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Blood-Red Resolution
by William Maltese

Category: Science Fiction/Mystery/Crime
Description: DEEP IN THE PERUVIAN JUNGLE! It's a new metal detected by the Spaceborn Imaging Satellites (SIS), who've labeled it the blood-red resolution matrix. The problem for Dayklan Inc. is that The Mentlic Group has already reached and fortified the site--possession being nine-tenths of the law. Is the new discovery worth a corporate war? United Courier Service's Dave Wilcox must transport three hard-won specimens from the ancient Incan stronghold of Machu Picchu to Cuzco, little suspecting that death and destruction are destined to be his constant companions on each and every step of his danger-fraught journey
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 2007 USA
eBookwise Release Date: May 2007

eBookeBook

6 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [204 KB]
Words: 41686
Reading time: 119-166 min.


PROLOGUE

IT WAS TWELVE-TEN A.M., and Dayklan Incorporated's newly-launched Spaceborn Imaging Satellite (SIS) rose over the eastern horizon. What its electronic payload was programmed to see, record, and relay, it saw, recorded, and relayed, despite the fog at ground level.

Unluckily, for those scientists monitoring on the planet's surface, the competition's SIS had made this very same pass sixteen months before, which meant The Mentlic Group had already mapped, and acted upon, whatever the mineral resources as detected, color-coded, and spewed out on read-outs from the banks of computer link-ups below.

* * * *
CHAPTER ONE

DANE WILCOX SET HIS TRAVEL CLOCK for a one-thirty a.m. alarm, and he dozed until seconds before the buzzer went off.

At the Machu Picchu hotel sink, he splashed his face with water that he wouldn't drink on a bet. He paid little notice to his mirror-reflected black hair, black eyes, dimpled cheeks, and cleft chin, which all came together in a rugged boyishness that belied his thirty-two years. He was no more immune than the next guy to the good-looks of other people, but he'd always considered his own physical attractiveness a superficiality.

He bundled up in a llama-wool vest that he'd bought in Cuzco. He exited his room quietly and made his way through the deserted lobby and out the front door.

Well-honed reflexes told him, without seeing or hearing other evidence, that he wasn't alone. The adrenaline, spontaneously released throughout his system, produced an attractive flush and a sheen of sweat that high-lighted the contours of his cheeks and jaw line.

"I'm sorry," she apologized. "I thought you saw me."

Saw her? Did she think he was a bat?

She sat in the dark, not even the glow of a cigarette to say here I am. People weren't so easily spotted since the link between smoking and cancer had re-popularized chewing gum.

She was lucky he hadn't blown her and her chair right off the patio and over the escarpment. Dane had reached for his SIG 49. Only intuition had stopped him. This wasn't, after all, an official battle zone. Someone out here, even at this time of night, didn't necessarily mean beware the enemy.

"Did I look startled?" he asked.

"Are there extensive Inca ruins on this mountaintop?" she answered indirectly. Her accompanying laugh was low and throaty. A smoker's laugh, before cigarettes became more dangerous than sticks of dynamite. Sexy.

Dane's eyes were better adjusted; it was no longer as dark as it had originally seemed. There was a luminescence to the fog overflowing the Urubamba Gorge. Whiffs of vapor danced here and there, disappeared to materialize in different places and shapes. Moisture pinpricked his skin. Here were all the ingredients every spook flick could have asked for, and more.

The woman was blonde and well-tanned. No spotlights needed to tell any of that. She had nice legs, too; they were encased in tight-fitting trousers, the cuffs of which were tucked into shiny black riding boots.

"I assumed I was the hotel's only insomniac," Dane excused his late-night appearance on the patio.

"It's the air," she rationalized for him, "or lack thereof. The latter knocks some people out. Others.... "She shrugged. "Maybe, between us, we tipped one cup of coca tea too many. You know the spiel? Have one. Have two. On no account, Mr. and Mrs. Tourist-in-Peru, have three!"

He laughed. No one had ever actually officially given him those de-rigueur instructions for combating altitude sickness, but it was standard fare, used by every tour escort who ever rode roughshod over every tourist group herded through Machu Picchu on an assembly-line basis, in and out in four-hours flat: poor old folk suffering from soroche. Gasping for breath. Asking for a bit of pure oxygen divvied up like precious elixir from portable tanks. Splitting headaches. Nausea. Saved from death only by a whirlwind schedule that had them back to lower elevations in no time.

