The landing door waited windowless and bleak. I was blind. A magnetic card reader operated the electronic door. Inhaling deeply, I slid the plastic cardkey I had obtained from the man in the bathroom through the silver-chromed runnel. No alarm bells or intruder horns sounded as the little red light turned green and the locking mechanism clicked open. A quick look up and down the hallway confirmed it was uninhabited.
A string of offices ran up and down the hallway. Two directions to choose from; left or right? I chose the smallest area to search first. Almost immediately, I sighted a computer room behind a sheet of security safety glass. Strung like spaghetti, blue data cables and black power cords ran everywhere. Monitors, CPUs, printers and various other electronic platforms crowded desk and counter space. A lanky man perched forward in a coaster chair typing furiously. His face was all angles and jutting cheekbones. An oversized Adam’s apple bobbed whenever he swallowed. For some reason, he reminded me of a whooping crane. Julia’s description flared in my mind.
The hermetically sealed door hissed when I stepped through it.
He acknowledged my presence as the door shut. Air felt chilled. Even as I stepped into the room, he glanced back to his screen and then his body went still. When he raised his head again, shock showed clearly in his wide-eyed expression when he discerned a sword-carrying, balaclava-wearing man now shared the room.
“Keep your hands where I can see them.”
“Who the fuck are you?” he asked; New York accent. “Garland.”
Eyes quavered, darting to a drawer beside him, right hand inched across the desktop.
“Go ahead,” I encouraged crossing the floor rapidly, “give me an excuse to go Shōgun on your ass.”
At my invitation, his hand dropped into the drawer. I closed the four steps separating us in one long glide-step. The textured black pistol grip of a large .357 revolver came into sight. The tip of my long knife touched his throat beneath his chin. A manikin challenge participant never froze as still as this guy just went. Kissaki, the katana’s tip, coaxed his chin toward the ceiling.
“Keep it coming,” I told him, elevating his chin. He stared at ceiling tiles. “You don’t need to look down. Thumb and forefinger only. Lay it on the desk and then sit on your hands and slide your ass backwards.”
“I don’t think so,” he uttered cryptically.
What sounded like a fridge door opening came from behind me.
The large man whose knee I had kicked at Hidden Oaks pushed through the room’s hermetically sealed door behind a short, stocky man I had yet to meet. The large man swung an injured leg between a set of crutches. The door hissed like a den of snakes when it closed. The shorter man covered me with a shiny silver 45-calibre handgun with pearl handles. The giant with the crippled leg came to a stop and jammed both crutches jammed under his right armpit for balance.
The lanky American now trained the big bore .357 Magnum at me saying, “Stellar timing, Dan.”
A Mac Eleven machine pistol hung from a cord around Dan’s neck. When he held it in his huge paws and pointed it at my midsection, it shrunk in scale until it resembled a plastic gun from Toys-R-Us. He stood four steps away. Too far for my sword, too close for either him or the other monkey to miss. They positioned themselves two paces from the other. Too close by my estimation for safety, but far enough not to be immediately accessible by sword.
Maybe I could duck behind a desk.
And then what, go to war with wrist launchers? Despite Ace’s assurances of the leather coat’s bullet resistance, I was not keen to verify the efficacy of its Spectra fibres. Unnecessarily testing bullet-resistant gear was wrong on all kinds of levels. Besides, I needed information.
“Pig shit Garland. Put the fucking sausage sticker on the desk and step sideways to the counter.”
Dan waved the machine pistol to indicate the direction he wished me to move, but the arc he drew with the weapon overcompensated drastically and his voice had a noticeable placid element to it, as though talking required effort. Closer examination revealed his pupils were pinned, all but gone from view. Opiate pain medication shrunk pupils and it explained the two other symptoms. Opiates slowed the mind and the reflexes. The man accompanying Dan held his weapon waist-high like a cowboy, like a hotshot trying to look cool. Fine. Worked for me. Quickly calculating distance and trajectory for optimum placement, I laid the sword on the desk with a generous six inches of the hilt extending over the edge.
“Slowly,” Dan warned. “And keep your fucking hands away from your sides. Twitch once and I won’t have a problem perforating your hide. Now, on your knees puto.” I had moved two small paces sideways to centre myself between the three of them. “What do you got to say now, asshole?”
“Where’s the woman?” I questioned going down to one knee.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be reunited soon enough. For a fucking eternity pendejo!”
“Then it can’t hurt to tell me. C’mon, big man, you’ve got me. Call it my bucket list last wish.”
“Shut the fuck up, convict.” To the first man, he directed, “Wayne, call Lucien. Tell him we’ve got Garland.” To me, he ordered, “Now lace your fucking hands behind your head. Make a move toward a pocket and I’ll turn your head into Swiss cheese. Stephen, collect this dead man’s sword.”
Stephen moved to his left to keep himself from stepping between Dan’s weapon and me. Wayne punched buttons on the desk telephone. Dan glared at me as I slowly raised my arms straight out from my sides, uncovering the edges of the launchers. The smarter play would have been to have me step back a few paces away from my weapon before kneeling. Their overconfidence and amateurish control of the room offered an opportunity if I timed my movements well.
Success depended on Stephen, on whether he was ambidextrous as well as careless. Fewer than ten percent of males used each hand with equal skill. Stephen now passed behind me, two steps from reaching the sword. Stephen’s membership to the ninety percent non-ambidextrous majority would gain me two seconds if he switched the gun back to his dominant hand. If he kept using his left hand, his proficiency to aim and fire his weapon smoothly at a moving target would drop significantly.
