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FAKFAK, and footsteps. Footsteps in the night. Footsteps. Fragments of sound, softly slithering. Intermittent whispers, borne on the fringe of the southeast trades that lazed up past Tanjong Tongerai, across the miles from the Arafura Sea.

Footsteps.

They were only an echo, at first, flicking at the rim of John Daniels' brain. Background music. Like the ceaseless slap-slap-slapping of the Arafura's swell those endless days gone by. Or the doleful sound that to the black Kanakas passed for song.

He ignored them, as he ignored all things outside his mission. Strode on, heedless. On, away from the rubble of the landing. On, past the bulk of the Netherlands New Guinea Trading Company's warehouse, black-looming against the starless sky. On, toward the town atop the hill, where the seabreeze blew stronger, away from the fever-festering swamps' miasma.

The lights from the straggled buildings above were like beacons in John Daniels' brain. They blotted out the steaming, pitch-black tropic night; the mildewed taste of moulding hardtack, brackish water; the stink of filth and fish and copra.

The lights, and the memories. Memories of Tom, and of Poulain. Twin portraits, fiery images, seared in the living tissue of his brain.

Tom. His only brother. Dead Tom, now.

Dead, dead, dead.

A sob welled up within John Daniels' throat.

And then, Poulain.

The sob died in futile, paroxysmal fury.

Poulain. The smirking fat man. The human octopus, with tentacles in a hundred tropic ports. Evil, personified. The malign force without a body.

The murderer.

How long had he searched for Poulain? How many places?

Darwin to Soerabaja, Amboina to Timor.

But no Poulain.

A strange anticipation seemed to seize John Daniels' throat. With a start, he realized that he was sucking air in through his mouth. His legs already ached with strain.

Grimly, he forced himself to slow his pace. Fought down the taut anticipation. He couldn't let hope grow. Not now. Why buck the odds. This was one more fool's mission, doomed from the start.

He unclenched his fists. Stretched the ache from his cramping fingers.

It was then that he heard the steps again.

He was conscious of them now. Suddenly. Acutely. They echoed in his ears like the dull thud of a leaden hammer sealing a coffin's lid.

It was, he told himself, absurd. This was Fakfak. A thousand people lived here, if you counted blacks. Why wouldn't there be footsteps?

Without thinking, hardly realizing, he dragged his pace.

Behind him, those other feet dragged too.

A thin thread of despair ran through him, like the first edge of flame in a bamboo thicket. Not physical fear; that he could master. Rather, the racing undertow of panic that goes with forebodings of failure when failure must not be.

His brain refused to take it. After all, who had cause to follow him? He was only one more wanderer—penniless; unknown....

Unless Poulain himself—His heart leaped. Could it be that it wasn't a fool's mission this time? That Poulain was here, and waiting—menace, incarnate? The woman had known his mission, hadn't she? Would the fat man himself be less astute.

But no. It was absurd. This panic —only nature, exacting her penalty. Too many months of brooding. Too many hours of peril. Now, when he needed self-possession most, his nerves were beginning to crack. That was all. Once he got a firm grip on himself....

But instinct was too strong. The months, the years, all close to death, walked with him. His brain could not control them.

Ever so casually, he stopped, as if to get his breath. That only—it was too dark to see, and any more overt move might rouse suspicion.

Behind him, the footsteps halted.

Still casual, he drew a deep breath, climbed onward.

Those other feet resumed their padding progress.

IN A way, it was a relief. It reassured him, gave him new confidence in his own subconscious. The momentary panic vanished, replaced by a note of lethal competence. He was pursued? He wondered. There were those who'd thought they were pursuing ... He caught himself grinning wol?shly in the night.

Grimly, he forced himself to reason.

Could this be some straying headhunter, down from the bush, on the trail of grisly trophies for the village douba house?

No. That was out. He'd been stalked by natives too many times before. There would be no sound of stealthy footsteps if this were a wandering Mai- Mai warrior.

No, this was a white man. Or at least, a man who wore shoes.

A local footpad, then? Some drunken sailor, on the beach and out to make a stake?

