JUST A ROUTINE CASE OF MURDER.
A clumsy hatchet job by an enraged husband on his slatternly, nagging wife. Followed by the desperate flight of the culprit with the FBI in methodical, well organized pursuit.
... a check revealed that the murderer worked for AXE, with easy access to explosively dangerous military information.
... investigation showed that for thirty years the guilty man had been an incredibly clever enemy agent.
... AXE discovered that the Russians and the Chinese were both determined to grab the man in possession of America's atomic secrets, and would stop at nothing to get him and eliminate each other.
Clearly, it was a job for Nick Carter. His orders: Find the missing man. Kill him. Fast. Before the Reds close in.
The hunt led Killmaster through the dark underbelly of Asia — from the exotic house of pleasure that served as an espionage hideout, to the guerrilla band's mountain stronghold with its grisly, skeleton-filled torture chamber.
It was a terrifying assignment. America's very existence depended on Nick Carter's success.
A Korean Tiger
Dedicated to he Men of the Secret Services of the United States of America
"And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow."
More than once during his brief stay at the lodge, Nick Carter found himself repeating the lines from Yeats' gem-like little poem. He had not yet, he admitted somewhat dourly, planted nine bean rows. He wasn't about to, either; not with Peg Tyler along. It had been a mistake to bring Peg. But then it was a mistake he kept making over and over again. Peg had been his first love, and he had been her one and only love, and neither of them had quite gotten over it. Not that anything would ever come of the liaison. Killmaster's profession, and natural restlessness, precluded that. In addition, Peg was quite contentedly married to a nice guy with a lot of money. They had two half-grown children whom Peg worshipped; the soft glow of affection she gave to her husband; but the hot glow of passion and love she reserved for Nick Carter. She saw the man from AXE very infrequently — about once every two to three years. Perhaps it was only natural that when she did see him she came close to devouring him.
It was a mild day in early June. Nick's lodge, in the old Limberlost country of northern Indiana, stood dead center in a hundred fenced-in acres. Fifty yards from his front door was the placid mirror of Loon Lake, brooding in the late morning sun, the tranquil gray-green-blue water rippled only occasionally by a leaping fish. There were bassin the lake, and pickerel and perch, and even now and then a trout. Nick had not found time for much fishing.
Killmaster had brought along a plentiful supply of his gold-tipped cigarettes, plus an adequate supply of his favorite scotch, from the penthouse in New York. Now, clad only in swimming trunks and supine on the rumpled, love-ravaged bed, he enjoyed his first smoke and drink of the day. Peg was just finishing the breakfast dishes at the tiny sink, rinsing them with cold water from the clattering pump.
He blew a lazy smoke ring and contemplated Peg with the indolent good nature of a surfeited man. They had made love most of the night through; Peg had not fallen off to sleep until the first crack of dawn. Nick, with a faint smile, now gave thanks that he had studied the whole of the Yoga-Sutra in the original Sanskrit. He had, he remembered, done so with great lamentation and only on the insistence of his old guru. Nick's smile now became an open grin. The old boy had known what he was about. The subtle exercises, the absolute control of emotions, breathing and muscles — all these enabled Nick to withstand the sweet and tender agony of lovemaking for hours without any loss of virility. He knew that Peg marveled at it, and could not understand it; what she did not know, though she may have guessed, was that her amazement and pleasure had been shared by scores of women the world over.
As for Killmaster himself — he had had it for the moment. Sex was the farthest thing from his mind just now. Sipping his scotch, he smoked and stared at the tiny red bulb set in the ceiling over the bed. He had been at the lodge now for — six days? seven? — and the red bulb had not yet winked on. When it did it would mean Hawk on the line. Nick would have to answer the telephone in the willow tree. Hawk's dry, nasal accent, crackling around a cigar, would give terse orders. And this brief stay in Paradise would be over. Too soon? No. Nick had to admit it. Not too soon. A terrible, inexorable restlessness, always his curse, was just beginning to churn in him. Another week of Paradise and he would be crawling up the walls. His wounds were healed now.
Peg was stacking dishes on the wooden drainboard of the sink. Without turning she said: "A penny for them, darling?"
Before answering Nick took a sip of his drink and put the cold glass down on his flat naked belly. "I was thinking how perfectly lovely you look in my tee shirt," he told her. "You should wear them more often. Start a new fad, maybe. Tee shirts to wash dishes in." He blew a cloud of blue smoke. "You look — delectable? If that's the word I want. Is it?"
Peg was wearing his tee shirt and nothing else. She was rather a tall woman and the shirt did not quite cover her behind. Nick took in the vista with a certain noncommitted pleasure. It was certainly one of the roundest and rosiest bottoms he had ever seen. Peg had the good long legs to go with it, too, with the slightly knock-kneed look of all well-built women, the bones properly aligned to bear the weight of children.
For the tenth of a second a ghost flitted through Killmaster's mind. A ghost of a ghost, instantly laid before it could materialize. That part of his brain slammed shut with a click of finality. You made your choices in this world — and when you made them you stuck to them. Or were stuck with them.
Peg flung a dish towel away from the sink. "There! Chores all done. The slave has earned a rest. And we'll use paper plates for lunch and dinner. I get enough of dishwashing at home."
Nick smiled. "With two maids? I'll bet."
