Warren Murphy & Richard Sapir
First edition November 1995
Special thanks and acknowledgment to
Will Murray for his contribution to this work.
Copyright © 1995 by M. C. Murphy.
All characters in this book have no existence outside the imagination of the author and have no relation whatsoever to anyone bearing the same name or names. They are not even distantly inspired by any individual known or unknown to the author, and all incident are pure invention.
Printed in USA
For James E. Malone, Prince of
And for the Glorious House of Sinanju,
P.O. Box 2505, Quincy, MA 02269
For Dr. Harold W. Smith, the tension began building when his battered station wagon approached the span of the Triborough Bridge.
It began as a knot in his acidy stomach that tightened with each rattle of the bridge deck plates. He popped an antacid tablet dry, let it settle, then popped two more.
Smith hated Manhattan traffic. But the late-afternoon congestion was the least of his concerns. When he eased off the foot of the bridge and rolled into Spanish Harlem, he began to feel queasy. The lemony expression on his pinched and patrician face soured even more than normal.
He shot up East 125th Street and turned left onto Malcolm X Boulevard. He was in Harlem now. It had been a year since he had last been to Harlem, when he had nearly lost his life.
During World War II, Harold Smith had operated behind enemy lines, later serving with anonymous distinction in the early days of the Cold War. In those days they called him the Gray Ghost. That was before the years had grayed his hair. His skin was gray in those days. It was a darker gray now. A congenital heart defect was responsible. He wore the same style three-piece gray suit that had been his daily uniform during his CIA days. He had worn one just like it on his wedding day. It had been written into his will that he be buried in a gray three-piece suit.
But as he sought a parking space, Smith didn't feel like the Gray Ghost. He felt like an old white man in Harlem. At risk.
A space opened up near Mount Morris Park. It wasn't close enough to the XL SysCorp Building that reared up four blocks south. So Smith drove on.
As soon as Smith saw the alley, he remembered it. He had parked there last time, and it was there that a street thug had tried to steal his van. He pulled in. Last time it had been night. Now it was broad daylight. How dangerous could Harlem be in broad daylight? he reasoned.
But he knew the truth. It was as dangerous as any major American city could be these days. Which was very, very dangerous indeed.
Setting the parking brake, Smith let his gray gaze go to the twenty-story XL SysCorp Building. It had been a blade of blue glass a year ago. It was still blue. Where glass once gleamed, plywood sheets covered many of the windows. Others had been shattered by vandalism and stray gunshots.
The newspapers had dubbed it the first crack skyscraper in human history. Decent people shunned it. No one would buy it. The police were afraid to enter.
Harold Smith had no intention of entering the abandoned building. He just needed to spend a few minutes in the alley adjoining it.
For a moment Smith debated leaving his worn leather briefcase in the car. Its contents were too valuable to risk their theft on the street. On second thought, leaving the briefcase on the seat might invite a brick through the window glass. A crack-head, Smith knew, was capable of stealing anything, valuable or not. And a station wagon wouldn't fight to retain possession. Harold Smith would.
He left the car with the case clutched tightly in one white-knuckled hand. Inside was his portable-computer link and a satellite telephone. In an emergency he could call 911 with it. If there was time.
Smith walked briskly to the alley, ignoring a three-card-monte game going on at the corner and a jeering invitation from the scruffy dealer to try his luck.
The alley was a concrete apron jammed between XL SysCorp and the next building, where pages from yesterday's Daily News swirled and made sounds on the concrete like finger bones scraping along pavement.
There was a patch of asphalt on the concrete, just as Smith had known there would be. He went to it, eyes sweeping the area warily.
People passing on the street glanced at him. One or two did a double take, but no one bothered him. Smith began to relax.
According to his computer search, the patch of tar had been laid to seal the installation of new phone lines to the XL building back when it was on the cutting edge of the information age and not a refuge for drug users. Such repairs and upgrades were performed all the time.
What brought Harold Smith to Harlem was the logged date of the repairs, September 1 of last year. The same date on which Smith had lost his dedicated telephone line to Washington, D.C.
It was no coincidence. Could be no coincidence. It was too pat. On September 1 an enemy more calculating than any human foe had launched a multi-pronged attack on CURE, the supersecret organization headed by Harold W. Smith. The attack had stripped him of his funding, his enforcement arm and the secret line to the Oval Office.
Smith had swung into action and carried the fight to XL SysCorp, bringing the source of the threat to its knees. Figuratively speaking. The foe had no knees. Or hands. It was an artificial intelligence, housed in a single computer chip. Designed to perform one single-minded function—to make a profit—it had plagued the world economy on three occasions. The first two times CURE had stopped it. On the third time the chip—it was called, for some reason, Friend—had decided to neutralize CURE before implementing its latest profit-making scheme. But Harold Smith had tracked Friend to its high-tech lair and forced it out of business—that time, he hoped, forever.
In the months that followed that midnight victory, Smith had methodically reconstituted CURE, restoring all but the dedicated hot line. Smith knew that somewhere along the buried cable pipe a break had been made, severing the multiline connection and its numerous redundant lines. The cable should have lasted for a century. It had already served Smith through three decades and eight administrations. But a five-hundred-mile buried cable was almost impossible to police since it existed on no AT&T cable maps and officially did not exist at all, any more than CURE itself existed.
In the privacy of his office at Folcroft Sanitarium in Rye, New York, where he ran CURE under the guise of a private hospital, Smith had grappled with the problem of restoring the CURE line for a solid year.
How had Friend accessed the cable? And at what point?
Months of fruitless searching and thinking had accomplished little except forcing Smith to think along unconventional lines. Only sheer desperation prompted him to investigate telephone company repair logs on or about September 1 in a Sumner Line plot from Rye to Washington, D.C.
The logs indicated numerous repairs. As he sifted through them, one in particular caught Smith's eye. At first he thought his discovery that NYNEX had repaired a line on Malcolm X Boulevard beside the XL SysCorp Building was too convenient, too pat.
Then Smith remembered Friend had once had access to CURE'S innermost computer secrets and would know the exact path of the dedicated line to the President. The more Smith considered it, the more plausible it seemed. It wasn't impossible, he realized, that Friend had chosen this site on which to erect his XL SysCorps headquarters precisely to access the CURE hot line. As an artificial intelligence, Friend would logically make decisions based on multiple options and advantages.
Smith stood over the patch of tar wondering if under its dirty black surface lay the answer to a year's fruitless searching.
It seemed almost too convenient.
A gruff voice behind him caused his heart to skip a beat.
"What's your problem?"
Smith turned, his heart now in his throat, and his throat drying like summer rain on a flat rock.
The man's face was meaty and as black as burned steak. His sullen eyes glowered at Smith from under a blue uniform cap.
He was a cop.
Smith withdrew a card from his billfold that identified him as a field supervisor for NYNEX.
"Where's your crew?" the cop wanted to know.
"They are due shortly."
"This is a dangerous area to be loitering alone."
"I can fend for myself," Smith said matter-of-factly.
"Then why did you just about jump out of your skin when I spoke up?"
"Nervousness," Smith admitted.
The cop handed the card back. "Okay. Watch yourself, sir. The crack-heads would cut off your feet for your shoes."
"I understand," said Smith, standing in the alley and looking as out of place as an insurance salesman in the Gobi Desert, while the cop continued his foot patrol.
Smith breathed a sigh of relief after he was gone. It was time to get to work.
Returning to the station wagon, he opened the trunk and pulled out a metal detector like those beachcombers use to find old coins in the sand. That was his first mistake.
Walking back to the alley, he drew more than casual stares.
The three-card-monte dealer was doing a shuck and jive with his well-dressed accomplice. The accomplice was pretending to be a mark, and the dealer was pretending to lose twenty dollars.
"Hey you! Yeah—with the treasure finder. You feeling lucky today, my man?"
"No," said Smith.
"Then where you bebopping your scrawny white ass with that treasure finder?"
"Yeah. You think there's some kinda treasure in Harlem?"
"Pirate treasure, maybe."
"I am with the phone company," Smith explained.
"Where's your hard hat?"
"I am a supervisor."
"Then where's your company car? That shitbox you drove up in ain't no company car. NYNEX guys drive NYNEX cars. With the logo, y'know."
They were following him now. This wasn't good. Smith briefly considered abandoning the mission and leaving Harlem. But a year's toil had brought him to the brink of success. He wasn't about to turn back until he had satisfied himself one way or the other.
After glancing up and down the street in vain for the neighborhood cop, Smith turned into the alley.
"You looking for Rolle?" asked the dealer, following him in.
"Yeah, you looking for Officer Rolle? Well, forget it. Rolle he chowing down on jelly-filled and those bavarians he like so well."
"Once Rolle he start filling his gut with doughnuts, he don't stir until his gut be filled."
Smith flashed his false NYNEX ID and said, "I would appreciate privacy."
They looked at him as if he had stepped out of solid brick from another dimension.
One began to laugh. The other ducked around the corner. Smith assumed he was acting as lookout.
His assumption was verified when the dealer stepped closer and lowered his voice to a growl. "Give it up."
"All of it."
"Be specific, please," said Smith, his heart pounding.
"Don't be smart. I want it all. The case, the treasure finder and your damn wallet."
"There is less than ten dollars in my wallet. Not enough to make this worth your while."
"That fine-looking case will make it worth my while."
"I will fight before surrendering my briefcase," Smith said earnestly.
The dealer vented a short burst of derision, half laugh and half explosion of breath. He produced a Buck knife and growled, "You got something that stand up against this mother?"
"I am going to place my briefcase and the metal detector on the ground now," said Smith without emotion.
"Don't forget the wallet."
Smith lowered both objects to the concrete and, straightening, reached into his suit coat.
"Hurry it up," the dealer said, looking back over his shoulder hastily.
The dealer heard a click and felt a light pressure against his upraised Buck knife.
His head snapped around, his eyes focusing on the knife. He had a dim impression of a grayish face with gray eyes cold behind rimless eyeglasses very close to his own. But he wasn't looking at that. He was looking at the gray hand hovering before the blade. On either side of the blade gleamed two copper electrodes. The dealer's eyes were bringing them into focus when a gray thumb depressed a black stud, and a bluish white crackle of electricity arced viciously between the copper electrodes. The steel knife began jumping in his hand, and he began jumping with it.
Keeping the stun gun pumping out juice, Harold Smith drove the jittering dealer to his knees, pulled back and thrust the electrodes into his chest. The man went flat on his back, the knife clutched spasmodically but uselessly in his right hand.
When he gave the man relief, Smith got to his feet and quickly deployed the metal detector. He ran it along the patch of tar, got a beep at one end, silence in the middle and a beep at the other end.
There was a severed line below, he thought with satisfaction.
From the mouth of the alley, a nervous voice said, "Hey, Jones, snap it up!"
The dealer was still down, Smith noticed With a clinical eye. His entire body was jittery with the memory of the muscle-clutching voltage it had endured.
Smith walked quickly to the alley entrance, snapping his fingers once.
When the second mugger ducked back into the alley, he asked, "What's shaking?"
Then he saw. It was his partner.
Smith met him with the stun gun. It crackled when it touched the big brass shield of his belt buckle, and the second mugger threw his arms and legs out in all directions before slamming onto his back. The air smashed from his lungs, and while he lay there wondering what hit him, Harold Smith walked briskly back to his car, congratulating himself on a successful mission.
His sour-as-lemons face puckered up when he approached his parking space.
Smith found his station wagon up on concrete blocks, all but one tire rolling down the sidewalk, impelled by the hooded ghosts of a street gang. They were rolling the tires in through the gaping entrance of the XL SysCorp Building.
Furiously Smith strode up to a straggler who was fighting with the lugs of his rear tire.
"That is my car," he said coldly.
The thief couldn't have been more than fourteen but he uncoiled like a giant spring and jammed an old Army .45 into Harold Smith's gut.
"Get a clue, Jim."
"Where did you get that gun?" Smith asked in spite of himself.
"What's it to you?"
"It looks familiar."
"Found it in the building. Now back off or I cap you."
"That is my car, my tire and I am not backing off."
"Suit your damn self," snarled the fourteen-year-old, and he copied something he must have seen in a movie. He tried cocking the .45 with his thumb.
Smith grabbed it out of his hand and shoved it back into his face. The second his gnarled fingers wrapped comfortably around the walnut grip, Smith knew he was holding his old Army .45, which he had abandoned in the XL SysCorp Building because he had killed a man with it.
"Go," Smith said coldly.
The boy gulped. "I'm going." And he did.
Standing on a public street beside his immobile station wagon and holding a loaded .45 automatic, Harold Smith realized he looked like anything but what he was supposed to be: the director of Folcroft Sanitarium.
Dropping the weapon into his briefcase, he locked the metal detector in the wagon's back and carried himself, his life and his all-important briefcase to the West 116th subway station.
As Harold Smith took the first train downtown, he thought with a quiet satisfaction that he might have grown old, but he was still in some small ways the Gray Ghost.
His name was Remo and, as he rode the red desert sands, he felt at peace.
He could not remember being so much at peace. Never. Oh, maybe once or twice in his life he had felt this way. There was a time he was going to be married and finally settle down. He had known contentment back then. But tragedy had struck, and those brief, happy days flew away forever.
At other times he had felt like this, but briefly. Always briefly. Remo was an orphan. Had been raised in an orphanage. There were politicians who talked about building orphanages across the country to house children whose parents couldn't support them. Remo had gotten a good upbringing in Saint Theresa's Orphanage and a solid education.
But it was no substitute for a warm home filled with loving parents and brothers and sisters.
Remo had no brothers or sisters. He knew that now. His father had told him so. His father had told him many things. His birthday, which he'd never known. His mother's name and other questions that had been unfathomable mysteries back when Remo was an orphan kid no one wanted and which had died to dull achings once he became a man.
After a lifetime of emptiness and wondering, Remo had found his true father and the truth had liberated him.
It was a new beginning. He was never going back to his old life. There was nothing to go back to. He had served America. He was through with CURE, the organization that he served, and with the life of a professional assassin.
Maybe, he thought as he rode his chestnut mare, it was time to think about settling down and raising a family, as Remo had once dreamed of doing. The old scars had all healed. A happy life was possible now. Anything was possible for a man who had found his father and the truth about himself.
As Remo rode, his dark eyes went to the biggest landmark on the Sun On Jo Indian Reservation. Red Ghost Butte. There the chiefs of the Sun On Jo tribe—his tribe, he now knew—going back for several centuries were mummified. The tribe had been founded by an exiled Korean, Kojong, whose name had come down to the Sun On Jos as Ko Jong Oh. However his name was spelled, Kojong had been Remo's ancestor, a Master of Sinanju. Like Remo. In a way, that made Remo a kind of prodigal son. And now he had come home.
It was funny how things had worked out, Remo thought as he watched the red Arizona sun dip toward Red Ghost Butte, reddening the sandstone hills and the rippling dunes as far as the eye could see. He was the first white man to learn Sinanju, the sun source of the Eastern martial arts. Now he knew that wasn't exactly true. He was white, true. But he also had Sun On Jo blood in him, which made him, technically, part Korean.
For years, under the tutelage of Chiun, the last pure-blooded Master of Sinanju, he had grown to feel more Korean than white. Now he knew why. It was the blood of his ancestors resurging in him.
It felt good. It felt right. For the first time in his life, all the pieces of his life fit.
Except, he thought with a sudden apprehension, one.
The one ill-fitting piece came riding across the reddening sands from Red Ghost Butte. Riding an Appaloosa pony and wearing his seamed visage like a yellowish papyrus mask, set and unhappy. Always unhappy.
The Master of Sinanju had seen every sun of the twentieth century and a fair sampling of the last. A century of living had puckered and seamed his wise face, denuded his shiny skull of hair except for puffy white clouds over each ear. Yet his hazel eyes were clear and unclouded by age.
Those eyes zeroed in on Remo and took in his buckskin clothes, beaded moccasins and the red hawk's feather drooping from his lengthening hair.
Remo prodded his mare. They met halfway, the two horses nuzzling each other in friendly greeting.
Remo and Chiun regarded each other warily. The Master of Sinanju, who had taught Remo the skills of correct breathing that unlocked the near-superhuman potentials of his mind and body, wore the tiger-striped kimono of the Sinanju Master. His long-nailed claws held the reins tight. He held his face tight, too.
"Been visiting Kojong?" Remo asked to break the silence.
"I have broken the bitter news to my ancestor," Chiun said in a grave voice. A dry, dusty breeze played with his wispy tendril of a beard.
"What bitter news is that?"
"That thanks to the stubborn intransigence of his two eldest male ancestors, he has been consigned to dwell in a lightless cave until the very sun turns to coal."
Remo kept his voice light. "I met Kojong in the Void. Remember? He's doing fine."
"His bones yearn for the sweet hills of Korea. I have explained this to your recalcitrant father, but the years of dwelling in this harsh land have evidently filled his heedless ears with sand and his uncaring heart with stones."
"This is Kojong's land. He came here years before Columbus. This is where he lived. This is where he died. I think his bones are pretty happy here."
"Pah. Spoken like a fork-tongued redskin."
"Now, cut that out. Besides, it was the white man who spoke with forked tongue."
"And you are part white. Your mother was white. The forking of your tongue must come from your mother."
"If you keep insulting my mother, this is going to be a short conversation," Remo warned.
"You are white. Do not deny this."
"White. Sun On Jo. Korean. Probably some Navajo, too. Sunny Joe tells me I have a few drops of Irish, Italian and Spanish blood. Maybe some others. We're not sure who all my mother's ancestors were."
"That is another way of saying 'mongrel.'"
"I like the way for years you've been trying to convince me I'm part Korean, and now that we know it's true, you're throwing my white genes back in my face."
"Dirty laundry is dirty laundry," Chiun sniffed.
"That's not what I meant by 'genes.' And wasn't the first Master of Sinanju supposed to have been Japanese?"
Chiun's cheeks puffed out in righteous indignation. "A canard. Told by ninjas to advance their trade."
Remo looked away. "Forget I brought it up."
Chiun dropped his voice. "It is time we left this treeless place, Remo."
"Not me. I'm staying."
"Don't know. I kinda like it here. It's open and clean, and there are hardly any telephones."
"Emperor Smith has work for us."
Remo eyed Chiun. "You been in touch with him?"
"No. But he always has work for the House. And the House is never idle. It cannot afford to be idle, for now there are two villages to support."
"Don't try that con on me. The tribe is doing fine. Sunny Joe has plenty of money. And they know how to grow their own food—which is more than I can say for the people of Sinanju."
Chiun sat up in his saddle. "There are no fish in a desert."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Nor have I seen any ducks."
"Say it so I understand it," Remo promised.
"One cannot live on rice alone."
"I've been branching out."
Chiun started. "You have not eaten swine?"
"Of course not."
"Nor steer beef?"
"My beef days are long over. You know that."
"That," Remo said, "is between me and my honored ancestors."
The Master of Sinanju regarded his pupil critically, as if measuring him. He leaned forward in his saddle. "Your color is different."
"I'm out in the sun more. I'm tanning."
"The whites of your eyes are no longer the good hue of rice."
"My eyes see fine."
"I detect a yellowing. Faint but discernible."
Remo pretended to be interested in a red-tailed hawk balancing itself on a low thermal.
And leaning forward even more, Chiun began to sniff the air delicately. "Corn!" he howled. "I smell corn upon your fetid breath! You have sunk into eating filth and swill. Next you will stoop to digging potatoes from the dirt and gnawing them raw."
"There's nothing wrong with Sun On Jo maize. It's grown naturally and tastes great."
"You cannot eat corn."
"Ko Jong Oh ate corn."
"Who told you that lie!"
"Sunny Joe. All the Sunny Joes descended from Ko Jong Oh ate corn. It was the sun food."
"He is called Kojong, and maize cannot sustain a Master of Sinanju. It lacks goodness."
"Maybe. But mixed in with rice it's great. I haven't had com in maybe twenty years."
"I forbid you to eat maize."
"Too late. I've developed a taste for it. I'm not going back to rice and only rice."
"Of course not. You must also have fish and duck."
Remo made a face. "I never liked duck. You know that. I only eat duck to wash the taste of fish from my mouth. Then I switch back to fish before duck grease coats my tongue permanently."
"If you eat only rice and maize and not duck or fish, you will sicken and die. And then where will the House be?"
"Where it's always been. Stuck in Clamflat, North Korea."
"Do not speak of the Pearl of the Orient that way."
"I have an idea," Remo said.
Chiun narrowed his hazel eyes dubiously. "What is your idea?"
"Why don't we bring all your people out here?"
"Here! They would sooner starve."
"Which is exactly what would happen if the House didn't support them. But I mean it, Chiun. The climate is great year-round. There's plenty of food. And it's in America."
"A country less than three centuries old. It is hardly broken in yet."
"You have a better idea?"
"I had been considering offering these poor Korean refugees sanctuary in my village of Sinanju."
"In North Korea? Where it's winter three seasons out of four and there's no food or freedom?"
"There is freedom in my village. No one would dare say otherwise. I have forbidden all derogatory speech."
"You talk to Sunny Joe about this?" Remo asked.
"Not yet. I wished to speak to you first."
"I doubt he would go for it."
"These poor relations of ours have fallen into low habits, Remo. They eat corn." His eyes narrowed. "And they drink it."
"No disagreement there. But now that Sunny Joe's back for good, he's going to straighten them out."
"Once Koreans fall into corn-eating habits, drinking spirits follows naturally. One cannot cure the symptom without eradicating the disease. They are obviously homesick."
"It's not going to go over, so forget it."
Face stiffening, the Master of Sinanju drew back the reins to put space between Remo and himself. "On the morrow," he announced, "I am leaving."
"With or without you."
"I haven't decided what I'm going to do with rest of my life yet," Remo said in a nonthreatening voice.
"You will do what you must."
"Count on it."
"And the path you must follow is the path you have followed. You are a Sinanju assassin."
"I don't want to be an assassin anymore. I've put in my time. And I've put killing behind me. I'm a man of peace now."
"Is that what you want me to tell Smith?"
"And do you also want me to inform Emperor Smith of your recent good fortune?"
A flicker of a shadow crossed Remo's face. "You can leave that out."
"Because if I do, he may order me to do something I would rather not do."
"If you're driving someplace in particular, state your destination."
"Very well. Smith selected you above all other whites to be placed in my hands because you were a foundling. Now that you are no longer fatherless, he may see in this development a threat to his organization."
"You suggesting Smith would order a hit on Sunny Joe?"
"You must not call him that. It is too familiar. Call him Appa, which is Korean for 'father.'"
"I'm not comfortable calling him that. I've only known him a few weeks. I like 'Sunny Joe' better."
"It is un-Korean. And disrespectful."
"I'm more Sun On Jo than Korean. Remember? But back to Smith. If you're trying to blackmail me into going with you, forget it. I'm through being an assassin."
"Have I ever told you about the stonecutter?"
"If you had, I've long ago forgotten. And if you plan to, I'm not interested. Don't tell Smith about Sunny Joe. Because you know if he sends anyone here, it'll be you. And you also know if you come for Sunny Joe, you'll find me standing in the way."
The Master of Sinanju regarded his pupil with stony eyes for a long moment. "I do not appreciate you taking that tone with me, Remo Roam."
" 'Williams.' I'm keeping the name I've been used to all these years."
"But I would not respect you if you failed to stand up for the one who is truly your father," Chiun continued. "So I will let it pass."
Chiun pointed his mount eastward. "Tomorrow I depart."
" With or without you."
"I'm staying here until I decide different."
"And if the one who sired you agrees to relocate his people to my village?"
"But if he does?"
"Ask me then."
"Very well. I go now to write my speech."
"It better be one heck of a speech if you hope to convince the Sun On Jos to leave their reservation."
"My speech does not have to convince them all. Only one person."
And with that, the Master of Sinanju turned his Appaloosa pony and sent it trotting back toward the heart of the Sun On Jo Reservation.
From his saddle Remo watched him go. He felt nothing. He didn't know what to feel, really. For most of his adult life he had been torn between two worlds—the East of Sinanju and the West of America. His love of his country and the deep devotion and respect for the Master of Sinanju who had given him so much.
Now he stood between the stranger who was his father in blood and the man who was his father in spirit, both tugging him in different directions.
If only all the pieces would fit, he thought grimly.
And then he forked his mount and made for Red Ghost Butte.
He felt like paying his respects to Ko Jong Oh, too.
It felt good to have family and ancestors and a place where he truly belonged.
No one was going to spoil it for him, Remo promised himself.
Not even the Master of Sinanju, whom he loved with his whole heart.
Harold Smith didn't report the stripping of his station wagon until he was safely in the sanctum sanctorum of his office at Folcroft Sanitarium. He considered not reporting it at all, but that would be more suspicious than reporting it.
The Harlem police sergeant sounded bored. "We'll never find it."
"It was parked on Malcolm X Boulevard not two hours ago," Smith returned thinly.
"We'll never find it intact. You got insurance?"
"Some people don't. My advice is call your adjuster."
"I would like every effort undertaken to recover my vehicle."
"We'll do what we can," the police sergeant said with an appalling absence of conviction or enthusiasm.
Smith thanked him without warmth and returned the telephone receiver to its cradle.
This, he thought, was exactly the reality the President who had established CURE three decades ago had hoped to avoid. A lawlessness and anarchy where private property and human lives were not longer respected. Where even the police in major cities had given up enforcing every law to the fullest because they had neither the money, manpower nor will to hold back the tide of lawlessness.
Three decades of operating outside the Constitution, bending it, ignoring it and even subverting it, had preserved the security of the United States but had not restored domestic order. The America Harold Smith had grown up in wasn't the America he was growing old in. It had changed. Despite all efforts, all sacrifices, large sections of urban America had been ceded to anarchy and fear.
It was in reflective moments like this that Harold Smith wondered if it had all been worth it. He had been CURE'S first director back in the early sixties. A President soon to be martyred had placed the awesome responsibility in his hands. America was sliding into anarchy. CURE was the prescription. Only Smith, the incumbent President and his enforcement arm would know it existed. Officially there was no CURE. Officially Harold Smith was director of Folcroft, his CIA and OSS days firmly behind him.
For three decades CURE had worked quietly to balance the scales of justice and preserve American democracy, which many considered an experiment and which only Harold Smith knew had failed utterly. CURE exposed corruption private and public. It worked through the system, manipulating it to see that the deserving were punished to the full measure of the law and, where the law could not reach, it struck down the forces bent on undermining the nation.
For the most serious missions, CURE was sanctioned to kill without regard to due process. If the media were ever to learn that a secret branch of the U.S. government controlled a covert assassin, unknown to Congress and the electorate, CURE would be shut down in a blizzard of hearings and federal indictments.
And within two years—perhaps three at most—the nation would begin to unravel like a cheap sweater.
That knowledge alone kept Harold Smith going when his old bones ached for the long-deferred peace of retirement.
Today Smith wondered if CURE were not close to fading into the twilight zone of unsanctioned government operations.
For a year now, ever since the Friend attack, his enforcement arm had been threatening to quit. Remo Williams had threatened to leave CURE many times before. It was understandable. How long could a man, even a committed patriot, be expected to solve his country's worst crises?
This time Remo seemed determined. True, he had executed several missions. Some reluctantly, some with enthusiasm and others because his trainer had coerced or cajoled him into fulfilling his contractual obligations.
The trouble was that increasingly Remo's obligations were to the House of Sinanju, the five-thousand-year-old House of assassins that had performed the same service to King Tut that it did the current U.S. President. Ancient Persia had enjoyed its protection, just as modern Iran had feared its wrath. Less and less had Remo felt the pull of his nation's duty. More and more he belonged to the House.
For the past year Smith had kept Remo in play on the pretext of helping find his roots. It was a hopeless task and Smith knew it. For it was Harold Smith who years ago had a young beat cop named Remo Williams framed for a killing he never committed. Executed in an electric chair as rigged as the murder trial that condemned him, Remo was erased from existence. His fingerprints pulled, his identity and face altered, he became CURE'S enforcement arm. An ex-Marine with a pure killer's instinct.
Smith had selected Remo in part because he was unmarried and an orphan. There were no roots to hold him to his past.
But under the training of the last Master of Sinanju, Remo had grown new roots. It was inevitable, unavoidable perhaps, but it had complicated matters the cut-and-dried Harold Smith had preferred left simple and uncomplicated.
It had been three months since Smith had any word from Remo and Chiun. The last he had heard, Remo was undergoing a grueling ordeal called the Rite of Attainment, which would sanctify him as worthy of becoming the next Reigning Master of Sinanju, the heir to the House of Sinanju and its tradition of hiring itself out to the highest bidder.
Smith had no idea how long the rite was to last. Certainly three months' silence was a long time. Had something dire befallen either of them? Would they return to America? There was no telling. Chiun had always been prickly and unpredictable. And Remo moody and temperamental.
Could this really be the end? Smith wondered.
Sighing, he adjusted his rimless eyeglasses and found the black button under the lip of his polished black desk.
Under the flat surface of the tempered black glass, an amber computer screen came to life, canted so it was visible only to Smith's gray eyes.
After executing the log-on and virus-scan program, he. searched his data banks for any trace of Remo or Chiun. Neither had made credit-card purchases that would indicate his present whereabouts. That in itself was strange. They had virtually unlimited expense accounts and routinely charged their cards to the maximum every month. It was as if they had dropped off I he face of the earth.
Smith logged off that file and went into the NYNEX system. It was considered uncrackable, but Smith Superuser status got him into it easily.
With deft keystrokes, Smith inserted a work order into the Manhattan NYNEX files, instructing a work crew to dig up the former excavation site beside the XL SysCorp Building and restore a severed conduit. He gave the work order a rush status and signed it "Supervisor Smith." If anyone checked, they would learn that there was a supervisor named Smith working for NYNEX. Currently on vacation in Patagonia.
That done, Smith went through his active files. There was no incipient crisis or CURE-specific problems out there needing attention. This was a relief. Without his enforcement arm, he was extremely limited in his ability to influence events.
The thought brought a frown to Smith's wrinkled forehead. Once the hot line to Washington was restored, he would again have voice access to the President. But what would he tell him? That his enforcement arm was missing and presumed AWOL?
As he sank into cyberspace, the desk telephone rang.
"Harold Smith? This is Sergeant Woodrow at Harlem Precinct Station calling in reference to your complaint."
"Have you found my car?"
"Yes. I have it right here on my desk. How did you want it shipped, UPS ground or Federal Express?"
"It's on my desk. What left's of it."
"What do you mean what's left of it?"
"I have a fender and five shards of ruby glass off a taillight. Do you have a FedEx number, sir?"
"Never mind," said Smith. "Have you found the perpetrators?"
"Perpetrators? You're lucky we found what we did. It is Harlem."
"I personally witnessed my tires being rolled into the XL SysCorp Building. Have you made any progress recovering them?"
"You don't expect us to send uniforms into that crack-house, do you?"
"I most certainly do. It harbors stolen property."
"It also harbors upwards of fifty crack-heads, all packing automatic weapons and no compunctions about using them. That's a job for SWAT."
"Connect me with the SWAT commander, please."
"I could but it won't do you any good. SWAT handles hostage and terrorist situations. They don't recover stolen property."
"You are telling me you're helpless?"
"I'm saying four tires aren't worth police lives."
"Thank you for your cooperation."
"You're welcome," said the police sergeant, and hung up.
Harold Smith next called his insurance adjuster and when he told the agent his claim, the man unhesitantly informed him he was due approximately thirty-three dollars.
"For a station wagon?"
"For a thirty-year-old station wagon. I don't know how you kept the thing on the road. It's ancient."
"It was perfectly roadable," Smith returned.
" 'Roadable.' Now, there's a word I haven't heard since Grandpop passed away. I'm sorry, Dr. Smith. Your car is too old to pay. Now, if you'd held it another five years, it might qualify as an antique, and maybe you could have sold it."
"Thank you very much," Smith said coldly.
Hanging up, he lifted his briefcase off the floor. Opening it, Smith exposed his portable-computer link to the big mainframes hidden in the Folcroft basement. A .45 automatic gleamed within.
Perhaps, he thought, it was more than time to purchase a new car. And considering that his old Army Colt had fallen into his hands once again, in an odd way he might be ahead of the game.
After all, the poison pill he habitually carried on his person was still being held hostage by Remo Williams. If the word came from the Oval Office to shut down CURE, Harold Smith might have to eat a bullet.
And he would much prefer to end his life with the weapon that had served him so well since his OSS days.
The Master of Sinanju sat under the Seven Stars with the giant Arizona moon pouring its cool effulgence down upon him.
Many were his burdens. Great was his sorrow. He had guided his adopted son to his lost father at the risk of losing him. Only a deep love had impelled him to take such a grave chance. To Chiun, son of Chiun, grandson of Yi, Reigning Master of Sinanju, glory of the universe, duty to the House was paramount.
To risk losing the greatest pupil the House had ever known was an affront to his ancestors. Had he failed, they would never have forgiven him.
But he hadn't failed. In a strange way he had guided Remo to the very ancestors they both shared. The lost ancestors neither had ever known. There was no shame in this, only sorrow.
But there was still the future to consider.
And so Chiun sat beneath the cold desert stars and wrote the speech on which the future of the House of Sinanju would turn.
Deep in the night, Sunny Joe Roam stole up on him.
Chiun detected him only at the last. It was remarkable. Only another Master of Sinanju could accomplish such a feat. Yet this gangling man with the sad yet kindly eyes and rugged face possessed the talent of stealth that smacked of Sinanju, even though his ways weir the ways of peace.
"Scare you?" Sunny Joe said in his deep, rumbling voice.
"I was deep in my meditations. Otherwise, you would not have taken me unawares."
" What're you writing there, chief?"
Sunny Joe dropped onto the cool sand and faced the Master of Sinanju. "Mind if I read it?"
"You cannot. It is in Korean."
"Then read it to me."
"It is unfinished," Chiun said stiffly.
Sunny Joe looked up. The stars hung like diamond necklaces of such breathtaking clarity they seemed within reach. "Nice night."
"It does not make up for the insufferable days I have spent in this dry and desolate land."
"Desert living doesn't agree with you, I take it?"
"It is not fit for other than serpents and scorpions. I am surprised Kojong saw fit to end his days in such a place."
"Ko Jong Oh, my father once told me, came from a place of cold and bitter seasons. He had journeyed far through snow and ice and year-round winters. Along the way, they say, his marrow froze solid. He vowed then never to end his trail until he came to a place so warm it unfroze his bones to the core. This was the place."
"Your language is not Korean."
"We have words in common."
"The stars in your sky are the same as the stars in my sky."
"Sure. Arizona and Korea are both above the equator."
Chiun pointed to a group of seven stars very low on the horizon. "What is your name for those seven?"
"Those? That's Ursa Major—the Great Bear."
"Do you not have a Sun On Jo name for them?"
"Around here they're called the Seven Squaws."
Chiun made a face. "We call them Ch'il-song, the Seven Stars."
"That's about right, chief."
"Please do not call me 'chief.' You may address me as Ha-ra-bo-ji, which means 'grandfather.' Or you may call me Hymong-min, which means 'elder brother.'"
"What's wrong with 'chief'?"
"I am not your chief but your distant cousin, many many times dislocated."
"Not that many. Ko Jong Oh was your ancestor, as well as mine," Sunny Joe stated.
"Agreed. But he married badly, and the blood we have in common has been diluted. Thus, we are distant cousins."
"If that's the way you see it."
"That is the way I see it. I am Reigning Master. As such, I am paramount among my people. Among my people my word is law."
"Here, since the last chief died a few years back, I've been in charge."
"You are the son of this chief?" Chiun asked.
"Therefore, you are not the new chief?"
"Nope. Here the chief is the tribal leader. He's descended from Ko Jong Oh, too. But that's different from being a Sunny Joe. The Sunny Joe is taught the ways of Sun On Jo and charged with protecting the tribe. The chief rules it."
"In my village the Master of Sinanju is both chief and protector."
"We do it different here. Ko Jong Oh was the only chief who was also a protector. He wisely saw that if one man were both, his loss would devastate the tribe," Sunny Joe explained.
"Tell me the tales of Kojong as they have come down to you."
"Ko Jong Oh married an Indian woman and had three sons. One died a'borning. The other two grew to manhood. Because he had been exiled from the land of Sun On Jo to avoid a succession fight, he decreed that one of his sons would inherit his mantle of authority while the other would be taught the magical arts of Sun On Jo."
"Ah. Show me some of your Sun On Jo magic."
"Hell, I'm kinda rusty to be doing that stuff now," Sunny Joe answered.
"I am older by far than you, but my eye and my arm and my brain are as sharp as they were when my hair was dark and full."
"Okay." Sunny Joe lifted his right hand, displaying his broad palm. "See this hand?"
"Of course. I am not blind."
Sunny Joe moved his hand closer to Chiun's face. "Watch it."
"I am watching it."
Sunny Joe moved the hand even closer so that it filled Chiun's entire field of vision. "I'm going to tick your earlobe before you can stop me."
"Not for a Sunny Joe." And Sunny Joe moved his hand even closer.
"Very well. Do your best."
"Are you watching closely?"
"My eaglelike eyes are fixed upon your hamlike hand," Chiun declared.
"Good. Don't look away, because the hand of a Sunny Joe is as swift as the hawk, stealthy as the fox and sharp as an arrow."
"You talk when you should strike."
And the Master of Sinanju realized his left earlobe was stinging.
He blinked. Had he imagined it?
Then the lobe of the offended ear began to go numb.
"You tricked me!" he howled.
Sunny Joe dropped his hand, and a twinkle came into his deep brown eyes. "How?"
"You told me to watch your right hand. You used your left."
"And I used my right to focus your attention so I could slip past your defenses."
"It is a trick!" Chiun objected.
"It's the way of Ko Jong Oh, who legends say used to steal the milk from she-foxes on the run."
"This is not Sinanju."
"No, it's different. Your ways are killing ways. A Sunny Joe knows he doesn't have to kill to conquer a foe. Not when trickery and cunning can get the job done."
"You would make a terrible assassin," Chiun spat.
"Maybe. But as long as there have been Sunny Joes, the tribe has lived unmolested."
"In a desert," Chiun spat.
" People come from all over America to retire in the desert climate. In the dead of winter, Yuma's usually the warmest spot in the nation."
"If one enjoys inhaling sand."
"You're taking this somewhere, aren't you, chief?" Sunny Joe inquired.
"No, I am not."
"Sure you are. C'mon, come clean. What's eating you?"
"You have no chief. You admit this," Chiun argued.
"I am the chief of my people."
"So you say."
"Your people are of the same blood as my people."
"We're your poor relations, I guess you could say," Sunny Joe conceded.
"Our people have been apart for too long. They should be one. United."
"We are one. The Spirit of Sun On Jo is in us all."
"The correct pronunciation is 'Sinanju,' and how can we be one when we live apart?" Chiun continued.
"I get you, chief. Your people are welcome to visit here any time at all."
"That is not where I am driving!"
"Then steer a straight path," Sunny Joe instructed.
"You must all come with me to the village of our mutual ancestors. The body of the ancestor who is properly known as Kojong must be interred among the bones of his father, Nonja, and his twin brother, Kojing."
Sunny Joe Roam was quiet for a long time. Somewhere a rattlesnake whirred in warning.
"This is the land of the Sun On Jo," Sunny Joe said quietly. "We belong here. The winds and the sun, the moon and all the stars know us. And we know them, We belong nowhere else."
"In my village there is no want."
"Unless there is no work. In which case you drown the female babies."
Chiun's hazel eyes flashed. "Who told you that—Remo?"
"No Sinanju babies have been drowned since the Ming Dynasty," Chiun declared forcefully.
"And no Sun On Jo papoose has been drowned—ever."
"That is because you have no water," Chiun shrilled.
"Maybe that's another reason old Ko Jong Oh picked this place. Besides, we do have Laughing Brook."
"It is a dry riverbed unworthy of the name."
"Only in the dry season. The water always comes back. It's a tributary of the Colorado. The summer heat dries it up. We call it Crying River during the parched times."
"I know these things. I wish to know your answer."
"The answer is thanks but no thanks," Sunny Joe said.
"You are not the chief. You must put this to a vote."
"Sorry. Ko Jong Oh laid down an edict that if the chief passes on, the living Sunny Joe takes up his wisdom stick."
"This is your final decision?" Chiun persisted.
"Sorry. But this is our land."
Chiun jumped up on his feet. "No, this is your desert and you are welcome to it. Come the morrow, Remo and I are leaving. With or without you."
"You talk to him about this?"
"Of course. And do not think you can persuade my son in spirit to remain with you in your desert. For as long as I have known him, he has followed in my sandals."
"He's wearing moccasins now."
"I will break him of these redskin ways."
Sunny Joe stood up. "I'm not going to stop either of you."
"You would not prevail in any case."
"Remo's a grown man. I left him on a doorstep in my grief and sorrow after his mother died. In doing that, I renounced all right to run his life for him. He's of my blood, but you've made him yours. You have my admiration for that."
And Sunny Joe stuck out his big windburned hand.
The Master of Sinanju grasped his bony wrists, and the sleeves of his kimono came together, swallowing his long-nailed hands.
"Do not think honeyed words and false declarations will trick me," Chiun said thinly.
"I meant what I said sincerely."
"You are a mere trickster. You have demonstrated this. If I shake your hand, how do I know I will retain my fingers?"
Sunny Joe dropped his hand at his side. "I'm grateful you brought my son back to me. Always will be. But he's got his own life now. I won't interfere."
"Will you tell him this?" Chiun said eagerly.
"Don't have to. He knows it."
"You must tell him these things," Chiun hissed. "For sometimes he does not know his own mind. Tell him he must follow the path of his ancestors."
"His pure-of-blood ancestors," Chiun answered.
"Remo will do what's right."
"Yes, if we make him."
"You and I see things differently, I reckon. I won't tell Remo to go or to stay. It's not my place."
"You are as stubborn and intransigent as he. Now I know where he gets his pigheadedness."
"Walk softly along your trail, chief."
"I will walk as I wish," snapped Chiun, storming off.
In the morning the Master of Sinanju appeared to Remo in his hogan. Remo slept on a bed of colorful Sun On Jo blankets. He came awake the instant Chiun entered, and sat up.
"I am going now," Chiun announced.
"Happy trails," said Remo.
"You are not coming?"
"We've been through all that, Little Father."
Chiun lifted his bearded chin resolutely. "Then I must go."
"If it makes you happy."
"It does not make me happy! Why must you be so—so—"
"Agreeable?" Remo suggested.
"Indian! You are just like your father. Stubbornly—"
" Pah!" And with that the Master of Sinanju turned on his heel and swept out of the hogan.
From the door Remo called after him. "Chiun!"
The Master of Sinanju turned, hazel eyes expectant.
"What about your speech?" Remo asked.
"I will not squander it upon uncaring ears."
Shrugging, Remo reentered his personal hogan and went back to sleep. It was good to sleep late in the morning. It was equally good not to have any responsibilities to wake up to.
There was time enough to figure out where he was going to take his life yet.
As for Chiun, they had come to these crossroads before. It had always worked out. A little vacation from one another was probably a good thing, Remo figured.
And Chiun knew better than to cause trouble before Remo made up his mind about things.
Anwar Anwar-Sadat checked his solid gold Rolex watch as the Lincoln Continental limousine slithered to a stop before a nondescript building across from the hollow monolith of the United Nations Buildings on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
His watch read 11:55. And around the case in Arabic letters was engraved: Diplomacy Is The Art Of Saying Nice Dog While You Reach For A Stick. Those who met Anwar Anwar-Sadat naturally assumed the engraving was some verse from the Koran. It wasn't. Although Egyptian by birth, Anwar Anwar-Sadat was only passingly acquainted with the Muslim holy book. Anwar Anwar-Sadat was a Coptic Christian. The Bible was his holy book.
No one knew who had authored the diplomatic truism engraved on Anwar Anwar-Sadat's watchcase. Just as no one who knew the stone-faced Copt would ever dream that he possessed anything remotely resembling a sense of humor.
His studious-looking glasses perched on a nose as stubborn as basalt, he exited the limo, buttoned his houndstooth jacket and entered the nondescript building. An elevator took him to an upper floor where he stepped through a black walnut door marked Situation Room and into a dim room where the green-mid-amber screens of a bank of monitors washed the bare white walls with contrasting colors.
A swarthy man at a terminal looked up, stood and said, "Mr. Secretary." He all but bowed.
The man did bow. "Mr. Secretary General."
"No. Just 'General,'" said Anwar Anwar-Sadat. "When I am outside this room, I am to be addressed as 'Secretary General.' In here it is 'Mr. General.' After all, do I not command the most far-flung army in human history?"
"Yes, Mr. General," said the functionary. Like Anwar Anwar-Sadat, he was Cairo born and a Copt. "Forgive me, I am new here."
