"No." He forced her back, whispering. "We can't leave when the party's
Still grasping the neck of the bottle, he moved silently across the
floor. The stone slabs were icy, while the night music of the rain
seemed to come from another world.
He pressed against the wall, feeling for the doorway until he sensed a
shadow slip past, slowly edging into the room. The muzzle of a pistol
glinted against the flare of lightning outside, and he realized it was
no more than a couple of feet away.
_He swung the empty bottle with all his might, aiming for the tip of
The impact coursed up his arm as the bottle splintered against the
metal. The intruder's startled intake of breath was masked by the
clatter of the weapon against the stone floor.
He'll reach for it, Vance told himself. Lots of luck, pal.
He brought the fractured bottle upward with all his strength, aiming
for the face. Although the figure was still formless, he let instinct
guide his hand. The rough feel of shirt fabric brushed past his fingers
and then the softness of flesh. A scream of surprise pierced the dark.
Got the neck, he thought, and with a twist he drove the shattered
bottle in. A warm wetness gushed against his hand.
I hit an artery. Blind luck.
The figure stumbled backward into the dim passageway. In a flash of
lightning Vance saw hands clawing at a neck. Then came the sound of
stumbling footsteps, retreating, and again silence.
Still gripping the sticky neck of the bottle, he bent down and began to
search the floor. Near his feet he felt a hot muzzle and followed it
upward to the still-warm grip. It was, he realized, a 9mm Baretta. He
kept an identical chrome-plated model on the Ulysses.
All right, chum, now we'll have a rerun.
Grasping it with both hands, in firing position, he turned and peered
out the open archway. The glimmers of distant lightning showed nothing
but stone walls and an empty passageway. All he could discern was the
vertical shaftway connecting the many levels of the palace.
He pressed against the cold stone wall and edged into the hallway
leading toward the steps. Then he felt a sharp sensation against the
ball of his left foot and reached down. A spent cartridge shell, still
warm, lay up-ended on the icy floor.
Pasiphae, he suddenly found himself thinking. It's as though Eva had
lured the killer here, to this very room, like the white bull. And now
he, they, who knows how many? want to kill us both. Somebody realized
she knows too much.
He tried to control his breathing, straining to hear as the adrenaline
continued to pump. From the staircase up above, the crickets had
resumed their high-pitched medley. He listened as they chorused, the
sounds of centuries past, their hymn to the rain. There was nothing
No, faint sounds ... far above, maybe in the central court. Men were
arguing. It was a heated exchange. He heard them grow louder, and with
that the metallic click of another automatic weapon being readied. He
waited, holding his breath, as the voices became even more animated.
What had happened? There must have been two, maybe even more.
Good time to find a new place to party.
He turned back to the silent room. It was, he suddenly realized, too
silent. He felt his way back to the alabaster portico and reached
The quiet that followed told him he had been right; she'd panicked,
run. No, he thought, she only wants to save you. She thinks she drew
them here, and now she's trying to lure them away. Bad time to leave.
Just when things were getting interesting.
He reached down and felt for the right-hand pocket of his trousers,
still lying crumpled in a pile on the floor. Finally he slid his hand
in and searched. The keys were gone. She had taken them, slipped away,
left nothing. No trace. Only the smashed candle remained.
Annoyed, he located a box of hotel matches in his shirt and struck one.
The room was empty, totally bare, its dolphins frisking alone in their
placid sea. Across, on the other side, was the passageway leading
through the queen's "bathroom." Beyond it lay the labyrinthine twists
of the palace hallways. Perhaps by now Eva had found her way out and
escaped. From the maze of Daedalus?
He tried to think as he finished donning his wet clothes in the dark.
Eva clearly had gotten too close to somebody's plans. Where would she
Cautiously he moved out and began to mount the marble staircase, his
rubber soles noiseless against the steps. The automatic was beginning
to feel comfortable, even though it had nearly taken his life only
minutes before. But he never trusted life to a chunk of metal, no
matter how efficient.
Above him the voices still quarreled, and he found himself straining to
catch the language. What was it? Greek? no, maybe Russian. Whatever it
was, a fierce argument was raging. Again he tried to guess how many
there were. He checked the metal clip and decided he had enough rounds
to take them all - if he had to.
