On the twenty-second floor of the Black Knight hotel, two men sat at a small round table typical of most medium-priced hotels. Sometimes the table was square, but not often. Square tables had corners with the potential to cause physical harm. Especially to inebriated hotel guests, which occurred more frequently in a hotel than at home. Which made sense. Celebrations, alcohol and hotels went hand in hand. Two twin-sized beds accompanied by night side tables, and a bureau and mirror combination unit, plus the table the two men occupied summed up the furniture. The table the men occupied was large enough for two people to almost eat breakfast comfortably. Inevitably, the table was located beside the bed and next to the balcony. The diners enjoyed a view while they ate. A traditional hotel room design feature. The two men sitting at the round table in room twenty-three-fourteen chose the room exclusively for the view. The design feature worked but not for traditional reasons.
Traditional hotel room views in Toronto included Lake Ontario, which Room 614 did not look out onto. Neither did the view offer an unobstructed observation of the harbour and its sailing vessels, nor bright lights, nor even a view of Toronto’s main tourist street, Young street, which were major city attractions. Most hotel guests would have described the view as unremarkable. The men who rented Room 614 for its unremarkable view had drawn the balcony window’s thick curtains. They did not regard the immediate view outside the window worthy of admiration either. In fact, they did not care about any view except the image broadcasted on the laptop computer on the little round table they occupied.
The laptop was connected to a powerful camera resting outside on the balcony’s cement floor. Its round telescopic lens did not protrude beyond the backpack’s open mouth. It was carefully aligned so the lens peered between balcony balustrades so as not to corrupt the unremarkable view. The wireless video camera inside the backpack transmitted a crisp and clear picture of the Katana Dojo and most of the parking lot across the street, opposite the dojo’s picture window. Given the clarity and quality of the hi-resolution image, it was impossible to ascertain six hundred yards separated hotel and dojo.
“There, look at that guy,” instructed Raoul stuffing a protein wrapper into a small trash bag they had brought with them.
Neither Raoul nor his partner was known as neat and tidy guys, except when they were at work. Which was why they carried trash bags and avoided room service and did not go downstairs and dine on North American restaurant cuisine. Raoul disposed of his trash in his own bag because the wrapper contained his fingerprints and because his profession mandated leaving nothing behind for anyone to collect later. He pointed to the monitor after brushing crumbs off his hands and glanced at the mini-bar fridge thinking about the frosty bottles of cold beer inside.
“What do you think? Is it him?”
“There’s a similarity,” answered Carlito.
Carlito studied a fifteen-inch laptop screen depicting a man and woman crossing the street from the parking lot. The subject in question carried an armload of white and black cotton clothing. Man and woman walked closely together and appeared to talk intimately. Given the downward angle of the camera, the man’s height could have ranged anywhere between five-foot-ten and six-foot-four. Carlito and his partner needed a reference point, such as a commercial doorway designed with a seven-foot-high lintel, with which to draw an accurate comparison.
“The height seems a little tall. I can’t get a proper fix on his hair colour with that ball cap. What I can see appears ginger. Definitely a red moustache. Be nice if he looked up and said cheese for us. Freeze the frame and zoom in.”
“I agree with the height. Seems close. And he’s not alone like they said he would be, but something ain’t right. My Spidey sense is tingling.”
“Yeah, you and your Spidey sense. You said the same words last week and I lost two-hundred and fifty bucks on the Cowboys. What’s he got in his hands? Laundry. Maybe towels as well.”
“Appears so. And the broad’s carrying a pile of white canvas or cotton or something similar. Those places use padding. I remember seeing this Jap show on kendo and the fighters were covered head to toe in padding, and they wore a wire helmet or some shit like that.”
Raoul pressed keys on the laptop. Using the touchpad, he drew a box around the subject’s head and pushed more keys. The picture on the screen dematerialized and shimmered. One second later a close-up picture of the subject’s head came into focus. Red hair. Roundish head. Moustache. Freckles. Easy smile.
“I don’t think our subject is too worried about kendo laundry. The two of them look cozy enough. Unless our subject changed his hair colour, grew freckles and a moustache overnight, and has two girlfriends,” noted Carlito after studying the close-up and reclined on his mat. “Low probability it’s him. Similarly shaped head. The profile is hard to match but overall body type is in range.”