Coca tea looked sickly green and tasted even worse than it looked; Dane never had experienced the reputed euphoria of an overdose.

She motioned to a vacant chair at her commandeered table.

He checked his watch. He didn't have the time for meaningless chit chat, or whatever. He had an appointment to keep within the pea-soup fog.

"Symptoms of soroche tell me I'd better hit the sack if I want to be standing in the morning," he excused.

"I would have thought you'd be acclimatized by now," she surprised. "Doesn't sickness come from being up and around one's first day in?"

He tried to read something into that. He warned himself against paranoia. It was no big deal: her knowing that he'd been at the hotel for more than one day. Any waiter could have told her; which, it turned out, had been the case.

"Pedro served me lunch today and said you'd been here three days. I actually made it a point to ask, since you looked too fresh for your own good."

There was something curiously sensual about the way she said fresh.

"You planning to be here for awhile?" he asked. If Roger were out there, Roger could just wait. He'd kept Dane waiting. Turnabout was fair play. This woman was far more inviting than the geologist.

"I'm hoping to stay here long enough to adjust well enough to the altitude to see the sights without an accompanying headache," she answered.

"Holiday?"

"I read this romance novel," she said. "Beyond Machu. Ever hear of it?"

What was she thinking! He didn't read that stuff. He'd never met a man or woman, before now, who'd willingly admit to reading it, either.

"Two men, believe it or not, Machu Picchu, and love on this very mountaintop."

"You don't say," he said lamely.

"I said to myself: Self. I'm going there. And here I am. Sure enough, here's a handsome man. Tell me you don't have another handsome man awaiting you in the wings."

He echoed her laughter. He couldn't help it. He didn't need genius IQ to know she was putting him on.

"Obviously, the lack of oxygen makes me giddy," she apologized.

She got up and was shorter than he'd thought. She came to his mid-chest; that made her around five-five. She extended her hand for his; no talons on this matter-of-fact lady; no bitten-to-the-quicks, either.

Suddenly, he was sorry they were parting.

Her handshake was firm. She smelled of some exotic flower. Heady stuff: her touch, her perfume, the night mist, the exotic mountain-top setting. Maybe that romance author knew something after all.

"Will I see you tomorrow?" she asked and smiled as if she'd like just that. Some women made, I'd like a loaf of French bread, please, sound sexy: this one had the knack.

If he didn't know her name, he had all intentions of finding out. She beat him to the punch: "Helen Mallory." It could as well have been Helen of Troy: the face and body to launch those thousand ships.

Dane would have introduced himself, but she beat him to that, too: "And you're Dane Wilcox." Her lips were pale pink. Their natural color? Her teeth were small and pearly white. Would such teeth nibble at his lips if he kissed them? "The waiter told me you were one of us special ones who hang around longer than the normal in-and-out-the-same-or-very-next-day tourists."

Did the waiter know of Dane's nightly strolls? Was that how Helen happened to be there?

"Maybe you can spare a few minutes, come daylight, to show me around?" she suggested and let her hand stay in his until he reluctantly freed it. Her eyes sparkled and caught moonlight, or starlight--anyway, whatever the light that filtered in through the fog. Her eyes were some light color. Maybe blue, maybe green, maybe grey. "My spy tells me you've been to the high Huayna terraces. See any snakes along the way?"

He shook his head. "BEWARE OF SNAKES! however, is on one of the signs up there."

"I hate snakes," she said. "I hate spiders. I climb on a chair at the first sign of a mouse."

That had to be an exaggeration. She looked and sounded like she could take care of herself. Beautiful didn't necessarily equate with helplessness.

"I eat breakfast early," he said. "You?" He might as well make his stay--and hers--as pleasant as possible. He had nothing to do until Roger showed. If Roger showed; there were no guarantees.

"Starting tomorrow, I eat breakfast early," she said.

She smiled again and brushed by him. She left a trace of perfume; it lingered within the strands of mist set into motion by her departure.

Dane had his exit along the pathway memorized. Good thing, too, because he was late, and it was easy to walk off the edge, mistaking cloud for solid ground. A long fall. Condors could, and did, soar between him and the bottom, in clear weather looking like specks of dust in the vortex of a drain as they did so.

It was uphill to the gate where, every day, an indigenous Indian collected entrance fees. The Indian, though, disappeared when the transient tourists, at precisely two-thirty, headed down the Hiram Bingham Road to catch the three-o'clock train out of there. After that, permanent special hotel guests had full run of the ruins, without paying a sol.