But that was getting ahead of the game. If she had eluded them, then
why bother? The best thing would be to try to slip past the courtyard,
get through the fence, maybe join her at the car. Then they could move
the party back to the hotel, keep the momentum. . . .
He moved carefully on through the hall of the procession, edging along
the wall. Against his back he could feel the cold frescoes of the cup
bearers, locked in their sterile march through time.
Then he heard another voice, this time female.
"_Pazdolba! Delaetye vcyo, shto vam yugodno - mnye vcyo_ ..."
It was Eva yelling in rapidfire Russian. Arguing, shouting orders? He
couldn't make it out.
Now he edged through the final archway, grasping the Baretta. At that
moment an eruption of gunfire splintered the silence, a fiery burst in
the rainy night, while Eva was yelling for it to stop. It was over as
quickly as it had come, but she was still screaming, swearing actually.
Whoever was there, they were no more than thirty feet away. But she was
still safe. He could hear her curses, now half muffled in the storm.
Gingerly he edged on out through the entryway and stood at the edge of
the courtyard, Baretta cocked and ready. A lighter blossomed in the
rain, was brought upward to a cigarette, and momentarily framed a face.
He was holding what appeared to be an Uzi, peering down at the
glistening stones. Sprawled across from him were two bodies, both in
dark raincoats. Now he was saying something to Eva in Russian, but she
was staring past him, toward the entryway where Vance stood. In a flare
of lightning their eyes locked, and he saw in hers anger and disbelief.
At that moment the flame of the lighter was cut short, but not before
Novosty whirled and followed her gaze.
Instinctively Vance threw himself against the inside wall of the
processionway. An instant later, the Uzi blazed again, drowning the
sound of Novosty's challenge. He held his own automatic, barely
breathing, while the rounds ricocheted against the stone walls. Was Eva
part of it? What in hell . . .
Then her voice rose again, through the dark, a mixture of Russian and
English. She was screaming at Novosty. Finally she called out.
"Michael." A pause, then her voice cracked. "You may as well stop the
Charade? That wasn't the game they'd been playing. He decided to wait.
The moment seemed part of a giant contest where none of the players
wore team colors.
"Michael, old man, terribly sorry about that." This time the voice was
Alex's. "It's been a trying night."
"Novosty," he yelled back. "I've got an automatic too, chum. Touch one
hair of her head and you're history. I swear to God. Now let her go,
and then we'll talk."
"My friend, my friend, I'm not keeping her." The hesitation in his
voice belied his attempt at calm. "You don't understand. We have a
problem here, very serious. And I am getting wet. Why don't you come
out and let's discuss it somewhere dry."
"No way. You and I have a little catching up to do. Let her go. She's
not part of it."
"Ah, but she is very much a part of it. Why do you think I am here
tonight, risking everything? I need you now, Michael, more than ever.
We are all in deep trouble because of her."
As Vance started to respond, he felt a glancing blow against the side
of his neck, powerful, numbing. Awkwardly he stumbled forward, cursing
his own stupidity. Of course! The man he'd wounded had merely
disappeared into the palace labyrinth. He'd been back there somewhere,
waiting. Now they'd guided him here with all the shouting.
He felt the Baretta slip from his grasp as his head slammed against the
hard plaster of the fresco. His attacker was reaching for the gun,
hands slippery with blood. There was hot breath against his face, the
gurgle of labored breathing. It was a dying man with nothing to lose.
Now Alex was shouting at Eva through the rain, telling her to run for
Good, he thought, and turned to shove his fist into the face of the
figure struggling to turn the pistol on him. The weapon fired, a lethal
blast next to his ear, but the muzzle was still directed away. The
round glanced off the stone archway and ricocheted down the hallway. As
their struggle continued, he heard the sound of the Saab, its engine
coughing to life.
Too bad. I'll miss the ride back.
With that he brought his knee against the assailant's groin, shoving
him against the wall. Even then, though, he still could not see the
face; it was darkened or swathed in a black cloth, he couldn't tell
Suddenly the passageway flared, and he looked up to see Novosty, rain-
soaked, holding his small Italian lighter. In his left hand. In his
right was the black metallic shape of the Uzi. Just then the attacker,
drenched in blood, finally wrenched away the Baretta and was turning,
trying to speak. Vance noticed, absently, that blood streamed from a
gash across the side of his neck.
