Tale of the Thunderbolt Chapter Five

The Specter's Lands: From the jagged course of Jamaica's Southern Shore to the spine of the Blue Mountains, the Specter's domain casts its invisible shadow over this sunny land. The Jamaicans somehow know when they walk within his borders; they grow nervous and sullen. No great wonder, for they have been returned to the slavery of three centuries ago. They work tiny plots of cultivated ground that form islands amongst the riotous growth of returned wild trees and grasslands. Viewed from a buzzard's eye high above, the topography resembles that of a tangle of grapevines, dollops of tended lands connected by one or two main roads. Smaller trails cut through patches of forest, with the vine's principal stalks growing out of what used to be Kingston. A few swaths cut in the red earth of the hills at the bauxite mines yield the makings of aluminum. This export is shipped north and west in return for the few technological necessities the Specter needs to maintain his control.

Slave labor, carried out at a dead slow pace, tends the fields in this, one of the most backwards and ill-governed of the multitude of Kurian Principalities. Organization is nil. Construction is moribund, maintenance haphazard. Technology, with the exception of the bauxite mines (under rust-streaked signs with the word JAMALCO sometimes still visible) and the guns in the hands of the Specter's Chinese Quislings, has slipped back into a stage somewhere between the Neolithic implements of the Arakawa Indians and the eighteenth century. It is not unusual to see the land worked

by stone tools, before the slaves go home to rude huts lit by charcoal fires. The Jamaicans have resorted to an atavistic belief system filled with good-luck charms, incantations, and totemism to keep the Reapers from the door. Rocks or coral painted with designs in chicken blood can be seen on some doorsteps, below patterned threads of beads that sway in every window. Some families never eat after noon, in the not unreasonable belief that an empty belly makes the body less visible to the Reapers' senses. The Reapers, in the manner of wild predators, usually pick off the aged, the sick, or the few who try to flee. The Specter's cloaked avatars often lurk on the beaches and borders, taking those who try to escape over the mountains or into the cockpit country of the Northwest.

While the Reapers isolate and then kill individual troublemakers, any sort of mass disturbance is a matter for the Horsed Police and Public Police. With their intimidating combination of horses, dogs, guns, and clubs, the Specter uses them in one of the oldest tricks in the tyrant's playbook: that of keeping one race under control by using another. The Horsed Police are of mixed ethnicity: Chinese Jamaican and Indian Jamaican predominating. They control the more numerous but less disciplined members of the Public Police, little more than baton-waving bands of thugs, but effective enough in controlling the workers on their plantations. The great privilege of the Public Police is being allowed to use small boats to claim the cod, rock beauties, and parrotfish from the surrounding waters, though their better-fed families suffer nearly as much from the Reapers as the ordinary Jamaicans who work the crops and mines.

The Specter rests at the apex of this pyramid of power and fear, an engorged demigod swollen on the rich life aura of the island's fecund people. Cunning as a grave robber, for forty years he has jealously guarded his island paradise, turning down overtures of fellow Kurian Princes to join him on the island, and one attempt to wrest it from him by force. From a European-style castle overlooking a wide bay he

feeds off one of the first discoveries of the New World as a maggot feeds off a corpse, decomposing anything he touches like a necroptic King Midas. With only the irritation of pirates to the north and a few scattered gangs in the mountains, hardly enough to threaten him even in the unlikely event that they united, one could wonder if he would have given the news that there was a Cat on the island much thought, so secure is he in his habits, behind his walls guarded by a thousand guns and the ferocious teeth of his Reapers.

It took all of three days for David Valentine to cross a 1,200-yard field. In fairness, the first day hardly counted: it had been spent surveying the estate's lands. The more rugged ground sloping down toward the bay turned into fields and orchards closer to the castle. A road servicing the Kurian's home wandered westward along the coast and eastward toward a settlement centered in the ruins of a beautiful Colonial Spanish square. The immediate lands beyond the castle's pebble-colored faces were filled with tobacco fields, stretching out from the walls like a green carpet. The distinctive odor tickled his sensitive nostrils as he allowed his nose a moment's play in the air from his perch in a palm. He had surveyed farms with staple crops, fruit trees, and livestock, but this was the first tobacco field he had seen since being dropped off by Utari's fast-sailing sloop.

The first order of business was to get a feel for the rhythms of the castle's lands, filling in gaps in the knowledge of local spies.

