Full-blown panic had erupted in the plant. Workers scrambled here and there, running without regard for anyone else. They dashed toward exits crowding one another, shoving and pushing to be the first one off the production floor like African wildebeests jumping off riverbanks. Overcome with terror, the explosion had put prehistoric fear of fire into the blood.
Fire hose stations went unused.
No one thought to activate a fire alarm pull station. Although fighting the fire might be a moot point when the final IED detonated, I thought to myself.
Through the burning debris, I caught sight of a yellow and black forklift truck. It zoomed around the corner, exiting a screen of smoke and cocaine powder, heading straight for us! I shoved Odera and Kira behind a steel column and dove the opposite direction while reaching for the magnum stuck in my waistband.
That hasty dive carried me out of the path of the forks, but not far enough to avoid the corner of the cab as the driver swung around. One-inch thick steel counterbalance shell that comprised the rear of the truck punched me to the ground. I let my body go with the momentum and rolled. The assembly line’s metal legs rammed into my side, bringing me to a sudden and painful halt where I freed the heavy revolver, took aim, and fired.
The first two shots struck the forklift’s thick steel cage and bounced away harmlessly. The heavy calibre weapon kicked worse than a mule. The third shot dug a deep groove into the dashboard beside the driver’s knee. Those wild shots kept the driver from turning his rig back toward me, but nothing more.
The gun clicked empty.
I tossed it away as Kira limped toward the operator’s blindside.
Upon seeing me weaponless, the driver swung the forklift truck around, no longer protected by the roll cage and matted the accelerator pedal.
The vehicle jumped forward out of Kira’s reach. I stretched out my right arm and made a fist. The whooshing of pressurized CO2 spat and hissed. Poison-stained metal spun across the short distance. I rolled left, away from the oncoming forks. The shuriken passed through the driver’s bicep and kept travelling until a cinderblock wall halted its progress as he jerked the steering wheel reflexively, disregarded the pain he felt, and reached for a control lever realigning his truck. Two metal forks rose higher, lining up with my chest as I crab crawled backward along the length of the stainless-steel compartment, trying to overcome the pain in my hip and to gain my feet.
The vehicle veered to the side.
A vacant no-body-home expression wiped out the operator’s previous intent. Curare paralyzed neural pathways. I witnessed him trying to will his muscles to obey him. He slouched over slowly to the side. The steering wheel turned with him to careen the forklift into the wall while I collapsed to the ground, teeth clenched. Bright new hip pain emitted fiery spears paralyzed further movement.
“Bruce!?” Odera called running to my side. “Are you all right?”
“Compared to what, tenderized beef?”
Shrill agony rolled through my hip like ocean waves, slowly diminishing. Bruised, not broken, I said to myself.
Odera helped me to stand.
“The stairs. We’ve gotta reach the stairs to get into the hallway beyond.”
Bracing Kira between us, we ran-limped for the exit. Half the length of the plant stretched out in front of us. The digital readout on my watch showed forty-five seconds until the last cylinder exploded. Smoke smothered the air, making it painful to breathe. A heavy chemical taint filled the plant. Emergency lights glowed red, while, to our left, near the offices, a muffled scream sounded and gunfire chattered over the bedlam. A second staccato burst rang out.
Odera looked at me.
She, too, had guessed its origin. Gomez and Sylvia, along with who knew how many mercenaries, eliminated witnesses. The factory’s fire alarm began to blare, which meant the fire department would arrive in the next thirty minutes. Police as well. Gomez and Sylvia would use their bolthole.
If they escaped, no one was safe.
“Kira, escort Odera out. Head for the end of the building. Red door. Follow the signs. Follow the hall until you exit into the compound. Call Ace for a driver to rendezvous at the secondary location. I’ll catch up. Go. Now.”
“No,” answered Odera and Kira as one voice. Silent communication passed between the ladies. “We’re coming with you.”
“There isn’t time to argue.”
“You still have not grasped what ‘us’ means, have you?”
“We stand together,” answered Kira.
“Do you know where I’m going?” I asked Odera and turned left toward a door that allowed access to the hallway leading to the loading bay. “What must be done? You don’t need more daymares. And Kira, I’m not going to wait for a reason to strike. This is search and destroy.”
“When rodents and cockroaches infest your home, you wipe them out before further damage can be done. Father’s rules are to have no rules during times of imminent danger.”
“You need our help. Isn’t that why I have this gun? Isn’t that why Kira’s here, to finish what they started? You will not shock and shake me. Have you seen my finger? Did I mention Gomez and Sylvia were going to use vice grips and a blowtorch on the twins? Try to keep up, ’kay Babe?”
“Blowtorch the twins? That bitch,” I said in earnest.
“That’s what I’ve been saying.”
“Then move your asses.” I forced my beaten body into a quicker lope. “The twins? They’re okay? Right?”
