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Authors: George C. Chesbro

Tags: #Archaeological thefts, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction

Jungle Of Steel And Stone (6 page)

BOOK: Jungle Of Steel And Stone
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Standing on top of the dune, the Bantu's lips curl back from his teeth in a contemptuous sneer as he looks down on the sleeping camp. The K'ung—at least this tribe of K'ung—are like children, he thinks. If this piece of wood is their only god, as he has been told it is, they should have taken more care in guarding it.

Suddenly he feels the curious, empty feeling in his stomach, which the missionaries have told him is guilt. The man knows that, as a Christian, he is not supposed to steal—not even from his enemies. But he reminds himself that he has not been a Christian for very long and thus cannot be expected to follow all the many rules which have been laid down for him by the missionaries. Also, he has been told that the Jesus-God will always forgive him, as long as he is sorry.

And he is truly sorry, the Bantu thinks; he would not have stolen this tribal god were it not for the fact that he wants knives, matches—and maybe a radio.

The Bantu hefts the idol under his arm, slides his carrying sling over his shoulder, and starts toward the north, leaning into the wind that swirls around him and quickly erases the evidence of his passage.

Veil leaves the man's mind and rolls away from the dream to another, to be with Sharon.

Chapter Five

V
eil was up before dawn. He ate a breakfast of black coffee, cheese, and bread as he listened to the news. Toby had not been found, and the police dragnet had now shifted to a systematic search of abandoned buildings, alleys, and unused storefronts on both the East and West Sides. By six-thirty, Veil was entering Central Park at Sixty-ninth Street, retracing the steps of the K'ung warrior-prince.

Nobody goes to ground like a K'ung warrior.

He did not bother looking for signs where Toby had gone in, for he knew that any spoor would have been obliterated—first by the feet of police officers—and later by reporters and the curious. Instead he walked straight ahead, glancing to his left and right, studying the general terrain and looking for the most likely escape route for a fleeing bushman to take.

Veil smiled thinly and shook his head at the thought of how preposterous was the thing he was trying to do. He hadn't done any tracking in more than seventeen years, and in the jungles of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia he had been tracking Viet Cong and Pathet Lao, whose sandals left the distinct imprint of tire tread. Here he was in Central Park—an area larger than some countries, used every day by thousands of people wearing everything from sneakers to combat boots. Toby, Veil thought, could be anywhere; he could even be where the police thought he was, cowering in some rat-infested basement. But Veil did not think so.

Nobody goes to ground like a K'ung warrior.

He kept walking in a straight line, down into a grassy bowl ringed by trees. Despite the early hour, lovers on their blankets were already—or maybe still—at each other, and joggers of every shape glided or huffed along. Veil ducked when someone shouted a warning and a purple Frisbee sailed just over his head.

Tracking the K'ung had been a great idea, Veil thought as he climbed halfway up the opposite face of the bowl, turned, and sat down on the grass. It was just impossible to execute.

Then he saw Reyna Alexander come crawling on her hands and knees out of the trees directly across the way. The anthropologist wore jeans, sneakers, and a long-sleeved cotton blouse. Her long, blue-black hair was tied back in a ponytail that flowed like an ink stain across her back as, oblivious to the startled and curious stares of lovers, joggers, and Frisbee players, she slowly crawled fifteen feet out onto the grass, then stopped before a small patch of bare ground. After almost a minute of staring at the ground she rose, brushed grass and dirt off her jeans, then headed back into the wooded area.

Anyone who even presumed to track someone else through Central Park had to be good, Veil thought, and he sensed that the frail woman was, indeed, very good. He was about to rise and follow her when he realized that he was not the only one with that idea. He caught a movement out of the corner of his eye, looked across the bowl to his right, and saw a man in tan chinos and a red tank top appear to wave at him. Then the man passed the edge of his hand across his throat. A moment later a man rushed past from behind, brushing Veil's shoulder. The man—squat, balding, and wearing a pair of plaid Bermuda shorts with matching shirt—was clumsily trying to stuff a pair of binoculars back into a leather case as he ran. The men joined up on the sidewalk, then entered the wooded area. Veil rose and ran down the hill.

Like a brother to the night that had just passed, Veil slipped silently into the trees, perhaps twenty yards from where Reyna, and then the men, had entered. He had no trouble following the sound trail of cracking branches and muttered curses of the men ahead of him, and Veil followed, gliding from tree to tree through the shadows.

The two men stopped for a few moments to have a whispered conference, then moved to their left. Veil did the same, moving parallel to the men, and was twenty-five yards behind them when they emerged from the trees and onto a large expanse of rolling lawn.

Reyna's ebony-crowned head was just disappearing over the crest of another knoll. The two men hurried after Reyna, and Veil followed them.

Strung out over almost a quarter mile, the procession crossed the East Drive. Reyna angled in the direction of the zoo, walked another hundred yards, then once again dropped to her hands and knees on the perimeter of a large patch of bare ground. The two men stopped. Veil stopped, lay down on his back, and watched over the top of his crossed ankles.

Reyna raised little clouds of dust as she slowly crawled forward on the dirt, head very close to the ground. She rose when she reached the other side, cupped her hands to her mouth, and uttered a strange, guttural cry that carried clearly across the meadow, startling a flock of pigeons at the same time as it caused a jogger to glance up sharply, stumble, and fall.

Then Reyna began walking quickly to her left, disappearing into another wooded area. The two men exchanged a few words, then hurried after her. Veil, remembering the throat-cutting gesture the thinner man had made, sprang to his feet and ran after them.

