resembled ordinary men-finished gathering up the seeds into the torn sack: Pinching the corner, they pulled it carefully off the dock. They put it in the last boat, balancing it on some of the other sacks.
Through it all, Chim'bor said nothing.
The boats were all loaded. The head demon put the others dressed like him onto the boats. He then returned to a waiting car and drove off into the city.
The monkey had been in hiding until now. It joined Chim'bor on the dock, jumping and screeching as the three boats pulled away into the river.
As they chugged out into the current to begin the journey that would take them into the dark heart of the rain forest, Chim' bor looked numbly at all the provisions lashed to their decks. Tools and supplies. Food, medicine. Enough for a long, long time.
And in the rear of each boat, burlap sacks filled with enough blue seeds to remove breath from the land of the Rsual forever. Perhaps even all of Brazil.
Despite the oppressive heat, as he stood on the Macapa dock, alone save the company of a single shrieking monkey, Chim'bor of the Rsual could not stop himself from shivering.
In the privacy of his office, Dr. Harold Smith was reading the latest news reports out of Geneva. A mug of chicken broth from the Folcroft cafeteria sat on a tray at his elbow, along with a plastic-wrapped packet of four small crackers. Smith was frowning at his monitor when the contact phone rang.
He quickly put down the spoon with which he'd been stirring the hot broth and scooped up the phone. "Report," he ordered.
"St. Clair flew the coop," Remo announced. "And if you thought his last method of attempted murder was kinky, you'll love what he had for an encore."
"I have just seen a report about some kind of explosion that leveled his home," Smith said cautiously. "Authorities are saying it's some sort of gas line, although there are none in the region."
"Not gas-oil," Remo said. "By the sounds of it, this gaggle of mad scientists buried tanks in the mountain to force-feed the fire. I'd say it was crazy, but everything about this cracker factory is nuts. Did you know the guys here are all running around dressed up like Sage Carlin?"
Smith's face grew disturbed. "I had uncovered that in my research of the CCS," he said seriously. "Apparently, since his death a cult of personality has developed around Dr. Carlin."
"I'd say that's a twist," Remo muttered, "seeing as how Carlin didn't have one of his own."
"Hmm," Smith mused. "This could be instructive, Remo. The two methods of attack they have used thus far are suggestive of dire ecological predictions made by Carlin and the CCS through the years. It could be a pattern."
"Maybe," Remo said. "But I don't know if you can read too much into it, Smitty. It could be that they were gonna do this cockamamy stuff anyway and we were just tossed on the barbecue at the last minute. I think they were in the market to trash St. Clair's house. And they burned up those trees of theirs with the acid. They might just be covering their tracks. And speaking of the trees, it looks like St. Clair picked them clean of seeds before he took off."
A thin intake of air passed Smith's bloodless lips. "You are saying Hubert St. Clair is in possession of the C. dioxa seeds?" the CURE director croaked.
"Looks that way, Smitty," Remo said.
Smith's gnarled hand clenched tighter around the receiver. For a silent moment he tried to comprehend the consequences of St. Clair's actions. His silence spoke volumes about his gravest fear.
He forced calm into his voice. "Do you have any idea where he has gone?" Smith asked finally.
"Nope. That's what I'm calling you for," Remo said. "My guess would be a tree farm in some psycho version of Hooterville where he can plant his little seeds in the ground and watch them shoosht up to the sun and the sky."
Smith jammed the phone between shoulder and ear. Dropping his hands to the edge of his desk, he began typing rapidly at his hidden capacitor keyboard. Trails of light followed in the wake of his drumming fingertips-When he was through, Smith frowned. "I don't have a record of St. Clair leaving Geneva on any commercial flights," he said. "One moment, please, Remo."
After another quick search, his gray face grew more animated.
"Here it is," Smith resumed. "The CCS jet left Cointrin International Airport a few hours ago. It is en route to Brazil."
"I guess he's going for something bigger than just some dinky little tree farm," Remo said, concerned. "How are we supposed to find him if he heads into the jungle?"
"With luck you can head him off before then," Smith said. He continued to type quickly away at his keyboard. "According to the records I have accessed, the CCS keeps a few suites year-round in a Macapa hotel. They are reserved for members of the organization when on trips to the rain forest. The hotel staff has been alerted to the arrival of St. Clair and his CCS group."
"Okay, get us there fast and we can maybe pull the plug on Mr. Greenjeans before he gets started."
"My thinking exactly," Smith said. "There is an Air Brazil flight to Rio de Janeiro leaving from Heathrow this evening." He issued a few commands from his computer. "I have arranged for the three of you to catch a connecting flight to London from Geneva in one hour."
"There's only two of us, Smitty," Remo said slowly.
"I want you to take Dr. Liftor with you," Smith said.
"Aw, c'mon," Remo complained. "Do I have to?"
"We can't afford to risk her life. Once you leave, whoever has twice attempted to kill her could return at any time. Presumably, they are working on the order of Dr. St. Clair. We cannot allow them to succeed. She has full knowledge of the C. dioza and is apparently the only one left from the CCS who wishes to stop it from being introduced into the wild. You and Chiun will be the best bet for her survival. And she, perhaps, of ours."
In the Geneva apartment of Amanda Lifton, Remo cast a hooded glance around the living room.