“And so am I. Thanks for asking. Though, I will probably never bend my baby finger again.”
“No scars, bruises or burns?”
“Nope, but I may need surgery to reconnect the tendon, and I think there might be nerve damage. It’s all tingly and stuff.”
“It must have been terrifying for them. They might need massage therapy.”
“I’m armed, Bruce. One more wiseass crack and the twins will not survive.”
“Who are twins?” asked Kira, confusion etched on her brow, which elicited laughter from Odera and me both.
“Odera will explain later, once she’s enjoyed three or four sake shooters.” Ignoring Odera’s amused expression I asked Kira, “How does the hallway look?”
Kira took the Smartphone from her pocket and swiped the screen to cycle through cameras until she found the one she wanted.
“Empty, but camera three shows two armed men on the run in our general direction from the west. That corridor joins up at the stairs. We need to hurry before they reach the cross corridor in front of us and gain control of the exit. Only one hallway connects the loading bay.”
“Understood. You concentrate on what’s happening in front while I greet our guests from the side.”
People ran helter-skelter all around us.
None showed interest in us, yet.
Who knew how many more of Gomez’s crew waited outside for us? Perhaps they waited for us to show ourselves, and maybe not. If I were in their shoes, I’d be hiking it out of the plant fast, and then as far away as I could get in the least amount of time, not hanging around in case we presented ourselves. The tangos closing on us from the west must be collecting quite a paycheque to hang around. Common sense dictated Gomez had made us kill-at-any-cost, targets. I started to second-guess my decision about keeping Odera in the shitstorm, but the truth was, despite the danger, I preferred to keep her in my sight.
And then there was Kira.
Even wounded, I preferred her company above anyone else’s. I trusted her to stay calm, to act unhesitatingly, and to watch our backs. Kira extended her loyalty seamlessly to Odera. I’d be fortunate if I ever again had a say in matters whenever the two of them were together.
Six seconds until detonation.
Approximately forty feet above our present position lay the hatch we had passed through to gain the catwalk. We stood at the farthest end of the plant from the tall white cylinder covered in warning signs, close to where we had originally entered the plant by the compound door, separated only by a cement wall. A red fire exit door equipped with a crash bar allowed entry into the stairwell. Again I considered sending the women away, but only briefly. When I turned for the hallway headed away from the production floor, I committed ourselves to one course of action. The T-junction lay immediately ahead of us, the door to the plant floor a dozen feet back of our position.
I shouted, “Cover your ears. Hang on!”
Almost immediately, a thousand, thousand thunderclaps boomed, throwing us off our feet. The building shook and shuttered. In rapid succession, three smaller explosions followed. Acoustic ceiling tiles and ceiling debris rained down. Odera and Kira had had her heads buried within my embrace, smothered against either side of my chest, hands held over their ears.
Yellow-orange fire flamed across the mouth of the door leading into the production floor, licking the lintel and doorframe. The blast’s voice stunned my ears and stole my breath. I felt woozy. Odera said something, but almost no sound came out of her mouth. I should have taken my own advice and protected my ears better.
“Bruce? Can you hear me? Bruce!”
Stars, little points of little light swirled around me, mingling and fading.
The world firmed up.
Another muffled crash came from behind us, from the production floor. Odera pointed. Two one-ton iron rails fell from the ceiling, striking the assembly line, crushing the metal compartment as though it was an aluminum pop can. Odera cringed. I hardly heard anything. My ears were still playing catch up.
Pockets of flames raged here and there.
“Bruce,” shouted Kira looking at her Smartphone. “The door in front of you. Two opponents. Execute snake strikes from grass!”
One behind the other, two armed men wearing combat web harnesses stained with oil and soot burst through the door not ten feet away. At Kira’s warning, I shoved Odera roughly to the side and lunged out and up taking a huge step forward, sword angled upward. The blade entered the lead man’s thigh to exit the back of his hamstring. As he fell sideways, his AK-47 forgotten, Japanese steel sliced through additional tissue. Odera screamed and ducked her head when the second man fired a Remington, semiautomatic combat shotgun. Double aught shot caught his partner in the shoulder as he fell sideways across us, punching him to the ground. Blocked by the hallway corner, Kira was unable to enter the fray, had not yet managed to move Odera off her prone body and gain her feet.
Now that I had my feet beneath me, I released migi kiriagi, swinging the blade two-handed in a rising diagonal sweep, left to right. Surgically sharpened polished tri-steel opened the second shooter’s right bicep and shoulder cap, making it difficult for him to move the heavy shotgun to correct his aim.
