5:45 p.m.: Yellow Birch Retirement Community.
Claire decided to leave early. She planned to reach her destination before nightfall. Closing her front door evoked feelings of regret. Another message had been deposited on her voice messaging service. Detective Sands had called again. Robert and Catherine called as well. Claire almost returned their calls, almost replied to the messages in a moment of familial weakness. Entrusting her granddaughter to the man wanted for her abduction came hard. Claire was privy to Odera’s possible location. Guilty men did not leave money and disclose their intentions.
She had two choices, trust Bruce’s assessment, or pick up the telephone and notify the police. She had considered betraying his trust out of fear. It had been a close call. She had had the phone in her hand with her finger poised above the buttons. Odera trusted Bruce. So must she. If she told the authorities, she put Odera’s life in extreme jeopardy. Claire forced herself to believe that. To feel anything less would have precipitated a telephone call. After her initial episode of worry, she reclaimed her wits. Bruce’s reasoning was sound. The points he made were cogent. She could not punch holes in what he had told her. Bruce wanted Odera returned unharmed as much as she did. He was neither scatterbrained nor was he driven by erratic emotions. He came across as calm and deliberate.
Claire had studied Bruce closely as he explained himself. And though his stoic visage revealed little of the turbulence churning beneath its veneer, she glimpsed seams of intensity that reminded her of younger and wilder days. His eyes dug up buried memories. They burned green ice, knifing through her, searing her heart with the love he held for Odera, and the anger he felt toward her captors. She did not think he would stop until he located Odera. He was consumed: filled with quiet urgency. Gregory, Claire’s husband, had those traits as well. He, too, had eyes that reached into your soul. He, too, had been a blunt and serious man.
Gregory had been a man of action, violent when necessary ― a dangerous man to cross. Bootlegging in Scotland in the early nineteen hundreds was not for the faint of heart. He had killed to protect his cargo from bandits. After their arrival in Canada. He shipped off to war to fight for his new country, totally dedicated to victory, or to returning wrapped in the Canadian flag. Nothing short of a complete victory was acceptable to Gregory. Claire had both loved and hated those traits in her husband. Beneath Gregory’s youthful cockiness emanated an unspoken competence that made Claire believe he would return from WWII. It had been too painful to believe anything else, even if there were times when she was certain she told herself lies.
Bruce shared a number of Gregory’s cavalier qualities. There was no bluster in Bruce. He made no empty threats and offered no fancy promises. He told things without frills and she liked that. History repeated itself she noted climbing into the taxicab. Strife had frequented her clan in the past and would no doubt do so again in the future. That was life. All a person could do was turn up their collar and face the storms head-on. They had always been fighters. Hard times had made them strong, had fashioned them into survivors. Scotland demanded strength from its inhabitants. Its history, her history, was rife with turmoil. Canadian history was no different. She was proud of her adopted country. She had lived to enjoy a long life. If Bruce lived, he would be a fine addition to the family. The lad weathered a wee clump of stormy weather quite well, she thought with some small satisfaction.
A dark four-door sedan waited at the stoplight. The taxicab slowed for a red light at the same four-way intersection. The light turned green. Claire absentmindedly looked into the car as it passed by and sighted two men with short haircuts and dark suits staring out the window, their shoulders hunched, necks craning forward, obviously searching for an address. The taxicab accelerated through the intersection and drove away. The nondescript sedan with shiny domed hubcaps pulled into Yellow Birch Retirement Community.
Destiny was a four-way stoplight.
* * * * * * *
“Tonight’s a go,” I declared.
Ace looked up; his calculating eyes measured my determination.
“You’re going to need back-up. The numbers are too one-sided.”
“Negative. This is a duet, strictly search and destroy of select targets only.” Kira moved to stand beside me when I looked in her direction and bobbed her consent. “Non-combatant casualties are unacceptable. If we take a group of hired guns, we lose control. We can’t let that happen.”
“Seems to me Custer possessed equal overconfidence and it did not work out so well for him. What would your Sun-tzu say about that?”
Kira said, “Induce others to adapt a form while you remain formless, and you’ll be concentrated while the enemy is divided. One then becomes many. Two become legion.”
“Chinese philosophy,” said Mark. “Fucking gibberish.”
“It’s your funeral. Come and inspect your goodies.”
We followed Ace into the spare bedroom where he retrieved a large duffle bag from the closet. He laid the contents out to expose an assortment of equipment Mark had never seen before, except maybe on television. Cotton-topped darts rested next to a fourteen-inch blowpipe. When I opened a small box beside the darts, I found a bottle of curare-based tranquillizer. Eight pipe bombs, half with percussion fuses and half with timers, pepper bags, two Smartphones, six mini-cams with combination magnetic and adhesive peel-and-seal backs, an assortment of climbing accessories and a small leather case containing a full set of lock-picks completed the items I had requested.