The place was all fuzzy pinks and fluffy whites. Most of it looked like the FAO Schwarz version of the elephants' graveyard. Heaps of stuffed toys were arranged in corners, lined on tables and parading snout to tail across shelves.
They'd stopped at a store on their way there to get him a change of clothes. Since he hadn't yet changed, Amanda had spread newspapers on the sofa for him to sit on before she went in to take a shower. It was fifteen minutes later, and the water was still running.
As soon as she was out of the room, he'd wadded up the papers and threw them on the floor. The white sofa was smeared black where he was sitting. The back of the couch was lined with stuffed animals. Amanda apparently had great affection for them. Remo saw that each one had a pretty little pink bow with a tiny silver name tag.
"If civilization has to rely on her, we'd all better start practicing holding our breath," Remo grumbled. "And speaking of the guy who made the chalet go poof, we almost caught him but he got away. I don't know how deep he is in this, but maybe he could help us track St. Clair if it becomes necessary."
"Do you have a description of the assassin?" The Master of Sinanju was sitting on the floor near Remo, a blank sheet of parchment spread out before him. He clucked his tongue disapprovingly.
"He was not an assassin, Emperor Smith," Chiun called in annoyance. "An assassin is an individual skilled in the art of precision location and removal services, not some boom-flinging Hun. And most important, an assassin is only an assassin who succeeds in eliminating his target." Shaking his head, he dropped his voice. "I can tell him until I am blue in the face, but no matter how long we work for the lunatic he will never get it right."
He returned to his blank parchment.
"Did Chiun say that this man was German?" Smith asked.
"Yeah," Remo said. "He stunk German, anyway. Fat and fortyish. Got away on a boat."
"Nothing more to go on?" Smith asked.
"Sorry," Remo said. "We were pretty far away, not to mention doing the vertical plummet at the time."
"I will check the marinas on Lake Geneva," Smith said. "Perhaps the employee records of the CCS will prove helpful. In any event, your tickets will be waiting at Cointrin when you arrive. Stay in touch." Smith broke the connection.
With a sigh, Remo hung up the phone. "We just got saddled indefinitely with the nutty heiress," he said.
Chiun didn't look up. "Consider yourself fortunate if that is your greatest worry this week, Remo Williams," the old man intoned. He seemed to be trying to burn words into the parchment with the act of thought alone.
It was the same parchment the tiny Asian had been staring at for the past week. Sitting on the floor of Amanda's apartment, he was still struggling with how exactly to enter his confession about Remo's whiteness into the Sinanju Scrolls without making it sound like a confession.
Even though Remo knew that he was the one being blamed for something that he obviously had no control over, this particular distraction of Chiun's was better than those maddeningly secretive letters the old man had been writing. At least here Remo knew what he was in for.
"I don't know why you think it's such a crime for a Master to train a white pupil," Remo grumbled. "You know as well as me that I'm not the only one to learn Sinanju."
Chiun knew to whom Remo was referring. One of the greatest foes they had ever faced was a white trained in Sinanju. Jeremiah Purcell was now in a perpetually medicated state in the security wing of Folcroft, a threat to no one.
"It is not the same," Chiun said. "He was the disciple of my wicked nephew. I am responsible for you, not him."
As Chiun continued to not write, Remo cast a depressed eye around Amanda Lifton's apartment. "Maybe the nice thing I'm supposed to do is set fire to this place," he said suddenly. "Probably not. I guess her neighbors could choke from inhaling all this saccharin."
He knocked most of the stuffed toys off the couch as he spread his grimy arms across the back.
"Are you gonna be through in there sometime this week?" he yelled into the bathroom.
"Almost finished!" Amanda called out over the spray of the shower. "Be careful of my petsywetsies!"
"You betsy-wetsie," Remo called back as he used a stuffed kitty to wipe the oily soot off his shoes. When he was done, he threw cat and shoes into the rubbish and pulled a brand-new pair of eight-hundred-dollar loafers from a plastic bag.
The big, sprawling plantation was a throwback to the long gone days of bright and shining British colonialism.
The clapboard house and its wraparound porch were painted a clean and tidy white. Although the African sun burned down hot all year, the boards never warped, were not allowed to get too dry.
Mosquito screens enclosed the neat little gazebo that sat to one side of the front yard. When the days stretched long into twilight and night drew in like a lazy fog, the orange glow from a lone pipe bowl could often be seen through those screens. Swinging lazily with the back-and-forth motion of the old porch swing.
The sun had set on the British Empire, but some small vestige of it lived on in that big old house. Odd that the neighboring farmers would think that, since the sole occupant of the house was not English, but American. But he had that cool confidence, the superior mannerly attitude of the velvet-gloved conquerors their ancestors had come to know, then fear and, finally, to hate.
A few years before, attackers had targeted the whites who lived in Zimbabwe. Gentleman farmers who had inherited the land they lived on from their fathers, who in turn had inherited it from their fathers before them, were being slaughtered in their homes. No one lifted a hand to stop the bloodshed. In fact, it was encouraged. But even when the president had given his approval to the murder of whites and the seizing of their land, the gangs of killers who roamed the wilderness cut a wide swath around that clean little house with the neatly trimmed rosebushes and the American owner who liked to sit out in the gazebo on warm summer nights to smoke his pipe and watch the stars.