Most people reached for items with their dominant hand. It was reflex and natural to do so. Careful and disciplined people overrode that tendency in high-risk situations. An ambidextrous person would not switch hands, either. I estimated that I required less than two seconds from the start of my movement to its completion at full extension.
“After Lucien and Sylvia finish with you, you’re mine. I’m going to welcome you to hell, one broken bone at a time,” blustered Dan in a drug slurred voice.
“Here’s a reservation.”
I made two fists as the hand in which Stephen held the 45-calibre handgun began its trek toward his empty hand. He was preparing to grasp the hilt with his dominant hand.
Whooshing air spit out of my sleeves. Two shurikens spun silver and tarnished in opposite directions. I started counting: one Mississippi. I fell forward and to the side toward the sword. Startled wonderment crossed Dan’s face. Deafening automatic gunfire smote the room. Bullets drilled the tiles I had departed. Stephen paused, startled, his right hand opened and in mid-reach for the hilt, his weapon now held in the wrong hand.
At the end of the first Mississippi, I was rising out of my somersault focused on six inches of the protruding hilt. About the same moment I moved forward, hand now closing around hilt, Stephen’s reflexes flashed into action to track my moving body with the handgun’s front sight. As the big-bore barrel arced to bring me under scrutiny, and I began the second Mississippi count executing tsuki, the ki lunge, arm coming to full extension. When the front sight reached the outside of my shoulder’s scapula, eight inches of polished Japanese steel pierced Stephen’s left eye. It passed through his brain’s left hemisphere and exited the back of his head. Now that all of his brain action had ceased, Stephen’s body turned off like a light switch.
Dan had collapsed to one knee, a shuriken lodged in his throat, injured leg stretched out to the side, now tilting forward before regaining his balance. A second bout of automatic fire ploughed another row of holes, rising to zipper into drywall. The gun clicked empty. Opiate pain medication lessened his ability to exact revenge or any other final action. The crutches rubber feet lost their grip as Dan tilted over sideways and lay on his side, grasping his neck to dam the blood flow, futilely clawing at the shuriken’s slippery steel surface, cutting his fingers. Each of his remaining heartbeats pulsed bright ruby fluid out of a severed carotid artery.
Though I had aimed centre body mass, Dan shifted his balance on the crutches as I fired. Bisected carotid artery made his death immutable even without poisonous assistance. An eight-second bull ride on El Diablo was all the time he had in this world. Very quickly, he ceased struggling and lay motionless. Acrid urine and fecal scents filled the room when Dan’s sphincter released body cargo that a moment earlier had been held inside by living muscle tissue.
Wayne disgorged a surprised grunt.
The telephone receiver had fallen out of his hand and hit the desktop. He looked down to see a shuriken lodged between his fourth and fifth ribs. Surgically sliced skin around the shuriken curled open to reveal yellow fat globules and the stark white edges of his ribs. Tainted stainless-steel met his examination. The heavy .357 Magnum revolver hung useless in his other hand. It refused to lift in my direction no matter how much effort he put forth. When I reached him, the curare was in the first stage of shutting down his nervous system.
“You’ve been poisoned, but I have an antidote.”
Wayne’s knees weakened, buckling in slow motion while his hands futilely grasped at the desk to prevent himself from falling. Disbelief and confusion filled his gaze. Three Mississippi’s earlier he had been celebrating a future full of success and dreams of riches and girls in bikinis on white sandy beaches, now he had first-class tickets to his funeral and nothing made sense. Grabbing him by his shirt, I pulled him close to prevent him from falling.
“Tell me where the woman is being held and I’ll administer the antidote. You have ten seconds before the point of no return. Choose. Now.”
“Storage…room. Go left to the end. Last door… to the… right. Hallway.”
When I let go of him, he fell to the floor. I performed chiburi to flick blood and cranial fluid off the sword and then stuffed the revolver down my waistband after opening the cylinder and checking the loads. Never operate an untested and unchecked weapon. Basic military training. Each soldier was responsible for the safe and proficient operation of his weapons.
“An-ti-dote,” he uttered laboriously, his eyes going wide; pupils almost fixed open.
I looked over my shoulder and remembered an obligation.
“Julia, the woman you ordered shot, sends her regards.”
His lungs panted shorter and shorter breaths.
When his autonomic nervous system stopped in thirty seconds or so, he’d have two or three minutes of air remaining in his system. He would spend his last precious and few moments of life staring the legs of desks wishing he had made different decisions, or cursing me and maybe Julia as well. Either scenario worked for me. Although the amount of curare coating the darts was not sufficient to cause death, a more liberal coating covered the shurikens.
Karma was a bitch.
Someone’s voice squawked over the telephone receiver.
I picked it up and pressed it to my ear.
“Hello?” said a male voice, heavily accented. “Wayne? Is that you? ¿Quien es ahí? Who’s there? Hello! Wayne?”
I hung up.
Dan instructed Wayne to call Lucien. Now I knew the sound of Gomez’s voice. Before I passed Dan’s corpse, I retrieved the Mac Eleven and patted him down to discover two extra magazines that I learned contained Glasers. Glaser Safety Slugs were packed with small shot that scattered on impact, shredding flesh and organs in a hellish lead hailstorm ― crackling fun for the whole crew. I removed the spent clip, jacked the slide to empty the chamber and dry fired it. Good action. Afterward, I pushed home a full thirty-round magazine, pulled back the bolt to bring a fresh cartridge into the firing chamber, and locked the safety before placing it in my coat pocket.
I headed out into the hallway.The room’s design sealed it against dust, not sound. Gunfire would have drawn attention and the unanswered telephone confirmed the location.