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Frost of Heaven



Junius Podrug

Copyright 1992, 2017 Junius Podrug


REVIEWS OF FROST OF HEAVEN

“This absorbing debut thriller set in remote lands offers penetrating character studies along with colorful, nonstop action . . . Podrug deftly depicts his diverse locales from modern London and contemporary, ageless Calcutta to Tibet and Mongolia, providing rare texture for his plot of violence and danger.” Publishers Weekly

“Podrug is a talented writer with a knack for startling images and a real gift for capturing the seamy downside of cities . . . The author has a fine reporter’s eye . . . he’s captivating and dour in his descriptions of the Tibetan landscape or in a harrowing account of contemporary Calcutta.” Kirkus Reviews

An “old fashioned novel of romantic adventure in the trackless wastes of the Himalayas . . . a good Hitchcockian hero . . . plenty of action and intrigue . . . a lot of color, panoramic shots of locales ranging from Calcutta to Tibet . . . It’s intended to entertain and that’s what it does.” Locus Magazine

“A compelling thriller . . . “ Cardiff Western Mail (Britain)

“A savage thriller . . . recalls Raiders of the Lost Ark or Rider Haggard’s adventures.” Liverpool Daily Post (Britain)

“Fast and entertaining . . . an accomplished first novel.” Rocky Mountain News

“If this thriller doesn’t entertain you, you’re dead . . . spectacular debut . . . it’s fast, raw and compelling . . . and damn intriguing . . .” David Morrow, New York Times bestselling author

Best First Novel Award from the Unreal Worlds Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror Awards

PROLOGUE


Out of whose womb came the ice?

and the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?

Job 38.29


The plane sped toward the pass like a dog running for a closing gate. Avalanches triggered by the rasp of its engine rushed down the sides of mountains as he steered toward the opening. Racing between Titanic peaks, the plane had no more significance than a fly in the Grand Canyon.

Suddenly he was at the right altitude, and he nursed the joystick to keep the nose up as the plane shot into the pass.

The engine coughed and the nose turned down. He fought the control stick as the plane dived for the bottom of the icy jaw. With thoughts of love and hate—the girl he left behind, the bastards who sent him to nowhere in a crippled plane—he was a drowning man seeing himself in that slippery moment between life and death. The plane turned up reluctantly, the metal fuselage trembling as if it had tasted the fear and sweat of the hands directing it.

The plane broke out of the pass and a gasp of relief escaped from him. The plunge had raised the hair on his soul.

He gritted his teeth. Bloody bastards. Risking his life without even letting him in on the secret. They were all puffed up with self-importance about the mission. They even had a priest at the briefing. Who ever heard of a priest at a top-secret briefing?

At the end of the briefing the priest had hurried to him and started talking about how important the mission was to God. He had almost laughed. The man reeked of holy fervor and moldy wine. The priest had started to tell him something about a skull when a security officer pulled the man away.

Smoke and flames burst from the engine and the controls shook in his grip. He started losing altitude, limping like a wounded bird. In the distance was a great peak, a snowcapped giant, utterly majestic with lines as dramatic as the facets of a diamond. The big mountain—he couldn’t keep the plane’s nose up. He’d never clear it! The plane shuddered again, the death rattle of the Phoenix, as he stoked the burning engine. He screamed as the mountain rushed at him.

Driven by nervous energy, he crawled away from the crash, a rush of adrenaline fooling him into thinking he had survived when all he had probably achieved was a prelude to death. He was injured, hurt badly, his path in the snow marked by his blood. Places where his flight suit had been torn were not just rips in cloth but tears to his body. The wounds quickly froze. It was the bitter chill that would kill him.

He made one more mindless effort to get on his feet but managed only to roll over onto his back. His brain still functioned, but the ice pack was freezing his life’s blood, creating rigor mortis while he still had a few breaths left.

He saw the movement out of the corner of his eye, what appeared to be an animal coming toward him, but he was too weak, too frozen, to turn his head. As it got closer he realized it was walking erect, like something human, and he imagined it to be a yeti, the legendary abominable snow creature said to haunt the mountains.

He wanted to get up and run but the joints of his arms and legs were frozen and his brain was slowly closing down. His mind screamed as the creature knelt beside him. He couldn’t see what it was doing but sensed that hands were examining him.

It began taking off his clothes!

Soon he lay naked in the snow, his numbed brain reeling in the horror that the thing had undressed him.

Then the creature stood up and slipped out of its own furry coat. It was a woman, not an animal but a woman wearing a red robe under the hooded coat. She had dark-honey skin, black hair and molasses eyes, and an almost otherworldliness about her that transcended race. A silver pendant carved in the image of a snow leopard hung from a chain around her neck.

She tucked the furry coat under him and stood and slipped off her red robe. Her body was smooth and firm and seemed impervious to the bitter cold. She pressed her naked body against his, her breasts pushing on his bare chest, her legs wrapping around his, drawing them together, sealed by the warmth of her thighs, the fire in her blood flowing from her flesh to his . . .

CHAPTER I


Who were you before your mother

and father conceived you?


LONDON

Fog had settled on Whitehall, a weeping shroud chill-wet and unstirred as the breath of the dead. Peter shivered and pulled up the collar on his coat. He knew they were back there, knew he was being followed, that the thick night hid the men behind him.

What would it feel like to get a bullet in the back? Ripping through me, exploding my lungs out of my chest?

He kept walking, trying to listen to the night, but the fog seemed to distort every sound. Somewhere in the distance the bells of a church tolled. As if in answer a foghorn whispered on the River Thames, the coarse song suspended for a moment, melancholy, like the mort played on a hunting horn heralding that a kill had been made.

What in God’s name was he supposed to know?

He was threatened by the ghost of a man he had never met.

What could his father have seen in a plane over the Himalayas that was still important thirty years later?

