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From SAND'S WAR
He was a big man, tall, though he appeared slightly unnaturally stooped at the moment, the cable-like muscles flowing under his skin intimating both speed and strength. His hair was dark and just beginning to gray about the temples, perhaps prematurely. The gray eyes buried in the hard handsomeness of his face looked cold, as if they had never known nor were capable of warmth or emotion—though it was impossible to be sure, for they were very deceptive eyes.
As he stepped down off the train he moved with an almost unnoticeable limp akin to the effect of the shoulders. His face revealed no hint of pain, though there was pain, slight but present. Beneath the bandage taped tightly around his middle were four ugly puckered bullet holes trying to heal.
The man’s name was Sand.
It was the name he would give when asked, so it was his name.
As he set his bag to the ground the train was already beginning to move again. Though it was practically the only accessible means of reaching the village of Gatlow the train stopped here only when flagged or when one of the passengers had purchased a ticket to this place. The engineer who had held the run for three years could remember being flagged only once.
The man called Sand looked about him at the faces of the people. They had come from their homes and businesses because the train had stopped, and where everything is part of a pattern the smallest irregularity is worthy of attention. Or perhaps they had come because the Cadillac had come, the long black limousine with the curtains over the rear windows and the stolid chauffeur whose face seemed to exist without nerves.
They know me, he thought. Not by name, but that I am one of those who will stay at Bello. They know because otherwise the car would not have come.
The chauffeur came over and lifted the bag Sand had sat on the ground.
He said, “You are the one expected?”
“I’m the one.”
The chauffeur led him to the car, walking very stiffly, as though his legs were as nerveless as his face—or as though, despite the size of the village, he was a foreigner here, not knowing the people who looked on so silently and not desiring to know them.
The rear door of the car was held open for the big man to climb in and was closed behind him. He leaned back against the soft seat, easing the strain on his wound. With the curtains drawn the inside of the car was filled with a sort of half-light that the big man found depressing. When the car began to move he reached up and pulled back the curtain separating the front and rear seats, making it possible for him to see where they were going through the front windshield.
“The curtains are to be kept drawn,” the chauffeur said emotionlessly.
“Shut up,” Sand said with equal lack of emotion.
The village of Gatlow was very small, everything seemingly stretched along its one street, houses and businesses. The street lasted for less than a mile before it was gone and the car was climbing a gentle grade as it moved higher up the mountain.
The car’s heater was turned too high, and after a few minutes the car began to feel oppressive. Sand would have preferred the cold to the other. In the short moment between the train and the car the brisk cold had been almost stimulating. He did not mention the heater to the driver. It should be a short ride.
The moment Sand saw Bello he reflected that the place did not belong to this mountain—or even to this time. In some European country, in another century, the Castle Bello would have been more expected. It stood tall, its heavy stone as cold as the day. Surrounding it was a wide expanse of open ground covered with grass killed by the season, and surrounding this was a high, forbidding fence. The gate owned a guard who opened it so the limousine could go through.
When the car stopped a girl was waiting for him, very young and very pretty. The smile on her lips was small and nervous.
“The Count has been waiting for you,” she said. “I will show you the way.”
He followed her inside the building. Once inside, he could hear voices coming from a room off to the left, but he could see nothing. She led him down a long corridor to the door at the end and knocked lightly.
The voice came and the girl opened the door for him. When he was inside she closed it again.
The Count stood before a massive fireplace that burned brightly now but had not been burning long, for it had not had time to heat the large room. Count Bello, a name seldom spoken by the underworld elite, but a name known by all. Count Bello had been described to the man called Sand once; physically the description had been correct, and yet the description had not captured the man. How do you capture the fierce pride in this man’s eyes, the snobbery? The eyes helped divide one’s attention and thus absorbed some of the shock of the hideously hunched back. The Count was dressed impeccably in an expertly tailored dinner jacket that failed to diminish the size of his deformity. Probably he would have been tall had not his body grown into a forced stoop as though the weight on his back were too heavy a burden for him to carry.
The two men looked at each other across the distance of the room. Neither smiled nor made any attempt to close the distance.
