We low crawled through the tall grass, scraped past purple thistles, and ducked beneath waist-high milkweeds as the guards inspected the transport trailer. Keeping low to the ground, we put in fifty yards before laying on our stomachs to scan ahead for cameras, motion detectors, electronic eyes, anything security-minded. Where had the foot patrol we sighted earlier gone to? Five minutes passed and still our visual sweep came up empty. Just as I began to think our luck had taken a turn for the better, Kira tapped my shoulder and pointed to the corner of the building on our right flank.
Muddy black silhouettes slipped left to right, briefly spotlighted under halogen wall packs mounted on the side of the building. Dogs. Not just any breed, but Doberman Pincers. That’s why we had not found pressure cables inside the fence. Four sleek canines swung their narrow heads in our direction and began to lope; they not only had our scent but had slipped into hunting mode. Retreating was impossible. The fence lay too far behind us. Going to one knee, I removed the blowpipe and two darts from an inside coat pocket while Kira, noting my choice of weapons, raised the mini-crossbow and sighted along it as one would a pistol.
“Spread out,” I whispered.
With one dart loaded and the other held carefully between my fingers like a cigarette, I waited. Patience came hard. The decision not to use blades even harder. Using a blade meant letting them come closer than I preferred. It risked one or both pairs of the dogs whining in pain or barking excitement. Adrenaline, fear and anxiety burned through me. Turn and run, and the dogs would snap into attack mode. Remain motionless and they would lope over enquiringly, or so I hoped. The trick was to let them come close, so we would not miss, but not too close that I lacked time to reload and fire again. Although the mini-crossbow carried one quarrel up and one quarrel down, the blowpipe had to be recharged after each release. No matter how mini and compact the crossbow may have been, it was a bitch to crank and lock and we hadn’t brought a second.
“Easy, now. The poison will work quicker if you can take them in the throat, but not at the risk of a miss.”
“I’ll take the two farthest away.”
Twenty feet now and closing. Doberman pincer heads dipped lower and their ears came forward. Brown and black whiskered lips twitched. Snarling lips uncurtained long white curved incisors. Bolt number one twanged. The sudden sound quickened their pace. One heartbeat passed and a sharp cough sent my first dart speeding toward its target. As if by magic, a cotton-topped head bobbed up and down out of the lead dog’s chest. While the dog snapped at it briefly, before refocusing its attention on me, Kira’s next bolt found a second tawny chest. Those bolts contained enough force to bury themselves halfway to the fletching at this short distance. Her targets stutter-stepped before crumpling groundward.
I reloaded and fired while Kira’s two targets briefly gained their feet before tilting back to the ground where they trembled and twitched, trying unsuccessfully to fulfill their purpose and their training; loyal to the end. The second dart I had launched sprouted from a whiskered cheek. The Doberman shook its snout irritatingly and lunged at me. I lifted an arm between its glistening teeth and my throat while the last mutt circled round to the right, about to launch itself at my blind side. Canine teeth closed around my forearm. Rather than meet the force of the dog’s momentum, I allowed the dog’s airborne weight to bowl me over and shoved it high over my head to land behind me. Automatically, I hunched my shoulders to protect my neck against the second dog’s attack.
It never came.
When I looked over, its back legs churned forward, but the front legs could not hold its weight. It went to its knees trying to drive onward skidding on its chest. We watched it struggle impotently for a few seconds longer, its brain signals denied access to a central nervous system paralyzed by poison. The last Doberman collapsed. Kira had her sword drawn and positioned over its throat. Brown and black eyes glared hatefully while it fought single-mindedly to bring its fangs within reach of my throat. Kira drove the point of her blade down. It went quiet. For safety, we slit the throats of each of the remaining man-killers before carrying on.
We trotted lightly along the factory’s south side studying the cinderblock wall that stretched three hundred yards and lacked windows. Its flat roof waited more than forty feet above us. As we circled westward, I discovered the surveyor’s lot and block property description misleading. Although two plants occupied two consecutive commercial land sections, the buildings themselves stood a fair distance apart. I edged my head around the corner to view the compound on the side closest to the security post.
Checkpoint guards chatted amicably. A four-foot-tall steel cabinet with long doors, the one I assumed held rifles and munitions, provided a resting place for the men to lean their elbows on while they talked. Both men stood medium height and were dressed in khaki uniforms with matched, stiff-rimmed postman hats protected by plastic rain covers. One guard exited the booth and stretched his arms over his head, followed by a half-dozen side-to-side bends. He looked down the road and then back at the monitors inside the building before he fired up a cigarette and inhaled contentedly. Light spilled out of the security post’s wrap-around windows to illuminate their swarthy looks. No holster in sight, but there was a discernible bulge under his left arm. I briefly considered removing the sentries, but they might be missed by the next truck. Regular radio or telephone checks had to be part of their regime. We were not ready to announce our presence.
