Assassin: Code Name Vulture
I licked my parched lips with a thick tongue and squinted up at the sun overhead. There was a taste of old paper in my mouth and a dull but insistent buzzing in my ears.
There was no way of knowing exactly how long I had lain unconscious at the side of the small, scraggly thornbush. When I first came around, I couldn't remember where I was or how I had gotten there. Then I saw the twisted, gleaming hulk of the wreckage, the small Mooney aircraft that had fallen like a wounded hawk from the cloudless sky. The half-crushed strips of metal — remains of the violent crash — rose just thirty yards away above the brown grass of the veldt, and thin wisps of smoke still wafted skyward from it. I recalled now how I had been hurled from the plane as it hit the ground and then crawled away from the raging flames. I figured from the position of the sun that several hours had passed since the mid-morning crash.
Stiffly, and with much pain, I propped myself into a sitting position feeling the hot, white clay against my thighs through my torn khaki trousers. The bush shirt I wore was stuck to my back, and the stink of my own body filled my nostrils. Holding a hand up to shade my eyes from the sun's glare, I looked out over the tall lion grass that seemed to extend endlessly in all directions, broken only by the occasional greenery of a lonely umbrella acacia. There was no sign of civilization, nothing but the vast sea of grass and trees.
A vulture moved silently overhead, wheeling and pirouetting. Casting its shadow on the ground before me, the bird hung there obtrusively, watching. The buzzing in my ears became more distinct now, and it occurred to me that it was not in my head after all. The sound came from the vicinity of the accident. It was the sound of flies.
I focused on the wreckage. Then the vulture and swarm of flies reminded me that Alexis Salomos had been with me on that plane — he had been piloting it when the trouble came. I squinted my eyes but couldn't see him anywhere near the wreck.
Rising weakly I found that my legs were rigid. My entire body ached, but there didn't seem to be any broken bones. A long cut on my left forearm was already healing, the blood caked dry. I regarded the smoldering wreckage darkly. I had to find Alexis to see if he had survived.
The buzzing of the flies became louder as I approached the plane's carcass. I leaned down and peered into the cockpit, but I couldn't spot my friend. My stomach felt queasy. Then as I was walking around the front of the wreck, past a charred propeller and a crumpled piece of fuselage, I suddenly stopped.
Alexis' body lay in a grotesque, bloody heap about ten yards away. He had been thrown clear, too, but not before the plane had mashed him. The front of his head and face were caved in from impact with the windshield of the plane, and it looked as though his neck had been broken. His clothing had been ripped to shreds, and he was covered with caked-dry blood. Large brown flies covered his body crawling into all the crimson crevices. I started to turn away, a little nauseated, when I saw movement in the long grass behind the corpse. A spotted hyena was inching up, aware of my presence but too hungry to care. While its appearance was still registering in my brain, the hyena closed the small distance between itself and the body and grabbed at the exposed flesh of Alexis Salomos' side, savaging a piece off.
"Get away, damn you!" I shouted at the beast. I picked up a stick of burnt wood and flung it at the hyena. The animal loped away through the grass carrying the chunk in its bloody jaws. In a moment it was gone.
I stared down again at the twisted body. I didn't even have a shovel to bury it with so I had to leave it to be destroyed by scavengers within twenty-four hours.
Well, there was nothing I could do. Alexis Salomos was just as dead with or without a burial. They had finally caught up with him and killed him, and they had almost gotten me, too. At least until this moment I had somehow survived. But the biggest test of my luck might just lie ahead, for I figured I was about halfway between Salisbury and Bulawayo, in the deepest part of the Rhodesian bush country.
