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A Death in the Andes
As he did every morning, Nathan Azure rose at dawn, dressed, and shaved in the musty canvas confines of his private tent, scrutinizing the aristocratic severity of his Mayfair face in a travel mirror to make certain that not a whisker remained and that every strand of blond hair was in its proper place. He then opened the carved wooden box next to his cot and selected a pair of leather driving gloves from the dozens of pairs inside. Although he wore gloves as a matter of habit, he donned these with especial care, like a surgeon wary of infection.
He had not touched another human being's skin, nor allowed his to be touched, in more than a decade.
Seated on the edge of his cot, Azure idled away half an hour skimming Prescott's History of the Conquest of Peru, lingering over passages that he had long ago committed to memory—those that described the abundance of gold sixteenth-century Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadors had extorted from the Inca people, who tried in vain to purchase the release of their leader Atahualpa. A king's ransom, indeed.
Azure's gloves made it awkward for him to turn the pages, however, and he soon tossed the book aside. After snatching the .45 automatic from beneath his pillow, he chambered a round and shoved the gun barrel-down into the hollow of his back between the waist of his slacks and his oxford shirt. He put on a cream-colored linen jacket to cover the butt of the pistol and stalked out of the tent.
Outside, the Andean air, thin and crisp, pricked the inside of Azure's windpipe, as if he'd inhaled a handful of asbestos. The sun had yet to ascend above an adjacent peak to the east, leaving the mountains in a pall of predawn gray. Nevertheless, the camp already bristled with activity, Peruvian laborers bustling to and fro with spades and sifters, men delicately brushing dust off bits of broken metal and stone at makeshift tables. Azure had staged this dig with painstaking detail, accurate enough to fool an expert. Or one expert, to be precise.
It was all a sham. Azure had bought the artifacts at auction and then planted them on this Andean slope. The Peruvians he'd assembled to pose as his assistants were actually mercenaries—some of them former Shining Path terrorists, others drug runners from the Huallaga Valley cocaine trade. Men whose loyalty Azure could purchase and whose silence he could ensure. Men to whom all work, whether menial labor or murder, was the same, as long as it paid well. Not unlike the conquistadors themselves.
The performance was proceeding as scheduled, but the audience—the expert for whom Azure had created this mock expedition—was missing. It seemed that Dr. Wilcox, the only true archaeologist on the site, had chosen to sleep in.
The closer Azure drew to his prize, the more impatient he became with delay. Intent on hastening today's drama to its climax, he made his way down the path his crew had cleared in the spiky brush that carpeted the mountain slope. Erected wherever the ground leveled off for a few feet, the haphazard tent encampment formed a terraced village of canvas and plastic, with Azure's large shelter at the hill's summit. At its base, a medium-size tent rested near the edge of a precipice, where the mountainside abruptly plunged into the valley below. Clouds blanketed the dell, a comfortable illusion that hid the screaming descent.
A bearded thirty-something man in a creased white dress shirt and chinos sat in a director's chair outside this last tent, head bent over a book, legs crossed as if he were lounging at a Parisian cafe. He must have sensed Azure's approach, though, for he slapped the book shut and hopped to his feet before the Englishman arrived at the tent's entrance. A gringo like his boss, he differed from Azure in nearly every other respect: his hair and complexion dark instead of fair, his face broad rather than narrow, his manner expansive, not calculated.
"Looks like I got up before you did today." He displayed the book's cover, smiling. He smiled a lot—a monkey appeasing an alpha male. "Researching my role. See?"
Conqueror and Conquered: Pizarro and Peru read the title copy above an artist's rendering of a composite face—half Pizarro, the other half Atahualpa, the Inca leader he overthrew and executed. Below the dual portrait was the author's name: Dr. Abel Wilcox.
Nathan Azure did not smile. He never smiled. "There'll be plenty of time for that on the plane, Trent," he commented in a clipped Cambridge accent. "Do you have the cuirass?"
With exaggerated flair, Trent snapped his fingers at one of the nearby laborers, who hurried up with a mud-encrusted, rust-stained breastplate in his hands. The men had done an admirable job of simulating centuries of exposure to the elements. The armor had been polished to a museum-ready sheen when Azure had obtained it from an underground "antiquities dealer" in Lima—a glorified fence for grave robbers and artifact thieves.
Azure noted that the center of the breastplate had been rubbed clear of dirt, revealing the ornate engraving of a family crest. He registered his satisfaction by withholding criticism. "What about Wilcox?"
Trent glanced at the tent behind him, shrugged. "Still asleep."