The Specter relied on his Reapers to guard the castle and the tobacco fields at night; Valentine had made sure of that after the second day's observation. Ordinary Jamaicans avoided the acres around the castle as if the air were toxic. Women dressed in neat cotton smocks or heavy black dresses worked the Specter's personal fields and orchards as their children played amongst the crops. Valentine guessed by the quality of their clothing and shoes that they were fam-

ilies of his Horsed Police. They worked in a curiously lackadaisical, though not disorganized, manner. Valentine had seen many fields where the people under the Kurian thumb worked with the maniacal intensity brought on by knowing that whoever turned in fewer bushels at the end of a season would go to the Reapers.

The Reapers, with their innate ability to sense human beings by the lifesign they projected, could spot anyone approaching the castle at night across the fields. Thus had the brave Jamaican band died the night they came to kill the Specter. The men might as well have approached the castle shooting off Roman candles. At night a cluster of humans could be marked miles away by a prowling Reaper. Even a lone man would show up in the empty fields as if a spotlight were shining on him from one of the four corner towers.

But Valentine was another matter. The Lifeweaver training of six years as a Hunter had taught him to shield his life-sign through mental discipline, a practice of shutting down parts of his mind until he became intent as a prowling cat, thinking only of the furtive scratching of the rat in the drainpipe ahead. Once in the proper mental state, it was as if a skeleton wearing his body were performing on a stage, mar-ionetted by invisible strings from himself somewhere in a balcony above. Jamaica's tropical growth and abundant animal life generated its own form of lifesign, masked him from the prowling Reapers, and allowed him to remain at the edge of the fields in comparative safety.

He had another ability, equally useful but less explicable, even to the seemingly all-knowing Lifeweavers who had selected and trained him. Valentine could sense a nearby Reaper, mirroring its own ability to detect lifesign, though his own senses were far less precise than those of the vam-piric Reapers. He once described the sensation to Alessa Du-valier as akin to "feeling where the sun is with your eyes shut." Though to be more accurate, it felt more like a cold presence in his mind, the creepy alarm that most people experience sometime in their lives when they wake up sud-

denly with the fear that someone is in their bedroom. The ability was unpredictable: sometimes he could sense a Reaper moving on a wooded slope a mile away, but other times walk over one sleeping in a basement below him with only a vague feeling of unease. In the absence of any authoritative opinion, he formed a theory that his ability had to do with the mental connection between the Reaper and its Master Kurian, but like most theories, it was probably half-right at best. Anecdotal evidence suggested there were others like him. Stories filtered in from elsewhere about other Hunters with the talent, but he had never met one and compared notes.

From the uncomfortable cradle of a palm tree, he spent the second night concentrating on lowering his lifesign and sensing the Reapers' movements. For what the sense was worth-and the more precise evidence of eyes, ears, and nose during his observation-he determined that the Specter loosed two Reapers to prowl his lands at night. One watched from the castle tower nearest the road. As would be expected, they retired with the dawn before the first women appeared on the road from the old colonial town.

He spent the third day in a long, agonizing crawl into the tobacco fields. Burdened by Ahn-Kha's oversize gun and decorated with some of the broad leaves cut from the crop, he inched through the fields at a speed a determined beetle could pace.

The crawl, punctuated by drowsy half-naps in the shadow of the tobacco stalks, gave him time to reflect on his plans. It was long past the point where he could change them, but his mind was nonetheless plagued with worries that he barred from his nighttime meditations.

What if the Thunderbolt was delayed in its journey? Her diesels were reliable but so ancient, a breakdown could not be discounted. How long could he stretch his two canteens, one now containing only a mouthful of water or two, in Jamaica's heat?

He might be able to hide his lifesign from Reapers, but he

had seen lean brown dogs chasing and playing with the children as their families worked. Suppose one scented him and started barking? His cumbersome, single-shot Grog gun would be almost worthless in a running fight with the Horsed Police.

Could he get close enough to the castle so he could be sure of the leaf-sights on the rifle? Some unknown pirate of the commodore's command had looted the gun's telescopic lens, which would have allowed him to take advantage of its range. ("I'm sorry," Carrasca had said, "but any kind of optics are almost priceless here." A strict inquiry among the crew had yielded nothing but shrugs.)

He had spent two nights awake and taken only brief naps in the day. Suppose he fell asleep lying amongst the tobacco stalks on the most dangerous night of all? One vivid dream or a sudden awakening would reveal him to the patrolling Reapers, and that would be the end of him: even the toughest Bear would not challenge multiple Reapers alone at night.