Peg came to the bed and paused beside it, one knee on the coverlet. The tee shirt didn't quite cover her in front, either. Her breasts, the round and full breasts of a mature woman, peaked -out the white stuff of the tee shirt. Her wide-set eyes, a deep brown, were thoughtful as she stared down at the AXE man. Her mouth, which somehow always managed to look moist, was mobile and well made, with a definite sensuality about the lower lip. Peg quirked her mouth now in a little grimace.
the word you want, you know. For me, yes. For you, no. Delectable usually means something to eat."
Nick widened his eyes at her. "What the hell are you talking about?" Then he remembered. "Oh, of course. So it isn't the right word," he admitted. "What would...»
"Not the right word for you," she insisted. "But the right word for me. I find
delectable, Nick. I want to eat you. To devour you utterly, make you a part of me. So I can have you forever. You see, darling, how you bring out the cannibal in me? Give me a cigarette, please."
Nick chuckled. "Only if you promise to restrain your anthropophagous tendencies."
"I promise. It wouldn't work with you anyway. Nothing will ever work with you — not if you don't want it to. You're the real devourer, Nick. The Destroyer, I think sometimes. You would be surprised, darling, the dark thoughts I have about you at times. Dark, frightening thoughts."
She settled beside him on the bed. Nick lit a cigarette and handed it to her. A cool breeze riffled through the lodge, stirring the curtains at the windows. Just outside the open door, in the honey-colored blaze of noon, a raucous jay hunted for mud daubers. The breeze was faintly rose scented. Nick stubbed out his own cigarette and lay back beside Peg. He closed his eyes. This moment, this here and now, this gentle torpor of a lazy day, was a far cry from torment and death, from the stress and strain and cold sweat of his professional days and nights.
Again the luminescent lines of Yeats filtered through his mind:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree/... nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee I... and I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.
It was why he came to the lodge, of course. To find a little peace, to recharge his physical and mental batteries, to lick his psychic wounds and prepare for the next battle, for the next round in the endless struggle against the darkness that would engulf the world were it not for the fighters. He would never find peace. Not really. Not peace but the sword. He would find the sword all right, one day. Even now, at this very moment, somewhere in the world there was a bullet being molded, a rope being braided, a knife sharpened or a poison brewed for him. For Killmaster. And all this must he carry within himself. Eternally silent. For him there was no friendly ear, no couch of an analyst, no surcease of secrecy.
Of all the billions in the world there was only one person who understood, and that imperfectly, what and who Nick Carter really was, what he became when he was alone and in the dark. That man was his boss, Hawk, who loved him and admired him and respected him — taking great pains to conceal all these things — and in the end could not really help him. Aloneness is the key, the protection and the reason for being and, all too often, the reason for dying, of the undercover agent.
Peg cuddled against him. She ran a finger over the cruel, thin red scars that covered his chest and belly and thighs. She kissed a scar, her lips moist and cool, and said, very softly: "You've been whipped, badly whipped, since I saw you last."
Killmaster welcomed her words. He came back to present reality with a jolt. It was not good for a man like him to wander so far afield in imagination. Imagination was all right in its place, in the line of duty, when you needed it to save your skin. Brooding was something else, and Nick had enough of the black Celt in him to know and recognize the dangers.
Now he pulled Peg to him, holding her tenderly in his big muscled arms, kissing the softness of her eyelids. "Yes. I was whipped. By an irate husband. He caught me in the act. I was lucky he didn't shoot me."
"Liar. You're always getting hurt somehow. You never tell me how, of course. But I counted your scars once, remember. You had thirty odd then — I would hate to count them now. But let's not talk about that. I've given up. I know that you'll never tell me, really tell me the truth, about what you do. Where you go and how you get hurt all the time. Sometimes I think, darling, that I don't really know you at all. Not any more. Not really. So I make up things about you."
Nick smiled down at her. Her hair was jet black, as were her somewhat heavy brows and lashes. She had a milky complexion with a few entrancing freckles sprayed here and there. Now, in the dimpled light of a stray sunbeam, the lashes made little shadows on her cheekbones. Women. Strange creatures. So different, all of them. Some could love not at all, some could love forever without question. Give all and ask nothing. Pity was a rare emotion for Nick Carter, yet he felt it now. For Peg — and for her husband. The man must have some dark thoughts of his own when Peg disappeared at rare intervals. He had never questioned Peg about that and never would. However she handled it, she did it well and with no evidence of guilt.
Only once had Peg said: "I loved you, Nick, long before I ever met and loved Harry. I love you both. In different ways. I know I can never have you, but I can have Harry. And you, Nick darling, are the only man I ever have been, or ever will be, unfaithful with. I think Harry understands — a little. He knows, of course. Not who you are, or how it is with us, but he knows. And he'll never try to spoil it for me — for us."
Now Nick kissed her soft mouth and said, "Tell me about some of those dark thoughts of yours. This day is entirely too golden and lovely to bear — it needs a somber note for contrast."
"Ummmm — must I?"
"Yes." He took her cigarette, now only a nub, and pressed it out in the ashtray. "But first get me another drink, huh? Lots of scotch and ice, not much water. I might just get mildly plastered this afternoon."
"Hah!" Peg snorted as she slid off the bed and went to the sink. "You drunk? I'll never see the day. You know you can drink a gallon and never show it."