Warlord: An Alex Hawke Novel Page 0,181

same clientele, the same atmosphere. You may recall Rick's Cafe in the movie Casablanca, sir. That's what it is like. A neutral ground for the media, American diplomats, warlords, drug lords, peddlers of nuclear weapons, technology, and perhaps a few who fall into all those categories. The commodity in the Punjab is information, sir. In Pakistan, information is power. And power is a daily life-and-death struggle."

"Sounds like we should spend a lot of time in the bar," Harry said.

"It's not at all a very bad idea, sir," Abdul replied, peering out through a gun port. "No bars, but there are cafes, and a restaurant. Here you can get black-market whiskey in brown bags. I believe we are pulling over to transfer your team to the hired cars. We are near the Punjab now, it will only be a short ride from here. Ten minutes with no traffic."

The Punjab Palace was an undistinguished slab of 1970s architecture, and certainly no palace, Hawke thought as he climbed out of the car at the entrance. No different from any of the countless anonymous "business" hotels in every part of the world. The only difference was that in this one, the primary business was weapons of war and terror. There were security barriers out front, but they didn't look like they could stand up to a teenage martyr with a truck full of explosives and a death wish.

Hawke's team looked exactly as they should look, a bunch of travel-weary Western journalists. Each one had a plasti-coated "Press" ID card hanging from around the neck, each with a different news-gathering organization. The CIA had provided everything. Passports, driver's licenses, cash, even the clothing on their backs. Four large black nylon duffel bags containing weapons and gear for each of them were removed from the two hired cars.

A Punjab porter, obviously on Abdul's payroll, immediately loaded the bags onto a rolling cart. He and Abdul then took the bags to the rear entrance of the hotel. Dakkon had explained to Hawke that by avoiding the metal detector inside the revolving doors at the lobby entrance, Dakkon could personally deliver the "luggage" to their various rooms using the service elevator near the kitchen. "The guard at the rear is a friend of mine," Abdul said with a smile.

Hawke said, "Abdul Dakkon, little friend of all the world."

Dakkon lit up. "Kim! By Rudyard Kipling. My most favorite book, sir!"

"Mine too," Hawke said, clapping his new friend on the back.

Once everyone was checked in, Hawke suggested they all go to their rooms and get some real sleep and a hot shower and meet in the restaurant at seven that evening. He told Brock he had a few details to iron out and suggested the two of them go to the lobby coffee shop for a quick breakfast. Hawke instinctively sat facing the hotel entrance so he could keep an eye on anyone who came through the door.

He knew you minded your back in a country like this, especially when you suspected your movements were being compromised by a rat in the cupboard. A few minutes after they sat down, Abdul Dakkon joined them, giving Hawke a thumbs-up, his mission accomplished.

"Listen, Harry," Hawke said once they'd all ordered coffee, "you don't look so good."

"I don't?"

"You look peaked."

"What the cuss does 'peaked' mean, anyway?"

"Pronounced pee-kid. Sickly. You look sick. Let me take a look at that knife wound you got. Lift up your shirt."

"Jesus," Harry said, pulling up his violently colored Hawaiian aloha shirt. The wound was still puffy and red, looked like about twenty stitches to Hawke, healing normally.

"I think