Reaching a corner where a street lamp glowed, he stepped away from the light and listened for sounds. A car started up and accelerated somewhere . . . streets away? Would they come for him in a car? Pick him off the sidewalk, getting rid of him as quick and easy as spitting on a slate and wiping it clean?

He walked in a direction where he thought he’d find the Thames and the tube station near Victoria Embankment. Keep moving. Harder to hit. The fog works both ways.

He was in the heart of government row, surrounded by the citadels of British history—the Admiralty, the old War Office, Whitehall Palace where Charles I lost his head for high treason and other crimes.

A few hours ago the area was bustling with people and cars and taxis. Now the night was thick, the streets deserted. He’d left freak tornadoes and violent rainstorms behind in sunny California—and stumbled into a near whiteout by the Thames in a city that hadn’t seen peasoupers in decades. The fog was scary. That’s why they let him off in the middle of it. To scare him. To kill him?

They weren’t going to scare him away. They would have to kill him.

It had all seemed so simple in the beginning.

Down the River Thames, not far from where he was walking, was Waterloo Bridge. His mother, a young woman from California on vacation in Britain, had met a Scotsman named Duncan MacKinzie on that bridge over three decades ago. She was forced to return home pregnant and unwed after the handsome RAF officer disappeared in a forgotten flight over the loneliest place on earth—the Himalayas.

“You look like your father,” his mother told him a thousand times, which told him nothing because he didn’t know what his father looked like.

When he was twelve and other kids were out fishing with their dads, he stood in front of a mirror and mentally subtracted his mother’s looks from his own to construct his father from the leftovers. His brown hair was darker and thicker than his mother’s, his eyes greener than her hazel ones; he was tall as a kid and sprouted up over six one as an adult; muscular in a willowy way, lacking that pumped look many muscular men cultivate. He never knew if the image of his father he conjured up was accurate because there was no one to compare it with.

His mother never lost her hope, her hopeless dream, that her handsome young RAF pilot would come back to her, to rekindle their love and claim his son. Married to a nice, solid, boring man, she committed emotional suicide and withered inside like a forgotten rose pressed between the pages of a book.

Her unfulfilled romantic yearnings became part of the makeup of her child, passed along like a genetic defect.

Peter left his job, his way of life, at the age of thirty, to find a missing piece of himself.

And walked into what?

His father’s last mission—what the hell had happened thirty years ago that seemed to be putting his own life in jeopardy today?

He had gone to the government building where personnel files of British war dead and MIAs were stored, “the paper graveyard,” he heard a clerk call it. Accessing his father’s service file was the quickest way to get a lead on his family, to let them know Duncan MacKinzie had a son and to get a peek at his own roots.

It was his tenth trip to the paper graveyard to wade through red tape in an attempt to see the file, but this time two men burst into the room with a show of authority and muscle, shoving him up against the counter and cuffing him. The pretty file clerk went from being flirtatious to gawking as they hustled him out the back door.

On the, rear loading dock one of the men tripped him, sending him down the concrete ramp with his hands cuffed behind. They jerked him off the ground, ignoring his curses, and shoved him onto the backseat of a waiting car. Blindfolded, he was taken a few blocks, through more doors and upstairs. He counted the steps, thirty-nine, with two landings in between.

All because he wanted to see the file of a dead man.

What was so important about his father’s flight? Had he been flying a spy plane? The geography was right: The Himalayas are between India and China, two nations rattling sabers at each other three decades ago. The time was right, too, an era that saw Gary Powers shot down while piloting a U2.

But what could Duncan MacKinzie have seen in a spy plane over the icy world of the Himalayas that would be so important thirty years later that British Intelligence would haul his son in and batter him with hours of relentless questions and accusations?

Cops is how he thought of them. Peter was a reporter, an investigative reporter, and had scrapped with the cops before. They told him they were MI5, but the men who interrogated him were pricks, more likely to spend an evening putting a bullet behind the ear of an IRA terrorist than enjoying high tea and scotch with foreign spies at the Dorchester.

In the shabby interrogation room the two agents had taken turns at him like jackals ripping the flesh from a carcass while a third man hid and listened.

“What’s the worst thing that could happen to you?” the chief heavy asked, a boozer who talked with a slight lisp, leaning close with Johnny Walker breath, staring at him with bloodshot eyes glazed with an unhealthy yellow film. Fine veins had pushed to the surface of his nose like tiny blue worms wiggling out.

What’s the worst thing that could happen to you?

“Everyone has fears, their worst nightmares,” the lisper told him, staring through the slits of Venetian blinds, talking to the gray night.

They told him what he feared and it hit him like a kick in the balls.

They had been watching him, had dug into his background, got under his skin and passed his life under a microscope.

Because he wanted to see his father’s military file? He choked on his own laughter. They knew who he was but he couldn’t prove he was Peter MacKinzie. His driver’s license said Novak, his passport said Novak, hell, he didn’t know how to sign his name except as Peter Novak. But what’s in a name? A good man named Novak married a pregnant woman and allowed his name to be written on a birth certificate to keep a child from being labeled a bastard. The only evidence he had that he was Duncan MacKinzie’s son was the word of his mother. And she had been dead for five years.

Footsteps shuffled somewhere behind him and he swung around, straining to see. There were things in the fog—like the images on a Rorschach ink blot, what the eye didn’t see, the mind imagined.

The fog was getting to him. He picked up his pace, his ear tuned to the sounds of the night.

No damn taxis. On a clear day the area was crawling with them. Nights like this, the gray damp of winterkill settling on the city, the streets reading like a Gothic novel, must have been what fed the Ripper and drove Poe to madness.

Charming thoughts. “Keep it up, Peter,” he said aloud.

He tried to get the dreary night off his mind by thinking of his hurts. His right shoulder ached from the tumble down the ramp, his head hurt from bouncing off the floor, but questions swirling in his head like bats in an attic kept him from focusing on the pain.

