Four hours after the dojo incident, having traded the Stetson and baseball cap for a street toque and a pair of dark sunglasses, I entered Royal York's main lobby wearing a borrowed smile. The lobby showed little activity when I stepped into the concourse and scanned the area for anything out of place. A man and a woman dressed in business attire conversed at the big fireplace. Three women lounged in loveseats and a sofa around a coffee table. I crossed the hall picturing Kira’s outfit, reminding myself what to look for. Kira had put her long hair up into a bun, donned a pair of non-prescription photo reactive eyeglasses that darkened under the influence of light, and otherwise transformed herself into a nerdy Asian woman in a power blazer and pleated, baggy pants. Profiling aside, she blended nicely with the new-tech computer convention. She knew my destination. We had allowed her fifteen minutes to mingle and for crowd scanning before I stepped inside the convention centre.
The main convention floor thrummed in full swing when I arrived. Boisterously laughing and talking people moved around the floor in groups of twos and threes. The noisy and milling animated conventioneers prohibited me from detecting if I was under surveillance. I wove casually in and around the throng of people stopping here and there, engaging the odd person in a few different kiosks, my sights set on a familiar logo, looking for swarthy, Spanish complexions. But I was in no hurry to arrive. Nothing I saw or heard made me suspicious, which was enough to make me very suspicious. Up ahead on my left, I sighted Kira casually talking to a fellow conventioneer who wore a blue pinstripe shirt and a red nametag label on his breast. Nearly imperceptive, she moved her head once to the left.
She repeated the movement a second time.
Two men wearing outdoorsman jackets too heavy for the summer temperature loitered beside a 3D imaging kiosk not eight feet in front of Kira. They had positioned themselves three kiosks down from the stall where Odera and I had arranged the trial software and computer. Both men possessed light brown skin and coal-black hair. Swarthy had been Julia’s description. I agreed. Each man held a pamphlet in his fist but made no great effort to do more than glance at each page. From time to time they spoke to one another, but never at length, and their glances always returned to scanning the crowd. They looked bored. Each man appeared to scan a different quadrant of the floor. No way did their scan incorporate the entire floor. Only a particular section. Other watchers must be engaged similarly. No surprise there. Kira and I had expected more of them. These guys clustered in aggravating bunches, like hemorrhoids.
Kira had found two.
Where were the others?
I visited another kiosk nearby that permitted a change of view. Nobody showed interest in the first two men, or in the kiosk, they watched. Two men, one with toffee-coloured skin, the other a Caucasian, stood near the farthest exit with hands clasped in front like bodyguards might stand, but like most sentries in the world stand because keeping your arms hanging at the side is tiring and generally rubs the inside elbow against a shoulder holster. The rear exit. They scanned the crowd too often, but never vacated their position. Kira noticed the direction of my gaze and confirmed my find with a nod. That was four. We had agreed earlier there was a low probability the Machine would commit public executions, but we weren’t going to bet our lives on supposition. I motioned for Kira to hang back and moved toward the kiosk in question. The same salesman from the other day pitched three men and a woman. Now or never, I said to myself. I sat down at an unused computer station, slipped a disc into the CD/DVD drive, fired up the simulation program and transferred the number set into the software data fields. A data drive would have been easier to transport and use, but I had reasons for bringing a CD disc.
Victory loves preparation.
During the first test, a fire simulation, the building’s virtual walls melted about the same time as the fire suppression system activated. At the end of the simulation, I clicked the material bar graph function. The wallboard bar showed nearly flat, skewed far below normal. Every other aspect of the simulation fell within normal parameters. I verified the numbers in the field with those on the disc and ran the wind sheer test with the wind velocity cranked high. The structure swayed within normal tolerances, but the interior walls showed a myriad of cracks and fissures. Twice now, the wallboards had failed to meet specifications. The building material section in the file Odera had emailed work indicated Cornerstone Gyprock manufactured the wallboards input into the simulation. When I turned toward the sales representative to request the kiosk’s website access number, a man stepped between us and jabbed the cold and hard muzzle of a handgun into the base of my skull.
Heavily accented English blustered into my ear, “Don’t move. I know you do this thing for Garland. Tell me where this puto is.”