"And how is my mighty army this morning?"
"Flung far," said the functionary.
"There have been no overnight incidents?"
"No kidnappings, no spittings or stonings of my blue helmets, no disrespect shown my great multinational legions?"
"They are out of fuel in Bosnia."
"Make a note to press the U.S. delegate to speed up dues payments so that we have sufficient fuel for our peacekeepers."
"The United States is several years and many millions in arrears on their dues."
"All the more reason to press them, my faithful Christos."
"I will make a note of this, my General."
"'Mr. General.' Decorum must be observed at all times."
Taking a seat at one of the glowing terminals, Anwar Anwar-Sadat, secretary general of the United Nations, surveyed the global map adorning one wall. The lines of longitude radiated out from its exact center—the uninhabited North Pole—intersecting the circles of latitude, to hold the seven continents fast in an orblike web.
That was how Anwar Anwar-Sadat saw the world-fixed in a mighty orb-web of political and economic ties. And in its center sat the Grand Spider—himself.
Talk of a new world order had all but faded from the international stage. In the brief period after the collapse of the East Bloc and the thawing of the Cold War, there had been much discussion of a new world order, with the United Nations as its headquarters.
Such notions had shattered in the flash-point hells of the world—Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda and elsewhere. No one talked optimistically of new world orders or of UN peacekeeping anymore.
Except Anwar Anwar-Sadat in the privacy of his UN situation room.
Only in the highly politicized UN command structure could a man who had never worn his country's uniform or carried a rifle in defense of his nation rise in the diplomatic ranks until he commanded UN troops. Anwar Anwar-Sadat had.
Technically the secretary general of the United Nations didn't command UN peacekeepers. That was the trouble. There was no clear command-and-control hierarchy in the UN. Soldiers from some seventy UN member nations were deployed in over seventeen peacekeeping missions. U.S. troops assigned to peacekeeping insisted upon being under U.S. control. And so on.
Anwar Anwar-Sadat looked forward to the day all Hint changed.
Many blamed the recent failures of the United Nations on his grandiose peacekeeping and nation-building efforts. But as Anwar Anwar-Sadat saw it, the current system of UN multinational forces—one lie pointedly insisted he had only inherited—was too ad-hoc. What the United Nations—and thus the world—really needed was a permanent quick-reaction force entirely under United Nations control. Which meant it would be under the control of no less trustworthy a person than Anwar Anwar-Sadat.
Once he had that, the secretary general knew he could weld the fractious nations of the earth more firmly together and remake the global community in his own grandiose vision.
But that was for the future. This was today. He had a speech to give to the General Assembly about a very nagging problem and was loath to start the workday without a visit to his situation room.
As his liquid eyes scanned the global situation map, he was pleased to see so many nations colored in UN blue. On other maps these nations were colored red to denote their status as troublesome hot spots. But to Anwar Anwar-Sadat, blue meant they were under UN influence. Here were his peacekeepers. In Haiti, along the Iran-Iraq border. Why, the entire continent of Africa seemed to be rimmed in blue. The Horn of Africa was especially blue this year.
As he looked over the sphere of his influence, Anwar Anwar-Sadat could almost see an entire world colored a peaceful, quelling blue. Even the United States one day. He could easily see UN blue helmets patrolling Manhattan, Detroit, Miami and other high-crime areas. The vision had come to him during a midnight stroll through Times Square, which had been interrupted by unsavory persons who offered to let him keep his life in return for his wallet but struck him on the head when the contents of his billfold proved insufficient for their immediate needs.
The factotum handed him a clipboard. Anwar Anwar-Sadat glanced at it brusquely. He was a brusque man. The international media criticized him for that, too. Said he was too autocratic for the job. Had no business meddling in Africa especially, where his own country had interests and concerns. His penchant for sending in UN troops on the flimsiest pretext had earned him the nickname "Generalissimo War-War."
But Anwar Anwar-Sadat prided himself on being above the local concerns of his native Egypt. He had his eyes on the entire world.
Right now he had his eyes on the clipboard. "I see the flame war over Macedonia is heating up again," he muttered.
"They are exceedingly contentious today," agreed the aide.
"I will look into it," said Anwar Anwar-Sadat.
The order reports were perfunctory. UNIIMOG, monitoring the Iran-Iraq border, was quiet. As was UNMIH, in Haiti, and UNIKOM, the Iraq-Kuwait buffer force. The token force wedged between the two Koreas was likewise secure. Nothing would happen there. Not as long as the U.S. Eighth Army was permanently camped there. Korea had been the first UN action and to date the only war successfully prosecuted by UN forces. That forty years later an armed truce existed instead of a true peace bothered Anwar Anwar-Sadat not in the least.
Handing the clipboard back to his aide, Anwar Anwar-Sadat said, "Bring up alt.macedonia.is.greece forme."
"At once, Mr. General."
And the secretary general leaned back in his Moroccan leather chair as the factotum bent over and input the computer commands that launched him onto the Internet.
This was a very interesting development, he reflected. The entire world now communicated with itself via computer links. Scholars at Swinburne University in Australia spoke with Swedes at Uppsala University or Americans at Carnegie Mellon or with ordinary persons in the privacy of their homes. The one-world order was swiftly becoming a reality in impalpable cyberspace.
If only it were so easy on the ground, he thought ruefully.
And if only the computer manufacturers would design their machines so that one could simply flip a switch or ask the machine to perform the desired function. Try as he might, Anwar Anwar-Sadat never could master the arcane art of logging on and finding his way around the Internet.
When the alt. newsgroup list came up, the functionary typed in the search command and then the cryptic string "alt.macedonia.is.greece."
Up came the list of topics. Anwar Anwar-Sadat could see just from the subject heads that the two sides were having a particularly angry day.
Why Greeks are such loosers
Alexander The Great is Macedonian
Still Nonsences from Velikovski
Makedonsko ime nema da zagine!
New name for Slav-Macedonia: Pseudomakedon
Velikovski is a idiot!
Papoulious must die!
Greece does NOT exist!!
Skopje is only capital
More Greek Lies
Bulgar Stupidities Continue
This is Macedonia Banging
GREEKS ARE CULTURE THEBES
The dispute was a microcosm of current world troubles, down to the shouting, historical inaccuracies and gross misspellings.
When Yugoslavia broke up, a section of it had peacefully seceded, avoiding the bloodshed of Bosnia, Croatia and Greater Serbia. This section took for itself the name Macedonia, which had angered the Greeks. Hot words flew. Threats. Sanctions. But no bullets.
The dispute had festered for several years now, and while there was no sign of a diplomatic resolution, neither was war imminent.
Months would go by and the Macedonia question didn't make the news. But every day of every week adherents and partisans on both sides flamed one another with insults, twisted history lessons and open threats in a propaganda war largely unwitnessed by the greater world.
Here, Anwar Anwar-Sadat firmly believed, lay the future of the United Nations. When there was one great peacekeeper, international disputes would be argued and settled in cyberspace. It was unpleasant in its coarse language, messy in its facts. But no widows were created or children orphaned.
Best of all, it wasn't a budget buster.
Pointing to a topic, Anwar Anwar-Sadat said, "I wish to view this one."
"You need only press Enter to read it," the factotum said.
"Yes, yes, I know," Anwar Anwar-Sadat said peevishly. "But I am no good with mechanical things. They are too absolute. Not like persons, who can be swayed one way or another. Please obey my instructions. It will be good practice for the coming geopolitical reality."
The functionary pressed Enter.
Up came the text.
It was a flame war all right. Insults were flying thick and hot. It was particularly difficult to follow because all sides were calling themselves Macedonians. The Hellenic Macedonians insisted upon calling the Slav Macedonian irredentist Slavophones and the Slav Macedonian preferred to characterize the Hellenic Macedonians and thieving Hellenophones.
No one accepted Macedonia's official name. Some called if Skopje, after the capital, or Pseudo-Macedon.
It would have been amusing except their language was so serious. And with the Greeks having troubles with the Turks, and the Albanians eyeing Macedonia greedily, the problem of Macedonia threatened to make the Balkans explode anew.
Satisfied that the current flame war reflected nothing more than a minor escalation in the actual dispute, Anwar Anwar-Sadat told his aide, "I am done now."
The aide obligingly logged off.
Standing up, Anwar Anwar-Sadat rubbed his stony face with both hands and said, "One day all international disputes will begin to boil in the unseen spaces between computers. When that day comes, it will be so much easier to nip them in the making."
The factotum clicked his heels and dipped his head. "Of course, my General."
Glancing at his watch, the secretary general frowned and muttered, "I must hurry. I am late to give my speech."
But on his way out of the building to the headquarters of the United Nations, he was met by the under secretary for peacekeeping operations.
"Secretary General,"' Anwar Anwar-Sadat corrected." I am no longer in my situation room."
"Mr. Secretary General. Someone has taken the podium in your place."
"Who is this upstart person?"
"No one knows. But he has the General Assembly in an uproar."
"What is he saying?"
"This also is unknown. He is not speaking English, French or Egyptian."
"Come. I must see this with my own eyes."
And reaching the curb, Anwar Anwar-Sadat flung himself into his limousine for the dangerous cross-traffic ride to the other side of the street.
Security at the headquarters of the United Nations was a constant, and the constant was boredom.
No terrorist cell or rogue nation had ever attacked the UN complex. Even during the height of the Cold War, it was inviolate. It would always be inviolate. As an institution.
The reason was very simple. While terrorist groups couldn't belong to the UN, their sponsors and host nations did. Membership was open to all dues-paying nations, whether they were governed by presidents, despots or clowns.
And because even rogue nations valued their diplomats, the UN Buildings had never been and would never be attacked.
This was all explained to Sergeant Lee Mace when he had assumed his post as an official UN guard.
"It is a cushy post," he was assured by his commander. "The cushiest."
"I'll take it."
"I knew you would."
And it was a cushy post. Also boring. There was an excess of ceremony and dullness and having to look the other way as grinning Third World diplomats in dashikis and thobes, sarongs and saris and other exotic native costumes pilfered rest-room towels and even toilet seats and plumbing fixtures.
Standing post before the delegates' entrance to the General Assembly Building, Sergeant Mace began to relax now that the last of the delegates had been seated.
Then he saw the tiny scarlet-kimonoed Asian approaching.
The tiny Asian was very old. Sergeant Mace failed to recognize him. Perhaps he was an aide.
"May I help you, sir?"
"Stand aside. I have journeyed far to address this august body."
"You must be mistaken. I understand the secretary general himself is about to address the General Assembly."
"I am the Reigning Master of Sinanju. I outrank a mere secretary even if he is a general."
Sergeant Mace blinked. "What country do you represent?"
"That country I am not familiar with, sir."
"It is not a country. Countries rise and countries fall. Sinanju is eternal even if certain ingrates spurn the opportunity to head the House."
"Sinanju is a house?"
"You are blocking my path and wasting my time."
"Excuse me, but if you are not a delegate or an aide to a delegate, I cannot let you pass. Security, you must understand."
"You are in charge of security?"
"For this door, yes."
"Then allow me to teach you an important lesson in guarding doors to important chambers."
The little Asian beckoned Sergeant Mace to lean over, the better to hear him dispense his advice.
Sergeant Mace decided to humor the little Asian because the use of force was frowned on by UN guards just as it was frowned upon by UN peacekeepers. He bent over. And a hand he didn't see and barely felt tapped the lumbar region where the vertebrae were most flexible.
Acid seemed to pour into the sergeant's spine, spreading in both directions, and as if he had a crick in his back, Sergeant Mace suddenly couldn't straighten his back.
"Something is wrong with my back," he bleated.
"Allow me to help you," said the little Asian, taking him by the hand. Sergeant Mace found himself guided to the nearest men's room and escorted into a stall.
"I am not sick," he insisted.
"You are not well," said the little Asian, abruptly closing the stall door in such a way that the bolt slipped into place.
"Let me out."
"If you wish to be let out, you should have let the Master of Sinanju in. That is the lesson of guarding doors."
And Sergeant Mace, unable to straighten his back and use his dangling arms, took the bolt handle in his teeth and went to work freeing himself.
The General Assembly of the United Nations was abuzz as it awaited the appearance of the secretary general at the green marble podium under the great blue seal of the UN.
When the tiny Asian breezed up to the podium and began speaking in an unfamiliar tongue, they grabbed for their earphones and tried to focus on the words coming from their translators.
But no translation came.
"What is he saying?" asked the delegate from Italy.
"I do not know," replied his Brazilian counterpart.
"What language is he speaking?" wondered the ambassador from Norway.
No one seemed to know that, either.
Then the delegate from Surinam noticed the delegate from the Republic of Korea turn absolutely white while the representative from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea begin grinning from ear to ear, his dark eyes squeezing into slits of crafty pleasure.
"Try Korean. I think he is speaking Korean."
The word spread through the General Assembly as the tiny Asian continued speaking in a squeaky yet serious voice. He was so small his chin barely rose above the lectern, giving the appearance of a floating talking head.
When the representative Democratic People's Republic of Korea bolted for the exit, the delegate from the Republic of Korea tackled him. A fist flew, missed and another fist connected.
Instantly, there was a rolling, spitting commotion in the aisle, but no one moved to intervene. They were listening with rapt intentness to the running translation, while it was now getting organized.
Soon other delegates bolted for the exits. And were jumped before they could make it.
Fistfights broke out everywhere. Chairs were lifted and broken over tonsured heads. Alliances were quickly formed, lasting only as long as it took for a common foe to be knocked senseless. Then the alliances degenerated into fisticuffs.
Into this melee stepped a very befuddled secretary general and his under secretary for peacekeeping operations.
As he observed the open brawling, the secretary general's stony face did not change one particle. He looked to the under secretary, and the under secretary looked back. Both men shrugged their shoulders in mirrored gestures.
When the delegate from Iran, sans Islamic turban, went tumbling past, the secretary general asked him, "What is wrong?"
"I do not know. I did not hear the speech."
"Then why are you fighting?"
"I am fighting the delegate from Israel. I have always wanted to punch him in the face. This seemed like the perfect opportunity."
The delegate from Iraq came sliding by on his Saddam Hussein-style mustache. "Allow me to guess. The delegate from Israel did that."
"How did you know?"
"Because they did exactly that to my country during the Six Day War," replied Anwar Anwar-Sadat.
Striding forward, the secretary general waded through the surge and clash of bodies, pushing and tripping combatants as they swirled around him. His liquid brown eyes sought the podium. He caught a brief glimpse of a colorful little man as he exited through a side door.
"I do not recognize him," he muttered.
"Nor do I," said the under secretary.
Then their eyes went to the red lights scattered through the upper booths. TV camera lights.
"CNN," they said in a single hoarse voice.
The secretary general filled his lungs with air. "Guards! Seize those cameras. They must be stopped, and all tapes confiscated."
But it was too late, the secretary general realized with a cold, growing horror.
The lavish spectacle of the United Nations General Assembly embroiled in the diplomatic equivalent of a barroom brawl had already been broadcast to the entire television-viewing world.
And there was absolutely no stopping it.
What the secretary general didn't know and couldn't suspect was that the public relations ramifications of the day were immaterial. The damage was already done. And it extended far, far beyond the injured prestige of the United Nations.
Most incredible of all was the still-unrecognized fact that the havoc to come had been wrought by an anonymous man giving a three-minute speech.
The speech that set diplomat against diplomat and was destined to set nation against nation was never broadcast, ironically enough. It hadn't been given in English, which was the lingua franca of international commerce and diplomacy. Had it been in English, CNN and the U.S. television networks would probably have excerpted a sound bite, which might have run as a lead-in to what the world thought was the story.
Namely that a brawl rivaling that seen in Russian or Japanese parliaments had broken out in the General Assembly Building.
Nothing like it had ever before been witnessed. The international viewing public was used to the same stock General Assembly shot—the delegates seated in the semicircular rows, some waving pencils, others yawning with the tedium of representing their countries before a body that debated endlessly and did little.
It was the biggest thing that had happened in the General Assembly since Khrushchev had pummeled the podium with his shoe.
And no one understood the true import of it all.
Least of all the secretary general.
After the evening newscasts had run the spectacle with inappropriate commentary, Anwar Anwar-Sadat came out of his office on the thirty-eighth floor of the Secretariat Building and deigned to address the news media.
"I have a statement," he began in his slow, measured cadences.
As usual the media could not have cared less.
"Does this mean the end of the United Nations as we know it?" asked one reporter.
"I would like to give my statement if you do not mind."
"How do you explain this unprecedented behavior?" another reporter demanded.
"My statement will be brief."
"Why did another person give your speech, and will your office provide the text of the address that was given?"
Anwar Anwar-Sadat's stony reserve was broken by that last question.
"My speech was never delivered—by myself or any other. I do not know what was said on the podium. Now, as to my statement—"
"Are you or will you resign over this breach of security and decorum?" he was asked.
"My statement follows," he snapped.
Scenting a sound bite, everyone shut up.
"On this afternoon occurred as regrettable an incident as has ever occurred during the history of the United Nations. Owing to an unfortunate lapse of security, a person of unknown affiliation took the podium and delivered remarks before the General Assembly that were most unfortunate and resulted in the lamentable incident that was unfortunately telecast this evening. It would have been far, far better had the news media shown due restraint and not telecast this regrettable occurrence."
The secretary general paused. The news media held their collective breath.
"Thank you for coming," concluded the secretary general.
"That will be all," said an aide, shooing the media from the reception area.
"What about the future of the United Nations?" a reporter demanded. "How can the peacekeepers keep peace in the world if they themselves can't get along?"
"Will the UN go the way of the League of Nations?" an older correspondent chimed in.
That last in particular stung, but Anwar Anwar-Sadat swallowed his angry retort and slipped back into his office.
He had given the statement that his job demanded he give, one festooned with "unfortunates" and "lamentables" but which said nothing. If he remained out of the public eye and the General Assembly behaved itself when it reconvened tomorrow, the events of this day, he felt confidently, would quickly fade from public memory. At worst, it would resurface in the year-end roundup of memorable and unusual world events the media seemed to delight in recapping.
In that, the secretary general was dead wrong. The story didn't go away, because the General Assembly was not to reconvene the next day. It was impossible to reconvene the General Assembly for a very simple reason.
Every diplomat without fail had been recalled for consultations.
And no diplomat with whom Anwar Anwar-Sadat spoke could give anything but a vague, evasive and diplomatically correct explanation.
There was one exception. The delegate from the United States.
She was the only one to call him in the aftermath of what the media had already dubbed the UN Fiftieth Anniversary Gala Ruckus.
"Mr. Secretary General, we at the State Department are very concerned about this afternoon's incident."
"It is nothing," Anwar Anwar-Sadat insisted.
"We understand the delegates have been recalled for urgent consultations."
"A mere cover story, I assure you. In truth, I myself suggested a cooling-off period."
"In the middle of debate over the Macedonia question?"
"Tut-tut. Macedonia will not convulse overnight."
"We would like to know what happened."
The secretary general searched the ceiling for a plausible explanation. "You will remember the events that triggered the First World War?" he purred.
"Not personally, of course."
"Europe was then a network of treaties and alliances with no broker or mediator. Unlike today. When the unfortunate assassination at Sarajevo took place, a domino effect resulted. Countries bound by paper treaties found themselves at war with other countries with whom they had no quarrel. It was to avoid such recurrences that the United Nations was created."
"You're thinking of the League of Nations," the U.S. delegate said acidly. "And let's skip the commercial for a new world order and go directly to the point."
"Very well," the secretary general said stiffly. "A disagreement broke out between two delegates. I have already forgotten whom, this is such a trivial matter. A blow was struck, a delegate fell. A third delegate, whose nation was on excellent terms with the one that was struck, interceded and knocked down the aggressor. Very quickly there were escalations and counterattacks. It was just like the prelude to the First World War, only without bloodshed."
"Not quite. The Cuban observer bopped me on the nose."
"Most regrettable. I trust the bleeding has abated?"
"Mine has. I don't think that's true of the Cuban observer. Now, let's become serious, shall we? I was there. I saw it all. Everything you say is probably true. But who was the old fellow at the podium and what on earth did he say that riled up the entire assembly?"
"That, I admit I do not know."
"That," the U.S. delegate continued, "was the answer I was looking for at the start of this conversation. If you do find out, be so good as to share it with me, will you? My President is interested in the answer."
"Very good, Madame Delegate," said Anwar Anwar-Sadat, and hung up.
It was not surprising that the U.S. was in the dark, he reflected. They were always in the dark about truly sophisticated issues. Anwar Anwar-Sadat took secret pleasure in U.S. ignorance, because it was easier to mold U.S. political opinion this way.
But this was one time he took no pleasure in United States ignorance. Before she called him, Anwar Anwar-Sadat was considering swallowing his pride and reaching out to her in the hope—faint as it was—that the United States government had some inkling of what had transpired.
"I would like to see a complete text of the remarks made before the General Assembly," he informed the under secretary.
The under secretary was pained to admit that no such transcript existed.
"Mr. Secretary General, inasmuch as the remarks were not cleared with the Secretariat and not delivered in a language the translators were prepared for, there is no transcript."
"What do we know of what was said?"
"The entire first minute was lost, owing to the translators' unpreparedness."
"Yes. Yes. I understand this."
"It was then noticed that the delegates from the two Koreas were agitated by these remarks and the translators who understood Korean captured the second minute."
"Only the second?"
"All the uproar and violence forced them to abandon their posts."
The secretary general nodded unhappily. "So what do we have?"
"It is imperfect."
"I know it is imperfect," he snapped. "You have already explained the circumstances of the translation."
"No, I mean the portion we have reconstructed is imperfect because the Korean spoken was not modern Korean, but an older dialect."
"This provocateur was North Korean? Can we assume that?"
"We can," the under secretary admitted. "But we might be wrong."
The secretary general sighed. Once they got into the habit of couching their words as diplomatically as possible, leaving room for all shades of meaning—including no meaning at all—it was exceedingly difficult to break the staff of the habit. Usually this was good. In this particular instance, it was exasperating.
"I would like to hear these remarks, imperfect as they are," the secretary general said wearily.
"Actually what we have is not in the form of remarks as much as a string of numerals."
"Numerals? What do you mean numerals?"
"Yes, numbers. The person was reciting numbers."
"Why would a man reciting numbers throw the entire General Assembly in chaos?"
"Perhaps they were very important numbers, Mr. Secretary General."
"How? Numbers are numbers. They are only important if given in a context that imparts their importance to the hearer."
"This is the difficulty with our imperfect translation," the under secretary sighed. "We are missing the first and third minutes of this man's remarks. Therein must lie the context."
The secretary general leaned back in his chair. Behind him, in Arabic so it would not offend the English-speaking world should U.S. television cameras intrude, was his favorite saying inscribed in silver ink against a black background: If You Stick To Your Principles You Are Not A Diplomat.
It was Anwar Anwar-Sadat's favorite saying because he himself had authored it. When it was reported in Time magazine, he received much hurtful mail from those who didn't understand the demands and realities of his job.
But now even he himself didn't understand his job.
Was there a crisis? Had the United Nations, after fifty years of bringing nations under one roof to air their differences, dissolved into irrelevancy because a nameless man had recited a mathematical formula to the General Assembly?
It was unthinkable. Yet there it was—an ugly, undeniable truth.
"Bring me these numbers so that I may see them with my own eyes," Anwar Anwar-Sadat ordered his under secretary for peacekeeping Operations.
"At once, my General."
Harold Smith saw the outbreak of fractiousness on his home television during the 11:00 p.m. news and immediately sat up straighter in the overstuffed chair that dominated his Rye, New York, parlor. He wore a faded flannel bathrobe and carpet slippers, both gray from many washings.
The clip was brief, a feed from one of the networks, and was aired just before the weather for comic relief.
Wise in the ways of the United Nations body, Harold Smith knew that there was nothing comic about the General Assembly reverting to hand-to-hand combat. Diplomats were highly trained individuals, schooled to show reserve when reserve was called for, anger when it served their governments, and it was rare when an outburst occurred that was uncalculated and spontaneous.
The outbreak of violence in the UN was clearly spontaneous. In fact, it was wildly spontaneous.
It may have been the most important news event of the past six months, but less than fifteen seconds of airtime was given to it and absolutely none was devoted to helping the public understand that event.
Not that Harold Smith gleaned any understanding. But he knew enough to feel a cold tightness creep into his chest as he reached for his battered briefcase.
Unlocking the safety catches so the explosive charge remained inert, Smith exposed his portable computer and booted it up.
He was soon logged on the net and was calling up the wire-service news bulletins.
AP had a brief digest and included the secretary general's remarks. They were as devoid of substance as the TV report had been.
Other accounts were similarly sketchy. None identified the trigger for the commotion. Skimpy statements of an unidentified Third World delegate addressing the General Assembly at the time of the violence suggested a link between his remarks and what followed. But no one was saying that on the record. In fact, no one was saying much of anything.
But where lines of text existed, Harold Smith could read between them.
Reading between the lines, Smith came to a firm conclusion.
The person who had stood before the United Nations had made a declaration of war. That was the only possible explanation. There could be no other.
But who was this person? What representative of what country other than a nuclear-capable nation could declare war and have it send diplomats scurrying home for urgent consultations?
Harold Smith didn't know, but he was prepared to toil far into the night to find out.
From the bedroom door a voice called sleepily. "Harold, are you coming to bed?"
"Please start without me," Smith said absently.
"Start what?" came the puzzled voice of Maude, his wife of many years. "I'm going to sleep."
"Goodnight, dear," said Harold Smith as his aged fingers made the keyboard click with a hollow rattle like plastic bones.
It was the middle of the night, and Remo lay dreaming.
He dreamed of a woman he had never met but whose face and voice were imprinted on his memory. His mother.
For most of Remo's life, his mother had been a vague concept in his mind. She had no name or face or any voice. When he got old enough to develop an imagination, Remo started imagining mothers. Sometimes she was blond, sometimes her hair was brown or black. Mostly it was black. She usually had brown eyes because Remo had brown eyes. Even as a boy, he understood who he was somehow reflected who his mother had been.
There were times when Remo imagined her alive and there were times he lay awake sobbing silently into his pillow so the nuns and the other orphans wouldn't ask him why.
On those nights he mourned for his dead mother. It was easier to imagine her dead. It made more sense. If she lived, she wouldn't have abandoned him to be raised in an orphanage. No one's mother could be so heartless.
So Remo had buried her and mourned her and in time forgot about her all except in the secret recesses of his imagination.
A year ago she had appeared to him, wearing a face more angelic than the most idealized product of his longing imagination. That was when Remo knew with certainty she had died.
To this day he didn't know if she was a ghost or spirit or the product of some infant memory. But she had spoken in a voice he could hear and bidden him to seek out his living father.
Just to hold on to the memory, Remo had gone to a police sketch artist, who drew her face from Remo's description. He carried it with him wherever he went.
Nearly a frustrating year had passed before she had appeared to him for a second time. This time to tell him that the time to find his father was growing short.
Remo would have scoured the planet to find his father except the spirit of his mother had also showed him a vision of a cave and in the cave sat a mummy Remo had recognized as Chiun.
It wasn't Chiun. The mummy turned out to be Ko Jong Oh, but when Remo told the Master of Sinanju what he had seen, Chiun had dragged him from one end of the earth to the other in the Rite of Attainment until Remo found himself in the Sonoran Desert outside Yuma, Arizona.
There Remo had found his father, a stuntman turned actor, and learned that Chiun had known the identity of Remo's father for years. Remo and Chiun had encountered him during an assignment years before. Chiun had recognized who he was. Remo hadn't.
Of all the cons Chiun had perpetrated, this was the most selfish, yet Remo had understood why. And it had all worked out.
That was the funny part of their relationship. Remo always forgave Chiun. No matter what. Chiun, on the other hand, piled the slightest injury or imagined slight on his shoulders, complaining all the while.
In this dream Remo's mother was standing on a high dune, silhouetted against the desert moon.
He knew her by name now. Dawn Starr Roam. But he couldn't bring himself to call her by that name.
In his dream his mouth was open as he struggled with the right word. Mother sounded too formal. Ma was no good. Mom sounded like a character out of a fifties sitcom.
In his dream Remo didn't know what to call her. And as he wrestled with the dilemma, she lifted her perfect profile to the night stars and faded from sight as if she had been made of coalesced moonbeams.
Remo was running for the dune, calling "Wait!" when the gunshots shattered the night.
They came in a string of three pops followed by two more.
He was out of bed and at the door of his igloolike sheepskin hogan before he was really awake. His Sinanju-trained reflexes had carried him from sleep and into action.
Out in the night someone was trying to bring down the moon with a Winchester.
"Wa-hooo, I'm a Sun On Jo brave and I got everything money can buy except a future!"
And he squeezed off another shot at the low-hanging moon.
"Hey!" Remo called.
The Indian took notice of him. "Hey yourself, white eyes."
Lowering the rifle, he swung it around. Jacking another round into place, he drew a cool bead on Remo.
"I hear you got yourself some magical powers, white eyes. Let's see you percolate down into the sand ahead of hot, angry lead."
The trigger clicked back. And the rifle spit a tongue of yellow-red flame.
Remo slid from the path of the bullet before the lever could eject the smoking shell from the breech. When the bullet kicked up distant sand, Remo was already coming in from the darkness off to the rifleman's left.
The brave surrendered the rifle to an irresistible force that snatched it from his hands.
"Yep," he said, stumbling back. "You are a true Sunny Joe, 'cept there ain't gonna be a tribe for you to protect, Sunny Joe. What do you say about that?"
He reached down to the sand at his feet and hoisted a bottle of tequila to his lips.
Remo took it away from him, chipping a front tooth with the bottle mouth.
"Hey! You got no call—"
Remo gave the bottle a casual flip, and it climbed thirty feet into the clear air, spun in place like a pin-wheel and dropped down.
The Indian had a good eye. He snagged it before it could crash against a rock. But when he felt its heft, he knew it was empty. He held it up to his eye to be sure, and nothing came spilling out. Not one solitary drop.
"Hey! How'd you do that?"
"You saw every move I made," Remo said coolly.
"Sure. But tequila don't evaporate into thin air. It's not in its nature."
"Is that you making that goldurn racket, Gus Jong?" rumbled Sunny Joe Roam from the surrounding darkness.
He was coming down the trail like an angry soft-footed bear.
Gus Jong cracked a crooked grin. "Hey, Sunny Joe. Your little apple slice here has got himself some slick ways."
"Don't you call my son no apple, you drunken redskin."
"I ain't drunk. Hell, I hardly got started."
"You're flat done drinking for the night. Now, mosey on your way."
Gus Jong stumbled back to his hogan under the watchful eyes of Remo and Sunny Joe Roam.
"You gotta excuse ol' Gus," Sunny Joe rumbled. "Ain't really his fault."
"Not how I see it," said Remo.
"That's fine for you. But my braves look down the trail and all they see is their graves and no one to mourn them or carry on their ways. It takes them by the throat sometimes."
"I know the story. No girl babies have been born in years. But who's stopping them from finding wives in the city?"
"Lot of things. Pride. Stubbornness. Knowing they don't fit in white society. And the Navajo and Hopi won't accept them into their tribes. They're plumb at a dead end and they hardly got started on life yet."
"Nobody ever found their future at the bottom of a bottle."
Just then a sprinkling of what felt like cool rain pattered down to pock the dust at their feet.
"Funny. That don't feel like rain," Sunny Joe grunted.
Sunny Joe looked dubious.
"It's not as heavy as glass," said Remo, starting for his hogan.
Sunny Joe loped after him. "Why the long face?" he asked.
"Had a dream about my mother."
"Your mother was a good woman. Gone over thirty years now, and I still miss her something powerful."
"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for her."
"That could be taken in two ways, you know."
"I mean if she hadn't come to me, I wouldn't have found you."
"In these parts we call that a vision quest. You had a vision quest, Remo."
Remo stopped. "Does that mean I really didn't meet her?"
"Damned if I know what it means. I spent a lot of time in cities. Don't much hold with ghosts or spooks. But you showed me a drawing that was your mother's face down to the last eyelash and that sad kinda droop of her eyes. Whatever you saw, it wore your mother's face."
"I wish I had known her."
"Well, there's nothing lost by wishing. Not much gained either."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"The old chief's been gone most of a day now."
"I know where to find Chiun."
"Maybe. But he's the other reason you're standing here right now, Remo."
"Were I you, I wouldn't have let him go off like that."
"You don't know Chiun. Sometimes we have to go our separate ways for a while. It'll work out."
"You ask me, he seemed powerful sad to leave you behind."
Remo slanted him a glance. "Chiun said that?"
"No, but it was written all over the map of his face. You didn't notice?"
"Not much of a face-reader are you, son?"
"Chiun's always saying I have bad nunchi for his kibun. That means I'm a lousy reader of his moods."
"He's damn perceptive."
"You saying I should go?"
"I'm not saying and I'm not not saying. I'm happy to have you here for as long as you like, Remo. But a man's gotta have more than a place he feels comfortable if he's to flourish. You have only to look at my braves to understand that."
"You don't want me to stay?"
"I don't want you losing your way in life just because you found your origins. Knowing who you are and where you come from, these are things a man has to know. But a man's future is not where he is, but where he's going."
"I don't know where I'm going," Remo admitted.
"You take a step, and then two. Pretty soon you're either making a path or following one. Doesn't matter much which. Just so long as you don't vegetate."
"What's the rush?"
"The rush is we soon enough lay our bones down to die. Time is forever. We aren't. A man has only so many opportunities. The more he lets slip by, the fewer branching paths he's got."
Remo was looking east. "Out there I don't even exist."
"You're standing in your own meat and bones. You exist, all right."
"They robbed me of my life and my last name and what little I had."
"They introduce you to the old chief?" Sunny Joe asked.
"Then they gave you more than they took away. And that's a fact."
"I don't think I can go back to working for America."
"Then don't. But don't hide from the world, either. Take another path. Life is full of them."
Remo said nothing for a long, long time.
Sunny Joe Roam chuckled.
Remo looked at him curiously.
"I was just thinking of a story the old chief told me about you," Sunny Joe said.
"Back when you two first met, he tried to teach you some Korean words. Remember?"
"Hen. Seems he hankered to be properly addressed. Tried to get you to call him Sonsaeng."
Remo smiled. "I remember now. It means 'teacher.' But I kept screwing it up. It came out as 'Saengson,' which means 'fish.' Saengson Chiun. I was calling him Fish Chiun. He turned red every time and accused me of doing it on purpose. Finally he just gave up."
"He about cackled his old head clean off telling me that yarn."
"It's a fact. We had a great big laugh over it."
"Chiun's all right. He just thinks there's one way to do everything," Remo said.
"You think about what he means to you, Remo. You don't find that kind of friendship even among your closest kin."
"Well, I'm going to try and catch up on my sleep."
"You remember one other thing while you're about it."
"What's that?" asked Remo.
"The old chief, he saved my life. Took a big risk doing it, too. He knew a man has room in his heart for only one father. He was fit to lose big."
"Yeah. I know."
"You go your own way and he might forgive you, but he'll go to his maker cursing his own poor judgment. Don't you do that to him, Remo Williams. Whatever you do. Don't do that to him. Because the hurt will surely attach itself to you, and you'll go to your own grave cursing your pigheaded stubbornness."
"Chiun wants me to take over as head of the House. I don't know if I can do that."
"You should consider it," said Sunny Joe pointedly. "You're welcome to stay here a spell longer, but there's not much future in it."
Remo frowned. "Let me sleep on it."
"You do that," said Sunny Joe.
And when Remo turned to bid him good-night, there was no sign of the big Sun On Jo.
His eyes gathering visual purple to sharpen his night vision, Remo finally spotted him loping along like a long-legged totem. There was nothing graceful about Sunny Joe's progress, yet the wind carried no sound to Remo's ears. After the moon went behind a low-scudding desert cloud, it was as if he had evaporated.
Remo returned to his hogan. When he fell asleep again, he didn't dream at all.
Harold Smith was still sunk in his floral armchair when the sun peeped over the Atlantic.
He had made no progress. And it was time to go to work.
Logging off, he closed his briefcase, took a quick cold shower because it cost less and, after toweling his tight blue-gray skin dry, he passed into the bedroom to select a fresh suit.
His wife slept peacefully, her heavy breathing like a muted bellows in the room.
There were six identical gray three-piece suits hanging in the closet, the oldest one dating back to the late 1940s.
When Harold Smith had come of age, his father had taken him to a Boston tailor for his first suit fitting. When the price came up, Harold had been horrified. First at the exorbitant price tag and second because his father had insisted Harold pay for it himself.
"It is much too expensive, Pater," Harold had said flatly.
"Properly taken care of," his father had said, "a suit made by this concern will last half a lifetime. You may find less-expensive tailors, who use cheaper goods and inferior stitching. But I guarantee that the best three suits you can find elsewhere will all wear out before this one suit has fulfilled its duty."
Harold had frowned. He was going to Dartmouth College in the fall. There were textbooks to purchase and other incidentals.
But he had swallowed his horror and bought the suit. The concern was still in business, and approximately every decade he went back for alterations or a new suit. His father was correct. If that first suit he bought ever came back into style, Harold could wear it again without fear for the stitching.
When he was dressed and knotting his hunter green Darmouth tie, Harold Smith retrieved his suitcase, kissed his oblivious wife on the forehead and drove his habitual route to Folcroft Sanitarium.
It was an ordinary late-October day. It wouldn't remain ordinary very long.
All hope of ordinariness was shattered once Smith had booted up the desktop computer. The overnight trolling programs began announcing themselves.
Smith saved certain files as nonurgent. The strife in Mexico, Macedonia and the former Yugoslavia hadn't developed overnight complications. They could keep.
Smith let out an audible gasp when the screen announced it had been tracking the Master of Sinanju.
Smith called up the file. It showed a string of credit-card charges. The expenses would normally have made Smith pale. But the mere fact that Chiun had resurfaced after all these weeks overcame Smith's natural revulsion at wasting taxpayers' money.
The first charge concerned a flight from Yuma, Arizona, to Phoenix. From Phoenix the Master of Sinanju had flown to New York City.
Oddly enough he hadn't remained there very long. Arrival at LaGuardia was at one in the afternoon, and the next travel charge showed a New York City-to-Boston flight at 3:09.
There the trail ended.
Smith frowned. The last charge he had tracked back in July showed Remo and Chiun flying to Yuma, and after that it was as if they had fallen off the planet. No Yuma-based charges had surfaced.
In fact, no charges at all.
Now Chiun had returned to Boston, where he and Remo lived.
Smith accessed Remo's credit-card account but found it still inactive.
"Odd," he mused. "They go to Yuma then disappear. Now the Master of Sinanju has returned but without Remo."
What could have happened?
A chill washed over Harold Smith as he exited the credit-card files. Had Remo died? Was it possible?
Smith brought up Chiun's credit-card records again. There were incidental charges. Chiun had eaten at a Korean restaurant in midtown Manhattan whose name seemed to be the Soot Bull, but otherwise he hadn't remained in New York long. About three hours.
What business had Chiun in Manhattan? Smith wondered.
He was still wondering about that—and trying to remain awake by drinking successive cups of black coffee heavily sugared for the energy he knew he would need to get through a full workday on no sleep—when his secretary brought a Federal Express package to him.
"This just came, Dr. Smith."
"Thank you," Smith said, accepting the package.
It was a standard cardboard mailer the Federal Express people insisted upon calling letter size. Smith saw that the return address was in Quincy, Massachusetts, and the name of the sender was written in a familiar slashing approximation of English that suggested a Far Eastern calligrapher.
Zipping open the cardboard zipper seal, Smith extracted a single sheet of parchment. The note was written in the stylized English calligraphy the Master of Sinanju used.
Long, O long has the House served the Rome of the far west today. Long might it continue to serve. But the gods have decreed otherwise. We must submit to the will of the gods, even if we do not believe in the same gods. For if one sees sufficient summers, one will learn the bitter lesson that I have come to accept. It is too painful to speak of here, and so I will not spoil the acute ceremony of our parting. Farewell, O Smith. May your days be without number.
P.S. The enclosed tablet is yours. If the pain of loss proves unendurable, perhaps you will find comfort in its solace.
Harold Smith looked at the black ink letters as they swam before his bleary eyes.
The Master of Sinanju was abandoning America. There was no other interpretation possible.
But what was meant by the enclosed tablet? Smith looked into the cardboard mailer and found wrapped in pearly silk the coffin-shaped poison pill that Remo had taken from him months before, vowing not to return it until Smith had located Remo's parents, living or dead.
Smith returned it to the watch pocket of his gray vest and leaned back in his cracked leather chair, his face drained of all color and expression. He sat that way for a very long time.
It struck Harold Smith as he sipped his sixth cup of hot coffee for the morning. The coffee cup dropped from his shocked fingers to spill its scalding contents all over his gray lap. His gray eyes went round and grim behind the glass shields of his rimless glasses. His gray skin paled to a color that could only be called scraped bone.
Harold Smith knew the answer to the question in his mind even as he called up the AP news briefs.
The uproar in the General Assembly of the United Nations had occurred at approximately 1:30 in the afternoon. Less than an hour after Chiun had landed in LaGuardia. He had eaten at the Soot Bull about an hour later. Then he had departed for Boston.
Smith knew with absolute certainty who had addressed the General Assembly in that time frame. He also had an excellent idea of what had thrown the body into chaos. Why the delegates had rushed to their home capitals. Smith also had a distinct suspicion about what these delegates were discussing at this very minute with their leaders.
Harold Smith knew all this because there was only one possible thing the Master of Sinanju could have told the General Assembly that accounted for everything that had followed.
No one had declared war.
Instead, the House of Sinanju had offered its services to the highest bidder in the swiftest, most breathtakingly dramatic fashion possible. And in capitals the world over, treasures were being audited, offers calculated and the greatest bidding war in human history was about to begin.
A war for control of the deadliest assassin to ply his trade in this century. A war in which there could be but one winner and the price for losing was absolute and final.
A war the United States could not afford to lose.
The Master of Sinanju sat in the meditation tower of the castle bestowed upon him by the grateful Emperor of America. Sixteen were the chambers, and each chamber boasted its own kitchen and bathing room, as well as two bedrooms.
As he inscribed the words on a parchment scroll set on the hardwood floor and held flat with semiprecious stones set at each of the four corners, Chiun wondered if it would appear to future generations that Chiun, who was Master for the majority of what the West called the twentieth century but was actually the fiftieth—Western culture having flourished late—was a shameless braggart.
Chiun didn't wish to appear to boast to his descendants. Perhaps it would be better to strike the description of the chambers. Sixteen chambers was sufficient to convey to future Masters, especially considering that the land known to Koreans as Mi-Guk was unlikely to prosper much beyond this century.
Looking at the scroll with its fresh-inked pre-Hangul characters, the Master of Sinanju weighed the consequences of striking these offending lines. It would be messy. He didn't wish to be called Chiun the Messy Scribe.
On reflection, he let them stand. It would be better to move Castle Sinanju, block by block, to the village of Sinanju, where his descendants could examine it for themselves. This way no one could deny the generosity of America the Forgotten—and by implication understand that Chiun the Neat was a superb negotiator.
Now that he was leaving America forever, there was no point in abandoning such a fine building merely because its inhabitants had offended him so greatly.
When the telephone rang later in the day, the Master of Sinanju was struggling over the proper phrasing of his reasons for abandoning the client who had paid the House a thousandfold greater gold than any client in Korean history. Chiun hesitated.
It might be a new suitor to the House.
On the other hand, it might also be Emperor Smith, who was doubtless gnashing his teeth, rending his garments and bewailing his anguish over having lost the services of Sinanju.
Goose quill poised, he decided to allow the instrument to ring. And so it rang. And rang and rang.
After some forty unbroken rings, it finally went silent. Only to immediately start up again.
Chiun nodded. Emperor Smith. Only he would punish the ears so with his stubborn refusal to accept the harsh truth that had descended so crushingly upon his kingly head. No self-respecting seeker of Sinanju services would betray such unbecoming eagerness before negotiations even commenced.
And so Chiun wrote on, serene in the knowledge he was not ignoring one of the new rulers who was now counting his gold and calculating his ability to secure absolute security for his throne and his borders.
It would be good to feel wanted again, he thought.
Harold Smith slammed down the telephone in frustration after the fifth series of forty rings had gone unanswered.
It was possible that the Master of Sinanju was out for the day, he knew.
It was just as possible that he was simply not answering the telephone. Chiun hated telephones. Or at least he pretended to. One of the biggest expenses—other than Remo throwing out brand-new shoes instead of polishing them—was monthly telephone replacement. If a phone rang at an inopportune time, Chiun simply shattered it with his hand or squeezed it to melted plastic in his fingers. Smith had seen Chiun's handiwork many times and never understood how crushing fingers could cause plastic to run like taffy. He just replaced the telephones.