Who was the third man? One side of the room had been partitioned off. He sensed someone behind the divider, someone listening as the other two took turns at him. He made a deliberately clumsy attempt to get off the chair with his hands still cuffed, turning it over, bouncing his nose off the floor to get a look under the divider at a pair of scuffed black shoes and black pants.

Was he the one, the killer sent to put a bullet in his back in the fog or run him down with a car, another victim of big-city violence? The other two had dropped him off several streets back and stood by their car, a look passing between them as they told him to start walking.

Maybe they’re just trying to intimidate me. Scare me a little. He shivered and tugged his coat collar higher. They sure as hell chose a fine night if they wanted to get under his skin. Nothing like a dark and dreary night with angry gargoyles glaring down from shadowy buildings. The British were civilized, weren’t they? Hell, he was half British. They probably just wanted to scare him off. Thought he was nothing but a nosy newspaper reporter, digging out dirt and putting it on the front pages like he did before he traded in a California tan for gray London. He thought about what an ugly bastard Lisper was and lost confidence in his “scare-off” theory. Lisper liked to hurt people.

What the hell is it about that file that gets these bastards seemingly kill crazy? And who the hell was the guy behind the partition, the third man?

He heard footsteps again, running steps, and he swung around. Nothing, just shadows in the fog, but now he was pissed. He was tired of being scared, finished with being bullied. He wasn’t going to turn his back again and worry that someone was to slip it to him.

He stepped off the street and into the doorway of a building, losing himself in the shadows, listening to the night. Tense. Nerves on fire. He hadn’t thought about what he would do when his stalker showed up. But running wasn’t one of the options.

He rubbed his cold hands. Where’s the best place to hit some son of a bitch with a gun before he blows my face off? Balls? Throat? Solar plexus? Grab the gun and butt the bastard in the nose with his head? Shit, that was all movie crap!

Something touched his leg and he almost jumped out of his pants.

A cat, a goddamn black cat!

It brushed against his pants leg again and he stared down at it. He slowly took a breath and let his tensed muscles relax. He felt like laughing.

Nothing but a damn cat.

He had had it with lurking in doorways. He stepped out and bumped into someone.

“What—!”

A woman stepped back, startled. He thought she was going to run but instead she stared at him with searching eyes, as if she had been expecting someone whose face she didn’t know. Her face was partly cloaked by the hood of her coat, exposing only dark eyes and lovely cheeks.

He got his own breathing under control and tried to smile. “Sorry, I didn’t see you.”

She clutched a bag he thought at first was a large carryall but then realized it was an old-fashioned carpetbag.

Surprise registered on her features as her eyes met his and he stared back, puzzled. He didn’t know her, but she struck a chord deep within him as if he should.

“Do I know you?” he asked. Footsteps sounded from an alley to his left. She looked to the alley and tensed, as if ready to bolt. He fought back his own panic. “Is something wrong?”

She backed away from him slowly.

“Miss—”

She turned and dashed into the street.

“Watch out!”

Headlights of an oncoming car bore down on her. He leaped after her, getting a handhold on her coat and jerking her back as the car screeched to a stop beside him.

“You almost got killed.”

A taxi sign glowed on the roof of the car and an anxious English face poked out of the window on the driver’s side. “Anybody ‘urt?”

“Are you all right?” Peter asked the woman.

“I—I’m fine.”

The footsteps sounded again, heavy steps, that of a man or possibly more than one. Peter still had a hold of her arm and he felt tension spring through it—she was ready to run again.

“We’re coming aboard,” he told the driver. He steered her to the back door, opening it for her. She hurried in and he climbed in behind her, slamming the door. The driver peered back at them through the open glass partition. “Let’s go,” Peter snapped. As the taxi pulled away he got a glimpse of someone running toward it, a threatening shadow screened by the fog. The image faded as the taxi moved down the street.

The cabbie glanced back at his passengers. “Nearly got me in an accident. Destination?”

Peter was too intent on watching the woman to be interested in the cabbie’s track record. The hood had fallen to her shoulders, exposing long, wavy black hair that glowed with the midnight sheen of Poe’s raven. Light and shadow caressed her face as the taxi passed street lamps; her eyelashes curved dramatically above brown eyes that took his measure with the dangerous intensity of a jungle cat.

“Where you goin’?” the cabbie asked insistently.

Peter raised his eyebrows to the woman.

“Where are you going?” she countered.

“Soho.”

The cabbie reached up and slammed the glass screen shut.

“I don’t think he’s happy with us,” Peter said.

Her features were different in a way that fascinated him. The cast of her eyes, the curve of her high cheek bones, hinted of the exotic Orient, but there was an elusive quality about her features—she could have been born in a suburb of Birmingham or a tent on the steppes of Asia.

A mystic quality about her fed his imagination. He remembered a trip to Stonehenge and a story told to him by a farmer he met in a pub, a tale of a Druid princess whom the farmer insisted visited the bleak plains at night to walk among the silent sentinels of the past.

“Have you ever been to Stonehenge?” he asked.

The question startled her. “Stonehenge?” Large brown eyes searched his face, looking for hidden meaning behind the question.

“I just—have we met before?”

“Not in this life.” She treated him with the hint of a smile as if her remark was retaliation for his disarming question about Stonehenge.

“Are you—”

“I’m not from London,” she said.

“That’s a coincidence, I’m not from London, either.”

“Perhaps that’s why we seem to know each other.”

He had tried to keep a straight face but grinned. “There’s a certain amount of perverse logic to that.”

“You’re an American.”

“I’m an American. Peter Novak.”

She didn’t volunteer her name, leaving a blank in the conversation that grew pregnant. He was struck again by that haunting sense of familiarity, as if they had met but he knew they had not. This was not a woman he would forget.

“What happened back there?”

“A man. . .a mugger tried to attack me.” She looked out the back window as if she expected she was being followed.