They left the man and his house alone for one simple reason. Fear. The occupant of the house had a reputation in this part of Africa. Yes, he was quiet and genteel. And, when properly provoked, he was more deadly than any workaday mob that might assault his little bit of paradise.
Fear kept them away and kept the little farmhouse safe.
As he spread manure and mulch around his rosebushes, Benson Dilkes didn't look like a figure to provoke fear. He was flicking an aphid off a leaf and tsking in annoyance when he heard the telephone ring in the house.
Brushing the dirt from his hands, he climbed to his feet.
Dilkes was a handsome man, with a tan, rugged face and laugh lines that crimped the corners of his eyes. Although his dark hair was peppered gray and the calendar of his life had recently slipped past his sixtieth year, he still retained the vigor of youth.
He mounted the porch, grabbing a sweating glass from a metal table before going inside.
The phone was old and clunky. A good solid number from the days when a phone could be used to club a man to death or strangle him with the cord. With the new phones these days, the best a person could do was call a target a thousand times and hope he got head cancer.
Thankful once more for uncomplicated retirement, Dilkes scooped up the phone. "Hello." He took a sip of his drink.
"I think I might have a problem, Benson."
The voice surprised Dilkes. The man on the other end of the line rarely spoke and never, ever called. "Is that you, Olivier?" Dilkes asked slowly. The answer caused him to put his drink down. Carefully.
"Yes." Even that one word was difficult to get out. "Benson, I just left an event. There were two targets of interest that were not acquired as I had hoped."
"You failed?" Dilkes asked. At this point he doubted he could mask his surprise even if he tried. He sat on the edge of a chair, concern etched in his deep tan lines.
"These men are special, Benson. Different than what I am used to. I was hoping you could offer some insight. Perhaps you know something about them."
Could it be? Was that actual fear in that accented voice? The younger man had always had ice for blood.
"I'll help if I can, Olivier," Dilkes said. "What information do you have on them?"
"Very little, I am afraid. One is an elderly Asian. Perhaps Korean or Japanese. I was too far to see clearly. The other was just an ordinary Caucasian."
Benson Dilkes felt the floor go out from underneath his feet. For an awful moment, the room swirled. "My God, it's them," Dilkes croaked.
The voice on the phone grew excited. "You know them? Who are they?"
Dilkes picked up his drink, draining it in one gulp. "I know of them. Run, Olivier," he insisted. "Get far away from those two. My God-you're lucky to be alive. Run as far as you can and don't look back."
"Why? What are they?"
Dilkes closed his eyes wearily, sinking back in his chair. "You never listened; Olivier," he said, shaking his head. "You were an exceptional student, but you were always only interested in your gadgets and toys. You loved those Rube Goldberg contraptions of yours, but you never bothered to learn the history of what we are."
"I am listening now. Tell me who they are."
Dilkes sighed, opening his eyes. "Sinanju, Olivier. Those men were Sinanju."
A pause on the line. "I thought they were mythical."
"They are absolutely real," Dilkes insisted. "The old one was the reason I left America twenty-five years ago. He is the Master. I've since learned that he's taken a pupil. An American, if the stories I've heard are accurate."
"The younger one acted like an American." There was a growling contempt in the voice.
"It was them. It's amazing you met them and got out alive," Dilkes said. "Olivier, do you have any idea how rare a thing that is? In all of recorded history, there are only a handful of men who've done what you have."
It was the wrong thing to say. The fear that had been there at the start of the conversation was slowly overcome by arrogance.
"I almost had them, Benson."
Dilkes sat up rigid in his chair. "No," he insisted. "No, you didn't. And don't even think about going back after them. You live in isolation, Olivier. You've never appreciated that there are forces out there that you and I will never understand. You've achieved a well-deserved reputation, but it's only the reputation of an individual. Sinanju is the reputation of our entire career."
"Thank you, Benson. I will try to come down for a visit in the spring."
"You're a dead man if you try to engage them," Dilkes said in final warning.
The phone buzzed loud in his ear. With a hot exhale of air, he dropped the receiver back in its cradle. So few men in his line of work lived to enjoy retirement. He had just spoken to another that would not.
Getting up from his comfortable living-room chair, Benson Dilkes went back out to his yard and his prize roses.
He sent back the ice because it wasn't cold enough. His lunch was too hot. Then it was too cold. Then it wasn't lunch at all anymore because he'd thrown it on the waiter's tidy uniform.
The bulbs in the overhead lights were too bright. Someone was sent for replacements.
While he waited, some marauder with mallets for hands improperly fluffed his pillow. Since everyone knew a pillow once improperly fluffed could never be fluffed properly again, both pillow and fluffer would be thrown off the plane the minute they landed in Brazil.
In the back of the jet, people searched for a persistent rattle that only he could hear. Agents and record company executives, promoters and accountants, the flight crew and various personal staff scurried around the cabin, chasing after a sound that wasn't there. They'd been looking, straining their ears, since the jet took off from London.
"I want it found by the time we touch down or there'll be sackings all around," Albert Snowden snapped over his shoulder. He was chewing on an ice cube as he talked. "Still not cold enough," he snarled, spitting the too-warm ice into the forehead of the lentil-covered waiter.
As the terrified man scurried around the floor of the plane in search of the wayward chunk of ice, Albert settled angrily back in his seat.