Trent smiled again and pulled his own pair of leather gloves out of the back pocket of his pants. He put them on and ducked under the black plastic flap that served as the tent's door. A drowsy grumble came from inside, followed by the shuffle and clatter of hasty activity.
A few minutes later, Trent emerged with a man who could easily have been his brother. The latter stood an inch or two taller and lacked Trent's muscular development, but they shared the same almond-shaped eyes, high forehead, and dark widow's peak. Trent had grown the full black beard to downplay the resemblance, but it was not a coincidence; Azure had chosen Trent for his appearance as much as for his acting skills and had even insisted on certain . . . alterations in the confidence man's physiognomy. Trent had demonstrated exceptional dedication to his craft, doggedly researching his role during the months it took his face to heal from the surgery. Even now, he eyed the professor with avid attention, taking advantage of his last opportunity to observe his subject.
"Good morning, Dr. Wilcox," Azure greeted the second man. "I trust you slept well."
"Until now." A day's growth of whiskers darkened the archaeologist's face, the fly of his jeans was only half-buttoned, and his untied bootlaces trailed in the dust. He put on a pair of oval spectacles and scowled at Azure. "I hope you have something worth getting up for this time."
"Perhaps." Azure thought of the string of worthless daggers, swords, coins, and other flotsam he'd tossed in front of Wilcox like a trail of bread crumbs over the past month, gradually luring him to this remote Andean peak. "We just found this piece, and it seems promising—very promising. Naturally, I couldn't wait to get your professional opinion."
He held a gloved hand toward the cuirass, which the impassive laborer still held. Wilcox sniffed dubiously and glanced at the breastplate as if scanning the headlines of the morning paper. As he moved close enough to see the crest inscribed on it, his expression flared with stifled excitement—a prospector afraid that the mother lode he's discovered is actually fool's gold. He shot a look at Azure. "Where did you find this?"
Azure's face remained as immobile as a bas-relief. He asked questions, he didn't answer them. "Is it genuine?"
Wilcox pushed his glasses higher up on his nose, bent forward, and squinted at the armor's insignia.
"Well? Is it his?" The archaeologist's silence rankled. Azure knew at least as much about Peruvian history as this ivory-tower effete, and yet . . . had he been wrong about the cuirass? Had he blown a million quid on a clever forgery? If he hadn't wanted to be absolutely sure of the breastplate's authenticity, he wouldn't have put up with Wilcox this long. Although Nathan Azure would never admit it, he needed to commandeer the man's knowledge as much as his identity.
The archaeologist did not respond directly to Azure's questions. Instead, he pointed to the design on the breastplate, mumbling as if to himself. "The family escutcheon . . . but with the black eagle and twin pillars of the royal arms. And here: an Indian city and a llama. Charles the Fifth's seal of approval for the Peruvian conquest."
"But is it his?" Azure pressed. "Could one of his men have worn it?"
Wilcox shook his head, voice quavering. "Pizarro wouldn't have allowed anyone else to wear it."
"Then we can use it to summon him?"
"Yes." The archaelogist straightened. "You have a Violet?"
Azure's face returned to its dour placidity, the closest he ever came to expressing pleasure. "We have one in mind."
"But I thought all American conduits were controlled by the N-double-A-C-C," Wilcox said, using the popular acronym for the North American Afterlife Communications Corps.
"Not all." Azure pictured the photos he'd collected of Natalie Lindstrom, the classical contours of her visage turned skeletal by her scalp, which she kept shaved so that electrodes attached to her head could detect the presence of the souls that occupied her brain. Like all conduits for the dead, she had violet eyes, weary yet intense.
She was the only Violet he could find who was not in the employ of one government or another, and Nathan Azure was eager to avoid attracting the attention of any government. Even Lindstrom, he knew, was monitored by the NAACC, but it would take the Corps a while after her disappearance to figure out where she'd gone—long enough for Azure's purposes. To avoid wasting time, he had decided not to bring her to Peru until he possessed a genuine touchstone for her to summon Pizarro. Now that he had one, he knew that she would agree to assist him. Especially after good Dr. Wilcox helped draw her here to these isolated Peruvian peaks. A pity the archaeologist would never get to meet the Violet . . . at least, not until Azure had finished with her.
"If you're right about Pizarro's gold, this could be the biggest find since King Tut." Wilcox's words grew heavy with a kind of lust. He did not appear to notice the two Peruvian workers who flanked him from behind, gloved hands clenched into fists. "Everyone's going to want a piece of it. Customs, the Peruvian governmenteveryone."