We headed for the building’s rear.
The south wall offered neither a window nor a reliable rooftop birth for my grapnel to catch. Not so much as a drainpipe ran from ground to roof. When I looked to Kira for a suggestion, she motioned for us to continue onward. The plant’s flat roof, with its conspicuous absence of rooftop units, cancelled our climbing intentions. I could throw a grapnel for an hour hoping to catch an edge and all I would do was make noise and burn up the remaining darkness. We continued along the rear wall.
Stone crunching beneath heavy boots sounded from around the next corner, followed by a dog’s high-pitched, eager whine. We came to a halt. Human voices floated to us. Intermixed with the deep voices, we heard harsh and hoarse panting. Panting created by at least one dog pulling hard against a collar, we surmised, hoping it was not one dog per man. Canine whines intensified.
“Satan, heel,” ordered an accented voice. The whining and panting stopped. Almost immediately, I heard, “Search!”
Paws pounded on gravel, growing louder and closer. I stepped back from the corner and reached into my pocket for the blowgun when a tar-black Doberman Pincer rounded the building five or six yards away hugging the corner like a greyhound going for a jackrabbit. It had travelled a little too wide and cut back inside, cornering like a Formula One car. The blowgun snagged on my coat pocket lining. Cropped and pointed ears swivelled. Coal-black eyes zeroed on my movement. Growled low and menacingly, the dog issued its challenge.
The sword’s leather-wrapped hilt filled my hand.
I performed netsuke. The crouched draw. The draw that carried death in the same movement. The most important kenjutsu draw that existed. Japanese steel whisked free. Happiness to cut flooded my senses. From a dead run the Doberman sprang into the air, jaws gaping open, canine fangs bared.
Straight for my throat.
One heartbeat earlier than my draw, Kira had executed hiraki-ashi, the sideways slide step and swung migi kesagiri. Polished metal passed through canine backbone as though through Jello, slicing past soft spongy lungs, bisecting coils of blue-grey intestine and shearing through its stomach before exiting a tender underbelly. At the flash and whisper of Kira’s steel, I sidestepped, which let the chest and snarling head portion to pass by my shoulder between us. It hit the ground and bounced once. The rear half hit further back with a squishy-gush plop. Severed backbone jabbed into the ground and held, flinging the lifeless back legs forward as though they bunched to take another leap. Blood flowed and gasses expelled from each section. Organs and twists of blue-veined intestines slid out as the ribcage came to a final rest to put a stench of body gasses and feces into the air. No other dog rounded the corner. Kira performed chiburi to flick the blood free while I moved toward the corner of the building and pressed my back against it tighter than bark on a tree motioning Kira to do the same.
“Satan. Here boy. Satan, come. Heel!”
“Another gopher?” solicited a second voice. “Shall I call in possible contact?”
“Let’s confirm contact first. Satan probably found Daisy and Bo and they’re playing. Blow the sonic.”
“That Satan, he’s one mean bastard. Probably chewed Bo a new asshole and is fucking Daisy bitch. Son of a beetch.”
While his partner laughed, he put a small silver tube between his lips. The whistle hissed. It did not sound like a whistle at all. The human ear barely detected it from more than ten feet, but any dog would hear it from hundreds of yards distant.
“Speaking of bitches, what about Sylvia? How’d you like to chew on that hot Spandex tamale? Her pants are tight enough to read her lips, bro. I think her and me could converse meaningful-like. Know what I mean?”
“Creeps me out. Don’t trust no bitch who can shoot better than me. Remember the dude who swiped that board?”
“Yeah, they tattooed his ass with the three B’s: beaten, broken and blistered. They cut off his eyelids so he had to watch them work on him. That’s some cold shit.”
“Not they, bro. Her. You don’t rock no product on Sylvia’s watch. She slap-chopped his fingers. That sick bitch don’t pander to thievery.”
“Don’t be a hater. I’d brand her ass with my love iron. Tight-assed sick bitches need loving too. Freaky-Friday style.”
Black leather combat boots broke the building’s corner plane. Walking side-by-side, two men in beige cargo pants and dark shirts took half a step past the corner of the building. I stepped out in front of them with sharp steel held at throat level. Not twelve inches separated kissaki, the sword tip, and their chins.
They came to an immediate halt.
Both men carried Uzis with long and thick suppressors attached to a signature stubby barrel. The man on my left wrapped his hand comfortably around the pistol grip. The Uzi hung from a strap, suspended straight down under his armpit. The other wore his Uzi bandolier, making it impossible to engage me quickly. He’d have more success drawing his sidearm than to remove the bandolier strap from over his head or to aim by turning his body. These two performed their duties with epic incompetence. They held conversations in loud voices that announced their position and they assumed the reason for a missing sentry animal to have been for innocent reasons. Gomez hired incompetence, which worked for us.