Another telephone drew his eyes. A dialless red instrument now reposed in its proper place on his pathologically neat desk for the first time in a year—the While House hot line. Simply lifting the receiver caused an identical red telephone to ring in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House.
Smith had refrained from lifting the red receiver however.
Before the incident at the UN, he had planned a courtesy call to the Chief Executive, informing him that the hot line was back in operation and CURE remained ready to field any mission requests.
It was a peculiarity of the CURE mandate that the President of the United States had no authority to order CURE into action. He could only suggest missions. Harold Smith had absolute autonomy in wielding the awesome responsibility set on his spare shoulders. That way no rogue President could co-opt CURE to pursue purely political ends.
But Harold Smith wouldn't call the President. Not yet. Not when the only news he had to convey was bad news. CURE was without its enforcement arm.
That revelation might tempt the budget-conscious Chief Executive with the only direct order he was allowed to give: shut down.
Smith restored the hot-line instrument to a desk drawer and locked it, then checked his vest pocket for the coffin-shaped poison pill and took down his briefcase from atop an old-fashioned oak filing cabinet.
He took a cab to the local train station and purchased a round-trip ticket to Boston. He didn't have to consult a schedule. He knew the timetables by heart.
Four hours later Smith stepped off Amtrak's Patriot Limited in Boston's South Station. Switching to the Red Line, he was momentarily chagrined to discover that the Boston subway system had had a serious fare increase since his visit.
"Eighty-five cents?" Smith asked the man at the collection booth.
"In New York City they charge a buck twenty-five."
"This is not New York City," Smith objected.
"And this isn't a flea market. It's eighty-five cents or take a cab, which charges a buck-fifty just to sit in the backseat and tell the driver where to go."
From a red plastic change holder, Harold Smith grudgingly counted out exactly eighty-five cents. He didn't buy a second token for the return trip. Life was too uncertain. What if he were to injure himself and be taken to the emergency room, and worse, pass away? The token would be completely wasted.
Leaving the North Quincy T stop, Smith followed West Squantum Street to Hancock, crossing over to East Squantum. Just past the high school, he turned into the grounds of the big fieldstone condominium that had once been a church.
Smith had purchased it at auction for a price so low it had almost brought a rare smile to his sour patrician countenance. The building had been originally erected as a church, and during the condo-crazy days of the late 1980s a developer had converted it into a multiunit building—and promptly went bankrupt when the boom went bust.
Smith rang the doorbell.
And received no answer.
He rang it again.
When no one came to the door, Smith peered into the glass ovals set in the double-leaf doors. He could see the sixteen mail boxes and separate apartment buzzers and the inner door, tantalizingly out of reach.
Smith abruptly walked down the street to a market and tried to purchase a single stick of gum.
The clerk set down a pack.
"I only want one stick," Smith told him.
"We don't sell it by the stick. Only by the pack."
Smith made a prim mouth. "Do you have any gumballs?"
"No gumballs. You want gum or not?"
"I'll take it," said Smith, unhappily dispensing fifty-five cents in change from his nearly depleted change holder.
As it turned out, Smith needed two sticks of gum to do what he had to, which saved him a second trip but still left him stuck with three unnecessary sticks.
Chewing the gum furiously, he pressed the sticky blob into the doorbell. It jammed the button solidly in.
Carefully lifting the fabric of his trousers so the knees wouldn't bag, he lowered himself onto the steps, set his briefcase on his knobby knees and waited while the doorbell buzzed incessantly behind him.
The door opened in less than ten minutes.
Smith stood up and turned.
The Master of Sinanju was wearing a gold-chased ebony kimono and an annoyed expression. It flickered into a bland web as soon as he recognized Smith. "Emperor," he said thinly.
"Master Chiun," Smith replied with equal thinness.
The two stood silent. There was no flowery outburst, no greetings or gracious offer to enter.
Smith cleared his throat. "I have come about the next contract."
"You did not receive my sorrowful message?"
"I received it."
"And the tablet Remo asked me to return?"
"And you have not used it?"
"No," Smith said coldly.
Smith cleared his throat. "May I come in?"
"Alas, I cannot."
"I await a visitor."
Chiun gestured to the still-buzzing doorbell. "No. The repair person who is to fix this balky device is overdue. It will require my full and undivided attention to insure that the job is done properly and without overcharging."
Harold Smith reached out and removed the gum from the buzzer button. It fell silent.
"You may turn him away. The buzzer is functioning again."
Chiun bowed his head. "Great is your knowledge of things mechanical."
"I need only a few minutes of your time."
"Then you may enter."
The Master of Sinanju led Smith up the steps to the meditation tower, where the cool fall sunlight flooded in through the high windows.
The fresh, clean scent of rice clung to the walls and minimal furniture. It was probably steamed into the painted walls forever, Smith reflected.
Chiun waited until Smith had lowered himself awkwardly onto a tatami mat before floating down to his own mat to face him.
"My time is short," he intoned. "You have interrupted my packing."
"You are leaving America?"
"May I ask why?"
"This land is full of painful memories I can no longer abide."
Smith frowned. "Where is Remo?"
"I am forbidden to say."
"Forbidden by whom?"
"Remo has gone his own way. Now I must go mine."
"Is this why you are breaking the contract between America and Sinanju?" Smith asked.
"I break nothing. The contract expires on the eve of the eleventh month, where it has always ended. I chose not to renew."
"I would like to convince you otherwise."
"I am an old man now. The strenuous work of America is too much for my frail shoulders."
Harold Smith opened his briefcase, removed his automatic and leveled it at the Master of Sinanju's thin breast.
"I do not believe you."
Chiun regarded him without a flicker of concern. "I speak the truth."
"Then I apologize if I have erred, but I am giving you fair warning of my intent to pull the trigger."
Chiun stuck out his chest like a pouter pigeon. "Pull. The wound you inflict will be far less than that inflicted by the ingrate you charged me with training."
The Master of Sinanju closed his hazel eyes.
And Harold Smith squeezed the trigger.
The weapon roared in the close room. The sound made Smith blink once. Gun smoke made his eyes smart.
When they cleared, the Master of Sinanju was sitting serenely just as before, only there was a chill light now in his eyes.
Smith gasped. "What happened?"
"I did not see you move."
"I did not."
"Then where did the bullet go?"
And taking one gnarled hand from his sleeve, the Master of Sinanju uncurved an index finger to indicate Smith's briefcase, which had sat between them.
Smith looked. The briefcase hadn't appeared to move, but on the side facing the ceiling smoked a bullet hole. The lead slug had mashed itself against the leather, stopped only because the lining was plated with bulletproof Kevlar.
"Amazing," he breathed, understanding that Chiun had lifted the bulletproof case to intercept the bullet, letting it fall back too fast for any other human eye to read.
"A trifle," said Chiun dismissively.
Smith composed himself. "I would like to know the truth."
"Master Chiun, America has paid you well."
"I do not dispute this."
"If it is a question of money, I will see what I can do. But I cannot promise anything," Smith said.
"It is not money. The work of America requires two Masters to perform. This has never been the case in the past. Unless one counts the days of the night tigers. In the days before Wang, a Master did not work alone. He was accompanied by his night tigers. It has been my lot to work for a client state that required me to train its own assassin. Not a Sinanju heir. But an assassin who belonged to a foreign emperor. In this I had no choice, for my first pupil had gone bad. There was no one to take his place. No one worthy."
"Remo is free-lancing?"
"Remo is vegetating. He will perform no service. Not that I could stop him if he so chose."
"Where is Remo?" Smith asked.
"I cannot tell you."
"You fear the competition?"
"I am beyond fear. My feelings are like the pit of a peach—hard and bitter. Sorrow sits like a wingless and wet bustard in my belly, for I have trained a pupil who will do no work."
"Remo has retired, then?"
"Pah! It is I who should retire. I forswore retirement and the comforts of my village to guide him through his assignments. Assignments he should have fulfilled on his own. And what did this wastrel give me in return for my sacrifice? Abandonment."
Chiun dropped his frail shoulders. "I have been dumped."
"It is a despicable custom of this ingrate land, I am told. Granny dumping."
"That does not sound like Remo," Smith said slowly.
"I have been betrayed by my American pupil. This land holds no more joy for me. Therefore, I must depart these bitter shores."
"What will you do?"
"I am too old to train another. Even if I found a worthy pupil, I do not have forty years to work another miracle. I have trained two Masters, and both have turned on me like vipers."
"I am prepared to offer you the same contract as before."
"And I have told you the work of America is too strenuous for my aging bones. I must seek less demanding an emperor."
"I am prepared to offer you the same contract as before to take your services off the open market," Smith countered.
"Who has said that the services of Sinanju are on the open market?"
"There was an incident at the United Nations yesterday. I believe you know what I refer to."
"Perhaps," Chiun said thinly.
"The same contract as before to do nothing."
"Alas, I cannot."
"I cannot, O Smith, because it would dishonor my ancestors to accept gold for no work. This is not done. First it will be no work, then as you see your treasure deplete without return service, you will ask me to perform light errands, possibly janitorial in nature. It is a slow slide into servitude, and I will not countenance this."
"I am prepared to pay partial gold if you will refuse all offers from a list of nations I will draw up."
Chiun's back stiffened. "You seek to bribe me?"
"I am concerned about the security of the United States, as always."
"It is my duty to my House to weigh all offers and accept the most rewarding, for I am the last Master of Sinanju and there is none to take my place. The money I will earn before my days dwindle to nothingness will have to sustain the village for untold centuries to come. I cannot go into the Void knowing that my inattention to duty may lead to suffering in times to come."
"Without you the organization will have to be shut down."
"That is not my concern."
"And I must go with it."
Chiun's eyes narrowed to crafty slits. "If you can locate Remo, perhaps you can strike a deal with him."
"Tell me where he is."
"Consult your oracles. They may tell you. I cannot."
Harold Smith frowned. He stood up, his legs stiff. "This is your final word?"
"I am sorry."
"I must go now."
"If the the House survives my reign," said the Master of Sinanju, "know, O Smith, that the scrolls of Sinanju will record that this Master looked with favor upon his service to America and will record no objection to your lawful sons treating with my descendants."
"I have no sons," said Harold Smith coldly, turning and leaving the room without another word.
The Master of Sinanju sat quietly, his ears tracking the footfalls on the steps, the opening and closing of the door and the empty silence that followed.
It was done. One door was closed. But others would open.
Tomorrow the bidding would begin.
Remo woke refreshed and went in search of Sunny Joe.
"Sunny Joe couldn't sleep, so he lit off for Mexico," an Indian told him. He wore faded jeans, a flannel shirt that was once red and a face like a sandstone rain-god mask.
"Mexico? Just like that?"
The Indian shrugged. "Sunny Joe likes to ride down Mexico way now and again. Maybe he's got a señorita down there."
"Did he leave a message for me?"
"Not with me."
"Any particular place in Mexico?" Remo asked.
The Indian spit on the ground. "Why look? Sunny Joe'll be back when he takes a mind to."
"Does a straight answer cost extra around here?" Remo demanded hotly.
"Try Cuervos. He always goes to Cuervos."
"Thanks,'" Remo said, not meaning it.
"Don't mention it," grunted the Indian in a matching tone of voice.
Remo headed for town on foot. Before the women started to die off, the Sun On Jos had lived in a small strip of brick-and-clapboard buildings resembling an old Wild West town with a poured-concrete boardwalk. Remo had left his rented Mazda Navajo there.
The place had the look of a ghost town now. An old Sun On Jo woman worked a squeaky well pump, her iron gray pigtails rattling with every exertion. She paid him no mind as Remo claimed his jeep.
Remo drove south, windshield wipers lazily scraping the accumulation of dust off the windshield. Why had Sunny Joe lit off like that? Without a word. It wasn't like him.
Stopping on the banks of the Colorado, Remo bathed and caught his breakfast. The river was full of rainbow trout this time of year, and he snared one as long as his forearm with bare hands, killed it with a finger tap and made a fire by rubbing dry brittle-bush together at high speed.
As the trout—one end of a stick jammed into its open mouth and the other end screwed into the sand-slowly roasted over a cactus-and-brittle-bush fire, Remo wondered if his father could have a girlfriend. It made him feel funny to think about it. He was just getting used to thinking of Sunny Joe as his father. He had every right to have a girlfriend, especially after all these years. But Remo couldn't help wondering what his mother would say.
Squatting thoughtfully, he picked the hot, flaky meat off the bones with his fingers, cleaned them in cool river water, then got back into the Navajo. He headed south.
Near the border a white border-patrol utility jeep scooted out of the shoulder of the road and, siren screaming, tried to pull him over.
Remo's foot hesitated over the accelerator. He couldn't remember if his rental had expired or not. He wasn't in the mood to be arrested—or create trouble to avoid it.
Then he spotted a roadblock two miles ahead, and the point became moot. He decided to go with the flow.
Remo braked to a stop, and as uniformed border-patrol agents came out of their vehicles, he dug into his wallet for useful identification.
"What's the problem?" Remo asked, holding out a laminated card that identified him as Remo Durock, FBI.
"A Mexican Federal Army unit is camped on the other side of the border."
"Mexican army units are taking up defensive positions from San Diego clear to Brownsville like they mean business. It's not safe to cross the border at this time, sir. We're going to have to ask you to turn back and go home."
"I'm looking for a sixtyish guy in a white Stetson. He came this way a few hours ago, driving a black Bronco."
"There's talk of a U.S. car matching that description that crossed the border just before the Mexicans closed down the checkpoint," one of the patrolmen answered.
"Talk. What kind of talk?"
"The individual was arrested by Mexican authorities."
"For what?" Remo asked.
"If we knew that, we'd know why the Mexicans are eyeballing the U.S. border the way they are."
"That's my father. I gotta get through."
"Sorry, sir. It's not advisable. At this time we must ask that you to turn around."
Remo frowned. Ahead two border-patrol vehicles had the road completely blocked. If Remo broke for the desert, they'd have no trouble following. But there was more than one way to get the job done. "Okay, if that's the way it is," he said softly.
Putting the Navajo in gear, he sent it spinning around in a circle and, flooring it, headed north.
The border patrol remained at the roadblock, unreadable, sunglassed eyes tracking him until he was a dusty smear in the distance.
Near a clump of pipe organ cactus, Remo abandoned his vehicle and stepped into the broiling desert.
His deep-set eyes retreated into his face like the hollows of a skull. His moccasins touching the sand made shallow dents the sun and the blowing sands soon filled…
Sunny Joe Roam sat alone in the Cuervos town jail, wondering what had gotten into the Mexicans. It had been hours now, and he was still locked up tight.
Getting up, he called through the bars.
"Hey, compadre. I'm known here in this town."
The Federal Judicial Police jailer ignored him.
"Name's Bill Roam. Maybe you seen my movies. I was Muck Man. Played a botanist who was transformed into a walking plant by environmental pollutors. The Return of Muck Man grossed forty million last summer."
"La mugre siempre flota," the man remarked in Spanish.
"I don't know that one."
" 'Filth always floats.'"
"I'm not joshing. I'm pretty famous. The Sun On Jos are my tribe. We got our own reservation, and Washington isn't going to take kindly to your messing with our affairs. Ask around. I spread my hard-earned money down here a lot. I'm called Sunny Joe Roam."
"Maybe so, señor. But your name is now cieno—muck."
Sunny Joe gave up on the jailer. What the hell was going on? He had crossed the border without a problem, the way he always did. Through the manned border checkpoint. They waved him right through, smiling as always. And he'd run smack into a Mexican Federal Judicial Police patrol loaded for bear and looking for trouble.
They had arrested him on sight. Not much else to do but surrender and see where events led.
As it turned out, they'd led to the local hoosegow.
Something was up. Something big. And he had become a pawn in a larger game.
Lying back down on the hardwood bunk, Sunny Joe decided to wait the morning out. If they hadn't cut him loose by noon, he would take matters in hand.
One thing was certain. No jail on any side of the border had been built that could hold a Sunny Joe when he took a notion to do different.
Remo ran into a column of Mexican army Humvees rolling along a dusty desert highway.
He was surprised to see Humvees. But since the Gulf War, even Arnold Schwarzenegger had one. No reason the Mexican army couldn't have a few, too. These were painted in desert camouflage browns and sands.
The Humvee unit was surprised to see him, too. They slewed to a disorganized stop, almost creating a chain reaction of rear-end collisions.
Remo stepped out into the middle of the road and lifted his bands as a signal that he was unarmed and not looking for trouble.
He might have saved his energy. The sargento primero in the lead Humvee took one look and his dark eyes flashed. He rapped out a sharp command, and armed Mexicans were suddenly pounding in Remo's direction.
"I'm looking for a big American in a black hat," Remo said.
"Anybody here speak English?"
"Jou will keep jour hands raised, señor," the sargento primero ordered. "Jou are a prisoner."
"Fine. I'm a prisoner. Just take me to the man I described."
As they patted him down and cuffed him from behind, Remo fought his instincts. Every sense screamed to send the soldiers flying. A Master of Sinanju was trained never to allow hostile hands on his person. But Remo was a man of peace now.
Chiun would kill me if he saw me like this, Remo thought as he was placed in the back of a Humvee.
"What's the problem here?" he asked.
"Jou are a spy."
"I'm an American tourist."
"Jou are an Americano in Mexico. The border has been closed to Americanos."
"Whatever happened to NAFTA?"
The driver spit into the dust violently.
"Proposition 187 and Operation Gatekeeper happened," the sargento primero grunted.
Uh-oh, Remo thought. Something had ticked off the Mexican government big-time. He decided to sit it out. Once he found Sunny Joe, he'd make his move.
But they didn't take him to Sunny Joe. They took him to a military camp and into an olive drab tent, where he was told to sit on an ammo crate until the major came.
"I'll sit on the sand if you don't mind," Remo said in an even voice.
" Jou will sit on the crate."
"Crates give me a pain in the butt, just like you."
The Mexican sergeant took immediate offense and looked as if he wanted to club Remo down with the hard stock of his rifle. "The crate," he insisted.
"If you say so," said Remo, who then sat down on the crate so violently it splintered into kindling.
Smiling up at the sergeant's reddening face, Remo took a shady spot on the tent's sandy floor.
The major's face wasn't red. It was dark as a storm cloud. His angry eyes fell on Remo and the shattered crate and asked, "Who are you, gringo?"
"The Gringo Kid. I'm looking for my dad, the Gringo Chief."
"Look, you characters took another prisoner this morning. Just take me to him."
"Ah," said the major, fingering his mustache. "That one. He is in jail in Cuervos."
"Then put me in jail in Cuervos."
"No. You are a military prisoner. The other was seized by our Federal Judicial Police."
"Damn," said Remo. Looking up, he asked a simple question. "Which way to Cuervos?"
"Why do you ask?"
"For future reference."
"You have no future."
"What's got into you people?" Remo complained.
"We will no longer suffer at the uncaring hands of the Norteamericanos, for soon we will control a weapon more mighty than any in jour arsenal."
"You people have nukes?"
"More terrible than nukes."
Remo blinked. What the hell were they talking about?
"Now, if you do not tell us your mission, you will be shot."
"You shoot an American tourist," Remo warned, "and a weapon more terrible than yours will land on your heads."
And the major laughed so heartily Remo wondered if he had gotten into the loco weed.
While he was laughing, Remo decided to make his move.
He came up from the floor like a spring.
The Mexican major sensed the gringo jumping up but wasn't concerned. The man's hands were, after all, handcuffed at his back.
So when a length of stainless-steel chain—stretched between two wrists like small I-beam girders—wrapped around his throat, he was one surprised officer.
"Cuervos. North, south, east or west?" hissed the gringo.
"We-est," he choked out.
"Much obliged," said the gringo, who brought such terrible pressure on his throat that the major blacked out.
Remo eased the unconscious officer to the ground, snapped the handcuff links with a careless tug and got out of the bracelets by scrunching his hands up so they slipped out as if his finger bones were paper.
He stepped out into the hot sun wearing the major's uniform and peaked cap, which got him past the stiff-faced tent guard and to a desert camo Humvee.
As soon as he dropped behind the wheel, Remo was recognized and another Humvee raced to block his way. Remo stomped the gas pedal into the floorboards. When he lifted his foot, it stayed jammed down.
The two Humvees came together with a sound like a trash compactor, throwing Mexican soldiers in every direction.
Remo landed lightly on the road just in time to greet a third Humvee. Its driver came out with a side arm, which Remo obligingly confiscated, crushed to junk and returned to the soldier by way of his steel helmet.
Stepping over the man, Remo took the Humvee's wheel. Tires kicking up grit and sand, he headed north.
A desert camouflage tank tried to block the way. Steering around it, Remo shot out a foot that struck the right track so hard it broke clean. When the tank tried to follow, the track clanked loose and the exposed wheellike gears ground it to junk.
A soldier scrambled out of the turret and got his thumbs on the trips of a swivel gun. He fired his first burst into the air, his second into the heat-softened asphalt behind Remo and, in the middle of walking rounds toward the Humvee, the belt ran empty.
He pounded it with a dark fist as his quarry sped out of range.
That put Remo in the clear. He just hoped no one in Cuervos would give him any trouble.
After all, it wasn't as if the U.S. was at war with Mexico. And his killing days were behind him.
The President of the U.S. received the first reports of trouble on the border with Mexico from his national-security adviser.
"I'd better have a talk with their ambassador," he said, reaching for the telephone.
"The Mexican ambassador was recalled to Mexico City for consultations, Mr. President," his national-security adviser reminded.
"That's right. We ever get to the bottom of that melee at the UN?"
"That's State's affair."
"What's gotten into those people?" he blurted.
"Unknown, Mr. President."
He glanced at the report again. It was unbelievable. Mexican army units, just a day ago busier than a one-handed chicken-plucker dealing with internal problems, had been redeployed to the U.S. border. Without explanation.
"Don't they have enough problems down there?" he complained.
"We have to mount a response."
"Get the president of Mexico on the line."
"No, I meant a military response."
"They're on their side of the border, aren't they?"
"Yes. But they're poised to jump across."
"Mexico invading the U.S. is as likely as the U.S. invading Canada."
"Actually we did that once."
The President looked intrigued. "When?"
"Oh, around 1812 or so."
The President of the United States frowned with all of his fleshy face. In the background an obscure Elvis tune played. But his ears hardly heard it.
Only this morning his biggest problem had loomed as large as an asteroid hurtling toward his political future. As usual it had taken the form of his wife, who had marched into the Oval Office to announce that this year the White House would not celebrate a traditional Thanksgiving because it might offend Native Americans, not to mention animal-rights activists and as for Christmas—
The national-security adviser broke into the President's troubled thoughts. "If we deploy troops on our side, it will act as a clear deterrent."
"Our goddamn friendship with Mexico should be all the deterrent we need."
"As you know, the Mexicans are pretty touchy about that anti-immigration thing in California. What is it called?"
"Right, and since we've tightened our borders against illegal immigration through Operation Gatekeeper, it's hurt their economy some."
"Since when is preventing another nation's illegals from crossing pur sovereign border an act of war?"
"It's a pretext. Obviously. But they do this kind of thing in Europe all the time."
The President thought hard. Elvis was howling he didn't know why he loved someone. He only knew he did.
As the President reluctantly issued the order to match the Mexicans, unit for unit, in a border stare-down that had no probable upside, he decided he'd give anything to swap this problem for this morning's headache.
Hell, if the First Lady wanted the First Family to celebrate Kwanzaa instead of Christmas, the political fire-storm would be nothing compared to an all-out border war.
Cuervos quaked in the heat when Remo rolled in on the Mexican Humvee. It was a typical honky-tonk bordertown catering to U.S. tourists. There were fast-food joints, cantinas and outdoor stalls where trinkets were peddled. These were empty now. As were the fast-food places. A Mexican love song blared from an outdoor loudspeaker. Otherwise, it was full of an uneasy quiet.
It was also full of Federal Judicial Police.
Their eyes went instinctively to him. And as instinctively veered away. As a soldier, he outranked them.
Remo pulled the bill of his uniform cap lower over his eyes, so the shade of the hot Sonoran sun concealed his face. His deep-set dark eyes, high cheekbones and sun-darkened complexion drew no more than casual glances.
The jail was on the main drag and easy to spot. There were iron bars on the windows like in a TV Western. The building was sun-dried adobe. Cracks like varicose veins faulted its smooth surfaces.
Pulling up, Remo decided on a frontal approach. He got out and marched up the short front steps and into the jail.
"¿Que?" asked a man in a brown FJP uniform.
"I'm looking for my father," Remo said in English.
The Mexican officer went for his gun. Remo went for the gun, too. Remo won.
He showed the officer how fragile his gun really was by yanking back on the slide. It came off in his hand. Then he unscrewed the complaining barrel like a light bulb and, holding it before the man's widening eyes, snapped it between thumb and forefinger. The rest Remo threw away.
"A big gringo, savvy?"
"Savvy, si," said the officer, whose coffee-colored skin began oozing sweat.
"Take me to him."
The Mexican didn't act as if he understood every word, but he turned and led Remo to the cluster of cells beyond a foyer and office space.
All the cells were empty. Including the one at the end where the man stopped, turned pale and threw out his already raised hands as if to say to Remo, "No comprende."
"Where is he?" Remo demanded.
"No, no, señor. Do not shoot. Do not shoot me, por favor."
"I broke your gun, remember?"
The guard looked at Remo's empty hands and decided to take a chance.
He threw a punch. Remo saw it coming before the guard had made the decision. The fist landed in Remo's waiting hand with a meaty smack. Remo began squeezing. The man grunted. Remo squeezed harder.
The crackle of cartilage gave way to the gritty powdering of finger bones as the magnitude of his mistake dawned on the Mexican guard.
"No, no por favor," he squealed.
"Where's my father?"
"No, no. I do not know. He—he was there."
"Tell the truth and you keep your hand."
"No, I do tell the truth. I do!"
The words lifted into a tortured scream that brought the pounding of feet from the outer rooms. Remo put the guard down with the heel of his hand to the point of the man's jaw and turned to meet the newcomers.
Soldiers. They came in with rifles and side arms, muzzles up and questing. They took all of three seconds to scrutinize the room, and in those three seconds Remo was among them.
His palm connected with one face with a splat that left eggshell fractures behind the skin. Eyes rolling up to see oblivion, the soldier dropped.
Two bayonet-tipped muzzles drove for his stomach. Remo snapped the blades cleanly with chops of his hands and took hold of the muzzles. They came together with an abrupt force that cold-welded them into a long sealed pipe.
Remo stepped back as fingers squeezed triggers.
The bullets met head-on in a sealed tunnel of bored steel. And the results were catastrophic. Blow-back gases shattered the breeches and sent cold steel ripping into soft tissues.
The two trigger-happy soldiers made a drab rag pile on the floor.
With a look of fierce concentration on his face, the last standing soldier was busy trying to fix Remo in his gun sights.
Every time the trigger started back, Remo slithered out of the way with practiced ease. Each maneuver brought Remo closer to his target. The target, thinking his weapon gave him the clear advantage over an unarmed man, never realized that. Not even when it was too late.
Stepping left, then right one last time, Remo froze in place. The trigger finger whitened. The hammer drew back. And fell.
The soldier lost the top of his head when his own bullet came out of the muzzle that was suddenly tucked under his hard jaw. He dropped, still clutching the weapon with which he had committed inadvertent suicide.
Remo spun and went to the cell, smacking the lock with the heel of his hand. The old mechanism shattered, and the barred door came open.
The cell was empty. Just a hard cot and cracked porcelain toilet. But the air held a scent he had come to know. His father's leathery odor.
From the street he heard a familiar engine roar. The Humvee. His Humvee.
Jumping into the street, Remo was just in time to catch a glimpse of someone very tall driving his Humvee, dragging a funnel of arid dust behind.
Through the dust he thought he recognized a thick head of lustrous black hair.
"Sunny Joe?" he said blankly.
Then Remo was in motion. The Humvee was accelerating, but so was Remo. His feet dug into the dirt of the road, propelling him forward with graceful pumping steps.
A soldier jumped out into the street, took aim at Sunny Joe and Remo made a detour that brought him within head-harvesting reach of the oblivious marksman.
The side of Remo's hand went through the man's neck, and when the head jumped off the newly created stump, the rest of the soldier lost all interest in working his rifle.
Remo raced on. If there were any more soldiers intent on trying their luck, they developed other plans as Remo caught up with the Humvee.
"Hey, wait up," Remo called.
At the wheel Sunny Joe said, "What're you doing here?"
"I came to bail you out."
"Bailed myself out, damn it."
"If you can run this fast, just circle around. Door's open."
"Damn." Remo hung back, came around the other side and pulled even with the front passenger's seat. "It'll be a whole lot easier if you stop."
"Those are live rounds they're slinging."
"They stopped shooting."
"And they'll start right up again once they get a stationary target. Now, hop on!"
Remo skipped, bounced off one foot and plopped into the passenger's seat. The cushions met his back, and there was a brief sensation of about 2 Gs as his decelerating inertia and the Humvee's accelerating momentum met, strained, then fell into perfect synchronization.
"Head for the border," Remo said.
"What the hell do you think I'm doing?"
"What's got into you?"
"I was doing fine until you busted in," Sunny Joe commented.
"Hey, I just wasted a bunch of people to save your skin."
"And I saved my own skin without any killing. I saw what you did to that poor soldado back there. His neck's probably still pumping blood."
"He would have shot you," Remo argued.
"The bullet was never cast that could bring down a Sunny Joe. No arrow, either."
"There's always a first time," Remo said defensively. "And why'd you take off without telling me?"
"Since when do I have to check in with you or anybody before I light out?"
Remo started to speak but found he had no answer to that.
They drove in a strained silence until they cleared the border.
Then Sunny Joe let out a sigh of relief. His voice turned brittle. "Ko Jong Oh used to say a warrior's worth is not measured in scalps or trophies or booty, but in his ability to be like the wind. Everyone feels the wind on his skin, but no man can see it. The wind can sculpt sandstone into any shape it sees fit to. But nothing can stop the wind. Not even the spirit of the mountain, whom we call Sanshin. A strong wind will flow over a tall peak or cut a small one down to size. Be like the wind, Ko Jong Oh told his sons, and the sons of the sons of Ko Jong Oh have ever since emulated the winds."
Remo said nothing.
"How many men you kill back there, Remo?"
"I wasn't counting."
"Comes that easy to you, does it?"
Remo opened his mouth, then shut it so hard his teeth clicked.
"Was that you making all the commotion out in the outer jail rooms?"
"Yeah," Remo answered.
"I had two window bars loose. Figured if nothing broke by nightfall, I'd just slip out. When I heard all your racket, I knew I'd better make my break now or it might be never."
"The bars were still in the window."
"Sure. I turned them around in their mortar till they were good and loose. When I got out, I stuck 'em back in. With luck they might not have missed me till tomorrow morning."
"For all I knew, you were dead."
"You don't have much faith in your old man, now do you, son?"
"Am I supposed to say I'm sorry?"
"You did what you do, is that right?"
"I did what I do," Remo agreed.
"What you were trained to do?"
"Then you got your answer."
"To what?" Remo asked.
"Your future. Your ways are the ways of violence and death. The ways of the Sun On Jo are the ways of peace. We don't kill except as a last resort. And we don't die except in our hogans in our old age."
"You saying I should go back to my old life?"
"I'm saying you should take a good hard look at where you won't fit in."
"You kicking me off the reservation?"
Sunny Joe's voice softened. "You're welcome to visit any time. If you live long enough to retire, this is a good place to rest your weary bones, take it from one who knows. I aim to lay my Sun On Jo bones in this here red desert."
"I can't believe you're tossing me out of your life."
"I'm not, Remo. You think this through. I'm encouraging you back into the only life that fits you."
"I don't want to kill anymore."
"You didn't have that attitude at the start of this conversation. I don't think deep down it's who you really are."
"I don't know who I am anymore," Remo said in a bitter voice.
That night Remo visited his mother's grave. Laughing Brook was running high. It had been a baked-dry desert riverbed when Remo first came to the Sun On Jo Reservation. Three happy months ago. It seemed like an eternity. It had all gone by so fast.
He was alone for a long time, waiting. And somewhere in that waiting, Sunny Joe materialized beside him. There was no warning.
"What do you think she'd say?" Remo asked after a while.
"Well, I reckon she'd be proud of her only son who grew up to be a fine-looking man who served his country."
"I'm an assassin."
"I was a soldier myself," Sunny Joe said.
"A soldier is different. I'm an assassin. Killing is like breathing to me."
Remo's mouth thinned. "Lately I've been calling myself a counterassassin because I thought it fit me better. I was wrong. I am what I am." Remo sucked in a hot breath. "And I don't belong here. I'm leaving in the morning."
Sunny Joe nodded in approval. "I appreciate what you tried to do."
"You didn't act it."
"Being a father is new to me. It's just that I like to do things for myself. Always have. You stepped into the private circle of an old warrior's pride."
Remo's eyes were fixed on his mother's headstone. "I wonder if I'll see her again."
"Doubt it. Her work is done. She laid her bones in the red sand long, long ago. But there was unfinished business, and she found the will and the way to finish it. Next time you meet, it'll be in the great beyond somewheres."
Remo set his teeth to keep his chin from trembling.
He felt Sunny Joe's big paw fall on his shoulder. "The way I see it, if she disapproved of your path in life, she wouldn't have found her way to your hogan."
"I've changed my mind," Remo said thickly. "I'm not waiting until morning. I'm going now."
"If it suits you."
"It suits me."
"Then let's saddle up together one last time, you and I."
They rode out in the clear, cool desert night, neither man speaking. The sky was full of bitter blue stars, and Remo looked at them, feeling a connection growing. It was that oneness Sinanju gave. He swelled with every intake of breath.
"Ever feel part of the universe?" he asked Sunny Joe.
"Sometimes. Mostly I feel like a grain of sand in the desert. And it suits me. I've had my fame. I prefer single-footing, like now."
"Sinanju connects you with everything," Remo said quietly.
"The spirit of Ko Jong Oh kinda does that, too."
They looked at the stars in silence. "It's none of my business," Remo said after a while, "but I meant to ask why you took off for Mexico."
"Nothing special. I just took a notion." Sunny Joe hung his head. "No, that's not it. Guess I was just feeling crowded, is all. Having you and the old chief here so long kinda got on my braves' nerves and they got on mine. Had to get away. Nothing personal."
"Thought you might have had a girlfriend down there."
Sunny Joe grunted. "I wish."
When they reached Remo's rented Jeep, they dismounted.
Sunny Joe took the reins of Remo's horse from him.
"I guess this is goodbye," said Remo.
"You came here with an empty heart and now you leave with a full one."
"My heart doesn't feel full," Remo admitted.
"Maybe because you're standing apart from the one who filled your heart in my absence."
Remo looked toward Red Ghost Butte, the moon shadows turning the hollows of his eyes into unfathomable caverns. His lips thinned.
"The little chief is probably pining away for you right now," Sunny Joe remarked.
"You don't know Chiun."
"You know, all my adult life I played different parts. Black hats. White hats. Hoods and pirates. I played just about every kind of role you could imagine." A wry smile crossed his seamed face. "Except one."
Remo looked back. "What's that?"
"They never did let me play a damn redskin. Said I didn't look the type."
A smile cracked Remo's stiff face. Sunny Joe clapped him on the back as his booming laughter filled the still air.
"Walk confidently upon your trail, son."
They shook hands, their alike eyes read one another and that was that. Remo climbed into the Jeep and headed across the Sonoran Desert for Yuma.
He didn't look back. Not once.
And so missed the wind-eroded face of Sunny Joe Roam crumple into commingled lines of pain and pride.
At the Yuma International Airport, the police tried to arrest Remo when he turned in his rental Jeep.
"This is a stolen vehicle," a deputy sheriff said in a voice abraded by the sand-bearing winds.
"No, it's not," Remo told him. "I rented it back in July. Now I'm returning it."
"We have an APB from the highest levels to apprehend and hold for questioning the driver of that Mazda Navajo, sir."
"That's gotta be my boss. Look, this is just a misunderstanding."
"Which we can straighten out down at the sheriff's office better than here."
"Can't it wait? I'm in a rush. Let me make a phone call," Remo pleaded.
"You're allowed one call. At the sheriff's office."
"If I make it here, we'll both save a wasted trip and I can still catch my flight."
The deputy laid one hand on the butt of his holstered side arm. "At the sheriff's office."
"You're arresting me?"
"That's a fact."
Sighing, Remo extended his thick wrists. With a jingling the deputy sheriff's handcuffs came out and snapped shut. Over his own stunned wrists.
"What the hell?" he yelped.
Remo held his Remo Durock, FBI, card in front of the deputy sheriff's hot eyes and said, "You're under arrest."
"You can't arrest me."
"Just did. I'm an FBI agent and you're only local law. I outrank you."
"On what charge?" the deputy asked, incredulous.
"Tell it to a federal magistrate," Remo said soberly. "Now, come on. We're going to do this my way."
At a pay phone Remo leaned his thumb on the 1 button until the lemony voice of Harold W. Smith came on the line.
"You put out an all-points on me?" Remo asked.
"I did. Where are you?"
"That's classified until that APB is rescinded."
"My computers indicate you are in Yuma, Arizona, Remo."
"You want me here or there?"
"I will rescind the APB. Return to Folcroft. We have a problem."
"What do you mean 'we,' paleface?"
Smith cleared his throat. "Master Chiun has informed me of his intention to seek a new client."
"I think I can change his mind."
"You will have to hurry if we are to maintain global stability."
"What are you talking about?"
"Yesterday Chiun stood before the United Nations General Assembly and offered his services to the highest bidder."
"Uh-oh," said Remo.
"By implication he has revealed that the United States no longer employs the House of Sinanju."
"I can see what's coming___"
"Already the Mexican government has moved troops to our southern border," Smith explained.
"Tell me about it."
"And that is the least of it, if what I fear is in the wind."
"Save it for the debriefing. Pull your strings. I gotta get to Chiun."
"He's in Massachusetts. For how much longer, I do not know."
"Just get me out from under here, Smitty."
The word took exactly thirteen minutes to reach the Yuma County Sheriff's Office, which dispatched a sheriff to the airport. The sheriff took possession of the deputy, cuffs and all, and personally escorted Remo to his gate.
The airline agent said, "The flight doesn't leave for another ninety minutes."
The sheriff solemnly offered to refrain from arresting the agent, his manager and the president of the airline if an exception was made and the flight took off immediately with the very important FBI agent from Washington, D.C.
This seemed eminently reasonable to every airline representative who fielded the request, and Remo found himself comfortably seated in a nineteen-passenger Beech 1900 climbing over the Sonoran Desert and into the rising red sun.
He was the only passenger.
At Phoenix the airline had a 727 fueled and ready. Remo was spared the inconvenience of disembarking at the terminal. They rolled the 727 up to the Beech-craft, laid a plank between the two main hatches and Remo walked across.
He was back in the air less than ninety seconds after touching down. The copilot came back to apologize for the transfer delay.
"Don't mention it," said Remo.
"We could have done a rolling transfer, but it would have been tricky. You understand."
"Perfectly," said Remo.
"Is there anything I can get you?"
"Chilled mineral water. Steamed native corn and pressed duck in orange sauce."
"And vegetables on the side?" asked the copilot, writing the order on his pale palm.
Remo clasped his hands behind his head and leaned back. "Corn on the cob if you have it. Extra steamed corn if you don't."
"Coming up in a jiffy," said the copilot.
"Not if you cook it properly."
"Of course, sir," said the copilot, rushing to the galley.
When a statuesque stewardess with fiery copper hair came striding out, Remo's first reaction was to hide. Stewardesses typically found him hormonally irresistible. Remo saw the opposite sex as a craving he usually regretted. It was a legacy of his Sinanju training, which reduced the sex act to a series of mechanical, unsatisfying steps guaranteed to turn women to jelly and put Remo to sleep. Minus the afterglow.
But as the stewardess fixed her shiny blue eyes on Remo, he suddenly recalled he hadn't seen a woman younger than sixty since the summer.
When the stewardess smiled and purred, "Hi, I'm Corinne. But you can call me Corky," Remo said, "I'm Remo but you can call me Remo."
The stewardess laughed with all her body. Even her shimmering copper hair seemed to join in. It made Remo feel good to look at her.
"Is there anything I can do for you, Remo?"
"Just sit here and smile that same smile. Can you do that?"
The food was excellent, and the attentive stewardess radiated heat like a furnace with teeth and cleavage. And all in all it was a pleasant flight. Remo had forgotten how easy life could be with the entire resources of the U.S. government at his disposal.
Once he stepped off at Boston's Logan Airport, tension took root in the pit of Remo's stomach and he started to wonder what he was going to say to the Master of Sinanju.
He was still wondering as the taxicab dropped him off in the private parking lot of their condominium castle.
At the double-leaf door, Remo saw two signs that hadn't been there before.
One was a black-and-red No Trespassing sign. The other, also black and red, warned Beware Of Dog.
"Christ," Remo muttered, opening the door with his key and slipping inside. He didn't hear any dog. He didn't smell any dog. But that didn't mean there wasn't a dog.
Creeping up the carpeted steps, he made his way toward the one clear biological sound that reached his ears. The strong, dynamic heartbeat of the Master of Sinanju.
At the closed door to the tower meditation room, Remo hesitated. He didn't sense a dog on the other side of the door, either. Carefully he took hold of the doorknob, turned it and eased the panel in. Knowing Chiun, he had probably found some exotic crossbreed, like pit bull and lion. Remo liked animals and didn't want to hurt one just because it thought it was defending Chiun.
A squeakily thin voice said, "If you have come for your things, they are where you left them."
Remo froze in place. "Where's the dog, Chiun?"
"I threw nothing out."
"The sign on the door said Beware Of Dog."
"Did the sign say beware of a particular dog?"
"No. But they never do. Is it okay to come in?"
"I will not object to you surveying what has been your home before it is taken apart and transported brick by brick to its place of honor in the Pearl of the Orient."
Remo entered. He saw no dog. Just Chiun seated on a tatami mat in the center of the heated stone floor.
"You're moving this rockpile to Sinanju?" he blurted.
Chiun was folding a teal kimono. He didn't look up. "That is no concern of yours. It belongs to the House. And the House has decreed that it be moved to a happier land."
Remo saw the fourteen lacquered steamer trunks into which the Master of Sinanju was packing his spare kimonos.
"Why is there a Beware Of Dog sign if you don't have a dog?" Remo asked.
"It is a warning to all."
"If you pet the head of a friendly dog, the dog will wag its tail, will it not?"
Remo stepped closer. "Usually."
"If you pet the head of a second friendly dog, will that dog also not wag its tail?"
"As a rule, yeah," Remo answered.
"And if you repeat this action with a third friendly dog, what result can you expect?"
"A wagging tail, of course. Maybe a licked hand."
"How many friendly dog heads is it safe to pet before one turns and bites you?"
Remo frowned. "Search me."
Chiun lifted the neatly folded kimono, setting it in the trunk with the green-gold dragons.
"Sometimes it is the fourth dog," he said. "Other times the sixty-fourth dog. However, it has happened that the first dog you pet will bite your hand. That is what is meant by Beware Of Dog. You cannot trust dogs, no matter how friendly. This is true also for some persons." His voice became pointed. "Especially mutts of uncertain parentage."
"Look, I didn't come back for my things."
"You must take them anyway, or they will be set on the sidewalk by those who are soon to dismantle my castle."
"I came back because I missed you."
Chiun started in on another kimono. "Did Smith instruct you to say this to me?"
"But you admit to speaking to Smith?"
"I was already on my way home when I got tangled up with the police and had to call Smith."
The Master of Sinanju looked thoughtful in a stern way. He didn't glance in Remo's direction. "Did I ever tell you of the time I first ventured beyond the sublime sphere of my poor village, Remo?"
"No," said Remo, toeing his personal tatami mat in front of Chiun. He crossed his ankles preparatory to scissoring down into a comfortable lotus position.
"It is too bad. It was a good story."
"I want to hear it, Little Father."
"Two days ago you did not care to hear the tale of the stonecutter."
"I want to hear that one, too."
"So you say this minute. How do I know if I begin my story your unpredictable personality will not change willy-nilly and you will cruelly cut me off in the middle of my tale?"
Remo raised his right hand and made a solemn sign. "I won't. Scout's honor. I promise."
"You have had an argument with your father in blood?"
Chiun's hazel eyes flared. "You lie."
"A little argument. We settled it. But I decided to come back here. I don't fit in among the Sun On Jos."
"You have been orphaned and abandoned once more and now you expect me to take you back simply by groveling at my perfect feet."
Remo's face went stiff. "I am not groveling."