“Our turn,” I said to Ace and motioned for Kira to proceed.
Ace and Mark turned to each other with raised eyebrows when Kira removed the contents of the dark duffle bag we had put together in the dojo and lugged from trunk to trunk. Miyamoto and Kira had spent precious minutes discussing which items to pack while I had gone down to the parking lot and brought her car around back. I, too, was rendered speechless with curiosity when Kira handed me a unique piece of equipment and finished unpacking her throwing knives, one back-to-back mini crossbow that held two quarrels, and the short fighting swords I had used previously.
The piece of equipment Kira handed to me consisted of an adjustable Velcro sleeve that strapped securely to the forearm. A chromed-metal assembly with a narrow but wide slit at the front had been mounted to a thick leather pad sewn onto the sleeve. Behind the chromed assembly lay three inline CO2 cartridges joined by a tri-connector to funnel pressurized gas. Resting against the skin on the underside of the Velcro sleeve above the wrist joint, a small air bladder actuated the release mechanism. Recessed behind the housing up top, but ahead of the CO2 cartridges, a simple button opened the chromed compartment to reveal a tray mounted on rails that presumably catapulted a projectile out of the front slit.
A dozen four-pointed throwing stars clinked as they slid out of the leather bag Kira upended. I picked up one of the shurikens and made as if to throw it like a Frisbee. Razor-sharp tines nicked my finger as I completed the dry run.
Blood oozed from my finger.
Kira pointed to the equipment I held.
“Powered by springs and pressurized CO2. Each launcher holds three shurikens.” Ace secured the second wrist launcher to his arm and looked at Kira for instructions. “Turn the gas valve a quarter turn to the left, disengage the safety, curl your wrist down and make a fist while flexing your forearm muscle.”
Whoosh! The sound of expelled air followed by a wooden thunk and a shuriken buried itself in the door.
Ace said, “Point and shoot. No skill required. Easier on the fingers, too. When you find your twist and twirl, the bottle n’ stoppers ain’t going to let you stroll Main Street free and clear. After this is over, you’re heading South Street South, or back to the joint with a new court case to face. Make it out in one piece and I’ll see that you get out of the country, the lady too, if she wants, otherwise…”
“Otherwise we won’t have more of these warm, fuzzy reunions.”
“Yeah. Something like that.”
Mark stated adamantly, “You need automatic weapons, not this medieval shit.”
“Edged warfare isn’t for the weak of heart.”
“You always were stubborn,” Ace cut in, “but it’s your funeral. Too bad your lady friend must suffer with you. I was starting to believe she had more wisdom than you. Here, there’s one more item I was holding back in case you didn’t wise up.” He returned from the walk-in closet carrying a long trench coat in one hand, and a hanger containing a black leather vest and pants in the other. “Try it on,” he said handing me the coat. “I had it made for myself. Little tight on you perhaps, but it should do the trick. The coat’s got a bunch of pockets for your toys as well.”
“It’s got some weight to it. Kevlar?”
“Spectra fibre. Spectra is a hundred times stronger than steel, lighter, more resistant than Kevlar. Made from a polymer of all fucking things. Cost a bundle. The pants are Spectra as well. The waistband and leg hems have little hidey pockets for handcuff keys. The gear won’t stop Teflon-dipped slugs, but the chicken shit spit out of machine pistols will only leave bruises and piss you off. Of course, if you take a melon shot, you won’t hurt no more, period.” Ace turned to Kira and apologized, “I may be able to find something in your size in the next hour or two if I start now.”
“Not necessary. I bring clothing for night work. Thank you for your concern and generosity, Mr. Ace.”
Switching back to me, he asked, “Sure you don’t want a piece? Got a little nine-mill that’ll tuck in ’bout anywhere.”
It was a tempting offer.
I had thought long and hard about firearms beginning at the dojo where I had considered taking one of the MP5s and spare clips. In the end, I had resisted. To do otherwise lowered the odds of our success for several reasons. Cordite and other chemicals found in gunpowder adhered to clothes, skin and hair in concentrations that permitted police laboratories to form conclusions. Laboratory results were submitted to a judge and jury as irrefutable scientific evidence. Equally important, I was no longer proficient with firearms. If a person did not keep his skill set sharp at the firing range, he did not live long in that profession. Mercenaries were professionals. They held the advantage if I met them on their terms. Firearms would not benefit me. My reasons for working up close and personal were sound, but I looked at Kira anyway to learn her thoughts. We shared the risk. She might want a handgun. Kira shook her head to answer my silent query.