“Right. Possible but not probable. Warrants a second look. Nothing to indicate a third glance. Parents dropping off equipment and picking up rug rats. That’s the third couple in fifteen minutes.”
Something had triggered his suspicion. But what? He nearly always followed his gut. It had rescued him from tight spots too often to completely disregard. Overall, he tried to agree with his partner’s assessment. The close-up image pretty much ruled out the man as their subject. Hair colour could be changed. Moustache could be glued on. A woman friend and extra kendo clothing could have been found, but freckles were hard to fake. In eleven years of surveillance, Raoul had never known a subject to grow freckles. The height looked a little off and the guy showed a carefree smile for someone blown off a roof the night before. No weariness. Not even a limp. Wrong guy. No injuries in sight. Nope. Not their guy.
“Ain’t this about the time when the last class ends and the lights below go out for the night?” inquired Carlito picking up his Smartphone and flicking through a screen menu to locate the Katana Dojo’s business hours.
“Correct. The past two nights parents started arriving around six, six-fifteen. The building went dark a bit after seven.” Raoul checked their activity log. “These stragglers are a little late, but nothing unusual. Within normal parameters.”
“So there’s nothing out of the ordinary here? That’s our last thought?”
“Affirmative. Looks five by five. Guess I’m bored and hoped we could make our ID and exfiltrate this post. I want real food. Why can’t a health food company build a protein bar that doesn’t taste like stale sand? We should have asked Lucien to stock a cooler rather than have one of the boys bring take-out.”
“No shit. We pay premium dollar for cardboard-tasting crap protein bars. The worse it tastes, the more money those shit head manufacturers charge. Fucking rip-off artists. By their standards, my ex ought to be able to make a mint if she opened a restaurant advertising, ‘All-natural shit that’s good for you but tastes like crap.’”
Carlito browsed his phone while Raoul alternated between looking at the laptop and glancing over at his partner’s activities. Fifteen minutes passed before Raoul accessed the laptop’s hard drive and loaded the video file stored on it. He felt bored. He wanted to be thorough. Mostly, the back portion of his brain kept nudging his orbital frontal cortex, the front part of the brain responsible for decisions, to re-examine the last man and woman a third time. Software retained the last four hours of whatever the radio camera telescope had captured and stored on the hard drive. Like an itch he could not scratch, Raoul reran the segment showing the last pair to enter the dojo.
Something did not sit right.
Something itched him about the man and woman.
While he watched the video clip repeatedly for irregularities, the real-time image continued to record. It was shown in a smaller box within a box in the upper left corner. Raoul replayed the two minute and forty-six second segment for the ninth time. Absorbed in reconciling his itch, he failed to notice the woman who had previously entered with the man wearing a baseball cap now exited the dojo with her son, absent the man. Mother and son crossed the road, climbed into a blue Ford and drove away.
Raoul persisted in his investigation for another five minutes and exited the clip with a little disgusted snort. He restored the picture to normal and closed his eyes to rest them. Perhaps he had been mistaken. Three fucking days watching a boring motherfucking building was beginning to fray his nerves. They needed replacements. Fucking Lucien. Always trying to save a dollar. Always acting like it was his own goddamned money he was paying them. The guy ought to get an Oscar.
Wait. That was it. Acting.
Raoul quickly reloaded the clip and watched the man’s movements closely. When the man and woman crossed the parking lot, the man did a little left to right terrain recon. When the couple reached the curb, Raoul witnessed the bastard pulling his hat low and then stealthily glanced left and right. It was a one-way street. He did not need to check both ways. It could have been reflex. Someone who had habituated safety might have automatically checked both directions before crossing, but the subject pulled the same move in the parking lot. The subject had been observing windows for people and looking down allies for hidden figures and not checking traffic.
It seemed natural.
If the subject had not repeated the exact same recon manoeuvre when he held the front door open for the woman to enter ahead of him, Raoul might have forgiven him but the whoreson paused half a second too long. He should have caught his behavioural irregularity sooner, but Carlito and he were the only experienced surveillance team and three days was beginning to wear on them. He had just about missed the subject’s tell. A fraction of a second looking in one direction or another too long became suspicious to a watcher looking for behavioural irregularities, but Raoul still lacked the proof he needed to make the call. What he had witnessed was only suggestive. And he needed more to call in the team.