Chiun made fluttering motions with his spidery, long-nailed fingers. "Groveling is allowed. You may grovel—not that it will do you any good."
"I am not groveling."
"Groveling will cause me to consider your plight, O abandoned one."
"I won't grovel," Remo said tensely.
Chiun cocked his head to one side."This is your last chance to grovel."
"Not a chance."
"I will settle for a beg."
Remo lifted his sinking shoulders. "Masters of Sinanju do not grovel or beg."
"That is an excellent answer. Now you may sit at my feet, supplicant one."
Remo dropped into place. His eyes sought Chiun's hazel orbs but they avoided his gaze artfully.
"I was eleven years old when my father, Chiun the Elder, took me by the hand and said, 'We are going for a walk.'
"I said, 'Where to, Father?'
"We have business in a minor khanate, and since you are to be Master after me, I will allow you to accompany me on this trifling errand,' said Chiun the Elder. And so we set out on foot along the Silk Road, by which our ancestors for many generations left the Pearl of the Orient to serve emperors and caliphs and kings."
"You went for a stroll on the Silk Road?"
Chiun shrugged carelessly. "It was nothing. A mere seven, perhaps eight hundred of your English miles," he said dismissively.
Remo tried to control his skeptical expression.
Chiun resumed his tale. "Now these were the earliest days of the twentieth century. So early, in fact, that they might have passed for the fading days of the century before. I do not know, since Koreans do not reckon the years as does the West. Many were the wonders I saw on the Silk Road, for the caravans still plied the deserts in those days. I saw dromedaries and Arabian steeds. Mongols, Turks, Chinese and many others wended their way along the Silk Road.
"As we walked, my father explained how his grandfather had taken him out on the Silk Road when young, as did his father before him, because in those days the surest and safest route to the thrones that coveted Sinanju lay along the road of silk merchants. It was important that I learn every town, every bazaar upon this road, for the way was long and the village would soon come to depend not only upon my skills but my ability to traverse great distances without falling prey to bandits and brigands and wild animals.
"One night we stopped at a caravansary near Bukhara, which is in the heart of Asia. This caravansary was run by a crafty Uzbek named Khoja Khan, whose wine it was said he concocted himself.
"At this place I ate well, as did my father. I met many travelers there. All was new and wondrous. It was here I met the first Mongol horseman I had ever beheld. And it was here I saw my first round-eyed, ghost-faced, club-footed, big-nosed white. The very sight of this travesty of humanity struck me dumb with horror, and I flew to my father's side, who assured me this was but a barbarian from the unimportant Western lands beyond Gaul, where the civilized virtues of rice, kimchi and ancestor worship were unknown.
Where men behaved like dogs and curs and bit even the hands that fed them—"
"Okay, okay, I get the point," Remo growled.
Chiun sniffed doubtfully and resumed his tale. "Now, this Khoja Khan had trained a brown bear and he showed it to me in his pride. But the bear also struck terror into my young heart because I had never before beheld a bear and I could see from the bear's red eyes that his heart coveted my flesh. I told this to my father, who laughed and accused me of eating too many pomegranate seeds.
"That night my father slept but I could not. Crawling from the tent that had been provided us, I found Khoja Khan, who was making wine from sorghum and dried apples and apricots in his cellar.
"I had never before seen wine prepared and was curious, for I had seen the effect of sorghum wine upon those who imbibed too much. As I watched, Khoja Khan took down from a shelf a cage containing creatures new to me. They were as big as a Mongol's hand, possessing eight legs of great dexterity and hairiness. Eight were the beady orbs of these beasts. And terrible was their gaze, which saw me now."
"Sounds like tarantulas to me."
Chiun quieted Remo with an upraised hand. "As I watched, this Khoja Khan placed his apricots and dried apples into the cage in which his creatures dwelt. Instantly they pounced upon these fruits, sinking their plump fangs into their flesh, and began sucking moisture from it."
"Uh-oh. I see what's coming."
"In the morning, after I had returned to my father's tent and being unable to sleep, my father brought me to the table where travelers broke their fast. There on the table sat bowls of red sorghum wine, which Khoja Khan pushed at my father, saying they were flavored with sweet apricots and apples.
"Whereupon, I stood up and warned my father that creatures of fierce appetites had sunk their poisoned fangs into the very fruit that night before.
"My father stood up and, seizing Khoja Khan by the scruff of his neck, brought a bowl of his own wine to the wretch's lips. The wretch refused his red wine, and so my father pushed his protesting face into the vile brew.
"When Khoja Khan was given air to breathe, he spit and hacked the bitter wine from his mouth and sought water, which he took into his mouth in prodigious quantities, expectorating violently."
Remo said, "You don't have to tell me. Your father slew Khoja Khan right on the spot."
"No. For while the Khan had sought the life of my father, his base treachery had taught the son of Chiun a valuable lesson. And so he was allowed to live, although his limbs suffered ague as a result of tasting his own poison. And that is the end of my story."
"So what happened to Khan?"
Chiun waved the question away. "It does not matter."
"It does to me. He was obviously killing travelers and feeding them to his trained bear."
"Your desire for a happy ending in which truth, justice and the American way prevail is pathetic. I have imparted to you a wonderfully rare lesson."
"I already know the lesson—know your food."
"That is a good lesson, yes. But not why I have told you this story."
"Am I supposed to guess?"
"No. I was coming to it when I was rudely interrupted."
Remo fell silent.
Chiun closed his eyes, and deep wrinkles webbed out from the corners. "I have not walked the Silk Road in many years. I yearn to walk it again. I yearn to dwell in the village of my ancestors and walk the dusty caravan road to the bedizened thrones of Asia, who have sustained my House and my family since the beginning."
"So you're moving back to Korea?"
"Those were the good days. I need to taste cool Korean air and water. To see the plum trees flower, and the heron swoop."
Remo swallowed hard. "I'd like you to stay in America."
Chiun lowered his shiny old head. "Alas, I cannot."
"This land is full of bitter memories I cannot abide. And though my days are dwindling, I cannot embrace the ease I have earned, for I am the last Reigning Master of Sinanju, with none to take up my kimono and sandals after me."
"I've been giving this serious thought," said Remo. "I'm willing to assume the responsibility of Reigning Master. You're always talking about retiring. Now you can."
Chiun said nothing. His head remained bowed, his eyes squeezed shut as if in pain.
Finally he spoke. "These tidings you bring would have gladdened my heart had you only rendered them to me before. But you have dumped me like an old granny. And now you come to me seeking forgiveness, groveling and begging."
"I am not groveling."
" Pleading with me to take you back. But how can I trust one such as you, since I am the only true father you have ever known?"
"Name your price."
"Sinanju is not to be bought. It may be rented or hired. I will not trade the sanctity of Reigning Masterhood for mere favors."
"I belong here. With you."
"Two days ago you swore to me the way of the assassin was not your way."
"Something happened that taught me different. I am what I am."
For the first time Chiun's hazel eyes locked with Remo's. "Will you sacrifice for this boon?"
"Anything," Remo answered.
"Give up maize in all its lurid allure. Swear to me that your pale lips will never again touch yellow grain or drink it."
Remo swallowed hard. "I promise."
Chiun's voice softened. "I might consider a grace period in which you might possibly prove your worthiness to succeed me—against all evidence to the contrary, of course."
"You won't be sorry, Little Father."
"That remains to be seen. I have sent word on the wings of swallows that the House is open to other offers."
"And I have told Smith that I will not consider his offer," Chiun added.
"So that's that."
"No. That is not that. It is only that if I say it is that. And it is not that. I cannot treat with Smith without going against my solemn word. But the apprentice Reigning Master may."
"Apprentice Reigning Master? I don't remember ever hearing of an apprentice Reigning Master."
"You will be the first in the history of the House. Because you are white and a corn addict, you naturally cannot be trusted with assuming the exalted office without a suitable period."
"Ten, perhaps only fifteen years."
"I thought you wanted me to take over."
"In time, in time. First you must prove your worthiness, and the best way is to enter into your first negotiation with an emperor. Go to Smith. Suggest that the House might be persuaded to reconsider its current negotiating position. Do not overemphasize this point. Show no eagerness. Promise nothing. Let veilings adhere to your every word, and remember no word is more powerful than silence or the narrowing of the eyes in the heat of negotiation. Show me how you narrow your eyes, Remo."
Remo frowned. His eyes bunched up like concord grapes.
"Your eyes seem incapable of correct narrowing. But I will give you a mirror. Spend the next hours practicing, then hie yourself to Emperor Smith's fortress, there to lure him and lull him into loosing his purse strings more widely than ever before."
"Got it," said Remo, jumping to his feet. He took a deep breath. "Thanks for giving me another chance."
"A chance is only a chance. The proof is in the pudding."
As Remo started to go, Chiun called out,"You have forgotten something."
Remo thought. Turning, he bowed deeply. A forty-five-degree bow.
"How's that?" he asked, straightening.
"Very good. Proper and direct. But it was not what I meant."
Remo looked blank.
"Did you not ask me to hear the story of the stonecutter?"
"Oh, right." Remo started to sink down on the floor when Chiun motioned him to remain standing.
"It is too late. Obviously you were not sincere in your desire, or it never would have slipped your frail mind."
"No, I really want to."
"Enough. Later. If you implore me enough."
"Got it, Little Father."
At the door Remo paused and said, "Thanks again. You won't regret it."
And under his breath the Master of Sinanju intoned, "Let us hope neither of us does."
The President of the United States couldn't believe it when his chief of staff came with the news.
"Refusing to accept your call."
"Since when does the president of the United Mexican States refuse to take the U.S. President's call?"
The chief of staff wanted to say, "Since you became President," but swallowed his tongue and said nothing.
The President of the United States looked ill. It was bad enough that the Republican Speaker of the House had refused to take his calls in the aftermath of the November revolution of a year ago, but that was politics. This was a threat situation on the nation's vulnerable southern border.
"What's the disposition of our troops?"
"The Eighty-sixth Airborne is en route to Brownsville. If Mexico City makes a move, they make it against Texas. They once owned it, you know."
"If they think they're taking back Texas, it'll be over my dead body."
The chief of staff, eyeing a recent bullet hole in the Oval Office window, rapped the President's desk three times sharply.
"Knocking on wood."
"Oh," said the President, who also rapped on the ornate desk.
The chief of staff went on."Additionally, elements of the Twenty-fourth Infantry Division, the Tenth Mountain and other battle forces are being positioned at likely choke points along the common border."
"That doesn't sound very formidable," the President said worriedly.
"With all the troops we have bogged down in UN peacekeeping details around the world, we're stretched pretty thin in California and Arizona, true. But let me add that the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan and its battle group are even now steaming toward the Gulf of Mexico. If they attack, our retaliatory response will be swift and decisive."
"They won't attack. They don't dare. What reason do they have?"
"Internal problems can be solved by external thrusts. You know that it's the second rule of statecraft. Or maybe the third."
"What's the first?"
"Don't get yourself invaded," said the chief of staff.
The door burst open and the First Lady stormed in, looking agitated.
The President frowned at her. "I'm in conference."
"We can't afford all these troop deployments. Are you insane? It'll bust the budget. What will that do to our reelection?"
"You get reelected, I'm reelected. If the voters toss you out on your fat can, I'm back to doing pro bono work. I'm too important to go back to the working world."
A sheet of paper fell on the Presidential desk. He looked at it. "What's this?"
"A list of emergency budget-cutting options that will balance out what we're squandering on this non-crisis."
The President's puffy eyes skated down the page. At the very bottom was typed a .tempting target. The Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"Didn't we slash FEMA's budget last year?"
"So? Slash it again. The Cold War's over. FEMA is an albatross."
"They're pretty handy for hurricanes and earthquake relief and stuff like that."
"Leave enough to manage natural disasters. But cut off all Cold War survival stuff. We don't need it."
"If we're invaded by Mexico, we may need to go to that hardened FEMA site in the Maryland mountains."
"It's already built. It's not going away if you freeze their funds. Besides, if we don't have FEMA hard-sites, neither does Congress. Maybe that'll make Speaker Grinch think twice the next time he sends over his damn regressive legislation."
"How many times do I have to tell you, don't call him that. If the media gets it on tape, we'll have a real problem."
"Just sign it. I'd do it myself, but it wouldn't be legal."
"Okay," said the President, signing the paper. "There. Their funds are frozen for the duration of this crisis."
The First Lady snatched the paper off the desk, said a frosty "Thank you" and marched out with her heels clicking.
The President of the Unites States sighed wearily. "Why does that woman always get her way?"
The chief of staff opened his mouth to say the obvious. But decided that "Because you let her" wasn't something the beleaguered President needed to hear right now.
When word reached Anwar Anwar-Sadat that Mexican armed forces were massing on the U.S. border, he thought he was dreaming.
In fact, he had been dreaming in his Beekman Place high-rise apartment. He had been dreaming of his namesake, Anwar al-Sadat.
Anwar Anwar-Sadat had served under Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat. It was a very confusing time because in those days, Anwar Anwar-Sadat's name had been simply Anwar Sadat. Two Anwar Sadats could be confusing, even in the Byzantine inner circles of Egyptian government, where any number of men bore identical names. It was easier to shift blame that way.
President Anwar al-Sadat had called the then-Foreign Minister Anwar Sadat into his sumptuous office and suggested that it was time for a change. "One of Us must change his name," had said President Anwar al-Sadat.
And so great had been Foreign Minister Anwar Sadat's ego in those days that he naturally assumed it would be the president who changed his name. After all, had it not been his idea?
Fortunately Anwar Sadat's diplomatic training saved him from saying so. So he sat in strained silence as the president went on to say, "And of course it must be you."
This struck Anwar Sadat like a cruel blow. He was proud of his name. He had striven mightily to make it a name to contend with in diplomatic circles. Now he was being stripped of it by this runty little despot with the wooly-worm mustache.
But being a diplomat, he didn't air his grievance. He merely said, "As you wish, my President."
"Then it is done," purred the Egyptian president.
"It is agreed," said the other Anwar Sadat, which sounded to the first like agreement but was actually temporizing.
A week passed and Anwar Sadat remained Anwar Sadat. Two weeks soon became three.
The Egyptian president had taken to becoming very testy with his namesake as he saw his foreign minister drag his feet. But he said nothing. This was Egypt, after all. Change came slowly.
On the day the president of Egypt was slaughtered in a reviewing stand by his own disloyal troops, Anwar Sadat was seated two rows behind him and four seats to the left. And survived with no more than a spattering of blood on his starched shirtfront. Other persons' blood.
In another culture this might have relieved a subordinate of his half promise to change his name, but not in Egypt. The very next day, tearful of eye and stony of visage, Anwar Sadat announced to a mourning nation that only a short time before, he had promised to change his name to please the martyred leader of Egypt. And now he would.
"I have taken my beloved leader's full name as my last name," he said. And when the people's assembly rose in thunderous applause, he took his seat behind a nameplate that bore the legend Anwar Anwar-Sadat.
From that day on he was Egypt's rising diplomatic star.
It was a magnificent gesture, one applauded the world over. But it had a downside. Comedians made fun of his name. Others misspelled it constantly, or placed the hyphen between the two Anwars instead of between the second Anwar and the only Sadat. It became especially acute when he assumed the exalted title of UN Secretary General, an office often held by men of unusual names. What was U Thant if not an odd name? Or Dag Hammarskjöld? Even when a secretary general was unmasked as a former Nazi, there were not such jokes.
And then there were the dreams. In his dreams the late President Anwar al-Sadat forever chased him through the red desert sands, screaming that he could not rest in the afterlife among the pharaohs and khedives of old so long as the upstart diplomat dragged his proud name through the headlines.
Anwar Anwar-Sadat was rudely awakened from his latest such dream by the ringing of the telephone.
"Another of those dreams, my General?" asked the obsequious voice of the under secretary for peacekeeping operations.
"It is nothing. I was glad to be roused from it, for the dead one had me by the ankles and held me prostrate as jackals circled."
"Jackals are a pharaonic symbol of the dead."
"I am not dead, I assure you."
"The army of Mexico is massing on the border."
"Why, the United States border. What other border would interest them?"
"This is wonderful news!" burbled the secretary general, for a moment wondering if he hadn't slipped from the valley of nightmare to the realm of dreams come true.
"I thought you would see it this way," purred the under secretary.
"We must convene an emergency meeting of the Security Council and call for peacekeeping forces to be deployed between the two belligerent nations."
"It goes without saying."
Anwar Anwar-Sadat snapped his fingers impatiently. "A name. We must have a name for this operation."
"United Nations United States-United States Observer Group."
Anwar Anwar-Sadat made a face. "UNUSUSOG?"
"You say it as if it were a bug you discovered in your mouth."
"The Security Council will never approve it," Anwar Anwar-Sadat barked.
"And why not? It is easy to say and remember."
"There are two United Stateses in the name. Who is to know which is which?"
"An excellent observation, my General. I had not thought of this. May I suggest UNMEXUSOG, then?"
"A good suggestion. But I myself prefer USUNMEXOG."
"That is just as good. But I fail to see the difference."
"It is elementary," said Anwar Anwar-Sadat. "The United States will not consider this operation if their country name does not come first."
"Yes, yes. I see this now."
"Please send my official car. We must act upon this without delay."
"There is only one other problem, my General."
"And that is?"
"The Security Council will be difficult to assemble with so many of the delegates having been recalled for consultations."
"Of course. How forgetful of me. Has there been any word on this mysterious matter?"
"Well, we might as well draft a resolution in anticipation of their return. My car. At once."
"At once, my General."
Harold Smith watched the data stream with growing concern.
Mexican army units were now entirely forward deployed. Their force strength, while far below U.S. levels, was counterbalanced by U.S. deployment in foreign countries. That put them roughly equal.
Noon approached. There was no avoiding it now. The time had come to contact the President directly.
Smith took an aspirin and antacid tablet and a deep breath as he laid his gnarled grayish fingers on the red telephone receiver.
He began to lift it.
And his desk intercom buzzed.
Frowning, he dropped the receiver, snapped the intercom switch and said, "Yes, Mrs. Mikulka?"
"A Mr. Remo Durock to see you, Dr. Smith."
"Send him in," Smith said quickly.
Remo walked in. At first Harold Smith barely recognized him. He was deeply tanned with a sparkle in his eyes, and there was a distinct smile warping his cruel slash of a mouth.
"Hiya, Smitty. Miss me?"
"Remo. You were to convince Master Chiun to reconsider."
"Been there. Done that. Bought the T-shirt."
Smith started hopefully. "He has changed his mind?"
"It's not a done deal but it's almost in the bag."
Smith blinked. This seemed so unlike Remo and Chiun. "How do you mean that?" he asked guardedly.
"I mean," said Remo, cheerfully plopping in a chair, "Chiun has authorized me to negotiate our next contract."
"All you gotta do is meet our demands, and Mexico will withdraw to a neutral corner."
"I previously offered Chiun the same terms as last year."
"And he turned them down. Nice try, Smitty, but I'm in the driver's seat. I want triple."
"Triple everything. And a private jet."
"A private jet is out of the question. A private jet would require a full-time maintenance crew and could be traced back to the organization if it is seen near operational zones."
"Good point. Okay, skip the private jet. Let's talk about triple the gold and other incidentals. I want a car."
"A Tucker Torpedo."
"Ridiculous! There are not a handful in existence. It would call attention to the owner."
"As opposed to Chiun prancing about in those ridiculous kimonos of his?"
"I cannot control the Master of Sinanju's choice of attire."
"And I want a car no one else has," Remo insisted.
"Something more inconspicuous might be arranged."
"Inconspicuous may be acceptable. As long as it's metallic cherry red."
Smith closed his eyes in evident pain and said, "Triple the gold is out of the question. As you know, we siphon the funds from another federal agency, convert it to gold and ship it to Sinanju by submarine. Triple gold, if I am not mistaken, might sink the nuclear submarine we use for transport."
Remo blinked. "It would?"
"If we can't ship it, we can't deliver it."
"Make two trips."
"Impossible. Last time the submarine was captured by the North Koreans. They are still extremely touchy up there."
"Tell me about it. I gave Kim Jong II his first swirlie. There are probably Wanted posters all over Pyongyang with my face on it."
The look of horror in Harold Smith's eyes was absolute.
"Don't sweat it, Smitty. Jong's supposed to be dead."
Turning in his cracked leather chair, Smith fussed with the water dispenser by his desk and drew a paper cupful to wash down three pink antacid pills.
"I thought your stomach settled down about the time the AMA discovered that ulcers can be cured by antibiotics?"
"My ulcer is under control. My reflux is not."
"Then you'd better come around to my point of view, or it's gonna to get worse," Remo said with a cocky smile.
Smith winced. "I could consider half again as much gold."
"Double the gold."
"Double is not in your long-term interest."
"What do you mean?" said Remo. "The more I pull down, the bigger it'll impress Chiun. Gotta make a good first impression."
"If I pay double this year—and I may not by any means guarantee I can—further raises will be impossible."
"On the other hand, if we can agree to half again as much gold this year, I might be able to match that raise next year or the year after."
"How come you can't do it now?" Remo asked.
"I will need time to prepare the President for such a giant increase. This way it is doable over time, and you can impress Chiun with your ability to get multiple raises from me."
Remo frowned deeply. "I dunno, Smitty."
"What is more important to you—the best deal you can obtain or an opportunity to impress Chiun with your negotiating skills two years running?"
Remo rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Well, the gold just sits in the treasure house. Chiun won't let anyone spend it."
Smith suppressed a groan. He had always suspected it from the way Remo and Chiun ran up lavish expense bills.
"So no one'll be hurt if I play it cagey," Remo muttered.
"Then it is a deal?"
"Okay," said Remo, "it's a deal."
Smith stood up and hastily put out his hand.
Remo hesitated. "Do you shake with Chiun?"
"Not usually. But I think it appropriate here. You have always been a man of your word."
Remo came out of the chair and shook Smith's hand. It was like shaking hands with a gloved skeleton.
"It's a deal, Smitty," he said, grinning.
"I am glad we could come to swift understanding. It saves us time. Now, you must convince Chiun to take the services of the House off the international market."
"Was that in our contract?"
Smith said angrily, "It was an unspoken assumption."
Raising his hands, Remo backed away from Smith's cold glare. "Hey, hey, I was just kidding."
Smith relaxed. "Shall I make arrangements for the gold now?"
"Don't we need a contract?"
"We have done business for over twenty years now. A contract is a formality. Have Chiun draw one up, and once I have seen it I will release the gold. But I would like to get it moving through the pipeline as soon as possible."
"Sure. Why not?" Remo started for the door. "I don't know why you and Chiun would lock yourselves in for hours wrangling over this stuff. It's easy. Just state your position from the start."
"One moment," said Smith, bringing his hands up to the desktop. The capacity keyboard lit up. He input computer commands with practiced ease.
Remo looked interested. "What are you doing? Making a withdrawal?"
"Nice to have your own bank. Where are you withdrawing from?"
"The Federal Emergency—" Smith's voice broke off. He froze in his chair. His gray face paled to a kind of ghost gray. "My God…" he croaked.
"Don't tell me you're overdrawn."
"In a manner of speaking," Smith said hoarsely.
"Hey. I was kidding."
"And I was not," Smith said grimly. "According to my screen, the Federal Emergency Management Agency operating fund was frozen not two hours ago by executive order."
"What idiot did that?" Remo demanded.
"The President of the United States."
"Can he do that?"
"Excuse me," said Harold Smith, reaching for the red telephone.
In the Situation Room of the White House, the President was listening to a tactical briefing. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was doing the honors.
"We have a division-strength unit at El Paso," he said, flicking a collapsible metal pointer so its end telescoped out and tapped a red triangle below El Paso, Texas.
The President said, "Division. How many men is that?"
"About fifteen thousand."
The pointer flicked north to a blue dot. "And a regiment in reserve."
"That's how many soldiers? Exactly."
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs rolled his eyes as the President held his pen poised over a memo pad.
"Over two thousand, but these numbers are unimportant."
"I'm Commander in Chief. I should know how many troops are in the field. Shouldn't I?"
The chief of naval operations looked to the JCS chair, and the unspoken thought between them was, the Commander in Chief should have taken time to memorize a military table of organization. Preferably before his inauguration.
The door was suddenly flung open in the unmistakable style that telegraphed a typical First Lady's hurricane entrance. Everyone stiffened. Especially the President.
"It's the telephone," she hissed.
"Can't it wait? I'm conducting the defense of the nation here."
"This phone needs answering."
"Take a message."
"I tried. Smith hung up."
The JCS absorbed this byplay with growing interest.
"Gentlemen," said the President, pushing back his chair, "you must excuse me."
"Of course, Mr. President."
After he had left the room, the Joint Chiefs of Staff huddled.
"Who's this Smith?"
"I think there's a Smith over at State."
"Don't we have an Admiral Smith, Admiral?"
"I believe we have three."
The door opened and the First Lady shoved her blond head in. Her blue eyes seared them like angry lasers. "That conversation never happened."
"Yes, ma'am," said the Joint Chiefs of Staff, quietly folding their hands as they waited for the President's return.
In the Lincoln Bedroom, the President of the United States sat on the immaculate bedspread and lifted the ringing red telephone from the rosewood nightstand. He took up the receiver and spoke into it, his voice hoarser than usual.
"Yes, Mr. President."
"The line is fixed?"
"As of yesterday. I regret it took so long."
"Glad to have you back. Have you been monitoring the Mexican situation?"
"I have. I also have a matter of grave urgency to place before you."
"What could be more urgent than a U.S.-Mexico showdown?"
"The organization has come to the end of another contract, and I must meet the demands of my enforcement people."
"Is there a problem?" the President asked.
"This is black-budget money, as you know."
"Yeah. I know. My people have gone over the budget with a fine-tooth comb. I could never find you."
"That is the point. The agency that funnels money is out of funds."
"What agency is that?" asked the President, noticing the door to the Lincoln Bedroom slowly easing open.
"The Federal Emergency Management Agency."
The President pounded his knee with a fist. "Damn. My wife made me freeze their money."
"It could not have come at a worse time. You must release those funds at once."
"That's easier said than done, Smith. People are going to ask questions. Can't we put your people on retainer?"
"Maybe we can scrounge up the money from other agencies. The CIA, DARPA, those kind of places."
"I am willing to go along with any solution that does not expose the organization to public scrutiny, Mr. President."
"Good. How much are we talking about here?"
Smith named a figure.
And the President of the United States suddenly felt like lying down. He did. Staring at the ceiling, he restated the question in a thin, faraway voice. "We pay how much?"
"A raise was in order this year," said Smith.
The President sat up. He kicked off his shoes. "Forget it. No raise. In fact, you're going to have to slash that sum. Who do those people think they are anyway?"
"You have seen them in action. They saved your life."
"I know that. But they're bankrupting the treasury with their demands."
"Mr. President, these people have put out word that they are available to other nations. I have reason to suspect this knowledge, or—more to the point—the knowledge that they may no longer be in our employ, has emboldened the Mexican government."
"Are you saying—you can't be saying—that the Mexicans see us as vulnerable because they don't work for us? What about our nukes?"
"How likely are we to deploy nukes?" Smith countered.
"They're a last resort. The political fallout would be horrendous. Not to mention what would blow our way if the Gulf Stream picks up the radioactive dust."
"Exactly. On the other hand, if the Mexican government—or any other government—should acquire Sinanju capability, you might die in your sleep of natural causes and there would be no retaliation because no one would ever know or even suspect you were assassinated."
"I see your point. But what can I do? The budget's a mess."
"That money must be found."
"I'll get back to you," said the President, and hung up.
The President jumped from the bed and crossed the room in his stocking feet and took hold of the doorknob. He gave a sharp yank. And the First Lady came spilling into the room.
"Because of you," the President said sternly, "we just lost our ultimate defense."
"I don't know what you're talking about," said the First Lady, scrambling to her feet. Her cheeks glowed red in her anger, and that gave the President an idea.
"You're overdue," he said.
And the President grabbed his wife around the waist and carted her over to Lincoln's rosewood bed.
"Not now! We're in the middle of a crisis," the First Lady countered.
"That's not what I had in mind," said the President, sitting down hard with the First Lady draped over his lap.
He began to apply his big right hand to her backside with stern enthusiasm, saying, "Stay out of my business. Stay out of my damn business."
Night had fallen when Remo returned home. He tipped the cabbie who had brought him from the airport a hundred dollars, and on his way to the front door, found a drunk sprawled on the front steps, a huge green bottle of vodka clutched in one insensate hand.
"Oh, great," said Remo. "This is all I need."
The drunk was out cold, but when Remo grabbed the back of his black coat in one hand and the bottle of vodka in the other, he stirred.
Lifting the hand that still thought it clutched the vodka bottle, he mumbled, "Do svidaniya."
"Same to you, buddy," said Remo.
"America good," he said.
"Yeah, it's great. I just hope I'm still living here this time next month."
Dragging the man up the street, Remo dumped him in the bushes fringing the high-school quadrangle. The police usually patrolled this area. When they found him, they'd slap him in a cell to sleep it off.
"I am not clown," the man mumbled.
"That's a matter of opinion," said Remo, who emptied the vodka bottle preparatory to tossing it into the bushes.
He noticed the label. It showed a man with a pugnacious face wearing a black-billed cap like that of an old-fashioned streetcar conductor. Remo noticed the drunk had a similar black-billed cap sticking out of a pocket. Then he noticed the drunk wore the same pugnacious face as the label, only looser. He also drooled.
"You have your own vodka?" Remo blurted.
"Da. I do."
"Then you won't miss this one when you sober up," said Remo, tossing the bottle and walking away.
"I am not clown," the drunk burbled thickly after him. "I will make scorched desert where I go. You will see. I do not need you."
"I do not need bodyguard. I do not need advisers. I do not need Sinanju."
Remo reversed direction. "Did you say Sinanju?"
"I said Sinanju. But I do not need it."
"Why do you need Sinanju?"
"I do not."
"But if you did, why would you need Sinanju?"
"To conquer world, of course."
Remo knelt at the man and turned his face so the streetlight hit it squarely. The loose, pasty face was starting to look familiar. But it kept swimming like putty so the lines were indistinct.
Remo fished the vodka bottle out of the bushes. The face on it rang a bell. And it wasn't because Remo had the real face sprawled at his feet, either.
"What language is this?" Remo asked.
"Engleesh. I talk exshellent Engleesh."
"No. I mean on the label."
"You are ignoramus. I may be clown. But you are ignoramus not to know Russian. When I annex USA, you will be hung by thumps and forced to kiss the boot that crushed you."
"Yes. Exactly. You know now."
"I don't remember the name, but you're him."
"Zhirinovsky," slurred the drunk, reaching for the bottle. And on the label, in Cyrillic letters, many of them seemingly formed backward to Western eyes, appeared to be an approximation of the name Zhirinovsky.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Remo asked.
"What I do everywhere. Being kicked out. Everyone love Zhirinovsky so much they kick him out. Been kicked out of Poland. Serbia. Constantinople."
"Constantinople doesn't exist anymore."
"When I conquer world, I will rename America Constantinople. Now surrender bottle if you value thumps."
Remo compressed his hand, the bottle broke and the man on the ground was so devastated by the awful sight that he fell backward.
"I am not clown."
Remo decided if this was who he thought it was, dumping him in the bushes wouldn't cut it. So he dragged the man to the subway station and dumped him in the back of a waiting cab.
The cabbie was firm. "Hey, I don't haul drunks."
"Here's six hundred dollars. Cash," Remo told the driver. "Take him home."
"Bismark, North Dakota. Six hundred bucks get him there?"
"Can I stop for food and lodging?" the cabbie asked.
The cabbie folded the wad of cash, kissed it and stuffed it into a pocket. "In that case, tell his folks to expect him home sometime next week. I know a short cut to Bismark via Atlantic City."
"You're the professional."
As the cab took off, Remo ran back home, hoping what he feared wasn't true.
The second he opened the front door, the metallic smell of fresh blood hit him like an unpleasant wave.
There was only one body on the stairs leading up. That was good. One body was easily disposed of. Maybe if Remo broke it into small pieces, it would slip down the garbage disposal.
A second body occupied a toilet on the second floor. Remo knew he was dead without listening for a heartbeat because heads immersed in toilet water for long periods of time usually belonged to the deceased.
Outside the tower room, there was a stack of bodies, very neatly arranged. It was hard to tell exactly how many bodies there were, the stacking was so professional. In some cases more than one arm was jammed into a coat sleeve, and other limbs were interlocked so that rigor mortis setting in would make it easier for Remo to pick up the bodies as a unit.
That was Chiun. In the old days, when the Master of Sinanju was addicted to American soap operas, anyone who interrupted them was subject to his instant death penalty. Many times Remo returned home to find a similar pile of corpses needing disposal.
The sight of these made Remo feel almost nostalgic.
Letting the dead decompose in peace, Remo entered the meditation room. "Chiun?"
"I have been awaiting your return," Chiun said.
"Well, I'm back."
"In time to take out the garbage."
"Who were they?"
"Lying Russians. I would have accepted truthful Russians, although it was a grave breach of decorum to send emissaries when first contact should be through a letter or simple message. I do not treat with pretenders or their bodyguards."
"So you killed them?"
"I suffered the loud one to live," Chiun answered.
"I think I know who that was___"
"He claimed to be the new czar, but I know this to be untrue. He is merely a braggart and a drunkard. But since being a braggart and drunkard is sometimes a prerequisite to rule Russia, I allowed him to depart with his internal organs still functioning. Should he ever become czar in truth, he will no doubt be grateful."
Remo cocked a thumb over his shoulder. "These dead guys his bodyguards?"
"No longer," said Chiun. "Dispose of them."
Sighing, Remo got to work. He reached into the pile of interlocking dead, and just as in the old days they came off the floor as a unit, like chicken bones left a long time at the bottom of a garbage can.
Carrying them down to the basement, Remo was confronted with an immediate problem. How to get them in the trash cans, which were man-size at best. He considered the problem while he took the lids off each can.
When all five cans were exposed, Remo decided that since he had seven dead and only five cans, there was no point to separating the dead so each corpse had its own receptacle.
Once that was settled, it was easy. He broke off limbs and other projections. They snapped off clean as dead branches, and he distributed them equally among the five cans.
The body on the steps also contributed to the tossed salad of dead parties. As did the body dunking for oxygen in the toilet bowl. Remo had to pry his dead fingers from the seat, but after that he was no more trouble than the others had been.
Returning to the meditation room, Remo cleared his throat. This was not going to be easy.
Chiun beat him to it. "You have failed."
"How'd you know?"
"I have excellent nunchi for your kibun," Chiun said aridly. "You have lost the greatest client in Sinanju history through your incompetence."
"Not so fast. That's not how it went."
"No? Have you come to terms with Harold the Mad?"
"No," Remo admitted.
"Then you have failed, and the details are unimportant. All that matters is the disaster you have wrought."
"I didn't blow it. Smith did."
Chiun jumped to his feet. "Smith refused our service?"
"No. He was all set to renew. I got double the gold."
"Triple—are you crazy?"
"You did not seek triple. Not even to posture?"
Remo made his face still.
"You asked for triple and he argued you out of it."
"Not exactly. Look, can I finish?" Remo said impatiently.
"You have already finished. Because of you, we are finished. To think I threw the next czar of Russia out onto the street like a common inebriate because I put my faith in a redskin mutt."
"Cut that out. Look, Smith was all set to go for double. But the well was dry."
"Well? What well?"
"The golden well. The U.S. Treasury."
"This lunatic land is bankrupt?"
"No. The agency Smith gets the gold from is frozen," Remo explained.
"Because of a frozen well, we are denied more gold than the House has ever known?"
"Look, Smith talked to the President. They're going to try to work something out. In the meantime you gotta call off the open bidding. Okay?"
"Never," Chiun swore.
"C'mon. We got Mexico on the border. Next it'll be the Canadians in Maine. Before we know it, the Russians will want Alaska back."
"Good. This will prod Harold the Mad and his puppet, the glutton, into putting forth their most strenuous efforts."
"You don't understand."
"No. It is you who do not understand. We have the upper hand. We must not relinquish it. Perhaps if we play our cards correctly, triple gold will yet be ours. Show me how you narrowed your round eyes at Smith."
Remo rolled his eyes, and Chiun grabbed at the puffs of hair over each ear. "No, no. That is not how I taught you."
A phone on a corner stand rang, and Remo started for it.
"Let it ring," said Chiun.
"What if it's important?"
And before Chiun could reply, the answering machine began speaking in his voice:
"Greetings, O seeker of perfection. The glorious House of Sinanju hovers eager to hear your every syllable. State your throne, rank of rulership and needs, and the glory that is Sinanju will reward you by considering you for future employment. Begin speaking at the sound of the gong."
A brass gong rang discordant and brash.
And in a language Remo didn't recognize, someone began chattering excitedly. Chiun hovered close, listening.
When the message ended, Remo asked, "What was that?"
"It didn't sound like nothing to me. Nothing is silence."
"It was less than nothing. A mere sultan. We are above sultans. Nothing less than an emperor will do."
"Isn't that your 800-number line?"
"Of course. I have given it out for the entire world to cherish."
"Oh, great," groaned Remo.
Remo sat down and faced Chiun, his face and voice earnest. "I said I'd do anything you say and I will."
"You should," Chiun sniffed. "For you have much to atone for."
"But I think we should do everything we can to continue working for America."
"If their gold flows anew, I will consider it, but my feet yearn to feel the sweet dust of the Silk Road, where wonders upon wonders may be found. Not to mention treachery and sudden death."
"Yes, those were the good days. Not like now. When was the last time we awoke in our beds to fight for our lives?"
"Here, never. No one knows we live here."
"This has changed. I have provided our address, as well."
"Oh, man," groaned Remo, taking his head in his hands. "I should have never left the reservation."
When the first intelligence reports crossed the desk of the duty officer of the Central Intelligence Agency, Ray Foxworthy's first impulse was to burn them.
If he didn't burn them, he would have to get on the NOIWON line and do confidence polling of the other U.S. intelligence agencies. NOIWON stood for National Operations and Intelligence Watch Officer Network. The duty officers of the main U.S. Intelligence agencies were obliged to place a conference call to exchange views whenever overnight developments warranted it.
But if Foxworthy did trigger a NOIWON and one of the other Intelligence agencies had developed superior intelligence, they would be the ones to take it to the Pentagon. And get the credit.
In these days of shrinking budgets, everyone wanted credit, but no one wanted to take unsubstantiated intelligence to the Pentagon. Not the NSA, which a year ago had reported a coup in North Korea only to have it evaporate into a false alarm. Not CIA, which was on notice to get its act together. Not the Defense Intelligence Agency or the National Reconnaisance Office. Not anyone.
The stakes were huge. To be Johnny-come-lately made your agency look bad. To promulgate bad intelligence, however, was worse.
There was no winning in the post-Cold War intelligence game.
CIA duty officer Ray Foxworthy picked up the phone and dialed an in-house extension. "Roger, this Intel report that just crossed my desk. Uh, how solid is it?"
"It wouldn't have crossed your desk if it's not confirmed," a laconic voice replied.
"That's not what I asked. Are you willing to back it up?"
"I'll get back to you on that." And the other party promptly hung up.
So did CIA duty officer Foxworthy, muttering, "Damn, damn, damn. Why do the hot potatoes always fall on my watch?"
He read the report again. It was short, concise and very, very clear.
CIA ground assets in Kuwait were reporting troop movement on the Iraq-Kuwait border.
"That damn Hussein. Why doesn't he rent a clue?"
Chewing his lower lip, Foxworthy glanced at the text as if trying to intimidate it by mental telepathy.
Then he noticed something odd. He picked up the phone again. "Roger, sorry to bother you."
"I'm still in the process of getting back to you, Ray."
"I know. Just clarify—"
"A clarification will be included in the return call, I promise you."
"Just listen a goddamn minute. This report. It says our assets in Kuwait report movement."
"If that's what it says, that's what it says."
"Our Kuwaiti assets are under strict orders to stay clear of the DMZ, aren't they?"
"So if Iraqi troops were on the border, they couldn't see them."
"That's right," Roger said guardedly.
"How could these be Iraqi troop movements if that was the case?"
"I'll get back to you on that," said Roger, then hung up.
Ray Foxworthy was still purpling the air with a colorful string of curses when the NOIWON line rang. He grabbed it, heart pounding.
"What've you got, Woolhandler?"
The NSA man dropped his voice. "Tell me what CIA's got, and I'll tell you what NSA has."
"What makes you think we have anything?"
"Just checking. Have you?"
"Does it possibly concern Russia?"
"No," Foxworthy admitted.
"Hmm. Maybe I'd better get back to you later."
"Look, we can't play games. This is national security. Let's just lay our cards down."
Foxworthy made a face, then plunged in. "Reports out of Kuwait suggest border massing."
"Impossible. Our satellites show no Iraqi troop movements. The Republican Guard's safely holed up in Basra."
"That's a relief," said Foxworthy, crumpling up his notice and tossing it onto the trash. "What have you gat?"
"There's secret-weapon talk out of Moscow."
"Not the—what was it called?"
"Yeah. Ever figure out what that was?" Foxworthy asked.
"High confidence is it's an explosive mixture of Russian hot air and vodka."
Foxworthy grunted a laugh. "That's our take, too. So what is it this time?"
"The duma is awash with rumors that Zhirinovsky has gone abroad to cut a deal for a secret terror weapon."
"Where'd he go?"
"I was hoping you could tell me."
"Give me a sec." Putting the NSA on hold, Foxworthy called downstairs. "Roger. It's me again. Get me the whereabouts of Vladimir Zhirinovsky."
"The Russian ultranationalist?"
"If there's another Vladimir Zhirinovsky, give me his whereabouts, too," he said dryly.
A moment later the word came back.
"Subject left Moscow approximately twenty-eight hours ago. Flew to Budapest, changed planes for Zurich and is currently assumed to be in Switzerland."
"We have no record of further movements by subject."
"That doesn't mean anything and you know it."
"It's all I have."
"Thanks," Foxworthy said, his voice dripping bitterness. He stabbed the outside-line button. "Wool-handler. We can confirm Zhirinovsky departed Moscow yesterday. We tracked him to Zurich, after which he disappears."
"You think he's trying to become a one-man nuclear power?"
"I don't think anything. I operate on hard intelligence these days."
Foxworthy sighed painfully. "Yeah, so do we. Man, I hanker for the days when you could tote up points for passing on every stray rumor, and if it fell apart, you were just seen as doing your job."
"Same here. Well, I guess we sit back and await developments. Keep me informed on this Iraqi thing."
"And you keep me up on Russia."
Hanging up, Ray Foxworthy allowed himself to hum. If Russia continued destabilizing at this rate, maybe the good old days weren't far off after all.
It was a happy thought.
Remo woke with the dawn. As soon as his brain clicked into wakefulness, he tasted corn on his tongue. He realized he had been eating corn in a dream. He didn't remember the dream, but he could still taste the sweet flavor of corn.
Going to his private bathroom, he cleared his mouth with a half glass of cold tap water.
"Blah," he said, spitting out the trace metals his sensitive tongue had sponged up from the city water.
When he straightened up, his mouth felt as if it had been brushed with copper, zinc and fluoride, but he no longer tasted corn. And if he didn't taste it, Remo hoped he wouldn't crave it.
The Master of Sinanju was waiting patiently for him in the downstairs master kitchen. Every unit in the building had its own kitchen, but most were unused. They had converted a downstairs apartment into a gigantic kitchen with a restaurant-size stove, a Western-style oak table that seated twelve and a low lacquered taboret for intimate Eastern-style dining.
The floor was warm against Remo's bare feet. Chiun had insisted on installing Korean-style ondol floors, which covered heated water pipes that created a perfect indoor climate.
Now Chiun was insisting on breakfast. "I will have ginseng tea and steamed jasmine rice," he said loftily from the taboret, where he sat in his golden morning kimono.
"You know I'm not good at steaming rice."
"You will learn. I cannot abide boiled rice. You are forever boiling the goodness from rice, leaving only its soft, impure heart."
"Okay, where's the rice steamer?"
"I am the Master of Sinanju, not a scullery maid."
"I'll find it."
"When you put on the rice, you will prepare a double portion for yourself."
"I'm not that hungry, Little Father. Thanks."
"Thank me after you have consumed a double portion of rice and the lurid taste of corn has left your tongue."
"My tongue is my business," said Remo, rummaging through the cabinets.
"I will not have you succumbing to corn craving, for you have a busy day before you."
"Doing what?" Remo inquired.
"You must prepare a list of rulers that I may consult when the mail begins to arrive from thrones the world over."
"Can I write it in English?"
"As long as it's not that pig Chinese you use."
"That the early Masters adopted Chinese ideograms for their writing is no reflection upon them, but on the lazy Koreans who had not bothered to create writing of their own."