He was always angry. Even an entire private planeload of people-his people, his employees-bending over backward to service his every whim couldn't soothe the perpetual state of agitation that was, for Albert Snowden, the very stamp of miserable life itself.
He had always been peevish. Even back when he was a nobody working a starvation-wages job as an English teacher at a boys' school in Saint Albans, twenty miles outside of London.
Albert Snowden. He hadn't gone by that name in years.
The last time he'd used it was that long ago winter when he'd taken a sabbatical from teaching. He went to London to indulge in his avocation. Rock and roll music.
Everyone thought Albert was insane for even thinking he might have a career in music. Crazier still for thinking he could front a band.
"You're tone-deaf, Albert," his voice coach had told him. "When you sing, it sounds as if your genitals are being pressed between two very large flat rocks. That is not a pleasing sound to hear, Albert. I would demonstrate to you on an animal, but the RSPCA would stop me for inflicting pain on that animal. Which they will do to you if you subject an audience to that voice of yours. Go back to teaching. Go back now. If not for me, man, do it for queen and country."
But in spite of such negative encouragement, he had persisted in his dream.
A few days after firing his voice coach-who had taken to wadding cotton in his ears during their sessions-Albert was at an open-mike night at a London club. As luck would have it, he met up with a young American who was looking for a lead singer for his band. Called Fuzz Patrol, the band would consist of only three main members. In those heady days of joyful masochism, Albert and his voice just happened to be in the right place at the right time. He quit teaching altogether and joined the band on the spot.
They started out in small venues, eventually graduating to bigger clubs.
From the moment he began with Fuzz Patrol, Albert was on the lookout for a suitable stage name. As fate would have it, he happened to be pricked by a bee before a small gig in Los Angeles one night. After he threw a forty-five-minute temper tantrum backstage, someone suggested he call himself Prick. They claimed they'd come up with it from the bee. A lot of people who had known Albert thought otherwise.
That night for the first time, Albert introduced himself to an audience as Prick. The name just felt right. From that moment on, Albert Snowden was dead. It was Prick who stepped off that stage and into a new life.
The name change seemed to work like a lucky talisman. It was during that small L.A. booking that Fuzz Patrol was spotted by a scout from a major record label. That very night they were signed to a multirecord deal.
After that, the sky was the limit. Fuzz Patrol got national exposure on the late-night talk shows. Hit song followed hit song as their albums all went multiplatinum. They became a powerhouse in rock, both in the U.S. and internationally.
Success should have brought great happiness. But like so many people who finally achieved precisely what they set out to, Prick was unsatisfied.
It came as a shock to the rock world when Prick announced he would be leaving Fuzz Patrol. After much soul searching, he had decided that going solo was the only way he could do the sort of music he wanted to. The truth of the matter was, in the few short years they'd been together, Prick had become Fuzz Patrol. Few people outside the music industry even knew the names of the other band members.
"Why split the money three ways when I only have to split it once?" he reasoned privately to his wife at their rural English estate.
"You're so right, luv," his wife had replied. "By the way, have you met my new boyfriend? You've had his wife up for a few weekends here and there." As Prick's wife led the handsome stranger over to their very liberated bed, Prick merely sat and watched. He had important business on his mind. Some had their doubts about a solo Prick. After all, he was neither the brains of nor the talent behind Fuzz Patrol. In truth, he was just a shrieking English teacher whose incredible luck had already defied all odds.
Once more the former Albert Snowden proved his critics wrong. Prick went on to establish a solo career every bit as successful as his time with Fuzz Patrol. For fifteen years he reigned supreme at the top of the adult contemporary charts.
But satisfaction still proved elusive.
He had all the money in the world and the coveted life of a rock star. He had limos, jets, drugs and mansions.
But in a strange way, Prick missed his old life. He missed his days as a schoolmaster, standing in front of a classroom full of eager little dullards hanging on his every word. Like most small men, Prick longed to tell people what to do. That was where his political activism came in. His love of wagging his finger at people as if they were nuisance children thrust him to the front of every cause celebre.
He screamed along with the glitterati of rock on "We Are the World," the theory being that really bad music ends hunger.
He helped Famine Relief send bundles of grain to rot on Ethiopian docks.
He held hands with William Hurt and some smelly stranger with sweaty palms in Hands across America, for what reason he had no idea. He thought it had something to do with homeless red Indians or helping the endangered something-or-other.
In the arena of celebrity do-goodism, Prick was king. He could always be counted on to toe the Russian, Castro or just plain Commie line on all the right issues, provided his stance didn't negatively impact his own personal bankbook.
And above all other causes, Prick loved the rain forest.
The jungle had a primal pull on him. It was distant, huge, tropical and as alien as hell. He could say all kinds of outrageous things about it, and reporters who'd only ever seen pictures would ooh and aah with serious faces. One had to wear a serious face when discussing globally serious issues.
Prick claimed an area of rain forest the size of Alaska was stripped bare every minute of every day. Even though this would have cleared the entire continent of all vegetation in just over eleven minutes, no one challenged him. He insisted the pharmaceutical companies were in league with the lumber companies to systematically obliterate the plant that cured cancer. He decried the forced extinction of species in numbers that had never existed in the entire history of the planet. He carted natives around with him like sideshow freaks, turning their genuine plight into a sanctimonious exercise in self-promotion.
