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Death is forever, p.1
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       Death is Forever, p.1

           Elizabeth Lowell
Death is Forever




  (Originally published as The Diamond Tiger)


  Jessica Aird,

  my source down under

  And for


  for all the usual reasons,

  plus love



  Abe Windsor better be dead or I’ll bloody well kill…


  “Two people died getting this to me.”


  The polestar shimmered above tundra, river, and mountains alike, providing…


  “How long ago did the two Chinese assassins die?”


  Despite the dense legal language, Cole Blackburn only had to…


  Cole’s Qantas flight had been forced to land from the…


  At one corner of the Beverly Wilshire’s crowded lobby, Erin…


  For a long time Erin stood motionless, staring at the…


  People don’t walk up to you and hand you a…


  Late-afternoon light burned through the west-facing windows of the hotel…


  Cole Blackburn sat with his feet on the map table,…


  Erin was on her way out of the hotel room…


  Erin sat in the window seat of her new hotel…


  Cole drove erratically, first slow, then too fast. It was…


  “I’ve been attending funerals.” Chen Wing’s voice was thinned by…


  “For this I packed my cameras and clothes and sent…


  Hugo van Luik passed down the long hallway like a…


  Erin looked up from the remnants of her dinner as…


  “I still think you should let me take you to…


  Using the bathtub faucet Cole repeatedly rinsed blood from his…


  Hugo van Luik sat in the half-light of his study,…


  Derby had the feel of a town on the downhill…


  Cursing steadily but too softly for Erin to hear, Cole…


  Cole and Erin found the Great Northern Highway in late…


  Cole came awake before the first stars began fading from…


  After hours spent dodging stock along the Great Northern Highway,…


  Erin awoke disoriented, wondering where she was.The steamy heat,…


  Angrily Erin walked to the bedroom. Lai knows where Your…


  To Erin it seemed like a long time before the…


  Broodingly Erin unfolded another panel of the map, held It…


  “No,” Matthew Windsor said. “Street has worked too many sides…


  Hugo van Luik had forgotten how godforsaken diamond grounds and…


  Dawn was a silent tidal wave of heat and savage…


  When Cole came back out to the table, Erin was…


  Cole checked out the helicopter and started it up. The…


  Sunlight and humidity turned the Rover into a fourwheel-drive sauna.


  Cole braked just before the track twisted away from the…


  The Rover slowed to a stop in a patch of…


  Dog Four was behind Erin and Cole. When they finally…


  Erin looked at the contents of the rucksack Cole had…


  Thirst was their savage companion. It was more consuming than…


  After sunset Cole pulled down the canopy and spread it…


  An hour after dawn Erin watched the campfire flicker beneath…


  With hands that trembled, Cole picked up the old tin.


  Slowly Cole shifted his right hand to one of the…


  The ladder closest to the surface was buried in a…


  Rain fell in sheets and torrents over the bubble canopy…


  “It was good of you to come here,” Chen Wing…


  Like the multicolored foam of a breaking wave, a curling…







  Western Australia


  Abe Windsor better be dead or I’ll bloody well kill him myself.

  Jason Street’s thought was both promise and prayer. He’d had plenty of time for both in the ten hours since the call had come in from his spy at Crazy Abe’s station in Western Australia. Street had spent every minute of the time since then trying to get to the desolate station and the Sleeping Dog Mines. Four hours on a chartered flight from Perth followed by endless black hours behind the wheel of the battered Toyota Land Cruiser, pushing the vehicle at reckless speeds over dirt tracks, racing toward one of the most isolated areas on the continent.

  It wasn’t the brutal drive that fed Street’s fury. It was the fear that more than a decade of his patience and cunning had gone up the spout, wiped out by a savage old man’s insanity.

  Above the land the Southern Cross faded from the sky, slowly overwhelmed by the yellow violence of the rising sun. The daybreak temperature along the southeastern edge of the Kimberley Plateau was 87 degrees Fahrenheit. As the sun rose, so did the temperature. The brutal torrent of light revealed clumps of grasslike spinifex and stunted gum trees, red dust and occasional outcroppings of stone. And over all was the sun, always the sun, the only true inhabitant of Western Australia.

  Stones ricocheted like pistol shots off the undercarriage of the straining vehicle. Lurching, skidding, bucking, the Toyota fought its way over a road that existed more in the driver’s mind than on the dry surface of the land itself.

  Street had no doubt of his course. He’d spent ten years going to and from Crazy Abe’s station, trying to tease and wheedle and cozen the old man’s secret out of him. After all those years Street was certain of only one thing—if Crazy Abe’s secret was still within the reach of pain, Street would have it before the Southern Cross rose above Australia again.