There weren't that many overnighters; the rustic hotel could boast only thirty-one rooms. To coax more tourist traffic, die-hard capitalists had successfully out-lobbied conservationists for the bigger hotel whose skeletal remains were rotting on the nearby rock foundations found, too late, to be too soft to support them. Nature had triumphed where ecologists had failed.

There were times when it was easy for Dane to imagine he was alone on this mountaintop. Not a soul in sight. Not a human sound. Like now. Except, now was different, because he couldn't tell he was on a mountaintop. There was no sign of the deep hole to his right. Fog filled it, overflowed it, and piled high above it. Wet. No hint of the preceding balmy day. Sunset dropped mercury, like a lead balloon, to freezing and below.

Fog-parenthesized Inca masonry appeared on his right. It was a wall capped by thatched roof. The stones were ancient and without mortar. Thin paper couldn't be squeezed between the joints. The roof was modern: a convenience for tourists who wanted to see the ruins from cool comfort during the heat of Peruvian summers. Only die-hard archaeological enthusiasts ventured into the panoramas beyond the rest hut. Tonight, there were no such people and no such view.

Grass flowered droplets of distilled moisture and sprouted where foot traffic was never heavy enough to keep even this frailest of growth beaten down. The wet streaked Dane's boots and then reformed as crystal-like beads on wax-saturated leather.

He was on one of the hundreds of terraces layering the mountain. They held the top soil once carried in buckets from the valley by a now lost race of people. What once grew potatoes and maize now grew moss and weeds.

A gust of wind smacked Dane's face with a dollop of wetness. His cheeks stung from the blow. His eyes watered. This wasn't a place to be savored at night, except by a masochist. Far better by day, sunlight glinting off greens, grays, and blacks. Lovely, then. Peaceful, then. One could even imagine Incas, then, living here while Pizarro ransacked other Inca citadels and toppled Inca gods.

Now, though, it was night, and Machu Picchu was habitation more attuned to the dead than the living.

He stopped and listened. Hearing what? Roger?

Tonight, he actually wasn't expecting him, and he wasn't sure just why.

He heard a pebble. Freed from its matrix by water expanded-to-ice by low temperatures in some hairline crack, the stone, like a marble, cascaded from one terrace to the other, finally taking that final silent leap into the void of the gorge. No one hearing the first click of such a stone bouncing upon stone would likely hear its final shatter far, far below.

Dane reached the altar where some guides insisted Inca priests had once conducted bloody human sacrifices. Other experts pooh-poohed the notion. In the end, did Dane really care?

Where was Roger if he wasn't here?

Dane should have stayed with Helen. He enjoyed her company.

He was cold, and he was tired.

Another sound. No going, going, going, going, gone of a pebble this time. An I-am-out-here kind of noise. Roger suddenly where he was supposed to be? Helen deciding not to accept Dane's first refusal?

"Hello?" It was a line Dane borrowed from horror movies. Cue the fog. Cue the wind. Cue the monster. Cue the jerk waiting to get his from the mad slasher, the ax murderer, the zombie cannibal, the werewolf, the vampire, the thing from outer space or Black Lagoon. So, what would your everyday hot-to-spend-a-few-days-at-Machu-Picchu tourist ask in Dane's place? Assuming an everyday tourist was dumb enough to wander the fog of this potentially dangerous mountaintop at this hour of the early morning.

"Isn't there a Sandburg poem about fog creeping in on little cat's feet?" It was impossible for Dane to tell from where someone asked that question. The fog distorted as well as concealed.

They were playing big-boy games here, and Dane followed the rules: "I don't know if it was Sandburg." That was his part of the prearranged greeting/response code. "I do believe, though, it was cat's paws, not feet."

"Mind coming over this way? I've had a hard go of it."

"Keep making sounds," Dane instructed.

"La, la, la," the answer was unenthusiastic.

Dane spotted him against the Inca wall. "What in the hell happened to you? I'd guess run over by a semi if there were one within a thousand miles."

"What didn't happen to me?" He had a makeshift bandage around his head. It was slung low over one eye. What there was to be seen of his face was scratched and puffy. His clothes were rejects from some ragbag. "We had trouble," he said; it sounded like the obvious understatement it was. "Chimchuck, I'm afraid, had even more of a bad time of it than I did. Seems we were expected."