I walked around the wreckage until it hid the corpse again. Just before the sabotaged Mooney had begun sputtering and coughing up there at five thousand feet, Salomos had mentioned that we would be passing over a tiny village soon. From what he had said, I calculated that the village was still fifty to seventy-five miles to the southwest. With no water or weapons my chances of getting there were very slim. The Luger and the sheath knife that I generally carried had been left at my hotel in Salisbury. Neither of them could be concealed beneath my bush shirt and, anyway, I had not foreseen the need for them on this particular plane ride to Bulawayo. I was on leave from my regular duties with AXE — America's super-secret intelligence agency — and had merely been accompanying an old friend from Athens whom I had met, quite by accident, in Salisbury. Now that friend was dead, and the wild story he had told me had become credible.
I walked to a nearby termite mound, a heap of hard white clay as high as my head with many chimneys that served as entrances. I leaned heavily against it, stared out toward a distant line of fever trees, and tried to ignore the buzzing of the flies on the other side of the wreck. It was just three days ago that I had met Alexis Salomos at a small restaurant near the Pioneer Memorial Park in Salisbury. I was sitting on the terrace looking down on the city when Salomos was suddenly standing beside my table.
"Nick? Nick Carter?" he said, a slow smile starting on his handsome, swarthy face. He was a square-jawed, curly-haired man in his forties whose eyes looked steadily at you with a bright intensity, as if he could see secrets inside your head. He was a newspaper editor in Athens.
"Alexis," I said, rising to extend my hand. He took it with both hands and shook it vigorously, the smile broadening to match my own. "What the hell are you doing in Africa?"
The smile faded, and I realized for the first time that he looked different from the way I had remembered him. He had helped me ferret out a KGB man who had stolen documents important to the West a few years ago in Athens. He seemed to have aged considerably since then. His face had lost its healthy look, particularly around the eyes.
"Do you mind if I join you?" he asked.
"I'll be offended if you don't," I answered. "Please sit down. Waiter!" A white-aproned young man came to the table, and we both ordered a British ale. We made small talk until the drinks came and the waiter left, then Salomos fell pensive.
"Are you all right, Alexis?" I finally asked.
He smiled at me, but the smile was thin and taut. "I have had trouble, Nick."
"Anything I can do?"
He shrugged his square shoulders. "I doubt if there is anything anybody can do." He spoke good English but with a marked accent. He took a long swig of the ale.
"You want to tell me about it?" I asked. "Or is it too personal?"
He gave a bitter laugh. "Oh, it is personal, my friend. You might say it is extremely personal." His eyes met mine. "Someone is trying to kill me."
I watched his face. "Are you sure?"
A wry smile. "How sure must I be? In Athens a rifle shot breaks a window and misses my head by inches. So I take the hint. I take a vacation to see my cousin here in Salisbury. He is an import merchant who emigrated here ten years ago. I thought I would be safe here for awhile. Then, two days ago a black Mercedes almost struck me on the main boulevard. The driver, who drove up onto the curb, looked exactly like a man I had seen before in Athens."
"Do you know who the man is?"
"No," Salomos said, shaking his head slowly. "I had seen him coming from the Apollo Building recently when I was doing a little snooping there." He paused and stared at his ale. "Have you ever heard of the Apollo Lines?"
"An oil tanker company, isn't it?"
"That is correct, my friend. The biggest tanker line in the world which is owned by my countryman, Nikkor Minourkos."
"Oh, yes. I know of Minourkos. A billionaire ex-sailor. A recluse; nobody ever sees him these days."
"Correct again," Salomos said. "Minourkos withdrew from public life almost ten years ago while still a relatively young man. He is believed to spend almost all his time in his penthouse in the Apollo Building near Constitution Plaza where he conducts his business. Personal contacts are made primarily by associates close to Minourkos. Almost no one ever obtains a personal audience with him."
"Very rich men seem to place a high value on their privacy," I said, sipping the ale. "But what does Minourkos have to do with the attempts on your life?"
Salomos took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. "About six months ago, Monourkos' behavior began to change. This was of particular interest to me, and other newspaper editors, of course, because any information about Minourkos is exciting and important to the readers of the