Again, no. He was too obviously poverty-stricken himself to hold the eye of any looter.

That left Poulain.

Not in person, of course. That would be too much to ask.

No. He could expect no more than a flunky. Some hireling hoodlum, as before. A piece-worker, probably: no murder, no pay.

Abruptly, he shrugged. What difference did it make? He was being followed. That was enough. The next move was up to him.

Deliberately, he fumbled a cigarette from the pocket of the tattered old Marine combat jacket that served him as a coat. Paused, while he scratched a light on the sole of his ancient, cracking, Australian-issue boots.

His pursuer paused with him.

John Daniels laughed beneath his breath. Sucked at the cigarette till it became a glowing signal light in the night.

Boldly, then, he veered off to the right. Headed away from the path toward a long, squat shed that showed black against the sky some twenty yards from the main track up the hill.

The steps behind him missed a beat. He could sense his stalker's indecision.

Himself, he did not pause.

Instead, briskly, he strode on, stumbling noisily over rocks and roots and rubble.

It made a good show. He knew it. But with it there came a prickling between his shoulder blades, an icy finger on his spine. He made such a perfect target, bumbling along thus, even in the dark! He'd lost the footsteps in the clatter, too, and that made it worse. Because his pursuer had trailed him this far, he hoped that meant a plan; a time; a place. But he could not be sure. Not sure enough. It would only take one shot....

His breath was coming too fast. He caught himself wishing desperately that he hadn't had to sell his own Army forty-five for passage money.

He made it, after an eternity. Took his stand, in the shed's shallow doorway.

SHADOWS clung here. A sort of semi-concealment. It made him feel better, drained away a little of his tension.

But standing, waiting, was not enough. With a final ostentatious flourish, he pulled the cigarette from his mouth. Knocked off the ash. Wedged the butt head-high in the crevice between the door and jamb, so that the glowing tip hung visible, as if suspended from his lips.

Then, dropping to his knees, he slid forth again, close to the ground, a shadow among shadows, silent as the smoke that drifted from the smouldering butt.

The hunted, stalking the hunter.

Out from the building. Down his own backtrail. Away, into the blackness that no eye could pierce.

A pandanus clump gave him cover. He waited there, taut and tense, straining his ears for some tell-tale sound.

Ten seconds. Twenty. Thirty.

Still nothing. John breathed through his wide-open mouth, tenser than ever, fearful that even the whisper of air would betray him.

Forty. Fifty. A full minute.

He lay like a corpse, only his eyes moving.

Ten seconds more.

Off down the slope, dry grass momentarily rustled.

It was easy, after that. The pursuer was clumsy, heavy-footed. His pockets jingled, even. It was too dark to see him, save in terms of a vague black bulk, but a child could have followed his progress toward the shed. He made for the far end first, then sidled awkwardly along the wall toward the empty doorway where John's cigarette butt still glowed dimly in the night.

A ghost in the darkness, John oozed away from the pandanus clump. Fell in behind the man who sought him.

He never knew quite what it was that tripped him. A root, maybe. Or a snag of tangled grass.

The result was more important. One instant, he was the aggressor: silent, deadly; closing in like a hungry tiger on its prey. The next, a sprawling gawk, spread-eagled flat on his back on the ground.

The other spun round. A big man, thick of chest, gorilla-muscled. Light glinted from a Malay kris in his right hand. Like lightning, he leaped for John's throat, the wave-edged blade drawn back for the killing blow.

The man was fast—devilishly, disconcertingly fast; the more so in contrast to his clumsy stalking.

Even rolling away, John Daniels knew it. The next instant, an avalanche of flesh and bone smashed down upon him. He felt the kris slash through his jacket, sear his ribs.

Desperately, he caught the knife-wrist in both hands. Pinned it with every ounce of strength.

The other rocked back with all his weight. Crushed out John's wind. Drove a gnarled oak fist at his face.

John felt the blood spurt from his nose. His brain exploded in an anguished froth of paralysis and pain. It was all he could do to cling to the other's wrist.

The fist smashed down again.

More by instinct than design, john jerked his head aside. Surged upward, twisting.

His adversary toppled.