"Okay, I'll make a list."
"It must be done by ten o'clock."
"Because that is when the Federal Express makes its earliest deliveries, the laggards."
"Ten a.m. is considered pretty good for overnight mail."
"In the days of Belshazzar, a messenger would pelt all night barefoot through cold and snow in order to arrive before the dawning sun, for he knew he would be beheaded if he failed to better the appointed hour."
"Sometimes if he brought bad news, too."
Chiun sighed. "Those were—"
"Yeah. I know. The good old days," said Remo, who realized the stainless-steel domed thing beside the stove was not a trash can, but a restaurant-style rice steamer he'd never seen before. He realized this when his foot failed to find the lid-popping pedal and, once he threw the dome open by hand, there was a white plastic rice bowl inside.
Remo got busy steaming the rice. It was supposed to be foolproof. Put the correct amount of water in the base of the steamer, an equal mixture of rice grains and cold water in the bowl and place the bowl in the cylinder. Cap, set the timer and wait.
That last part Remo got right every time. The trick was, the correct mixture of water and rice was never the same. Different rice grains absorbed moisture at different rates. Japanese Koshinikari required more water. Thai jasmine less. And Basmati rice was sometimes adultered with less-absorbent Texmati grains.
Thirty-two minutes later Remo was setting a steaming bowl of fragrant jasmine rice before the Master of Sinanju, who hadn't arisen from the warm floor.
"I think it's ready."
"A true Korean would not think—he would know. But you come from a desert tribe where rice is unknown, so I will overlook your ignorance."
"Look, I'm trying to be cooperative here."
"Cooperate by eating every corn-nullifying grain."
Squatting, Remo went to work. He used silver chopsticks to shovel the steaming rice clumps into his mouth. It was just right—sticky and not too dry. He chewed each mouthful to a liquid before swallowing in the prescribed Sinanju way.
"Not bad," he said.
"Eat. I smell corn on your breath."
"Haven't touched the stuff."
"You tasted it in your dreams," Chiun accused.
"That doesn't count."
"Did the nuns who raised you not instruct you that the thought was equal to the deed?"
"Yeah, but I don't believe that stuff."
"Believe that to think of corn, to yearn for it in the carnal way you do, is a sin in the eyes of Sinanju," said Chiun, using his long curved fingernails in lieu of chopsticks.
"If you stopped talking about it, I could forget the stuff."
"Temptation is everywhere. When you think you are inured to the siren allure of maize, I will set a bowl of it before you and we will see."
Remo groaned. "Don't do that, Chiun. I don't think I'm ready yet."
"Eat. Eat. And do not forget to fill your lungs with the purifying fragrance of the one true grain, rice."
When the first Federal Express truck arrived, Remo signed for forty-two letters. Individually.
"Why do they call them letters when they're the size of file folders?" Remo asked the driver as he started on his second pen.
"Same reason they call it Federal Express when it has nothing do with the government."
The driver grinned. "Because they can."
Remo handed the man back his pen and started carrying the letters up to the tower.
"Mail call," he announced at the top of the stairs.
Chiun eyed the stack. "That is all?"
"That's all I could carry this trip. There's more downstairs."
"Make haste. I wish to know who courts our favor."
"Coming right up," said Remo, ducking back down the stairs.
Remo had just filled his arms when a second FedEx truck pulled into their parking lot.
He zipped up the stairs, laid the packets down and called to Chiun as he zipped back down, "Second batch coming in."
At the front door Remo asked the driver, "How many?"
"I don't count them when they get this high," the FedEx driver said happily. "But when we empty my truck, I can go home for the day."
"Figures," said Remo. "Tell you what, open the door and back up. Save up some steps."
The driver obliged and hunkered down at the tailgate as he passed stack after stack of cardboard mailers to Remo, who made four neat piles in the foyer.
"I don't suppose I can sign my name really big in one spot instead of individually?" he said after laying down the last stack.
"That's a great idea. I'll put it in the suggestion box and let you know next time."
"Don't mention it," Remo said sourly as he accepted the stack of airbills for signing.
Twenty minutes later he dropped another stack in front of Chiun. "This would go quicker if you helped," Remo said.
"Masters of Sinanju are not help. Now, make haste. There is much mail to be read."
Remo noticed not a mailer had been disturbed. "Wait a sec. You haven't opened a single letter."
"And I will not. That is your duty."
Remo considered Tahiti, Hawaii and Guam as viable options while going back downstairs. But he knew no matter where he hid, Chiun would find him and haul him back.
Two stacks remained when a drab UPS truck pulled up, parking nose to nose with a DHL worldwide courier van.
Remo called upstairs.
"Better throw on an old soap opera on the VCR. We're a long way from opening any mail."
By noon the incoming mail had died down, and Remo dropped onto his tatami mat facing Chiun. Mail stood stacked around him like cardboard sandbags.
"Where do we start?" Remo asked.
"With favorite clients."
Remo reached into a stack. "This one's got the lion of England on it."
"Place it in the favorable stack," directed Chiun, his face beaming.
"Here's one with a funny flag."
"Looks kinda like the American flag, except instead of stars there's a white cross. The stripes are blue and white."
Chiun nodded. "Greece. Place it in the favored stack."
"What nation has a two-headed phoenix for its official bird?" asked Remo, looking at the label of the next mailer.
Chiun wrinkled his tiny nose. "None."
Remo held up the label. "Then what's this?"
"With two heads?"
"It is not a living eagle, and the language says the nation is Bulgaria."
"Of course. Not."
Remo added it to the favored stack. "How do you feel about Peru?" he then asked.
Remo thought a moment. "Last I heard, a Japanese guy."
"A Japanese emperor sits upon the throne of Peru?"
"No, he's president or something."
Chiun made a face like a golden prune. "We do not work for presidents anymore. They are too unstable. Presidents are not true rulers, for their sons do not succeed them. This fad will pass, mark my words, Remo."
Remo scaled the letter into the unfavorable pile.
Three hours later Remo had seven letters in the unfavorable stack. The favorable stacks threatened to swallow him.
"This isn't much of a sorting process," he said ruefully.
"We have weeded out the weak, the unfit, the transgressors—"
"What did the Turks do to the House?"
"Turkish soldiers defaced the Great Sphinx with their bullets, desecrating the proud visage of the Great Wang."
"Oh. So they're on the permanent shitlist?"
"We will never work for Turkey so long as we honor the memory of Wang, whom the pharaohs saw fit to honor in the form of a stone lion wearing the face of he who discovered the sun source."
Remo took up another mailer. "Here's Iran. I guess we can add that to the unfavorable pile, right?"
"They still persist in misnaming themselves?"
"Yeah. The mullahs still rule."
Chiun closed his eyes and seemed to be sniffing the air. "The melons of Persia haunt my dreams," he breathed.
"It's not Persia anymore, and I'll bet the melons are as bitter as the people these days."
"Place their entreaty in the undecided pile."
Remo frowned darkly. "No way will I work for Iran."
"Perhaps they can be persuaded to go back to the old ways."
Reluctantly Remo made a new pile and a mental note to shit-can the message from Iran the first chance he got.
"Do I have any say in this?" he asked, reaching for another mailer.
"Good. I don't think I could be happy in a country where English isn't spoken."
"You also speak Korean."
"Okay, I could live with South Korea."
Chiun scrunched up one eye while the other regarded Remo coolly. "North Korea would be preferable. For did not Kim Jong II offer to employ us only last year?"
"Where's that letter from England?" said Remo, looking around hastily.
"England is cold and damp. It is not good for my aging bones. But I will consider England."
"How about Ireland?"
Chiun shook his head gravely. "A vassal state. We cannot lower ourselves, although it is said that the Celts are the Koreans of Europe. I will allow it to be placed in the undecided pile."
"I didn't notice anything from Canada."
Shrugging thin shoulders, Chiun said, "We have never worked for Canada. They may not know of us."
"Damn. How could the Canadians forget about us?"
"They are too new. They have no history, being merely another vassal state of Great Britain."
"Still, I could live with working for Canada. That is, if America doesn't come through."
The phone rang and Remo's eyes went to it. It was the house phone, not Chiun's 800 line.
"Must be Smitty," Remo said, jumping to his feet.
"Remo! Do not rush to answer. It would be unseemly. Allow the bell to sound twenty times before touching the device."
"Twenty? Who'd hang on the line twenty rings?"
"Emperor Smith," said the Master of Sinanju.
Remo waited, counting twenty-one rings. Then Chiun signaled him to answer.
"Smitty, any good news?"
"No. We are having trouble locating the funds. I do not suppose a five percent down payment would seal our contract?"
Chiun made a negative shake of his head.
Into the phone Remo said, "Sorry. You know how it is. Cash and carry. No checks. No IOUs. No credit."
And to himself the Master of Sinanju smiled. His pupil was not hopeless, merely slow.
"The Mexican situation has developed into a standoff," Smith was saying.
"That's appropriate. A Mexican standoff with Mexico."
Smith cleared his throat. "We also have a diplomatic problem with Russia."
"Their duma member Zhirinovsky is missing. Early reports say he slipped into this country via Toronto, but there is no sign of him."
"Try looking in the back of every parked taxi in Atlantic City," Remo suggested.
"If you don't find him there, check out Bismark, North Dakota."
"What do you mean?"
Remo lowered his voice. "I found him drunk on my doorstep. Had to get rid of him somehow."
"Remo, that is not funny."
"Tell me about it. He and his entourage tried to bull their way in and con Chiun into backing their next coup. They didn't get very far."
Smith hissed, "Where is Zhirinovsky?"
"I dumped him into the back of a cab."
"And his entourage?"
"Consider them dumped, too. That reminds me, can you give me a hand, disposal-wise? If I leave them out for the trash, it might blow our cover."
"The good news is that the House of Sinanju won't be working for him anytime soon."
"Unless he is elevated to czar," said Chiun in a loud voice.
"May I speak with the Master of Sinanju?" Smith asked suddenly.
Chiun shook his head.
"He's reading his mail," Remo told Smith.
"This is important."
"The mail is important, too," Remo said airily. "We have stacks and stacks of it. All from foreign countries, if you know what I mean."
Smith's voice quavered. "You have accepted no offers?"
"We're in the consideration stage. Only seven rejects so far. That leaves about six-hundred-plus thrones to consider."
"I will be back to you as soon as I can," Smith said hoarsely, and hung up.
"I know you will," said Remo.
As he settled back onto his tatami mat, the Master of Sinanju gave his pupil a rare compliment. "You are learning."
"I am hoping to remain in America. But I'll settle for Canada."
"Just as long as you remain by my side, you need neither hope nor settle for anything less than perfection," said the Master of Sinanju in a tone that suggested his pupil was fortunate to bask in the glory of his awesome magnificence.
This time the report came from FBIS—the CIA's Foreign Broadcast Information Service—which always made duty officer Ray Foxworthy laugh when he read the title.
The foreign-broadcast information service was a glorified term for a bunch of overpaid couch potatoes. They sat around in apartments and hotel rooms throughout the world watching local TV and taping foreign news broadcasts.
The watch officer—even that title made Foxworthy smirk—was reporting that Iraqi TV was boasting of a new superweapon called Al Quaaquaa.
Foxworthy got language and translation services on the line. "Arabic," he snapped.
An Arabic-speaking translator came on.
"Al Quaaquaa," Foxworthy said. "What's it mean?"
The translator's voice was thick with doubt. "Hard to say with the transliteration problem. But the closest translation might be 'the Ghost.'"
"The Ghost? You're sure?"
"No. That's just the most likely. Could be an acronym. Is it an acronym?"
"That's not how it's being reported to me," Fox-worthy said.
"Then I'd go with 'the Ghost.'"
"What kind of secret weapon could the Iraqis have that might be code-named the Ghost?"
"That's out of my domain, but it sounds like a stealth-technology thing."
"Good point. Except for one thing."
"If the Iraqis grabbed off a stealth fighter, they still wouldn't know how to fly it. Their pilots are thumbless."
Hanging up, Foxworthy decided to try NSA again.
"It's called Al Quaaquuaa, the Ghost. Know anything about it?"
"Not a thing," Woolhandler said. "Where'd you get it?"
"Off our FBIS people."
Foxworthy could almost hear the NSA duty officer wince. Their job was to vacuum foreign official and commercial transmissions for raw intelligence. They once reported the deposing of Kim Jong II based on nothing more sensitive than a single Hong Kong TV report, later retracted.
"I wouldn't run with it," Woolhandler suggested.
"I won't. So, what have you got?"
"I hate that name. Macedonia is my worst nightmare," Foxworthy said.
"They're making belligerent noises against Greece and Bulgaria, too."
"Are they crazy? They're a tiny little speck. Either country could overwhelm them with their meter maids."
"Well, they're acting like they have an ace in the hole."
"Big talk from a small mouse. You think this is something to run with?"
"Not yet. You want to NOIWON the Iraqi matter?"
"Not a chance in hell. I can't go to the Pentagon over loose talk about an Iraqi ghost," Foxworthy answered.
"Glad you're being civilized."
There was a pause on the line, and when the NSA duty officer spoke again his tough tone softened. "So whaddya hear about that imbroglio at the UN the other day?"
"Scuttlebutt is old Double Anwar can't control his diplomats."
"I hear that, too. Maybe we should have moles in the UN."
"You mean you don't?" Foxworthy said.
"You mean you do?"
"Sorry. Can't talk about operational matters. Talk to you soonest."
"I hope not," Woolhandler said sincerely.
By early evening Remo was feeling as if the walls were closing in on him. And while the walls might have been constructed of purple-and-orange cardboard FedEx mailers, they were as threatening to his future as poisoned spikes.
The Master of Sinanju had entered the weeding-out process in earnest. Now the seven unsuitable thrones had grown to a whopping eight unsuitable thrones, prompting Chiun to express great pleasure in their swift progress.
"Now," he said happily, "we throw ourselves into the task of separating the rich thrones from the richer. After which we shall winnow out the lesser rich from the most rich, thereby isolating only the richest thrones."
"How about we throw them up into the air and those landing facedown get tossed?" Remo suggested.
Chiun wrinkled up his nose. "You have no understanding of the joys of ritual."
Meanwhile the mail kept straggling in. FedEx continued depositing pouches, and Chiun's interest waxed with each new arrival.
"What word from Fondustan?" he asked as Remo laid down a stack.
"I never heard of Fondustan." Remo consulted his list. "So far, we've heard from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Baluchistan, Tajikistan, Turkestan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Trashcanistan, but no Fondustan."
"Fondustan was once great. If we elect to stand beside the Cockatrice Throne, it will be great again." Chiun abruptly frowned. Looking around he said, "I do not see the seal of the mansa of Mali before me."
"I don't think Mali has a mansa anymore, Little Father."
"And the king of Cambodia?"
"A lot of those old thrones closed up shop a century back."
"And the White Chrysanthemum Throne?"
"Which one is that?"
"Pah! You know nothing of the ancestors you have shunned. No less than the emperor of Japan sits upon the White Chrysanthemum Throne. Once they employed us for an entire of your centuries."
"Look, how about we break for lunch?"
"Ah," breathed Chiun, selecting a red mailer from the latest stack. "Word from England."
"We already heard from Great Britain," said Remo.
"That was the queen. We have not yet heard from the Queen Mother, a sterling woman. Perhaps she has grown weary of dwelling in the shadows and seeks our assistance in restoring her to glory."
Taking the cardboard letter container, the Master of Sinanju ignored the paper zipper and, employing a long fingernail, slit one end. Out slid a cream-colored letter. He glanced at it and his papery features constricted in disgust.
"What is it?"
"Merely a request from the wayward Prince of Wales. We do not treat with mere princes. They control no purse strings."
"Think again. They discovered oil under both Windsor and Balmoral castles."
"You may read the wretch's entreaty, Remo. I will not sully my eyes with the scribbling of unfaithful princes."
The letter sailed in Remo's direction. He snatched it from the air and looked at it. Under a magnificent embossed letterhead declaring this to be a true communication from HRH the Prince of Wales was a short text full of flowery praise and oblique language.
Remo frowned. "Unless I'm reading this wrong, this guy's looking for a one-shot hit."
"We seek a long-term relationship. Who does he desire freed of the burden of life?"
"I could be reading too much between the lines, but I think it's the Princess of Wales. We don't do princesses, do we?"
"Not for filthy oil. Gold is our coin. You will pen a response offering regrets and earnest hopes for a mutually rewarding relationship at some future time."
"You know my penmanship isn't that good."
"You will improve. We will accept only one client. The other—"
"One hundred thirty-two."
"Yes, that number. You will pen sincere regrets to all, so as not to prejudice future employment."
Remo groaned. "Look, Chiun. I'm starved."
Chiun clapped his hands together. "Yes. Let us put off this wonderful task and eat."
"No. This is our first supper since you have returned groveling."
"I did not—"
"So we will have fish and you will cook it."
"What's in the fridge?"
"Nothing. Thus, you have the double pleasure of shopping at the local fishmongers and preparing the meal that will fortify our bellies for the delightful task to come."
"Carp okay with you?"
"I would prefer sea bass. If sea bass is unavailable, carp will suffice. But take careful note of the fish's eyes. Do not purchase a fish with bad eyes. Bad eyes mean a fish with an evil mind. And evil-minded fish taste bitter."
"I'll be back as soon as I can," said Remo.
"And do not dare bring into this house dogfish or mackerel. Dogfish is suitable only for a dog, and mackerel have too many bones."
"Count on it," said Remo, who thought dogfish tasted mealy and mackerel oily.
At the local Stop & Shop, Remo had to settle for salmon.
"It's fresh," the clerk told him, laying the largest salmon on the counter for inspection. "Caught just this morning."
Remo frowned. "The eyes look a little strange."
"What do you want? It's deader than a mackerel. If you'll excuse the expression."
"How about this one?" asked Remo, pointing to another salmon in the glass case.
"That one's not as fresh."
"The eyes are clearer, so it won't matter."
"You're the customer. But we don't recommend you eat the eyeballs."
Remo decided to walk back home even though it was more than a mile. The thought of reading and sorting all those stacks of mail—never mind answering them—made him shrink inside.
Night had fallen. It felt funny to be back in a city after so many months in the desert. Even the hard pavement was strange under his feet. Remo was more aware of the pollutants in the air, the rush and hum of traffic than ever before. Overhead, a descending jet screamed out its presence. Desert living had spoiled him. Not a helicopter had flown over the Sun On Jo Reservation in all his months in Arizona.
On the rooflines grackles were visible in silhouette, perched on the chimneys, enjoying heat from furnaces that were only now kicking in after a long dormancy.
Just before Remo turned onto East Squantum Street, he noticed the black sedan roll around the corner. He especially noticed the hunkered shadowy figures bringing up their weapons.
Ditching the fish in the bushes, Remo broke into a run.
"Don't tell me this is what I think it is," he muttered.
It was. As the sedan drew near his house, it slowed. A battery of gun muzzles poked out on one side and began vomiting flame and noise. Windows broke with harsh jangling sounds. Dust puffed up from the field-stone facade. Wood squealed and splintered like rats having their bones broken.
The car spun at the next intersection and came back around, trailing acrid rubber smoke. This time the gun muzzles protruded from the opposite side. They stuttered, breaking more windows and chewing up a doghouse dormer along the roofline.
"Damn it," Remo said, stepping off the curb. The car was tearing toward him, the driver's eyes wide as saucers. Remo crouched, released his coiled leg muscles and spun up into the air.
The car slithered under him. Remo reached out, snagged the chrome windshield trim with one hand and let his body become one with the machine's hurtling speed.
Like a human suction cup, Remo lay flat against the roof when the sedan took the corner onto Hancock, tires complaining, straightening out for the dead run toward nearby Boston. And he wasn't unnoticed.
Gun muzzles started angling up from the open windows to nail him. Remo stayed flat. Two wild shots passed over his dark hair. Through an ear pressed to the roof, he could hear the snap and snarl of excited voices. He didn't recognize the language, but it sure wasn't English.
With casual kicks he thwarted the aiming guns. He didn't need to understand their language to know they were cursing him in their frustration.
As the car whipped around the approach to the Neponset River Bridge, Remo decided everyone needed a bath except him.
Pulling forward, he slapped the windshield with one palm. It starred, spiderwebbed and became as opaque as frost. The car began weaving. The passengers tried to nail him again. One opened the door and pulled himself half out of the interior. Someone held on to his waist to keep him from falling.
Remo knocked him out with a snap-kick to the temple.
The gunman's limp form was hauled in, but not before the impact of his wobbly-necked skull on the moving road painted a new dividing line with the greater portion of his brains.
At that point the gunmen had had enough. They braked the car and all four doors opened. Remo batted back every head that popped out, dropped to the ground and cold-welded every door shut by a hard, sudden application of his bare hands to the locks.
Then he went to work on the roof. It was hard metal, but under Remo's jackhammer hands it began to cave in and flatten. At that point the gunmen started feeling the roof bang the tops of their skulls and realized that getting the doors open was more important than they had thought.
But it was too late. Remo had the roofline down to the level of their shoulders, and exiting the vehicle became a lost opportunity.
There was a brief burst of gunfire. A few ugly holes appeared here and there, but mostly the bullets ricocheted, producing interior screams.
Someone yelled what sounded like "Fang Tung!" And a distinct slap of reproach came.
By then, Remo was feeling around the battered roof to home in on any sensation of warmth. When he sensed a head, he brought his fist down until the coconut-cracking sound told him he hadn't missed. He did this four times.
When all was still inside, Remo bent and took hold of the chassis with both hands. He heaved upward.
The sedan rolled onto its side and landed on the walkway of the bridge. A simple push set it to leaning against the concrete buttress.
It was a simple matter after that to work it up on the buttress until it was poised precariously, and the exertion of Remo's pinky finger tipped it into the water, where everyone could enjoy a final bath. Except Remo.
The police were pulling up as Remo walked away, trying to look casual and hoping no one had grabbed his fish.
Chiun met Remo at the door, whose glass now lay broken on the walk. But Chiun was dancing.
"This is terrible," Remo said, surveying the damage.
"It is wonderful," Chiun squeaked, clapping joyous hands together.
"What's so wonderful about a drive-by shooting?"
"It means we are feared."
Remo blinked. "You think those guys were out to nail us?"
"No. They obviously sought the life of the Master of Sinanju. They do not know or care about you."
"Thanks a bunch. What I meant was, what the heck was that all about?"
"The word has gone out to every keep and castle, Casbah and redoubt. Sinanju seeks a new emperor. Many are the nations that covet my services, few are they who can afford these services. Those who cannot bid know they will not sleep safely in their bedchambers should their enemies succeed in securing Sinanju for their own. We are feared, Remo. Just as in the old days." The old Korean grabbed Remo's thick wrist eagerly. "Quickly! Did you see their faces?"
"No. But they won't be coming back."
"I turned them into sardines."
Chiun looked aghast. His hands clapped together in concern. "The fish! My bass was not injured?"
Remo lifted the white-wrapped packet. "Not a scratch. And it's not bass. I got salmon."
"I will accept salmon if the eyes are not evil."
"Check it out. Meanwhile, we gotta do something about those windows. Half our glass is shot out."
"A small price to pay for the compliment rendered."
"At least they won't be back."
"Never fear," Chiun said happily. "There will be more just like those. This is a joyous day, for Sinanju has not been forgotten. We are feared, therefore we are coveted. More, we are needed."
An hour later repairmen were finishing tacking the temporary plastic covers over the windows, and Remo was explaining for the millionth time to the Quincy police that it was a random drive-by shooting and not targeted at them specifically.
"We don't have drive-by shootings in this city," an officer said. "Random or not."
"Look, there's just the two of us living here. Only my—" Remo groped for a plausible word.
"Master," Chiun called from the other room.
"Master?" said the cop.
"He's a martial-arts instructor. He's teaching me stuff."
"Can you break a board with your hand?"
"He has not progressed that far," Chiun called out. "Only in breaking windows with his thick head." And the Master of Sinanju cackled loudly at his own jest.
"So it had nothing to do with us," Remo finished. "Okay?"
The cop put away his notebook. "Until the bodies are identified, that'll have to be it. But we'll be in touch."
"Thanks," said Remo, showing the officer out.
When he returned to the kitchen, Chiun was patting his papery lips with a linen cloth.
"How was the salmon?" asked Remo.
Remo looked at the low taboret that served as a table. The entire salmon skeleton lay on a silver platter, picked clean.
"You ate my fish!"
"You were otherwise occupied. I knew you would not wish to eat it cold. Rather than see it go to waste, I finished the unfortunate salmon."
"What about me?"
Chiun's eyes twinkled. "There is rice aplenty. Eat your fill."
"Steamed rice can be steamed back to life. You will suffer no hunger pangs this night, for you are fed by the bounty that is Sinanju."
As he dumped the rice back into the steamer and added water, Remo said, "What happens if more killers blow into town?"
"They will fail, of course, striking fear into their masters. It will be excellent advertising."
"I don't mean that. How many times can this place be hit before the police figure out we're not just ordinary citizens?"
"It does not matter, for tonight we depart."
"For where?" Remo asked.
"Rome was the America of its time. We have had an intriguing communication from Rome."
"Italy has had something like fifty governments since World War II. They're broke, unstable and I don't speak the language."
"The throne that has requested our presence is one of the richest in the modern world."
"Are we talking about the same Italy?"
"No, we are not."
And for the rest of the evening, the Master of Sinanju would say no more. He sat in his tower meditation room poring over the letters from all over the world that praised Sinanju and pleaded for its protection. His thin lips were wreathed in joy.
When no one picked up the telephone after eighty-seven rings, Harold Smith began to suspect the very worst.
It was already bad. There was no good news from the President of the United States, and with only silence out of Mexico City, no one knew which way the flea might jump.
Logging on to his computer, Smith entered the system that tracked credit-card credit checks. A low groan escaped his lips when he came upon a Visa charge for a Boston-to-Rome flight. One-way.
That in itself wasn't so terrible. Should Chiun decide to go to work for the Italian government, it wasn't the worst-case scenario.
What made Harold Smith reach, trembling, for a bottle of aspirin was the knowledge that foreign intelligence services were undoubtedly on the highest state of alert, watching airports and rail stations for signs of the Master of Sinanju.
The bidding war had begun. Ironically, who won was less important than the sure knowledge that the leaders of the losing nations could no longer sleep safely in their beds once the House of Sinanju made its choice.
Their reaction was the one to be feared.
Glancing toward the red hot-line telephone, Smith began to bitterly regret restoring the dedicated line. There was no way to explain this to the President. No way at all.
For the second time in twenty-four hours, Intel reports of troop movements on the Kuwait-Iraq border crossed Ray Foxworthy's desk. He could ignore it no longer.
Picking up the NOIWON phone, he called Wool-handler at NSA. "Steve. Ray here. I have another report from the Iraqi DMZ."
"Don't know what to tell you."
"I think I have to go with this."
"Done. This is an official NOIWON call now. Do you want to punch up the others or shall I?"
"I'll do it."
A moment later the duty officers of the DIA and NRO came on the conference line.
"I'm alerting you all of continual but unconfirmed reports of Iraqi troop movements along the DMZ," Foxworthy stated.
"Those reports are flat-out wrong," snapped a metallic voice.
"Is that DIA talking?"
"No," said the voice. "NRO. We heard a whisper ourselves, juggled a Keyhole satellite and found the Republican Guard right where they should be. In Basra. On stand down."
"Did you check the DMZ?"
"Why should we? If Iraqi forces are accounted for, there's no problem."
"Well, I can't ignore two consecutive confirmed sightings," Foxworthy argued.
"Maybe these are UN troops."
"UN troops wear blue helmets and ride white tanks," the DIA duty officer said dryly. "It's hard to mistake them for the Republican Guard."
The line fluttered with the constrained laughter of professionally sober men.
"I feel I have to alert the Pentagon," Foxworthy said stubbornly.
Nobody laughed at that. Someone whistled a walking-past-the-graveyard whistle, and another voice essayed a muted "Good luck."
"Nobody wants to support me on this?"
The silence of the phone line was Ray Foxworthy's answer.
"Okay, gentlemen. Your reservations are duly noted. Thank you for your time."
Hanging up, Ray Foxworthy let out a breath that made his lips vibrate unpleasantly. His hand was still on the phone receiver, and his dialing finger was poised over the speed-dial button marked Pentagon.
Then a better idea hit him. He called the United Nations instead.
After a brief runaround he got the under secretary for peacekeeping operations.
"This is Foxworthy. CIA. We have some low-level intelligence here of Iraqi troop activity along that DMZ you're guarding."
"I have just this hour received a communication from the UNIKOM commander. No such details are to be found in his report."
"No military activity at all?"
"No. Not unless one considers routine Royal Kuwaiti Forces desert maneuvers."
"No. I don't think that's the problem. But I thank you for your time."
Foxworthy hung up, frowning. Maybe he'd table that Pentagon call after all. Obviously there was nothing to it. The Kuwaitis could maneuver all they wanted. They weren't a threat to anyone. Unless it was to themselves.
There was a red carpet waiting at the foot of the Air Italia jet air stairs as Remo and Chiun stepped out into the cool Roman air. At the bottom was a crest showing a three-tiered crown.
At the end of a carpet sat along white limousine and a liveried footman standing stiffly, his hand on the back door.
When Chiun's black-sandaled foot touched the carpet, brass trumpets blared and the footman opened the door smartly. Pennants fluttered atop raised poles.
"What's this?" Remo whispered as they approached the limo.
"I asked for a restrained reception," said Chiun. "We are here to entertain an offer, not strike a bargain. To be received as the royal assassins would be unseemly and possibly discourage other suitors."
Gleaming like a bar of white chocolate on licorice wheels, the limo wended its way through Rome's choked and difficult byways. Rome was dirty. All of Europe looked dirty to Remo's eyes. He never understood the fascination American tourists had with European cities. Every time he visited a European capital, his skin pores clogged up. Sometimes the instant he stepped off the plane.
"Isn't that the presidential palace?" Remo asked, indicating a great brownish marble structure that needed sandblasting if not demolition.
"It does not matter," said Chiun. "Oh, look Remo, there is the Colosseum."
"I see it. It's hard to miss. Not many two-thousand-year-old buildings look like crumbling wedding cakes."
"Take note of the course of the River Tiber. Rivers are important. I will explain why later."
"Right, right. But what about the presidential palace?"
Chiun dismissed it with a flutter of fingernails. "It is new. It is nothing compared with the faded glory of the Rome of Caesar."
"Aren't they expecting us?"
"No. He is expecting us."
And through the windshield, Remo saw a sight that made his mouth go dry. An ornate dome.
"Oh, tell me it isn't true," he moaned.
"It is true."
"It looks like the Vatican. Tell me it's not the Vatican."
"It is," the Master of Sinanju said joyfully, "Rome."
The chief of staff of the United States Army was attempting to explain the disposition of CONUS forces to his Commander in Chief.
It was day two. They were in the Situation Room in the White House basement. The President was squinting at a big map of the continental U.S. The more he squinted, the bigger his nose seemed to get. But he was trying. He was really trying, so the Joint Chiefs of Staff were determined to walk him through the briefing no matter how much Excedrin was involved.
"The Mexican forces are arrayed exactly where they were yesterday," the Army chief of staff was saying as he tapped a series of green triangles wavering just under the southern U.S. border.
"They're waiting for something!" the President suggested.
In a corner the chairman of the JCS stifled a groan. He had started the briefing three hours earlier, continuing until the President's stultifying thickheadedness had worn him down.
The Army chief of staff cleared his throat and swung the pointer upward. "They are not a threat, Mr. President."
"Not an immediate threat."
"Not a threat at all," the Army chief repeated firmly. "Let me direct your attention to our disposition of forces."
The President looked interested. Or astigmatic. Possibly both.
"This map shows the CONUS—"
The President lifted his hand as if in school. "Who renamed the nation?" he asked.
"No one. CONUS stands for Continental United States."
"Now, as I was saying, this map is broken down into CONUS armies."
"We have more than one?"
"If you'll read the legend, you'll see we have four entire armies headquartered in the nation. The First Army, headquartered in Fort George G. Meade, the Second in Fort Gillem, the Fifth is quartered in Fort Sam Houston and the Sixth is presently based in Colorado."
The President looked troubled. "Where are the Third and Fourth armies?"
"The Fourth, Mr. President, is inactive."
"Well, activate them. We may need every jackboot."
"That's 'man jack,'" the commandant of the Marine Corps muttered under his breath.
"You don't understand, Mr. President," the Army chief of staff resumed with an angry glance at the Marine commandant. "There's is no Fourth Army. They were—"
The secretary of the Navy began dry-washing his face with his red hands.
"'Deactivated' is the Army's preferred terminology. They don't exist anymore. Forget I brought them up."
"Wait a minute. Why don't we—"
"Reconstitute?" the Army chief said hopefully.
The President quietly scribbled down the new word. He had a five-page list now. He also knew the difference between a brigade and a division. Although he much preferred the sound of brigade, it was actually a smaller, less formidable force than a division.
"No time. Not enough volunteers, and I don't think you want to talk about a draft, do you?"
"Definitely not," the President said.
Around the room smiles were suppressed, producing extremely grave expressions that the President personally admired and reminded himself to practice before the mirror next chance he got.
"Now, for our purposes we are concerned only with the Sixth Army, whose—"
"Let's say 'domain.' I like that. Their domain is the far western CONUS, and they will have the responsibility for safeguarding California and Arizona."
"Can't lose those. Think of the electoral votes."
"The Fifth Army, which is responsible for those areas extending south from Nebraska to include the border states of New Mexico and Texas, will of course guarantee the sanctity of those border states."
"I still think we need another army___" the President lamented.
"And you're right," the Army chief of staff said, bursting into a great big smile. "Isn't he right, men?"
The JCS agreed the President was right.
"Let me direct your attention to the red circle down here in Panama. That, Mr. President, is the U.S. Army South."
A confused twinge tweaked the President's face. "No number?"
"No, sir. The U.S. Army South. Our Southern Command, as we like to call it. Basically, with the Fifth and Sixth perched above the Mexicans and the Southern Command roosting on their back doorstep, we have them surrounded from the git-go."
The President grinned. He was not only right, but he knew what git-go meant without having to ask. He was starting to get the hang of all this military stuff and decided to venture a solid suggestion. "I propose for the duration of this engagement—"
"Operation. I meant to say that. It's not an engagement until we actually engage, is it?"
"No, sir. And even then it will be a war. But you had a suggestion?"
"Yes. For the duration I propose we rename the Southern Command the US. Seventh Army so there's no confusion."
The faces of the JCS fell like crumbling outcroppings.
"Can't. We already have a Seventh Army."
"I don't see them on the map___"
"That's because they're headquartered in Germany."
"Maybe we should call them back."
"Not a good idea."
"Okay. Then the Southern Forces will be the Eighth Army."
"They're hunkered down on the Korean DMZ. We pull them out, and I guarantee you Seoul will fall in two days flat."
"Damn," said the President. "Is there a Ninth Army?"
"Not in name."
"Then who's protecting Alaska and Hawaii?"
"That would be the U.S. Army Pacific."
"Why aren't they on the map?"
"Because for the purposes of this briefing, we assume no Mexican military threat to Alaska and Hawaii, Mr. President."
"I think I follow you now."
"So in conclusion—" the other JCS members perked up at the welcome word, conclusion "—I submit to you that our borders are secure."
The President beamed. "I can see that now."
The phone shrilled. It was the direct line to the Pentagon.
The JCS chair picked it up and said, "We're briefing CinC CONUS here."
"That's you, Mr. President," the secretary of the Navy said to the President. "It's short for Commander in Chief CONUS."
The President positively beamed. He had a new title.
"What's that?" the JCS chair said into the receiver. After listening a moment, he said, "I'll pass the word." And he hung up.
The JCS chair adjusted his glasses and said, "That was the Pentagon. We have word from our Marine air base listening post in Yuma that the Mexicans are announcing to the world they have a secret weapon."
"What's it called?"
"Isn't that Spanish for 'the Devil'?"
"That's what they're calling it."
The President looked shaken. "This sounds serious. Can they have a secret weapon with a name like that?"
"If they do, it's their secret weapon. They can call it whatever they want."
"I don't like the sound of it…"
"What if it's not? What if American cities are at risk?"
The Joint Chiefs of Staff exchanged doubtful, worried glances. For once they didn't know what to tell the President of the United States. They had never heard of any weapons system like El Diablo, but the very name made them fidgety.
"No matter what happens," Remo Williams was saying, "I'm kissing nobody's ring."
The Master of Sinanju made no reply. He had held his silence since the white chocolate limousine had conveyed them through one of the three gates to the walled city-state in the heart of modern Rome called the Vatican.
"You hear me? I don't kiss rings."
They were following the ramrod figure in the crimson vestments who had greeted them as they exited the limousine.
He had announced himself in heavily accented English as the cardinal secretary of state. Chiun had said nothing then, only inclined his head politely toward the cardinal, who gestured them to follow.
Now Chiun spoke, his voice sounding faraway. "On these grounds good Nero had his gardens and his circus. Christians were put down in wonderful numbers."
"I don't give a novena," said Remo.
"Lower your rude voice, and banish from your mind that we are about to meet the supreme pontiff of your childhood religion. For this pope is also the head of this state, and we must treat him as we would treat a ruler whose favor we court."
They were escorted through a green-grown path and after turning a corner found themselves in the verdant splendor of the Belvedere Courtyard.
Remo saw the stooped man in dazzling white, flanked by two medieval figures following with raised pikes. The pontifical Swiss Guard.
The pope's kindly eyes brightened at the sight of the Master of Sinanju. He came forward, his white vestments floating about his legs. He walked with a cane now, Remo saw. But his step was confident. A gold crucifix as long as a child's forearm gleamed on his immaculate white breast.
Only when he was very close did Remo detect the fragility of age again. The kindly eyes skated past him momentarily and it was like a kick in his stomach.
The Master of Sinanju ceased his forward glide, pausing expectantly. The pope halted. Only three feet separated them. Their ancient eyes locked. Held. And an arduous minute passed.
"What's going on?" Remo asked Chiun in low Korean.
"Kiss his ring," Chiun hissed. "Quickly."
"Not a chance. What's the freaking holdup?"
"This upstart is waiting for me to bow to him."
"So, bow. It won't kill you."
"I kissed his ring last time. It is your turn," Chiun declared.
"Fine—just say something."
"I cannot. I am waiting for him to bow."
"The pope isn't going to bow to you."
"That is why you must kiss his ring. To dispel the awkwardness of this difficult moment," Chiun explained.
"I am not kissing his freaking ring!"
Standing to one side, the cardinal secretary of state whispered low words in Latin. Chiun replied in the same tongue.
The cardinal then whispered into the Pope's tilted ear.
The careworn face of the supreme pontiff brightened, and he turned to Remo to say in English, "My son, my son. It is good to make your acquaintance."
And when the pope's heavy gold ring came up, Remo couldn't help himself. He half knelt and kissed it.
After that the ice was broken.
The pope and the Master of Sinanju drew off to one side to confer in low whispers. From time to time the pope beamed in Remo's direction. For his part the Master of Sinanju was animated. His arms flapped frequently, his deadly nails orbiting the Pope's still form so tightly Remo began to fear Chiun would slay him with a careless gesture.
Feeling left out, Remo struck up a conversation with the portly cardinal secretary of state. "What did Chiun say to you?"
"The Master conveyed the happy news that the next Master of the House of Sinanju was a Christian."
"He told the pope that!"
"His Holiness was quite pleased. For it has been too long since the House stood beside the Holy See."
"We worked against Rome, too," Remo argued.
The cardinal secretary of state paled slightly and excused himself, hurrying away like a frightened red robin.
That left Remo alone with the Swiss Guards, who stood sentinel with their pikes at rest.
"Lot of good those frog-stickers will do you against nutomatic weapons," Remo told them.
The Swiss Guards stood staring into infinity and said nothing. In their striped pantaloons and felt hats, l hey reminded Remo of the Buckingham Palace Guard, except the latter had better uniforms. These guys looked like ballerinas with a pantload.
After a few more boring minutes, the pope and the Master of Sinanju bowed to each other respectfully, and with a final wave in Remo's direction, the pope signaled to his Swiss Guard to follow.
"We must depart," said Chiun, his face pleased.
"You cut a deal?"
"You going to cut a deal?"
Chiun switched to Korean. "I merely reiterated the long-standing treaty the House has with Rome never to accept work which will harm Roman interests. Thus, whatever gossip he hears regarding future service will not be misconstrued."
"So we're not working for the Vatican?"
"Not unless absolutely necessary."
"You tell the pope that?"
"There was no need to injure his sensitive feelings."
They entered the white chocolate limousine. It took them away and back into the din and congestion of Rome traffic.
"So what's the point?"
"The point is to encourage better offers," Chiun explained.
"By being seen here, it signals to the pope's enemies that Sinanju looks with favor upon the Vatican. The enemies of the Vatican will in turn recount their coffers and consider increasing any contemplated offers."
"What enemies does the pope have?"
"His Holiness is currently vexed by rival pontiffs. Mullahs and ayatollahs would like to extinguish the candle that is Christian Rome."
"I could stand guarding the pope," Remo allowed.
Chiun waved the comment away. "The pope expressed great confidence in his Swiss Guards. No. He asked the House if it would consider extinguishing rival candles."
"The pope asked you to off his enemies!" Remo exploded.
"Must you be so crude? Not in so many words, of course. Certain delicate words were spoken like rose petals strewn on cobbles. A gesture here. A regret there. The meaning was conveyed even if the words were oblique."
Remo folded his arms defiantly. "I don't believe it."
"You are so naive."
"So that's it. You use the pope to stampede other rulers and he gets the big kiss-off?"
"There was one other matter."
And from the mouth of one kimono sleeve, the Master of Sinanju extracted a heavy crucifix of ornate gold.
"Look, Remo. Solid gold."
"He gave you that?"
"Not knowingly," Chiun admitted.
"You filched the pope's cross!"
"No, I collected an amount past due. For in the days of the Borgia pontiffs, a popish payment was missing a weight of gold. This is equal to that weight. If one calculates three hundred years' interest."
"What will he think when he finds his crucifix missing?"
"That his vaunted Swiss Guard are insufficient for his needs," purred the Master of Sinanju as he restored the trophy of the modern pontiff of Rome to his kimono sleeve and fell to enjoying the sights of the Rome of his ancestors as he was conveyed to Leonardo da Vinci Airport.
It was good to treat with true rulers again, as his ancestors had.
When Lieutenant General Sir Timothy Plum was assigned to command UNIKOM, everyone said it was the end of his career.
He wasn't the first UN commander to fail magnificently in Bosnia. There had been a Belgian general before him. Much lauded by the poor beggars of Bosnia, he had been all but adopted by them. But he had gotten out before the Serbs had solidified their battlefield gains.
While Lieutenant General Sir Timothy Plum had commanded UNPROFOR, the UN Protection Force in the former Yugoslavia, United Nations personnel were routinely sniped at, deprived of their weapons, and held hostage while the power and international authority that backed him was routinely flouted.
Not that there was any help from the Security Council, NATO or, God forbid, Generalissimo War-War himself. The sodding bastards had made speeches while the Serbs cut the so-called blue routes to beleaguered Sarajevo, commanded UN relief trucks and APCs and made a mockery of civilized norms.
Seeing the nature of the game, Sir Timothy had decided two could play both ends against the middle. So when Serbian fire inflicted atrocities against helpless civilians standing in bread-and-water lines, Sir Timothy publicly blamed the victims for taking foolhardy risks for small reward. When the Bosnians defended themselves, he branded them as warmongers determined to prolong the conflict the rest of the world had tired of merely to prolong their lives.
These pronouncements garnered him no friends, except in Belgrade. But they did serve the very important PR purpose of lowering UN expectations.
So it came as a relief of sorts when, his tour completed, Sir Timothy—as his loyal troops affectionately called him—received orders to take command of UNIKOM on the disputed Iraq-Kuwait border.
It had been a peaceful border these past few months. The weather, while hot, was pleasant—if one discounted the odd dust devil stirring up the sand and dried goat dung. And best of all, there were no bloody Serbs with doubtful names like Ratko and Slobodan along with disagreeble manners to get up his nose. Or shoot at him, for God's sake.
Yes, the Kuwaiti desert was actually pleasant even if sand did fill one's boots and the outside world had all but written him off as an utter and complete nincompoop.
After two years in Bosnia, Lieutenent General Sir Timothy Plum had redefined his measure of success or failure. Success didn't include saving assorted Serbs, Bosnians and Croats—whatever they were—from one another, and failure wasn't a function of career advancement.
No, the simple, elementary truth was if one survived, one succeeded. Failure was lying facedown in the muck and slush of Eastern Europe with one's spine snapped in two by a .50-caliber round. That was failure.