"I am sorry, my friend." Alex was lifting his weapon, calmly and with
perfect precision. "Things have become complicated, but do not worry. I
have handled it." And the Uzi erupted.
The dying man actually managed to squeeze off a round, a shot that went
wild, as the impact of the Uzi slammed him against the wall. Then he
fired again, almost a death tremor, and pitched forward.
Vance started to stretch for the pistol as it clattered across the
floor toward him, but Novosty's voice sounded through the storm.
"Michael, do us both a favor, just leave it. I've killed enough men
tonight. Three. And I knew them all. I am very weary of it, so please .
. ." He was walking over, still holding the Uzi. "Let's have a drink
and talk. This is very unsettling to my nerves."
"You and your friends screwed up a perfectly fine evening. You'd better
have a good excuse." Vance watched him, very much wanting the pistol in
his hands. Should he make a grab for it and take his chances?
"As I tried to tell you just now, it is very complicated."
Novosty was picking up the Baretta, grasping it carefully with a piece
of wet cloth he'd ripped from the dead man's shirt. Then he looked up.
"Are your prints on this?"
"Sort of figures, doesn't it? I borrowed it from him." He pointed down
at the blood-soaked corpse between them.
"So we must clean it," he sighed. "What happened here tonight was a
terrible accident, my friend. Obviously. How else can it be explained?
There will be an international inquiry. We must now try and simplify
the work of whoever has that unpleasant duty."
"You've got some explaining of your own to do. What about Eva?"
"Ah yes, Eva. She should have known better than to come here." He
looked up. "Tonight simply need not have happened. It has always
distressed me, the imprudence of some women." He sighed again. "I do
not know if I can cover up this affair. It may well be the end for me."
"No kidding. Killing those two men out there may dampen your welcome in
"I regret to say it was necessary. They wanted to take her. But when I
reasoned against it, they became suspicious. Which is why I had no
Was Novosty here protecting Eva, he suddenly wondered? After all, there
was age-old blood connecting them; Eva Borodin and Alex Novosty went
back centuries together, centuries of Russian history. Aristocrats
both, they shared family, pain, and glory from an age long before the
October Revolution. But would she turn to him for refuge? No, not
likely. She'd never be that desperate.
"Like you said this morning, Alex, it's unhealthy in this business to
know too much. Tends to spoil all the interesting surprises."
"Yes, I agree. Ignorance is often bliss, I think that's the expression.
But having solved one problem, I then faced another. What to do about
them? Happily our friend here was available to help. I honestly think
he would have died anyway from his neck wound." He glanced up. "Did you
"Spur of the moment."
"You are still good, Michael." He bent over and examined the severed
artery again. "My compliments. You haven't lost it. An excellent job. I
believe this incision would have been fatal." He turned back and
smiled. "You have a surgeon's touch."
"Are you going to tell me who the hell he is, or do we play twenty
"He was . . . a professional acquaintance. This was most regrettable.
For everyone. Mine was a distasteful task, I assure you." He sighed
once more as he laid both weapons against the wall. "I will trust you,
Michael. In turn you must trust me. And help me. We need to move this
poor unfortunate to a more plausible location."
Vance now realized what Novosty was planning. He was about to pin the
murder of the two outside on a dead man, this one. But who were they?
Whoever this one was, one of his hands only had three fingers; the
little finger had been cut away just below the knuckle.
"Forget it. I'm not going to help you do anything. I'm going to walk
out of here, try and find Eva, and get the hell away from all this.
You're a negative influence, Alex."
"My friend, be reasonable." He pointed toward the weapons. "We have
work to do. We must remove all the prints from those, yours and mine,
then create an accident."
"Look, you broke up a small party I had going here tonight. But now
that you've ruined my evening, I damned sure don't plan to help you
"Michael, neither of us had anything to do with this unfortunate
business. You or me. I wasn't even in Greece. It must have been some
terrible misunderstanding among men of questionable livelihood. Tempers
obviously flared. Who knows? Everybody is dead, so there can be no
explanation beyond what appearances suggest." He shrugged and slipped
his arms underneath the body. "Incidentally, they told me that Volodin
was captured this morning. But he didn't talk. Instead he killed
himself. So our situation is still secure."
