I didn't make it to Kirby's funeral. I was in Singapore at the time, wearing a beard and glasses and posing as a turncoat missile expert eager to sell American secrets to the Chinese Communists. I played my role well enough to eliminate one of Mao's key agents and crack an information pipeline he had established, to pick up a couple of bullets in my side, and to receive a coded wire of congratulations from Hawk, the guiding genius of the dirty work division that employs me. We call it AXE. We're the good guys.
When a belated report of Kirby's death reached me, I was in a British hospital on the north coast of the Malay Peninsula, recuperating. Hawk had sufficient pull with the British to get me good doctors, a soft bed, and a pretty nurse. The news about Kirby spoiled it all.
Kirby had been one of AXE's best agents, sharp and dependable. We had worked together on some sticky jobs in Latin America, the kind of jobs that put you to severe tests. I hadn't forgotten how Kirby, a cool man in a clutch and a skilled helicopter pilot, had picked me off a boat in Cuban waters just before the craft exploded into more small pieces than a jigsaw puzzle.
Now he had been murdered and AXE didn't know who his killers were. Finding them was to be my next assignment.
The plane delivered me to a private landing strip in the Florida Keys. A car sat waiting with a tall, expressionless man leaning against the hood. I recognized him. He was one of the two AXE agents who worked as Hawk's body guards. His name, appropriately, was Smith.
This proved to be one of Smith's talkative days. He spoke all of eighteen words as he drove me toward my rendezvous with Hawk.
"The Old Man is biting nails," he said. We were racing along a deserted road with the limousine's speedometer needle nudging 70. "I can't remember when I've seen him in such a foul mood."
The reason for Hawk's unhappiness wasn't difficult to figure out. No one would be unconcerned after losing an agent like David Kirby.
The limousine swept around a curve and I saw a lonely cottage perched at the end of a hardpacked road. Beyond the cottage, an empty dock probed out into the quiet bay. The Gulf of Mexico shimmered in the distance like colored glass hammered by the sun.
A wind was blowing in on the island, tousling Hawk's white hair. He was waiting outside the cottage as we pulled in. Smith's carbon copy, the second expressionless operative who could usually be found near Hawk, stood at the door.
"This is the place where the killings occurred," Hawk said, gesturing with a quick, angry chop of his hand toward the house. "I'll take you inside in a minute."
"Thanks for sending for me."
"I'm not springing you loose on a vendetta, Nick. I sent for you because I need you."
He gave me a level look, then went on. "We've managed to reconstruct some of the details. The killers were driving a small truck. They stopped back there," he pointed, "and cut the telephone wires leading to the house. Then they approached the house and persuaded someone to admit them, probably on the pretense of checking out the phone. We think they were dressed like linemen. They took Kirby and the man Kirby had come here to meet completely by surprise, and killed them and two others who were in the cottage at the time." There was a trace of bitterness in his voice as he added, "We still don't know who they were and we can only guess at their motives."
"How many people are we looking for?"
"As an educated guess, I'd say four. At least two were carrying automatic rifles. One had a shotgun. We found tracks where one of them circled the house to approach it from the rear. He broke in the back door and they caught the men inside in a crossfire. It was an ugly piece of work."
The wind buffeted us as we walked toward the house, Smith following silently behind.
"What was Kirby's assignment?" I asked.
"He came here to talk to the man renting the cottage. The man was Frank Abruze."
The name made me halt in mid-stride. "The Mafia's Frank Abruze?"
"None other. The legendary Frank Abruze. One of the few men the Mafia ever agreed to retire with honors. He'd suffered a heart attack and decided he wanted to spend his last days in Sicily. The Mafia's board of directors voted to okay his retirement and pay him a small pension for loyal service." Hawk permitted himself a thin smile. The pension was somewhat better than a gold watch. Two hundred thousand a year, as a matter of fact. We had learned that Abruze was leaving the country within a few weeks and Kirby had established contact with him."
"I'd be interested to know what they had to talk about, an AXE agent and a former Mafia
"Abruze's travels, Nick. He was a man who was trusted by conflicting factions within the Brotherhood and when they had a touchy errand to be run abroad, they often sent him." Hawk touched my arm. "Let's go inside the cottage now."
Hawk's other bodyguard, whose name was Corbett, opened the door for us. I almost winced when we stepped inside. The place had been closed up for months but it still seemed to hold the smell of death.
"Frank Abruze was an interesting man, an individualist. I won't say I respected him. His record was too bloody," Hawk continued, "but he had been one of the leaders in opposing Mafia involvement in the international drug traffic. He had vigorously fought against it within the last two years, when the U.S. arm of the Mafia was offered a deal by an Asian group that controlled choice opium fields in Indochina."
"This was before the heart attack that led him to retire?"
"Right. Then when Abruze happened to get wise to the Communist guerrilla angle in the deal everything blew sky-high. He laid his findings before the Mafias high council and suggested they reconsider the proposition. This time the vote went his way. There were dissenters, but the board decided to cancel the deal."
"I get the picture. Abruze had information about the opium fields we could use. Kirby was trying to persuade him to give it to us."
"Abruze's virtues were few, but one of them was a belief that communism wasn't the wave of the future. There was reason to hope he would cooperate with us. Also, Kirby had a suspicion that Abruze had some information about the Communists. It's possible that their Mafia contacts were involved with them in more business than just drugs."
"What kind of business?"
"Kirby didn't know. Abruze had only hinted that he knew something that AXE might find very interesting."
Hawk led me into a room where the walls were riddled with bullet holes. He gestured angrily. "The killers didn't take any chances, as you can see. They sprayed enough lead around in here to kill a dozen men."
"Abruze had a tough reputation. Heart attack or no heart attack, he wasn't a man to play around with. They had to make sure there were no survivors."
Hawk nodded. "They were quick and efficient, I'll give them that. And absolutely coldblooded."
"You said two other persons were killed Abruze's boys?"
"His personal bodyguards."
I opened a window and let a breeze in. I thought about the old Mafia
"How does the Mafia feel about Abruze's death?"
"My usually reliable sources say they profess to be appalled that one of their trusted elder statesmen got bumped off. But remember that Abruze's views were opposed by some and that he had made enemies in his time. The important thing to me is that one of our top agents was killed under circumstances I can't explain. I don't plan to shrug that off any more than you do. I want the slayers found."
"There are three possibilities," I said. "Communist agents, old enemies of Abruze, or someone who didn't like his putting a damper on the Asian drug deal."
Hawk spilled cigar ashes on his trousers and brushed them away. "Four possibilities. Remember my mentioning Abruze's $200,000 a year pension? He had the first year's payment here in the house. It disappeared along with the killers."
"Ripping off one of the Mafia's most feared
Hawk stood up abruptly. "Look at those bullet holes. Do you think the man responsible for this was sane?"
He had a point.
I followed Hawk outside. "I've seen the house and heard the story, but you didn't rush me down here just for this. What's the rest of it?"
"There was another person in the cottage, one who escaped the slaughter. We've finally found her."
The girl looked like a million pre-inflation dollars. She was a blonde, young, and long-limbed. Although she wore a coat with the collar turned up, I caught a glimpse of her face as she came out of a restaurant and onto the street. She had high, prominent cheekbones and wide, dark eyes — a fragile set of features unmarked by the cynicism and toughness I had expected.
"Freeze it right there," Hawk said to ...