Had I stood, the man would measure four inches shorter than my height. He was one of the two men Kira had indicated. Brown skin. Brush-cut. Clean-shaven. Relaxed, but ready. Alert. Eyes never stopped moving. Confidence and experience oozed out of him. Muscular shoulders pushed at the shoulders of his jacket, while sculpted pectoral muscles gave his chest a moulded look. Not the kind of muscle I had built with mostly working with my bodyweight and hard work, but that of weight training, which put him at a disadvantage in a fight with me. I had faced lots of weightlifters in prison. They normally exhausted their cardio within the first two minutes.
Weight training prepared the muscles for groups of eight or ten repetitions before reaching exhaustion. Not so with my routine. Weights had augmented my training but had not defined it. My fast-twitch muscle fibres were hardened through long repetition to resist exhaustion. Core training had taken my muscles to fatigue and then held them there while I pushed and pushed them beyond exhaustion. Miyamoto had made certain of that. Whereas weight training built muscle and strength, it slowed muscle reflexes, and it created muscles that tired more easily. In a stand-up knockdown fight, this hombre was at a disadvantage with my training, but he screamed military. Even the way he placed his feet, one foot forward, knees loose for action bespoke combat- and standard training techniques. He was hardwired into regimented training. His actions were predictable. Mine were not. Subterfuge was my mistress.
No such thing as a fair fight. I had no rules except that there weren’t rules.
Never threaten; strike first. Never wait to be hit; strike first.
The man’s partner appeared beside him. He stood with his wrists clasped in front, using his shoulders to shield us from the view of the salesman and the customers he pitched. The man’s big hands almost concealed the bulge of a handgun stock protruding above his pant waistline. He smiled grimly at me, one of those looks designed to frighten. It told me he was a bully and he enjoyed intimidating people. Overconfidence was normal for this guy. Mistake number one. Bullying others and travelling in packs fuelled overconfidence. As did holding a weapon to a person’s back. He should have scanned the area for other targets and threats. Assuming that I was alone and passive was his second mistake. By not standing on the other side of me from his partner to guard encroachment from that direction, he committed a third tactical mistake.
A woman stepped out from behind a passing conventioneer across from the men on my left, the same side as the two men, photographs held in her hand. She referenced the pictures and scanned the area while walking in our direction. Those actions easily identified her as someone searching for others. Memorizing the pictures would have helped to conceal her intent. Another amateur. I assumed she searched for me and Kira and Miyamoto. Perhaps not. Maybe all her pictures were of me alone. But it was logical to make that assumption. Given Miyamoto’s description, she was the woman who had entered the dojo training floor. Any minute now, I expected her to recognize me, but she did not. After the dojo and the presence of the watching post, I had also assumed my disguise was blown. We figured at least a physical description had been relayed from the watch post. Apparently not. Perhaps the watchers had been part of the team that had entered the dojo. Perhaps their organization was smaller than I gave them credit for. Either reason worked in our favour. All supposition. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Strike first.
Kira watched my back for other threats while charting the pair manning the rear exit for movement.
The three people within my sphere only presented a moderate threat to me, gun pressed to my neck or not. Their poor positioning made it possible for me to either drop or injure all of them without too much trouble. I scanned the woman’s features who held the pictures and committed them to memory. Chocolate brown eyes framed by full eyelashes sat above a flattened pug-nose that flared at the corners. Glossy black hair touched the top of her shoulders as she turned her head toward me. Her light-brown skin was scattered with the occasional coal-black mole. Bullet-sized nipples pushed provocatively against a thin, bright yellow top, while black Lululemon yoga pants clung to long athletic legs like a second skin and left little to the imagination. On any other day I might have enjoyed the show. She stepped up close to the bully and leaned inwards.
“Answer my amigo’s question. If you don’t, my compañero will pull the trigger, and we’ll wait for Garland to come looking for your corpse. Is a silenced gun he holds. ¿Comprende? By the time anyone notices you dead, we’ll be long gone. After we have Garland, you can go free with a big reward. Much dollars. Deal?” she promised in a stewardess’s sweet cabin voice.
That description of a silencer’s ability was pure bullshit. If he pulled the trigger a loud explosion would gain the attention of almost the whole convention floor. While silencers reduced decibel levels greatly, they weren’t the quiet little lispy things heard on TV and in theatres. No sense in revealing this knowledge to the woman. Let her think she had the upper hand.
Sun-tzu wrote, ’Warfare is a path of subterfuge.’
“He’s watching me. Right now; through binoculars.”
“From where?” she questioned, turning her head, scanning the crowd and the ceiling-high picture windows.