Thus, a posting in Kuwait constituted an extended furlough.
"If one only didn't have to put up with these infernal wogs," he was telling his attaché in the cool shade of his pup tent not two miles from the Iraqi border, "I should say this was a sort of extended holiday. With scorpions."
"More tea, Sir Tim?"
"Thank you. Is it still hot?"
"Excellent," said Sir Timothy, holding out a blue china cup that had survived the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Sarajevo and would surely survive a quiet observer mission of indefinite duration.
"I say, does it ever rain in these parts?"
"Dash it, I should enjoy a good rain now and again."
"Perhaps we might arrange one somehow."
"We have pumps and hoses. And strong-backed men."
"If you consider Bangladeshis and Pakistanis men."
They laughed with polite restraint. There was no point in really enjoying their superiority, obvious as it was.
"Why is it, Sir Tim, that every one of these missions is oversupplied with wogs of all types?"
"Think about it, man. If there is to be a fight, it is better to command men one shan't miss if matters go awry. And if not, who better to do the donkey work than men entirely unfit for civilized soldiering?"
"I never thought about it that way. Oh, I say, I do believe this cream is a trifle sour."
"Hazard of war, Colin. Buck up. A bracing cuppa tea is far jollier than a Serbian mortar shell mucking up one's bivouac."
" 'Bivouac' Is that an American word?"
"Yes. I thought I'd try it on you. With all these Yank chaps tramping about, we shall have to learn their confounded tongue, will we not?"
"That's sensible. And what is the name of that unit who careened through here the other day?" the attaché asked.
"I can't say I rightly recall. They all sound so numbingly alike. The Bloody-Taloned Screaming All-American Eagles and all that macho rubbish. Whatever possesses them to embrace such deafening coinages?"
"I imagine it's a way for them to keep their peckers up when the going turns frightful, wouldn't you say?"
"Right." Sir Timothy drained his cup. "My good man, I never asked which of Her Majesty's regiments enjoyed your service, now have I?" he continued. "Why, the First Ptarmigans."
"Is that right? Now, there's a noble bird, the ptarmigan. Knows when to seek cover. Just like the infantry."
Lieutenent General Sir Timothy Plum enjoyed a hearty laugh with his aide. When it had subsided, he remarked, "Do you know what I heard this morning? Rumors of troop movements near the DMZ."
"Imagine that? I wonder whose?"
"I think the American spy satellites have some novel bugs in them if their lenses detect troop movements from on high."
"Perhaps they are soldier ants. Or Goliath beetles, which rather resemble tanks."
The tent shook with laughter in the windless desert, and when it again died away, the roar and growl of approaching tanks came clearly through the tan-colored canvas.
"I say, hello. Are we on maneuvers?" said Sir Timothy, whipping open the tent flap. His smile froze, cringed and shrank with alarming rapidity.
For he was looking at a line of sand-colored tanks and APCs coming toward them at full gallop.
The aide joined him, a scone crumbling in his half-open mouth. "Those aren't Americans," he said, dripping crumbs.
"I believe they constitute Kuwaiti armor."
"Is there an alert?"
"I do not know."
"We should ask."
"We shall ask," said Sir Timothy, striding out into the open. "Halt. Lieutenent General Sir Timothy Plum here, ordering you to cease."
The line of tanks, which he now saw stretching from east to west, rolled on past them with a determined fury that actually made the Brit's heart quail even though technically it was but a wog maneuver.
Turning their heads north, Sir Timothy and his aide fully expected to see Iraqi forces descending to meet the Kuwaiti countercharge. They did not.
"I do not believe that is a Kuwaiti countercharge that we just witnessed," he told his aide.
"If not that, what then?"
The explanation came a moment later when a limb of the Kuwaiti column broke off and surrounded a unit of white UN Challenger tanks and APCs.
"I do not like the looks of this, Sir Tim," the aide muttered, finishing his scone with nervous bites.
"I think we'd best intervene. This is most unsettling."
They hurried up to the encircled UNIKOM unit and jostled through.
"What is the meaning of this?" Sir Timothy demanded of a Kuwaiti officer in full battle regalia, including bloodred beret and gold-headed swagger stick.
"We are commandeering your armor."
"For what purpose?"
"For the invasion of Iraq, of course."
"Beg pardon. Did I hear you correctly? You fellows are invading Iraq, and not the other way around?"
The Kuwaiti officer flashed teeth like rows of tiny light bulbs. "It is a necessary self-defensive action."
"And pray tell, what necessity necessitates this action?"
"If we do not crush Iraq before they launch Al Quaaquaa, there will be no Kuwait to defend."
Sir Timothy and his aide exchanged blank looks.
"There is no time to explain. I must have your tanks and your uniforms and your blue helmets."
"I can understand why you might wish to commandeer UN armor—it is done all the time, after all—and it is a matter of supreme indifference to me personally and professionally if you conquer Iraq, but I must object in the most strenuous terms to the confiscating of UN uniforms and helmets. We stand squarely for peace. Not bloodshed."
"You will stand naked for peace or you will taste royal Kuwaiti sand as your last meal."
This seemed quite clear to Sir Timothy, so he surrendered his blue beret and his uniform. They let him keep his underthings, which was jolly decent of them, after all.
And as the newly impressed UNIKOM armor grumbled to life to tear off toward the north, Sir Timothy turned to his aide and shivered under the beating desert sun.
"I say, I shouldn't wish to fight an actual shooting war riding a white charger and wearing a blue bucket on my head, would you, Colin?"
"Whatever could they be thinking, Sir Tim?"
"Who can fathom the wog mentality? Well, I imagine we'll be getting complaints from all quarters after this unhappy day."
"Especially inasmuch as our armor is charged with practice rounds."
"Oh, I say, we really should have warned the blokes, now shouldn't we?" Sir Timothy said.
"Too late now. Shall we see about more tea?"
"I think it a necessity under the circumstances. I fear we are at the very least in for a rough time filling out bloody replacement-armor requisition forms."
"I suppose this means you shall be reassigned once again."
"A bit of a bother, perhaps. But with Generalissimo War-War in charge, we shan't lack for trouble spots to muck about in, now shall we?"
"I hear Haiti is rather balmy this time of year, Sir Tim."
When the NOIWON line rang on his desk at the CIA, Ray Foxworthy knew who would be on the other end before the now-familiar voice announced, "Woolhandler. NSA."
"I'm listening," Foxworthy said guardedly.
"It's called Dongfenghong, or something like that. Translated, it means 'East is Red.' It's Red China's latest secret weapon. We don't know what it is or what it does, we just know that it is."
"How do you know it is?"
"There's a front-page article about it in this morning's Beijing Daily."
"They have a secret weapon and they announce it on their front page?" Foxworthy said. "Why would they do that?"
"Why do we conduct press tours of our nuclear-missile facilities? To let opponent nations know we have them."
Foxworthy said nothing.
"Haven't heard of East is Red."
The NSA duty officer's voice brightened. "Good. I'm going to NOIWON this. It sounds solid."
"Have you heard about the new Mexican terror weapon?"
"What new Mexican terror weapon?"
"They're calling it El Diablo," Foxworthy elaborated.
"El Diablo. Sounds angry. Doesn't it mean 'the Devil'?"
"That's what our linguistics people tell me."
"You NOIWONing it?"
"Don't have to. Our intelligence comes from the Pentagon. By now the President knows about it."
"News to us. What is El Diablo?" Woolhandler asked.
"That's the scary part. Nobody knows. We can only guess."
"Mexico is dirt poor. Can't be a nuke. Or a missile. It's probably a chemical agent."
"Maybe biological," Foxworthy speculated.
"Biological is possible, but I'd go with chemical."
"What the hell's going on? Within the space of days, three different nations are announcing secret terror weapons, and we have Mexico on our exposed asses."
"Something's up for sure."
"You bet. Still going to NOIWON that Chinese thing?"
"Have no choice. It's in print."
Foxworthy sighed. "Let's get the others up to speed, then."
When the National Reconnaissance Office came on the line, the duty officer was breathless.
"This is NRO. Chattaway. I mean Chattaway. NRO."
"Spit it out, Chattaway," Foxworthy said.
"We've been juggling KH-11 satellites ever since the Iraqi troop-movement story got started. And we've confirmed it."
"The Iraqis are on the move?"
"No, the UN."
"United Nations tanks have crossed the DMZ and are moving toward Basra at full gallop. They appear to be backed by elite elements of the Royal Kuwaiti Armed Forces."
The line was deathly silent for the better part of half a minute.
"Let me have you confirm that," Foxworthy said in a restrained tone. "The United Nations is moving against Iraq?"
"Backed by the Kuwaitis."
"On whose authority?"
"It's too early to tell. But our read is they'll be knocking at the gates of Basra within the hour."
"Oh, sweet Christ. It's Gulf War II. We better alert the JCS chair."
In his office at the Secretariat of the UN, secretary general Anwar Anwar-Sadat was working the phones. On his desk was a draft resolution calling for the establishment of a UN peackeeping mission on the disputed U.S.-Mexico border.
All he had to do was convene a meeting of the Security Council. To do that, he needed the presence of the Security Council membership. All fifteen members.
Unfortunately none of those ambassadors was taking his calls.
"But this is quite urgent," he was saying. "I must speak with the ambassador."
"The ambassador is in consultation."
"When he emerges, have him call me immediately," said Anwar Anwar-Sadat, who hung up on the Chinese capital and hit the speed-dial button marked Soviet Union. He had never gotten around to changing the label, and given the state of Russia these days, it was entirely possible any change would be premature. Besides, he could never remember what shrinking Russia called itself these days.
Moscow was likewise unavailable. As was Berlin. A call slip placed on his desk informed him that the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was waiting on line four. He scribbled "I am out!" on the slip, and the secretary took the slip outside to brush off the permanent member of the Security Council Anwar Anwar-Sadat least wanted to speak with right now.
As she exited, the under secretary for peacekeeping operations barged in, looking startled.
Anwar-Sadat looked up. "Yes, yes. What is it?"
"Urgent call from the ambassador from Iraq, line three."
Anwar-Sadat frowned like a rock falling into shadow. "I have no time for this. I am trying to reconvene the Security Council. Tomorrow is our fiftieth anniversary, and we have no diplomats for the official reception."
"But the ambassador is calling to surrender."
Anwar-Sadat blinked. "Surrender what, may I ask?"
"I do not know. He merely said the word 'surrender.' He is quite agitated, I might add."
"Perhaps," mused Anwar-Sadat, "he means Iraq is now willing to come into compliance with all UN resolutions. I will take his call, thank you."
When he made his connection, the secretary general said "Yes, hello?" in a deliberately neutral voice. If his guess was correct, this would be a great victory for his office.
The thick voice of the Iraqi ambassador said, "We surrender. Immediately. Call off your troops."
"What is it?"
"Do not trifle with me. We know your game. We surrender. We will not fight. We will not be drawn into another crisis just so you may strangle our nation further. We are disinterested in fighting. Thus, we will never be defeated. Now, please accept our surrender at once."
"Are you drunk?"
"I am a Muslim. I do not drink. And my country will not fight. Basra is yours if you wish it. We ask only safe passage for our Republican Guards. They will lay down their arms and abandon their armor. But we will not fight. Do I make myself clear? We will not fight."
The voice of the Iraqi ambassador was tearful, almost pleading. The secretary general, knowing the tenor of the Iraqi leadership these days, could almost envision a cocked pistol at the head of the poor Iraqi ambassador, the hammer ready to fall if he failed to negotiate a successful surrender.
"Very well. I accept your surrender," Anwar-Sadat said. "Is there anything else?"
"Yes. Terms. We must have terms."
"Of course. How careless of me. What is a surrender without terms? What were you thinking of?"
"Withdraw your forces to the DMZ."
"Our forces are in the DMZ."
"They are within thirty minutes of Basra. And closing."
"I will have to get back to you on this matter," said the secretary general of the UN coolly, then hung up.
He placed a call to UNIKOM HQ, and received no reply. There were no replies from any of the support units in Kuwait.
"This is quite strange," he muttered. Hitting his intercom, he said, "My car, please."
"Yes, Mr. Secretary."
"No more. I am General Anwar-Sadat now. Address me properly."
"Yes, my General."
In his war room, General Anwar-Sadat received the telex reports. There was only silence from UNIKOM. Utter silence.
"Get me the Kuwaiti ambassador, then."
The call was placed, and the pale blue receiver was laid in his dusky hand.
"Mr. Ambassador, I am receiving reports that my UNIKOM forces have strayed into Iraqi territory."
"I cannot confirm this. I am sorry."
"You sound stressed, my friend. What is wrong?" asked Anwar-Sadar.
"I cannot talk now. I am needed in the war effort."
"War. What war?"
"The drive to crush the hated beast in Baghdad before he can unleash Al Quaaquaa upon the royal family."
And then the line went dead.
Woodenly, his eyes dull, Secretary General Anwar-Sadat replaced the receiver and said, "It is true. Kuwait has attacked Iraq. It is impossible, unbelievable and not a little insane, but it is nonetheless true."
"And UNIKOM?" wondered the aide.
"We must find out." Anwar-Sadat snapped his fingers impatiently, "Quickly, turn on CNN."
"Immediately, my General."
CNN was in the middle of a special bulletin.
"Repeating, United Nations peacekeeping forces are reported operating on Iraqi soil, and at this hour there is no official explanation. But Baghdad has issued an unconditional unilateral surrender and a call for all forces to pull back to their preinvasion deployments."
Anwar Anwar-Sadat turned to his aide. "I gave no order to attack Iraq. Did I?"
The aide consulted a leather date book and shook his head vehemently. "It must be that abject appeaser, Sir Timothy," he said.
Anwar Anwar-Sadat pounded his fist on the chair armrest. "I will have him cashiered for this outrage. We are peacekeepers, not war makers. He is ruining my grand one-world plan!"
The Air Italia flight had hardly leveled out over the Italian countryside when a dark-skinned man in the back came forward and slapped a stewardess out of his way. At the front of the cabin he turned, held up a bottle of some clear liquid and announced, "This is a hijacking."
Chiun looked up from a letter he was reading. "Look, Remo. We are being hijacked."
"Damn," said Remo.
"In the name of the Islamic Republic of Iran, I sentence you all to death. Your crime is flying in the same plane as the godless Master of Sinanju."
"Did you hear, Remo?"
"I heard," said Remo, coming out of his seat.
"You! Stand back! This is a hijacking."
"And this is a counterhijacking."
"You cannot counter my hijacking. I have the bomb."
Remo stopped in his tracks. He fixed the Iranian with his eyes and, holding his gaze, kept talking. "Just take it easy. We can talk this out."
"There is no time for talk, there is only time to die. Where is the evil one who dispenses un-Islamic death? Show yourself."
Chiun stood up and stepped out into the aisle. Bowing his head, he said, "I am Chiun, Reigning Master."
"You will never serve the enemy Iraqi."
"I have made no agreement with Baghdad."
"You lie. They call you Al Quaaquaa, the Ghost. And threaten us with your ways of death. But no more. You will die here and now, and I will dance with the houris."
Remo moved his feet in tiny steps that inched him closer and closer to the shouting terrorist but gave the impression of standing still. He was now four feet away, and inch by inch closed the distance.
The hijacker was raving now, in a mix of broken English and Farsi. He seemed determined to milk his hour of glory for all it was worth. Remo decided if the houris gave out Oscars, he was definitely in the running.
"Oh, please do not kill me, O dangerous one," said Chiun, and Remo kept the betraying smile off his face. The old reprobate was setting the guy up, and he didn't know it.
Two and a half feet from the hijacker, who was pounding his chest and shredding his shirt in a last expression of earthly penitence, Remo struck.
One hand closed around the fist that clutched the bottle of deadly liquid, and Remo brought it up to his bearded face. The hijacker was startled to see the bottle moving independent of his volition. He froze in the middle of a round vowel, and his mouth stayed round as his widening eyes saw with disbelief that the cap was no longer on the bottle's neck.
He heard the soft click of the stopper hitting the aisle carpet, and then the bottle neck was in his open mouth and his head was abruptly jerked back by his short black hair.
The contents of the bottle burned as it went down. He coughed. And out came a jet of bluish fire like his soul escaping.
He was dead when his flame-broiled lips hit the carpet.
"Okay, folks. That's it. Nothing to worry about," said Remo, picking up the body and stowing it away in an overhead bin.
He was applauded and took a brief bow.
Returning to his seat, Remo told Chiun, "Word getting around?"
"We will be rich beyond our wildest dreams. Oh, that I frittered the precious years working for Mad Harold."
"So where are we going next?"
From the pile of FedEx mailers on his lap, the Master of Sinanju lifted one emblazoned with a bloodred flag and a yellow sunburst with sixteen points.
Remo frowned. "I can't read the name."
"It is a name steeped in legend."
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff hadn't slept all night, and now a dangerous new day was dawning over the Potomac River.
He was in his twenty-eighth hour of wakefulness and he stopped counting the coffee cups. He only knew that every time someone dropped a pencil, his gut gave a caffeine jump and another shot of adrenaline coursed through his thick body.
The Mexicans were still on their side of the border. They weren't threatening. They weren't demanding anything. They just stood poised and waiting.
A knock on the door made the JCS chair want to jump out of his tired skin.
"What is it?" he snapped peevishly to the aide who poked his head in.
"We have a NOIWON, General."
"Christ! That is all we need," he said, picking up the telephone.
"This is General Shali. Go ahead," he said.
"It's called Ying Lung, and the Taiwanese are saying it's the counterweapon to the Red Chinese's East is Red!" a breathless voice said.
A second breathless voice interrupted. "Never mind that. The Hungarians—"
"General," a third anxious voice broke in, "our mole in the CSIS reports talk of a new Canadian superweapon called Wendigo."
"One at a time. One at a time, please. CIA. You start."
"Thank you, General. This is Foxworthy. We have reliable intelligence about the Ying Lung. That's Chinese for 'Shadow Dragon.' The Hong Kong press claim it's the counteracting weapon to the Red Chinese East is Red."
"East is Red. Why have I not heard about this before?"
"I have no information on that, General. But we think, based on the name Shadow Dragon, it's some type of stealth weapon. Probably not a plane. Maybe a missile."
" A stealth missile?"
"Our nomenclature analysis suggests this."
"NSA here, General. We have intercepted a communication emanating from Hungary that talks of the Turul, which is some sort of mythological falcon, according to our research. The Hungarians are warning their neighbors that they will not hesitate to deploy Turul if threatened."
"Where did you intercept this information?"
"Hungarian state television, General."
"How secret can it be, then?"
"We don't know what it is. So technically it's still a secret weapon. But the existence of the weapon is no secret."
The general groaned, and drained another cup of cappuccino.
"Next," he said.
"NRO here, General. The South Koreans are also claiming development of a weapon hitherto unknown to the modern world."
"I'm quoting from Seoul Shinmum. That's the chief newspaper in Seoul. Their source is the CIA."
"That's a lie!" the CIA duty officer exploded.
"The Korean CIA," the NRO man clarified.
"Continue," said the general.
"It's called Ch'onmach, which is a kind of flying horse in Korean mythology. We don't know what it is or what it does, I regret to say."
"Damn it, find out!"
• "Sir, this is CIA again. A report just crossed my desk. According to Tokyo Shimbun, the Japanese are announcing a defensive device they call Kuroi Obake."
"What does that mean?"
"We came up with 'Black Goblin,' sir."
"I meant the other word."
"Shimbun? That's 'newspaper.'"
"The same word means 'newspaper' in Korean and Japanese?"
"It's not exactly the same word. It's just similar. Want me to fact check it for you?"
The JCS chair let out a caffeine sigh. "By the way, does anyone have an update on the Mexican crisis?"
"I do," a helpful voice said.
"And who is this?"
"Go ahead, Mr. Chattaway."
"Our latest satellite imaging shows the Mexicans have not moved in the last twenty-four hours."
"Thank you," the general said in a frosty voice. "I already have that intelligence on my desk."
"Never hurts to reconfirm, as they say over at State."
"That will be all," said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before he hung up. A fresh cup of coffee was suddenly at his elbow. He sniffed it before tasting. It smelled like boysenberry fudge swirl, but when he tasted it he decided it was probably cranberry mocha.
Whatever it was, it was going to have to pass for breakfast. There was a lot to do.
If the president of Macedonia—a country referred to insistently as FYR Macedonia by the hostile world and the spineless United Nations—understood one thing, it was the value of a trademark.
Men had gotten wealthy all over the world prior to the emergence of multinational corporations by having the foresight to trademark the name of a famous foreign—usually American—product in the days when American products were confined to America. As the great corporations expanded, they found no serious competition for their colas or their breakfast cereals, just grubby little men who came crawling out of the woodwork bearing legal papers and claiming to have registered the trademark of Pepsi Cola or some such in their native land.
The mighty American companies, having a product and no right to their own name in an alien land, did what their lawyers told them they must do. Buy their own trademark at a dear price or cede rich new market territories to these competitors.
This was the problem the president of Macedonia faced in the wake of the breakup of embattled, fractured Yugoslavia. Suddenly there was no Yugoslavia. Just Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia, all of whom quickly and with great relish began tearing chunks off one another's territories until there was no hope of putting the pieces back together again. Ever.
To survive in this vacuum, the president of what was then the Yugoslavian province of Macedonia understood that he would need a name. One to conjure with. For his patch of the former Yugoslavia lay at the crossroads of the Balkans and was subject to being gobbled up by Greece, Turkey, Albania or Bulgaria, all of whom historically had designs on the area or on their nationals living within it.
And so naturally he chose the name Macedonia, taking the ancient Macedonian symbol of a sixteen-pointed sunburst star—the Sun of Vergina—as its flag.
There seemed no reason not to. No one else was using it. No one had before expressed a problem with a province called Macedonia—even though the historical Macedon of Alexander sprawled over what were today four separate modern nations.
So with the stroke of a pen Macedonia reemerged as a nation once again.
And suddenly a country with untrained conscripts, no tanks or warplanes and no war chest was perceived as a dire threat to mighty Greece and a natural ally of Greece's Balkan rivals, Bulgaria and Albania and Turkey, who themselves didn't get along.
Greece closed it borders. Bulgaria courted Macedonia. Everyone coveted it. To keep order, five hundred U.S. soldiers had to be imported as a protective buffer—which everyone knew might become the tripwire to a new Balkan conflict that could lead to a third great European war.
Applying for admittance to the United Nations, Macedonia was forced to accept the official designation Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, whose disputed flag was the only member state flag in history ever to be barred from flying before the UN Buildings.
It was a slap in the face. The prince among ancient nations was reduced to being the geographical equivalent of the singer formerly known as Prince.
And with the world nervously eyeing this toothless upstart nation, the President of Macedonia had begun to conclude he might better have taken the name Lower Slobovia. That trademark was no longer in force, he understood.
Until his ambassador called from New York City.
"I am flying home at once. You must recall me."
"Why must I recall you?" the president asked.
"Because the Master of Sinanju has returned to the world stage."
"A Master lives?"
"He lives, breathes, speaks and has offered his services to the highest bidder."
"Which cannot be us, I must remind you."
"Sinanju worked for Philip of Macedon. Possibly Alexander, too. Perhaps a yearning for the old days will entice him to Skopje."
In Skopje the president looked out of his office windows at the running River Vardar and his heart swelled. The nostalgia all Macedonians felt for the old days of glory was more potent than ever.
Surely, he thought, agreeing to recall his ambassador to discuss the matter further, the Master of Sinanju would feel the tug and pull of such days in his noble heart.
When the next NOIWON came, the JCS chair was asleep in his chair, his head thrown back, his mouth open and snoring like a water buffalo.
"General, another NOIWON."
Snorting, the general pulled himself together, fumbled his wire-frame glasses onto his nose and asked the aide, "Does this concern the Mexico crisis?"
"I don't know."
The aide came back saying, "It's not about Mexico, General."
"In that case, you take it."
"Yes, you. And I want a complete summary within the hour."
"And don't disturb me again if it isn't Mexico or the President. In that order."
And the JCS chair leaned back, folded his hands over his olive green gut and resumed snorting at the ceiling.
When he awoke two hours later, he was completely refreshed and summoned his chief aide by intercom.
"Coffee and that NOIWON summary. In that order."
"Mocha almond fudge or banana hazelnut?"
Sipping the steaming beverage, the JCS chair leaned back in his seat as the aide summarized the most recent NOIWON.
"CIA says the North Koreans have announced development of a new defensive weapon, Sinanju Chongal. 'Chongal' means 'scorpion.'"
"What's our source?"
"There's that word again." The general's face gathered. "Isn't Rodong their top-of-the-line ballistic missile?"
"I believe that's Nodong, sir."
"I seem to recall it's spelled 'Rodong,' but it's pronounced 'Nodong.' I wonder if there's a connection."
"Shall I look into it?"
The general frowned. "Skip it," he grunted, gesturing for the aide to continue his report.
"The Russians have claimed a weapon of their own. Zholti Zarnitsa. It means 'Yellow Lightning.'"
The general frowned more deeply. "Sounds to me like the Russian equivalent of White Lightning."
And the aide allowed himself a faint military smile.
"The British also claim to have developed what they call 'a frightful new weapon that will revolutionize modern warfare.' Their name for this device is the Wissex Vole."
"Wissex is a town or county. Vole is some sort of burrowing animal, like a mole."
"The British possess a secret weapon that burrows! Could that be a ground missile? Something with a drill for a warhead."
"Seems unlikely. It might be just a name," the aide replied.
"The Turks call theirs the Whirling Dervish. The Germans, Donar. The Danes, Votan. Macedonia has Sveti Perun. These appellations all seem to be mythology-based code names."
"Is that all?" the general prompted.
"No. There are 121 others, much like the previous NOIWON."
"Do we have anything concrete, anything we've heard about before?" asked the JCS chair.
"Well, there is the Holy Spirit."
The general raised his frosty eyebrows.
"The Vatican has issued a statement that in these danger-fraught times they will rely on the protection of Spiritus Sanctus—which is Latin for 'the Holy Spirit.' It's a Catholic thing."
"I know, I know," said the general, who was Catholic.
"Is there a Polish secret weapon?" he asked, because he was also of Polish extraction.
The aide skimmed the summary. "No. No Polish secret weapon."
"There never is," he said dryly. Finishing his coffee, he stared off into space for a long moment. "I would like to be alone," he said quietly.
As soon as he was alone, the JCS chair picked up the telephone and initiated a conference call with the rest of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. When he had everyone from the secretary of the Navy to the commandant of the Marine Corps on the line, he explained the recent NOIWON alerts.
"Do you gentlemen understand what this means?" he asked in conclusion.
"We are in a new arms race and, not only is the USA out of the running, we are probably the chief target."
"Do we know if these weapons are biological, chemical or nuclear?" asked the chief of the Army.
"We do not. But I believe we can assume one thing—these other nations have acquired a common technology. It is obviously something relatively inexpensive, easily produced and requires no exotic material or resources. For there is no question that whatever this Russian Zarnitsa is, it is identical to the Hungarian Turul, and no doubt the same as this El Diablo the Mexicans are threatening us with."
"If we don't know what it is, General, how can we defend against it?"
"That is the key," said the JCS chair. "Our first priority is to identify these terroristic weapons. Get on it. Get your intelligence people on it. I will coordinate everything from this office."
"What about the President?"
The JCS chair groaned audibly. "There is no time for another seven-hour briefing of the President. We will bring him in when we have facts and a counter-option. Get to work, gentlemen. A new doomsday clock is ticking for the United States."
Remo Williams didn't like the looks of Skopje from the air. It looked old, begrimed and a hodgepodge of architectural styles. There were mosques and minarets amid the overly ornate church spires.
"Since when is Macedonia Islamic?" he asked.
Chiun wrinkled his nose at the skyline as the 727 began its descent. "Turks once ruled this land but were driven out."
"Looks like they left their culture behind."
"Turks have no culture. Perhaps the Macedonians have allowed their temples to remain as repositories for surplus grain."
"I see churches, too."
"Carpenter worship has insinuated itself into every land—even Korea. Do not take it seriously."
Remo had a magazine on his lap. "According to this, political rivals assassinated Kim Jong II again. That's the third time he's been reported dead this year. Guess we can take him off the old Christmas list?"
Chiun sniffed and said, "Sinanju does not celebrate Jesus Time, nor will you know that you have truly become my heir in blood, as well as spirit."
But as the plane descended, his hazel eyes narrowed.
"What's the matter?" Remo asked.
"The Vardar does not wind like that."
"Maybe it changed."
"Rivers do not change course. Cities rise and fall, are sacked and rebuilt. A Master of Sinanju recognizes a city not by its buildings, which endure less than common rock, but by its river. For all important cities are built upon the banks of rivers."
A flight attendant happened by, and Chiun asked, "Where are we about to land?"
Chiun sniffed doubtfully and said nothing more.
When the plane landed, all the passengers were told to remain in their seats as an honor guard came to fetch the Master of Sinanju.
"Welcome to Macedonia," said one, beaming.
"That remains to be seen," said Chiun, rising and floating up the aisle.
Following, Remo hissed, "What's the matter?"
"That man is a Tartar."
"That's his problem. He should brush his teeth more."
They stepped out into the top of the air stairs and a forty-six-gun salute, with incidental cannon fire, erupted.
"Hit the deck!" yelled Remo, suiting action to Words.
"Do not be ridiculous, Remo. These people only welcome us."
The second volley came, and there was what seemed to be a resounding echo as a stray tank shell struck a French Mystère Falcon 20. Simultaneously a red carpet unforked like a satanic tongue to end at the bottom of the air stairs as if perfectly dovetailed. It revealed a two-headed black bird that Remo thought looked familiar. Where had he seen it before?
Beaming, Chiun began his triumphal descent onto Macedonian soil.
A man in a green uniform that made Remo think of an opéra bouffe spear carrier strode up to greet them.
In heavily accented English he said, "Welcome to Sofia!"
Chiun started, and the wispy hairs on his chin and over his ears quivered once. "This is not Macedonia," he squeaked.
"Ah, but it is. For Macedonia truly comprises the western lands of Bulgaria, which is pleased to greet you."
"I'm not working for the Bulgarians," Remo said.
"Nor am I," snapped Chiun. "We fly to Skopje."
"Phui! Skopje is not Macedonia, but the capital of liars and irredentists. There is nothing for you there. This is the true seat of Aleksandar Makedonski."
"The House never worked for Alexander, and we demand that you convey us to our proper destination in Macedonia."
"But this is Pirin Macedonia—the true Macedonia."
"And that was your final breath," said the Master of Sinanju, whose sleeves came apart, birthed a hand like a striking adder and, at the exact moment when the Bulgarian's heart was poised to take the next beat, Chiun's fist struck the correct spot over the heart like an old ivory mallet.
The Bulgarian general noticed that his heart skipped a beat, then began to hammer wildly. His breath came in gasps, then did not come at all. Finally he pitched forward on his face and went into full cardiac arrest, his life and his nationalism leaking out of him in a long, slow, cool breath.
Turning on his heel, the Master of Sinanju returned to the plane.
Remo said to the stunned surviving dignitaries, "Do what he says or it'll be a lot worse."
The honor guard hesitated. Then the escape chutes of the jet popped out, began inflating and the frightened passengers started evacuating, along with the flight crew, some of whom broke windows in their urgent need to exit the plane.
"Don't be too long with the replacement crew, okay?" said Remo, and boarded the plane himself.
The jet lifted off less than ten minutes later. It was a short flight, and since there was no need to pressurize the cabin, no one felt the compulsion to close the emergency exit doors before the aircraft took to the skies.
"This is turning out to be harder than I thought," said Remo.
"That was not the Vardar," Chiun sniffed."It was the Iskur. You should have known this."
"I should have insisted we go to Canada first. I could work for Canada."
It was an image-interpretation clerk at the Air Force's National Reconnaissance Office who provided the first key to the problem of the secret North Korean terror weapon.
Walter Clark was an expert on North Korea. During the tense period in the Korean-American relationship, when the DPRK refused to open their nuclear processing plants to international inspection, it was Clark's daily task to analyze oversize satellite images of the various nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and elsewhere.
Relations with North Korea were still in an unsettled state, but everyone agreed they were better off than a year ago, when the two Koreas stood on the precipice of war. Few knew this at the time, but it kept Clark awake at nights.
These days he slept reasonably well for a man whose job it was to spy on the last Stalinist state on the face of the earth.
The call from his superior was tense.
"It's called Sinanju Chongal. It's Pyongyang's secret weapon."
"Is it chemical, nuclear or biological?" Clark asked.
"That's the question of the hour."
"So what do I look for?"
"No one knows. So just look very, very hard, Walter."
As he hung up the phone, in the room where giant photographs and transparencies sat on light tables or hung before backlit wall screens like colorful X rays in a surgical facility, Walter Clark began talking to himself.
"Sinanju. Sinanju. That name sounds familiar…"
He went to his computerized concordance and input the name.
On the green-and-brown 3-D topological map of the Korean peninsula, two red lights winked northwest of the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. There were on the West Korea Bay.
One said Sinanju Eub. The other, simply Sinanju.
And Clark remembered. During the nuke scare—to this day no one knew for sure whether Pyongyang had the bomb or not—he had stumbled upon the bizarre fact that there were two places named Sinanju, virtually next to each other.
Calling up his index, he simultaneously dialed his superior.
"I found it."
"In three minutes?"
"Two-point-five actually," Walter said with restrained pride. "There are two Sinanjus in West Korea. Sinanju Eub is an industrial town. 'Eub' means 'town.' The other is just Sinanju."
"Is it a city?"
"No. That would be Sinanju Si. 'Si' means 'city.'"
"It's an installation, then."
"Just a minute. I'm expanding the picture now." Keys clicked under his tapping fingers, and a red rectangle zoomed in on the twin red dots, expanding the urea within until it filled the screen.
"During the bomb hunt, the dual names were noticed and we conducted deep analysis of Sinanju Eub us a possible nuclear processing center, but they seemed to indicate it was nothing more than an industrial town with no clear military significance."
"But it is a denied area?"
"AH of North Korea is a denied area."
"That's right, isn't it?"
Walter rolled his eyes in silence. Middle managers, he thought ruefully. Aloud, he said, "I have the latest digitized sweep of the area on-screen now, and nothing seems to have changed since last year."
"What about the other Sinanju?"
"As I recall," Clark said, tapping a key, "it was of no importance whatsoever."
The red rectangle squeezed down to the lower red dot, and it exploded into a section of muddy coastline.
"Looks blank. I'm going in tighter."
Keys clicked and the picture bloomed into a close-up.
"Wait a minute," Clark said.
"What have you got? What is it?"
"One minute, sir. This is strange. This is very strange."
"What is? What is?"
"The second Sinanju appears to be a fishing village."
"I agree. There are two strange configurations here, sir. On the beach there are two—I can only call them formations."
"What do they look like?"
"From above they look like two pieces of giant driftwood, but they cast shadows that show their true nature. They look like fangs," Clark said.
"There's one at one end of a section of beach and a matched one on the other. Sort of like curved fangs or maybe horns, except they're quite large and separated by some distance."
"Any supporting facility?"
"Just fishing shacks."
"They can't be fishing shacks."
"I have to agree, sir. If for no other reason than I see a three-lane highway that stops right at the edge of this so-called fishing village."
"Where does it go?"
"Just my question. I'm backing off from the fishing village and—uh-oh, this highway, sir, runs in a direct line from Pyongyang, bypassing Sinanju Eub altogether."
"No one builds a three-lane highway from the capital to a goddamn fishing village."
"I think that's a safe analysis," Walter Clark said dryly.
"Any traffic on that road, Clark?"
"North Korea is chronically low on fuel, private ownership of cars is restricted to less than two percent of the population and in the countryside they're supposedly eating their sandals for want of rice. So it's not strange at all."
"This is super work, Clark. Keep digging."
"Thank you, sir," said Walter Clark a half second lifter the line went dead in his ear. He went back to his screen. This was interesting.
This was very interesting. Why, he wondered, had no one noticed this before?
En route to Skopje, two fast Galeb fighter jets appeared and bracketed the passenger jet. The copilot came back to the cabin, where the winds howled and paper scraps flew, and approached the Master of Sinanju, who sat patiently in his window seat.
"We have been warned to divert to Belgrade or we will be shot down," he reported anxiously.
"Who has warned you of this?" Chiun asked.
"Those Serb fighters on our wings."
"There are only two?"
Chiun signaled for Remo across the aisle. "Dispense with those pests."
Sighing, Remo got out of his seat and began collecting pillows and seat cushion flotation devices until he had two bulging maroon armfuls.
"Try to get ahead of them," Remo told the copilot.
"Yes, yes, but do not get us shot down. I have children."
"Don't sweat it," said Remo, moving to the end of the cabin.
The rest room doors banged loudly in the whooshing cabin winds, and the rearmost emergency exit, which led out to the cone-shaped tail of the plane, hung open to frame blue sky.
Remo whistled patiently as the jet's engines spooled up. Briefly it pulled ahead, outpacing the two fighter escorts, which jinked in and out of view in the open tail.
Remo began pitching pillows and seat cushions at them. Tumbling out like funny marshmallows, they were sucked into the Galeb's intakes with big whoofing sounds.
The jets flamed out, first one and then the other, and when the pilots realized there was no restarting their engines, they hit their seat-eject buttons.
Canopies popped, rocket-assisted ejection seats kicked them upward and out of sight. Since he had a few cushions left, Remo waited for the pilots to descend and tossed pillows at their faces. The slipstream provided the velocity. All Remo had to do was calculate the vectors and let go.
Both pilots received big cushy maroon kisses to their unhappy faces and shook angry fists as the passenger jet pulled ahead and out of view.
Returning to his seat, Remo asked Chiun, "Are we there yet?"
"Stop asking that. You sound like a child."
A page of some newspaper careened toward Remo, like a fluttery bird, and he caught it with an unconscious reflex that turned it into a pea-size ball faster than the eye could follow.
"I've had quieter flights, you know," he remarked, flicking the papery pellet out the rear.
"Be grateful there are no stewardesses to perch on your lap and toy wantonly with your locks."
"After three months on the reservation, I've begun to appreciate stewardesses."
"Would that you appreciated me. I am the one you should appreciate. I and no other."
"I'd appreciate you more if you hectored me less."
"I would hector you less if you appreciated me more."
"You first," said Remo.
And when neither thought the other was looking again, relaxed smiles touched their downturned lips. It was just like the old days.
In his windowless office at CIA headquarters, Ray Foxworthy was bleary eyed from reading all the Intel intercepts crossing his desk. If half of them were to be believed, America was out in the cold while the rest of the world furiously developed some hitherto unknown technology with significant military applications.
The phone rang. He picked it up, one eye scanning a report out of India noting a weapon called Shiva-Urga. It was said to mean an incarnation of the Hindu deity Shiva in his most destructive form.
"Yeah?" he said absently.
"Chattaway. NRO. I could use some help, linguistically speaking."
"Are we NOIWONing here?"
"We will as soon as I nail down a few facts."
"What language?" Foxworthy asked.
"What do you need to know?" Foxworthy asked warily.
"The North Koreans have code-named their secret weapon Sinanju Chongal. I need to know what that means."
"What'll you trade for it?"
"This is national security!"
"And this is my ass if I don't have something to give the Pentagon—same as you."
"Okay, how about we say you came up with the original report, brought it to me, I went back to you on linguistics and we keep the DIA out of the picture entirely?"
"Sounds good to me. Sinanju, you said?"
"Spelled S-i-n-a-n-j-u. We already know 'Chongal' means 'scorpion.' "
"Back to you soonest." Foxworthy disconnected and stabbed an inside-line button.
A dry voice said, "Linguistics."
An Asian voice came on. "Go ahead."
"Sinanju. What does it mean?"
"Exact pronunciation, please."
"The way I told it to you is the way I have it," Foxworthy snapped.
"Well, depending on how the syllables break, it might mean New Hors d'Oeuvres."
"Hors d'ouevres! As in canapes?"
"That's the closest English equivalent."
"Hors d'ouevres isn't English."
"The exact translation of 'anju' is 'something tasty to have with drinks. 'Sin' can mean 'new.' Now, if we assume it's not 'anju' as in hors d'ouevres,' but two separate words, then 'ju' means 'far.'"
"And you said 'sin' means 'new.'"
"So we get New-blank-Far. What's does 'an' mean?"
"That's a long list, starting with a common Korean last name. Without knowing the exact pronunciation, this is as far as I'm willing to take this linguistic analysis."
"That'll do. No sense getting too deep in."
Hanging up, Foxworthy got back to Chattaway at the NRO. "There's some muddiness here, but 'sin' means 'new' and 'ju' is for 'far,' so we have New-something-Far Scorpion."
"Hmm. This is not good. New-something-Far Scorpion. Sounds long-range."
"Well, I guess we're on the NOIWON now."
The other intelligence agencies came on the line, and no one had anything to offer to the analysis as the NRO laid it out.
The JCS chair came on the line and said, "Thank you, gentlemen. This is all I need to know."
And everyone wondered what the JCS chair was going to do about the new North Korean threat that made the atomic bomb seem as dangerous as a runaway cheese wheel.
Over a city whose airport control tower welcomed them to the true Macedonia, the Master of Sinanju looked down at a shining river and said, "They lie."
"What river is that?" Remo asked.
"So where are we?"
Remo consulted a map on his lap. "I don't see any Illyria."
"Country names are transitory. Find the Ishm."
"Right. Oh, here it is. We're over Tiranë. Capital of Albania. I'd better go talk to the pilot."
When Remo came back from the cockpit, he told the Master of Sinanju, "The tower offered him a pile of gold to land us here."
"He has been properly chastised?"
"The copilot can handle things while the pilot's fingers are out of commission."
Finally at the Skopje airport, Remo stepped out first. From the air Skopje looked like Athens. But Chiun had pronounced the river to be the true Vardar.
There was an honor guard, but the uniforms were a different shade of green, though just as bold. A trumpet and drum fanfare began.
When Remo appeared, the artillery salute commenced and a red carpet unrolled like a frog's tongue seeking a fly. When the gold-fringed end reached the bottom of the air stairs, it exposed the sixteen-point golden Sun of Vergina that Remo remembered from the official stationery of the Macedonian government.
Remo called back into the cabin. "We're here!"
Only then did Chiun stride majestically out, his chin up, his hazel eyes agleam.
He took a deep breath that puffed out his chest.
"Yes, this is Macedonia."
"How do you know?"
"The air smells of the Vardar. It smells correct."
"I'll take your word for it," said Remo, who smelled goat cheese and grape leaves and other odors he associated with Greece.
An erect man in a plain business suit wearing a red tie with the Sun of Vergina on it came striding up to meet the Master of Sinanju. His thick silvery gray hair lay close to his skull, as if a flatiron had tamed it.
Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Chiun eyed him haughtily.
"I am who summoned you," the erect man said.
"No one summons the Master of Sinanju, lackey. Where is the king of Macedonia?"
"Yes. I will treat with him and no other."
"But I am he."
"Where are your robes, your crown, your scepter of gold?"
"This is the twentieth century. We have no more of these things. I am the president."
Chiun's face collapsed.
"Democracy," he spit. "If Sinanju is to serve your land, you must appoint a proper king."
"That is all it will take?"
"That and gold."
"We have gold. Some. Yes, if the House requires a king, then I shall be your king."
Then and only then did the Master of Sinanju bow his respects to the ruler of Macedonia.
On the way to the black limousine sporting decals of the Sun of Vergina on the hood, trunk, door panels and hubcaps, the ruler of Macedonia regarded Remo warily and asked, "Are you Greek?"
"Good," said the ruler of Macedonia.
"He is my apprentice," said Chiun.
"A Westerner? Does he have Macedonian blood in him?"
"Definitely not," said Remo.
"Possibly," said Chiun. "He is unfortunately a mutt. There is no telling what ichor befouls the purity of his Sinanju-blessed veins."
"I resent that," Remo declared.
"Better a mutt than a cur," said the ruler of Macedonia as the limo door was opened for him.
He graciously allowed the Master of Sinanju to enter first. Then he stepped in, closing the door on Remo's hurt face.
Remo took a step back and kicked the rear tire flat. The limousine settled, and amid a flurry of retinue and aides, a backup limo pulled up, looking less like the Batmobile than the first.
This time Remo was allowed to climb in first. Next to the chauffeur.
At the presidential palace the ruler of Macedonia excused himself while Remo and Chiun were seated on plush floor pillows and serenaded with lyre and zither music. Songs were sung. All in praise of Aleksandar Veliki—Alexander The Great.
Chiun sat serenely through it all. Remo yawned a lot.
The ruler of Macedonia showed up within the hour, wearing scarlet robes trimmed in ermine. On his silvery head perched a heavy crown of gold adorned with emeralds. The gold looked like gilt, and the emeralds lacked luster and had collected visible scratches.