Her English was Received Standard, the archaic dialect of Oxford and Cambridge, underlined by a touch of foreign accent that added to the aura of mystery that surrounded her.

He didn’t believe her story about the mugger. He tried a bluff. “I’ll have the cabbie take us to the nearest police station to report the matter.”

“I appreciate your concern.” He loved the sound of her voice, the rich English accent laced with foreign intrigue. “But it won’t be necessary. I’m not even certain anyone was following me. The darkness, the fog, my imagination got the best of me.”

“Are you in some sort of trouble?” He could have asked the question about himself.

“I don’t know what you mean.”

She avoided his eyes and glanced back at the window. Her hooded coat—almost a cape—was Russian sable; a snow leopard delicately wrought in silver hung from a chain around her slender neck. Her only other jewelry was a white-gold watch sprinkled with diamonds. Peter liked the effect; jewelry would distract from her beauty.

“Worried about being followed?”

“I told you, there was a man—”

“Muggers don’t hop into cars and follow their victims. Not even ones as lovely as you.”

Her eyes swept his face, scanning his green eyes, brown hair, the line of his jaw, her expression one of curiosity, even puzzlement, as if she were searching for someone hidden under the features. “Who are you, Peter Novak? Who were you before this life?”

What was she talking about?

Her hand touched his knee, a casual intimacy that seemed to be offered unconsciously, as if she had touched him to see if he was real.

Her touch—it was so familiar. He stared at her lips, wondering what it would be like to kiss her, and at the same time he was struck by the sensation that he already knew.

It didn’t make sense—she wasn’t someone he would forget. And she sure as hell wasn’t the type he could ask, “Excuse me, lady, but have we ever made love?”

Tashi took her hand from Peter’s knee and stared out the window on her side to hide the storm of emotions assaulting her. Their meeting had not been an accident—she felt lured to him as inexorably as a moth batting its wings on the rim of a volcano, drawn to the inferno even in the face of doom.

She had watched the priest follow Peter. As the priest came down the dark street, she stepped out of a doorway and grabbed the bag. After she lost the priest in the fog, she waited, certain the footfalls she heard were Peter’s, experiencing again the emotions that had electrified her when she saw him for the first time.

She was not a Druid princess but a woman of worldly flesh and human desires. Her background and training made her different from most women: She was a product of the Orient, the “mysterious East,” raised in a lamasery by Tibetan monks and trained to bring mind and body into a universe of awareness.

Her instincts about people were exceptional. There was nothing mystical about her abilities—she had been trained to see each blade of grass, each flower in a meadow. By opening herself up to people—to the motives revealed by the way they walked and talked, the secrets in their smile, the desire in their eyes—she was able to leaf quickly through a person’s mind like someone flipping through the pages of a book.

She had been trained from childhood also to listen to her own emotions, to stand within herself and experience her subconscious, an area of self that few Westerners ever probe.

But Peter Novak scrambled her fine-honed senses. Her eyes told her he was a stranger, but her heart told her something else.

A strange sense of intimacy teased her like the sweet warmth that lingered after stepping from a hot bath; she imagined herself naked in bed with him, his hands softly caressing her breasts, down her flat stomach, moving up her thighs like a burning ember igniting desire that started between her legs and spread through her body like blood-fire.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

He wanted her to turn to him, to look into his eyes again. When their eyes had met before he hadn’t seen glamour wrapped in sable but a real woman, tender, caring, yet fiercely defiant. He had never experienced emotions like the ones now talking to him from some inner recess of his mind: He felt an intense bond with her, not fascination, not infatuation, but something simple, natural, as if running, laughing with her in the rain, or holding her in his arms before a roaring fire place were not just to be desired but expected.

He slowly raised his hand to her cheek and touched it.

“Who are you?” he whispered.

She turned to face him, her cheeks hot, her eyes exposing her desire. The desire he saw was not lust but burning innocence, the wonderful sensation of two lovers long apart seeing each other across the crowded ramp of a train station, racing for each other’s arms. He felt her in the beat of his heart, felt the fire in his own body.

She leaned closer to him, soft tears in her eyes. Her fingers traced the curve of his jaw, the warmth of his cheeks, and pushed gently into his hair. She pulled his face to hers until her sweet breath brushed his lips.

He wanted her, now, on a white satin bed, his body bonded with hers; he wanted her now, in the backseat of a taxi in foggy Londontown.

He slipped open her coat and pulled her to him.

Her fingers dug deeper in his hair and pulled him closer until their lips met, cautiously, unsure, slowly folding together and then opening until he could taste her essence and she his, a tiny flame uniting them until it exploded and they pressed hungrily at each other, her breasts eager against his chest, her hands pulling at his hair.

This wasn’t the way she dealt with men, but her body hungered for this stranger, and she lost herself to her desires as his hand slid into the warmth under her dress—

“Shit!” The taxi suddenly swerved in the roadway and the driver laid on the horn. “Bleedin’ idiot on a bike with no lights!”

She pulled away from him, breathless, and scooted down the seat, straightening her clothing.

Peter cleared his throat and combed his hair with his hand. Jesus H. Christ!

He turned to her to say something and the words snagged in his throat. She was staring at him with the angry shock of a woman who had just been pinched by a total stranger.

Her hand moved in a blur, the slap wiping away the rest of his words, leaving his cheek stinging and his jaw hanging.

“What did I do?”

The rear window of the taxi glowed blue, startling both of them.

“The Old Bill,” the cabbie cursed.

Peter twisted in the seat and rubbed steam off the window to get a look at the police car with its flashing blue light as the cabbie steered to the curb. “I—I wonder why they’re stopping us.” He stammered a little, his nerves still on fire.

She opened the door and slipped out of the taxi as it came to a stop.

“Wait!” He scooted across the seat to the closing door, his leg hitting the bag she left on the floor.

“Oi! What about the fare?” The cabbie twisted in his seat and glared at him.

Peter ignored him and stared out the window. Why were they being stopped? Something Lisper cooked up?