The man immediately to my left jabbed the gun hard into my neck and said, “Don’t be a puto. They don’t live long. Stand up, slowly. We’re going for a walk. You better hope he is still waiting for you when we get there.”
I rose from the chair while sliding the disc out of the CD/DVD drive and then slipped it into my trench coat pocket while hanging my head, looking at the ground, defeated. No sense in not letting the bully feel he’s in control, and smarter and cagier. Psychologically my stance and attitude should reinforce his feelings of dominance and he might relax a level or two.
“I’ll take that.” The woman stepped closer, holding out her hand. “Pronto.”
Attempting to emulate scared and whipped, I hunched my shoulders and leaned away from the man with the weapon. The handgun dropped to the small of my back, closer to my arm where I wanted it. The second man scanned the crowd around us while the woman leaned forward to accept the disc from me. The first man painfully dug the barrel into my lower back muscles and kidney.
“Very slowly. You don’t wanna make me nervous.”
Kira appeared two steps behind the woman turned away from us on a forty-five-degree angle. She appeared not to have noticed us and shook her head imperceptive to anyone but me to indicate no other nearby threat. The other two Latinos had not deserted their post at the rear door. I turned slowly. Several tea bags shared the pocket with the disc when I removed it from the big trench coat pocket. Into the teabags emptied, gauze-netted pouches, I had poured black pepper. The disc’s opaque surface hid the pepper bag from sight the way a thumb drive couldn’t possible have blocked. Slow movements to take the disc from my pocket gave them a clear view of the disc, but not of the teabag behind it, while my slow turn toward the woman had rotated my waist until the gun pointed at my oblique muscle. The woman smiled. Instead of handing the disc to her when she held out her hand, I flicked my wrist, sending the disc spinning eight or ten feet away across the room toward another kiosk.
Instinctively, three pairs of eyes tracked its flight. The second they looked away, I ripped open the bag with my thumb and swept the peppery contents into the faces of the men. Eye-stinging, nose-watering, black pepper engulfed their heads. As I swept it right to left, my left hand swatted the handgun out of line with my body. When its muzzle swung clear, I kneed the man between his legs. His testicles turned into a pulpy mass of mashed pain. He doubled over, wheezing, his weapon forgotten, in too much pain to draw a full breath. After lacing my fingers together, I brought the callused ridges of my joined hands down hard onto the back of his neck. Two different bursting nerve centers dropped him to his knees.
“Pendejo, motherfucker,” cursed the woman. “That’s Garland. Kill him!”
While the second man’s hand streaked for his weapon, I sent a stiff elbow up under his chin and followed through with a kidney punch that stunned him into a statue brimming with paralyzing pain. Sighting carefully, I rammed a heel into the side of his ankle, just above his heel, striking past and through my target. The anklebone crunched pleasingly and now lay at a ninety-degree angle to his shinbone. He’d never squat heavy weights or sprint again. The ankle kick was unnecessary for defence, for he had given up trying to draw his weapon and instead had raised his hands in front of his face and throat while squinting through pepper-blinded eyes. But I wanted to leave a going away memento. Not only was he out of commission, but at least one other person would have to help him out of the building. One less person to chase us.
Kira had not been idle, either. Unlike her comrades, the woman who had ordered me to relinquish the disc had stood furthest from me. Only half the dosage of pepper the men experienced had clouded her eyes. Even partially blinded, the substance did its job well enough to slow her movements as she removed a little semiautomatic nine-millimetre from her purse. I had not moved toward her. No need. Kendo calloused and strengthened fingers with an immaculate manicure closed around the woman’s wrist and twisted it smoothly backwards. When the woman bent forward under the pressure of her right arm being hiked high up behind her back, Kira grabbed the handgun in her other hand and bent it up toward the elbow until the woman had no choice but to release the weapon or suffer a broken wrist and lose the weapon regardless.
Having shoved the woman wearing the yoga pants to the ground face-first, Kira tucked the confiscated gun into a baggy pants pocket and joined me. Unmolested, we casually moved through the crowd in the opposite direction of the disc. Milling crowds and their thronging presence welcomed us. If the woman recovered from the pepper cloud more quickly than we anticipated, an ocean of bodies made tracking us with a second handgun impossible. I looked over the top of my sunglasses back the way we had come. One man lay huddled in pain, imitating an armadillo. The woman groped at her eyes, trying to clear them while the second man tugged at his companion’s arm on the floor speaking hurriedly. He favoured his right leg and gasped a little for breath. Thick neck muscles had saved him the full measure of my elbow to his throat. Weight training had its uses, I thought to myself.
