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Hawke emerged under the hotel's porte cochere entrance, pausing for a moment to see if his scalp itched or if his spine tingled. On assignment abroad, one expects to be watched. He saw no quickly averted head, or raised newspaper, however, and so he turned right, descending the gently curving drive that led to the avenue. There was little traffic, and he sprinted across the four lanes and grassy median to the beach promenade. Following the curve of the harbor west along le Croisette, he kept the Star in view on his left. From this distance, it looked like normal departure preparations were under way.
Beyond the twinkling lights of the Vieux Port, the glittering coastline lay like a necklace beneath the dark sky. He was, he thought, ready. It promised to be a simple business, to be sure, but it was not in Hawke's nature to pursue any objective with less than the maximum of his ability.
A pair of rope-soled espadrilles had replaced his evening shoes. Here in the south of France, the thin canvas shoes were conveniently stylish and stealthy. Moments before, approaching a brightly lit carousel just outside the Palais du Festival, he had spied an elderly man shivering in the cold. He bequeathed his tie, waistcoat, and dinner jacket to the chap and kept moving.
Walking quickly toward the palm-lined fringes of the marina, he spoke softly into the lipmike of his wireless Motorola.
"Hawke," he said.
"Quick," a distinctly American voice replied in his earpiece. "Good evening, sir." Former army sniper Sergeant Tommy Quick was responsible for security aboard Blackhawke.
"Hi, Tommy," Hawke said. "How do we look for this thing?"
"All the telephoto surveil monitors look good, sir. Normal last-minute activity aboard the subject vessel. Ship's radio officer has been monitoring the Star's transmissions and reports business as usual. Idle chitchat. A pair of cargo cranes loading the midships hold now, as you can probably see from where you are. Looks like heavy equipment. She got her final departure clearance from the port authority an hour ago, confirmed a midnight sailing."
"Skipper, again, I have to urge you to reconsider some backup. I don't want--"
"It's a civilian vessel, Tommy. Not military. The hostage is being smuggled out to China by a single guard. I'm good."
"With all due respect, sir, I really gotta say--"
Hawke cut him off. "I'm allowing myself just twenty minutes. Time. Mark."
"Yes, sir. Time: coming up on 23:29.57 GMT...and...mark."
"Mark. Twenty-three thirty GMT. Twenty minutes. Mark."
"Sir, I confirm a fast Zodiac standing off the vessel's portside stern at precisely twenty-three fifty."
"Zodiac mission code?"
"She's mission-coded Chopstick One. Twin Yamaha HPDI 300s. She'll get you out of there in a hurry. I say again, sir, I believe there should be at least minimal backup. If you'd only--"
Hawke cut him off again.
"Tommy, if I can't handle a simple snatch aboard an old rust-bucket like this I really ought to pack it in. Chopstick One, stand by and confirm pickup at eleven-five-oh. Okay? Chop-chop!"
"Aye, aye, sir. There is one thing--"
"Make it snappy. I'm about to do this."
"If you look back up at your hotel, sir, you'll see someone standing out on your terrace with binoculars trained on you. One of my guys has a long telephoto on her now. She's...uh...not wearing much, sir."
"That will be all, Sergeant," Hawke said.
He snapped his mobile shut and quickened his pace. He had deliberately left the Ikons hanging on the balustrade, left behind like all the few recently acquired and untraceable possessions in his suite. But why the hell would she--he paused and looked back at the Carlton. With the naked eye, he could just make out Jet's tiny black silhouette standing at the balcony of his suite. There was a glowing orange dot, her cigarette. He smiled and waved. The glow was immediately extinguished. Interesting behavior. Was she sad that he'd left or curious about where he was going? Make a mental note, old boy.
Hawke made his way past the long row of charter boats, all moored stern-to, in the Mediterranean style, and then out along the curvature of an outer breakwater that culminated in a deepwater pier. There was a trickle of passersby, mostly lovers linked arm in arm, out for a stroll now that the weather had changed. Otherwise, the harbor was quiet. The only activity was dead ahead where the Star of Shanghai was moored. Lights atop a pair of very tall cranes created an oasis around the ancient steamer. At her stern, the faded red flag of the People's Republic of China hung limply in the light breeze.
All the intel he had from Admiral "Blinker" Godfrey at DNI Gibraltar and his old friend Brick Kelly, the new director at Langley, suggested this nocturnal visit of his would be a complete surprise to the Chinese operatives on board the Star. One of them was a Tu-We secret police officer whose dossier Hawke had read twice just to make sure he wasn't seeing things. The man, whose home base was an ancient enclave on the Huang-p'u River, was apparently a human killing machine.
On the plus side, the Chinese skipper aboard the old tramp steamer had no idea the Americans even knew for certain their deep-cover man had gone missing. He'd simply missed a pickup in Morocco, that's all. Happened all the time. Besides, this guy Brock, whoever he was, was a NOC. Such agents, captured in the line of duty, were simply dead men, no questions asked, no answers given. Unless Hawke got him out, his slow death at the hands of the world's most sophisticated torturers was a given.