Dane slipped off his vest, but his offer was refused. "Someone might have spotted you in that," he was reminded. "It wouldn't do for me to show up someplace wearing it."

"You won't show up anywhere, period," Dane forewarned, "if you die of exposure."

"I'm fine." His teeth chattered accompaniment. "Actually, I'm fond of the cold. No bugs, no sweat. I've had enough of both of those to last me a lifetime."

"What happened to Chimchuck?"

"As I said, they got him." He shuddered. "What about you? Anything suspicious at this end?"

"Not that I've noticed." Was Helen-of-Troy-on-the-patio something out of the ordinary?

"Well, count your lucky stars." He fished into his pants pocket for three small stones. "There were larger ones," he said, "but I ejected them, one at a time, along the way. Surprising how a mere few ounces can come to seem virtual tons after a few days of lugging them on the trail."

Dane took a good look at what he'd been handed. "So, these are what all the fuss is about." They looked as if he could have picked them up anywhere.

"It's blood-red-resolution matrix, nevertheless," the battered man confirmed. "A whole formation of it is laid down atop a sedimentary deposit of common garden-variety blue. So said the spectrometer which color-coordinated that message. By the way, if anyone asks, I abandoned the spectrometer during my hasty exit."

"What do you do now?" Dane's first guess would be die.

"Head down the Hiram Bingham to the train depot. Take the first train out. Might even keep them off your tail for awhile, but I wouldn't count on it. These people were not happy to see us. They were less happy to see me get away from them. You armed?"

"SIG 49."

"Danish?"

"Swiss. Nine mm."

"Just don't lose your gun. Those rocks I just gave you may look like nothing to you. They may look like nothing to me. They may be nothing. But there are people out there doing an awfully lot to keep Dayklan Incorporated from getting a close look-see."

Dane slipped the stones into his vest pocket.

"Sure you wouldn't like this vest?" he offered one more time. The guy didn't look as if he'd survive the night.

"You just worry about getting the merchandise to Cuzco and to Gregory."

"I could come back and pick the vest up from you before sunrise," Dane tried again.

"Look, I do appreciate your concern. I've just reached a point where I want to pass on this commitment and be done with it. If I never see Peru again, it'll be too soon."

"First thing I'd do, if I were you, is find a doctor," Dane diagnosed.

"And the second is take a long vacation."

Reluctantly, Dane headed back to the hotel, alone. He was brought up short by muffled sounds suddenly evident in the shadows just left behind him.

Reflexes turned him. Simultaneously, common sense warned him to get out of there before someone kicked him over the precipice.

Nonetheless, he went back.

No need to check Roger for a pulse. Dane knew death when he saw it, and this premature death could be blamed on Roger's suddenly cut throat.

Even as he contemplated the whereabouts of Roger's killer or killers, he was grabbed from behind. A rope was slipped around his neck, a knee placed firmly to his spine. There was no space for his grappling fingers between the rope and his throat.

He tried elbow jabs into hard-as-steel muscle--with little success.

He needed to access the gun he wore in the small of his back. The SIG 49 could take out an assailant bigger than this one. Trouble was, he couldn't find it.

He'd have to rely on self-defense, pure and simple.

He wanted to scream for help: there were no heroes in foxholes or at times like this. He wasn't James Bond. Nothing, however, was coming out of him but breathless gasps.

Whatever had possessed him to think he could handle this assignment?

His end was near. It didn't take long at an altitude over nine-thousand feet, where oxygen was at a premium under the best of circumstances, to give up the ghost. All it took was this chokehold held for a few seconds longer, and that was all she wrote!

He never was sure what he did, or how he did it, but he lucked out, because his attacker suddenly produced a music-to-Dane's-ears what-have-you-done-to-me groan.

Still alive, Dane collapsed to both knees. His spine telescoped in the process, but what was a bit more pain?

He continued his pitiful gasps for air, surprised to be alive.

He wanted and needed his gun. Too bad it had chosen that particular time frame in which to be somewhere else. Where?

He made an additional effort to pull himself together. There was no one out here to do him any favors. He had to take stock, make plans, execute, figuratively and literally. He'd been up against worse and had survived on more than just well-conditioned body and acute reflexes. He'd used his good old Wilcox brain, and he could use it again, if it wasn't as fucked up by oxygen deprivation as the rest of him.

Maybe his assailant never had any intentions of killing him. Maybe the attack was defensive, triggered by Dane's sudden (and unexpected?) reappearance. Maybe pigs could fly and cabbages were kings.