He found Reyna and the two men thirty yards inside the line of trees, behind the thick trunk of an ancient oak. Any concern Veil might have had about the men being police was instantly dispelled: the man in the Bermuda shorts was trying to drag a struggling Reyna to the ground, while the man in the tank top waited, switchblade in hand. Veil took the man with the knife first, hitting him with a powerful side kick in the solar plexus that sat him down hard on the ground, knife still in his hand. His face turned purple, and his eyes bulged as his mouth gaped open and his chest heaved in a desperate, silent plea for air that simply would not enter his lungs. In a continuation of the same motion Veil spun around and smashed the flat of his hand into the other man's face with enough force to crush the man's nose and snap off his front teeth. The squat man keeled over backward, unconscious.

"Excuse me," Veil said with a wink to the white-faced, astonished Reyna as he grabbed the man in the tank top by the hair and pulled him behind a clump of brush. "I'll be right back."

Veil took the switchblade from the gasping man's hand, pushed him on his back, then straddled him. "Let's chat," he said in a flat voice as he tested the sharpness of the blade against the thickness of the hairs on the man's bare left shoulder.

"Gaa . . . gaa . . ."

Dissatisfied with the switchblade, Veil sank its tip into the trunk of a tree just behind the man's head and snapped off the blade. Then he reached down inside his boot and withdrew one of his most prized possessions—a short dagger with a blade made of the rarest Damascus steel, a gift taken in barter from a knife maker on Staten Island for whom Veil had performed a service three years before.

"Are . . . you a . . . cop?" the man managed to say.

"You should be so lucky." Veil pulled up the edge of the man's T-shirt and slit it from waist to neck; there was virtually no tug at all on the blade, and the cotton parted with a soft whisper. "That was to get your attention. If you don't give me the right answers, I cut you next. Who hired you to follow the girl?"

The man, still struggling to draw a full breath, stared wide-eyed at the man with the long yellow hair and glacial-blue, gold-flecked eyes who was holding the tip of his knife just above the man's sternum. "A guy by the name of Picker Crabbe," he muttered hoarsely, licking his lips. "He's—"

"I know Picker. How much is he paying you?"

"A grand each if we brought him the statue the guy stole last night. Picker said that the girl was a friend of this guy, and she might lead us to him."

"She couldn't lead you to anybody after you jumped her. Why the hell did you do that?"

"Who the hell are you?"

Without hesitation Veil flicked his wrist, opening a three-inch gash just below the man's right nipple. Blood welled in the slit, rolled down the man's side. The man started to yell, but Veil clapped his hand over the open mouth, then held the tip of the knife against the man's throat. The man rolled his eyes and shook his head. Veil took his hand away and repeated the question. His voice was flat—absolutely devoid of emotion, implacable.

"She moves like a ghost," the man answered in a voice quivering with terror. Ignoring the knife now, he stared up at Veil as if he were looking at an angel of death. "We lost her for almost twenty minutes a while back. We didn't want to take a chance on losing her for good, so we decided to grab her and force her to tell us what she knew."

"You're idiots twice over. Picker's got a hole in his nose; every cent he can get his hands on goes for coke. Where in hell did you think he was going to get two thousand dollars to pay you?"

"He swore he could get the money. I think he was taking orders from someone else."

"Who?"

"I don't know."

"Take a guess."

"I really don't
know,
man! Hey, my partner and me just do odd jobs—things we pick up on the streets. Nothing else was happening, so we took this. Besides, if we had gotten our hands on the statue, we wouldn't have given it to Picker until he gave us the money. We ain't that stupid."

"Why shouldn't Picker do the job himself and pocket the two grand if he got lucky?"

The man laughed nervously. "Hey, man, I don't know. Maybe Picker was afraid you'd be around."

The man was joking, Veil thought, but what he'd said could well be the truth. It was also true that the two men were nothing but low-level street thugs, "odd-job men." No one else would be working for Picker Crabbe. Veil clipped the man on the jaw with the heel of his left hand, then rose and walked from behind the brush to where Reyna waited. Her mouth was still slightly open, and she was staring at him dumbfounded.

"Good morning," Veil said, taking the woman by the hand and leading her out of the copse of trees. "Let's go get some coffee."

* * *

"Who were they, Veil?"

"Munchkins. Two very stupid street thugs working for another very stupid street thug. The man, or men, pulling their strings may not be so stupid, though. There are some nasty criminal types in the city who are definitely not art collectors but who want the Nal-toon. Do you have any idea why?"

Reyna sipped at her black coffee and grimaced. "Maybe they want to sell it?"

"No. Victor told me that the idol is worth only a few thousand dollars at most, and then only to a select clientele that collects primitive art. The people who control the smuggling route used to bring in the Nal-toon wouldn't cross the street for anything worth much less than a hundred thousand. Of course, the idol could have been hollowed out and stuffed with something—drugs, microfilm, gold, whatever. The problem is that nothing contraband that could have been stuffed in the idol
would
have been, not by these guys. The Nal-toon is just too ungainly and obvious, which is why Alan Berg was able to trace it in the first place. We're still left with the question of why a gang of mafiosi are looking to pick up a three-foot-high piece of carved hardwood."

"Oh, Veil," Reyna whispered. There was a slight tremor in her voice.

Veil glanced up from his coffee. Reyna, sitting across from him in the booth at the rear of the diner on Seventy-second Street, had her head bowed and her hands clasped in front of her, as if in prayer. Although she was just a few years shy of thirty, Veil thought, her appearance was that of a troubled child. He reached out and stroked her hair. "Easy, Reyna," he said gently.

"You sound so cold when you talk about it."

"I don't mean to. I was just trying to figure out what the bad guys' interests are. I
do
care."

BOOK: Jungle Of Steel And Stone
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