Nick Carter

Killmaster

Blood Of The Falcon

Dedicated to the men and women of the Secret Service of the United States of America

One

One hot morning in early June, the Melina rode at anchor a mile out from the Israeli coast. The freighter was a floating bomb manned by a crew of killers.

The prospect of getting off the ship failed to cheer veteran terrorist Bassam Abu-Bakir. The only way to leave was by boat, and the thirty-two-year-old Palestinian, a born landlubber, loathed all things nautical. Throughout this trip he'd suffered from seasickness. Even now, he felt poorly.

Soon he'd feel worse. Much worse.

Hasim teased him. "Abu-Bakir, why so glum? The great day is here at last. Your heart should rejoice in gladness!"

"My heart will rejoice when it's safely back on dry land, and not before. Inshallah," Abu-Bakir added, "if God wills it."

Hasim nodded. "Our fate rests in the hands of Allah. If we are destined to die at sea, so be it. If not, then nothing can harm us. In any case, whatever is written shall come to pass."

"What a comfort you are." Abu-Bakir spat over the rail, into the sea.

Young Hasim was classified as a demolitions "expert." That meant only that he could rig a simple bomb without blowing himself up.

The Melina could blow without help from Hasim or anybody else. Stored in the central cargo hold were four tons of C-4-type plastique explosives bought in Cyprus at a bargain price. Too late, the load was found to be dangerously unstable. Since then, most of the crew lived in fear that some slight jarring impact would trigger a chain reaction in the cargo, blasting the ship to kingdom come.

The situation didn't bother Hasim at all. A Lebanese Shiite, he was there on loan from his local branch of the Islamic Jihad group. Compared to his home turf in the shooting gallery of the Bekaa Valley, this sea voyage was a pleasure cruise.

Being somewhat of a joker, Hasim enjoyed needling the dour Abu-Bakir. He nudged the Palestinian. "Hey, here comes your pal, Solano!"

Abu-Bakir bristled. "What? Where…?"

Following Hasim's gaze, Abu-Bakir set eyes on Solano, a man he very much wanted dead. His face darkened and his scowl deepened.

Hasim went on, "How fortunate that you two are together in the same squad! You're such good friends, I know you couldn't bear to be parted."

Abu-Bakir was totally unamused.

"If you and the Italian fight the enemy half as hard as you fight each other, the Zionists will be pushed into the sea in no time."

"Had I the time, Hasim, I would show you what I think of your humor."

Hasim giggled.

Solano and Vernex approached the ready area at the rail, hand-carrying their meager personal gear.

Pierre-Michel Vernex was once a graduate student and still looked the part. A pallid Swiss, he had carroty hair, turnip-colored flesh, and a pear-shaped body. In times past, he deconstructed philosophical tracts with scholarly logic. Now he deconstructed capitalist society with the tools of terror.

A string of successful bank robberies and abductions of high-ranking NATO personnel marked Giacomo Solano as a fast-rising star of the political underworld. High risk for high pay was his formula for the good life. Gifted with a cruelly handsome face and fine physique, he seemed more playboy than master criminal.

Anarchist, bomber, assassin — whatever else he might be, it was clear that Solano was a bit of a dandy. As always, his sleek black hair was carefully brushed back, his beard neatly trimmed. He wore a jaunty yachting cap, navy blue nylon windbreaker, white open-neck shirt, beige chino pants, and deck shoes with no socks.

Vernex snorted. "You look like a bourgeois banker set for a day of boating."

"Just because this is an ugly business, it doesn't mean I have to dress ugly," Solano said.

Earlier in the voyage, Abu-Bakir sneered at Solano for what he considered an unmanly concern with neatness and good grooming, and even openly referred to him as "the powderpuff." His derision lasted right up to the Great Dolphin Massacre and its aftermath, following which his contempt was transformed to hot, raw hatred.

No one knew what prodigious self-control it now took Abu-Bakir to turn his back on the newcomers and deliberately ignore them.

Solano was not so easily put off. "Good morning, Hasim."

Hasim smiled, nodded.

"And a very good morning to you, Abu-Bakir."

The Palestinian responded by grinding his bad teeth in impotent rage.

Solano put down his bag, stretched, went to the rail, and swallowed a few lungfuls of fresh air. "Ah, that's good! What a pleasure it will be to finally get off this stinking tub of a ship! I'm sure you agree, Abu-Bakir. Not too talkative today, are you? What's the matter, my friend? Cat got your tongue?"