All he could hear was his own breathing; he held his breath. Were those disgusting sounds his? Was that more ice-loosened scree scattered by Dane's fleeing assailant? Anyone putting bets on Dane's wishful thinking?

Finally, though, it dawned on him that whoever had jumped him was gone back into the shadows. That realized, he checked for the rocks in his vest pocket.

They were still in place.

Feeling the worst for wear, he relocated Roger's body.

Roger's pockets were turned inside-out. Stones looked for but not found? To what conclusions?

Quite by accident, he literally stumbled over his gun. Had it dropped of its own volition, or been discarded by the mystery man after a skillful disarming of Dane?

Dane took more rational stock and decided he'd not come out as badly as he might have. What's more, the transfer of the stones, from Roger to him, had been successful. Score points for his side.

* * * *
CHAPTER TWO

HE DIDN'T NEED TO SEE HELEN'S six-a.m. expression to know something was up.

"Have you heard?" she asked and looked even prettier in daylight; there was something decidedly favorable to be said of green-eyed blondes who tanned well.

"I'm just up and out." Dane ached in muscles he hadn't thought he had any more.

"I'm the one who found his body, can you believe it?" She shuddered. "It was not particularly pleasant, let me tell you."

Dane knew, without further elucidation, that his exercise in hide-Roger's-body-until-I-can-get-out-of-here had been for naught. He might as well have saved his time and energy. Nevertheless, he asked: "Found whom?" Company Couriers were given acting lessons for times just like this.

"They don't seem to know the whom. There's an inspector on his way from Cuzco to investigate."

"Why don't we get some coffee," Dane suggested, "and you can fill me in."

Readily, she hooked her arm with his and let him lead her to a patio table.

Dane wondered if Roger, dragged out of concealment, was now in the hotel freezer.

He motioned for a waiter (Pedro?) who was more interested in discussing events with his fellow employees than in taking another breakfast order. Dane's look expressed the opinion that coffee had better be forthcoming or else. That accomplished, he turned his full attention back on Helen. "Now, about this body of yours?"

"Like what you see, do you?" She sat straighter to put her already nice breasts into even better display.

"I meant the body with the.... "He almost pantomimed a slit throat, but slit throat was far more information than he should have had at the moment. "...obvious problem."

"Oh!" Her feigned disappointment provided a sexy pout to her sensuous mouth.

"Not that your body has escaped my attention," he complimented.

"Thanks, but I know what I must look like this morning. What's more, I never look my best after a night like last night when I don't sleep as well as I should. Restlessness was what got me up with the chickens. Up even before the kitchen help, I strolled off to kill some time and ran across this huge bird; you know, a.... "She seemed to be searching for just the right word or words to describe and convey the horror of that moment of discovery.

"A condor?" Dane suggested. Bloody scavenger probably smelled the blood before the sun even came up.

"Not that it paid me any mind." She folded her arms on the table and leaned across.

"Not the best way to start a morning." Dane was talking about his morning. He had expended a lot of time and effort to hide Roger, apparently all for nothing.

"Definitely not romantic," she concluded.

"So, how about some sight-seeing to take your mind off the macabre before this inspector arrives to occupy all our free time?" Dane suggested. "Although I do have to make a phone call, first."

"You're allowed one."

He would have called Gregory the night before, but there was no cell-phone service, and the hotel switchboard closed at nine. This morning, the latter had, likewise, been absent its operator who was chatting up, with cohorts on the verandah, the morning's unusual-to-say-the-least occurrence, until Dane insisted the woman come inside and perform the service for which she was being paid.

"Girlfriend, or wife ... needing the telephone reassurances?" Helen asked when Dane made his reappearance.

"My mother's sister's husband's cousin, actually." If the best lies were the simple ones, he was off to a bad start. "He's in Cuzco, and I promised to catch him for dinner. Your discovery of the body gave me a good reason to beg off. It wouldn't look too good, my scooting off from here, just as the inspector arrives. I suppose we're all suspects."

"Are we?" Ah, the sounds of such pure innocence!

"Not too many of us special ones were up here last night," Dane reminded.

"Who says the guy wasn't killed during yesterday's turistas swarm? I can't imagine his killer sticking around to answer questions, can you?"

Dane liked the way this woman thought.

"There aren't any trains after three," he was loathe to remind. "It's a mighty long walk out of here. Maybe the murderer didn't have any choice but to stick around."