The rallying cry to save the rain forest had been adopted as his mission in life. The rain forest was therefore considered by Prick to be like his Sussex estate. His own personal property.
Like a supreme overlord returned from battle, Prick watched his vast jungle property from the window as his private jet roared up the snaking Amazon toward Macapa, Brazil.
This was a necessary homecoming.
His recent benefit concert for the Primeval Society in New York had been a disaster. The big moment that was supposed to come with But Me No Butz and Glory Whole had turned into a sissy-girl slapfest. The audience had left before Prick's closing number. Even his wife, who so loved the sound of her own voice as emcee that she sometimes continued to drone on while the acts performed, had fled the scene. At the moment she was shacked up in their Manhattan penthouse with a pile of Kleenex. and the least fey member of Glory Whole.
It had been such a bad time back there that Prick was looking forward to this special time in his jungle. He was slated to perform at the Pan Brazil Eco-Fest, a concert organized to raise awareness of rain forest devastation. With no wife and no acts bigger than himself, this was the perfect chance to recharge his precious bruised ego.
Men scurried all around him, searching under seats and in cupboards for the nonexistent rattle Prick insisted he could hear. A flight attendant was taping down bottles and glasses in the bar to keep them from shaking.
The only men not engaged in the vain search were sitting across from Prick.
The two barefoot men carried spears. They were nude except for matching red loincloths and beads of bone around their necks. Their black eyes were flat, their faces impassive as they stared blankly ahead.
Prick had found the natives on one of his many trips to South America.
Rich white men plucking natives from the jungle for their own purposes was by and large frowned upon in the modern age. In fact, America had fought a civil war over this very practice. But it was apparently still okay to do so just as long as the motives of those doing the plucking were judged pure.
Prick had even cut a record with his natives. It was mostly him screeching while they beat on hollow logs. For some reason, it didn't catch on with the listening public.
Prick didn't look at his natives. He was still staring out the window. The lush green jungle spread out like rumpled carpet as far as the eye could see.
Prick's frazzled manager hurried up the aisle, stopping next to his client.
"We're landing in ten minutes," he said.
Prick didn't even raise his eyes to the man. "Did those idiots send the helicopter like they said they would?"
"It's ready and waiting," his manager said.
"It bloody well better be," Prick growled. "I've had enough disasters for the rest of my life. Another screwup like New York, and you're all in the dole queue. You're just lucky I don't have you speared through the head for that."
He waved a thin pale hand at his two natives. "Yes, Prick. Thank you, Prick," said his manager, eyeing the two natives uncomfortably.
The men made the manager nervous. They'd been even creepier ever since their single lost the bullet and their album tanked. A record company exec had vanished at around the same time. No one was speculating out loud what had happened to him, but after the disappearance the manager had seen one of the natives wearing the man's very expensive Rolex as an ankle bracelet. And he swore the natives looked a little fatter.
"What the hell are you staring at?" Prick snapped.
The manager jumped. "Nothing," he said.
"I'm not paying you to do nothing. Leave me the hell alone."
The grateful manager almost tripped over his own feet in his haste to leave.
"And about that rattle," Prick called after him. "It's more like a hum. I want it found and I want it dehummed before we land."
"Yes, Prick," his manager said with a sharp nod. As Prick continued to stare out the window at his jungle, the cabin exploded in a flurry of fresh activity. The crew began searching frantically for a hum that didn't exist.
Remo called Smith from the airport in Rio de Janeiro. The CURE director had already arranged for a flight on a turboprop to Macapa.
"Who were you talking to?" Amanda demanded once Remo hung up the phone and they were heading across the tarmac to the smaller plane. The air was hot and sticky. She was directing the skycaps who were hauling her luggage. The dainty pink bags were showing signs of wear.
"I've got an idea for a game we can play," Remo said. "It's called none of your business."
"Heh-heh-heh," said the Master of Sinanju as he padded along beside them. "None of your business."
Amanda shot the old man an evil look. "I'm starting to think you're not so nice, either," she accused. To Remo she said, "It was Daddy, wasn't it?"
"On the phone. You were just talking to Daddy. He wanted to check up on you, make sure I was okay. Only, it's just he won't give me the unlisted numbers. They changed them after I was-" the words were hard to get out "-cut off. Mother has a card sent to me on Christmas. Although not last year. Or this year. Yet. I thought I was gone for good. This is so unlike him to take the time to look after me like this."
Remo could see the flood waters rising in her eyes again. They were at the air stairs. He stopped. "He's a regular Robert Young," Remo agreed. "Now can we change the subject from Daddy Warbucks? Speaking for the orphans of the world, if I have to hear one more story about your childhood of ponies on the patio and hot and cold running wet nurses, I'm gonna heave all over this Mary Kay luggage of yours."
Her tears dried up. "Don't you dare," she snapped. She shooed the men with her luggage off to the cargo hold. "You made a big enough mess back in my apartment. And don't think I'm not keeping a running total of what you owe me. By the time we're through, Daddy will be writing a check to me, not you." Pushing past him, she mounted the stairs.
The plane was nearly empty. Chiun sat alone on the left side of the aisle while Remo and Amanda sat in the two seats across from him.
