Read an Excerpt
Thick sticky heat came gushing from the Indian Ocean, closed in on Ceylon, and it seemed to Clayton that he was the sole target. He sat at the bar of a joint called Kroner's on the Colombo waterfront, and tried vainly to cool himself with gin and ice. It was Saturday night and the place was mobbed, and most of them needed baths. Clayton told himself if he didn't get out soon, he'd suffocate. But he knew he couldn't walk out. If he walked out, he'd be killed.
It was a weird paradox. A man who feared violent death would never come near Kroner's, let alone sit at the bar with his back to the tables. The place was a hangout for agents who dealt in violence, a magnet for thugs and muggers and professional murderers. They'd tackle any job for money or its equivalent in opium, and because they had nothing to lose they were afraid of nothing. Except one element. The element was Kroner.
And Kroner was Clayton's friend, the only friend he had. That was why he felt safe here. Two days ago he'd managed to sneak in from the interior of Ceylon, had told Kroner about the blue treasure, the huge sapphire he'd found in the earth. Kroner had smiled and said he already knew about it. This kind of news traveled fast in Colombo.
Kroner hadn't asked to see the sapphire. He wasn't interested in sapphires. He placed a premium on friendship, he always said, and his prime concern was the welfare of his friends. Built short and wide and completely bald, the fifty-year-old Dutchman was a quiet-spoken man whose sentimental nature was a soft veneer. Under it, there were rock-hard muscles and the ferocity of a water-buffalo.
He'd given Clayton a room upstairs, and promised to make arrangementsfor passage on the next available boat out of Colombo. Until that was accomplished, he emphasized, Clayton must stay here and not worry and not do anything foolish.
Clayton wondered if he could handle the latter item. In the course of his life he'd made countless impulsive moves, some of them absurdly foolish. Now, at twenty-nine, his appetite for danger was tempered with a grim hunger to stay alive.
He was a medium-sized man, built like a fast welterweight, the build nicely balanced for power and agility. A long time back he'd boxed professionally, and his face showed it. But despite the marks, it was a face that women liked to look at. They didn't seem to mind the broken nose and the scar tissue above the eyes. And Alma used to put her lips against the scars, and when she did it, she purred. He was remembering the sound of it, the way she purred. His mouth hardened with bitter memory.
He leaned across the bar and told Kroner to sell him another drink. As Kroner poured the gin, a hand came down on Clayton's shoulder. It came down like a feather, settling gently. Clayton turned slowly on the bar stool and saw the shiny smiling face of the Englishman.
The Englishman's name was Dodsley and he was a greasy whiskered derelict of some forty-odd years. He was a crumpled slob who took opium but managed to control it enough so that he was coherent at intervals. Now his face showed his thoughts were in order and Clayton knew what was coming. Dodsley's profession was displayed in his glowing eyes. He was an agent for anyone who wished to obtain gems, whether it meant purchase, swindle or downright theft.
The Englishman went on smiling. It seemed he was carefully choosing his first words. He waited another moment, then said, "They say it's a very big stone. They tell me it's almost two hundred carats."
Clayton didn't say anything.
"May I see it?"
"No," Clayton said.
"I can't make an offer unless I see it."
"It isn't for sale," Clayton said. He turned to face the bar and focus on the gin.
He heard the Englishman breathing behind him, and then the voice saying, "You found the stone near Anuradhapura, at the Colonial mines. My client is part-owner of the mines. I think you know who my client is, and I'm sure you understand his business methods--"
"That's enough," Clayton cut in. Again he was facing the Englishman. "The stone is my property. I didn't find it in the mine area. I picked it up in the hills at least three miles away from their land holdings."
Dodsley shrugged. "There were witnesses."
"Of course there were witnesses. They flocked around like hungry hyenas. But they went away when I showed them the gun. It's a neat little gun. I always have it with me and I always keep it loaded."
"The gun is not important," Dodsley said. "This is a legal matter. They said you were working at the mines--"
Clayton was grinning and shaking his head. "I quit the mines two weeks before I found the stone. Got checking-out papers to prove it." The grin faded as he went on, "Just tell your client about the gun. Tell him I'm always ready to use it."
The Englishman looked up at the ceiling and sighed. It was a mixture of sad prophecy and ruthless pronouncement. It caused Clayton to stiffen, and he was thinking of Dodsley's client.
He was thinking of a man named Rudy Hagen. It was Hagen who'd booted him out of Colombo more than a year ago. And it was Hagen who'd taken Alma from him. The memory of it seared his brain.
Now it came back, cutting hard and deep. He was in Hagen's private office again in the warehouse on the waterfront. He was broken and bleeding at Hagen's feet. And Alma was in Hagen's arms, looking down at him as though he were mud. As they dragged him to the door to throw him out, he heard the laughter. He didn't feel the rough hands of Hagen's men. He felt only the ripping pain of hearing the laughter. It was like acid, and it came burning into him from Alma's lips.
He could hear it again in his brain. He quivered with rage. He was telling himself to leap off the stool and run out of here and race along the docks to Hagen's place, and let it happen any way it was going to happen. Just then he heard the soft whistle.
He moved his head and saw the warning gesture. It was Kroner's finger going from side to side. And Kroner's eyes were saying, "Don't do it, be sensible."
Clayton took a deep breath. He turned to Dodsley. His voice was calm and level. "Tell Hagen to leave me alone and I'll leave him alone. I'm willing to forget what he did to me. All he did was take some little stones and a woman. As far as I'm concerned, everything he took was junk."
He shoved Dodsley and the Englishman bumped into a table where a bearded Hindu gave him another shove. It became a succession of shoves that sent Dodsley all the way to the door. Kroner was there at the door, waiting for him, smacking the back of his head to make the exit emphatic. Clayton tossed off the remainder of the gin and went up to his room.
The knocking was a parade of glimmering blue spheres bouncing in blackness. He opened his eyes and the spheres were gone but the blackness stayed there. Then he heard the knuckles rapping against the door.
The gun was under the mattress and he reached for it, found it, released the safety catch and quickly hauled himself out of bed.
Outside the room a voice said, "It's me, Kroner."
He switched on the light and opened the door. Kroner saw the gun in his hand and nodded approvingly.
Clayton yawned. "What time is it?"
"Past three. She's downstairs."
He stared at the Dutchman. He said, "Send her up." He said it automatically, without thinking.
Kroner sighed. He didn't say anything. He waited there in the doorway. His eyes told Clayton it would be a serious mistake to let her enter this room.
Clayton's mouth hardened. He could feel the challenge of her presence on the floor below. He spoke louder. "You heard what I said. Send her up."
"Don't you want time to shave? Look at you. You aren't even dressed."
"The hell with that. She'll see me the way I am."