Raoul rewound the video clip to the point where the camera first acquired the little Ford hatchback travelling down the street. From that point forward, Raoul advanced the scene five frames at a time. Normal video ran thirty frames per second. He set the video advance feature to ten frames per mouse click. Ten frames per click let him dissect the footage. As the car approached the Katana Dojo, jerking incrementally closer and closer, it became evident only one person occupied the vehicle. Then, when the car turned into the parking lot, when the windshield glare was reduced to a minimum, Raoul verified his suspicion. The woman was alone in the car. He fast-forwarded the video clip from the point where the pair entered the building. According to the time stamp, twenty-seven minutes after he had witnessed the man and woman enter the front doors, the same woman with a young boy beside her, exited the dojo. No man. Fucking puto bastard, thought Raoul. Mother and son walked across the street to the parking lot, entered the little Ford hatchback and drove away without the man in the baseball cap.
* * * * * * *
Only a few children and their parents were present when Michele and I stepped indoors. I excused myself from her presence with a quick hug. Michele and Steven, her twelve-year-old son, were well known to me. She was a single mother. And cute. And friendly. And kind. Over the past eight months Steven and I had become friends. Miyamoto and Kira occasional scheduled sparing bouts for young students to observe. On those nights Miyamoto asked me to arrive early. Miyamoto made my losses to Kira a public spectacle. Errors in my form became learning tools for young students. On occasion, I assisted Miyamoto and Kira with practice bouts between those students, as either a referee or a striking partner. I demonstrated how to accept a strike by impersonating a living uchikomi-dai, practise dummy. Without a regularly present father and a mother who worked two jobs, Miyamoto made me a stand-in surrogate. It built confidence to work with a bigger and stronger and faster partner. I had exploited my relationship with Michele to disguise my entry. Fifty times in the past she had arrived after work to pick up Stephen.
Viewed through the observation window, Miyamoto Sasamori tidied the big blue pile of folding mats. When I entered the dojo floor, I cleared my throat loudly. Miyamoto looked over wearing an expression turned quiet and penetrating when his eyes found mine. I could not decode if he was angry, surprised to see me or if he wore condemnation, but when I pointed down the hallway in the direction of the curtain separating the living quarters, he nodded permission. By the time I slipped through the door, I heard Miyamoto begin to wish everyone a good evening. Once the last person departed, I knew he would lock the front door and turn out the dojo lights before joining us, but I was uncertain if he would first phone the police. All I had to rely upon was a leap of faith. There were moments when I genuinely disliked Odera and the faith and trust lessons she had imparted.
It was a gamble. It was a show of trust which bespoke my innocence stronger than words. Miyamoto knew it as well. Had I been guilty, I would not have allowed him the opportunity to inform the police of my whereabouts. That knowledge did not prevent my pulse from beating more rapidly as I gained the landing and kicked off my shoes. All was quiet in the Sasamori living quarters as I climbed the stairs and slid the door closed behind me.
“Kira. Are you home? It’s Bruce.”
I walked down the hallway toward the kitchen when a door slid open. Kira poured out of the room wearing a worried expression that rapidly turned to joy when her eyes met mine. My altered looks only caused her a moment of indecision. She took them it in stride and forced another little smile. Kira’s worried relief put me instantly at ease. As soon as we came into reach, Kira hugged me warmly and would not let go. She poured love and support and empathy into my body. It required a bunch of shallow breaths not to flinch from the pain on the cuts on my back and to control the sting in my eyes.
“I’m so sorry, Bruce. Who could have done such a thing to Odera?”
“That’s the riddle I’m trying to solve.”
“You look tired. Father and I worry when we read the newspaper. You must tell us everything,” she told me squeezing the air out of me as though I’d slip through her arms.
Her emotional outburst caught me off guard. A well of emotion bubbled up as Kira’s faith and belief in my innocence penetrated. Tears finally formed in the corners of my eyes. This was the first real opportunity I had had to commiserate my loss with another human being. I heard Miyamoto enter the hallway behind me.
“Why you take so long to arrive? Foolish brother. We wait for you.”
“Daughter correct. Come. Sit. Speak. You have much to explain and to share. First, daughter will bring tea. Then we sit and calm our hearts.”
“Thank you. I’ve had an interesting few days,” I said in a harried voice that had nothing to do with Kira and Miyamoto.
“Never mind. Breathe to your centre. Calm your energy.”
