The blood spread thick and scarlet over the fisherman's vest. It was a tidy pool of blood, slowly sloughing down the dead man's chest. He was resting comfortably back against a pine tree, his fishing rod in his hand, waiting for a bite.
The remote mountain stream rushed and sang among ferns and moss-covered boulders. The New Zealand air was crisp and clear, sparkling with the throbbing calls of birds. Nick Carter moved forward silently and set his tackle box and rod on the sloping bank. He squatted in front of the dead man.
The instrument of death was a highly sophisticated poison dart fired from a rifle at great distance. It was a weapon used most often by international agents. The killing had been expertly quiet, performed sometime in the last fifteen minutes. The blood was fresh, warm. The killer had known where to find his target. By now, he would have disappeared.
Carter felt the dead man's pockets and took out the wallet. Jerome Mackenzie, the driver's license said, forty-two years old, height five-eleven, weight one-eighty, address in Wellington. What the license didn't say was that the man was also head of New Zealand's civil air authority.
Carter checked the other pockets, and found cash, coins, a pocketknife, and a toothpick in a silver case. He went through the sack lunch and the tackle box filled with flies and weights. Nothing of any use.
He sat back, rubbing the new beard on his chin. He was on vacation. Some vacation He picked up his gear and walked back to the road.
The mountain police station was built of timbers, with a long porch that abutted other rough buildings in the small village. Tall trees swayed overhead while villagers shopped and rode jeeps up and down the single paved road. Dogs barked. A sheep in a pen behind the gas station chewed thoughtfully on hay.
Inside the police headquarters, Nick Carter nursed a cup of lukewarm coffee and smiled into the suspicious eyes of the local police chief.
"You're telling me that you came all the way from the United States just talk to Mackenzie?" the chief said.
He had a broad face the color of old leather. Sun and wind had weathered his skin and thinned his patience. He drummed his lingers on the arm of his chair.
"Vacation," Carter said again. "A friend in Washington asked me to look Mackenzie up since I was already here. See whether Mackenzie knew anything about a missing American flyer named Rocky Diamond."
"Rocky Diamond? You expect me to believe a name like that? "
Carter shrugged. The irony of the situation made him smile. He'd used the ruse of being on vacation many times in his work He was N3, Killmaster with AXE, the most secret of all United Stales espionage agencies. The ruse usually worked. But now that he really had time off, this small-town policeman in the hinterlands of New Zealand who had no idea who Carter really was had no intention of believing him.
"That's the name," Carter said. "Check it with Wellington."
He stroked his cheeks, feeling the new beard soft against his fingers. Dammit. He wanted this vacation!
"It's being checked," the police chief growled. "Tourists, deer rustlers, marijuana plantations! I might as well be in Auckland!" He stood and marched to the window. "Laws to wear seat belts and license your dog. Parrots that eat the weather stripping off your car's windshield." Annoyance at acts of government and God flushed the chief's face as if they were directed solely at him. He turned to Carter.
"I only found him," Carter said mildly.
"My friend in Washington," Carter explained. "He was in touch with air authority officials in Wellington."
"And this friend of yours?"
"Sorry. A high government official. Top secret. Can't give you a name."
The police chief grimaced. He hadn't liked it the first time Carter had told him. He liked it less now.
"Seems there are a lot of things you can't tell me," the chief said. He poured hot coffee into his mug and sat again behind his desk. "You say you're a chemical engineer from California on vacation, but that doesn't explain why some big shot in Washington wants you to do a secret job for him. You don't know why this Rocky Diamond is important. You don't know anything about Jerome Mackenzie's murder. What
"My coffee's cold," he said, and he reached for the pot on the edge of the chief's desk and poured. "Look," he said and leaned back, "I'd like to help, but I've only got a week's vacation. All I want is to fish and work on my beard. As it is, I've lost most of today. That leaves me only four more days, and the trout are biting. You've got my statement. My papers are in order. Why don't you do us both a favor and let me get out of here?"
The chief narrowed his eyes. His face was flushed. He had a murder in his precinct, and not of an ordinary local man. Mackenzie was out-of-district and important. Wellington, the nation's seat of government, would be on the chief's back. But he had no legal reason lo hold Carter. He sighed.
"No reason to keep you, I suppose," he admitted. "But stay in the area."
"Glad to." Carter stood and drained his coffee cup. "Plenty of streams around here to keep me occupied."
As he picked up his hat, tackle box, and rod, the front door opened. He walked to the door.
A young patrolman, his face pocked with a lost battle against acne, strode in, a folded piece of paper in his hand.
"Sec you around," Carter told the chief, then started to leave.
"Noel Cash?" the patrolman said to Carter.
"That's right," Carter said, walking out onto the porch.
"Just a minute, sir," the patrolman said politely. He waited until Carter stopped.
Irritation prickled on the hack of Carter's neck.
The patrolman handed the paper to the chief, and the chief read it. He looked up, and for the first time he smiled at Carter.
"Guess I'll have to lock you up," he said with pleasure. He stood, dropping the paper onto his desk. He pulled out a ring of keys. "Telegram says someone from Wellington will be here in an hour to question you."
Carter looked the two men up and down. The chief was heavyset, muscular. The young patrolman soon would be. The eager youth drew the pistol from his belt, pointed it at Carter, and motioned him to the timbered door at the back of the office.
Keeping order in their mountainous region had made them tough and strong. Probably canny, too. But Carter knew that with a few quick karate chops the chief and his junior would be immobile on the floor and Carter would be free.
It was the Killmaster's turn to sigh. He was on vacation. Nothing he could do.
"I'll go quietly," he said, mocking himself.
The chief nodded solemnly, missing the joke, and led Carter into a back hall lined with four cells.
The single occupant, housed in the first cell, snored loudly. The faint aroma of whiskey drifted from his cot.
"Harry won't bother you," the chief said cheerfully and nodded at the sleeping drunk. Now that he could turn Carter over to someone with greater authority, he could be agreeable. "Good-natured sort," he added and unlocked the end cell on the right. "In you go."
Carter walked through and turned. The cell door closed with a clang. The drunk snorted and rolled over. The chief turned the key, locking Carter in. The two police officers walked back into their office, talking, and closed the door.
Carter stood in the center of his small enclosure, surrounded by his long bars and the bars of the other cells. He was trapped in a forest of bars. There were trout streams out there waiting to be fished, and he was locked up. Fat rainbow and brown trout. For a moment he wished he were on assignment. Then at least he could break out of this damned cell.
He threw his gear under the cot and fell on the narrow bed. There was one small window, high up, barred. The afternoon sunlight shone through, making a bright rectangle on the floor sliced with the shadows of more bars.
He folded his hands behind his head and stared at the timbered ceiling. This was what he deserved for doing Hawk a favor. Just a couple of questions, Hawk had said. Nothing big. Shouldn't take much time at all.
He should never have answered the summons of the heat-radiant signal under his skin. He should never have made the telephone call to Hawk's office.
He closed his eyes, thoroughly disgusted. Outside, machinery hummed. People talked, laughed. Children shouted in play. The smell of pines in the fresh mountain air beckoned. The time passed slowly.
He'd chosen New Zealand because it was a quiet nation in international politics. Not like countries in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, or Central America. It was two small islands, shaped like a comma at the bottom of the world: North Island, where he was now, and South Island. Its closest big neighbor nation was Australia, and Antarctica if one considered that frozen multinational continent a country.
The sheep behind the gas station bleated. Dogs barked and birds sang. Jeeps and trucks passed on the road. They were ordinary sounds in a country known for its peac ...