Once they were back in the air and Amanda got her first good glimpse of jungle, her expression softened.
"It's amazing, isn't it?" she said quietly as she looked out the window.
Remo leaned over her, peering out at the sea of green. Clouds of burned-off mist rose into the early-morning sky.
"Glad I don't have to mow it," he shrugged, flopping back in his seat.
"It's not only jungle down here," Amanda insisted. "A lot of Brazil is covered by savanna. It's like Africa in a lot of ways. Have you ever been to equatorial Africa?"
Remo was doing his best to ignore her. Chiun wouldn't let him.
"She is talking to you," the old man said blandly. He was staring out at the left wing.
"I know. But can't we pretend she isn't?" Remo asked. "I've had to put up with it the last six thousand miles."
"No," Chiun replied. "Because then she might try talking to me."
"Now, now," Amanda admonished, wagging a finger at the Master of Sinanju. "I know you're not the grumpy Gus you pretend to be."
There was a flash of silk, so fast Amanda didn't see it. Remo barely managed to snatch her hand out of the way of Chiun's razor-sharp fingernails.
"Oh," Amanda said softly. "Oh, my."
Remo's hands as they held hers were strong, but not coarse. They were the hands of a real man and not those of the perfumed sons of privilege she had dated all her life. She felt a shudder of electricity shoot through her as Remo held tight for a few lingering moments. For an instant in her tripping heart she wondered if he felt it, too.
"Hey, headlights, if you don't want a stump where your rings used to go, you'll refrain from cheesing off the pissy old Korean guy." He let her go. Amanda wasn't sure what to think. She'd definitely felt something. And while this Remo was a barbarian and, worse, an employee, there was something raw and primal about him.
"I thought we were getting a little better acquainted," she ventured hesitantly.
"Nope," Remo said. "Just didn't want your blood squishing up my new shoes."
She pouted her perfect lips. "Afraid of commitment, I see," she complained.
Remo gave her a baleful look. "Is this you coming on to me? 'Cause if it is, I wish you'd go back to yelling."
Across the aisle, the Master of Sinanju huffed angrily. "And I wish this craft would crash and spare me from having to listen to either of you," he groused, getting to his feet.
Amanda was sending a hectoring finger back his way when Remo intercepted it. With a disapproving harrumph, Chiun glided up the aisle and sank into an empty seat.
"Can't keep your hands to yourself, can you?" Amanda said, doe-eyed optimism returning.
"Put it back in your pants, Amanda," Remo said as he let go of her hand. "Besides, I'm just the help, remember?"
He got up and moved across the aisle to the seat Chiun had vacated. Amanda followed him.
"I've dated the help before," Amanda confided.
"The pool boy, some gardeners. About a dozen drivers."
"Beats a cash bonus, I guess," Remo said. "Assuming you keep your yap shut during. Which I doubt."
He got up and sat in his original seat. Getting up once more to follow, Amanda settled back into hers. "Why are you running away, Remo?" she asked. "What are you men so afraid of?"
"The usual stuff. Commitment leading to long-term relationship leading to me not being able to watch The Three Stooges in peace because you're harping at me to trim the hedges and take the cat to the vet. You want a window into a guy's mind? That's it."
Amanda's face darkened and she folded her arms. "It wasn't like I was proposing or anything," she grumbled.
"You certainly were not," a squeaky voice chimed in from farther up the cabin. "I am having a difficult enough time explaining you, Remo. When you finally do wed, it will be to a Korean maiden, not some melon-dugged ghost face. Besides, this one is damaged goods."
Amanda was embarrassed enough already. When Remo responded she felt like melting into her seat. "How you figure that, Little Father?" he called.
"She was left at the-altar," Chiun called back. "Do you not listen? She keeps going on about it."
Amanda's face grew horrified. "I was not," she insisted to the nearest person, a passing Brazilian stewardess who had no idea what was being said.
"He was probably marrying her for those millions she keeps going on about," Remo said to Chiun.
"I was not left at the altar," Amanda hissed. "There was some ...unpleasantness at my sister Abigail's wedding. That's all I said. You two are the ones who don't listen."
"I listen perfectly," Chiun said. "You talk wrong."
Remo shrugged. "Sue me for only listening to every fourth word," he said. "I'm taking a nap." Reclining his seat, he closed his eyes.
Amanda couldn't believe his nerve. The way both of these men acted it was as if she was their servant and not the other way around. She hoped that by hiring them to protect her, Daddy was signaling a thawing in his attitude toward her. The quality of help he was employing had obviously taken a dramatic downturn since she'd been frozen out of family affairs. She wanted to give him an earful before the inheritance she was counting on was completely frittered away.
Casting a last, longing look at Remo's slumbering form, she turned her eyes back to the window and the lush majesty of the Brazilian rain forest.
THEIR PLANE TOUCHED down in Macapa early in the afternoon. Remo and Chiun waited until the few other passengers on board had deplaned before gliding down the retractable stairs and out into the eighty-degree heat.
The air in Macapa was like a hot shower in July. The humidity was already soaking Amanda's blouse by the time she stepped off the plane.
"There's no one here to carry my bags," she said.
"Yeah, how 'bout that," Remo said.
Frowning at Remo, she looked to Chiun.