Solano pretended to study the sprawling blue seascape. "Hmmmm, I don't see any dolphins today…"

That did it. Unsure of the Palestinian's reaction to the taunt, a no-longer-grinning Hasim joined Vernex in moving quickly to the side, out of the potential line of fire.

Self-restraint didn't wear well on Abu-Bakir. His face twitched. His hands shook from the struggle of stifling his murderous urges.

Trembling with tight-lipped rage, Abu-Bakir stalked off, Hasim trailing him by a few paces.

Vernex let out the breath he'd been holding. "You live dangerously, Solano."

Solano's broad grin flashed dazzling white teeth in a deeply tanned face. "Our comrade in arms doesn't like me so well, eh?"

"You are very stupid to provoke him."

"I caught the bastard machine-gunning dolphins for target practice, so I knocked him down. What of it?"

"You took his gun away from him and threatened to use it on him if he did it again," Vernex reminded the Italian.

"That was a promise, not a threat. Besides, Abu-Bakir is an extremist. Subtlety is wasted on him," Solano said. "Anyway, I like dolphins. Such beautiful creatures! You know, it's bad luck to kill them."

"It's worse luck to cross Abu-Bakir. He'd as soon kill you as look at you."

"So why doesn't he try?"

"The only thing that stops him from shooting you is that a stray slug could set off the explosives."

"The only thing? I wonder…"

"Once we're off the ship — beware," Vernex warned.

"I can take care of myself. But I thank you for the concern."

"I'm concerned with anything that might adversely affect our mission."

"You're a dedicated man, Vernex."

"True. Dedicated to the cause of world socialist revolution."

"Me, I'm dedicated to the holy cause of Solano."

"Your cynicism is disgusting," Vernex muttered.

"But my shooting is first rate," Solano said. "That's why I'm here."

Along came the hulking man-mountain known only as "Elias."

"Ah, there you are! I have been looking for you guys."

Elias resembled nothing so much as a bear waddling on its hind legs. An apt comparison, since a single swipe from either of his big, clumsy hands could cave in a man's face or smash his skull. He belonged to ETA-Militar, the ultraviolent Basque separatist army. He was a long way from his mountain home in the Pyrenees, but terror makes strange bedfellows. When told by his commanders that he was being loaned out to their comrades in the international terrorist network, Elias obeyed without a murmur.

Elias, Abu-Bakir, Solano, Vernex. The four members of the operation's Rocket Attack Squad.

"Our boat's loaded," Elias said. "Time to go." He looked around for the missing team member. "Where's Abu-Bakir?"

* * *

Abu-Bakir angrily stalked the ways of the ship's superstructure. He ran into Driss, the slave of Mokhtar. The collision sent Driss sprawling.

"Fool!" Abu-Bakir barked. "Why don't you watch where you're going!" Fighting the urge to strike the smaller man, he strode away.

Nimble Driss hopped up from the deck plates, chased Abu-Bakir, caught and held him to the sleeve. "He wants you."

"Who?"

Driss snorted. "You know who."

Abu-Bakir knew who, all right, but he was in no mood to be trifled with, not even by the operation's leader. "Tell your master I'm too busy to chat. I have to go blow up a Zionist oil dump."

"You think he doesn't know that?" Driss let go of Abu-Bakir's sleeve. Without another word, he turned and walked away.

After a pause for second thoughts, Abu-Bakir raced after him. "Wait! Where are you going?"

"To tell Mokhtar you refuse his summons."

"Don't be so hasty. Of course I will see him. Where is he?"

"Follow me," the slave commanded.

Abu-Bakir obeyed. Driss led him up a steep metal stairway into the ship's upper works, along a starboard gangway, around a corner, through a dark corridor, around another corner into blinding daylight, down a narrow aisle, around yet another blind corner, and into an alcove roofed over by a green-striped deck awning.

There stood Mokhtar, sudden, unexpected. Abu-Bakir stopped short to keep from stumbling into the man.

Mokhtar made a sign to his slave. Driss vanished.

Mokhtar was balding, wide-faced, with a black mustache and goatee. His age was indeterminate. He could have been a dissipated forty or a vigorous sixty. He wore a rumpled brown pin-striped Western business suit and brown wing-tip shoes. ...

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