The woman was gone, vanished into the fog as abruptly as she had appeared. He didn’t even know her name. His leg touched the carryall again and he picked it up and put it on his lap. “She left her bag,” he said, more to himself than the cabbie. The bag was old and well worn, its wooden handle scarred, the seams frayed. Not an imitation but the genuine article, an old-fashioned carpetbag used as an overnighter in the leisurely days of trains and carriages. He squeezed the sides and felt something solid inside, half the size of a loaf of bread. He hoped it was her purse with her name and address in it.

The cabbie grumbled as he rolled down the window for the policeman who appeared beside the taxi. Peter was relieved to see the policeman had a notebook in hand. “Maybe it’s full of dosh,” the cabbie said, glancing in the rearview mirror as he handed his license to the policeman. “‘eard about a fella in Liverpool, his fare left a briefcase on the backseat that . . .”

Peter wasn’t listening. Two worn leather straps slipped into tarnished brass buckles held the carryall closed. He undid the two straps and pulled open the bag. Something white at the bottom glowed in the dim light. He reached for it, a rough, hard object that felt like a piece of unfinished porcelain. He pulled it out and held it up to the dome light.

“What the hell?”

A human skull stared back at him.

CHAPTER 2


Tashi was a couple of streets away from where she had fled the taxi when a black Mercedes limousine pulled to the curb beside her. The back door opened and she got in.

A man was waiting in the backseat for her. He had the cold, handsome face of an emperor’s death mask, as if his features had been sculpted by a plastic surgeon with an eye for the classics. His age was late forties or fifties, but he could have been older or younger—the rigidity of his features gave him an ageless quality. His hair was brown streaked with slivers of gray; ice-green eyes were set like emeralds in the mask.

The name on his passport said Zhdanov, but he had no more right to the name than to his stolen face.

“What happened?” His English was internationalized; his tone betrayed no emotion.

She took off her coat to gain time to get her thoughts together. “I grabbed the bag from the priest, but I got confused in the fog and ran the wrong way.”

“Where’s the bag?”

“It’s in a taxi.”

“A taxi!”

“I. . . I ran into a man and he helped me into a taxi.” The lies were sticking in her throat. “Everything went insane. The police stopped the taxi for something. I slipped out and forgot the bag.”

“You forgot the bag?”

“I was frightened.”

“Why did the police stop the taxi? Was the priest with them?”

“I’m not sure.” His anger seethed on the edge of a violent explosion. He’d kill me if he knew I was lying.

“We have to locate the taxi,” he said. The words came out like chips of ice. “And the man, if he removed the bag. Do you know anything about him?”

She turned away from the cold fury in his voice.

“Only his name. Peter Novak. The priest was following him.”

“Novak, Peter Novak. The name means nothing to me. I don’t know why the priest was following him. Describe him.”

“About my age, maybe a couple years older, thirty, thirty-two, brown hair—”

“Height?”

“I’m not sure. Tall, a little taller than you—”

“How much taller?”

“A little. An inch or two. He was . . . slender. I’m sorry. I only saw him briefly and in bad light at that.”

“He fits the description of half the men in London.”

Green-ice eyes examined her, burning at layers of deceit. She met his eyes with a power of her own.

“You’re usually so incredibly observant, to the point of being psychic. You’ve chosen a bad time to have a memory loss.”

She had deliberately made the description accurate—and vague. She could have drawn a picture of Peter Novak from mind’s eye, a portrait of a young man a little tan in pale London, not good-looking in the sense of men selected to puff on a Marlboro or wear the newest fad jeans on camera, but sensuously attractive, sensitivity and inquisitiveness reflected in his searching eyes, etched into the firm line of his jaw, signaling strength of character and an almost stubborn integrity.

His smile was reserved, a little cautious, and didn’t relax the sharp lines of his face. He smiled too easily, and she recognized him as one of those slightly reserved people who unconsciously use a smile as a defense mechanism. No one would mistake him for an absentminded professor, but there was an air of introspection about him, as if he were looking out at the world while standing within himself, an intellectual intensity not entirely foreign to the heady madness that inflicts drunken poets.

More than anything else, his intense eyes separated him from the crowd—eyes that probed, eyes that could speak to a woman across a crowded room.

The gallant way he took her arm and made sure she entered the taxi first when he thought there was danger, the almost casual manner in which he accepted the fact she was in danger, as if damsels in distress were part of his usual routine, told her that Peter Novak was a very special person, a romantic in an age when too many men expended their passions on football and the Dow Jones average.

She gave minimal detail about Peter because she didn’t want to sign his death warrant.

“We were supposed to grab the bag,” the man beside her said. “You were told to wait in the car.”

“I’m sorry. I became anxious and followed. I bumped into the priest in that dreadful fog and grabbed the bag on impulse.” This was the crucial moment. She met his eye without flinching, a storm of emotions within her hidden behind the mask she’d chosen for the role. Grabbing the bag had been premeditated, a desperate move to keep the skull out of his hands. She knew the man beside her loved her, as much as a man could who had had his emotions cut out of him with shears as sharp as a lobotomy needle.

But she also knew he was driven by demons stronger than love, demons that could rip her throat before he got his emotions under control.

“We have to retrieve the skull. If your friend from the taxi gets in the way. . .”

He let her imagination finish the threat.

What had happened to her in the taxi? Her cheeks burned with embarrassment, and she turned away from Zhdanov again to hide her emotions. She stared at her own reflection in the dark window and touched her face, asking herself how she could have acted so unrestrained. She had been all over Peter Novak, clawing at him like a bitch in heat. She had never been that way with a man—any man. Zhdanov’s friends called her the “Ice Princess” because of the cold shoulder she gave to their advances.

Thoughts of Peter evoked that deep sense of intimacy with a stranger.

Kismet is what they call it in the East, that mysterious feeling of having been destined to meet.