A spasm of effort, tearing free. Sobbing, john rolled away.

The big man lurched up in an instant. Charged again, the kris drawn back.

JOHN exploded his feet at the other's knees.

His opponent dodged, jumped sidewise. Came in fast.

But not quite fast enough. Again, john smashed out with his feet. Drove them square into the other's thick mid- riff. Felt his knees buckle with the impact.

Even in his own pain, he could hear the wind burst out of the charging knife-man. Saw him lurch and stagger.

He made himself follow through. Stumbled upright. Kicked with all his might for the other's groin.

Shrill agony burst from the knifer's throat. An animal cry, sheer torment, to make the hackles rise and the blood run cold.

John Daniels' pain was fading, his own wind back. A crimson haze of fury robed his brain. Snarling, ruthless, he sprang in close. Straightened the other against the squat shed's wall with a savage left to the jaw. Swung out with his right, fingers stiff, for the final spine-shattering palm-edge blow.

Behind him, a gun roared.

It was close, so close his ears rang with thunder, and the orange of the muzzle-blast blinded him, and the wind oi the slug sang a song of death beside his cheek.

Sheer reflex carried him, then. His blow went unstruck. Spasmodically, he flung himself away, flat on the ground where the shadows hung blackest.

Was this the way it was to end—with a bullet in the back in this wilderness of Dutch New Guinea? Were all the months of fruitless search to go in vain?

Silence. Taut, echoing eternities of silence, while his bones ached, and his nerves rang clashing discords, and the dark closed down upon him like a smothering hood.

He thought of that shot in the night, and the man who'd fired it. Of the knifer, and his kris. Of dead Tom, and Poulain, and death in the dark.

He wondered if the others, like he, still lay there waiting—waiting for him, John Daniels, to rise and make himself a target.

Off on the pathway, twenty immeasurable yards away, voices rose in drunken mirth. Then, slowly, they faded again, off down the hill toward the landing.

John wondered if he would ever live to reach that path.

Still nothing. No sounds. No movements.

He could stand it no longer. He thrust out an exploring hand, clutched a clod. Tossed it off toward the spot beside the shed where he and the knifer had struggled.

It landed with a thud. So faint a thud he had to strain his ears to catch it.

Frowning to himself, he tossed another.

This time rubble rattled, like a miniature landslide getting under way.

More seconds, ticking by.

Ever so slowly, ever so cautiously, John edged forward. It was an experiment, more than progress. Instinctively, he braced himself against the shot he feared would come.

Nothing.

He drew a deep breath. Came up on one knee.

Still nothing.

He frowned. It seemed incredible that those two, the knifer and the gunman, both could have escaped in that fraction of a second while he leaped for safety.

That first, silent clod!

He frowned again. Rose. Strode over to where they'd fought.

The knifer was still there. John fell across him, sprawled in the dirt, but the kris-man made no move.

Again, a match, scratched on the sole of the old Australian-issue boots.

John stared down at the fallen hoodlum by its light. Then, suddenly, in spite of his control, his fingers began to tremble.

There was nothing much outstanding about the man lying there. Just one more burly thug, with thick lips and tattooed arms and a brutal face. They came a guilder a dozen in these tropic ports.

But still, John Daniels' fingers trembled.

Because the man with the kris had a bullet-hole in his forehead.

He was very, very dead.


CHAPTER II
Man-Trap

SHE was lovely, ethereally lovely, with an angel's face set off by a halo of spun gold hair. A dangerous loveliness, though, for a body went with the angel face, a body lithely sensual as that of a she-devil straight from hell.

John Daniels recognized that danger. The instant he saw her he recognized it. Instinctively. Without hesitation. She knew that he recognized it, too. He could see it in the lift of her chin, the quirk of her lips, the scorning green depths of her eyes.

It was not good, that knowledge. It gnawed like a flame at his vitals. He could feel the heat climb his cheeks as is speeded his breathing, dried his mouth.

A wafting tendril of hot, musky scent touched his nostrils.

Anger welled up within him. It was so patent, all of it. Her message—"I'll give you Poulain." That, and a rendezvous, and a meaningless name.