Alone, with only fear to keep him company, he slithered beneath the tobacco leaves. He wished for the comfort of Ahn-Kha's presence. But Ahn-Kha was off to the east somewhere with his Grogs and some Jamaican friends of Captain Utari's, hiding from the comment their appearance would excite.

Post was resting in the old auxiliary hospital ship on the other side of the island, and the rest of his shipmates in the Thunderbolt were beyond the horizon. The Jamaicans could be trusted to keep secrets from the Police and the Specter's henchmen, but undoubtedly there were a few spies in the community. Suppose one should learn of their presence, and a hunt ensue?

Right now the Specter thought himself secure, but at the first word of a plot, he would retreat to his deepest hole guarded by the fury of a dozen Reapers, with his mounted men riding to his aid from every station for miles around. What then?

Valentine wanted to succeed, not just for the sake of regaining use of the Thunderbolt, but also for the aging commodore's hopes. There was more to his dream of a free Jamaica than space for his polyglot of buccaneers and refugees. A new freehold in the Caribbean in alliance with the Dutchmen to the south might mean much to the larger struggle.

His final plan had come to him only after hearing a description of the Specter's refuge.

"Some old British Empire mon build d' ting," Captain Utari explained, his cadence as rolling as the sea he traveled on, going on oral tradition and boyhood memory. "It 'twas like out of d' history book, high walls and towers at d' corner. For years 'twas empty, but de Specter, he brought it back and set it all up to his likin'. Dey say he do as much diggin' as buildin' an' it has basements an' catacombs beneath. You can see de ol' Devil at times, up on his balcony or the towers, watchin' us an' seein' to deem."

By us and deem the captain meant the Jamaicans and the Asian master caste the Specter had imposed upon them. On further inquiry, Valentine learned that the balcony faced the sea, looking out on a wide bay. The description transformed his vague idea into a plan. He talked it over, first with Ahn-Kha, and then with the Grog's refinements put a finished plan before the triumvirate of the commodore, Lisi, and Car-rasca.

He stopped his crawl three-quarters of the way across the field. Any closer, and his view of the balcony would be disturbed. Captain Utari's description of the castle was accurate enough, though Valentine had always pictured medieval style castles as being much larger-he had seen pre-Kur houses nearly as big as this walled hold. But close up, he could see why the Specter chose this building for his lair. The towers, the narrow windows, the heavy stonework, even its grim, isolated location would appeal to a Kurian.

Nothing but the insects disturbed him during the long, drowsy day in the field. The sun sank, the stars emerged, and

Valentine removed his mind from his body. Again the Reaper patrolled the edges of the fields as another stood in the tower, its head turning this way and that like a watchful owl. A curious fit of optics made the stars around the figure dimmer as Valentine stared, as if the thing were drawing the energy even from the twinkling star field. The Undertaker blew fitfully off the mountains, neither as strong nor as pleasant as its daytime sibling. An afternoon rain shower had left him cold and even more uncomfortable rather than refreshed, and the omnipresent flies and ants took their turns at disturbing bis self-hypnosis.

Dawn approached, and a heavier rain set in, something Carrasca had assured him was almost unknown at this time of year. Valentine cursed the rain, the poor visibility, and Carrasca's meteorological acumen at dripping length. But with the sun, the clouds thinned and dissolved, fleeing in a burst of sky-flaming color.

The Reaper retreated with the growing light of dawn. Valentine, muscles aching, fought the urge to rise, to try to gain a view of the bay that would allow him to see if the Thunderbolt approached. Her blockish ugliness would be a comfort to him, and if things went badly-what the commodore called "tits up"-the gunboat's cannon could throw the coastline into enough confusion to allow him to escape.

The women on their way to their day's work in the fields saw her first. Valentine watched them point and chatter, suffusing a warm wave of relief through his clammy body. He pressed Ahn-Kha's gun to his shoulder and checked the slide of the sight for the umpteenth time.

The gun rested in an improvised bipod, a screwed-together contraption the Chief designed to help him with the weight of the gun. He had tied lengths of creeper to the barrel, careful not to obscure the foresight, over the dingy and green leather covering Ahn-Kha had sewn over the barrel. The gnarled, shillelagh-like stock was built for the Grog's larger frame, but Valentine padded the end with canvas stuffed with sawdust so it fit snugly into the crook of his

arm. He opened the bolt and slid one of the .50-caliber bullets into the breech.