"I can't believe anyone would be so stupid. Would you kill someone and then stick around?"

"Guess not."

"Of course you wouldn't. Neither would I. Far easier to arrive at Machu Picchu under the cover of a crowd, commit the deed, and exit under cover of the same crowd headed out on the three-o'clock train. If you ask me, this inspector is headed here after the proverbial horse is long gone through a barn door left open way too long."

"Wouldn't the dead man's tour group have missed him?" Dane played Devil's Advocate.

"Who says the dead man or his killer came with any group?"

"Are you sure it's not mysteries you read, instead of romances?" he teased her.

* * * *

EVEN AFTER HIS FEW DAYS on the mountain, Dane hadn't tired of the view--in the sunlight--as he took Helen to explore some of it.

The awesome Urubamba Gorge plunged steeply and bottomed out in the rusty brown of the-river-still-carving. The railway paralleled the river, below, in semblance of a roadway: deceptive in that there were no roads connecting this place to civilization. The Hiram Bingham, named after the U.S. senator who discovered the Inca ruins, was an independent meander scar on the mountain, with a visible start and finish, which was used for the convenience of tourists wanting up the mountain from the station in the gorge. Before vans were shipped in by rail, it was leg-power, or the back of an ass, that was required to get the curious up top.

The name Machu Picchu was a misnomer, since it was the more picturesque Huayna Picchu that hogged all the travel posters.

Dane led Helen in a beeline toward the ancient Inca altar. She stopped him before they got there. "I've already seen enough of what's farther off that way."

"Ah, the body, you mean?" He feigned complete innocence.

"The hotel manager says it has to be left where it is until the authorities arrive. I informed him as to how there was a buzzard already destroying vital evidence, even as we spoke. He assured me someone would be sent to keep the birds away. I'd just as soon not find out if he's been true to his word." She shaded her eyes and gazed skyward. "Especially since the local condor population does seem to be off somewhere."

"Actually, they don't become all that active until rising temperatures provide them with enough updrafts for gliding." At the same time, Dane wondered why one greedy bird had lucked out. While he was counting his bad run of luck, he might as well add: why had Helen picked that particular morning for a pre-breakfast stroll?

"It is beautiful up here, isn't it?" she said. "During the day," she qualified and posed on the edge of an Inca-made outcropping that overhung the valley. "Who'd ever dream any and all of this being here, last night, what with all that fog? Genuinely spooky in the dark, isn't it? Stereotypical atmosphere for a murder. Shades of Macbeth and all of that."

"Shakespeare, now, is it? Your reading habits are truly catholic."

"Well, Los Angeles isn't exactly the literary wasteland some people imagine. For every movie I saw, my parents insisted I read one book."

"Smart parents."

"Well, I won't say I thought them anything but aggravating at the time, but I've since amended my opinion. These days, I see far more of the printed page than I do of pictures on the screen."

"When you're not busy traveling, you mean?"

"This is really my very first trip of any note." She stepped back from the edge of the precipice and joined him to head other than toward the body. "Even so, I filled my suitcase with trashy best-sellers. How was I to know I'd run across that hoped-for mystery man and that never-expected corpse?"

Dane stepped back to let her precede him through a gauntlet of overturned stones.

Sunlight caught in her hair and provided a white halo.

He came abreast, and they walked that way for a few more yards. He would have asked what she did for a living--she seemed like a woman who could hold her own--but such an inquiry invited reciprocity. Granted, he had his Company cover story down pat, based on truths and half-truths, and downright lies, but he hadn't yet reached the point where falsehoods of any kind rolled off his tongue as freely and with the glibness his job sometimes--this time--demanded.

Helen volunteered information on herself: "I lucked out, during my sophomore year in college. Rather, between my sophomore and junior years, when I worked at a boutique where Liz Valum came around one day with some of her things." She paused--maybe expecting name-recognition but not surprised when Dane seemingly wasn't all that knowledgeable of a presently really big name in women's fashion. "I thought Liz's stuff was wonderful, but my opinion wasn't shared by the store owner, much to the owner's ultimate chagrin--especially since the owner is no longer in business, and I've just retired on my share of returns from loans I made Liz, from a small inheritance, which kept Liz from starving during some of her lean years."

"Retired, you say?" Dane was genuinely impressed. Without asking, he was sure Helen couldn't be older than twenty-nine.