Like an amnesia victim returning to normal, every thought of Peter brought on whispers of memories, visions that stayed just out of reach, fading like mirages on desert highways as she reached for them. But another emotion had crawled into her thoughts like a black spider.

Shame.

Why shame? she wondered.

She sensed that they had been lovers in a life past.

That they would be lovers again.

But why did her feelings evoke a terrible sense of shame within her?

What was forbidden about her desire for Peter?

CHAPTER 3


“It’s old,” Peter told the policeman. Blood pounded in his temples. He had been left holding the bag. Literally.

“Get out of the taxi.”

He stepped out onto the pavement, carrying the piece of skull with him.

The policeman waiting for him had traded his note book for a nightstick. “Put the skull on the bonnet, hands on the car.”

“Look—”

“Now!”

Peter leaned up against the taxi hood while the policeman quickly frisked him.

The officer’s backup was standing next to the police car, nightstick in hand. Peter heard most British cops didn’t carry guns openly but somehow managed to produce them when the need arose.

“Stand up straight.”

Peter pushed away from the taxi and turned to face the officer.

The taxi driver shoved his head and half his shoulders out the window. “Somebody’s been murdered and chopped up!”

“It’s old, for Christ’s sake. Look at it,” Peter told the policeman. “The woman left it.”

“Woman?” The policeman glanced at the empty backseat.

The cabbie cranked his neck a little more and squinted up to get a good look at the homicidal maniac. “Where’d the bird go, mate?”

“I don’t know. I don’t even know her.”

“Got in together, didn’t you?”

“I bumped into her back on the Embankment and we shared the taxi. She hopped out when you stopped us. Leaving that bag behind with. . . that in it,” he finished lamely.

“It’s a human skull,” the policeman said.

“It’s obviously old, a collector’s item or something,” Peter said. The bone was granite gray with dark pockmarks and chips. Don’t sound so damn anxious.

The cabbie’s eyes lit up. “‘Ere, maybe the British Museum’s been ripped off!”

Peter almost groaned aloud. Mouthy bastard couldn’t leave well enough alone. If there had been a heist, he’d been caught red-handed with the stolen goods.

“I think you had better step over to the police car, sir.”

“This is ridiculous—”

“Move it!”

The backup officer opened the car door and gestured with his nightstick for Peter to get in.

He climbed in and the officer shut the door. What the hell! I’m being arrested. He was all alone, nobody to call, no way to set bail. He’d never make it in prison. Being cooped up in the rear seat of a police car gave him instant trapped-animal panic. He had been arrested once, in Los Angeles, when he refused to back off questioning a witness at the scene of a police shooting. Rather than putting him in a holding tank with drunks and muggers as he waited for his editor to bail him out, they threw him in the hard-ass detention cell with six East L.A. gangbangers for company, figuring the street punks would play music on the bars with the head of the geek wearing a suit and tie.

He quickly identified himself as a newsman and said he was looking for a front-page story. “Who wants to be famous?” All six answered the call for media glory, and he spent the night listening to gang stories.

That was L.A.

He watched tight-jawed as the two cops examined the skull closely by flashlight, the cabbie leaning out the window blabbing God knows what to them.

What the hell did I get myself into now? It stank of setup. They really knew their pigeon. Put a pretty girl on a dark street, a frightened glance over her shoulder, big brown pleading eyes, and Peter Novak to the rescue.

They said they would get him, but he would have been less surprised if he had found dope in the bag than a skull. Hell, maybe they’ll find dope. One of the officers was checking out the carpetbag. He pulled out another piece of bone. Peter wondered if this one had fresh meat on it.

The backup pulled a microphone off his coat lapel and spoke into it while the second officer examined the bones. The cabbie shot a glance back at the police car, no doubt drilling all the details into his head to tell his wife, kids, and the morning news.

The rear holding compartment smelled of puke and piss. He didn’t know if that was from previous occupants or if he was smelling his own fear.

Dumb bastard, letting a woman set me up.

The two policemen kept looking back in Peter’s direction as the one jabbered on the phone. Finally the backup returned the microphone to his coat and the two officers walked to the patrol car. The backup opened the rear door and the other officer bent down and told Peter, “Step out, sir.”

Peter got out of the police car, the bitter night air biting at the sweat on his face.

The officer was holding the two pieces of bone. The specimen Peter pulled out of the bag was the cranium, the top half of the head down to the eye sockets and temples. The piece the officer had pulled out was a jaw, with part of the right side broken off. The jaw was as chipped and pockmarked as the other piece.

Frowning at the bones, the policeman said, “They do look old, might be fossils or the like. There’s no report of missing bones. I suggest you take ‘em to your local station in the morning.”

Peter walked back to the taxi clutching the bones like a man staggering away from the gallows with a pardon in hand. He climbed into the backseat where the carpetbag was waiting for him and shoved the bones into it, out of sight, out of mind, as the cop who started the ticket was back at the cabbie’s window to finish up.

“You say you don’t know the girl?” The cabbie squinted back at Peter, his voice reeking with doubt.

“I don’t know her.” He wondered what else might come out of the man’s mouth to get him into trouble.

“Friendly for strangers,” the cabbie muttered.

Who was she? The thought that he had been set up nagged him again. Maybe the traffic stop wasn’t part of the setup. Maybe they were waiting for bigger and better things, and the beautiful woman and the bones were just the opening gambit.

The policeman left and the cabbie got the taxi moving. “Went through a red light. Have to work overtime to pay for the violation.” He glared at Peter in the rearview mirror.

Peter suddenly realized why the man was so venomous toward him—he probably ran the light because he was catching the action in the backseat instead of watching the road.

“Bugger didn’t want to do the paperwork, that’s why he didn’t take them bones into custody. Know what I think? Probably the cranium of a great ape, stolen from old Doc Leakey himself in Africa.”