At this range, even firing upward, Ahn-Kha's shells would have a nearly flat trajectory. Valentine breathed slowly and deeply. He'd heard that the Kurians could sense lifesign as easily as their Reapers, but precise information was scanty. With the waxing dawn he knew that detection would grow even more difficult: sunlight interfered with whatever waves humans emitted. He tried not to wonder what was transpiring in the dark castle. No doubt some daytime sentry had alerted his officer, who would have a look, then perhaps pass the word of the Thunderbolt's arrival to one of the Specter's retinue.

Valentine bet his life, so to speak, on the Kurian coming himself. The Specter would wonder what the Thunderbolt's appearance portended. The Kur of New Orleans might have told him that their ship would be operating in his waters, but would he trust their word? She could mean the arrival of an ally in his on-again, off-again war with the pirates on the north coast, or an attempt by some other Kurian to supplant him and take the plentiful aura-fodder of the island.

By the plan, Carrasca was to bring the Thunderbolt into the bay and put troops into her boats. The Kurian would be eager to see, from his faraway vantage, whether the approaching men would behave as friends or foes.

The fortress came to life. Valentine watched two horsemen gallop out from behind the castle, one riding hard for the town, and the other turning on the road west. As the riders galloped away, hanging on to their mounts' manes, three torsos appeared on the tower. They changed from silhouettes to figures in the growing light. One held a box with a high antenna waving back and forth in the confused airs that preceded the Doctor's offshore breeze.

Valentine hardened his eyes as the figures went to the edge of the balcony. He sighted down the barrel with his own telescopic vision. The view sharpened, detail springing to life as his visual sense came at his will. The three figures

became individual portraits. One was undoubtedly a Reaper, hood pulled well over its head to ward off the morning sun, another a rail-thin black figure, perhaps a Jamaican. Between those two, a fleshy, sagging form emerged. The first Kurian Valentine was to hunt reminded him of a Buddha in flesh instead of bronze. Though the Kurians, like their Lifeweaver brethren, could appear as Eve's serpent or Abraham Lincoln if they wished. But this Kurian, for whatever reason, did not choose to put much effort into his human form. Hairless, with skin as gray as a corpse, it seemed to float to the balcony rather than walk. Valentine moved the rifle a fraction of an inch, putting the foresight squarely in the center of the Kurian's sagging chest. He placed his finger on the trigger and looked into the face of evil.

Valentine felt a shudder creep up his spine as their eyes met over the distance. The Kurian read him and his intent in a flash of thought. Valentine's mind clouded-he felt a rush of vertigo as if he were standing before an abyss. A kaleidoscope of color coalesced, filling his vision, a mental fog of chaos from which he would not return.

He squeezed the trigger as he felt his will fleeing. The recoil of the shot jarred his frame, startled him like a slap in the face, breaking the psychic link. As through a haze he saw a wound blossom at the Buddha statue's throat. The Specter's jaw dropped open in a silent, gaping scream even as the kick of the huge bullet flung it backwards, misting the back of the balcony with purplish fluid. But the disguise stayed. For a moment Valentine feared that even Ahn-Kha's bullet, big enough to drop an elephant, would not kill it, but then the head lolled. It sagged forward again, as if it were mounted on a rocking chair, and collapsed into something that looked like an umbrella with a bulbous octopus head at the top. Valentine heard a faint splat as it fell.

The Cat lay still, fighting the instinct to get up and flee. He knew his single shot would be hard to locate from any kind of distance. So he waited for the collapse he expected to begin.

The Kurian no longer animated the Reaper; the cloaked figure stalked the balcony to slay in animal panic. It seized the thin man by the throat, popping off the Jamaican's head even as its mouth sank against the neck. Blood fountained, sprinkling the Reaper, the rail, and the castle wall as the beast dragged its victim into the shadows.

While daylight lasted, Valentine had little to fear from the fiends now prowling the halls of the castle. With the link to the Kurian gone, the Reapers inside would mindlessly slay whoever remained behind the walls, and trouble no one until darkness came. Any Reapers wandering the lands of the Specter would probably do the same, grab a victim and retreat into a dark hole. Valentine felt a feral, id-tickling thrill at the thought of the fate of any of the Specter's Horsed Police sharing shelter with the vampires.