"You must have a hearing problem. Maybe you ought to get it checked. I
just told you it's Eva I'm going to help, not you. You can take the
money and - "
"My friend, my friend, you are impetuous. Please. Everything is going
as planned. But now we must move quickly." He smiled. "By the way, did
you leave anything down below?"
"Just a broken bottle." Vance stared out into the rain.
"Then you might wish to make it disappear." He began dragging the body
into the courtyard. "It will have prints. Glass preserves them
He's right for once, Vance thought. Rubbing at his neck, a glimmer of
pain intruding, he turned and retraced his steps into the dark, into
As he descended, the chill of the palace enveloped him. He was bored
with the place now, its ancient horrors and its modern ones. When the
dark became too depressing, he extracted a folder of hotel matches and
struck one. Its puny light flared and then expired, almost helpless
against the blackness engulfing him.
The sound of crickets followed as he entered the bedroom of the queen
once more. He paused a moment in the dark, then struck another match
and walked over to the stone bed. There was the neck of the splintered
bottle, covered with bloody fingerprints. Novosty was right about one
thing: It would have opened a whole new area of inquiry. Nobody at
Interpol had his prints on file, at least as far as he knew. But that
wasn't good enough. Leave nothing to chance.
Carrying the fractured bottle, he began remounting the steps. This time
he wanted the dark, needed it, to clear his mind, to mask the horrors
of the palace. The confusion of the shootout swirled in his mind. Alex
Novosty had killed three men as calmly as lighting a cigarette. Why?
Was it just for the money?
When he emerged, distant lightning glinted on the ancient stones of the
courtyard, contrasting brightly with the darkness below. For an instant
the palace seemed magical all over again.
And there, perfectly choreographed on the wet pavement, was evidence of
a lethal duel. Three bodies lay across from each other, two together
and one opposite, gripping a weapon, his neck slashed. Perhaps it
looked too pat, but who would know? Things happened that way.
The only participant missing was Aleksei Ilyich Novosty.
He gazed around, but he knew he would see nothing. Yes, Alex had gotten
out quickly and cleanly. He'd always been hit and run.
All right, Vance told himself, now it's time to answer a few questions.
Who the hell is looking for Eva, and who wants to silence her? Are they
the same people?
Carefully, methodically he began to search the pockets of the two men
Novosty had killed outside. He knew what he was looking for. The first
appeared to be in his fifties, pockmarked cheeks, looked very Russian
in spite of it all. He had a small Spanish Llama 9mm compact in a
The other man was younger, though already balding. His cheeks were
drawn, and blood was already staining around the two holes in his cheap
polyester suit. His last expression was one of disbelief frozen in
time. He's the back-up, Vance told himself, number two. That's always
how they work. He should have stayed back home, maybe digging potatoes.
The passports were Bulgarian, a forgery, stamped with a Greek entry
visa one week old. Port of entry: Athens. But they had to be KGB. No
wonder Novosty was in trouble now. He was playing both sides of the
Finally he pulled around the head of the other man, the one swathed in
black, the one who had almost killed him twice. This was the one he'd
been saving till last, trying to guess.
A bloody, brutal face stared back at him, and through the torn shirt he
could see a garish tattoo covering the back and chest. At first he
couldn't believe it, so he lit a match and cupped it against the rain
while he ripped open the rest of the cloth to be sure. History swirled
_Irezumi_. The rose-colored dragon-and-phoenix tattoo was regulation
issue - insignia of a _kobun_ of the right-wing ultranationalist Mino-
gumi, the foremost Yakuza crime syndicate of Japan. He knew it well.
Thursday 7:30 A.M.
Andrei Petrovich Androv, director of propulsion systems, gazed out
across the windy strait, feeling the chill of the sea air cut through
his fur-lined trench coat.
Physically, he was almost mythic, a giant from Grimms' fairy tales. He
had a heavy face nature should wish on no man, tousled gray hair, bushy
eyebrows eternally cocked in skepticism, and a powerful taste for
Beethoven's string quartets, which he played incessantly in the
instrument room. He bore, in fact, more than a passing resemblance to
that aging, half-mad genius. Now seventy-one, he, too, possessed a
monumental mind and was acknowledged worldwide as the founding
intellect behind the Soviet space program.