“Good theory. You should have told the cops.” You told them everything else. He cut off another comment about to erupt from the cabbie’s mouth. “Do you know the Seri Sushi restaurant? Soho, somewhere above Shaftesbury Avenue. In an alley?” He had got vague instructions from Sheila, the date he was meeting at the restaurant, but the events of the past few hours had pushed them out of his mind.

“Seri Sushi,” the cabbie muttered. “S’pose that’s in one of them alleys only cats and muggers hang around.”

“Wonderful. Being mugged would nicely top off the evening.” What does a mugger do when he finds out the bag he grabbed has a human skull inside?

“Have to ride around a bit to find the place seeing as you don’t know where this gaff is.”

“Ride around a bit” was no doubt the cabbie’s way of telling him he was going to run up the meter to help pay for the traffic ticket. Peter let it pass—a more urgent thought had occurred to him. The woman’s story about a mugger had sounded like a fabrication. But she had been afraid she was being followed. Why would she be followed? The bones were the obvious candidate, and now he had them. If someone had followed her, they might be following him now.

He looked at the traffic to the rear. He was being followed by a long line of headlights.

The taxi was approaching Cambridge Circus, a much better lit district at night than government row, but the fog was still there, casting a blurry film on the night.

“Sorry, Guy, can’t get you right up to the door. That part of Soho’s roped off. They’re ‘aving a Guy Fawkes celebration, least that’s what they call it. Took a butcher’s earlier, there’s tables of food and carnival games all down the street, fortune tellers and the sort. Bleedin’ nuts if you ask me, all those Gypsies and what ‘ave you, and it’s s’posed to be Guy Fawkes night. Not keen on that Soho bunch me self. Frogs and Dagos and slanty-eyes. .

“Took a butcher’s.” Peter tried to remember what he had been told about Cockney speech. Butcher’s hook rhymes with look. He tuned out the cabbie and thought again about the woman. Had she left the bag deliberately? Or forgotten it in a panic? Who did the bones belong to? One bit of deductive reasoning had excluded her as the owner: The bag had a musty masculine odor to it, the smell of clothes that belonged to an older man, a bachelor or widower, who didn’t air out his clothing. And he got a faint whiff of something 90 proof when he opened the bag. The owner had carried a bottle of booze in the bag, more than once.

* * *

The Mercedes carrying Tashi and the man called Zhdanov raced through Trafalgar Square and sped up Charing Cross Road, pausing briefly beside each taxi it passed to give its passengers an opportunity to check out the cab’s occupants.

Zhdanov cursed. “The damn city is full of black taxis and they all look alike.”

Tashi stared out the window at passing traffic, avoiding eye contact with him.

“I don’t understand why you grabbed the bag from the priest,” Zhdanov said. “You were told to stay in the limo.”

His anger was building again. She put her hand on his arm. “I was trying to help,” she murmured.

As the limousine pulled up to a traffic light, she saw a man and a woman embracing in a taxi coming from the opposite direction and she gave a start. It’s him. The couple broke the embrace and the man turned. No, it wasn’t him. She felt a sense of relief and a little wonder. Was that jealousy? That sudden tightening of the chest muscles, the shortness of breath, the pinching of the heart? She had never experienced jealousy before. Can you be jealous of a man you had only known for minutes? Or had it just been for minutes? She wanted to see him again, to feel the touch of his lips against hers—

“Is that him?” Zhdanov asked.

“What?

“The man in the taxi.”

A taxi had pulled up beside them. A man in his early thirties was the only passenger.

“No, that’s not him.”

Zhdanov grabbed her wrist. “Are you sure?” His grip tightened.

He knows I’m lying. It frightened her. He had been close to obtaining the skull, and she had lost it for him. It was the first time she had interfered with his quest, and it had exposed a frightening side of him. She knew he loved her, but the skull in the bag was his blind side, stirring unspeakable horror and pain that drove him with maniacal force.

“It’s not him.”

She was torn between her empathy for Zhdanov—she knew his pain as her own—and her fear of him. She had walked a thousand miles, asked a thousand questions, to find him, but even now she hardly knew him better than the enigma she had searched for. He hid behind plastic surgery and all the façade money could buy. She wanted so much to know him, not the mysterious too-handsome millionaire so many women had tried—and failed—to possess but the man behind the mask.

He had rained clothes and jewels upon her but gave nothing of himself.

Bagora, Zhdanov’s assistant, twisted in the front seat of the limousine and glared at her through the glass that created privacy for the rear compartment. Tashi glanced to the communication button; it was on. Bagora and Ma, the driver, could hear everything that was being said by her and Zhdanov. He had wanted his creature to hear her. He knew Bagora was insanely jealous of her, and he used it to play him off against her.

She didn’t fear the little man. At first she had felt sorry for him, for the bad luck of the genetic draw that gave him a short body, broad flat nose, and wrinkled skin that hung so loosely it looked like his face was ready to slip off. But the swarthy little man’s ugliness was not an accident of birth but a reflection of the slime of his soul.

If danger came to Peter, it would be from Bagora.

She leaned over and flicked off the communication switch.

“This is impossible!” Zhdanov snapped. “There’s not even a dent on any of these taxis to tell them apart. You should have taken the number of the taxi.”

He was right about the lack of dents. London’s licensed taxis were almost all black and had not a scratch on them.

As they approached Leicester Square, Zhdanov instructed the driver to pull over. He spoke curtly to Tashi. “Take a taxi back to the hotel. I’ll call in fifteen minutes to make sure you’re there.”

“What are you going to do?”

“You said this man Novak was on his way to Soho. We’ll drive around the area and try to spot him.”

“But you need me to identify him.”

“I have his name and description. I’m going to telephone one of my London contacts to see if he can get a lead on the man, in case we miss him in Soho.”

“I should stay and help.”

Zhdanov nodded at the car telephone. “In fifteen minutes you had better be in your room.”

“You’re not going to harm him?”