On the chest of the newly renamed king of Macedonia glowed the Sun of Vergina. Remo was reminded of Captain Marvel and, for lack of something better to occupy his mind, began wondering if they still published his adventures. Remo had liked Captain Marvel as a kid. He was a lot more fun than Superman, who was stuck with that pesky Lois Lane. Though Captain America had his qualities, too.
"And now we will feast!" proclaimed the king of Macedonia in an expansive voice. And all raised glasses of plum brandy in toast to the return of the Master of Sinanju.
Chiun beamed more broadly. His thin eyes narrowed to happy little walnuts of pleasure. His long-nailed hands came together like an infant applauding himself.
"Did you hear that, Remo? A feast. Smith never so much as invited us to break bread in his home."
"Good. I'm starved."
"Hush. The feast is not for our stomachs, but for our souls."
"Still, I'm eating."
"Remember your pledge. No maize."
"Don't remind me."
When the food came, it was conveyed in steaming pots and samovars. There was much lamb, great hunks of beef and fowl and other dishes that delighted the senses with their vibrant colors and scents.
When all was laid out before them and the king of Macedonia had joined them on the floor of his palace dining room, whose Western-style furniture had been cleared out in deference to the more refined sensibilities of the Master of Sinanju, Remo and Chiun both spoke the same sentence in the same beat.
"Where is the rice?"
"Rice?" said the ruler of Macedonia. "Rice is Greek."
"Rice is Korean," said Chiun.
"Rice is food," echoed Remo.
"Have we rice?"
The chief said, "No. Rice is outlawed as a forbidden Greek foodstuff."
Remo started. "You outlawed rice?"
"Greek rice," the Macedonian king said hastily. "Unfortunately we have no Korean rice."
"Japanese rice will suffice," said Chiun.
"Or Chinese," added Remo.
"Alas, we have no rice of any kind due to an unjust Greek embargo."
Chiun's hands fluttered in annoyance. "No rice? No rice? The first Master of Sinanju was paid in rice."
The downcast king of Macedonia brightened. "Truly? You would accept rice in payment?"
"No. I said the first Master, for in the days of the first Master gold was unknown and the first coins lay in the dirt unminted."
"I didn't know that," said Remo, genuinely interested. "I guess that's sorta like Will Work For Food, huh?"
A slap on his knee informed Remo that he was not to interrupt again.
"It was in the days of Master Kum that the House first knew of gold. When offered gold instead of rice, he instead slew the king who requested service."
"Did he keep the gold?" the Macedonian king wondered.
"Of course. For it was payment," Chiun answered testily.
"Later, a king of Lydia named Croesus created the first coins of gold, and Kum, curious of this, sought service of him. When the coin was proffered, it looked to Kum's eye like a kind of food the Japanese made, ornate and appealing to the eye. When the king attempted to show its purity by making tooth marks on it, Master Kum took the coin and attempted to eat it."
"He slay Croesus?" Remo asked.
"No. But as gold and coin became the currency of greatest value in the ancient world, Masters ever since have demanded gold first and other valuables secondly."
"You will not accept rice?" asked the king of Macedonia.
"As tribute, yes. As payment, no. You have gold?"
"Some. Some. But I must tell you about Macedonia."
"Where's the fish?" interrupted Remo.
"In with the stew."
"I can't eat fish stew."
"It is good."
"It has corn floating in it," Remo complained.
"Pick the corn out."
"He cannot taste any food that has been contaminated by corn," Chiun said loftily. "For he has allergies."
Remo hunted among the arrayed dishes with his dark eyes. "You got duck?"
"No duck. But there are many delightful dishes prepared. Sample any. If you like it, eat your fill."
"I'll have water," said Remo unhappily.
A flagon of water big enough to bathe in was hauled in by two strapping waiters.
Remo dipped a finger in, sniffed and sampled it.
"It came from the Varda."
"Brackish," Remo repeated.
Chiun spoke up. "Back to the gold."
"This is a proud land," said the king of Macedonia, beating the sunburst on his chest in his deep pride. "The Serbs conquered us. The Turks conquered us. The Greeks conquered us. But we are still here. We are still Macedonians."
Chiun nodded sagely. "Do you contemplate continued service or a single dispatch?"
"We invite the House of Sinanju to bask in the radiance of the Sun of Vergina for as long as you wish, because our houses share such deep historical ties."
"Yes. Very good. Macedonia is eternal," Chiun stated.
"I am glad you think that way."
"But gold is forever. Duration of service equals the weight of gold. In order to speak of the gold, the service required must be known."
"You may have all the gold in our treasury, if only you will swear allegiance to Great Macedonia," the king said magnanimously.
Chiun's small nose wrinkled up. Remo dipped a cup into the brackish water and sipped slowly through his clenched teeth, hoping to strain out the most disagreeable impurities. To the horror of all, he ended up spitting the water back into the flagon.
The Master of Sinanju raised his voice to cover the rude noise.
"Sinanju will consider extended service, then. And the gold in your treasury will suffice—"
The king of Macedonia clapped his hands together. "Excellent!"
"—providing it is equivalent to the gold bestowed upon the House by the Persian, Darius."
The king stroked his chin carefully. "How much gold was that?"
Eyeing the attentive retinue, Chiun said, "Some matters are best not spoken of in the presence of those who depend upon the gold of the emperor for their comforts."
"Ah." The king leaned forward. An amount was whispered in his ear.
The king froze, leaned back on his cushion and went so pale his scarlet robes deepened to crimson.
"That would be acceptable," he said slowly.
"—if we had such an amount. But we do not."
Chiun frowned. "How much gold does your treasure house contain?"
The king looked left and right and leaned forward. He whispered an amount.
On his cushion the Master of Sinanju stiffened, hazel eyes widening.
All the color drained from his face. He arose, so perfect he might have been a yellow flower seeking the sun.
"Come, Remo," he said in a cold voice. "We must leave this fraud that dare call itself Macedonia, for they have no gold."
The king of Macedonia leapt to his feet. "Please do not go."
"Forget it," said Remo, opening the exit door for the haughty figure of the Master of Sinanju. "Next time remember the rice."
Remo had to drive the limo back to the airport, and when he got there, the entire artillery complement of the Macedonian army sat waiting. Both cannons.
After a knot of sweating officers finished ramming the iron balls into the mouth and tamping them down with ramrods resembling giant Q-Tips, they fired the powder hole with a Bic lighter.
Remo was just exiting the limo when the cannon-ball began whistling in his direction.
One ball arced high from the west. Remo stepped to the rear fender and slammed the trunk lid with a hand that caused it to spring open.
The ball impacted the vertical armored trunk lid, making a wonderful reverberation. The ball stuck to the lid. Remo smacked it with his hand, dislodging it. It toppled into the trunk, and Remo slammed the lid back. The limo stopped rocking on its springs.
The other ball came whistling from the south and, after it whistled over their heads, went whistling happily to the north.
It landed somewhere in a patch of weeds with a meaty thunk.
Climbing aboard the waiting jet, Remo waved to the chagrined artillery officers and closed the door behind the Master of Sinanju.
There was no problem getting clearance. All Remo had to do was promise the tower he'd stop flinging luggage at their heads if they were cleared immediately.
He was thanked for his consideration. Chiun translated.
"What language was that?" he asked Chiun.
"Bulgar," sniffed Chiun.
"I thought Macedonia was Greek."
"Macedonia," intoned Chiun as the jet's wheels left the ground, "is no more."
"We came all this way to do a little business, and not only did we get rooked on a decent meal, but they try to kill us to boot."
That last thought brought a wistful smile of satisfaction to the Master of Sinanju's papery lips.
"There is at least consolation in that."
Remo just rolled his eyes.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff wore his face like a waxen mask. His mouth moved as he spoke in a mechanical fashion, but nothing else did. His voice was grim. His eyes were lusterless stones.
"Mr. President, we are embroiled in a new arms race."
"With whom?" asked the President.
"With everyone outside of Uruguay and Samoa," he said flatly.
It was like a slap in the face to the beleaguered Chief Executive. The grim tone of the JCS chair's voice carried no accusation, but the harsh lash of his words seemed to say, It is your fault and you must deal with it.
"We do not yet understand the nature of this weapon, Mr. President, but we must initiate a response. We cannot—I must repeat this—cannot and must not allow this first phase to pass by without a stern and uncompromising response."
"To who? Mexico?"
Around the Situation Room the faces of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense paled noticeably. No one spoke. All eyes were locked on the masklike face of the JCS chair.
"I do not advocate a ground war with Mexico," he said.
Pent-up breaths were released in a slow rush. Color returned to the faces in the cramped white soundproofed room.
"Let me show you something," the JCS chair said.
From his black valise case came a sheaf of satellite photographs to which were clipped brief typed reports, one for each man in the cramped room. Their chins dropped as their eyes fell on the documents.
"You are looking at an hours-old high-res satellite photograph of an installation on the west coast of North Korea that appears to house the Korean version of this new wonder weapon. Note the three-lane highway and the obvious attempts to camouflage the site as a fishing village."
Everyone agreed that it was a fishing village with its own three-lane superhighway.
"What are these two curved shadows on the beach?" the President asked.
"That," said the JCS chair, "is the question of the hour. I have here a computer-generated image of what they probably look like from ground level."
A glossy color graphic was placed in the center of the table. The President took it. The others leaned in.
It showed, in the vivid paint-box colors of cyberspace, the beach as seen from the water. There was sand, tumbled rock and in the background a cluster of ramshackle fishing shacks.
At either end of the beach was a half arch of what appeared to be natural rock. The tips of both horns faced one another. Pushed closer together, they would form a natural arch.
"Christ!" said the secretary of defense. "These look like the Horns of Old Saint Nick."
"My thought exactly," breathed the President.
"We didn't know what it is. We don't know what it does. Assuming these new terror weapons are one and the same, we have only to locate similar formations in other hostile countries, target them with our ICBMs and we have our countermeasure."
"Don't you mean counterweapon?" asked the President.
"I do not. I mean countermeasure. A counterweapon presupposes a first strike. I am not advocating a first strike here."
Heads nodded around the table. Nobody wanted a first strike. Especially when no one knew what the terror weapon was.
"On CIA maps of North Korea, this installation is called Sin-an-ju. Inasmuch as understanding Korean syllables requires knowledge of the precise Chinese characters the Koreans used to record the name, we cannot with certainty translate this name. CIA thinks it means 'New-blank-far.' Other possible translations are 'New Peace Sandbank' or 'New Place of Peace.'"
"Doesn't sound very threatening," the President said.
"Neither does brainwashing or ethnic cleansing. Or concentration camp—until you understand the terrible reality the words cloak."
"I see your point."
"And do not forget that North Korea calls itself the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. There are at least two lies in that name."
"Three if you count the fact the real Korea is South Korea," the secretary of defense muttered.
The JCS chair grew intent. "Mr. President, consider this suggestion. We target New Peace Sandbank with a submarine-launched SS-20 missile."
"As a countermeasure?"
"As a warning to North Korea and the world. We quietly inform Pyongyang that we have acquired this Sinanju as a retaliatory nuclear target. And then wait."
The President's forehead wrinkled up in slow grooves. "For what?"
"For a global response. If we assume North Korea and these other nations all acquired this new technology from a single arms source, Pyongyang will communicate this intelligence to their suppliers. These suppliers will in turn report this to their clients. Enemy nations will, of course, understand if U.S. satellites can acquire the Sinanju target we can also acquire—" he consulted a sheet of paper "—El Diablo, Al Quaaquaa, Turul and the remaining threat sites."
"—deter," whispered the secretary of defense in the President's ear.
"—these other nations?"
"Mutually assured deterrence," the President said firmly.
"Close enough," the JCS chair commented. "It will buy us valuable time while CIA discovers exactly what this brute does."
"Do it," the President said decisively. Then, turning to his wife, he asked. "That okay with you, hon?"
Off in the corner away from the table, the First Lady sat firmly on her pillow and gave her spouse a sheepish thumbs-up sign.
They were welcomed in Athens. Girls danced. Men danced and lyres not sounded since the days of Ho Megas Alexandros were plucked.
At the presidential palace, Remo asked the Master of Sinanju a simple question. "I thought we don't serve democratic rulers."
"We do not serve presidents. This man is a prime minister. It is different."
"It's not that much different," said Remo, ducking to avoid an attempt to kiss him on the lips by a wine-besotted Greek cabinet minister who was overjoyed that the House of Sinanju would return to storied Athens.
The prime minister was overjoyed, too. Rice lay heaped at their feet in the state dining room. There was fish of all kinds, steamed, broiled and prepared with special sauces. Duck was available. As was goose.
Remo dug in.
"The Greeks know how to throw a shindig," he said happily.
"We have yet to see the color of their gold, or sink our mighty teeth into its legendary softness."
"Soft gold is good, right?"
"Soft gold is best."
The prime minister was making a speech in his native tongue. It went in one of Remo's ears and out the other. Food was going into the hole that mattered. But his tongue craved corn.
"With the House of Sinanju with us, Pseudo-Macedon will never threaten Athens."
"Macedonia wouldn't threaten a flea," said Remo. "They have all of two cannon."
"Bah. They are monsters who have stolen our heritage."
Toasts were drunk next. Remo and Chiun declined all wine and entreaties to sample more exotic fare. That it was offered them was enough, Chiun whispered.
As the evening wore on, the alcohol took hold, and the Greeks began telling sad stories of their fallen glory. Alexander was cited often. As was Philip of Macedon. But Alexander was the name that fell from every lip most often.
"Tell us. Tell us what your histories say of Alexander," the Greek prime minister insisted.
Chiun pursed his lips. "The House served Philip, Alexander's father."
"Yes, yes, of course. Philip was a great man, in his way. But he was no Alexander, who was a true Greek. Favor us with tales of Alexander, who was truly great."
"I do not know those stories, I am sorry," Chiun said hastily. "The greatness of Alexander came at a time when the House was preoccupied with the Peacock Throne."
"The Persians were great, but not so great as Alexander, who conquered them," a cabinet minister said loudly. "But surely you have tales to tell us."
"Go ahead, Little Father," Remo prompted. "Tell them."
"I know these tales imperfectly and would not wish to sully the memory of your Alexander with my poor attempts."
Someone pointed at Remo. "You! Tell us stories if you know any."
"He knows nothing, being but a servant of Sinanju," Chiun said quickly.
"I'm a full Master," Remo said hotly.
"A servant full of ambition," Chiun sniffed. "He aspires to head the House."
And everyone laughed at the idea of a white American heading the greatest house of assassins in human history.
"You wouldn't laugh if Chiun told you the true story of Alexander and the House of Sinanju," Remo said.
Chiun's eyes flashed in warning.
"What story?" asked the prime minister. "We must hear this story."
Since he'd eaten his fill and was growing tired of Greek men trying to kiss him with their wine-dyed lips, Remo decided it was time for a little payback.
"When Alexander was trying to conquer the world, the House was between emperors. Alexander brought down the Persian empire, which was the best client the House had in those days, and so when the Master at that time heard about it, he swore to get Alexander."
A hard silk-clad elbow caught Remo in the ribs.
"Silence," Chiun hissed in Korean.
"Go on, go on!" the Greeks urged.
Chiun interrupted. "He knows no more, being only an apprentice Master of Sinanju."
Remo grinned. Score one for him.
"He must tell. We do not know this story. Please."
"It is only a fable," said Chiun.
"We accept fables. Many of the stories we tell are fables. We prefer fables to true stories, for they are truer."
"Okay," said Remo. "The Master sent a message to Alexander by handpicked messenger. When he got it, Alexander threw it away because it was written in Korean. He didn't know Korean."
A sea of Greek faces looked perplexed.
"Yes, continue, please."
"The handpicked messenger had a disease. Alexander caught the disease from the messenger. Then he died."
The faces looked expectant. "Is there no more to the story?"
"Just what the message said."
The hard elbow caught Remo in the ribs again, just as—but not before—he said, "Gotcha."
A hushed silence fell over the state dining room.
"Sinanju slew our precious Alexander," a man whispered in Greek. "It was not a natural death. It was an assassination. All these centuries and we did not know."
"And after all these centuries, we have invited the filthy murderers into our country," said the Greek prime minister in a voice as tight as a violin string.
Hearing this, Chiun groaned aloud.
"Guess it's time to seek our fortune elsewhere," Remo undertoned. "Huh, Little Father?"
Chiun said a steamy nothing.
They were allowed to leave. Their departure was attended by a cold silence and stony regards.
On the way to the Athens airport, their taxi—they were denied use of an official car—was strafed by matched Greek warplanes.
Remo removed the door on his side and, leaning out of the hurtling cab, flung it up into the sky. It clipped off a wing, and that was the end of one plane.
The other followed at a respectful distance, strafing only for show.
Settling back in his seat, Remo said in a contrite voice, "Sorry. You ticked me off back there."
"I will forgive you if you forgive me first," said Chiun.
"Let me think about it. My feelings are really hurt."
"My feeling are more hurt than your feelings, so you must be the first to grovel."
"Groveling is out."
"Then you may go to your grave unforgiven."
"You first," said Remo.
As the taxi careened through the choked streets, evading an intermittent, steely rain, Chiun's mood brightened.
"It is just like the old days where glorious danger lurked everywhere," he cackled.
Remo just rolled his eyes.
The president of South Korea smoked a filtered Turtle Ship cigarette as he listened to the report from the director of Korean Central Intelligence. The Minister for unification sat bolt upright, his features slack with concern.
Seoul traffic hummed and blared outside the conference room of the presidential palace.
"Radio Pyongyang has announced it controls Sinanju," he said simply.
A grave hush filled the smoky room.
At length the president said, "We are all doomed."
"Northern disinformation cannot be ruled out," the Korean CIA director added.
The president slammed his fist on the table. "Why did the Americans let him slip from their grasp! There is no protection from the Master of Sinanju. It is said he can walk through walls, swim underwater for a day without exhaling and in proper light seem invisible."
"Disinformation," the director repeated.
"We cannot assume that! We must know!"
"Our spies in Pyongyang know only what they hear, which is what is coming out of Pyongyang and not necessarily the truth."
"We must know!" the president repeated. "It means my life. All our lives."
The Korean CIA director looked helpless. "What can we do?" he asked.
The unification minister opened his mouth hesitantly. "We could consult a mansin," he said quietly.
The Korean CIA director blinked through the haze of his own Milky Way cigarette smoke. "A fortuneteller?"
"No," the president said firmly. "Better. A mudang!"
Ah, they agreed. A mudang, yes. Much better. Everyone knew that country witches were more far-seeing than city witches.
Twenty minutes later an unmarked black Pony sedan conveyed them from Seoul to the countryside, where they would learn the truth.
In Hanoi, Remo and Chiun were met by generals who offered gold and jewels beyond compare, then escorted them to an armored vehicle that had a steel ring welded to the top.
A giant helicopter dropped out of the sky, hooked onto the ring and lifted the armored vehicle up into the air only to drop it down the mouth of an extinct volcano. When the two victims subsequently climbed into the cockpit with him, the pilot was only too happy to fly them to the destination of their choice. And he got to keep his head.
In Kabul there were more generals with smiling faces and plastic charges strapped about their ample middles. They approached with the helpless stares of living dead men, and before their fingers touched the detonators in their sweaty palms, Remo and Chiun threw themselves into high reverse and outran the flying bone fragments and shreds of human meat.
On an Air India flight, a dewy-eyed stewardess with green fingernails tried to scratch them. But her nails smelled not of enamel but extract of cobra, and Remo caught up her hands while Chiun methodically extracted her nails one by one and made her swallow them.
After that the other dewy-eyed, green-nailed stewardesses sat very still in their seats and offered them no food or drink.
"Let's face it, Little Father," Remo said as they remained in their seats at the Bombay airport while the honor guard tried in vain to entice them from the refueling aircraft with discordant band music and songs of Sinanju's service to Moguls past. "No one can afford us except America."
"And not even America. China is growing. We will go to China. And demand every peasant and rice farmer pay us a single coin if we agree to work for the Middle Kingdom."
Remo whispered. "That's a lot of coins."
"A lot is never sufficient."
But in China there were problems, too. A little matter of a Long March ICBM.
The Chinese bowed and scraped in their gray-and-green Mao jackets and swore deep and abiding fealty to the Master of Sinanju behind their bland smiles.
"We offer you more than gold," said a functionary in the Great Hall of the People. He was the fifth functionary that had greeted them. And there remained a long ladder of functionaries between them and the premier, who some said was ill.
"There is nothing more than gold," Chiun returned in the singsong language of the Han.
"We have a space program now."
"Sinanju already possesses a piece of the moon. It is but a gray rock. One is sufficient."
"Did you know that no Korean has ever entered into space?"
"There is nothing in space," countered Chiun with disdain even as his hazel eyes lit with slow interest.
"True. There is nothing in space. Nor will there be anything in space of value until a Korean breathes the clear, pure air of the Great Void."
Chiun's eyes gleamed more. Sitting off to one side, Remo could only listen without clear understanding. He didn't know Chinese, the language they conversed in. Only the words Chinese and Korean shared in common.
"Tell me more," whispered Chiun.
"Men who journey into space are more renowned than any. Their names will be sung down through the ages."
"As will mine. I expect to be known as Chiun the Great to my descendants, and those who follow. Perhaps Chiun the Great Teacher."
All eyes went to the oblivious round-eyed foreign evil who had accompanied the Master of Sinanju to Bejing, and it was agreed that the honorific "Great Teacher" was certainly warranted.
"Greater renown than even yours will befall the first Korean in space. You would not wish this to be a South Korean."
"South Koreans are lazy and stupid."
"All know northerners are more hardy and brave in the extreme."
"I work for gold not glory," said Chiun.
"Some gold can be yours."
Chiun touched his wispy beard. "How much?"
And an amount was mentioned. Delicately. It was so Chinese. The words might have been apricot blossoms falling onto grass. They caressed the senses.
"That much gold and the opportunity to be the first Korean to venture alive into the Great Void is acceptable," said Chiun.
"The rocket ship awaits."
"Hold. Do not think you can trick me. Our bargain is not yet struck."
The Chinese dignitaries sat unmoving. An expression of perplexity touched their still foreheads.
"You offer payment before service. That is not the way of the Han."
"The rocket ship is ready to depart. It will go with a Chinese celestial pilot if you do not go today. Consider this the down payment. The gold will come later."
Chiun made a thoughtful face, deepening his wrinkles. In a corner of the room, Remo yawned broadly.
"I have encountered enemies of late who cannot afford Sinanju and would do without if only Sinanju might be snuffed like a candle," Chiun remarked slowly.
The Chinese expressed astonishment at such perfidy existing in the modern world.
"I will be transported into the Great Void?" Chiun asked next.
"Yes," they agreed.
"Absolutely," they promised.
And so the bargain was struck in the Great Hall of the People.
Standing up, Chiun strode over to Remo. "I must go now, but I will return."
Remo stood up. "Where are you going?"
"On a short journey."
"Where only a Reigning Master may venture. You cannot follow. I am sorry. Await me here."
"You're not leaving me here with these guys, arc you?"
"You may beg and you may grovel, but you cannot accompany me into the pure air of the realm I am about to plumb."
"Give me a hint."
"No, await me here."
"Okay," said Remo. But as soon as Chiun left, he slipped out an unguarded window.
People's police tried to stop him. Remo broke their rifles and handed them back. Then they tried to tackle him. Remo broke a few wrists and ankles by way of discouragement.
Then they tried to run him down with a long black official car.
Remo stopped perfectly still and let them.
At the last possible second, with the grille bearing down on him, Remo executed a standing backflip and landed in a tiger's crouch on the strong steel car roof.
The car circled and screeched and, when there was no sign of a flat dead American, it straightened out and raced after the line of official limousines bearing the Master of Sinanju.
Atop the car Remo smiled tightly. Maybe he'd get to go with Chiun after all.
Her name was unknown, but in Suwon Province she was known as the Wart Woman. When she answered the door to her crumbling hovel, her face was aboil with warts through which she smiled toothless and foolish.
"Enter," she cackled. She wore a faded cinnabar hanbok dress. A cataract clouded one eye. Her black hat rose to a scarlet peak.
Inside, the room was filled with hanging costumes, arcane musical instruments and the dang shrine where she entreated the spirits of the dead.
After they placed four hundred won into the mouth of a boar's head, she asked, "Which spirit general would you consult with? The Fire General? The Lightning Bolt General? General White Horse? Or—"
The president of South Korea hesitated. It was a difficult choice. The choice of spirit general would have a very great impact upon the value of the wisdom dispensed.
He consulted with his advisers in hushed tones.
"The Fire General," urged the unification minister.
"No, the White Horse General," the CIA director insisted.
Waving at them to be quiet, the president spoke to the Wart Woman, by reputation the most oracular Mudang in all of Korea.
"Can you summon MacArthur?" he asked.
"Hee-hee! MacArthur will speak to you through my mouth."
Flinging herself to the racked clothing, she donned a khaki military uniform and service cap. At her dang shrine, she performed certain rites, singing in a caterwauling voice.
The kut had begin.
Soon she was in a trance and flinging herself about the room. Abruptly she fell into a sitting position on the floor, looking at them with eyes that were no longer hers. Even her face lost its semisenile looseness.
"Gentleman," she said through her bobbing corncob pipe, "what seems to be your problem?" All three men would have sworn her new voice belonged to General Douglas MacArthur, savior of South Korea—if only Truman had shown wisdom.
"The new peril from the North," the president stammered. "Is it real?"
"The foe you fear is headed for Pyongyang right this minute."
The president swallowed hard. "What is your advice to us?"
The three leaders leaned forward to await the wisdom from the rubbery lips of the Wart Woman, who spoke in the true voice of the great American general.
"Attack!" she said.
The Master of Sinanju was escorted to an underground complex in a fenced-off area immediately south of Beijing.
As he entered, accompanied by high-ranking generals and others, he surveyed the flat surrounding countryside and said, "I see no rocket."
"It is underground," he was told.
"American rockets stand upon the ground, no doubt so as to save fuel because that places them closer to the sky," another said.
"Russian and American armies are jealous of our rockets, for they are the greatest in the world," said a third. "They would bomb them if they could find them. So we are forced to place them safely underground."
"Ah," said the Master of Sinanju as they passed steel door upon steel door that had to be rolled back with dual keys turned by two hands standing on opposite sides of the corridor. This, he was informed, was a security measure so no unauthorized person could unlock the doors.
At the end of a concrete corridor lay a great door like the one King Solomon had barring his treasury, according to Master Boo.
"You may enter the rocket."
"I see no rocket."
"The inside of the rocket is behind this door. You have only to enter, the door will be closed and sealed and the ride into destiny will begin."
"Very well. Open the door to destiny."
It was done with three men turning three keys this time, and the thick steel door parted in the middle, the sides separating.
A dark space was revealed. Machine smells came from within, offending the nose of the Master of Sinanju. He hesitated.
"Enter please. We are ready to launch."
Chiun faced them, eyes and voice knife-thin. "Know, soldiers of the Han, that if you fail to bring me back correctly, a great and terrible punishment will be inflicted upon you by my son, who may be white but is true to Sinanju."
The faces of the Han were suddenly still. Their eyes glittered as their lids compressed. If they took offense, it didn't show.
With that, the Master of Sinanju entered the dank chamber, and the great doors resealed with a empty clang.
In the darkness the thin eyes of Chiun gathered the dying shards and fragments of light and assembled them so that he could see.
The chamber was a concrete cylinder and hung with great electrical cables. Water dripped, stagnant and old. Somewhere a rat skittered on the broken floor. The chemical smell was overpowering, so the Master of Sinanju began breathing shallowly.
Looking up, Chiun beheld a great dark maw suspended over his aged head, like a tremendous bell, much like the one employed by the kings of the Silla Kingdom to punish criminals by inserting their heads into the hollow and setting the metal to violent ringing by pounding mallets.
Except there was no room for mallets or men between the bell and the great concrete cistern in which it hung.
But somewhere above, something went click like an electrical relay closing. And great engines began to turn, so slowly that only the ears of a Master of Sinanju could detect their first faint revolutions.
The official Hong Qui—Red Flag—car slithered through the installation checkpoint without Remo being noticed.
As it approached, he had slid off the car roof and was clinging to the side where no one could see him, not the passengers, not the gate guard on the opposite side.
When the vehicle rolled inside, Remo looked around. He saw tall grass and a few funny-looking gingko trees.
As the car slowed in its approach to a bunkerlike building, he noticed the green steel missile silo roof door on its sliding track several hundred yards away, fringed by gingko trees to provide overhead camouflage.
"Uh-oh," he said to himself, "looks like an underground missile site. Better find Chiun fast."
The car doors opened and the passengers emptied out in a rush. One stumbled and was called by the other, "FangTung!"
And suddenly Remo remembered that pungent phrase had been used by the nameless drive-by killers back in Massachusetts.
Coming out of his crouch by the car, Remo slipped up behind the two officers as they approached a blank steel door in the concrete blockhouse.
One inserted a magnetic keycard, the door began rolling open and Remo reached out and took each man by the spine.
They had time to bleat out the first microsecond of what was meant to be a blood-curdling scream. But all electrical and brain activity ceased when their spines exited their backs, pulling out all life. Without lumbar support, they fell into each other and collapsed. Remo stepped over them.
Inside he wasted no time.
"Chiun, where are you?"
That brought three PLA guards in green running.
If their slack-jawed expressions meant anything, the sight of a Westerner stupefied them into inaction. So Remo stepped in and blended their Kalashnikovs into a kind of fuzzy metallic cocoon in which their arms were inextricably tangled.
He moved on, leaving them to their helpless weeping.
There were layers of steel control doors and matching guards along a single corridor with no branching paths. That took away all the guesswork. Remo simply bulled through.
Doors meant to be opened electronically surrendered to the pressure of his steel-hard fingers insinuating themselves into stout frames and forcing them apart.
Guards tried to stop him with a combination of bullets and kung fu. The kung-fu boys got the worst of it because their weapons were part of their bodies, and Remo felt obliged to disarm everybody so he could get out again without problems.
Once bloodied stumps began flying about, no one tried to kung fu Remo Williams again. In fact, resistance pretty much died down. PLA security forces retreated like scientists in a B-grade fifties horror film before the rampaging monster.
"Great," Remo grumbled. "By the time I reach the end, I'm going to have to take out a small army."
When he forced the last door open and found himself in a control room, Remo demanded in a loud voice, "Where is my father!"
Perhaps it was the sight of the mad foreign devil with the powers of the gods. Perhaps it was the sheer mounting terror his crashing intrusion had caused. Or maybe it was just that nobody clearly understood English.
The huddled knot of frightened and trembling officials said nothing.
But from behind a great double steel door, the squeaky voice of the Master of Sinanju called, "I am here, son in truth!"
And then Remo spotted a hand surreptitiously trying to turn two firing keys at once at a corner console.
"Chiun! Get outa there!" said Remo, racing for the door.
On the other side the Master of Sinanju heard the urgency in his adopted son's voice and dug his long nails into the crack between the two steel door valves. He pushed aside the weaker of the two. Stubborn, it began to screech in complaint.
As the door resisted, he sensed Remo on the other side, pushing the other valve in the opposite direction.
"Hurry, Remo! For I hear machines."
"You're underneath a fucking nuclear missile, and it's about to launch!" Remo yelled.
And the doors, mighty, implacable, surrendered with howls and shrieks of protest as the muscle and bone and will of the two mightiest human beings on the face of the earth pitted their inexhaustible energies against the tempered steel.
The doors parted, the Master of Sinanju slipped out like a silken ghost and, as he stood free once more, behind him grew a dull roar.
"Let's go!" Remo screamed.
The others tried to run, too. But they were but mortals, flat and flabby without training or proper breathing.
Only a Master of Sinanju was fleet enough to out-race catastrophic death.
The great Long March missile belched fuel and trembled as the silo roof rolled back on its tracks to allow it to take wing.
Remo and Chiun zipped through the corridors strewn with the dead and out of the blockhouse.
Throwing himself flat, Remo yelled, "Get down!"
Chiun dropped in the lee of the blockhouse. The air was shaking. Songbirds uplifted from the sparse gingko trees, frantic and wild.
With a majestic slowness the lipstick red nose cone of the Long March missile emerged from the earth like a dormant giant and lifted and lifted until it stood poised on a column of white-hot chemical fire.
The boiling air consumed treetops, branches, even birds on the wing, who were scorched to charred bone and dropped to the ground more like spent coal than dead things that once lived.
Roaring and roaring, the missile vaulted into the sky.
The air shook for a long time after it was gone.
When it was safe, Remo stood up. "It's okay, Little Father."
"Not for those who sought my life," said the Master of Sinanju, for from the blockhouse door crept tendrils of smoke that mixed chemical rocket fuel with the unmistakable sickly sweet smell of roasted human flesh.
"What the hell was that all about?" Remo wanted to know.
Chiun patted his kimono clean of dust. "I was to be the first Korean in the Great Void," he said unhappily.
"You were almost the first human Korean barbecue. By the way, those guys who tried to kill us back home? Chinese. Probably sleeper agents."
"How do you know this?"
"Each time someone swore in Chinese. Any idea what 'Fang Tung' means?"
Chiun nodded. "It is an Han insult, meaning 'turtle's egg.' Come, Remo. Obviously there will be no service to be had from the Han."
"Where to next?"
"Great," Remo said dispiritedly.
"I am glad you approve," the Master of Sinanju said blandly as he allowed Remo to hold the Chinese limousine door open for him.
"I'd prefer Canada. They're not big on violence up there."
"A client who does not fear Sinanju would not appreciate Sinanju," Chiun sniffed. "Even Smith had the good taste to shoot at me when he realized Sinanju was lost to him."
Remo jumped behind the wheel and got the car going. "Smitty did that? Why didn't you tell me?"
The Master of Sinanju rearranged his kimono skirts carefully. "We were leaving America. I did wish you to see him in a good light, ere you cling to your homeland with the stubborn nostalgia of your past."
No one knew when it would happen, or even if it would happen at all.
But everyone knew how it would happen. The elements had been in place for more than forty years, strung along the most heavily armed and fortified border in human history. The scenario had been analyzed and war-gamed to death.
Every simulation assumed a sudden thrust from the north, overwhelming the entrenched southern forces. Seoul would fall. There was no denying that.
Victory, if it was to happen, would come in the counterattack, it was assumed.
All the scenarios were wrong. They were wrong for a very specific reason.
They assumed North Korea would attack South Korea. Ultimately it didn't happen that way.
General Winfield Scott Hornworks knew it was a mistake. A colossal mistake. It was the mistake of mistakes. The mother of all mistakes.
He liked to use that phrase, "mother of all mistakes." "Mother of all hemorrhoids" was another favorite. As the general who had led the multinational United Nations force to victory in the Mother of All Battles, better known as the Gulf War, he felt he had some basis for being an authority on the subject. The decision, handed down by the JCS, was the biggest pain in the ass to come his way since the Tet Offensive.
"Are you out of your cotton-picking mind? Sir," General Hornworks had barked barely a year before.
"The decision has been made at the highest levels, General. We are turning operational control of all South Korean forces over to the South Koreans. You ire relieved of all responsibility for ROK troops."
"Begging your pardon, sir," General Hornworks had said in a strangled voice. "But if damn Kim Jong II takes a mind to send his forces south, unified command and control is gonna be all-important to victory. We do want victory here in the Land of the Rising Sun, don't we?"
"It's 'Land of the Morning Calm. 'Rising Sun' is Japanese."
"So noted, sir," said General Hornworks. "But getting back to the catastrophe at hand—and make no mistake, we've got us a beaut on the horizon if this Hoes through."
"It's through. Decided. Live with it, General."
"It ain't the living with that rankles me, sir. It's the dyin' from it. We got over a million North Koreans hanging over our heads like so many human cluster bombs. They get the word and next thing you know they'll be pouring across the damn DMZ, yelling 'Mansai!'"
"I think you're thinking of the Japanese again."
"Allow me to correct you, sir. The Japs yell Banzai. The Koreans yell Mansai, and my silver-haired daddy told me enough stories about his days in the Korean War to freeze the blood. It was worse than Nam. I don't want to live through what my poor daddy did. So you gotta get this asinine decision re pealed. Sir."
"It's final. I'm sorry. But the thinking in Washing ton is that even with the economic aid we're providing Pyongyang, the regime will collapse of its own weight. Then the South can take control without fir ing a shot."
"That's a right pretty theory, sir. But the Koreans have a little saying of their own."
"I die, you die, all die."
The JCS chair had nothing to say to that. He gave General Hornworks his best and wished him Godspeed. And General Hornworks duly thanked him and spent the next hour retching up solids.
Retirement had beckoned General Winfield Scott Hornworks after his miraculous triumph in the Gulf War. Some talked of running him for high office. The truth was, all he wanted was to get the sand out of his boots and the Arab allies out of his hair.
So when he was offered the position of supreme commander of joint Korean defense forces, he had leapt at it. This was Cold War stuff. General Hornworks had grown up in the Cold War. He understood the Cold War. He didn't understand the Middle East or what the Pentagon was now calling OOTW—Operations Other Than War. He was a soldier. Trained to fight. Not keep the peace.
Holding the line against the godless Commies. That, General Winfield Scott Hornworks understood.
Just as he understood that if it came to all-out war, his ass was hanging out, politically and corporally.
So when General Hornworks was relieved of control over ROK forces, he began each day personally walking the wire, looking for gaps and spy tunnels that might be a prelude to the long-feared invasion.
Barbed wire ran across the Thirty-eighth Parallel like an unhealed scar, but in the end Hornworks knew force fields couldn't hold back the North. They had, per capita, the largest standing army on earth, and as the months rolled by, the frontline forces were getting hungrier and colder and less and less likely to listen to whoever was supposed to be in charge in Pyongyang.
No one knew anymore. Some said Jong was dead. Others said he had been imprisoned while his half brother, Kim Pyong II, ran things. Others said both were dead and the generals ran the show.
Even though he was a general himself, this was Hornworks's worst-case scenario. The North was slipping into famine and deprivation. Generals fight wars. They don't build industries or feed people. If push came to shove, the generals would send all of North Korea south to chow down rather than see their egg-sucking asses hanging from Pyongyang lamp posts.
As he walked the line, the first snap of the fall was in the air. Over on the other side, the enemy had traded in their green helmets for Russian-style fur hats. Winter was coming. And with it more cold and the gnawing winter hunger that moved mountains. And motivated armies.
Satisfied that the line hadn't been breached through the night, he started back for his Humvee. The clattering of an OH-58 Bell helicopter came to his ears.
The chopper dropped onto the cold ground, and a major came running out, white as a ghost, saluting reflexively.
"General. They're on the move!"
"No! God in heaven say it isn't true. Tell me we're not talking a damn Northern human-wave assault."
"We're not, sir."
"Then what the hell are you jabbering about?" the general asked.
"Sir! It's the ROK forces."
"What about them?"
"They're moving this way."
"What in tarnation for?"
"No one knows. But they look hell-bent on war."
Climbing into the chopper, General Hornworks was taken upstairs in jig time. The chopper turned south, clattering angrily.
A triple column of tanks was rolling up Unification Road. Highway 1. The main invasion path.
"They must know something we don't. Where's that field phone?"
The bulky instrument hit Hornworks's meaty paw with a hearty smack.
"Hello. Get me Intelligence." The line crackled. "What the hell is going on up there in the North?"
"Nothing, sir. Why—"
"The South Koreans are moving into preinvasion positions. Why don't we know about it?"
"They're pretty upset, as you know, that we're talking to the North."
"Don't give me that political bullcrap, I want the latest on Northern troop deployments."
As he waited, General Hornworks cast a weary eye to the mountains above Seoul. In those mountains, he knew, Korean heavy artillery was hunkered down behind blast doors that opened and closed only long enough for one shell to be fired. God knew how many tanks were massing.
The line stopped buzzing and the voice came back. "General, the North is quiet. I say again, the North is quiet."
"Then what in Sam Hill is going on down here!"
No one knew. But the tanks rolled and overhead, Korean F-18s roared up from Onsan air base.
"I do not like the looks of this," said General Winfield Scott Hornworks in possibly the mother of all understatements.
Sergeant Mark Murdock had Truck duty again. He hated Truck duty. But in his unit everyone took his turn behind the wheel of what could only be called "the Truck."
It was a deuce and a half. Parked smack in the middle of the Bridge of No Return, bridging North and South Korea. It was kept perpetually running, the brakes on, ready to be popped into gear. The Truck's ass end was backed up to the barrier bisecting the bridge that said Military Demarcation Line. On the other side was North Korea. The most dangerous regime on the face of the earth.
If the alarm sounded, it was Murdock's job to slam the Truck into reverse and bottle up the main bridge through which a North Korean invasion would surely come. As everyone knew it would come.
It was not inevitable. And in the past year it seemed some weeks a hell of a lot less likely than anytime in the past forty years. But in that same time frame, Sergeant Murdock knew, the two Koreas had been closer to total war than at any time since 1953.
And it was Sergeant Murdock's unhappy, frequent duty to be the man designated to hold the bridge against a million ferocious invaders.
When he heard the clanking of tanks, his blood froze. His hand going to the stick shift, he waited for the alert siren.
No siren roared. The clanking of tanks grew. There had to be hundreds of them. The ugly sound reverberated off the surrounding mountains and filled Murdock's fear-shrunk brain.
Eyes going to the rearview mirror, he searched the impenetrable darkness of the Hermit Kingdom. There should be lights. Some sign. "Jesus Christ, where's the siren? What do I do?"
He wanted to bolt the Truck. He wanted to sound the alarm himself if those UN idiots wouldn't. But he knew he would be shot for dereliction of duty, because his first duty was to block the bridge.
Blocking the way was the same as kissing his ass goodbye, he knew. The bridge was a narrow thing of iron, vaguely rustic, and once he plugged it with the Truck, he was stuck. The doors wouldn't open. He would be the first ground casualty of what was estimated to be two million war dead.
On the other band, if somebody didn't sound the fucking alarm, all his buddies would join him in Hell.
In the end he made the smart choice. When the sound he imagined to be T-55 and T-62 battle tanks filled the night, Murdock got out of the Truck.
Just in time.
The first tanks clanked up and, without much pause, climbed the vibrating Truck hood. The drab steel caved, breaking the engine block and making the front tires pop like overstressed balloons.
The grinding cacophony of steel treads mangling a two-and-a-half-ton truck was almost unendurable.
Hunkered in the darkness, Sergeant Mark Murdock propped his upper body by his elbows and protected his ears with his cupped hands.
His eyes were as round as saucers in the night as he watched the ROK tanks with their tiger insignia one by one take their turn flattening the Truck as they rolled in single column over the Bridge of No Return___
And all he could think of was the certain response from Pyongyang. If they had the bomb, it would soon be screaming Seoul way perched atop a Rodong or Nodong I missile—however they pronounced the damn thing.
Since the earliest days of the land of Korea, Pyongyang was. From the days of Ancient Chosun, when it was called Asadal and was established as the first Korean capital, through the Three Kingdoms period to the present day, Pyongyang endured. Invaded many times, subject to foreign occupation and bombed virtually flat during the Korean War, it had been rebuilt each time, greater than before.
Pyongyang was a special city. People didn't go hungry in Pyongyang, no matter the famines that prowled the countryside. There were great streets in Pyongyang, which sparkled because few drove automobiles. The buildings reared up gray and strong, and as long as no one walked the floors too heavily, the concrete remained solid.
In the farthest corner of this special city was a tall concrete building, eighteen stories high, but extending fourteen stories into the bedrock of Pyongyang. On the lowermost floor, in the farthest corner, behind doors of steel that no bombs could reach, a North Korean general listened to what had happened at the Thirty-eighth Parallel.
A colonel gave him the report. His name was Nekep. A few people knew him. The general's name was Toksa. Pullyang Toksa. Everyone in Pyongyang knew of him, but few had seen him. He alone reported to the premier of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea personally. He did this every day. Pullyang Toksa told the Supreme Leader what was going on in the world.
In Pyongyang one judged one's importance by how deep one's office was, a remnant from the days when, American bombs fell all over the north. Colonel Nekep had never been this deep, and Pullyang Toksa had never asked questions before. But this time he personally had ordered the colonel from the Ministry of Intelligence to tell him everything.
"The Master of Sinanju has been seen in Beijing, General," said Colonel Nekep.
"He will not work for Beijing," said General Toksa.
"He is in Beijing."
"The mandarins in Beijing will not meet his terms, for their gold sits in their fists too tightly." He shook his head firmly. "No, the Master of Sinanju will next come here, and when he does he will gladly work for us."
"But we have not such gold as he will demand."