As I reconciled my emotions, Kira took me by the upper arm and steered me into a room. She disappeared into the kitchen to retrieve a pot of heated water that was never far from boiling temperature. When the three of us had seated ourselves on cushions at a low table and each cradled steaming green tea in our hands, I began with the reason for my prison sentence. I followed my tale with my arrival at Hidden Oaks Monday morning. Neither Kira nor her father said very much except to ask questions whenever I rushed ahead, or when I left gaps. Everything I had learned flowed out of me like water through open damn gates, including my conversation with Ace and his assessment.
I concluded with Odera’s probable fate and the plan I had conceived, uncertain if the truth about my past had changed our relationship. Miyamoto, whose expression was normally stoic and unreadable, softened considerably. If I did not know better, I would have said tears formed in his eyes. His concern for Odera and me was touching. I felt like family. And then he raised a blue-veined fist and unabashedly knuckled one eye dry.
“I accept your assessment. In Japan, we have yakuza. One criminal group like another. Red lady has few options.”
Kira put a hand on my shoulder.
“Bruce. The spiritual bond between us was forged in a past life and will live on into the next. Please know Odera shares that bond through you. You do not have to ask for assistance.” Using her incredibly dark eyes to hold mine she said, “We stand together.”
“You and daughter must locate Odera quickly. By your admission, she does not have long to live. Nor do you, if what this Ace says about these thugs is accurate. Dojo have unusual visitors day before last. One lady and two men. Bad people. Dark kehai (auras) surround them. Men carry themselves like warriors. They ask questions about you. Each concealed weapons beneath clothing. They have small eyes like rodents. Look here and look there with little respect.” He grinned tightly. “I tell them in small words I no understand English. I have no knowledge of your whereabouts. Kira confirmed my answers when warrior lady with black hair entered training area without permission.”
“Father is correct. The woman possessed hard cruel eyes. Very rude and demanding.”
I swore sotto voce. The speed in which this Machine had moved surprised me and confirmed a number of operational facts Ace had shared. They were organized, well-funded, and they were connected downtown with local law enforcement. Naturally, I expanded this to include federal agencies as well. It would have been negligent not to have done so. Always prepare for the worst and hope for the best. And this Machine had ready access to individuals with military training.
“I took precautions coming here, but if they were here once already it means Odera obviously told them I frequent this location. They would not have accepted your answers, Miyamoto.” I shook my head. “What would you do if you were them?”
“That’s easy,” answered Kira. “I’d retreat a safe distance and wait for you to show up.”
“Yes,” agreed Miyamoto. “If Odera was forced to give information, my response would have heightened their suspicions, not lowered them. If they believed I was lying, they may have watched for your arrival.”
“That’s my conclusion as well. We must conclude they know I entered with Michele but did not leave with her. Not departing with Michele and Steven was a dead giveaway. We must leave quickly. If they have an active observation post, then they must also have a team on standby.”
As if to confirm our conjecture, the deep whine produced by a high-powered combustion engine keened through the open window. Braking black rubber screeched loudly on asphalt one floor beneath our open window. Miyamoto nodded to his daughter, who grabbed my wrist tightly and tugged me upward.
“Kira and you leave through back entrance while I greet unwanted guests. Go. Get out of here. Find Odera.”
“Negative. You can’t confront multiple men armed with automatic weapons. Especially if they know you lied to them earlier. That’s suicide. These guys do not play nice and they may already be heading for both front- and backdoors. Miyamoto, they have killed without hesitation. The dojo is known terrain. Confronting them within the dojo is safer than doing so outside where their firearms will put them at a much greater advantage. If possible, I’d like to question one of them.”
“Father. Bruce’s assessment is sound. United we are stronger.”
From the rear of the building and from the front, with mere seconds between, twin shotgun blasts thundered. I pictured the front and backdoor locks vanishing under the impact. Coordinated entries meant communication gear. The blasts were too close together to be coincidental, and they were too loud to be anything other than ten-gauge lock busters. Ten-gauge shotguns had a distinctive thunder. The military used close-quarter Mossbergs. Major city special police units employed Mossberg ten-gauge lock busters, except the police would have arrived with sirens blaring and they would have deployed multiple vehicles had I been their target. Also, they would have announced their presence via bullhorn and cordoned off the block. Executing a tactical entry would not have been their first strategy. The intruders were executing the same coordinated entry style performed on Odera’s condominium.The Machine had found me.