Eventually, and with proper organization, the masterless Reapers could be hunted and burned out of their holes. But that would have to come later.

He inched backwards among the tobacco plants. With chaos sitting in the Specter's throne, the Kurian's realm would totter and be ripe for the taking. It was time for him and Ahn-Kha to hasten its fall. As he crawled between the stalks, the freshly fed Reaper at the door to the balcony shielded its face from the morning sun and retreated into shadow.

"So this is the Crying Man."

If Obay was over six feet, it was by the width of an eyelash. Nor did she have four breasts. There was enough flesh beneath her woven robes-like Joseph's composed of many hues-on her to make it look as though she had an extra set. She had liver-spotted skin the color of milky tea and a crinkled forehead, with gray-black hair drawn back in tight braids. Obay walked with the help of two men-sons, Valentine soon learned-and a pair of canes.

The Specter had been dead for twenty-two hours, and his regime was melting away like ice in the Caribbean sun. Cap-

tain Utari had brought Valentine and Ahn-Kha to a trailside village with mountains blue green in the background, mottled by the shadows of clouds. Faint sounds of gunfire echoed from the direction of the main road to Kingston. Armed Jamaicans of every description, from a blue-eyed Scandinavian or two to glossy African, filled every piece of shade in the village. Most carried machetes and a smattering of old rifles. The smell of roasting pigs, horsemeat, and corn came from clay or brick ovens and oil drums used as barbecues. 'Two of d' kernels bring d' men to Obay's call," Utari explained.

"Not enough. Not enough for the town I saw," Ahn-Kha said. He, the Thunderbolt's Grogs, and Utari's men had been hidden on the outskirts of Kingston.

"More come every day. Don't forget our people, an' de city folks. We've waiteed for de day of liberation. When Obay make her promeese-"

"Her prediction, you mean?" Valentine cut in.

"A 'prediction' from Obay is a promeese, Cryin' Mon. You d' proof."

They went into a whitewashed brick house at the center of the village's only street, sixty or seventy feet of asphalt flanked by gravel roads. By the shaded windowlight Valentine met the Kernels under a brightly painted ceiling mural of crops and trees and birds and frogs. The owner of the house welcomed them with hugs before she and her family went back to bobbing before Obay. There was an oddly dressed retinue to either side of the oracle. One wore what looked to be the final remnants of a priest's vestments; the other had gold tassels and yellow braiding sewn to the shoulder of a sleeveless green dress army coat.

"Thank you, boys," Obay said, after recognizing Valentine. She extended a hand. Valentine shook it, touching a heavy ring on her forefinger with a jewel the size of a pea.

He took another look, trying to read the script, as Ahn-Kha engulfed her hand in his long fingers.

"Yale. I would have been class of '23," Obay explained, sticking out her hand. The knuckles were enlarged with arthritis.

It was a pretty thing, but it looked like a man's. Valentine wasn't sure what to say, so he fell back on what his father used to ask the educated of the Old Order. "What did you study?"

"Pre-law. I buried the needle on my SATs."

"Essay T's?"

"S. A. Ts. Scholastic aptitude tests."

Valentine was flummoxed. "You had to do well on those to be allowed to learn? Sounds self-defeating."

"There's a long answer, but it's not important. Of course, it didn't hurt that my father was a vice president with General Mills. I started as a freshman with a major in Anthropology. Coddled rebellion. Then I got a taste of academics and college politics. I wised up by the end of my sophomore year. I switched to pre-law. With a history minor-I'd always enjoyed it, and you should take your share of fun those years."

"Never had the opportunity. Unless you count some classes at a shoestring war college. They didn't give out souvenirs."

Her sons helped her sit down on a bench. The assembly took their seats on chairs ringing the main room of the tiny house. Except for Ahn-Kha. The bench he tried let out such a groan that he shifted his buttocks forward to a comfortable squat with the bench as a backrest.

Obay looked down at her ring. "I was doing an internship in Boston when the Ravies hit. I ended up on a cleanup crew behind a guard unit. Loading bodies. Even martial law was breaking down-it didn't look like there'd be bar exams for a while. I saw the ring on a body-he had a suit worth a good three thousand dollars-and thought, what the hell."

"Boston's a long way from Jamaica."

"My father. Pulled every string with every man he'd ever known."

"Did he make it out with you?"

"He didn't even try. The airport was a nightmare. Gun battles between Boston Police and Massachusetts State Troopers and the National Guard. Nobody had orders. People crying, begging. I saw a man shoot himself right in front of his family."