Yes, he was thinking, this location had been ideal. Here in remote
Hokkaido they had constructed a high-security facility surrounded by
wind-swept wilderness - virgin forests and snow-covered volcanoes. Even
for him, a man long used to the harsh winters of Baikonur, the almost
Siberian weather along this coast was intimidating. This was the most
isolated, austere, and yes, lonely spot he'd ever known.
But it was the perfect site. Mino Industries had insisted, rightly, on
this northernmost point of Japan for the facility, here in a national
park on Cape Soya, fifty kilometers west of Wakkanai. The facility
itself had been constructed entirely underground, excavated beneath
this rocky northern coast in order to be secure and invisible to
satellite reconnaisance, both Soviet and American. Such excessive
precautions, hardly a problem in the New Mexico desert when the first
atomic bomb was tested, were the order of the day in this new era of
space photography. Nowadays you even had to find ways to mask telltale
expulsion, which always betrayed an unmistakable infrared signature.
In that respect, too, their choice of this spot was strategic, with the
freezing currents of the La Perouse Strait between northern Hokkaido
and Sakhalin providing a continuous and thermally stable 12 degrees
Celsius feed for the heat exchangers. Only the ten-thousand-meter test
runway could not be concealed full-time, but it had been carefully
camouflaged and was used only at night.
A massive breaker crashed against the rocks at the north end of the
shore, sending ice-flecked spray upward into the morning mist. As he
watched the freezing cloud and felt its ice collecting on his cheeks,
he glanced at his watch. It was seven-forty. He took one last survey of
the choppy gray sea and turned back. His daily morning walk down to the
shore had achieved its purpose: His mind was as sharp as the icy wind
whistling through the rocks. He needed to be at Number One by 0800
hours, when the final test run was scheduled to begin.
As he did every morning, he retraced the concrete steps that led down
to the stainless steel entry door leading into the West Quadrant. When
he reached it, he inserted a coded plastic card into the slot,
pronounced his name into the black microphone flush with the metal
doorframe, and signaled the TV eye. Two seconds later a simulated voice
from the computer granted him access, the door sliding aside.
He nodded to the guards, then moved on down the long neon-lit, gray
hallway. When he reached the unmarked door of Number One, he paused to
listen. The whine of the fans was still a high growl as the engineers
ran through the warm-up preparatory to bringing its six 25,000-horse-
power motors to full power. Contenting himself that vibration in the
fan housings remained at acceptable levels, he flashed his ID to the
guard, inserted his magnetic card, and shoved open the door.
Without a word, he marched to his desk by the main video panel and
slipped a scratched old Melodiya disk onto his ancient turntable.
Moments later, the first movement of Beethoven's Quartet in A Minor
boomed from the speakers.
"We are ready to switch on the laser field, Doktor Androv." A young
Soviet technician approached gingerly. "If you wish, we can direct the
holograms here to the master terminal."
"More of your pretty pictures?" He was examining the data on the video
screens. Then he nodded. "_Da. Ya gotov_. When you will."
As he stared at the screens, he again found himself growing pensive.
The project was all but finished now. His lifelong dream.
He silently counted their breakthroughs. The new material being used
for the leading edges and scramjet struts, a proprietary titanium alloy
coated with a ceramic skin, had turned out to be much lighter than
aluminum and eight times as strong. Full-scale sections of the leading
edges of the wings and the engine struts had been subjected to ten-
minute blasts of 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit air at Mach 7 in the high-
temperature tunnel with no deformation or structural failure.
Then the turboramjet-scramjets, four meters in diameter and nine meters
long, had all been given full-scale static tests at the aeropropulsion
facility in the south, where they were operated to Mach 8 at
temperatures ranging from minus 100 to over 1900 degrees Fahrenheit.
Massive refrigeration units and gas heaters had been used to achieve
the temperature range, while liquefied air was pumped into the intakes
to duplicate a complete hypersonic duty cycle.
Maybe, he thought, they were ready for a full-scale test flight. Only
one problem remained: a hint of supersonic wave drag the low-
temperature helium wind tunnel had shown could develop behind the
leading edges. He had ordered the project director to run a computer