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He lowered himself to a prone position and crept, hands over elbows, towards the top of the staircase. He could smell the blood beneath him, the sweet, bland odour penetrating his nostrils, informing him of a practicality. Time was running out. He reached the top step, pulling his legs up under him, digging into his pocket for one of the road flares he had purchased at the army-navy store on Lexington Avenue. He knew now why he had felt the compulsion to buy them. He was back in the unremembered Tarn Quan, forgotten except for brilliant, blinding flashes of light. The flares had reminded him of that fragment of memory; they would light up a jungle now.

He uncoiled the waxed fuse from the small round recess in the flare head, brought it to his teeth and bit through the cord, shortening the fuse to less than an inch. He reached into his other pocket and took out a plastic lighter; he pressed it against the flare, gripping both in his left hand. Then he angled the rod and brace of the weapon into his right shoulder, shoving the curved strip of metal into the cloth of his blood-soaked field jacket; it was secure. He stretched out his legs and, snake-like, started down the final flight of steps, head below, feet above, his back scraping the wall.

He reached the mid-point of the staircase. Silence, darkness, all the lights had been extinguished . . . Lights? Lights? Where were the rays of sunlight he had seen in that hallway only minutes ago? It had streamed through a pair of French windows at the far end of the room - that room - beyond the corridor, but he could see only darkness now. The door had been shut; the door beneath him, the only other door in that hallway, was also closed, marked only by a thin shaft of light. Carlos was making him choose. Behind which door? Or was the assassin using a better strategy? Was he in the darkness of the narrow hall itself?

Bourne felt a stabbing jolt of pain in his shoulder blade, then an eruption of blood that drenched the flannel shirt beneath his field jacket. Another warning: there was very little time.

He braced himself against the wall, the weapon levelled at the thin posts of the railing, aimed down into the darkness of the corridor. Now! He pulled the trigger. The staccato explosions tore the posts apart as the railing fell, the bullets shattering the walls and the door beneath him. He released the trigger, slipping his hand under the scalding barrel, grabbing the plastic lighter with his right hand, the flare in his left. He spun the flint; the wick took fire and he put it to the short fuse. He pulled his hand back to the weapon and squeezed the trigger again, blowing away everything below. A glass chandelier crashed to a floor somewhere; singing whines of ricochets filled the darkness. And then - light I Blinding light as the flare ignited, firing the jungle, lighting up the trees and the walls, the hidden paths and the mahogany corridors. The stench of death and the jungle was everywhere, and he was there.

Almanac to Delta, Almanac to Delta! Abandon, abandon!

Never. Not now. Not at the end. Cain is for Carlos and Delta is for Cain. Trap Carlos. Kill Carlos!

Bourne rose to his feet, his back pressed against the wall, the flare in his left hand, the exploding weapon in his right. He plunged down into the carpeted underbrush, kicking the door in front of him open, shattering silver frames and trophies that flew off tables and shelves into the air. Into the trees. He stopped; there was no one in that quiet, sound-proof elegant room. No one in the jungle path.

He spun around and lurched back into the hall, puncturing the walls with a prolonged burst of gunfire. No one.

The door at the end of the narrow, dark corridor. Beyond was the room where Cain was born. Where Cain would die, but not alone.

He held his fire, shifting the flare to his right hand beneath the weapon, reaching into his pocket for the second flare. He pulled it out, and again uncoiled the fuse and brought it to his teeth, severing the cord, now millimetres from its point of contact with the gelatinous incendiary. He shoved the first flare to it; the explosion of light was so bright it pained his eyes. Awkwardly, he held both flares in his left hand and, squinting, his legs and arms losing the battle for balance, approached the door.

It was open, the narrow crack extending from top to bottom on the lock side. The assassin was accommodating, but as he looked at that door, Jason instinctively knew one thing about it that Carlos did not know. It was a part of his past, a part of the room where Cain was born. He reached down with his right hand, bracing the weapon between his forearm and his hip, and gripped the knob.

Now. He shoved the door open six inches and hurled the flares inside. A long staccato burst from a Sten gun echoed throughout the room, throughout the entire house, a thousand dead sounds forming a running chord beneath as sprays of bullets embedded in a lead shield backed by a steel plate in the door.

The firing stopped, a final clip expended. Now. Bourne whipped his hand back to the trigger, crashed his shoulder into the door, and lunged inside, firing in circles as he rolled on the floor, swinging his legs counter clockwise. Gunshots were returned wildly as Jason honed his weapon towards the source. A roar of fury burst from blindness across the room; it accompanied Bourne's realization that the curtains had been drawn, blocking out the sunlight from the French windows. Then why was there so much light . . . magnified light beyond the sizzling blindness of the flares? It was overpowering, causing explosions in his head, sharp bolts of agony at his temples.

The screen! The huge screen was pulled down from its bulging recess in the ceiling, drawn taut to the floor, the wide expanse of glistening silver a white-hot shield of ice-cold fire. He plunged behind the large table to the protection of a copper corner bar; he rose and jammed the trigger back, in another burst - a final burst. The last clip had run out. He hurled the weapon by its rod-stock across the room at the figure in white overalls and a white silk scarf that had fallen below his face.

The face! He knew it! He had seen it before I Where . . . where? Was it Marseilles? Yes . . . no! Zurich? Paris? Yes and no! Then it struck him at that instant in the blinding vibrating light, that the face across the room was known to many, not just him. But from where? Where? As so much else, he knew it and did not know it. But he did know it! It was only the name he could not find!

He spiralled back off his feet, behind the heavy copper bar. Gunshots came, two . . . three, the second bullet tearing the flesh of his "left forearm. He pulled his automatic from his belt, he had three shots left. One of them had to find its mark, Carlos. There was a debt to pay in Paris, and a contract to fulfil, his love far safer with the assassin's death. He took the plastic lighter from his pocket, ignited it, and held it beneath a cloth suspended from a hook. The cloth caught fire, he grabbed it and threw it to his right as he dived to his left. Carlos fired at the flaming rag as Bourne spun to his knees, levelling his gun, pulling the trigger twice.

The figure buckled but did not fall. Instead, he crouched, then sprang like a white panther diagonally forward, his hands outstretched. What was he doing! Then Jason knew. The assassin gripped the edge of the huge, silver screen, ripping it from its metal bracket in the ceiling, pulling it downwards with all his weight and strength.

It floated down above Bourne, filling his vision, blocking everything else from his mind. He screamed as the shimmering silver descended over him, suddenly more frightened of it than of Carlos, or of any other human being on the earth. It terrified him, infuriated him, splitting his mind in fragments; images flashed across his eyes and angry voices shouted in his ears. He aimed his gun and fired at the terrible shroud. As he slashed his band against it wildly, pushing the rough, silver cloth away, he understood. He had fired his last shot, his last. Like a legend named Cain Carlos knew by sight and by sound every weapon on earth; he had counted the gunshots.

Tags: Robert Ludlum, Eric Van Lustbader Jason Bourne Thriller