"Why'd you decide to build it next to me when you've got this whole beach to build it on?" Remo asked. He spread his arms wide to indicate the expanse of beach and got a shovel full of sand in his unprotected face for his trouble. He turned over on his side and propped himself up on one arm to look at the girl.
"'Cause I thought if dragons comes, you gonna defend my cassoo," the girl said. For the first time, she looked at him and smiled. Her eyes were sky blue, and her little baby teeth were even and sparkled white like pearls.
"Why me?" Remo said. "You ever see a dragon?"
"'Cause you looks nice," the girl said. "And my big sister Ardaff told me all about dragons, and they're bigger than me."
"You think I look nice?" Remo said. He looked down at his hands. They had been responsible for hundreds of deaths, and while the bloodstains weren't visible, they were there—in his mind. Remo
wondered when anyone had last thought he was nice.
"Sure, you're nice," she said with the un-self-consciousness of the very young. "Very nice." She was back to digging, tossing sand over her shoulder at Remo.
"I'm not nice."
"Yes, you are."
"Will you marry me?"
"Not until I build my cassoo," she said.
"I guess I'll just have to help you build it, won't I?" Remo said.
The girl had dug a ditch in a roughly square pattern, four feet on a side. Remo knelt alongside her, and the hands that had been trained to kill became as gentle as a surgeon's but more precise than any surgeon's ever had been.
Using the girl's water bucket, Remo wet sand and scooped it up into large rectangular shapes. Using fingertips as punches, he knocked out window holes in the sides of the large walls. Then, atop the base, he built twisting towers and battlements, piling sand on top of sand as the girl sipped her breath, knowing the towers must fall. But Remo could feel through his fingertips the internal tension of the sand, and just at the moment when he knew it would collapse of its own weight, he backed off and began working on another turret.
The castle was a creation from Oz, mock stone towers reaching into the sky, standing taller than the little girl herself. People on the beach began to watch the structure, now almost six feet tall, something from a fairy tale.
Remo stepped back away from the castle, ringed
by its dismal meandering excuse of a moat and said, "There we go. Marry me now?"
"After I play a little bit. You're really nice." She grabbed his hand and pulled him down to her so she could kiss his cheek. As Remo stood up, he saw all the people on the beach watching them, and he felt self-conscious and embarrassed.
"Always the way," he said. "Always my luck to fall in love with a woman who wants to play a little bit first."
Behind the crowd, he saw the person he had been waiting for—a tall, spare man with thinning gray hair, wearing a gray three-piece suit even in the summer heat of the Jersey shore. He was standing on the narrow boardwalk, looking down toward Remo, and when their eyes met, he nodded. Remo nodded back.
"I'll be back in a little while," he told the girl. He squeezed her hand and then walked across the hot sand to where Dr. Harold W. Smith, head of the super-secret agency CURE, waited on a bench for him. Remo walked slowly, oblivious to the scorching heat underfoot.
Remo sat next to Smith, brushing dried sand from his chest and stomach. Remo was tall and lean, and his body was that of an athlete, trim and trained but not exceptional. The only thing that might have called attention to him were his thick wrists, which he kept working by rotating his fists, as if his wrists were sore. He had dark hair, as dark as his midnight pools of his eyes, which were buried deep behind high cheekbones that sometimes made him seem almost Oriental.
"I'm glad to see you're maintaining your usual low profile," Smith said.
"You think the kid's an enemy agent?" Remo said. "Wait here, I'll go kill her." He started to rise.
Smith sighed. "Sit down," he said. "Why does every conversation start off the same way?"
"Because you're always dumping on me right at the start because I'm not hiding behind a bush or something," Remo said. "Hey, this is the Jersey shore. Half those guys on the beach are Jersey politicians. They're watching the ocean trying to figure out a way to steal it. The other half are federal agents, watching the politicians. Nobody's watching me."
He looked at Smith, then back at the little blonde girl in the red bathing suit. She was squatting next to her sand castle. Her lips were moving, busily engaged in play conversation with herself. Remo smiled. It was nice to do something nice for someone. Maybe he was nice after all.
"What's on your mind?" he asked Smith.
"It's Ruby," Smith said.
Ruby was Ruby Jackson Gonzales, the light-skinned black woman who was Smith's assistant. Except for Smith, Remo, and whoever was president of the United States at the time, she was the only person who knew of the existence of the secret agency CURE, which had been set up years before to fight crime without paying too much attention to the niceties of the law. Remo was its killer arm. Remo thought of Ruby, then remembered her screeching rock-splitting voice and told Smith, "I don't want to hear about it. She's your problem. You hired her. What's she trying to do, overthrow you and sell stock in the organization?"
"She wants to quit," Smith said softly. He folded his hands across the attaché case on his lap. Remo
realized he could not remember ever seeing Smith without an attaché case, and he wondered what was in it that Smith kept so close to him all the time. It was as if the CURE director wore a four-piece suit: trousers, vest, jacket, and attaché case.
"Good," Remo said. "Let her quit. I'm tired of listening to her yell at me all the time anyway."
"It's not that easy," Smith said. And of course it wasn't. Remo knew that. Someone out there who knew about CURE but did not work for it was too big a problem and too big a threat to endure.
"Why does she want to quit?" Remo asked.
"She says she's bored. The work is dull. She wants to go back to her wig business and make some real money."
"Try giving her a raise?" Remo asked.
"I tried that."
"What'd she say?"
"She said there wasn't enough money in the world to make the job less boring."
"That doesn't sound like Ruby," Remo said. "That woman likes money. She must really be bored." He watched the little girl moving her tiny arm in and out of the windows of the sand castle, playing some fantasy adventure scripted in her mind. "You want me to talk to her?" Remo asked.
"No," Smith said.
"What then?" Remo asked.
"I want you to . . . to remove her."
Remo wheeled about and looked at Smith's face. It was as impassive as ever, staring out at the gray» sea.
"Ruby?" Remo said. "You want me to kill her?" He studied Smith's face, but it was unchanged,
chartless, as smooth as the waveless ocean. But he nodded curtly.
"That's right," Remo said bitterly. "You just sit there and nod, but what we're talking about is killing somebody. One of our own. Did you forget? Ruby saved me and Chiun once. And you sit there like some kind of gray mummy and shake your head up and down and to you, that's shaking your head, but to me that means go kill somebody, go kill a friend."
"Remo, I know how you feel. But she knew the risks when she signed on. I don't know why you think I like this."
"Because you do like it, you bloodless . . ."
Remo stopped. He had been looking toward the water, and he saw it coming. A big tanned blond man with shoulder-length hair, carrying a surfboard under his arm, was running along the beach, and maliciously, he plowed through the sand castle that Remo had built. Even a hundred feet away, Remo could hear his happy exultant laugh. The little girl in the red bathing suit looked at the running man in surprise and shock, then looked at the wreckage of her dream castle, then sank slowly into a squat, crying. Even from his distance, Remo could see her back racking with sobs.