“Fifteen minutes.”

She stood on the street corner and watched the Mercedes pull away. They wouldn’t hurt him. They’d just grab the carryall and leave. But what if he resisted? Peter Novak didn’t seem like the type to let someone push him around.

She signaled an approaching taxi. “Palace Club Hotel,” she told the driver through the side window. She opened the back door and got in, settling back on the rear seat, feeling a little lonely in the huge passenger area.

She couldn’t shake the sense of apprehension. She had created a dangerous situation for an innocent man. She stared out the window, wondering what she should do as the driver whipped the taxi down gray streets. She wanted to tell him to turn around, to take her to Soho, but she knew she would only make things worse if she wasn’t in her room to receive Zhdanov’s call.

Leaving the bag in the taxi had been foolish. She should have thrown it in a waste bin and told Zhdanov someone had grabbed it from her.

She stared at the dark night. He was out there somewhere in the city. With a bag of bones. And ruthless men in pursuit. She wanted to reach out to him, to warn him of the danger.

The taxi dropped Tashi off at the front door of the Palace Club Hotel. The hotel was not listed in any guidebook or even in the telephone directory. At hotels like the Dorchester and the Ritz, anybody with enough money could rent a room; at the Palace Club, only people who were somebody had the unlisted number. Being a wealthy somebody was also mandatory; the daily rate for suites began in the low four digits and went up to five digits for a penthouse. The dark mahogany and brass of the hotel lobby created the ambience of a lounge aboard a great ship of yesteryear.

The phone was ringing as she entered her bedroom in the suite.

“Hello.”

“Fine.”

Zhdanov hung up. She listened to the dial tone for a moment before putting the receiver back.

Her fear for Peter Novak welled up again. It had been a mistake to give Zhdanov Peter’s name, but she had wondered herself if Peter was mixed up in the business with the priest and had given the name to see if Zhdanov recognized it.

She had to locate him. He had said he was an American, but he didn’t strike her as a tourist. If he had been in London any length of time, he might have a telephone.

She dialed the telephone on the desk. “Please check the telephone directory for a Peter Novak,” she told the hotel operator. “I want his address.”

She opened the French doors to the balcony and stepped out into the cold and misty night, carrying the telephone with her. He was out there somewhere, in foggy London town, unaware a pack of wolves was chasing him.

Who are you, Peter Novak? Who were you before your mother and father conceived you?

* * *

The taxi with Peter inside moved up Charing Cross, past the Palace Theatre, and turned left above Old Compton Street. Peter was lost immediately. Soho was crawling with restaurants on lighted, crowded streets, and Sheila had chosen one hidden in a back alley. He glanced to the rear again, using his coat sleeve to clean the steamy window.

A black Mercedes turned the corner behind them. Had he seen it before? Behind them earlier?

“‘Ere, been thinking about them bones.”

“What?”

“Them bones,” the cabbie said. “I’ll bet they were taken from a university as a prank. Tell you what I’ll do, mate. I’ll have me youngest take ‘em into school tomorrow to ‘er science class and give ‘em to the teacher.”

“Uh, we’ll see.” He glanced again at the rear window. The Mercedes was still back there. It maintained the same distance between them, block after block.

“Slow down,” he told the cabbie.

“What?”

“Slow down a little. I want to see something.”

The taxi driver eased up on the accelerator. The Mercedes slowed.

“Speed up,” Peter said.

The cabbie put his foot down. “What’s the game, mate?”

“I think someone’s following us.”

“‘Ere, maybe it’s the mate of that bird you ‘ad in the backseat.”

Peter leaned toward the taxi’s inside window. “Lose that Mercedes behind us and I’ll pay your traffic ticket.”

The cabbie eyed him in the rearview mirror. “Will ya pay if I get another ticket?”

“You’re on.”

The cabbie jerked the wheel to the right, turning at an intersection at the last moment, sending Peter over sideways on the backseat. He kept the wheel cranked, creating a U turn from what had started as a right turn, bringing the taxi around, almost broadsiding the Mercedes entering the turning. Cutting a left and gunning it, the cabbie headed back up the street with a grin on his face.

“We’re ‘eading back to Cambridge Circus now. Nice thing about London cabs—’cept for them with no class, they’re all black and all look the same.”

Five minutes later the taxi pulled up to sawhorse barricades blocking traffic from entering a street. Beyond the barricades, the entire area was filled with tables and booths, part of the Guy Fawkes celebration. “Close as I can get, Guy. That slanty-eye restaurant is just up the street, alley to your right.”

Peter checked his watch and groaned. He was nearly two hours late for his date with Sheila. “Can you wait for me?”

“Wait for ya?”

“I’m late for my date. If she’s not there, I want you to take me home.” There were no taxis in sight, and he didn’t feel like another stroll down a dark street to find one.

The driver squinted suspiciously at him. “Pay the fare, mate, and me bonus, and I’ll wait for ya.”

Peter handed him exactly enough for the fare and the traffic ticket. “You’ll get the tip when I come back.” If you wait for me, he thought. He opened the door and started to slide out, leaving the carryall on the seat, but reached back and grabbed it. The man might decide the bones were worth more than a tip. “Be back in a minute.”

The cabbie opened his own door as Peter got out. “D’ya turn off the light back there, mate?”

“No.”

“It’s that bleedin’ switch again. It’s always sticking.” The man climbed into the backseat to test the light as Peter walked away.

Peter did another check to the rear as he walked toward the barricades. No black Mercedes. They hadn’t seen the car since Toad’s Wild Ride had nearly sliced it in two at the intersection where the cabbie made the U turn.

Probably innocent people on their way to a play. What the hell—they’d have something to talk about at dinner afterward.

The carnival tried to be merry but did little more than create a glowing bubble in the dark night. Flashing lights of the Ferris wheel and carousel glowed a little fuzzy, not bright and cheerful, Peter thought, but a ghost of the real thing.


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