“Thanks, but no thanks. This stuff puts us right up next to them where we’re not likely to miss. What much do I owe you?”
“Honourable mention in your next novel. With the names changed to protect the guilty, of course.”
A fox’s cunning grin split his face.
“Is that a vote of confidence?”
“Fuck no. You know me. I’m a sucker for longshots.” As Ace strode out of the room with Mark tucked in behind him, he called back, “its dark in two hours. You got just enough time for a hit-and-a-miss, and to kiss your arse goodbye.”
When Mark and Ace departed the penthouse, Kira removed two katanas from the duffle bag. If the pictographs carved into their pommels weren’t forgeries, I beheld authentic Koto blades, more graceful and sharper, more elegant and livelier than the sturdier and more traditional Shinto construction. The sayas of each katana were distinct from the other; one scabbard was fashioned from intricately carved black rhino horn, the other from white ivory elephant tusk. The carvings depicted ancient battlefield scenes and masked warriors. I laid the wrist launcher down when Kira grasped the sword sheathed in the elephant ivory carvings and proffered it to me formally.
“This blade served my great grandfather. Rather than surrender to defeat at the conclusion of the Great War, he chose seppuku, ritual suicide. The sword was returned to our family by his commander. We believe seppuku retains family honour and this sword now houses his spirit. The blade was passed down from his father and from his father before him,” explained Kira solemnly. “It is one of five family swords. I carry its twin, forged from the same ingot. It would have been passed to a male heir had circumstances allowed Mother to birth more children. Father and I would be grateful if this sword again saw service.”
“What is the correct response?” I responded accepting a blade of inestimable value from Kira.
“Father believes words come and go like wind. Only one’s deeds speak into eternity. Stay true to yourself and your deeds will become part of our family heritage,” said Kira bowing solemnly.
“Thank you,” I answered inadequately. “Are you certain that you don’t want Ace to find you protective clothing?”
“I will follow family tradition, Bruce,” answered Kira digging into the duffle bag for a bundle of black clothes. She laid them out onto the bed and began to undress. Japanese culture lacked nude shame. Nudity and sex were part of life and not generally held in taboo. Naked but for underwear covering her delta, she told me, “For many generations, my ancestors entered battle in this fashion, as will my descendants if I show myself worthy.”
“Then it’s not part of Fourth Scroll traditions?” I asked shedding woven clothes for leather.
“Personal choice.” Kira beckoned me over holding out a wide roll of material, not unlike a one-foot-wide tensor bandage. “Hold evenly, but firmly as I turn in place.” Wrapping her breasts stopped them from bouncing and it neutered her gender. Once she slipped into a sports bra, Kira raised her elbows above her shoulders and turned in a circle until the long band reached the end, which she tucked and folded. Stretchy material let her breath without discomfort. “Different clothing would force me to think about how to access a weapon through unfamiliar folds. When I reach for a tool, it must be without thinking.”
Conversation ceased as I sat on the edge of the bed where I could concentrate on dipping each dart in curare without nicking myself. From the corner of my eye, I watched Kira twist and wrap her long hair and secured it into a topknot that she hid beneath a head cowling. After coating darts, I coated the shurikens. One nick and curare would paralyze an adult’s respiratory system, not a lot more and death would ensue. I passed the jar to Kira to dip her quarrels. As I loaded the wrist launchers, double-checked their functionality, and then strapped them tightly around each of my forearms, my thoughts drifted to those who held Odera. Could the three of us barter our lives?
Odera was a square john. At her sudden appearance, police would debrief her. Thirty minutes under interrogation and she would spill her guts before accepting the witness protection program with the assurances that came with it. Machines did not compromise. They did not permit people to live with operational details. They would not stop until she was dead. They would jump at the opportunity to execute a witness in the protection program because that person’s death would send a strong message to other would-be witnesses. Odera’s family would be sacrificed to send that message. Both Kira’s and my family would follow suit. Getting Odera back did not guarantee anyone’s safety.
Fifteen hours earlier, I had emailed Gomez.
He should be scrambling toward a plant shutdown. It made sense he would want to ship out as much product as time allowed, hedging his loses, just in case, trying to bring his plant into some semblance of normality if and when the cops investigated. Could he complete his task in twenty-four hours? It was a large space and we had thinned his men. How many others under his command had he redirected? One or two dispatched to intercept me at my building if I returned, certainly. What about my parents’ home? my sister’s house? Certainly, he assigned people to guard his family.
Had Gomez enough people to go around?
Don’t know. Didn’t care. Made no difference.