For all he'd known, it might have been a hoax, or even a trap.

But Poulain. She'd promised him Poulain. That was enough. Trap or true, he didn't care. It was worth the gamble.

It had brought him across three hundred miles of tropic sea, that promise. It would have carried him a thousand just as well, he thought, or back from beyond the grave. Hate was that way.

So now he sat here before her, high in this cluttered lodging on Fakfak's hill. A bullet-riddled corpse lay sprawled on the slope below, and a murderer stalked abroad, and he, John Daniels, was down to his last guilder, but he didn't care. Not as long as he got Poulain. That was all that mattered. He hadn't even bothered to report the shooting.

But this—dim lights. Perfume. The scarlet gown that on her was a sheath of flame. As if she were scheming to throw off his judgment, upset his plans.

And she. Eternal woman. Half loveliness, half lust. Smugly ready to set man's loins afire to gain her goal.

The anger welled higher, hotter. Grew to a smouldering spasm of fury that almost choked him.

He hardly heard her when she spoke.

"What?" It came out as a snarl.

"It is late, too late," she said again. Her English had a faintly foreign flavor, the barest hint of accent. "I am sorry. You took too long."

There was something about it. Her voice, maybe, or the way she said the words, or the too-fast rise and fall of breasts beneath their scarlet sheathing.

Slowly, his tide of fury ebbed. He stared at her. Took in the smooth shoulders' barely perceptible sag. The troubled lines that etched the angel face.

Again, her beauty's power swept over him. He caught himself wondering if he could have been wrong about her lure, the studied provocation.

"You might explain," he said at last. Even in his own ears his voice sounded strange—raw; uncertain; husky.

Wordless, she turned away. Crossed like breeze-borne down to the window. Drew back the sleazy drape.

Frowning, he followed. Stared over her shoulder through the starless night, down into the black of the yard below.

Silence. Nothing but silence.

"You see?"

He shook his head.

Her fingers were light on his arm, her face close to his.

"There, by the banyan tree. Where the shadows are blackest."

He strained his eyes. Stared off a fraction to one side, with that trick for night sight they had taught him in the Marines a thousand eternities ago.

"You see?" she whispered again.

The shadows. The black shadows, close to the banyan tree.

Even as she spoke, they moved.

Her fingers parted. Let the drape fall back.

"You see? You came too late. Already I am watched. Nothing can help now. Nothing at all."

A shudder ran through her, like the echo of a chill.

JOHN DANIELS' brain seethed, a caldron of tumult. Poulain, and dead Tom, and this woman and the stalker with the kris, and the shadow down there by the banyan tree—tossed together, all of them, swirling in a morbid sea that was fear and hate and fury and suspicion rolled in one.

A sort of frenzy seemed to seize the woman beside him, as if his own turmoil were spreading, contagious. Her voice echoed low, atremble with some dark emotion he could not label. Words came in a jumbling rush.

"You were my last hope, John Daniels. Tom, your brother—I knew him. I loved him. But because he helped me, Poulain cut him down. I was only a woman. I could not strike back."

Her voice broke. She buried her face in her hands. A spasm racked her.

"So?"

Her shoulders still were shaking, her voice muffled.

"Word came to me you were back in the islands, scouring the ports, with. hate in your heart and death in your hands. They said that even Poulain was afraid. I—I needed help. Tom was dead, and I was left alone ... so all alone. That's why I sent for you."

Slowly, John nodded. When he spoke, it was half to himself.

"I'd wondered. No one seemed to know. Not what the trouble really was. Only that Poulain had done the job."

"And now it is too late." Listless, hollow-eyed, she crossed back to the window. Peered down through the night toward the banyan tree.

He watched her in sullen silence.

"Day after day, I waited, praying you'd come...."

"It took time." He couldn't keep the bitter note from his voice. "I was broke when the message caught me at Amboina. I had to sell my gun for passage money. Even so, all I could get was deck space on a stinking little trader that hit every clearing the master thought might gross a guilder's business."

"Of course." She toyed with a loose thread from the drape.

