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The tall young man with close-cropped dark red hair showing beneath the snap brim of his gray hat was pushed by the noonday crowd to the very back of the express elevator. He curled his fingers around the brass rail screwed to the wall and waited for the upward surge which always did strange things to his stomach. He'd flown the Hump and stepped into outer space over Burma and several assorted islands with practically no qualms at all, but he still felt a little unhappy on elevators.
Lawrence Kane sidled by the long pheasant tail on the feminine hat just in front of him and pushed past two much stouter members of his own sex to gain the tiled floor of the hallway. As the door clanged shut behind him he began reading the firm names lettered on the office entrances.
Smithfield Brothers — coughdrops maybe? Conway and Company, Incorporated. Safield & Wiggins — this was it.
He pushed open the door and walked into a reception room where fat chairs upholstered in wine leather were placed at precise angles on a thick gray carpet. It was very plump and satisified with itself, was that room. He decided that he liked better the stark black and white of the corridor. If it hadn't been for the cable nesting in his pocket — But he was not to be intimidated by chairs — even burgundy ones.
"Yes, sir?" A vision of great beauty materialized behind a discreet inquiry desk.
But he was able to reply in a voice which sounded steady and matter-of-fact even in his own ears.
"My name is Kane. I have an appointment —"
"Oh, yes, Mr. Kane. You are expected. If you will be kind enough to wait a few minutes. Mr. Safield is in conference —"
She indicated the circle of chairs, and he obediently made his way towards the nearest, suppressing an idiotic desire to tiptoe lest his very human foot — in its size ten-and-a-half covering — leave some disfiguring stain on the carpet.
Even after nearly five months in which he had had every opportunity to become once more thoroughly civilized, to accept beds, chairs and tables as necessities instead of exotic luxuries, he found this room a little overpowering. As he lowered himself gingerly into the soft embrace of the leather, he wondered if one dared pollute this rarefied atmosphere with the smoke of an ordinary cigarette.
Why in the world had Dick Boone ever brought him here anyway? Kane pinched the folded slip of cablegram which had summoned him halfway across the continent, an army war-bag for luggage and a very wild hope in his heart Dead-Eye had never let him down yet If he said that this was what they had been waiting for — then it was.
Lawrence Kane, ex-lieutenant O.S.S., reached for a copy of Life from the table at his elbow and tried to focus his thoughts as well as his eyes on the fascinating details of a steel worker's home life. But other scenes kept forming across the open pages.
Green trees, half-strangled with looped vines and thriving parasites, shot up and closed ranks in a thick wall of vegetation screening a mountain trail which was only a cut of brown, viscous mud. And the rain which never stopped drummed again in his ears, even as he was able to taste the brack of atabrine across a shriveled tongue.
The trees became shadows and were gone, vanished into the cold gray sweeps of rugged hillside where raw mountains loomed above — ragged mountains which might have been part of the ravaged landscape of the moon. A lance of wind blew down them to cut through leather and fur and spike his shivering body.
The rain forests of the dark islands, the foothills of Assam, now were as much a part of him as the nails on his fingers or the hair cropped so close to his head.
He mouthed a stick of gum, pressing out the mint flavor with his teeth. Even the memory of atabrine was enough to make a man gag. He glanced down at the crease in the gray trousers which would have been so much more comfortable had they been sun-bleached khaki. At first sight he had liked this suit, but now he didn't care for it — any more than he liked this office. For two cents, cash money, he'd get up now and walk out. Mr. Safield and his conferences could —
Kane bit hard on his gum and tossed the magazine back on the table. If this Safield didn't show soon —
But it was not Mr. Safield who pushed into the reception room. Kane's eyes widened in a disbelief which warmed into pure joy as he watched the man who had entered cross to the desk Shifting the gum to his cheek, the ex-lieutenant pulled himself out of the chair, a crooked grin which lifted years from his brown face curling the lips of his wide mouth.
"Can it be — it's the Grand Lama himself!" he said softly. But the words carried well, and the slight figure across the room swung around, his face for once losing its habitual calm.
"Dutch! Dutch Kane!"
Kane's hand rose in a swift salute which was half the Arab salutation of hand to brow and half army courtesy. The other returned the gesture solemnly.
"What is this anyway? Old home week?"
"It looks that way. Did Dead-Eye pull you here too?"
Ex-Master Sergeant Sam Marusaki shook his head. "No. I had a telegram from old Ironjaw himself and —"
"Ironjaw!" Kane's grin was splitting his face now. "If he's in on the deal, then Dick is right. This is big!"
"What do you mean?"
"This must be the job Dick hinted that we might get a chance at — You know —" Kane suddenly felt a little foolish. Maybe he'd been on the point of saying too much, just because he was so darn glad to see Sam again. He must have it bad if just meeting one of the old outfit could set him to jawing so wildly.