Introducing chaos slowed his ability to pack up and to run. He if ran, Odera died. The tumult of chasing me kept Gomez from predicting our true objective; from thinking of alternate scenarios, from analyzing our false trail; from anticipating the unthinkable. Odera’s life depended on our ability to enact the art of war where subterfuge irrevocably linked life and death.
One more misleading message.
Let him sweat.
Let him prepare for another scenario.
Kira stood beside me as I fired up the echo box and typed, “Gomez, the Cornerstone logo on your trucks makes tailing them a delight. How would your partners react if they discovered you had compromised their safety? American courts have zealous regard for drug lords. Odera and I once met a bear on a beach. You have twenty minutes to name that lake. We trade first thing tomorrow morning at a time and location named by me. I’ll bring an account number and my silence; you bring the woman. Any deviation and the cops will receive an anonymous tip.”
I had no idea who his partners were or how many he had. Logic dictated someone south of the border was receiving and distributing the cocaine wallboards. If he cleaned up before tomorrow morning, my threat might keep Odera alive until he killed me. We had made it imperative that he hunted us. He had no choice but to meet with me. It would be in his best chance to kill us, his best chance to clean up the mess. No one threw away a multi-million-dollar facility when there was an opportunity to save it. I clicked the send button.
Twelve minutes later two words appeared.
Sighing audibly, I performed a computer shutdown. Kira squeezed my shoulder, transferring hope and support.
No matter how I chopped up our options, exterminating Gomez’s inner circle maintained our anonymity. We reasoned Gomez would probably not have informed his US partners of the Canadian disruption. Not yet. No way would he admit defeat until circumstances forced him to. Gomez had a boss. Bosses did not run a cocaine manufacturing plant. Therefore, he was accountable to someone. If imprisoned, Gomez would execute us with a telephone call. His US partners would endorse our deaths once Gomez was forced to admit defeat. They would send assassins. The Canadian manufacturing portion was part of a bigger organization and we possessed no means to measure how far its influence reached. If there was another avenue to succour our safety other than their deaths, I could not think of it.
Motioning for Kira to step back, I reached for the Koto blade. I needed to introduce myself to its weight and its personality. It whispered out of saya fully polished. The hilt felt natural and comfortable ― right hand high near the collar, left hand down low near the end. An elegant weapon. The sword of the Samurai had become an extension of my spirit. We were one. Its balance was superb; its weight deceptively light; its caress, lethal. It felt like an old friend had come home.
My training with swords was crude and incomplete compared with what I held, but it was enough that I would not amputate one of my limbs. I faced gun-toting mercenaries, not swordsmen. I held the blade as Miyamoto Sasamori had trained me to and brought it down in front, palms rotating inward. First long sword kata. Right to left and back. Faster and faster, building momentum. Grooves cut into the blade to keep it from wedging in flesh hummed and sang as the sword cut through the air. Right to left, down sweep diagonal. Left to right upward diagonal. Strike and step. Three steps more and I reached the wall.
The blade wanted to cut.
It felt alive.
I know it was not true; could not be true. It was a tool, no more, no less. Did not matter. It wanted to cut, or perhaps I did. Perhaps I was projecting my spirit into the blade. Perhaps Kira’s great grandfather’s spirit had arrived to lend aid. I was uncertain. When I stopped slicing the air, the burning roar receded, as did the desire to cut. I performed chiburi, the ritual flicking of blood. Now came nōtō, dropping saya over the blade where it again slumbered until called upon.
Kira smiled tightly.
She knew what I had felt. Of course, she did. She was sensei.
While I attached saya to the clip I had rigged inside the trench coat, I wondered if this was our best option. Was I fooling myself into believing we could do this? Would I cause Odera’s death? Kira’s? My own? Fear and doubt nagged at me. Miyamoto’s words provided guidance, ‘When you have many desires, your mind is scattered, and your will weakens. Prune away desires until you have but one. Focus Gai-jin.’
Miyamoto Sasamori and Kira had never awarded a belt with which to mark my skill level. More than five hundred lessons and not a single award. We had simply progressed to the next phase as my skill increased. Never occurred to me before now. My vanity missed a blue ribbon for people to ‘hmm’ and ‘ha’ over. External pretensions were unable to measure skill, I told myself, which was why the wrinkled gnome never issued belts or accolades. Ribbons and belts were meaningless, except as stylish decorations to match my keiko-gi.
“Come,” I said, “time to hunt the hunters.”
Kira clapped her hands twice and prayed, “Lord Hachiman, August god of war, guide our spirits to a worthy end.”
Two more handclaps locked in her prayer.
No looking back.