More importantly, his superiors at Langley would never learn what secrets were imprinted upon his brain. Kelly wanted him alive. Badly.
Hawke stepped over a mooring line running from a hawser on the Star's stern to a bollard on the deepwater pier and brought the scene before him into focus.
A couple of seamen were lounging at the stern rail, smoking cigarettes, watching the fog roll into the harbor. Most of the crew was engaged with the loading going on amidships. There was a single lookout standing at the bow. They'd posted a pair of standard-issue guards at the foot of the gangway. Both were wearing greasy orange slickers with rain hoods. One of them was looking at him now, carefully observing his approach. Unlike most such practitioners of his chosen field, this one looked almost alert. Hawke plastered a drunken smile on his face, dropped his right shoulder, and walked loosely towards the man, concealing the narrow blade along the inside of his right forearm.
"Beggin' yer pardon, Cap'n," Hawke said slurrily to the big fellow, laying his left hand easily on his shoulder. "This wouldn't be the HMS Victory, now, would it? Nelson's barky? Seems I've lost me bloody ship."
The guard sneered, showing his unfortunate teeth, and reached inside his slicker for a weapon.
Hawke instantly inserted the long, thin blade precisely five millimeters below the man's sternum and upward into the thoracic cavity on his left side, found the heart, and ruined it. One small gasp...his eyes went vacant.
Before the first man was dead, Hawke turned and performed an identical procedure on the second, smaller guard. He caught the newly deceased by the collar of his orange waterproof and let him fall silently to the concrete, the dead man's arms sliding out of the sour-smelling garment as he did so.
In a trice, Hawke shouldered himself into the slicker and raised the hood so that his face was in shadow. As he did, he stifled the wave of self-disgust that usually accompanied such vicious and unexpected violence. He actually hated killing, though it was his duty. He took pride in doing it well. It was scant consolation.
Tendrils of fog snaked into the harbor from the sea and wrapped around the old steamer's stacks as Alex Hawke ascended the slippery gangplank. The Star, save the loading activity amidships, was quiet. Having gained the deck, he paused and looked up at the dimly lit bridge. Shadowy figures moved behind the grimy yellow glass of the pilothouse. Two men at least, maybe three. He would start his search for Harry Brock there. He looked at his watch. He was two minutes in, right on schedule.
To his left was a steep corrugated stairwell leading up--more of a ladder than a staircase. He raced up it, and another like it, and arrived on the starboard-side bridge wing. He paused and listened, feeling the faint shudder and thump of the engines beneath his feet. Inside the pilothouse, he could hear muffled voices and laughter. The door was slightly ajar. He shot out his left leg and slammed it inward, stepping inside the hot and stinking bridge with the Walther extended at the end of his right arm. The look of the faces of the two Chinese told him his information from Brick was indeed hard fact. They were hiding something. And surprised.
"Evening, gents," Hawke said, kicking the steel door closed behind him. "Lovely night for it, what?"
"Huh?" said a squat man in grimy coveralls who now moved in front of the fellow in a sheepskin-lined leather jacket who was levering noodles from a box to his hungry mouth. The man advanced toward Hawke, protecting his captain.
"Bad idea," Hawke said. Somehow, the gun was now in his left hand, and a long bloodstained dagger had appeared in his right. The man kept coming and retreated only when Hawke flicked the blade before his eyes. He had little interest in killing these men, at least until he learned the location and condition of their prisoner. Then he would dispatch them without mercy.
"I'm looking for a reluctant passenger of yours, Captain," he said to a man in a leather jacket who wore an ancient captain's cap cocked rakishly over his bushy black brows. "Where might I find him?"
The Chinese captain stopped eating his noodles and, placing the container and chopsticks carefully on a stool, stared at him. Hawke saw something in his eyes and instinctively dove for the floor as rounds from the captain's silenced automatic pistol stitched a pattern in the bulkhead inches above his head. Hawke rolled left and fired the Walther, carefully putting one slug in the captain's thigh and sending him crashing back against the wheel.
There was little time to celebrate. Five fingers that felt like steel bolts sank into the ganglia at the back of his neck. He relaxed, then sucked down a lungful of air at a new sensation: the cold press of steel at his temple. The pressure increased and he dropped his own gun.
"I am in charge of all passengers," an oddly musical voice whispered in his ear, "and you are dead."
"This is all a bit more complicated than I was led to believe," Hawke said, twisting his body carefully and smiling up at the man. The eyes were like a pair of small coals burning twin holes in yellow snow. Then the Tu-We officer racked the slide on his gun.
"Easy, old fellow," Hawke said calmly, getting one foot under him. "Easy does it, right? I'm going to get to my feet now and--" He never finished the sentence.