"No. But we have better. For the Americans in their insanity have communicated a threat to us. They have dared to target the Pearl of the Orient with a nuclear missile."
Colonel Nekep paled to the hue of a steamed bun. "They are mad."
"Whatever they are, they have delivered the House of Sinanju back to its historical home." General Toksa looked up. "Dismissed, and say nothing of this to anyone—or you will be sent to the countryside to dig grubs for your meal."
The message for the Supreme Leader, premier of the DPRK, did not reach him. It stopped at the cold stone desk of Pullyang Toksa, who sat like a squat toad, his narrow eyes showing nothing but an abiding darkness.
With such a powerful card in hand, the proper moment, like a helpful ace, would reveal itself.
The first dull thud barely penetrated the deep underground bunker that was the headquarters of II Corps, and so did not awaken General Oh Nambul of the Inmungun, or Korean People's Army.
The second was no louder, but the repetition caused him to roll over. The third brought him snuffling and snorting out of his sleep in the windowless command bunker north of the Thirty-eighth Parallel.
His head came off the threadbare pillow, and his ears still rang with a sound he didn't consciously perceive.
A rumble caused him to throw back his coarse army blanket, but he realized it was only his stomach grumbling.
The next thud came plainly to his ears, and he jumped into his cracked boots and clawed on his web belt with its Makarov pistol.
It sounded like artillery fire. But as General Oh fought to become fit for battle, he felt no shaking in the concrete walls protecting him, nor did the dirt floor under his boots jump as it would under a rocket barrage.
"What is that sound?" he grumbled.
An orderly met him as he crawled out of the bunker.
"Report! "he barked.
"They are deploying the ROK drops, General Oh."
General Oh frowned with all of his face. ROK drops were the great concrete barriers that were kept poised over the remaining bridges and roads still linking North and South for ceremonial and prisoner-exchange purposes. In the event of a Northern attack, they were to be pushed off their perches with explosive charges, pry and crowbars, completely blocking all northern attack avenues.
"Are we invading the South?" he said in the stupid tone of a man who hadn't quite awoken from sleep.
"No, General. The South is invading us. But never fear, for we are an invincible army who greatly outnumber their pitiful ranks."
General Oh stood rooted for a long moment. Were his ears lying to him?
Again he asked the orderly as the camp sprang into life all around. Jeeps were heading south. Every man knew his duty. For this was the historical moment all had trained for.
"ROK K-l tanks are pouring up the Munsan Valley, Comrade General. But they drive into the teeth of horror. For have we not been preparing for this hour for over forty years?"
General Oh's doughy features went flat as a pond. His eyes creased in his moon face, and his mouth went slack as if the muscles of his mandible had been sliced by a bayonet.
He groaned like a wounded man. "We are doomed."
"Comrade General, we are already victorious. They charge into the gleaming teeth of our entrenched forces. We have prepared. Even now bullets and spare parts are rushing to the front. Soon Seoul will be ours, for the fools of the South have given us the pretext to seize their fine cities and women."
"No. No. You have it wrong. This was not the way it was supposed to happen. This is not what we have prepared for."
He wheeled and shouted at a driver. "You, stop. Unload those munitions. They do not need more bullets at the front. They need rice."
The driver looked momentarily blank. His expression seemed to ask, What type rifle fires rice?
"Rice!" General Oh screamed. "Rice. Send rice to the front. All the rice you can scrounge. Only rice can save Pyongyang and our Supreme Leader. Rice! Rice! Do you hear me? Rice!"
And falling to his knees, General Oh of the Inmungun knew all was lost. This was not the historical moment Pyongyang had anticipated. This was disaster, and he was the general in charge of the disaster.
Captain Cang commanded the first line of defense of the DPRK. He lived in a mountain, Stone Mountain, which overlooked the Munsan Valley. Within his mountain he cleaned and oiled and drilled his great 170 mm Koksan gun and its gun crew.
All the mountains overlooking the DMZ had been hollowed out and great elevators built within. On these lifts sat the Koksan guns, their tubes pointing south though the thick natural granite.
They were the perfect defense. When the signal came, his gun crew would swing into action like the well-oiled machine it was trained to be. The breech would be rammed shut. The gun was always kept loaded. The huge elevator would toil upward, lifting gun and gun crew while synchronized gears caused great steel blast doors to lift, exposing the rising gun tube just long enough to deliver its terrible 170 mm shell. The gun was preaimed. All the Koksan guns were preaimed.
There would be time for one shot and one only. Then the elevators and the blast doors would return to prefiring position before the counterfire systems of the mysterious South could lock on and target the mighty Koksan gun.
Return fire would perhaps dent the blast door if properly targeted, but most likely it would chip at the obdurate granite of Stone Mountain. By that time, the great Koksan gun would already be reloaded and toiling upward for its second punishing blow against Seoul, which was but thirty miles away.
That was the purpose of the Koksan gun during war. To pummel the capital of the mysterious South into submission.
That was the battle plan in place for forty years. Ground-based SAM missiles would add to the rain of destruction. And once Seoul was softened up, the million men of the Inmungun would pour south to take the Southern capital.
That was the plan.
The reality didn't go according to the plan.
When the signal came that war had at last come, Captain Cang got his gun crew organized. The breech was slammed home as the lift hoisted. Moonlight streamed into the hollow of Stone Mountain as the blast door rose ponderously.
When the preaimed gun reached firing position, Captain Cang prepared to give the order to fire against the hated Southern capital.
He was already too late. The battle plan presupposed certain realities. None of them assumed ROK tanks already rolling across the DMZ and elevating their tank guns toward the blast doors themselves.
While Captain Cang savored the moment of battle, the honor of directing the first Northern shot, the ROK tank gun opened fire, lobbing a shell that screamed toward his invincible Koksan gun, silencing gun and his crew forever in a paroxysm of violence.
All across the DMZ, mountaintops were erupting as Koksan guns began falling to an enemy all had been told to expect but no one really believed would come.
As he careered through the night toward the front, General Oh saw the flashes and heard the reverberations of the night exploding all around him. In the back of his jeep were canvas sacks of rice. Rice in abundance. As much rice as his strategic reserves had held.
Which was exactly seven ten-pound burlap sacks.
For General Oh knew what his underlings did not. The preparation for war with the South presupposed a Northern attack. Not a Southern invasion. The frontline defenses were stretched thin, with bullets in plenty but insufficient rations. The frontline troops were kept on short rations for a very good tactical reason.
When the order came from Pyongyang to drive south, General Oh, who was to give it, would unleash his men, driving them south, hungry and envious, their sole motivation the generous provisions the Southern capital held.
It was a struggle they could win because they were fighting toward the most important short-term goal any soldier could fight toward.
A purely defensive war was another matter. They had arms aplenty to hold their positions. What they didn't have was rice. And without rice the underfed Inmungun wouldn't hold their positions very long. Without rice they couldn't hold back the Southern forces a day.
And so he careered toward the front with all the rice his jeep could ferry, hoping to forestall defeat long enough to call up reinforcements he knew would also arrive hungry and in need of rice.
It was hopeless.
Worst of all, General Oh knew the South knew this. That was why they had dropped the ROK barriers behind their advancing tanks. It was to discourage retreat in the face of an overwhelming foe. And a force that had no retreat option would fight all the more fiercely.
If once all roads led to Rome, in the late twentieth century all off-ramps on the global information superhighway led to the computerized desk of Dr. Harold W. Smith at Folcroft Sanitarium in Rye, New York.
Mexico was camped on the United States's southern border, her intentions unknown.
In the Middle East, Kuwait had attacked Iraq, and Iran was readying its short-range Scud missiles to deliver long-delayed punishment raids upon downtown Baghdad.
While everyone threatened Israel, no attacks were launched. Israeli nuclear-tipped Jericho II missiles had been readied, and all the Middle East knew it.
Pakistan had launched a non-nuclear-tipped M-11 missile against Indian soil. It shredded a herd of cows, creating possibly more raw indignation than if the prime minister had been murdered and the Taj Mahal blown up.
Bombay had retaliated with a single launch of an Akash missile. It splashed harmlessly into the Rann of Kutch.
Virtually every nation on earth was publicly announcing the development of a new superweapon destined to dominate warfare in the next century. But no one had activated theirs. Capitals the world over were in an uproar. War jitters danced across the face of the globe.
In his Spartan office only Harold W. Smith knew the truth. There was no flood of superweapons. Only one. And only one nation would possess it in the end.
As he tracked the airline credit-card purchases through eastern Europe to Asia, Smith saw, as if on a map, that wherever Remo and Chiun landed, that region became an instant powder keg.
Rome. Bulgaria. Macedonia. As Smith worked, they popped up on a flight to Beijing. Almost as soon as Smith's computers reported the fact, Russian Topol-M ICBMs pretargeted on China were cleared for launch. This according to National Reconnaisance Office satellite reports, which Smith's net-trolling computers intercepted.
Obviously spies were lurking at airports the world over, furtively reporting the movements of the Master of Sinanju to their spy masters.
And with each visit, the world lurched inexorably toward global war.
Simply because a spurned Korean had given a speech before the United Nations.
Hunkering down at his terminal, Smith watched the scrolling AP bulletins as they came off the wire and he wondered how long it would take the President to put all the pieces together.
Or if he would.
On the way to Moscow in a Chinese military jet, the Master of Sinanju was explaining to his attentive pupil that the House of Sinanju had not worked for a general since the days of Sayak.
"Generals are our enemies," he said flatly. "And they make improper rulers. A general controls armies. Armies fight. Emperors hire assassins because their armies are incompetent or they wish to vanquish their enemies without incurring the wrath of the armies of their enemies. And generals know this. Never accept gold from a general no matter how honeyed his words may be. Sinanju is the enemy of all generals. For all generals know that emperors have no need of generals when their kingdoms are guarded by the House."
"Got it," said Remo. And turning in his seat, he asked the hostage Red Chinese generals if they too understood the lesson of the Master of Sinanju.
Whether they did or did not, they smiled and nodded appreciation even though it was doubtful if very many of them grasped basic English. They nodded because they didn't want to anger the white foreign devil imperialist running-dog tool of the Master of Sinanju, who had removed the head of General Yang in seat 12B, the only general neither smiling nor nodding in agreement.
When the plane landed at Moscow's Vnukovo II Airport, the Chinese generals threw themselves upon the mercy of the Russian generals with the big army hats that looked like landing pads for toy helicopters. No general wore bigger hats than the generals of holy Russia. It had always been so, Chiun explained to Remo. Her armies were now so small and pitiful they had to intimidate their enemies any way they could. Imposing hats were also less expensive than new tanks or improved training.
After the Russian generals had accepted the defection of the Red Chinese generals, the former turned their attention to the Master of Sinanju.
"We have come in answer to an entreaty from the premier of Russia."
"The premier is indeposed," the general with the largest hat of all told them coldly.
"You mean 'indisposed' as in 'drunk again,' or 'deposed' as in 'thrown out of office'?" asked Remo.
"Yes," said the huge-hatted general.
Remo turned to the Master of Sinanju.
"I think we're out of luck here, too, Little Father. Looks like the generals own the town now."
"I seek transportation to Pyongyang," Chiun said then. "Where our skills are welcome."
The Russian generals looked stony of face, hard of eye and uncompromising of spirit.
Until the head of the general with the biggest hat disappeared into the hat itself.
There was a clap like near thunder. No one saw the hand of the Master of Sinanju move. Neither did the other man move.
But suddenly the hat of the great General Kulikov settled onto his broad, many-starred shoulders.
From the rear—for the other generals stood respectfully behind General Kulikov—the general presented a weird sight. It was as if he was playing a trick, hunkering his thick shoulders so his head slid down turtle fashion and his hat covered the gap.
Except no one could possibly hunker his shoulders so deeply that his head all but vanished.
After a long minute dragged past, in which General Kulikov neither spoke nor moved, the general with the second biggest hat touched him on the shoulder. And the big hat fluttered to the tarmac.
There was no head on the general's impressive shoulders. Just a stump, cut so cleanly that blood failed to spurt. Although it did bubble desultorily.
Gasps came. A hunt was organized for the general's missing head. It was not to be found on the tarmac, nor in the voluminous fallen hat nor in the general's big pockets—the only remaining possibility.
In fact, it was never found at all.
When that cold knowledge settled into everyone's stomach, the Master of Sinanju restated his simple request. "I seek transportation to Pyongyang."
The Red Chinese jet was refueled, and this time the Russian generals agreed to accompany the Master of Sinanju as a guarantee that Russia antiaircraft batteries would not cause the jet to fall from the sky.
The huge-hatted generals were very surprised to land intact in Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, because they assumed their superiors would shoot the plane down anyway and fete them as heroes of the motherland afterward.
That they dared not do even that testified to the stark fear the House of Sinanju had driven into the generals of the world. For to fail was to surely perish.
In Pyongyang, the Russian generals asked for asylum because they understood they would be shot as failures should they return to their ungrateful motherland.
They were instead shot as betrayers of the socialist cause. Moscow had long ago cut off subsidies to Pyongyang, and now Pyongyang suffered greatly. Including its generals.
After the bodies were hauled away by emaciated bullocks, the general with the greatest number of stars on his shoulder boards presented himself to the Master of Sinanju.
"I am General Toksa."
"The Master of Sinanju brings greetings to the illustrious premier of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which is neither democratic nor a republic," said Chiun in the formal voice reserved for heads of state he respected. "All hail Kim Jong II, friend of Sinanju. Great is his glory."
The generals were silent as the Master of Sinanju finished speaking.
"Dear Leader Kim Jong II has been dead these many months."
And hearing these words, the Master of Sinanju flew into a rage. "Liar! Do not lie to the House that has made Koreans the most feared race ever to sanctify the soil with his sandal prints. You lie. I know you lie. You know you lie. Spit out these lies or surrender your lying tongues. Take me to the son of Kim II Sung."
"This will be done," said General Toksa.
At the presidential palace, the Master of Sinanju and his pupil were taken to a sumptuous basement office where sat a cunning, waxy-faced man in an ostentatious green uniform.
"You are not the son of Kim II Sung," Chiun said.
The man placed his naked hands on the desk, smiling thinly. "I am the son of Kim II Sung. I am by name Kim Pyong II."
"Where is Kim Jong II?"
"My half brother has joined his father and his ancestors."
"I will brook no more lies," said the Master of Sinanju, slashing out a hand that seemed only to graze the belly of an attending general. His belly gaped a big red smile and disgorged his bowels.
This impressed Supreme Leader Premier for Life Kim Pyong II, who stood up and said, "My brother is in the countryside doing the work that he loves best."
"Whoring?" asked Chiun.
"Take us to him, for I will serve no emperor of Korea other than the true eldest son of Kim II Sung."
Remo rolled his eyes. The last place he wanted to work for was North Korea. But he knew he had no say. Not if he wanted to stay in Chiun's good graces.
Kim Jong II, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces of North Korea, sat in his director's chair in the soundstage outside Pyongyang. He was happy. For the first time he was happy. He was doing what he wanted. And no one wanted to kill him anymore.
Not that they hadn't tried. If it wasn't the generals who hated him, it was his half brother who feared him or his stepmother who despised him.
All had tried to kill him—and failed. It was getting to be ridiculous. Bombs in his pillows. Poisoned Bim Bam Bop. Diseased courtesans. Nothing worked.
In the end they had cut the unkillable Dear Leader a deal.
Surrender the reins of power to his ambitious half brother and lead a life of luxury and privilege.
It was too good to be true. But since they were all holding pistols and rifles on him and he was soaking in his gold-plated tub, he had agreed.
They marched him out at gunpoint, his stepbrother looking especially nervous, and into a waiting army truck. Naked.
He was sure he was going to be shot. But as they drove, their seething rage suggested otherwise. If he was really going to be killed, they would be gloating over him. Certainly spitting in his hapless face. Kicking him, too. Especially his stepmother, who did that a lot since his father had died.
Instead, they had set him up in production.
"I don't get it," he said in his Hollywood-style Korean as he surveyed the converted aircraft hangar now emblazoned with a Hangul sign that read Dear Leader Productions.
"It is simple," his half brother had barked. "The Western markets are open to us. We need their currencies. To get their currencies, we need the product they want. The Chinese are making a fortune selling epic motion pictures starring a tart named Gong Li."
"Ah," sighed Kim Jong II. "I would give anything to direct Gong Li. She was magnificent in Red Sorghum."
"Make movies the West will pay to watch," said his half brother, slapping him on the head as if he were a naughty child instead of the greatest director in the history of Korean cinema.
And so Kim Jong II had returned to his first love, directing. After a while it all made sense. A dead Kim Jong II, after so many botched assassination attempts, would bring down the whole flimsy regime. For he had been groomed to be the next Dear Leader of North Korea, and all the people knew it. They would accept no substitute.
On the day the South Korean forces rolled across the Thirty-eighth Parallel, Director Kim Jong II was lounging in his Dear Leader director's chair trying to get his leading actress to pout correctly for the camera and wishing he had Gong Li, the hottest Asian actress on the planet, instead of this simpering country-faced wench.
But one worked with what one could scrounge. It was hard to get anyone to visit North Korea in these post-Iron Curtain times, much less settle here.
In the middle of the pivotal scene where Princess An jilts King K'on, sirens began wailing so loudly they pierced the soundproof former bomber hangar.
"Cut!" shouted Kim Jong II, bouncing off his director's chair, his plump body encased in an electric blue silk jogging suit like so much sausage in a foil package. "What the bleep is going on!"
An old gaffer cried, "The Americans are back with their B-52s!"
"Don't be ridic," snorted Kim Jong II. "They're more savvy than all that."
But when he poked his head out the soundstage door, he saw clear skies and a string of official limos coming up the road, their sirens screaming their approach.
"Uh-oh. Dear Leader doesn't like the looks of this setup."
Ducking back, he went in search of a place to hide. But the soundstages had glass offices just like in Hollywood—he had insisted on that, and the glass wasn't exactly bulletproof.
They caught him climbing into the princess's kimono with the actress who was still occupying it and screaming that she was being raped.
"Hail the son of Kim II Sung," boomed a squeaky voice.
And recognizing the voice of the Master of Sinanju, Kim Jong II blurted, "Oh, shit. I'm dead. They hired the best."
Falling to his knees, Kim Jong II implored the Master of Sinanju with these words. "Just make it quick, okay? No pain, no blood, but a clean death. I'll go quietly, I promise."
"I have come because a year ago you offered work to the Master of Sinanju."
Kim Jong II blinked. Was he hearing correctly? "You want to work for me?"
"As eldest son, you have the right of first refusal."
Kim Jong II opened his closed fingers and climbed to his feet. His vision, which had irised down into a gray tunnel with a peephole at the end of it, began to clear.
He saw the Master of Sinanju, resplendent in a poppy-red kimono, along with a white he recognized with a start.
"Does your white slave come in the bargain?" he asked, indicating Remo.
"What's it to you?" Remo demanded.
"Hey! Cool it, baby. I remember you from last time. No hard feelings. Just saying is all."
"Where do you get that talk?"
"Movies. Where else?"
"My son in spirit will serve whatever emperor the House favors," intoned the Master of Sinanju.
"Don't count on it," said Remo.
"Okay. Deal," said Kim Jong II.
"Not without agreeing on payment," Remo said quietly.
"Excellent point," said Chiun. "We must come to terms."
"Gold I ain't got."
"I have gold," said Kim Pyong II from the shadows. He stepped out, surrounded by stern-faced generals.
"Who invited you?" Jong said sourly.
"I must have gold," said Chiun.
"I have something more valuable than gold," said Kim Jong II. "Assuming you want it, that is."
Chiun sniffed, "There is nothing more valuable than gold."
"Depends on how you look at it."
"I too have something more valuable than gold," said Kim Pyong II.
"Here we go. Dueling despots," groaned Remo.
"I will listen to both offers and choose," declared Chiun.
"Me first," said Kim Jong II. And stepping forward, he whispered into the receptive ears of the Master of Sinanju.
"This is an interesting offer," mused Chiun. Then, turning to the other Kim, he asked, "What is your offer?"
"I have no gold to offer, either, but rather information of inestimable importance to you."
"I cannot trade my services for information my ears have not heard nor my brain evaluated," returned Chiun stonily.
"When I reveal my information, it will sing to your ears and fire your spirit."
"I will listen and if this is true, I will respond accordingly."
Just then the air raid sirens wailed a song that froze the blood and brought the color of cold stone to the faces of the two Kims.
Kim Pyong II sucked in a deep breath. "I regret to inform the Master of Sinanju, guardian of our honor and fountain of our glory, that the hated Americans have targeted the Pearl of the Orient with their vicious missiles."
"Nice try," said Remo.
"Is this true?" Chiun demanded, cold of voice.
"You know it isn't true," Remo said.
"It's true," insisted Kim Pyong II. "Having lost Sinanju to the East, the reactionaries desire its destruction."
Chiun's wispy hair quivered delicately. "But Sinanju dwells not in my village, but in the heart of the Master."
"And his pupil," said Remo.
"Nevertheless, Master, it is so."
Chiun turned to Remo. "Could this be true? Would Smith be so foolish?"
"Maybe yes. Maybe no. Why don't we ask him?"
"He would never admit this."
"I do not know who Smith is," said Kim Pyong II, "but I have an official cable from Washington warning that this is so."
"Where is this cable?"
And the attending General Toksa proffered the cable. The Master of Sinanju took it. Remo read it over his shoulder.
"Looks authentic to me," Remo said.
"Why does it say Sinanju Scorpion?" wondered Chiun.
"I do not know," the premier of North Korea said, licking his pale lips.
Eyes shifted guiltily.
"My information is correct and true," Kim Pyong II said stiffly, "and I must have your answer and allegiance."
"And I will give it when the full truth is revealed."
Eyes shifted again.
"He's hiding something," Kim Jong II said. "I know him. He's my little half brother, the weasel."
"You should talk," Remo grunted.
"Go on, tell the Master of Sinanju. Tell him the truth."
Remo stepped up and took Kim Pyong II by the back of the head, lifting him off his booted feet. "There are ways and there are ways."
"An announcement was made," Kim Pyong II said. "It was premature. We did send you an offer, did we not?"
"The House has come to Pyongyang, has it not?" Chiun countered.
"We announced to our enemies and the world that Sinanju again serves Korea. The true Korea. Yes?"
No one spoke. Chiun's eyes were chilling with every passing second.
"The hated enemies, loathsomely jealous, employed their sky spies to seek out the new seat of Korean power and, finding your village, placed it in the cross hairs of their thousand guns."
"They have threatened Sinanju?"
"You have read the cable yourself. Never before have they been so bold."
"This isn't like Smith," Remo said. "Or Washington, for that matter."
Chiun's glittering eyes fixed Kim Pyong II. "You have placed my village and its people in danger."
"No. I swear I did nothing deliberate. It was merely counterreactionary propaganda."
At that point Kim Jong II stepped up and said, "Kill him and I can get you out of this."
Chiun turned his head, fixing Jong with a steely eye. "How?"
And Kim Jong II whispered in the ear of the Master of Sinanju.
Chiun stood there for a long moment. His hazel eyes narrowed and lengthened, and his crafty brain processed the conundrum before him.
Suddenly he said, "Remo, you are my son?"
"You would do anything I ask?"
"Within reason. Yeah."
"Protect Kim Jong II from all harm."
Remo groaned. "Don't ask me to do that."
But it was too late. With a cry of rage, the Master of Sinanju spun like a top and dervishlike whirled into the personal guard of Kim Pyong II.
Hands clawed for Tokarev side arms, and heads began jumping like pineapples being sickled.
No one screamed. No one had time to scream. Only to die. And die they did. Violently, magnificently, surrendering blood, bone and internal organs until they lay in steaming heaps upon the soundstage floor, the final and ultimate tribute to the Master of Sinanju.
When the blood harvest was complete, the Master of Sinanju emerged from his frenzied dance of death to a position of cold calmness. His bloodless hands, clean as if just washed, retreated to the hollow of his joined kimono sleeves.
"You are restored to your throne," he told Kim Jong II.
"Actually I'd just as soon make movies. But if you could tell the surviving generals to leave me the bleep alone, I'll call it even."
"Agreed. Once you have surrendered to me the valuable prize you promised."
"Let me make a few phone calls."
"What's the name of the movie?" Remo asked, looking around at the lavish set.
Jong grinned happily. "King K'on."
"It's been done."
Kim Jong II looked stricken. Then he went to make his calls.
When he came back, he said. "It's all set. By the way, we have a new problem. The South is overrunning the Thirty-eighth Parallel. Won't be long before they're all over Pyongyang like white on rice. Next thing you know, they'll be souvenir hunting in Sinanju."
"Never," said Chiun. And the Master of Sinanju and the newly installed Leader for Life of Korea huddled for some minutes.
The president of South Korea was as safe as a South Korean could be with red war returning to the peninsula. Of that, there could be to doubt, no question.
There were bunkers all over the land. But a bunker by its very nature had been rejected as a likely target for bombs. And if the madmen in Pyongyang had developed a nuclear bomb, no bunker built could preserve the life of the South Korean leader if the bunker found itself at ground zero.
As he sat at a simple card table deep in the lava tubes of Man Jang Caves on the southernmost Korean island of Cheju-do, listening to a shortwave radio, the president of South Korea didn't feel safe.
He chain-smoked Turtle Ship cigarettes as he wondered if Seoul still stood. If the North had a nuke, they would unleash it upon Seoul. If two, then Seoul would be doubly destroyed. And if Seoul fell under Pyongyang bombs, the Americans wouldn't hesitate to nuke Pyongyang flat. There would be no pieces to pick up after that.
But the president of South Korea would survive. Even if the peninsula were overrun, he would survive. The entire North would be crushed by the Americans in time, and even if some surviving Pyongyanger controlled Sinanju after all was radioactive dust, Sinanju wouldn't look for the president of South Korea in Cheju-do Island. They would assume him obliterated in the fireball that consumed Seoul.
But to be certain of survival, there were ROK Tiger Marines stationed at the entrance to the network of lava tubes that in peacetime served as a tourist attraction. His most trusted aide had control of the innermost circle of defense. His second-most-trusted aide controlled the middle perimeter. The outer shield defense belonged to his third-most-trusted aide.
That was the mistake of the president of South Korea, he soon discovered.
There had been no warning. No warning was possible. All telephone and other communications using wire were forbidden in Man Jang Cave lava womb. Only shortwave, which could not be traced.
And since his defense teams had no shortwaves of their own, they were unable to alert him that a typhoon had descended upon Cheju-do Island in the form of a wispy little man.
And so in silence they fell, unbeknownst to the president of South Korea, who smoked in nervous ignorance.
The final door was not lava but steel. It opened with no more sound than a breath of subterranean air. Trying to listen through the crackle and static of his shortwave headset, the president paid it no mind.
The ghostly tap on his shoulder made his heart leap into his mouth, and without turning, he knew.
"Sinanju?" he croaked.
A thin, merciless voice intoned, "You erred."
"For the three rings to work correctly, the most trusted ones must take up the outer ring. For they will fight more fiercely. The second ring nearly as fiercely. Thus, your assassin will be fatigued by the time he reaches the least trustworthy ring, and might succumb." The voice cooled. "Unless your assassin is of Sinanju."
The president of South Korea groaned, the cigarette falling from his bloodless lips.
"Turn and face me, man of Seoul."
Woodenly the Korean president obeyed. He found no strength in his legs and merely turned in his chair.
The eyes of the Master of Sinanju were like agates of deep hardness.
"You have come for my life___"
"No. I have come for your surrender."
"Seoul has fallen?"
"No. Nor Pyongyang, either. Your forces own the mountains. But only those."
"I cannot surrender to Pyongyang and face my ancestors."
The Master's papery mask of a face softened. "Well spoken. The South is not as spiritless as I have heard. No, you will not surrender to Pyongyang. Nor will Pyongyang surrender to Seoul. But both must surrender so that this conflict ends well and face is preserved."
The South Korean president looked perplexed. "If neither can surrender to the other, who will we surrender to?"
And the Master of Sinanju whispered a name.
Secretary General Anwar Anwar-Sadat was too busy drawing up the formal documents regarding the U.S.-Mexico observer group to worry about the end of the world. The phone rang constantly, and aides scurried in and out to announce this conflagration or that calamity. He would have none of it.
"I am very busy," he said testily. "It is not every day that I can impose the will of the United Nations upon the United States."
"But, my General—"
" 'Mr. Secretary.' "
"The two Koreas are at war."
"It is nothing. The Americans will solve that problem, and then we will step in and preserve the peace. Now begone."
It was late in the day when the under secretary for peacekeeping operations timidly approached the secretary general's desk and said, "The leaders of North and South Korea are on lines three and four. They wish to speak with you."
The secretary general brightened as much as his stony face would allow. It was not every year two surrenders came his way. First Iraq, now this.
"Which one? Quickly, I must know."
"Both. Both wish to surrender. Neither will capitulate to the other."
"I do not understand."
"They are Asians. Saving face."
"Ah, yes, of course. Put them both on," said Anwar Anwar-Sadat, picking up two receivers and setting one to each ear as the under secretary performed the difficult task of working the line connections.
When the leaders of the two Koreas began chattering in his ears, the secretary general of the United Nations made his voice neutral. But his stony face softened in pleasure.
By the time this day was concluded, no one would wonder about the incident in the General Assembly again. He was solving the world's problems, alone and without outside assistance.
A Nobel Peace Prize was certain to be his.
When he had a working agreement, he returned to his final draft of UNUSMEXOG only to be told that that crisis was over, too.
"Over! I do not wish it to be over."
"Nevertheless, it is over. The Mexican forces have withdrawn from the U.S. border."
"This would have been my greatest moment, the culmination of my service as secretary general. Once the United States submits to the will of the world community, the last obstacle to my one-world order will have fallen like a stubborn domino."
"There is still the fiftieth-anniversary gala, my General."
"I would rather have my peacekeepers on the U.S. border," Anwar Anwar-Sadat said miserably.
Harold Smith arrived at work the next morning like an automaton. He had hardly slept. He could barely think. But he was also helpless, and so he had gone home to sleep through the night hoping morning might come, if not for the world, at least for the United States—the only nation not immediately at risk, ironically, because it wasn't involved in the bidding war.
Remo and Chiun were waiting for him in his office. There was no sign of Mrs. Mikulka.
"My God!" Smith croaked.
"Hiya, Smitty," said Remo cheerfully.
"Greetings, Smith," the Master of Sinanju said in a severe voice. His kimono was a pale gold.
Then Harold Smith noticed the nuclear device. It was sitting on his desk in the form of a fat gravity bomb not very much unlike the one that had been dropped on Hiroshima.
"Is that what I think it is?" he said thickly.
"It is," said Remo.
"Where did you—er, what is it doing in my office?"
Remo spanked it once. "Kim Jong II gave it to us in trade."
"It is the North Korean atomic bomb?"
"Their only one."
Smith stepped back and fell into a sitting position on a green vinyl divan. "Why have you brought it here?"
"It is for sale," said Chiun loftily. "To the highest bidder."
"Actually we were thinking of a trade," said Remo.
"Yeah." Remo addressed Chiun. "Can I handle this, Little Father?"
The Master of Sinanju nodded. "Do not fail, because the lives of my villagers are hanging in the balance."
"It's like this, Smitty. The good old USA has locked an ICBM on Sinanju. We want it declared a nontarget."
Smith started. "Where did you hear this?"
"Check it out if you don't believe me."
Harold Smith did. He rushed to his desk only to realize he couldn't access his system because of the bomb.
"Er, Remo. Could you… ?"
"Sure," Remo said brightly.
Stepping up, Remo wrapped his arms around the ungainly device and lifted it up and away. It went thunk on the hardwood floor.
"Be careful with that!" Smith gasped.
"Relax. It's not armed. At least, that's what they told us."
Smith booted up his desk computer and worked diligently for several minutes. He became utterly oblivious to his surroundings. When his patrician face came up, his gray skin was two shades paler and his voice had a frog in it.
"I can confirm that an SS-20 missile is currently targeted on the village of Sinanju. But why?"
"Washington thinks it's a secret-weapon installation."
"Where do they get that idea?"
"Pyongyang announced it controlled a secret weapon it called the Sinanju Scorpion," explained Remo. "Someone found Sinanju on a map, checked it out by satellite, noticed the three-lane highway Kim II Sung built for Chiun's convenience and decided the Horns of Welcome had to be some kind of death thingy."
"They are more correctly called the Horns of Warning," said Chiun.
"You've been to Sinanju, Smitty. You know what I'm talking about."
"Isn't it a natural rock formation?" Smith asked.
Chiun shook his aged head. "The rock is natural, but Master Yong carved it into the shape that welcomed seafaring clients and warned invaders that here was the inviolate seat of the Master of Sinanju. Ever since Yong, Korea has been conquered many times, but my village remains forever free."
Smith's prim mouth tightened to a bloodless knot. "You mentioned a trade."
"Yeah," said Remo. "According to Jong, this is the North's only nuke. It's yours if you de-target Sinanju."
"Done," said Harold Smith.
Remo blinked. "Can you do that?"
Smith nodded firmly. "Either through secret channels or directly through the President, but I assure you both it can and will be done."
"Good," said Remo, satisfied.
"Er—will there be anything else?"
Remo eyed Chiun and the Master of Sinanju nodded silently.
"We're still on the open market," said Remo.
Smith wiped his brow with a handkerchief. "I know. The planet is on the brink of global conflagration as a result."
"We've kinda been away from cable these last couple of days. But the good news is that we defused the Korean crisis."
"I can suggest the President redouble his efforts to secure funding to reactivate your contract."
Chiun piped up. "Triple."
"Triple," Smith blurted.
"Triple. For we are secret weapons now, sought mightily by nations across the face of the earth."
"Will you accept diamonds and other valuables in supplement for half of the gold involved?"
"No. The House no longer accepts diamonds, for they are not truly valuable or rare. I have been told this by no less than PBS, whom some conspirators are attempting to suppress."
"One-third silver?" Smith said hopefully.
"No. No silver, no electrum and no aluminum."
"A Master made an error," Chiun said blandly. "He thought he was being paid in a rare new metal. He later discovered it was only new."
"I see," said Smith. "And which Master was that?"
"His name does not matter," Chiun said testily. "It is enough to know he was young at the time and later learned from his mistake, bringing great wealth and fame to the village. His name will one day be writ large in the Book of Sinanju."
"It was Chiun," Remo whispered to Smith. "One of his first assignments. He's still embarrassed about it."
"Cease whispering," Chiun spat. "Now I must have your answer, Smith."
Harold Smith swallowed so hard his Adam's apple bobbed.
"I will see what I can do," he said, reaching for the red telephone link to the White House.
The President of the United States was firm. He was direct. He was decisive.
The combined Joint Chiefs of Staff barely recognized him.
"The crisis is over," he said flatly.
"All of them. The Iraqis have surrendered, the South Koreans have withdrawn to the Thirty-eighth Parallel, Macedonia and the Balkans have subsided and the Mexican army is withdrawing from our border, with apologies."
The Joint Chiefs of Staff were so stunned they were at a loss for words.
"And we have come into possession of the only nuclear weapon developed in North Korea," he announced.
The generals regarded one another doubtfully.
"Are you certain of your facts?" asked the JCS chair.
"It's ours," the President said firmly.
The secretary of defense couldn't conceal his disbelief. "The North surrendered their only nuke, with the South Koreans knocking at their gates?"
"That's all I can tell you at this time."
The JCS absorbed this information in a pregnant silence.
"We also have an opportunity to acquire the technology that is sweeping the globe," the President added.
"Do we know what it is?"
"I know what it is," the President said forcefully.
"Please share it with us, Mr. President," the secretary of defense said.
"Sorry. It's classified."
"That's the way it has to be. Now we can acquire this technology, but it's going to cost us."
"I think we should pay any price. Don't you agree?"
"Absolutely. Once we have one of these things, we have parity with other nations. We have to have parity. It's imperative."
Everyone agreed parity was imperative even if they didn't know what the secret weapon under discussion actually was.
"We're going to have to buy it," said the President.
"Once we have it, the mere possession of this weapon will effectively render the secret weapons in other hands absolutely impotent."
"It's that powerful?"
"It's that powerful," the President said in a steely voice. "But it's going to be an expensive acquisition."
The secretary of the Navy pounded his fist on the table and said, "Weil pay any price, endure any sacrifice."
And the President smiled coolly. "I'm glad you gentlemen said that, because you're all going to have to pony up if we are to acquire the Sinanju Scorpion."
"Er—how much we talking about here? In round numbers?"
The President named a figure.
The secretary of defense was indignant. His face turned bright red. "Defense can't afford that!"
"The defense of the United States can't afford to let this opportunity go sailing past us, never to return," answered the President.
The JCS swallowed hard, their Adam's apples bobbing dissynchronously.
"Well, we can scratch that next batch of submarines," the secretary of the Navy muttered.
"We can close a few more bases," said the Air Force chief of staff.
"I never did like the Osprey," said the commandant of the Marines. "Damn thing flew like a one-winged pelican."
"It's for the good of the country," the President assured them all.
"It's a mighty big hit," complained the secretary of Defense, crunching the numbers on a notepad.
When the meeting was over, the combined Joint Chiefs of Staff had agreed to divert a significant percentage of their next year's budgets to a bank account in the Cayman Islands.
When it was done, the JCS chair asked, "When do we take delivery?"
"We don't. I do."
"But we have to analyze it. Break it down. Do reverse engineering and mass replicate it."
"Won't work. I'm going to take possession and keep it in reserve."
"What about command and control? What about the chain of command?"
They tried every argument including a constitutional one, but the Chief Executive stubbornly refused to budge.
"When the money's in the vault, America will be safe and secure once again," he promised.
As he rose to leave the Situation Room, the JCS chair had only one last question. "Just tell us this—is it nuclear, chemical or biological?"
The president smiled. "Biological. Definitely biological."
It was the next day that the Master of Sinanju began to unpack the things he had packed in anticipation of leaving America forever. His apprentice, the next Reigning Master of Sinanju if he performed correctly in all his duties, prepared duck and the short-grained rice favored in the northern mountains of Korea.
When the food was served, the Master took his seat at the low taboret and, sampling everything once, pronounced it good.
His pupil smiled.
"All has turned out as it should," Chiun said.
"I think so, too," said Remo.
"There is only one thing more."
"I have not told you the story of the stonecutter."
And the Master was pleased to see his pupil lay down his rice bowl and silver chopsticks and sit up attentively despite his prodigiously embarrassing appetite for food.
"There lived in old Chosun in the days of Prince Chu Tsu a simple stonecutter," he began. "Every day of his life he cut obdurate stone into blocks that other men purchased. His toil was long and arduous, and as the years of his life passed he grew to despise his miserable lot.
"Now, the toil of this stonecutter was difficult and produced only rude stone blocks, from which other more skilled artisans erected buildings and statuary and other fine things. His chisel made marks in the stone of Diamond Mountain, but the stonecutter made no mark upon the world.
"One day a yangban came through his village, a nobleman of high degree, and seeing the people bow and scrape before this yangban, the simple stonecutter grew jealous and resentful. So he went to the mountain from which he carved his stone blocks and prayed to Sanshin, the spirit of the mountain, to make him into a yangban with much wealth and property and respect.
"The spirit of the mountain, hearing his plea, granted his wish. And lo, the stonecutter was now a yangban who dressed in silk and on whom other lesser mortals fawned."
"Just like that?" Remo asked.
"Just as I tell it," replied the Master of Sinanju.
"Now, time passed, and though all bowed to him, the stonecutter soon grew weary of empty bowing. And of his fine home and gardens and concubines. One day he awoke to find his garden had wilted under the blazing noonday sun—for this man was in truth lazy—and looked up to see the sun regarding him with its thin mercy. Shielding his eyes, he realized that his power was nothing under the awful might of the sun. That night he went again to Diamond Mountain to beseech Sanshin to make him into the sun.
"When he awoke the next dawn, Sanshin had granted him his dearest wish, Remo. He was the sun."
"No kidding. Just by praying?"
"Sanshin is very powerful," explained the Master of Sinanju to his pupil.
"So I've heard," Remo said dryly.
Resuming his tale, the Master of Sinanju said, "And so the stonecutter poured his power and his radiance down upon the land, for he was the sun. Nothing could escape his sight. No prince nor emperor could look upon him without shrinking from his awesome wrath. And he was content."
Chiun raised a bony finger.
"But not for long. Soon he grew weary of his heavenly rounds. For although he was now the sun, the sun too obeyed certain laws, rising at an appointed hour and setting when the universe decreed it. And this did not suit the stonecutter who had grown accustomed to sleeping late when he was a mere yangban.
"But what was he to do? He was the almighty sun. What greater than this could he ask for? And to be less was not in his nature.
"But one day a great storm cloud appeared and intercepted his powerful light, throwing all of Korea into darkness. And seeing this, the stonecutter realized that a cloud was greater than he, and could move about more freely, as well."
Remo spoke up. "And so he prayed again to Sanshin to become the cloud and Sanshin granted his wish, right?"
"Yes. How did you know?"
Chiun frowned. "I am telling this story, not you."
"Now, this stonecutter enjoyed greater power over mankind. He brought rain, flooded the fields and rice paddies, and in doing so provided sustenance and famine at a whim. Men feared him, welcomed him, loved and hated him, and as he traversed the skies he was content in his mastery of mankind. For a time."
"Here we go again," Remo said dryly.
"For in his travels, one thing and one thing alone did not fear him. And that was Diamond Mountain. He poured his gentlest rain upon Diamond Mountain and no greenery grew. He exerted himself to his utmost, and torrents and forked lightning pelted Diamond Mountain, but Diamond Mountain stood serene and unmoved by his temperamental display.
"And so the storm cloud called down to the mountain and beseeched Sanshin to make him one with the mountain.
"And Sanshin replied that if he did this there would be no place for Sanshin to dwell, for Diamond Mountain was his home.
"But the storm cloud was insistent in his pleading and would not leave Sanshin alone. And Sanshin, who was tired of residing in Diamond Mountain because it was increasingly subject to incessant and capricious rains, granted this last wish.
"And so the simple stonecutter became the spirit residing within Diamond Mountain and he was gratified, for while he could not move, no force of nature could move him. He had stood for millions of years and would outlast the hardworking people of the valley and the nimble creatures of the forests."
Chiun lifted his finger once more. "Until one day he awoke to feel a stab of pain in his side, Remo."
"And looking down, what do you suppose the stonecutter saw?"
"He saw a stonecutter very much like his former self chipping away at his mighty flank with a cold chisel."
And the Master of Sinanju folded his hands and sat back.
A slow dawning crossed his pupil's face. But Chiun spoke not. This was his pupil's opportunity to show the understanding that came with having a few drops of Korean blood in his veins.
"I think I get it," said Remo.
Chiun cocked his birdlike head to one side expectantly. "Yes?"
"A person is what he is. He shouldn't wish for any more than that."
"Very good. Go on."
"I'm an assassin. I'm the best."
"Second best," Chiun admonished.
"Second-best assassin living. This is what I am. This is what I do. There isn't anything more for me. I'm not a counter assassin. I take out people who deserve death so that innocent people can live their lives without fear."
A thin smile that grew broader with each passing instant wreathed the wrinkled countenance of the Master of Sinanju.
"I am pleased."
"Good. Can I finish my rice now?"
And in a contemplative silence, the Master of Sinanju and his worthy pupil took up their rice bowls.
It was a perfect moment.
And then the doorbell rudely shattered the mood with its ding-dong sound.
"I'll get it," said Remo.
He was gone but a moment and when he returned, he was wearing a strange expression and carrying a crumpled letter.
"What is it?" asked Chiun.
"We just got stung for fifteen cents. Postage due from Ottawa. Guess they're low on stamps up there."
"It is a trifle, and we care not what the penniless Ottawans say, whoever they may be."
"Ottawa is the capital of Canada," said Remo, tearing open the envelope. "Might as well see what they had to say."
Out came a letter and a colored slip of paper.
"What is it, Remo?"
"It's a letter inviting us to meet with the prime minister."
"Then why are you frowning?"
"Because this other thing is a half-price discount coupon for a one-way bus ticket to Ottawa. Can you beat that? Everyone else sent a limo. Or at least tried to kill us."
"They insult us!"
"They waste their time," said Remo, tossing the letter into the trash.
"The Ottawans could at least have poisoned the paper or cunningly secreted deadly spiders in the envelope as a gesture of respect."
Remo sat down and attacked his rice. "Speaking of spiders, you never did tell me who killed Khoja Khan."
"Because it does not matter, for Sinanju had nothing to do with it."
"So? Tell me anyway."
"His crimes were discovered, and he was tied living to wild asses, which were urged to flee into the desert."
"His bones were later found, but that was all."
Remo grinned. "That's the biz, sweetheart."