She related her story without the shocked, vacant look that Valentine had seen on so many survivors of those days.

"I got flown down here with a bunch of children in a jet with enough fuel for a one-way trip. I guess there was a rumor that Jamaica was Ravies-free. A lot of the kids were sitting two and three to a seat. Babies crying. It was a frightening ride. The bombs were going off by then, and planes were dropping from the electromagnetic pulse. There was an army captain on board. Talked me and the kids through it. We ended up married just before I had my first boy."

She looked at the man in the vestments. Now that Valentine knew her face, he saw a hint of Obay around the son's eyes.

"Your visions are pretty accurate. A law firm could have used that, predicting a judge's decisions."

"Oh, that came later. Wasn't something I was born with. Given to me. I suspect you know a few Lifeweavers, too."

Valentine said nothing.

"One came to Jamaica. He had a small group of men-I suppose they were some kind of Special Forces. A mixture of Americans and British and Cuban soldiers, I think, going by the flags on the uniforms. The visit was brief; he was being chased."

The light broke through Valentine's doubts.

"I didn't understand much of what he had to say. I never even learned his name. Everyone called him 'the Brother.' It made him sound like a Mormon or an Amish or whoever that was that called each other that. Then I found out he was more like The Brother from Another Planet. He said I was going to be part of a new communications network. A biological one. They had me drink some kind of goop out of a tequila bottle, and I passed out for a few hours. When I came

around, the Brother character was speaking in my head. Soon as he saw I was alive and getting his words without him using his mouth, he started glowing and told the rest 'Obey her.' Pointing at me, you see. Then he and the soldiers left. It made an impression on the kids. Everyone kept looking at me and repeating 'Obey.' Duane, my captain, had us go into a town in the mountains.

"Whatever he did to me, it didn't quite take, at least in the way you'd think telepathy should work. I get strange images now and then. Visions, pictures-sounds sometimes. Just had an audio last week with a lot of gunfire and explosions. The vision about you, it was a gray ship that seemed to be made of thunderclouds, and I saw your face, clear as I see it now. Your friend, Mr. Ahn-Kha, he was part of the clouds, too, with lightning in his eyes and fingertips."

"What do you see for the future?"

"Nothing from the Brother. But the men my sons lead will take care of their end, if your ships can help us with the garrison in Kingston."

"Dey come. Dey come tomorrow, Obay," Utari said.

"And then what?" Valentine asked.

Obay looked at the ceiling. The island's panoply absorbed her for a moment; then she returned her eyes to Valentine. "A new Jamaica. For all the factions, I hope and pray. With the Specter gone, even the Cockpit Country might see reason."

"And you?"

Obay played with her ring, twirling it on the shrunken digit between the enlarged knuckles. "Might end up using the old law studies before I die after all. What kind of constitution do you folks operate under there in the Ozarks?"

"They're landing now."

Valentine looked down from his perch on a rooftop water tower at Kingston in turmoil. Two days after the death of the Specter, the Thunderbolt and a pair of three-mast clippers sailed into the harbor as though in a naval show. All three

ships were filled to overflowing with every willing man of the commodore's who could shoulder a rifle.

Faint booms came up from the docks. The Thunderbolt's gun systematically blasted the harbor defenses. The posts were manned by the few troops still obeying orders under the Horsed Police officer. According to the Kernels, a Horsed Police officer named Colonel Hsei had tried to take control of the Specter's organization.

Valentine and Ahn-Kha, through their Kingston contacts, probably knew more about Hsei's struggle to assume the reins than the warlord himself. Formerly in charge of the city's garrison, the colonel managed to keep many of his troops together, even as the Public Police vanished into the countryside. Valentine had to admire Hsei's execution, if not his methods. A storeroom beside the regimental stables held the bodies of rivals and subordinates who failed to agree with his plan for Jamaica's future.

The same grapevine passed word to the inhabitants of Kingston that with the arrival of the ships, the north side of the island would finish the liberation of the south. The sons of Obay guided Valentine and Ahn-Kha to the city, and the Jamaicans filled rooms and streets with men and women eager to meet "the Crying Man" who had delivered them from the Specter. As they moved from village to city, time after time Valentine felt the touch of eager hands, as if physical contact with him somehow guaranteed their freedom.