  In an explosion of dust, the Toyota shot over the top of a low rise. Ahead lay Abe’s meager station. The old man’s possessions were spread out like wreckage across several acres of flat, barren land. There was a ramshackle tin-roof house, a few sun-scoured outbuildings, tractors consumed by rust and misuse, broken mining equipment, discarded four-wheel-drive trucks, and the remains of a World War II RAAF Dakota that had crashed within sight of the station a few months before V-J Day.

  Suddenly a glistening, noisy, and very modern helicopter leaped into the sky just beyond the house’s tin roof. Street stood on the brakes, bringing the Toyota to a shuddering stop. When the helicopter banked and passed overhead with its red belly beacon flashing, he searched for identifying marks. He expected to see the shield of the
Western Australia State Police, the insignia of the Australian Defense Forces, or even the logo of the Flying Doctor Service.

  The sleek sides of the helicopter were blank, anony mous as an egg. The owners were no more interested in advertising their presence at Abe Windsor’s station than was Street himself.

  Furious and fearful at the same time, he slammed his fist against the steering wheel. Then he rammed the Toyota into gear and drove headlong down the hill. As the vehicle skidded to a stop in the loose red earth near Abe’s shack, he rolled out and dropped to the dirt, a cocked semiautomatic pistol in his hand. Moving with the precision of a commando, he slid from the cover of the vehicle to the shelter of a rusty stamp mill and from there to the protection of a corner of the house.

  He risked a quick glimpse through a dirty window. A single paraffin lamp guttered in the big room of the station house. A barefoot corpse lay beneath a tattered piece of canvas on the long table in the center of the room. The only thing moving was the outback’s customary plague of flies.

  Cursing through clenched jaws, Street discarded caution and used his heavy boot like a battering ram. The upper hinge of the door popped out of the casement, the latch broke, and the door swung open drunkenly.

  The smell of old death rolled out into the sultry yard.

  Street looked at the room over the barrel of his pistol.

  Nothing looked back.

  Gagging at the smell, he walked to the table and flipped up one corner of the tarp, setting off a cloud of flies. Judging by the condition of the corpse, Abe Windsor had been dead for some time. Even allowing for the heat and humidity of the October buildup toward the “wet,” Street guessed the old man had been dead for at least three days, maybe more. But there was no doubt that it was Abe Windsor who lay beneath the tarp. The heavy ridge of scar on his left wrist had resisted decay better than the softer flesh around it.

  Street turned away with an exclamation of disgust and glanced at the room without a lot of hope. He doubted that the occupants of the helicopter had left behind anything except flies. But he might have surprised them before they’d finished searching everything on the station.

  Grimacing, breathing carefully through his mouth, Street turned back to the corpse. He pulled the dirty undershirt open and looked for the worn velvet pouch that Abe had always worn around his skinny neck.

  The pouch was gone.

  With a seething curse, Street went to the unpainted wooden shelf next to Abe Windsor’s rocking chair. The battered tin box was missing too.

  “So you went for your last walk in the bush, did you, you old wanker?” Street said savagely to the corpse. “Did you take that bloody box with you like always? Did your secret die out there in the bush with you? And who in hell was watching you besides me?”

  There was no answer but death’s hideous grin. For an instant Street was sure the old man was still alive, still mocking him.

  “You knew what I was after the whole time, didn’t you? Christ, but you loved stuffing me around. Sod you, old man. You’re dead and I’m not.”

  Tiny sounds came from beyond the kitchen door as decaying floorboards shifted.

  Someone was headed out of the house.

  Street spun and dashed through the doorway into the gloomy kitchen. He was quick enough to catch a flicker of movement as a dark-clad figure slipped through the back door. Sounds came again, the soft, rapid thud of bare feet fleeing over sun-baked earth.

  Street leaped to the open door and tripped a quick shot. The bullet caught the fleeing man a few feet before he reached the corner of an outbuilding. He jerked and sprawled facedown in the dirt.

  Cautiously Street approached the man and checked for weapons. Nothing. He stood and rolled the man over with one booted foot. Chu, Abe’s cook, squinted up at Street through eyes that swam with pain. Street pointed the gun at a spot between the cook’s eyes.

  “Where’s the box, you thieving Chink?”

  Chu hissed through his teeth, his face contorted with pain, and said nothing.

  “Listen up.” Street ground down on Chu’s wounded shoulder with the flat sole of his boot. “Where’s the box and the velvet sack?”

