Warren Murphy: The Arms of Kali

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Death was in the air All over America the airline travelers were dying, seduced by lovely young women and strangled by silken scarves in savage hands. The security of the nation hung over an open grave - and Remo Williams, the Destroyer, and his oriental master and mentor Chiun, were ordered to slay the slayers and save the free world. Little did Remo and Chiun suspect that their enemy was an ancient goddess who had a fifteen-hundred-year-old score to settle with Chiun. She commanded an army of youthful devotees and had the power to turn even Remo into her helpless slave. Now the Destroyer was being used for evil rather than good in an ultimate struggle between light and darkness that even Chiun feared he might not win...

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Destroyer 59: The Arms of Kali

By Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir

Chapter One

He wouldn't take a tip for helping her home from the airport. No, not even a nice frosted piece of yellow cake or even a cup of tea from the old woman.

All he wanted was to put a pale yellow cloth around her neck, and he wouldn't take no for an answer. He also wouldn't stop tightening it.

The Chicago police found her body in the morning. Her bags had not been unpacked. A homicide detective thought he recognized a pattern he had seen before, and he thought he had read about another death like that in Omaha: a traveler found strangled to death with the luggage still packed.

The detective checked with the FBI clearinghouse in Washington to see if this might be some sort of pattern. "The dead woman had a ticket with just Folks Airlines?" asked the FBI voice from Washington.

"Yes, she did."

"She met someone on the plane? A nice young person, perhaps?"

"We don't know that yet," the detective said.

"You will soon enough," the FBI voice answered.

"So there is an M.O.," said the detective, referring to a repetitive crime pattern.

"Like a clock ticking," replied the FBI agent.

"A national pattern? Or just here?"

"National. She was the hundred and third."

"A hundred and three people strangled?" asked the detective. His voice rose in horror as he imagined that old woman back in her picked-clean apartment, her purse open, her furniture rifled. More than a hundred, just like that? Impossible, he thought. "But this one was also robbed," he said.

"So were all hundred and three others," the FBI agent said.

Number 104.

Albert Birnbaum was in seventh heaven. He had found someone who was not only willing to listen to the problems of selling retail hardware but was actually enthralled.

His late wife, Ethel, may she rest in peace, used to say: "Al, nobody cares about the markup on a three-quarter-inch screw."

"That markup gave you Miami Beach every year for two weeks during the winter, and-"

"And the ranch house in Garfield Heights and the educations for the children and those charge accounts. I've heard it, but nobody else wants to hear it. Not even once do they want to hear it. Albert, precious, sweetheart, loved one, a three-quarter-inch screw lacks glamour."

Unfortunately, she did not live to see the day that she would be proved wrong. Because Albert Birnbaum had found a young woman, a beautiful young thing with pink cheeks and yellow hair and innocent blue eyes, and a little shiksa nose and she was fascinated about hardware markup. Truly fascinated.

Albert had thought for a moment that she might be after his body. But he knew his body, and what he knew about it was that no one as good-looking as this lovely young thing would have to listen to hardware stories to get it, if she even wanted it in the first place already.

She had the adjacent seat on the just Folks Airlines flight to Dallas. She had asked him if he were comfortable. He had said he was, considering that this was an economy fare. For a reduced rate, he said, it was a wonderful flight. However, she could keep the sandwich and candy bar they had tried to hand out at lunch. "Cheap planes serve cheap food and it'll rot your stomach."

"Isn't that ever so?" she said. "You really have such a philosophy of life. Even something like a flight, Mr. Birnbaum, you turn into an object lesson of comparative values."

"Listen, I don't need big words," he said. "Life is life, right?"

"So well put, Mr. Birnbaum. That's just what I mean. Life is life. It has majesty. It rings."

"You're putting me on," said Al Birnbaum. The seat was pinching his hips. But the way he looked at it, everything but a first-class seat pinched his hips nowadays. And he wasn't going to pay five hundred dollars extra not to get a pinched hip. He didn't mention this. The girl couldn't see the few extra pounds he was carrying around, as long as he was sitting down, so why mention it, right? And as pretty as she was, she was allowed to exaggerate a little bit -about his philosophy of life being so wonderful.

But when he talked hardware and she really listened, Al Birnbaum realized he had found someone who would not lie. You did not keep those big blue eyes transfixed on the speaker, without honestly caring, not when you were able to say:

"You mean a little three-quarter-inch screw is the backbone of hardware-store profits? The ones I used to apologize for, buying just a few and wasting the clerk's time? Those screws?" she said.

"Those screws, those nails, those washers," Al Birnbaum said. "They're the gold of hardware. A sixty-maybe sixty-five-percent markup on every one of them, and next year they won't go out of style or be replaced, but the price'll go up. The screw and the nail are the backbone of the business."

"Not the big appliance? That's not your big moneymaker?"

"God should never have invented them," said Al Birnbaum. "You take some six-hundred-dollar-ticket item, they see a scratch on it, they don't want it. Back it goes. You put one out for display, kiss it good-bye, you sell it for junk. Then you've got your markup. How you going to compete with a discount store? I saw a convection oven at a discount house selling for fifty-seven cents over what I purchased it for wholesale."

"My God," gasped the girl, clutching her breast.

"Fifty-seven cents," said Al Birnbaum. "On a hundred-and-fifty-dollar-ticket item."

The girl was close to tears hearing that. Al Birnbaum had found a wonderful young woman and his only problem was that he didn't know a young man good enough for her. Which he told her.

"Oh, Mr. Birnbaum, you're too kind."

"No. You're a very special young lady. I'm only sorry I'm not young enough."

"Mr. Birnbaum, you're just the sweetest man I have ever met."

"C'mon," said Al Birnbaum. "Don't give me that." But it was nice to think about.

Later on, when the girl had trouble getting her own baggage, Al Birnbaum offered to step in. Al Birnbaum wasn't going to leave a decent young girl stranded. He wouldn't leave someone he didn't like stranded, so why should he leave this young girl who didn't even have a way to get into Dallas to visit her fiance? He hailed the cab. He rode in with her. He even said he would like to meet her boyfriend.

"I wish you would. I know you'll just love him, Mr. Birnbaum. He's thinking of going into hardware too, and he could use advice from someone experienced."

"Tell him for me, it's a hard business but an honest one."

"Oh, you should tell him. You know so much more about it."

"He's got to watch out for buying now. American tools are getting killed by Korea and Taiwan."

"Please, not me. You tell him. You just can't buy experience like yours."

"Oh, you can buy it," said Al Birnbaum. "It just won't be any good." He liked that.

Her boyfriend lived in one of the city's worst neighborhoods and the apartment had virtually no furniture. He wondered how he might be able to offer them some help in getting a decent place to live. But he had to be careful. You didn't just barge in on a nice young couple like this and insult them by offering to help with the rent.

He sat on a simple wooden box under a bare light bulb, smelling old coffee grounds and a mustiness as if the place hadn't been cleaned in a year or two. Then he remembered that the door hadn't required a key. This was an abandoned apartment. They had no place to live. He decided he would have to help them.

He heard a creaking of footsteps behind him and he turned to see another clean-cut young man with a yellow handkerchief that he held by each end, spinning it into a pale yellow rope.

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