Now buildings burned, and the clatter of hooves and echoing shots told the tale of the rising city. Ever since Valentine's arrival, machete and club had been matched against horse and gun, but without the Specter's organization and Reapers, Hsei's command had begun to crack. The booming arrival of the Thunderbolt and the commodore's flotilla turned confusion into collapse.

Valentine, Ahn-Kha, and a group of armed Jamaicans had occupied what in the late world had been a professional building of some kind. It was three stories of whitewashed brick, with broad balconies servicing the network of rooms

inside. Until the Specter's death, it had been a barracks of the Public Police. Valentine chose it for its view of the city and of the main road north out of town. Equally useful for holding up reinforcements or Colonel Hsei's troops, its strategic location demanded occupation with what forces he could organize. The enthusiastic Jamaicans, led by men and women who had sprung seemingly from nowhere, had barricaded the highway before the building and lined the railings of the balconies with mattresses and furniture. Anyone trying to pass along the highway would hit the choke point and come under gunfire at a range that made skill superfluous.

Ahn-Kha looked out across the rooftops from beneath a straw hat and canvas parasol. Despite his fawn-colored fur and thick hide, he suffered from Jamaica's sun more than his bronze-skinned friend. They stood together on a tiny platform running around the edges of a rooftop watertower supplying the barracks.

"And the police, my David? How are they reacting?"

Valentine watched the Thunderbolt spit fire from her Oerlikon into a rusted crane, one of the harbor's few strong-points still fighting. A body, ant-size at the distance, plummeted from the tower.

"They're running. Looks like they have a dock secured. Polaris and Vega are being tied up to the docks-they didn't even have to send in boats. It's almost over."

"But not for us."

The Cat turned his gaze to the captain's compound. "It looks like Hsei has seen enough. Two trucks are being loaded up at headquarters. Horses too. Hell, they're firing into the mob again. Wait-yes, they are coming this way. The informants were right-he's going to run north toward the mountain stations. Better get your Grogs to the windows."

The Golden One picked up his long gun and moved to the roof-access ladder. Valentine watched the column for another minute, just to make certain of its direction. Hsei's

men had perhaps been unnerved. The group leaving the barracks was as much of a mob as the Jamaicans hurling rocks from the alleys.

He swung down from the water tower and jumped to the gravel-covered roof, careful to land on his good leg. The work ahead would be bloody; he hoped it would be brief. Allowing Colonel Hsei to escape into the countryside with even a nucleus of armed men might mean trouble for the commodore and the Jamaicans in the days ahead; it would take weeks to organize an occupation of the various stations, forts, and barracks strung out across the Specter's lands. In the meantime, others might rally around the colonel.

Picking up his old Russian-made gun with its drum clip, he hurried down to the first floor. Grinning Jamaicans all around brandished their weapons and called out to him in their local patois. He understood only a phrase or two.

"D' dundus comin', mon?"

"We cut dey bakra asses now!"

Valentine nodded to their officer and went out to the front of the building. He and Ahn-Kha walked the balconies, cutting a serpentine trail down to the first floor, nodding and clapping the Jamaicans on the shoulder. "Keep down and wait for the horn!" he said, over and over again until it became as much of a singsong as their greetings.

He looked out at the barricade from the first floor, where Ahn-Kha's Grogs waited, covering the street from the windows and doors of the front of the building. What had been a parking lot sloped down to the highway. Carts and wreckage had been arranged to force any traffic moving up the road to negotiate a hairpin turn. Valentine wanted the obstacle to look to be the result of accident rather than design, so Hsei would stick his neck well into the trap before it snapped shut.

Valentine knelt behind the walkway barricade and searched southward with his hard ears. He picked up the sound of diesels and hooves. He nodded to Ahn-Kha, who had been walking back and forth in front of his Grogs,

grunting out orders as he moved along the sidewalk fronting the shuttered windows. Ahn-Kha picked up a tarnished circular horn, an ancient foxhunting relic from Jamaica's colonial past. It had been gathering cobwebs on the wall of the barracks until one of the Grogs decided it would make an interesting headband.

The first horses reached the barricade, galloping pell-mell up the potholed road. Some fools fired from one of the upper levels, but neither the riders nor the horses took hit or heed. A horse vaulted over the frame of a broken sofa, unseating its rider. Valentine let the others pass and chambered a round in the PPD.

The first of the mass of riders trotted into view, coming up over a rise in the road like ships appearing over the horizon. Behind the clattering riders came the grinding gears of the two trucks and the higher pitched farting of a motorbike. Ahn-Kha barked something to his Grogs.