"The Master of Sinanju does not lift," he sniffed. "I can vouch for him on that one. No luggage, no bodies, no nothing. But don't worry. We'll wait." Scowling, Amanda collected her suitcases alongside the other passengers.
"A gentleman would help me carry these," she growled as she struggled under the pile of pink Gucci.
"I think I saw one over there," Remo said. "Lemme see if we can catch him."
He and Chiun struck off for the small terminal. Amanda puffed to catch up.
"If you're my bodyguards, you should stay with me," she complained. She adjusted a suitcase strap that was biting into her shoulder. "I've got half a mind to- Hey."
Remo heard the sound of luggage thudding to pavement. When he turned, Amanda was standing stock-still up to her ankles in suitcases. She pointed to the private hangars beyond the terminal.
"That's the CCS jet," she said. She blew a clump of damp stringy brown hair from her face.
Remo looked back to where a sleek white jet peeked out from a shadowed hangar door.
"You sure?" he asked. One jet looked like the rest to him.
Even standing on a South American airport runway in sweat-stained, off-the-rack clothes and amid a pile of ragged seven-year-old luggage, the girl who had grown up on jets still managed a look of supreme Lifton condescension.
"Okay, so you're sure," Remo said. "Stay put."
"I'm standing out in the open in broad daylight, you idiot," Amanda snapped.
"So what do you want from me? Weave a little. Come on, Little Father."
Amanda was hauling her luggage straps back up over her shoulders and cursing under her breath as the two Masters of Sinanju headed over to the long, flat building.
The big hangar door was rolled open wide. When they paused near the corrugated steel wall, they sensed no one inside.
"I smell oil," Remo said. "Not more than normal, though."
Chiun was peering in at the shadowed ceiling of the hangar. "There are none of those devices for spraying acid," he observed. His hands sought refuge in the voluminous sleeves of his kimono.
Remo glanced across the tarmac. Amanda was halfway toward them, lugging her heavy bags.
"Let's hope it just doesn't mean there's a whole new surprise inside," Remo muttered.
Without another word, the two men slipped around the wall of the hangar and disappeared inside.
FROM THE MACAPA airport security shed, Herr Hahn watched the two Masters of Sinanju duck inside the hangar.
He was sweating and panting as he sat in his chair. It wasn't fear, but exertion. He almost hadn't gotten here before them. Even now his own private jet was cooling down on the other side of the airport.
He was himself again. Back in full control.
Oh, there was a moment or two back in Geneva when he had allowed fear to take control from reason. But even that had been exciting in a bizarre way.
Other men in his profession had walked that uncertain path before-between success and failure, life and death. Possibly even Benson Dilkes himself, although Herr Hahn had his doubts about that. Since Hahn had known only success, his failure back in Switzerland had given him a certain twisted thrill. But that was gone now.
These two celebrated assassins had become the challenge of a lifetime. Herr Hahn would meet that challenge with greater caution than he had ever exercised before. And in the end, the victory would be savored as none other.
Hahn wasn't sure what they were able to sense. He knew to his marrow that they'd felt his binoculars trained on them back in Geneva. Did whatever sense they possessed extend to electronic surveillance equipment?
He had no way of knowing if they'd noticed the heat-sensing equipment at Hubert St. Clair's chalet and had simply chosen to ignore it. If so, with luck, they might do the same thing here.
There were only a few cameras at the small airport. Two at the main terminal, the rest positioned around the private hangars. Herr Hahn chose not to focus all cameras on the two men. Rather, he let the devices pan back and forth in their normal automated cycles.
He saw them deplane, then missed them for a full minute as the woman got her luggage. The cameras rotated, and he caught just a glimpse of them on their way into the hangar.
The woman was alone. She was heading in the direction of the Masters of Sinanju, but right at this one moment she was completely vulnerable.
How easy it would be to slip out of the security shed unseen. A single bullet would put an end to her. Just as it had to the dead security officer who lay on his back on the floor near Herr Hahn's briefcase.
But a gunshot would bring the two men running. This wasn't about the simple way out. This was all about tactics and victory. And maybe just maybe-one last single moment of delicious fear before Herr Hahn achieved the greatest triumph in his professional career.
DENSE JUNGLE FOLIAGE around the back and sides cooled the hangar by ten degrees. Alert now to the unexpected, Remo and Chiun made their cautious way around the CCS jet.
The door behind the cockpit was down, the attached stairs almost welcoming them inside.
"If it's a trap, I'm not getting anything from it," Remo said cautiously.
The Master of Sinanju's face was impassive. "I sense no danger, either," he admitted.
"Good," Remo said. "If it starts shaking us like a paint mixer or launches us into space, we can both take equal blame."
"Very well," Chiun agreed. "But if something goes wrong, the Sacred Scrolls will show your equal blame to be greater than mine." He nudged Remo up the stairs at the point of a long nail.
The recycled air inside the jet had grown foul the instant it was exposed to Macapa air. Remo noted another smell lingering along with the stale air. It was the same odor they'd picked up back in Switzerland.
"I smell German," Remo said. "Think it's our guy?"
The Master of Sinanju nodded. "It is too weak for whoever it is to have flown here on board this craft. The German who boarded this plane did so long after it landed."
Remo nodded. "Thought so," he said. "He must have gotten here ahead of us."
They stepped more cautiously as they continued deeper into the plane.