The usual response when startled was to freeze before enacting self-preservation behaviour. One might jump, scream, wave their hands, or just stand still. It did not matter. It lasted up to three seconds from the moment of surprise until one could coherently think and act. It’s a built-in response leftover from our Stone Age days when freezing allowed us to appraise danger, keep motion from attracting further attention, and it let the body prepare for fight or flight. Three seconds was a lifetime when you were waiting for it.
“Don’t do it,” I warned the man on the left.
They were ex-military. Some military personnel have had the three-second response drilled out of them. Kira stood behind me, her body turned forty-five degrees, watching our backs in case additional dogs answered the sonic whistle. Trust and confidence let her ignore the sentries and focus on our flank.
“You won’t make it. We just want information.”
Trained and practised, the hand wrapped around the pistol grip went into action. The thick-walled sound suppressor made the Uzi front heavy. It slowed his effort to bring his weapon level.
I issued tsuki, the thrust.
Kissaki, the tip of the sword, followed by monouchi, the first few inches of polished steel, slid into his larynx with no more resistance than popping a balloon with a needle. It bisected his Adam’s apple on the way through. Muffled coughs sounded like a very loud discharging paintball gun. Lead streamed out like loud, rough wet coughs, ripping and stabbing the ground at his feet. The decibel level of those discharges was such that it was detectable from seventy-five yards distance. Farther away if a person recognized the patterned rapid sound.
Two hundred yards. That was the distance between our present position and the shipping and receiving compound. Conservatively. Noise from his baffled and silenced muzzle did not worry me. Movement from the second man earned rapt attention when he stepped back, hand working to remove his sidearm holster’s safety strap and to draw his weapon. I saw him processing the distance between us. The belief he could take another step backward, that he could step out of reach of my blade and fill his hand with iron gave him the confidence to go for his sidearm.
Sliding forward, I said, “Don’t do it.”
Flicking the holster’s safety strap open slowed his draw. Cocked and coiled, my katana swung down from waki-gamae, the batter’s stance. Folded tri-steel entered his left shoulder at the collarbone, passed through the top of his left ventricle, his lower right lung, and bisected the anterior portion of the liver to exit above his right hip. He collapsed to the ground sliced open from shoulder to hip. The heavy calibre handgun’s front sight never cleared the holster. The 45 calibre, semiautomatic sidearm, affectionately called a hand cannon by lovers of big-bore handguns, lacked a silencer.
Gurgles came from the first man with the sliced neck. Blood filled his throat. He drowned in his own blood. Both hands futilely clasped his throat to staunch the flow. Kissaki had nicked his carotid artery on the way to his esophagus. The eight-second artery, I thought to myself. It took eight seconds to lose consciousness if the femoral or carotid arteries were sliced in two and no pressure was applied. He knew he was dying. Blood-smeared and shaky, his other now hand reached for Kira. Pleading eyes brimming forlorn hope searched for mercy. She offered the same mercy they offered us at the dojo. We offered celestial karma. We did unto him what he did unto others, but we did it first.
I performed chiburi, flicking the blood free from my blade and then nōtō, sheathing it, polished edge turned politely inward as it dropped into saya. Both men sported dark hair and brown skin. Well-worn black combat boots adorned their feet. Moonlight glistened off a high lustre shine. Had they not been professional soldiers, I might have tried for a wound, but maybe not. Leaving live combatants on our flank was not a preferred option.
Kira stepped backward when the bloody hand, fingers clawed, neared her leg. Almost immediately, his body went slack. Blood that had once flowed from his neck, slowed to almost nothing. His eyes went dull and cloudy and then lifeless fifteen or twenty seconds after that. I searched him for keys or an electronic cardkey, anything of use while Kira tended to the other. We discovered keys labelled ‘Kennel’ hanging from the sentry’s waist. Each man carried a portable radio with a PIN keypad on it. Without a personal identification number, they were unusable. Nothing else caught our interest.
We jogged around the corner to find a block of kennels surrounded by a six-foot-high chain-link fence. Two low-pressure sodium fixtures mounted on standards sprayed the area with overlapping ovals of dim light. The kennels were a combination chain-link fence, poured concrete graded for runoff, with heavy rubber doghouses. We counted six pens; five had been shovelled clean and hosed down within the last hour. An aluminum storage shed was lag bolted into the factory wall half a dozen yards away. It sat between the kennels and a water tap. Two green garden hoses were spooled on separate holders next to the tap with a Y connection. Adjacent to the shed, a brown-stained shovel leaned against a large compost barrel, whose fresh and funky odour told us everything we needed to know about its crappy purpose. Beyond the kennels, a much higher fence stopped us from entering the compound at the front of the building.We turned back.