Warren Murphy: Skin Deep

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    Skin Deep
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Just as world leaders are flocking to New York to discuss world peace, someone takes off with the U.S. Navy's latest super-weapon - a top secret, atom-armed jet bomber that can escape radar detection. Remo and Chiun launch an investigation, but they're just winging it . . . until unexpected turbulence forces them to an uncharted island off the Florida Keys. Then all at once peril is hovering over their heads, in the form of an ex-Nazi with BLITZKRIEG on his mind. His flights of fancy have the free world taxing toward disaster, with Remo and Chiun going along for the ride. Under constant attack, our heroes are flying by the seat of their pants. And this time it looks as if even the secrets of Sinanju won't help them land on their feet!

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Skin Deep

The Destroyer #49

by Richard Sapir & Warren Murphy

Copyright © 1982

by Richard Sapir & Warren Murphy

All rights reserved.

Skin Deep

A Peanut Press Book

Published by

peanutpress.com, Inc.

www.peanutpress.com

ISBN: 0-7408-0572-X

First Peanut Press Edition

This edition published by

arrangement with

Boondock Books

www.boondockbooks.com

For Eiko and Pat

?Chapter One

A storm was coming. Thick smoke-colored clouds gathered to the west, already rumbling with thunder. The sea, normally sparkling and calm in the key waters off the South Florida coast, now whipped frothy and gray against the hull of the U.S.S. Andrew Jackson.

Lieutenant Richard Caan put on his rain slicker and moved quickly to the landing strip at the stern of the ship. The dull ache that had been pounding at the back of his skull all night was charging at full gallop now. He checked the wind and spat over the side of the railing, but the taste from the night before remained in his mouth.

"You the pilot, sir?" a young ensign asked as Caan stepped briskly toward the tarpaulin-covered dual-engined jet.

"Copilot," answered Caan.

"Good enough." The young man saluted.

The ensign's crew had already seen to securing and covering the F-24. Her outline stood out sleekly beneath the fluttering tarpaulin: the needle-sharp nose, the huge wasp's wings, the streamlined bulge of the fuel tanks.

She was the most exotic plane Caan had ever flown, the most efficient fighter-bomber ever constructed. Almost always he felt a flush of pride at seeing the magnificent machine. Only a handful of men in the world knew how to fly her as yet, and Caan was one of them. But he felt no pride now.

"We've got her battened down pretty secure, sir," the ensign said. "You might want to check her for stability, though."

"Thank you, ensign," Caan said, his eyes lingering for a moment on the young man. The taste in his mouth was repugnant. It was unfamiliar to him, the taste of defeat, of violence and death and imagined hell.

It was fear.

"Yes, sir?" the ensign asked uncertainly, the high wind pinching the young man's farm-fresh features.

Caan forced himself back to composure. "That'll be all."

"Yes, sir." The young man saluted and led his small crew away.

Caan swallowed as he examined the pinnings on the plane.

There will be terrible destruction.

His head ached mercilessly. The events of the night before— a thousand years ago, it seemed now, back in the security of the Key West Naval Base— flashed before him with terrifying accuracy.

Terrible destruction...

It began with his awakening. With a painful jolt he had been forced out of deep sleep into a sitting position, his two arms hammer-locked behind him. A cold, black-gloved hand clamped like a vise over his mouth.

"You are one of the pilots scheduled to sail tomorrow on board the Andrew Jackson?" an unseen voice behind him hissed. The voice was heavily accented, guttural. The hands yanked back hard on Caan's arms. He nodded.

"I have placed a vial on your bed, beside you."

Caan's frightened gaze wandered to his lap. Next to his legs lay a small dark bottle.

"Take it with you tomorrow. There will be terrible destruction. You will not be able to stop it. When it happens, place the contents of the vial on your face and head. Do as I say, or you will die." The strong hands forced Caan's neck back sharply. "Wait for the birds. They will be your sign."

Those were the last words he heard. With a deafening crack, something came down on the back of Caan's head. A splintering pain, and then blackness.

He came to at three A.M. Staggering groggily to the door of his Quonset hut, he stood in the darkness and listened. The Key West base, disbanded in recent years, was nearly deserted except for a vestigial research team and the sleeping crew of the Andrew Jackson, now snoring peacefully in unaccustomed privacy. The only sounds came from night insects and the drone of the sea.

Birds?

Was it a dream? A crazy nightmare brought on by an attack of nerves? The next day would be Caan's first maneuvers on an aircraft carrier. Maybe the prospect of a long sea voyage just went against his grain. He doubled back to his bunk.

It was there. The vial.

He switched on the light. The sudden brightness made the pain at the back of his head shoot suddenly. He held the bottle up to the light, squinting.

Inside the amber-colored glass was clear, viscous liquid. He unscrewed the cap and sniffed. The odor made him sputter and gag. Whatever was in there was the foulest-smelling stuff he'd ever run into. He put the lid back on tightly, placed the bottle on the corner of his desk, and switched off the light. He would take it to the base commander later that morning, before they sailed.

There will be terrible destruction...

The bottle glinted in the moonlight. Slowly Caan picked it up and slipped it into the breast pocket of his uniform.

* * *

"Wake up, Lieutenant. This is no place to be daydreaming."

Caan snapped to. He felt rain whipping against his skin. His trousers beneath the slicker were soaked through and freezing. "Yes, sir, Commander." he said.

"Everything in good order here? Or haven't you bothered to look?" the Commander demanded with the shrill petulance of a spoiled child.

Arlington Mills Albright, the Commander, was fairly young, but the kind of man who was accustomed to giving orders. Even if he didn't know anything about what he was ordering, Caan thought with a certain grouchiness. Albright was less qualified to fly the F-24 than he was. But he had gone to Annapolis, and was a Commander, and so was the senior pilot on the plane during the Andrew Jackson maneuver.

"All checked out, sir," Caan said.

"Good." Albright patted him on the shoulder patronizingly. "You turned out to be of some use to me, after all."

A huge shaft of lightning streaked eastward. "Yes, sir," Caan muttered.

Albright headed back for the shelter of the ship's interior. At the port, though, he hesitated and motioned to his copilot. "Come in out of the rain, at least," he said with a condescending smirk.

Caan obeyed. "Those sailors can take care of the ship. We'd only be in the way anyway. No one needs flyers in a storm, right?"

"I suppose not, sir."

"We might as well just sit this out over a game of gin."

"I don't play gin rummy, sir."

The Commander looked annoyed. "Well, sit down anyway," he ordered. He caught himself, and worked a tone of rich man's camaraderie into his voice. "We'll have coffee and discuss the price of grain, eh?" He chuckled and patted Caan on the back again.

Caan sat. Outside, the thunder rolled. He saw Albright glance quickly out the porthole, his brow furrowed, before returning his gaze to Caan with forced friendliness. The commander busied himself for a few minutes ordering coffee from the cook on duty. When the cups were placed in front of the two men, he rubbed his hands together in a parody of cheerful enthusiasm. "Well, then. Since you're not familiar with gin, how about a rubber of bridge? Nothing like bridge, I say, to bring out a man's powers of reason."

"I don't play bridge either, sir," Caan said levelly.

Albright looked dismayed. "Oh. Then—"

"Sir, did a strange man come to your quarters last night?" he blurted.

The commander's patrician features set hard. "What made you ask that?"

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