"Oh, not forever-and-ever-amen retired," she quickly qualified. "No matter how many mystery men, romantic locales, and dead men in my life, I need something more. I just haven't decided which of several routes to go. My association with Liz is a tough act to follow, but I'm not anxious to become involved with Revlon who bought her out, although they've extended an offer. I'm more geared to one-on-one relationships. How about you?"

He'd already mentally rehearsed his spiel about running a guide service in a wilderness area of Washington State. Actually, his brother ran it, although their dad had legally left it to the both of them. Dane was supposedly in Peru scouting out the possibilities of international expansion--à la Sobek. In truth, his brother complained about too much business already, and Dane had no desire to baby-sit tourists to Machu Picchu or to anywhere else.

As it turned out, he was saved from immediate prevarication by the bullet that hit Helen and sent her barreling toward the lip of the gorge.

Dane dropped automatically into a crouch and drew his gun. He wasn't sure Helen wasn't, even then, airborne in the abyss until he caught a glimpse of the bottom of her foot.

"Helen?"

He got no response, so he zigged left, then right, not reassured by the sudden lack of gunfire. A barrage of slovenly aimed bullets didn't kill as readily as one very carefully aimed one. He could picture himself skillfully being lined up in some unseen gun's deadly crosshairs.

Dane would bet his paycheck from this assignment, and his Company pay wasn't chicken feed, that the bullet that hit Helen had been meant for him. He didn't need sophisticated computations, incorporating bullet origin, trajectory, and angle of impact, either. Having been frustrated, Dane's assailant of the night before was merely back to finish off Dane in the bright light of the new day.

"Dane?" Helen was weak-voiced.

"How badly are you hurt?" He was more distraught by her injury than by Roger having bought the farm. If he knew Helen only slightly better than he'd known Roger, she was an innocent bystander. Roger had known the risks and had taken his chances. Helen was merely a young woman on holiday. She wanted good times and good memories. She hadn't come halfway down the globe to find a dead body or become one.

"My arm is bloody," Helen diagnosed, "but I think the bullet went right through. How about you?"

"Feeling better now that I've heard from you."

"Who's shooting at us?"

"Whoever: a definite crazy," Dane identified without identifying. No need to try and explain just how he knew the shooter's real motivation. Even if Helen saw the rocks he was now carrying with him, she wouldn't believe all the fuss being made over them; Dane hardly believed the fuss himself.

"Is the shooter gone do you think?" Helen asked and sounded better than seconds before.

"Don't stand up to find out," Dane warned.

"Would you believe my mother wanted me to go to Hawaii? I told her a tanned beach-boy was not my idea of romantic."

"Think of the guys you can now impress with the scar you're likely to end up with from that bullet wound."

"Do, please, consider yourself welcome at the head of that line."

Someone shouted: "Hello!"

"Hello, yourself!" Dane shouted back to whom he considered one very cheeky gunman. Except....

"I think that's Mr. Candly," Helen ventured, "and I can't believe he's our shooter."

"Mr. Who?" Dane wanted to know.

"I thought I heard gunfire," Mr. Candly yelled.

Dane saw him, now. An elderly Englishman, probably in his late sixties. Prone to tweeds and a walking stick, the latter with an eagle-head handle carved from a hunk of ivory that would have had environmentalists' hackles standing on end. Distinguished looking, if anyone should ask. Right at home at a grouse hunt, even if he didn't obviously appear to have a gun. What's more, it hadn't been any sixty-year-old man who had physically taken on Dane the previous evening.

"Someone shot Miss Mallory," Dane said.

"Surely not!" Mr. Candly very well sounded as if he couldn't believe that were really true.

Mr. Candly kept standing ramrod straight. He looked this way and that: an omnipotent Wellington surveying the battlefield. Napoleon would have never found a more perfect target at any turkey shoot.

* * * *

TWO HOURS LATER, Helen joined Dane at a hotel parapet. Far below, a toy-like train didn't disgorge its usual tourists. All potential sightseers had been detrained in Cuzco to make room for the inspector and his accompanying military contingent who looked ant-like as they all jockeyed to get into the vans that would bring them up the mountain.

"How's the arm?" Dane inquired of Helen.

"The hole will make a nice finger-muff on cold evenings." She offered him her drink. "I don't think alcohol goes with tetracycline."

He took her glass and sipped vodka/tonic.

How long was he going to be stuck on this mountain? There was no leaving prematurely without someone pointing a curious-as-to-why finger directly at his exiting tail.