There was a sudden screech of metal and then a terrific jolt as the ship's entire superstructure shuddered under the violent impact of something slamming against it, just below the pilothouse. Hawke, trying to scramble to his feet, was slammed hard against the bulkhead. The impact was sufficient to send the Tu-We officer and everyone on the bridge flying across the wheelhouse and tumbling to the floor. He heard shouts from the pier below, and then shots rang out--bursts of automatic fire.
Hawke crabbed his way across the chaos of the wheelhouse, managing to recover his Walther from under a sheath of loose documents and navigation charts and broken glass. Then he was up and out onto the bridge wing. Standing at the rail, he saw that one of the two dockside cranes, the one directly abeam, was now coming under intense fire from crewmen standing on the starboard rail. Then he saw why. Some madman was at the controls of the crane. The cab had turned away and now was spinning toward the Star's hull again, the cable taut, and the crazed operator was about to smash the heavily laden pallet against the ship for the second time.
Hawke could see by its trajectory that, this time, the violent impact was targeted at the pilothouse itself. With maybe three seconds to spare, Hawke turned and simply dropped through the stairway opening, hitting the deck hard, and raced aft.
He didn't look back at the violent sound of metal on metal and shattering glass as the crane whipped around and smashed its payload directly into the four angled windows of the Star's bridge. Agonized screams were heard as bodies were smashed in the twisted metal.
He reached the stern rail. On shore, he could hear the keening high-low sirens and see flashing blue lights approaching the harbor from every direction. Les flics to the rescue. Everyone aboard the old tub appeared to have run forward to see what was going on. He looked at his watch. The Zodiac rendezvous was in six minutes. In the pitted bulkhead behind him, a rusted door hung open, steps leading down. Brock had to be down there somewhere. Guarded? Absolutely. It seemed he was expected after all.
How the hell had he imagined this was going to be so simple?
He had one thought as he raced down the steep metal steps.
He'd gone soft. Lazy. Cocky.
Hawke raced down the deserted companionway, a grim corridor lit only by a few bare bulbs suspended from loose wires dangling from the overhead. Doors hung open on either side, opening onto small flyspecked cabins with double- or triple-tiered bunks, empty. At the far end, a large door in the bulkhead opened into the galley.
He stepped inside. The stink of cabbage and rancid grease was overpowering. He was about to turn and retrace his steps, when his eye caught a thin edge of yellow light between two tall cabinets loaded with rusty canned goods, stocks that appeared to be long past their best-by date.
He ripped at the shelving and dodged heavy falling cans of undoubtedly exquisite Chinese delicacies. The cabinet swung open easily, revealing a tiny broom closet of a room, no bigger than six by four. There was a metal rack upon which lay a man, pale and gaunt, who looked as if he'd not eaten or slept during his days in enemy hands. A tin plate with what appeared to be dried vomit rested on his chest, just below his chin. A foul slop bucket stood under his bed. At the sight of Hawke, he tried to sit up, and the thin scrap of blanket fell away, revealing his legs. They were severely bruised and held fast to the frame with strips of heavy canvas.
The man smiled weakly up at Hawke as he entered.
"What part of China you from, mister?" he said, slurring his words.
"I look Chinese to you?" Alex said, and he had the knife in his hand, cutting the canvas from the frame, starting with the left leg.
"Can't see too well. Where are you from?"
"Place called Greybeard. Little island out in the English Channel."
"English, yeah. Thought so. A limey. I'm Harry Brock. From L.A."
"La-la land. Never been there. Have they been torturing you, Harry Brock?" Hawke asked, inspecting Brock's horribly swollen feet and ankles.
"Nothing Dr. Scholl can't fix," Brock said, laughing weakly. "I don't know. Been on the run. Can't remember much of the last few days."
"Drugs, Mr. Brock. Chlorides. Pentothal. Anything broken? Can you walk?"
"I think so. Any chance at all of us getting out of here?" the man said. The fear that this might not be so was writ large in his dilated blue eyes.
"That's the general idea," Hawke replied, cutting the last of the bonds. "On your feet, Mr. Brock. Let's get off this tub before it sinks."
"Sounds good," the American said, and, with Hawke's help, he swung his legs painfully off the frame and got his feet under him. He swayed and Hawke put one arm around him.
"I won't be much good to you in a fight. I think the bastards have broken my wrists. One of 'em, anyway. Ever hear of an ugly little shit named Hu Xu?"
"Can't say I have. We're going to make straightaway for the stern. As fast as you're able. Over the rail. I've got a man waiting below in a Zodiac. He's expecting us now. Can you make it?"
As he said this last, Hawke heard a now familiar high-pitched voice behind him. He whirled, and his right hand came up in a blinding motion, the Assassin's Fist already on its deadly way. The Tu-We officer appeared to move his head less than an inch to the left and Hawke's blade twanged into the wooden shelving, the knife handle vibrating just beside its intended victim's ear.
"You are knife fighter?" the man said in his disturbingly childlike voice. "Good. I, too."
Copyright (c) 2005 by Ted Bell