When pursuing dangerous game, a hunter sometimes finds that he has unwittingly changed roles with his prey and become the hunted. Many wild animals possess the cunning necessary for ambush, like the killer jaguar of Mato Grosso, which hid along its own trail to maul and kill hunting dogs with a swipe of its claws, always killing the last dog in the pack first. And the Dabi rogue elephant, which developed the nasty habit of tearing its human pursuers limb from limb.
Man, of course, is the most cunning of all ambushers, and I considered this fact carefully as I walked along the dark forest path. This was the perfect place for an ambush; and I knew that it had been planned that way.
I walked cautiously, slowly, watching every tree and shrub for movement, listening for any small sound. My Luger, Wilhelmina, lay ready in its holster, but unloaded. The stiletto, Hugo, rested in the chamois sheath strapped to my right forearm, under the jacket I was wearing. I had just moved past an overhanging branch when I heard the sound behind me. Even before I turned, I knew what it meant — a man had dropped from a tree to the ground behind me.
I whirled just in time to see a hand descend with a knife in it. The thin, sharp blade was headed straight for my chest.
Throwing my left forearm up to block it, I grabbed at the man's wrist. At the same time I jabbed the index and middle fingers of my right hand toward the man's eyes. But he jammed his free hand up against the bridge of his nose just in time to save his eyes.
I grabbed his other wrist with both hands, turning and twisting away from him, and pulled hard as I bent forward. The man went flying over my shoulder and hit the ground on his back. The knife flew out of his hand. I tensed a muscle in my right forearm, and my stiletto slid down into my palm. Before the man could move, I stuck the slim point of the stiletto up under his chin and held it there.
"Better luck next time," I said in a low voice.
I didn't drive the knife in under the man's chin as I would ordinarily have done. I held it there while his eyes narrowed on me.
Suddenly he grinned. "Very good, N3," he said.
"Any suggestions?" I asked, moving the stiletto away from his throat.
He sat up and dusted himself off. "Well, I could mention that you should get more of your hip into the throw. And that your stiletto is not regulation issue and is considered inferior to the German Trapper's Companion you just took away from me. But I think you know all that, anyway. And you seem to get the job done, regardless."
I put Hugo back in its sheath. 'Thanks," I said.
I had passed the first test of the refresher course. My assailant was the assistant aikido instructor at the AXE training academy, and I had to admit he'd done a damn good job of making sure I remembered the fundamentals of self-defense. We were on the grounds of the AXE supersecret school for agents.
"Now proceed along this path till you reach the intersection with the trail leading back to the training center," he told me. "Expect anything."
"I always do," I answered, smiling.
I left him there and started down the winding path. The moon slid out from behind the clouds, streaking the trail with an eerie silvery light. I moved cautiously, ready for anything. When I got to the intersection, I paused for a minute. I was aware of the absence of insect sounds, which meant there was a good possibility that somebody else was in the immediate area. I had just started along the path leading to the training center when a man jumped out of the darkness into the path directly in front of me. I drew my Luger and beat the man to his weapon. I aimed the Luger at his chest and pulled the trigger. There was a click on an empty chamber.
"You're dead," I said. "With a 9 mm slug through your heart."
The dark-suited figure laughed, and I saw that he was wearing a stocking over his face. The laugh and that stocking set wheels turning inside my head. While I was still trying to figure it out, I heard a slight noise behind me. The man had been only a decoy. But it didn't make sense. The instructors never worked in teams against you, not on the night exercises.
Before I could turn to face the second man, I felt a sudden, sharp pain explode at the base of my skull. Bright lights flashed at me in the blackness. My knees buckled, and the ground came up and smashed into the back of my head. I heard a low groaning somewhere, a rasping sound, and it was coming from my own throat.
"Is that him?" I heard a voice say.
"Yeah, that's him," the other man answered in an accent of some land.
I opened my eyes painfully and saw the two dark figures swimming in the darkness. They both wore stocking masks. "What… is this?" I managed to ask.
"Real life, Mr. Carter," the one with the accent said. "Not games at school, as you thought."
I squinted through pain-blurred eyes to see the shapes of the faces behind the stockings, but it was too dark to see much of anything. Anyway, it didn't require any brilliant deduction to figure out that these were not instructors from the training academy. I was just trying to guess how they'd gotten onto the grounds when one of them kicked me hard in the side.
I grunted and swore under my breath. The pain was excruciating. The man with the accent was aiming a Colt Cobra.38 Special at my face.
"That was just to convince you that this is not a game, Mr. Carter," the one with the Colt told me. The other man was breathing shallowly, and he looked as if he'd love to repeat the lesson.
The kicker put the small automatic back in his pocket. He pulled a black envelope out of his jacket. Making a sound in his throat, he threw the envelope to the ground beside me.
The one with the accent spoke again. "That's a message for your superiors, Mr. Carter. It concerns the forthcoming Caracas Conference. I suggest your people read it carefully and seriously."
My mind whirled in the pain-filled darkness. The conference was a meeting between the American Vice-President and the Venezuelan President that was going to be held at the Palacio de Miraflores, the White Palace, within the next couple of weeks. It was an important political event and was expected to strengthen economic and political ties between the United States and Venezuela.
I wanted to ask questions, to get them to speak some more. But they were through talking. The one who had kicked me before was about to give me one last kick before they left. His trouble was he enjoyed his work too much. This time he aimed his heavy shoe at my head. I grabbed his foot and gave it a vicious twist. I heard the bones crack, and he bellowed as he lost his balance and fell heavily against his comrade. The other man stumbled backward, and they both went down.
"Fool!" the man with the Colt shouted as he scrambled to get back on his feet, trying at the same time to take aim.
By then I was on my feet, and somehow the kicker got himself between me and the gun, which was fine with me. He threw a big fist at my face, but I ducked and it glanced off my jaw. The man with the gun was up on his feet and running into the shadows. I hit the other man, smashing my fist into his temple. He fell onto his back, and I threw myself on top of him, but he got his foot against my gut and shoved. I went flying, and by the time I was back on my feet, he was dragging himself off into the brush.
But I wasn't about to forget how much he'd enjoyed kicking me, and that gave me energy I didn't know I had left. I let the stiletto fall into my hand and threw it after him underhand. It hit him in the back just as he was entering a thick patch of bushes. He yelled, grabbed at his back, and lunged forward onto his face, disappearing from view in the underbrush.
As I walked over to the fallen man, an instructor came out of the shadows behind me. "Hey," he shouted, "what's going on here?"
He came over to where I stood and saw the stiletto sticking up out of the thug's back. "Jesus!" he said. "What the hell happened?"
I pulled the stocking mask off the husky man and saw that he was dead. The face wasn't familiar. "We had visitors," I said. "One got away. He's gone by now."
"You killed this one?" He looked a little sick.
AXE instructors are specialists in self-defense, but most of them haven't spent much time in the field. They train us to loll but are never around for the dirty work.
"It looks as if I did," I said, moving past the slack-jawed karate expert to pick up the envelope my assailants had left with me. I opened it up and could just barely read the message in the dim moonlight.
It was signed simply "The Spoilers." The entire message, including ...