  Chu groaned and said something in Chinese, a plea or a curse or both at once.

  Street bore down harder with his foot. From the corner of his eye he caught a hint of movement as someone lunged toward him from the cover of the outbuilding. Reflexively Street’s head turned toward the new attacker.

  The instant Street’s attention was divided, Chu doubled up and aimed a kick at the Australian’s crotch.

  The two prongs of the attack were so swift and so well-coordinated that Street knew immediately he’d fallen into a trap laid by professionals. His own reaction was equally quick and deadly. He fired point blank at Chu and at the same time twisted so the cook’s kick was off the mark.

  In the split second before the heavy bullet struck, Chu’s heel thudded harmlessly into Street’s muscular thigh. Street continued the twisting motion, throwing himself off to the side and bringing his gun to bear on the remaining attacker. As Street hit the ground, he triggered two shots at the second attacker. Both shots missed, but Street’s action avoided a head-high kick that would have smashed his skull.

  The attacker flew past Street, who was still in the midst of his defensive roll. When Street landed on his belly, he twisted again and calmly shot the attacker twice in the back. Something about the single exclamation of pain and the fall told Street that the attacker was a woman, and that she was dead before she hit the ground.

  Even as the information registered in his brain, he was rolling again, anticipating another attacker. He came to his feet in a crouch, his back to a wall and his pistol covering the entire station yard.

  Fifty meters away a flock of pale cockatoos, startled by the shots, called noisily among the stunted trees. After a few moments the cockatoos settled back onto their perches, leaving the silence of death to spread unbroken over Abe Windsor’s station. All that moved were the flies, as though the searing October sunlight had wings.

  Quickly Street checked the bodies of the two people he’d just killed. No sign of the tin box or the velvet bag. He went over the bodies again, hoping to discover who had sent them and why.

  Neither Chu nor the Chinese woman carried anything that might identify them: no papers, no clothing labels, no weapons.

  Frowning, Street sat on his haunches and studied the two dead bodies. Chu had been at the station for years now, but Street had never noticed the calluses on the cook’s hands and feet. They belonged to a highly trained fighter, not to a simple scut worker. The woman’s hands were similarly hardened. The two Chinese had worked as a team, a team that had been prepared to kill or die.

  Now they were dead and Street was no closer to knowing who they’d worked for than he was to Crazy Abe’s diamond mine.

  Street spat on the red earth, then turned his back on the bodies. There was little chance that anything of value remained, but after a decade of watching the mousehole, he wouldn’t let frustration make him overlook any chance at all. It was just possible that the box containing the old man’s doggerel and his will were still hidden on the station.

  The stench in the house hadn’t changed.

  Street went through the place with the practiced motions of a man who had searched those same rooms many, many times before. As always, nothing new turned up. Nor did the tin box. Wiping dirt and sweat from his eyes, he went to stand over the corpse of the old man who had evaded him in death as he had in life.

  “Ten years of ‘Chunder from Down Under,’” Street snarled, his voice low in his throat. “Ten years of your stink and your sly laughter. To hell with you, Abe Windsor. And to hell with whoever inherits the Sleeping Dog Mines.”


  Northern Territory, Australia


  “Two people died getting this to me.”

  Cole Blackburn looked at the small worn velvet bag in Chen Wing’s hand and asked, “Was
it worth it?”

  “You tell me.”

  With a swift motion Wing emptied the contents of the bag onto the ebony surface of his desk. Light rippled and shifted as nine translucent stones tumbled over one another with tiny crystalline sounds. The first impression was of large, very roughly made marbles that had been chipped and pitted by use. Nine of the thirteen stones were colorless. Three were pink. One was the intense green of a deep river pool.

  Cole’s hand closed over the green marble. It was as big as the tip of his thumb and surprisingly heavy for its size. He rubbed it between his fingers. The surface had an almost slippery feel, as though it had been burnished with precious oils. He turned the stone until he found a flat, cleanly chipped face. He bathed it with his breath.

  No moisture collected on the smooth green surface.

  Excitement stabbed through Cole. Without a word he walked to a liquor cart that stood against a nearby wall. He picked up a heavy leaded crystal glass and glanced at Wing, who nodded. Cole brought the green stone down the side of the glass in a single swift stroke.

  The stone scratched the glass easily and deeply. The stone itself wasn’t marked.

  At random Cole picked up other stones from the desk and drew them down the crystal surface. New scratches formed. The stones themselves remained untouched. He pulled a well-worn jeweler’s loupe from his pocket, angled the desk light to his satisfaction, picked up the deep green stone, and examined it.

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