"Tell the inspector, first thing, that you expect him to call in a qualified doctor to take care of your arm," Dane instructed. "Let that get infected, and you're at risk of ending up dead after all."

"And what exactly do I tell the inspector about your gun--if anything?"

Warning lights went off in Dane's head. "I've carried one ever since a grizzly tried to walk off with me at Rainier National Park, one holiday." An exaggeration, to be sure.

"I see." Convinced? "I couldn't help notice you put the gun away before Mr. Candly saw it. I thought, maybe, well...."

"You thought right." He was glad they had established enough of a rapport for her to think, now, before she acted. "The inspector will point out how there are no grizzlies in Peru." Actually, he knew of no grizzlies in Rainier Park, either.

"I wouldn't want to get you in trouble. You were, after all, defending me, gun-drawn. You might like to know I have no intentions of mentioning you were armed."

"Thanks." The gun was clean, issued out of a Company "store" in Cuzco, but a non-Company inspector would want to know how Dane got it and why.

The vans, with their newly acquired contents, began the winding drive up the hill.

"Maybe we should find you a chair?" he suggested. "You're a woman wounded, remember?"

"And mercy me, I don't think I can take one more step without a gentlemanly arm on which to lean," Helen used her best southern drawl. She batted long eyelashes over expressive eyes and smiled up at him.

They detoured around a small group of standing fellow hotel guests just as one dropped his liquor glass with a crash.

Everyone jumped like dancers of The Time Warp from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The guy choked. But on what? An olive? An ice cube? The Hotel de Turistas wasn't known for its martinis, and only a very brave man would risk the disconcerting possible medical consequences of drinking the local water--frozen or otherwise.

"Can you talk?" Dane asked. Someone choking supposedly couldn't talk. Ask Dane who, last night, in his grapple on that very mountaintop, had become a leading authority.

"I can't breathe," the guy grunted. Name of Timothy Something-or-other. He'd checked into the hotel immediately after Dane. He'd tried to start up a friendly conversation at the time, but Dane hadn't been anxious to get chummy with anyone.

There'd been something Timothy said, at the time, about backpacking the Inca Road. "I ... can ... not ... breathe!" he repeated, louder and with more emphasis. His face went from blue to dark purple and he wobbled on his feet.

Mr. Potter, at Mrs. Potter's insistence, grabbed hold and proceeded to perform the Heimlich Maneuver, in spite of Dane's warning that you didn't necessarily use it if the subject was coherent; if you did, you risked breaking ribs for nothing. Not that Mr. Potter got in more than one quick squeeze before Timothy converted to dead-weight. Mr. Potter, not up to holding on, but reluctant to let go, collapsed right along with the man to whom he was attempting to give succor. The old man's cry of pain wasn't pretty as his knees hit hard ground and broken glass. Except, no one paid any attention to Mr. Potter; Timothy, the continued star of the moment, began foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog.

Dane looked for something to keep the guy from biting off his tongue. Before he could come up with anything, though, the need for it was over.

Timothy stopped convulsing, went rigid as a poker, then went all limp, and that was that. No need for follow-up CPR or mouth-to-mouth. There was no more prefect example of a dead man this side of Roger Kimlery.

Mrs. Potter fainted. No one paid her much mind, not even her husband who--down on bloodied and bruised knees--had problems of his own.

Someone screamed: it was Mrs. Candly, the way Dane later figured.

Mrs. Simpson's mouth was agape and only capable of making little hissing sounds.

The hotel staff, manager included, stood around wide-eyed, obviously without the foggiest notion as to what to do. Bodies, snipers, deaths, pandemonium, and hysteria, obviously weren't included in any of their areas of expertise.

* * * *

CAPITÁN RODRÍGUEZ DE MANTÁÑEZ had started out from Cuzco with instructions to investigate a murder at Machu Picchu. En route, he'd been handed a message that there was now, suddenly, a sniper loose on the mountain in question, shooting at--or having shot--two U.S. tourists. Good-bye lucrative U.S. tourist dollars!

At Machu Picchu, he was immediately greeted by one dead man gone purple and sprawled upon the hotel verandah; one woman (dead?) a few feet away from the downed man; another woman wounded; another man down on his knees, wailing like a banshee. That was all before he even got his first glimpse of the bird-pecked corpse (male?) almost totally concealed beneath a rock pile off in the Inca ruins.


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