"I agree. That's why they mustn't find out about it." With a shift of his eyes, Azure signaled the men, who seized the archaeologist's arms.
Wilcox wriggled in their grasp, more from astonishment than fear. Then he laughed.
"You can't be serious." When Azure didn't smile, the archaeologist's own grin failed. "I'll be missed. If I die, they'll bring me back. I'll tell them all about you."
Azure sniffed to indicate his amusement. "You're under the mistaken impression that I care."
He pulled the .45 from the small of his back and emptied it into Wilcox's chest.
The impact of the shots threw the archaeologist backward, but the men holding his arms kept his body from falling. Wilcox lifted his head, gurgling and hacking as if struggling to utter a final curse.
"Madre Maria," one of the superstitious Peruvians gasped.
In the instant before they dropped him, Wilcox spat in Nathan Azure's face.
"Bastard!" Azure recoiled, dropping the gun and slapping at the viscous spittle on his cheek. A film of crimson mucus smeared the palm of his driving glove, and he tore it off his hand and flung it in the dust at his feet, nearly doubling over with nausea. He'd gone to great lengths to avoid establishing any quantum connection with Wilcox, but now the man's soul would adhere to him with the tenacity of a lichen. He'd have to keep that dead-talker Lindstrom from touching him, or Wilcox's spirit might ruin everything.
The Peruvians laid out the bleeding corpse while Trent rushed up to put his gloved hand on Azure's shoulder. "You okay, boss?"
Azure swatted his hand away. "Don't touch me!" He pointed at the dead archaeologist. "Find his passport. Then get rid of him and everything else he came in contact with. We're moving camp by nightfall."
Trent essayed a grin, but his Method technique failed to conceal his unease. Azure staggered away from him, compulsively wiping his contaminated cheek.
As commanded, Trent and the other men gathered everything Abel Wilcox had touched—his tent, his bedroll, his books and notes, his campfire cookware—and tossed it all over the cliff's edge into the valley below. Last of all, they pitched the body itself off the mountain. Before it dropped beneath the cloud cover, the drifting limbs of the corpse spread-eagled in the air, as if the archaeologist were about to take flight.
They never heard the body hit ground.
Wolves at the Door
Natalie Lindstrom did not recognize the corps Security agent who followed her to the movie theater that May afternoon: a man not much taller than she, of Southeast Asian Indian extraction, with slick black hair and sideburns. His gray suit seemed to blend chameleonlike into whatever background he passed.
She sighed and pretended not to notice him as she purchased her ticket, for which she used one of the few credit cards she hadn't already maxed out. The N-double-A-C-C must be having higher turnover these days, she thought. They must also have instructed their people against becoming overly familiar with the Violets they were ordered to intimidate, for the new agents never spoke to her. She actually became nostalgic for the days when she at least knew the names of the three agents assigned to her: George Langtree, Arabella Madison, and Horace Rendell. George used to share pizza and gossip with Natalie during his surveillance shift, and had even helped rescue her daughter, Callie, from the serial killer Vincent Thresher. George had since quit Corps Security, while Rendell had evidently been killed by Thresher when the murderer kidnapped Callie. That left Madison, catty fashion diva, as the only agent Natalie knew personally.
But there was one advantage to having these nameless rookies following her: they didn't know her tricks as well as the veterans and so were easier to lose when necessary.
Chameleon Man proved no exception. Natalie waited until the theater had lowered the house lights, then took her seat during a scene when the screen went dark to make it difficult for the agent to see where she was. The movie was one of those three-hour-plus epics Hollywood seemed increasingly fond of, and she left to go to the women's restroom twenty minutes into the picture, the canvas bag containing her pantsuit and alternate wig slung over her shoulder.
Satisfied that the agent hadn't followed her into the lobby, Natalie went into one of the stalls in the lavatory and changed into her suit. With no hair of her own, she easily swapped her blond wig for the chestnut brown one. Because her current clients demanded SoulScan readings to prove that her inhabitations were real, she'd kept her head shaved, enabling her employers to attach the machine's electrodes directly to her bare scalp and monitor the souls she summoned. Since she did not want Callie to be ashamed of being a Violet, Natalie no longer hid her violet irises on a daily basis, but today she needed to operate incognito, so she completed the disguise with a pair of contact lenses that turned her eyes a conventional shade of brown.
As scheduled, the car from Daedalus Aeronautics awaited her in the cinema's parking lot—an unmarked black Cadillac. The moment Natalie emerged from the theater, the driver started the engine.