Now Sam was standing there, cool as the old boy himself, lighting a smoke and looking around as if he owned the place and used it to keep ragpickers waiting in. Nothing much could ruffle Sam, though — except snakes. There was the time he'd sat down under a python's happy home tree — what had happened then had been exciting enough.
"How's the civilian?" Kane began again.
Sam pitched his match into the cup of the smoking stand. "As well as can be expected. How's the home town boy — making good?"
Kane plunged "Plenty fed up — if you must know."
A thin plume of smoke curled from Marusaki's full nostrils. "Tell papa all about it," he suggested mildly. And his tone did it — ripped off that gray suit and pushed away the room. Kane relaxed as the wire snap went out of his nerves.
"I don't think I fit into this any more." A wave of his hand indicated his present world.
"Well, you aren't the only one, brother."
"You too?" There had been no mistaking the ring in Sam's voice.
"Yeah, me too. You aren't unique, fella This is about my last hope." He took from his pocket a yellow slip which was as well crumpled as the one Kane carried. "My blood pressure went up a hundred points when I first read these beautiful, beautiful words. D'you think that this means back to the Army again?"
"It can mean anything. But with Dead-Eye and Iron-jaw running it — it means trouble for someone. Just now I'm not too particular who — as long as I'm allowed to play too —"
"Roger." Sam perched on the edge of the magazine table, just as he had perched on the edges of boxes and crates, the seats of jeeps, and the worn steps of time-forgotten jungle temples. Just to see Sam as casual as ever made one feel good. Kane beamed.
"Trouble for someone," Sam was musing. "Army of occupation stuff, I wonder?" His eyebrows, as thin and well-shaped as those possessed by the receptionist, moved upward. Kane shook his head.
"I don't think so. That'd go through regular channels. But Dead-Eye used to have contacts in the islands before the war. It may be something to do down there now that the late dust-up is over —"
"The late dust-up — as you so optimistically refer to it — is still going on — unofficially," Sam pointed out. "Fighting a peace is a darn sight harder than fighting a war. You have to do it with mittens on, and, like as not, the other fellow is equipped with a flame-thrower. The islands — hmm. I wonder. If it's New Guinea or Borneo again, I'm packing waterwings. Remember the pleasures of Dead Chinaman Camp?"
"Will I ever forget them? My pet nightmare has me trying to escape from a leech and one of those elephant-sized flies at the same time. I'll take China or Burma —"
"And it might well be either," Marusaki agreed. "Well, I like chop suey. When do we push off?"
"I suppose after we learn where we're going. I only hope we are going. This Safield was to see me at ten — it's half-past now. You don't suppose something's gone wrong?" He shivered. To be let down now after all their dreaming —
"Mr. Kane, Mr. Marusaki" The receptionist drifted into view. "Mr. Safield will see you now. The door on the left, please."
The door on the left brought them into the kind of office which both had hitherto believed existed only in the imagination of a movie-set artist. From behind a desk which seemed half as long as a city block, a man arose with a murmur of greeting, but his companion did not stir from his chair. Instead he nodded to the newcomers curtly, as if they had met for the last time at mess that morning, instead of in India six months before.
Kane's hand half rose before he remembered their change of status. Civilians didn't have to salute even Ironjaw. But his hand still twitched as he seated himself on the chair the colonel had indicated. Colonel Archibald Thurston had that odd effect upon people. It had been rumored — and firmly believed by anyone who had ever served under his command — that even some exalted beings who were entitled to wear three and four stars on their shoulders were none too comfortable when unable to evade Ironjaw on the warpath.
Not that he appeared to be on the warpath now. Long familiarity with that craggy face, and the emotions and thoughts stowed behind it, led Kane to diagnose now that the colonel was merely interested. Which meant — his fingers curled into his palms — that Dick was right!
The man behind the desk turned to Thurston as if the colonel was expected to make introductions. And with his customary dryness he did.
"Mr. Safield, these men are Kane and Marusaki, the two of whom I spoke to you last week. They served under my command for twenty months — satisfactorily."
"Satisfactorily!" And that from Ironjaw himself! Kane was a little dazed as he waited for Safield to get down to business.
Only Safield seemed unable to do that He was a tall man, the bones of his long and narrow head prominently outlined beneath the yellow-white skin of a man ill in either mind or body. But when he raised heavy eyelids and looked straight at Kane, the younger man shifted uneasily. He had seen that unreasoning gleam in other men's eyes, in the eyes of liberated captives of Bataan. Safield was a man who had lived with torture a long, long time.
"How well do you know the East Indies?" he asked at last.
"Which islands?" countered Sam. "There're hundreds of them and of the island groups, you know. We have served in Borneo and New Guinea"
Safield thrust back into its onyx-based holder the pen he had been fingering. "I don't know," he answered drearily. "That's the worst — I don't know!"
