Page 6

'I did it I' he said, more triumph in his words than clarification. 'I should open my own hiring hall and live on commissions. It'd be steadier. '

'What are you talking about?'

'As we agreed, it's what you need. You've got to function on the outside, and as of two minutes ago Monsieur Jean-Pierre No-Name is gainfully employed! At least for a week. '

'How did you do that? I thought there weren't any openings. ' 'What was about to be opened was Claude Lamouche's infected leg. I explained that my supply of local anaesthetic was very, very limited. We negotiated; you were the bartered coin. '

'A week?'

'If you're any good, he may keep you on. ' Washburn paused. 'Although that's not terribly important, is it?'

'I'm not sure any of this is. A month ago, maybe, but not now. I told you. I'm ready to leave. I'd think you'd want me to. I have an appoinI'ment in Zurich. '

'And I'd prefer you function the very best you can at that appoinI'ment My interests are extremely selfish, no remissions permitted. '

'I'm ready. '

'On the surface, yes. But take my word for it, it's vital that you spend prolonged periods of time on the water, some of it at night. Not under controlled conditions, not as a passenger, but subjected to reasonably harsh conditions - the harsher the better, in fact'

'Another test?'

'Every single one I can devise in this primitive hole of Port Noir. If I could conjure up a storm and a minor shipwreck for you, I would. On the other hand, Lamouche is something of a storm himself; he's a difficult man. The swelling in his leg will go down and he'll resent you. So will others; you'll have to replace someone. '

Thanks a lot'

'Don't mention it We're combining two stresses. At least one

or two nights on the water, if Lamouche keeps to schedule -that's the hosI'lle environment which contributed to your hysteria - and exposure to resenI'ment and suspicion from men around you - symbolic ot the initial stress situation. '

Thanks again Suppose they decide to throw me overboard? That'd be your ultimate test, I suppose, but I don't know how much good it would do if I drowned. '

'Oh, there'll be nothing like that,' said Washbum, scoffing.

'I'm glad you're so confident. I wish I were. '

'You can be. You have the protection of my absence. I may not be Barnard or DeBakey, but I'm all these people have. They need me; they won't risk losing me. '

'But you want to leave. I'm your passport out!

'In ways unfathomable, my dear patient. Come on, now. Lamouche wants you down at the dock so you can familiarize yourself with his equipment. You'll be setting out at four o'clock tomorrow morning. Consider how beneficial a week at sea will be. Think of it as a cruise. '

There had never been a cruise like it. The skipper of the filthy, oil-soaked fishing boat was a foul-mouthed rendering of an insignificant Captain Bligh, the crew a quartet of misfits who were undoubtedly the only men on Port Noir willing to put up with Claude Lamouche. The regular fifth member was a brother of the chief neI'man, a fact impressed on the man called Jean-Pierre within minutes after leaving the harbour at four o'clock in the morning.

'You take food from my brother's table!' whispered the neI'man angrily between rapid puffs on an immobile cigarette. 'From the stomachs of his children'

'It's only for a week,' protested Jean-Pierre. It would have been easier - far easier - to offer to reimburse the unemployed brother from Washburn's monthly stipend but the doctor and his patient had agreed to refrain from such compromises.

'I hope you're good with the nets!'

He was not.

There were moments during the next seventy-two hours when the man called Jean-Pierre thought the alternative of financial appeasement was warranted. The harassment never stopped, even at night - especially at night. It was as though eyes were trained on him as he lay on the infested deck mattress, waiting for him to reach the brinks of sleep.

'You! Take the watch I The mate is sick. You fill in. !

'Get up! Philippe is writing his memoirs! He can't be disturbed. '

'On your feet! You tore a net this afternoon. We won't pay for your stupidity. We've all agreed. Mend it now!' '

The nets.

If two men were required for one flank, his two arms took the place of four. If he worked beside one man, there were abrupt hauls and releases that left him with the full weight, a sudden blow from an adjacent shoulder sending him crashing into the gunwale and nearly over the side.

And Lamouche. A limping maniac who measured each kilometre of water by the fish he had lost. His voice was a grating, static-prone bullhorn. He addressed no one without an obscenity preceding his name, a habit the patient found increasingly maddening. But Lamouche did not touch Washburn's patient; he was merely sending the doctor a message: Don't ever do this to me again. Not where my boat and my fish are concerned.

Lamouche's schedule called for a return to Port Noir at sundown on the third day, the fish to be unloaded, the crew I given until four the next morning to sleep, fornicate, get drunk, or, with luck, all three. As they came within sight of land, it happened.

The nets were being doused and folded at midships by the neI'mair and his first assistant. The unwelcome crewman they cursed as Jean-Pierre Sangsue scrubbed down the deck with a long-handled brush. The two remaining crew heaved buckets of sea water in front of the brush, more often than not drenching the leech with truer aim than the deck.

A bucketful was thrown too high, momentarily blinding Washburn's patient, causing him to lose his balance. The heavy brush with its metal-like bristles flew out of his hands, its head up-ended, the sharp bristles making contact with the kneeling neI'man's thigh.

'Sacre diable!'

'Je regrette,' said the offender casually, shaking the water from his eyes.

'The hell you are!' shouted the neI'man.

'I said I was sorry,' replied the man called Jean-Pierre. 'Tell your friends to wet the deck, not me. '

'My friends don't make me the object of their stupidity!'

'They were the cause of mine just now. '

The neI'man grabbed the handle of the brush, got to his feet, and held it out like a bayonet. 'You want to play, leech?'

'Come on, give it to me. '

'With pleasure, leech. Here!' The neI'man shoved the brush forward, downward, the bristles scraping the patient's chest and stomach, penetrating the cloth of his shirt.

Whether it was the contact with the scars that covered his previous wounds, or the frustration and anger resulting from three days of harassment, the man would never know. He only knew he had to respond. And his response was as alarming to him as anything he could imagine.

He gripped the handle with his right hand, jamming it back into the neI'man's stomach, pulling it forward at the instant of impact; simultaneously, he shot his left foot high off the deck, ramming it into the neI'man's throat.

'Tao!' The guttural whisper came from his lips involuntarily; he did not know what it meant.

Before he could understand, he had pivoted, his right foot now surging forward like a battering ram, crashing into the neI'man's left kidney.

Tags: Robert Ludlum, Eric Van Lustbader Jason Bourne Thriller