The Count said, “I’m glad you made it, Mr. Sand. I must confess I had my doubts that you would. The organization generally doesn’t miss when they want a man dead badly enough to turn loose their top assassins. I understand they wanted you very badly indeed.”
“They don’t like boys who turn in their membership to the club.”
The hunchback smiled now, but the smile was not for the man. “Especially junior officers being groomed for the top, uh, Mr. Sand?”
“New York this time, wasn’t it—the last time they tried to stop you from living? I got the word. Even before you contacted me, I got the word. The word is that the organization lost two more shooters trying to rub out the indestructible Sand.” He smiled again, and this time it was for the man. “Why are you here, Mr. Sand? This wasn’t the first time they’ve tried and failed. You never ran before.”
Sand had no intention of answering that, so he gave him a partial answer with enough truth in it to make it ring that way. “I’m tired of wearing a crick in my neck looking over my shoulder. The syndicate has got itself a couple of new boys close to the top who don’t like me from the old days. Opening up those torpedoes won’t stop the ball game, and I figured I could use a little rest before the next inning.”
Count Bello smiled again, for himself this time. “So you came to Castle Bello,” he said, “because this is probably the only place in the world where a man can come and be completely safe from the long reach of both the organization and the law.”
“At a price,” Sand added for him.
“Of course—at a price. The reason for the phenomenon, this absolute protection from anything out there?” He waved a hand to indicate the rest of the world. “The police do not come because they do not know where to come. If they did they would find nothing, for I would learn of it before they arrived. Of course you aren’t worried about the law. You are definitely an exception in that respect. The organization won’t come because they are too smart to cut off their nose to spite their face. They won’t come because some day they may need the sanctuary of Castle Bello. And if Castle Bello becomes unsafe for even one of its guests, it ceases to be a haven for the damned.”
“And as soon as one of your guests runs out of loot, it ceases to be his haven for the damned.”
His fine-boned face was built of straight lines that did not quite screw up in an expression of distaste. “I open my home to criminals and murderers, Mr. Sand—and for this the cost is high.”
“Whatever the traffic will bear.”
Another smile. “I feel we understand each other, Mr. Sand. I hope you will enjoy your stay here. Your bag will already be in your rooms, and the girl will show you the way. We have a few rules, but the other guests will tell you what they are. I presume you will want to freshen up and rest a bit from your journey before meeting the others. Dinner is served at six, and generally guests eats together; however, you may have your meals in your suite if you wish. The large room you passed to your left as you entered is regarded as sort of a lounge, and many of our guests spend a good deal of their time there. Should you wish anything not readily provided, simply ask one of the servants or the concierge. Her office is located just off the entrance hall, and someone will be there to assist you at all times.”
“Thanks.” He put no gratitude in the word. For the price he was paying a man should be able to expect a little service.
The girl was waiting for him outside. She led him up a flight of stairs and down the upstairs hallway to his room. After asking if there was anything he needed, she left and he locked the door after her. He didn’t ask her name, since she wore it on her uniform.
His bag had been left on the floor between a large leather couch and a matching chair. The carpets were rich and thick, and the room was decked out like your typical up-scale hotel. The room was separated by a fully stocked bar half blocking the view of a kitchenette and dining area. He lifted the suitcase gently, and in the bedroom he placed it on the bed and spread it open. It had been searched. He had known it would be. Count Bello had kept him occupied just long enough for the job to be done thoroughly.
Sand thought wryly that the Count had been correct when he said they understood each other.
Before taking off his coat he went over the room with the systematic thoroughness of a man who trusts nothing. The job took half an hour; when it was over he was sure there were no hidden cameras or microphones, either in the bedroom or the bath.
He had peeled off his coat and was about to slip out of the shoulder rig holding the heavy .45 automatic when it occurred to him to check the balcony. He had already made sure the French doors leading to it were locked, but he remembered noting as he approached the castle that everything on this wing seemed to open onto the same balcony.
The key to the dual doors was in the lock. Soundlessly he twisted it, opened the doors and stepped outside.
The girl on the balcony probably belonged to the next room. She wasn’t spying. In fact, she would have appeared to be taking a sunbath except that there was very little sun and the temperature was below freezing.
She was stark naked!
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