Thurston cut in smoothly, talking to cover Safield's breakdown.
"Marusaki is Japanese-American of the third generation. He speaks Japanese, Malay, and Chinese. He served under my command in the O.S.S. with the rank of master sergeant and was one of the men responsible for bringing to a successful conclusion Operation Lincoln — the liberation of a secret prisoner-of-war slave camp on an island in the Sulu archipelago where the Japanese had established a hidden sub base.
"Kane was a lieutenant in the O.S.S. He speaks Dutch, Malay, and some Chinese. He was second in command on Operation Lincoln — under Capt Boone. Both of these men know something of the territory in question. You will be able to find very few Americans better suited for your purpose. I recommend them unreservedly —"
"Whew!" Kane's lips shaped the exclamation he dared not voice. Ironjaw was spreading it on thick. Why was Thurston so eager to sell them to Safield? Not for any real interest in Safield's problem — he could guess that To Ironjaw only one thing mattered — the Job. Kane knew the old tickle of excitement between his shoulder blades. So the Job wasn't over yet — in spite of all the disbanding and mustering out!
"Yes — yes — of course." Safield pulled his attention back to the room and the men in it "Well, gentlemen, on the recommendation of Col. Thurston I have asked you here, hoping you will see fit to undertake a mission for me. A mission which means a great deal —
"My son, my only son, Rodney Safield, served in the South Pacific with the Air Force. In the summer of 1944 he went on a bombing raid to the island of Celebes. His plane did not return"
Somewhere in the room a clock was ticking. As Kane listened to that steady beat he wondered how many times Safield must have been conscious of it too — of the minutes passing —
"There have been some cases recently of missing men being found in the islands — located after months and even years." Thurston's crisp tone drowned out the cruel ticking. "Mr. Safield believes —"
"I believe that Rodney may still be alive — alive somewhere!" With shaking hands he pulled open a desk drawer and bundled out a map, crumpled, creased, and much marked with pencil and ink. "I've had experts advise me, men who know the islands. Here among the Moluccas, among the islands of the Banda Seas, north of Timor, are places where white men have not been, where even native traders have not touched in years. Rodney may be on one of those. Or — or you may find his grave —" He smoothed the map carefully, making a heavy business of rubbing out the wrinkles. "I'm told that some of the natives are Christian, that they have buried our men and care for the graves. But living or dead — I must know — I must know — !" He beat down upon the map with his fist, a dull tattoo which matched the deadly rhythm of the clock.
"Here!" He dragged from the drawer another mass of papers, some bearing official seals and stamps. "I have the proper credentials, letters of credit, tickets, everything you'll need to get you there — if you'll take the job."
Kane looked at Sam. It sounded crazy. On the other hand Ironjaw wanted them to do it, and Dick must have a hand in it, too, as his cable witnessed. Sam's brown eyes met the green ones of his old messmate, and in them Kane read his answer.
"All right. When do we start?" he asked for them both.
Safield was like a drowning man who had gulped air. "Col. Thruston" — he jerked his head toward Ironjaw — "will arrange the details. Please, gentlemen, if you will be good enough to excuse me —"
He stumbled out of his chair and groped his way to a door in the far corner of the room. Thurston reached over to scoop the papers into a briefcase.
A half hour later Kane and Sam were in the very utilitarian office which Col. Thurston had made his own with the same ease which had transformed numerous thatched huts into temporary Pentagons. A slight nod permitted them refuge on straight-backed chairs never intended to give aid or comfort to the normal human form, and, encouraged by this unusual amiability, Kane dared to ask a question.
"What's the score, sir?"
The colonel did not use his famous atomic glare in answer.
"You two are going into the East Indies on your own, strictly on your own." Thurston's smile was the joyless, restricted grin of a hungry shark. "You are private citizens of the United States without official standing of any sort —"
"This can prove that" Sam dug a fingernail into the discharge button on his jacket lapel. "Only maybe we're to be something else too —"
Thurston seemed to be enjoying his own thoughts, working his long bony fingers together, a gesture of pleasure which they both had reason to remember. "Not so fast, Marusaki. You will be private citizens and none of our concern. Understand? Of course, should you care to make a note of anything unusual you see during your travels —"
Kane's mouth grimaced. "Nice game. If we slip you've never heard of us. Just like that —"
Ironjaw lost his sweetness. "D'you young fools realize what's happening to us? We demobilized at a rate which almost ruined everything we'd accomplished. Green kids make up the armies of occupation — they haven't an idea in a hundred of their soft heads! The O.S.S. is gone. Our tools are out of our hands — and yet we have to sweat to keep the machine running. You're both members of the Reserve. I could have you back in uniform in an hour. Only what use would you be to me then?"
Excerpted from Sword in Sheath by Andre Norton. Copyright © 1977 Andre Norton. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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