"And it's not too late. Not if that shadow in the yard is all that's worrying you." He drew his lips to a thin, harsh line. Let the fury he felt come out in words. "I'm hard to kill. Too hard, for the team Poulain's got playing. I've met the reception committee already, and there won't be any more trouble on that score. I doubt that your admirer down below will be tougher."

The woman shook her head, a world of weariness in the gesture.

"Even that—it is not enough. Poulain ... is gone."

"Where's he gone, we can follow." Impatience lashed at John's nerve-ends. The muscles of his shoulders and neck ached with strain. "We're wasting time now. Come on! Tell me! Let's go!"

"No." It was a whisper, a sigh. "We cannot follow. Not where he has gone."

Panic raced through john Daniels like a forest fire. He hardly dared speak. His world all at once was crashing about him.

"He isn't ... dead?"

"Dead? Poulain?" The woman laughed aloud. "If only he were! But no. That kind of good fortune cannot be ours."

With an effort, John held his voice level.

"Then what's wrong? You say we can't follow. If he's alive, I say we can."

"But he is already gone. Back into the interior, the wilderness, unexplored, that even the maps show blank. No one knows just where...."

Very softly, John said: "If one can go, another can follow. I've been in the bush. I know it, as well as any man does. If Poulain's there, I can find him. That I promise."

THE woman turned so sharply that her scarlet gown drew taut across the firm, uptilted breasts, and the golden sheen of hair rippled about her shoulders like dancing autumn sunlight. New life leaped to her face. Even in the dimness, John could see the color flood her cheeks. Her voice was suddenly bubbling, vibrant.

"You mean—even now you will help me? We will fight together against Poulain?"

Something about the way she said it—some off-key note—rang warning bells in John Daniels' brain. He measured his words.

"I'll help you do what?"

Her face mirrored confusion.

"Why ... the gold.... We will find it—"

Black fury burst through the dam of John's control. In two swift strides he was upon her. Gripping her shoulders. Shaking her till her teeth rettled, and the green eyes went wide with fear.

"Go on!" he lashed. "Go on! Tell me about it! How my brother died for you, by your own confession, and how now all you can think of is the loot you didn't get!"

He could see her face go white to the lips. Then her eyes blazed green lightning. Her hand flashed up, struck out in a stinging slap across his face.

He reeled back. Threw up his own arm against the rain of blows, the torrent of slashing hate that poured forth in some tongue he did not understand.

She switched to English:

"You fool! You stupid, brutal fool! Do you think the gold matters to me? Do you think I care one brass cash for it?"

"What the hell would I think?" Again his fury overwhelmed him. "You told me yourself, didn't you? You said you wanted me to help you find 'the gold'. I don't know what gold you're talking about, but off-hand it all sounds to me like you and Poulain were just two more thieves falling out."

"You fool!" Her tongue was dipped in vitriol. And then: "But you do not know. It is true. You do not know."

"What don't I know?"

She shrugged.

"You know nothing. Nothing at all. I must explain." Another pause. "You have heard of the Van Pelts?"

He shook his head.

"I am a Van Pelt. Anita Van Pelt of Djaimalang." She straightened as she said it, cloaked all at once with a dignity almost queenly. "For generations we have been the Van Pelts of Djaimalang. My ancestors claimed the island by right of discovery and exploration, back in the days when the Dutch first came to the Indies. Down through the years, the centuries, we lived there, working and trading and prospering.

"Then came the war. Day after day my father and brothers and I watched the Japs sweeping closer. Day after day, waiting for the inevitable landing. The blood. The looting. The fire and sword. We could not even flee, for our boats were gone, wrecked or stolen by natives running amok with fear."

SHE paused, lips parted and trembling. Stared past John Daniels—through him, almost—as if recreating those terrible days again.

He fought down the instinctive wave of sympathy that surged through him. Knotted his fists. Forced himself to stay cold and hard.

"Well?"

She half turned away. Her tongue moistened -her lips.

"Just before ... the end ... a plane came. An old tri-motored Junkers, fleeing Java. A break in the fuel line forced them down.