Confused people turned to watch the trio wondering what had transpired. Others glanced at us as we hurried on by, but with no more interest than a slight irritation as we ducked into and out of the crowd and brushed quickly past onlookers. A few people may have wondered why we wore sunglasses inside, and fewer still would remember that fact under questioning if it came to it.
Kira put her arm around my waist and laid her head against my shoulder. We slowed to attract less attention. The warm butt of the handgun she had confiscated nudged my hand. We came to a stop. I tucked the weapon down into the waistline of my pants when Kira moved her body in front of mine to block anyone from sighting me do so. She scanned the crowd on either side of us before going up on her tiptoes to press her lips against my cheek. After which, she casually looked over my shoulder in front of us, left and right. Facing the kiosk we had vacated, I scanned the crowd for reinforcements.
She whispered into my ear, “All clear in front. Did they retrieve the disc?”
“Not yet, but the woman is moving in that direction. Two others are converging on their position from across the floor. One Caucasian and one Latino. Both muscular and wearing coats that may conceal weapons.”
“And the kiosk men?”
“They’ve regained mobility, mostly.”
“Motion at exit number two. Several hotel security staff just entered the main doors. They are talking on radios. Wait. Two men have taken up positions inside the main entrance. Dark complexions. Alert.”
She said, “We leave through the side entrance by the elevators. No camera on that exit door. No movement I can see. If we leave through the lobby, we risk cameras. Less likely anyone will be watching a side exit. And we’d have to pass two sentries with radios. Let’s assume there’s a driver as well waiting outside.”
“I’d prefer to capture one.”
Kira considered my unspoken request.
“Did we obtain the information we came for?”
Five seconds passed. Warm breath ruffled my neck. Capable arms squeezed my waist, encouraging me to stay when I had almost decided to move. I knew she would follow my lead. Another five seconds passed before I felt my emotions relax. Long and low, I exhaled, hugged Kira briefly and stepped away from her.
“Yes. Thank you. Mission objectives completed. Come. Before I change my mind and act impulsively.”
“I, too, want to face them, Bruce. They entered my home armed and ready to kill, but now is not the time.”
“Doesn’t change how I feel.”
“I know. We’ll find her. Once they recover the disc, we will have time.”
While Kira and I walked through the crowd like any other couple, moving calmly and steadily toward one of three exits we planned for, I allowed myself to reminisce. Prisoners wore sunglasses for a variety of reasons, none of which included the desire to mimic Las Vegas coolness. Dark sunglasses concealed the owner’s intent, and they shielded the eyes against the introduction of hot fluids, bleach and of course, black pepper. Welcome to my world. The disc had not flown far; it had served its purpose and drew the hunters out into the open. All thanks to Odera. Many people had used that kiosk’s computer, but not everyone had had a gun jammed into the base of the skull for doing so.
Several bits of deductive logic came together. Odera had guided them to the specific kiosk, had told them we visited the convention, which meant she was alive. She was alive because of the list she emailed to work. Alive to supply information, and to continue to give her captors information. Alive because we had what the Machine wanted. And she would stay alive. Of that Kira and I felt certain. The brief ‘To whom it may concern’ letter we put on the thrown disc promised I would not involve the police if this Machine’s leader turned out to be slow on the uptake.
We did not begrudge Odera supplying information. We counted on it. Usefulness kept her alive. And she would stay alive so long as they scrambled to locate me. So long as they believed I possessed the original computer file, they dared not kill her. The file had to be the key, but I still did not know how it connected Odera and the Machine. Failure is not the absence of success. It is the absence of endurance.
Now it was Odera’s turn. I needed her to keep telling this Machine whatever they wanted to know about me and about my life and my habits and not to hold anything back. Odera’s information made the Machine’s actions predictable, while our actions would be anything but. We needed them to focus their efforts on Kira and me. Kira equated another unknown, an untidy thread to sever before the Machine dared to eliminate Odera. Kira willingly put herself at risk by standing with me, and by extension, with Odera. Our lives, our potential threat to the Machine’s activities were the only insurances we owned to keep Odera alive. I still did not know the ‘what’, but Kira and I knew vaguely who, and maybe where. What was the common denominator between Cornerstone Gyprock’s commercial wallboards and the Machine? It did not make one bit of sense. When that piece finally fell into place, we would know everything.Smart people were dangerous. Kira and I were growing smarter. Soon, we would be dangerous.