"Wait for the signal," Valentine said, loudly enough so it would carry to the balcony above him.

"Wait," he repeated.

The riders approached.

"Wait."

The Horsed Police slowed their horses to a walk as they saw the obstacles.

"Wait."

Now he could see the trucks: beds crammed with equipment, furnishings, and loot. Women and children, probably families of some of the Horsed Police, rode atop and among the cargo. Corrugated aluminum welded over the doors and windows protected the driver and passenger. A motorcycle with a sidecar puttered before the big diesels, but the sidecar held only a mound of possessions rather than a passenger ready to fire the machine gun mounted there. More soldiers jogged amongst the mob, already panting and casting aside their weapons in an effort to keep up with engines and horses. Strained, anxious faces in a dozen different skin

tones looked warily at the partially blocked road and to the buildings at either side.

The vanguard of horsemen did not like what they saw and called to their fellows, drawing rifles and shotguns from saddle sheaths.

Valentine nodded at Ahn-Kha, who blew into the circular horn. Its wavering wail filled the air.

Wide-shouldered Grogs filled the windows and doors of the first floor of the barracks. Valentine heard shots crack from above. Horses screamed and plunged as their riders turned tail, fell out of the saddle, or dismounted by flinging themselves to the ground.

Valentine dropped two uniformed Jamaicans shouting orders. The PPD chattered out its harsh coda as he aimed short bursts into the crowd. Ahn-Kha methodically fired his rifle into the aluminum-covered cabins of the vehicles. The .50-caliber rounds blasted thumb-size holes in the plating and slumped the drivers within.

Cartridges fell like brassy hail from the balconies above as the Jamaicans emptied their weapons into the mob.

The motorcycle roared to life. Its uniformed rider gunned it, expertly swerved around dying horses and between the barricades. The cyclist threw his hips off the saddle to counterweight the tight slalom. The colorful insignia on the rider's uniform tipped Valentine to his identity: Hsei. He fired a burst but missed the racing figure.

"Ahn-Kha! The motorcycle!" he shouted.

Ahn-Kha stood and took a round from his mouth. In battle, the Grog kept cartridges in his lips, tucked into his flexible ears, and between his knuckles. He closed the breech of his gun, sighted, and fired. The bullet's impact threw the rider bodily into the motorcycle's handlebars. The bike spun sideways and crashed.

One truck, its driver dead, went nose-first into the ditch at the side of the highway. Riders and cargo tumbled forward and out. The truck behind halted, dead horses blocking its path.

Jamaicans flooded the street, wielding improvised weapons. Some grabbed the unwounded horses and ran off, leading their prizes. Others leapt into the trucks, looking for booty. But most of the mob concentrated their energies on the hated Horsed Police.

"Cease fire!" Valentine yelled, fearing any more firing would do more harm than good. At a word from Ahn-Kha, the Grogs put up their smoking guns.

Years of death and brutal treatment resulted in ugly scenes in the street. Whole and wounded Horsed Police, their hands raised in surrender, fell victim to the mob. A few Jamaicans flung themselves over the wounded and protected them from the clubs and knives with their own flesh, but the mob merely sought other targets. Valentine heard women's screams and saw some of the Horsed Police's children caught up in the mob's fury. A child fell under a club, skull opened and yellow-gray brains spilling to the pavement.

He shouldered his way into the crowd, stepping over bodies of the dead and dying, and jumped on the cab of the second truck. He fired his gun in the air.

"Enough!" he yelled, putting every decibel his body could produce into the bellow.

Ahn-Kha grabbed a horse, threw off its saddle, and mounted. He led his Grogs into the fray. The spectacle of the strange, apelike creatures distracted the mob enough for Valentine to get their attention. Eyes turned to Valentine and the Grogs.

"Enough!" he shouted, forcing a grin to his face. "The time of death is over!"

The mob turned from rage to celebration. Jamaicans joined Valentine atop the truck, waving their arms and calling out to their fellows.

"Free!" "Death is dead!" "Death is over!" came the cries.

Something gave way inside the exhausted Cat. He stood in the celebrating throng, shaking with exhaustion and emotion. He realized his head hurt; the sun struck his eyes like

knives. He summoned a few Jamaicans and began to carry the surviving wounded into the shelter of the barracks. As his hands grew sticky with sweat and blood, he thought of the clean sea.

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