"To us it was an act of providence. We still had petrol, and the three Australians aboard the Junkers told us they would be glad to take us with them. They said the plane originally had been purchased for use in the great Wau goldfields, but that they would go to Darwin instead." She laughed a little, and the sound was bitter as vinegar and gall. "What fools were were! We should have known they were scum by the very smell of them. Probably they'd stolen the plane. But we were too frantic with fear to see beyond the moment.

"Even then, we might have escaped with our lives. But my brothers were not content with that. Down through the years, the Van Pelts had gathered a great treasure at Djaimalang, all coins and bullion—close to three million gulden in gold. They demanded that it go with us.

"The Australians were ever so cooperative. They agreed without question, even thought every wasted moment was dangerous. Carefully, they stowed the gold aboard. And then-—-"

Her voice broke. Shoulders shaking, she slumped to a chair, sobbing. It had a queer, keening note—high, half hysterical.

John gripped her shoulders.

"Go on!"

The sobs choked off. Face still averted, she spoke.

"They shot my brothers. Shot them down in cold blood as they stood there. They would have murdered my father and me, too, I have no doubt, but we were still in the house." Again her voice broke off.

Then, through tears: "Perhaps it would have been better had they done so."

John stood in silence, without the heart to speak.

"We buried my brothers," she went on finally. "After that we could only wait for the Japs. They came, and we were interned. My father died before the year was out. As for me ..." She shrugged. "I lived. Finally the war ended. I was freed. That is all."

"And the gold, and Tom?"

"The gold?" Her lips twisted. "I wish to God I had never heard of the gold again." A pause. "It was at Darwin, one of those miracles that are completely outside the laws of mathematical chance. I passed a man on the street and it was one of those three Australians who had been in the plane.

"MY FIRST thought was to kill him. Then I realized that if I did, I would lose my best chance of finding those other two." Again the shrug. "It was easy, really. I had changed much since that other time. He did not recognize me. And I had learned things about ... men. It did not take too long to become acquainted with him in a casual fashion. Because he was ugly and stupid and gross, and I am a woman, not too unattractive, he was flattered by my attention. He confided in me that he would be rich just as soon as he could locate an unscrupulous aviator with a private plane large enough to carry three passengers and a heavy cargo besides the crew. I gathered that the old Junkers—blown off its course in a storm—had crashed somewhere back of the Snow Mountains, deep in Netherlands New Guinea.

"Trusting no one, not even each other, those three bloody-handed murderers had stayed with the plane and the treasure throughout the war. It was not easy, of course. They degenerated into savagery, lived like animals. But to them, anything would do so long as they could retain their loot and dodge military service back in Australia.

"Then, at last, their radio—they had managed to salvage that—told them the war was over. Once more they could think of a life outside.

"Only now they discovered they were trapped. The Junkers was beyond repair, and they were hundreds of miles from the nearest port. The mountains, the jungle, were like prison walls about them, with a hundred untamed savage tribes—head-hunters still; cannibals— between them an d civilization as guards.

"Worst of all, the gold. It was too heavy to carry. Even granted that they might fight their way through to safety themselves, they would have to leave most if not all of it behind.

"Suspicious as they were, half crazed with isolation, they dared not abandon their treasure for fear one would kill the others when they reached the coast, in order that he might return alone to claim it.

"So instead, they decided that two would stay behind on guard, while the other—the man I'd met—trekked through on foot to the coast alone. He then would return for them by plane.

"My man—Carter, he called himself—finally fought his way through. He made it by sheer luck, he said, for the area through which he had to travel was territory of the Ngurus, one of those horrible, fierce tribes still found in the interior. They harassed him every step of the way. Only the Ngurus' belief that the mountain on which the Junkers had crashed was taboo had saved the Australians from massacre before.

"Carter had expected his troubles to end when he reached civilization. Instead, he found they had only begun, for now he had to locate a plane, and he had no money to pay for it. He dared not to go to any legitimate charter service, for they might suspect whatever story he conjured up and turn him in to the authorities. Adventurers, in turn, with such a stake at hand and knowing the scheme to be illegitimate, were all too likely to murder Carter and his friends for the loot, as my brothers had been murdered."

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