There was a conference area halfway down the jet. A big map of the Amazon had been left unfolded on a low table. Remo saw that a large circle had been made in blue ink around an area of jungle miles inland.
"Well, they don't think very highly of us," Remo complained. "Why didn't they draw a bunch of arrows and write 'This is not a trap' at the bottom?"
Disgusted, he tried folding the map. It was like those from the gas station. He could never fold them back up right, either.
"Chiun?" he asked after his third try.
Frowning with his entire face, the old Korean snatched the map from Remo's hands. It folded quickly before vanishing up a wide kimono sleeve. He twirled away in a flurry of robes.
There was nothing else for them inside. When they went back into the hangar, Remo popped the door to the cargo hold. A vague whiff of ammonia told them where the seeds had been stored. The hold was empty.
"We know for sure where he brought them now," Remo said. "They just better be at that hotel, because I don't feel like schlepping off into the jungle."
He was interrupted by Amanda Lifton, who chose that moment to stick her head in through the main hangar door.
"Remo, Chiun, come quick!" she cried. "Hurry!" Fearing the worst as she ducked back outside, the two Sinanju Masters flew for the door. When they emerged into the sunlight, they found Amanda standing a few yards from the hangar, surrounded by her pastel pink luggage. She was staring across the tarmac, a look of near rapturous bliss on her sweating face.
A new private jet had landed and taxied to a stop. People milled around the plane.
"You're not going to believe it," Amanda said. "I just saw him." She was craning her neck for a better look.
"Who?" Remo asked. "St. Clair?" He looked hopefully at the small crowd.
He didn't see the head of the CCS. All attention seemed to be focused around the thin, balding man in sunglasses who had just stepped into view.
When she saw the man reappear, Amanda grabbed Remo by the arm. Her digging nails pressed white finger marks in his skin.
"Geez, lady, lay off," Remo snarled.
A single tap on the back of her wrist and her hand sprang back open. Amanda hardly noticed.
"Don't you recognize Prick?" she asked.
Remo turned to the Master of Sinanju. "Did she just insult me again?" he said, assuming this was some new slang phrase he'd missed.
"Do not look at me," the old Korean said. "English when practiced by the modern British is confusing enough. I have long given up trying to keep track of whatever it is you Americans do to vulgarize it.
"Prick is a world-famous singer," Amanda explained. "You must have heard of him."
Remo looked back over at the new arrival, eyes narrowing. The man in the sunglasses wore an opennecked shirt and a pair of torn jeans. Remo realized that he had indeed seen him before.
"Oh, yeah," he said, nodding. "He's the one and only loudmouth in the music business who's always spouting off about something or other like he's the world's freaking nanny. Good thing there's not more like him or no one would ever take music stars seriously."
A pair of loincloth-wearing natives stepped down from the plane. They carried spears, blowguns and copies of Rolling Stone with their pictures on the cover. Remo recognized them from the Primeval Society benefit concert in New York.
Amanda watched Prick eagerly as he and the tribesmen stepped over to a waiting limo. The flush to her cheeks was no longer due solely to the Brazilian heat.
"He's done a great job focusing attention on the plight of the rain forest," Amanda breathed.
"Beats working for a living," Remo said. "You think he has to use that name because of truth-in-advertising laws?" To the Master of Sinanju, he said, "Chiun, can I see that map for a minute?"
The old Korean produced the map they'd found on the CCS plane from the folds of his kimono, handing it to Remo.
"He's here for the big Pan Brazil Eco-Fest," Amanda said as she watched photographers swarm the limo. Something big and papery crinkled in front of her face, blocking her view of Prick. "What's that?" she asked. Leaning back, she saw it was a map.
"Your buddy St. Clair and his hired killer left it for us to find," Remo said. "Any idea what's there?" He pointed to the circled section.
Amanda shook her head. "No," she said worriedly. "The CCS does a lot of work down here. It could be a project I don't know about. Did you say the killer was here?"
Remo nodded. "He must have got here just before us."
Suddenly, Prick was forgotten. "And you let me out here to fend for myself alone?" she said, aghast. "He could be anywhere, and you abandoned me? You-you incompetents!"
Frantically, she grabbed up only one of her bags. Using it as a pink shield, she covered her head and went running for the terminal.
Remo handed the map back to Chiun. "I'm glad we don't really work for her," he groused. "That servant-bashing is starting to get on my nerves." He cast a raised eyebrow at Amanda's abandoned luggage. "Should I?" he sighed.
"Why?" the Master of Sinanju replied blandly. "There must be something in them the street urchins of this squalid land could use."
Turning, he padded off toward the terminal. Remo nodded. "Consider it the first shot in the battle for servants' rights," he said to himself. With a mental image of dozens of Brazilian beggars dressed in Amanda Lifton's pink nighties, he struck off after Chiun.
HERR HAHN WATCHED them go. First the girl, then the men.
Hahn had seen everything he wanted to see on the security monitors. They had taken the bait. The Masters of Sinanju had the map.
It was still possible he could get one or two of them before they left Macapa but, if not, true success would inevitably come up the dark depths of the Amazon. Hubert St. Clair wouldn't approve of his actions. But this was no longer about his employer.
Leaving the body of the murdered security officer to rot in the heat of the small shed, Herr Hahn hurried out into the stifling Brazilian afternoon.