Sliding forward and to the right, arriving half a step behind the shot-gunner, I reversed the sword and drove its point backwards through his kidney, piercing his stomach and abdominal wall to poke out his front. As though I rowed a boat, I pulled the hilt towards me. Medieval screams filled the hallway as he fell in a heap to the cement floor, half of his torso cut through, bleeding out a single gushing ruby torrent. Without emotion, I drove the point of my sword through the first shooter’s back and pierced his heart. Before I performed chiburi to flick his blood free from the blade, I kicked the gun out of his reach and held my hand out for Odera.
“Come, give me your hand,” I said, now able to hear myself above the roaring that was in my head. She wore a blank, nobody home expression. “Put it out of your mind, Odera. Focus on breathing. We must go where the earlier gunshots came from.”
“I didn’t think there would be so much blood.”
“Don’t dwell on it. Concentrate on the tasks before us.”
“That was intense. You moved so fast. Meanwhile, I forgot that I was holding a gun. Are you hurt?”
“It happens. Next time you’ll do better. We were lucky we surprised them. Thank Kira and her cameras.” Turning to Kira, I asked, “Anything more in front of us?”
“I see people running from the factory floor, not towards it. The room we seek is off the main hallway. I placed two cameras in the main corridor: one at front, and one at back. The other three have gone offline. I suggest we take the risk and make straight for the camera feed room.”
“Agreed. I’ll take point. Stay on the remaining cameras.” Kira began to stand on her own. “No. Don’t. Let me bear your weight. Let’s try to keep that wound from opening.”
After sheathing my katana, I bent down and grasped Kira under her armpits as she braced her hands on my biceps allowing me to take all of her weight. I lifted her up until her feet dangled a few inches off the floor. Deep inside my male psyche, I relished caring for a wounded woman, the so-called weaker sex, and a person who had bested me repeatedly on the dojo floor. Recognition of my inner state, that my ego relished the satisfaction I felt, that I suddenly viewed myself as somehow more worthy than Kira for not being injured and for not requiring help, humbled me greatly. Those unworthy thoughts indicated I had not yet learned all the lessons Miyamoto and Kira had endeavoured to teach. Some part of me yet kept score and passed judgement. Some part of me needlessly compared myself to others. This was not the moment to reflect, yet Kira had warned me that I might find myself in my opponent. I never thought it would include her.
“Good leg first.” I set her down gently. “How does your leg feel?”
“Worse pain, but not crippled. I can run, almost, if I have to.”
“All right, but don’t unless it is necessary. Okay? Odera, stay in the middle, close to Kira. Let her use your shoulder for support.”
None of Kira’s cameras had survived the heat and flames in this corridor. Blinded to potential trouble, we soon discovered two bodies sprawled on the floor inside the second doorway we passed. Both were male. The first lay face down. Three dime-sized holes in the back of his head leaked red-grey fluid and most of his face was missing where the slugs exited. Fresh ruby blood pooled, sluggishly spreading out in an ever-widening circle around his head. Only a thin ash covering and minor debris contaminated the darkening surface. The other man lay in a tangled heap pinned beneath a ceiling girder farther back. Jagged ivory edges belonging to the body’s largest bone, the femur, poked out of his jeans, out of a leg turned at an unnatural right angle to his body. Dark blood covered his chest and gathered on the tiled floor. Ceiling debris and ash gave everything a dirty-grey hue.
Odera turned away from the grisly spectacle while Kira used the Smartphone to scan ahead where two of her devices yet transmitted images.
I searched for movement in the rooms we passed. Most of the rooms flamed orange and yellow and were filled with smoke. Sheet fire ran across the ceiling and up walls. The smoke grew thicker and blacker and stung our eyes as we proceeded. There was no choice but to pass through this corridor to reach the main hallway leading to shipping and receiving; the raging fire behind us had cut off any possibility of retreat. Increasing flames and heat rendered it impossible for anyone to flank us.
Odera discarded a now-empty box containing safety masks she had pulled from one of the rooms. She pressed a soot-stained mask, like the variety painters wore, into my hand and offered another to Kira. It filtered out particulates and the heavy black smoke and helped to reduce the air’s rising temperature. Our eyes stung and watered, in constant in need of wiping. It was difficult not to panic as the inferno’s voice roared around us. When Kira slowed to accommodate a stiffening leg, Odera wrapped an arm around Kira’s waist and helped her to maintain a greater pace.
We turned right, onto the main corridor, moving deeper into the shipping and receiving and maintenance areas. Tongues of ravenous fire hungered across the last hallway that branched left, blistering and bubbling paint off metal doors and lintels. If Gomez and Sylvia were down that way, they were dead. Triggered by heat, as if on cue, fire sprinklers pinged to life. Dirty, greasy water sprayed out in an umbrella from each sprinkler head. Dark greasy steam clouds rolled toward us from the direction we had come. Before the steam clouds caught up to us, we passed through a heavy steel gage push-bar door.
The air tasted fresh and clean.
We tossed our masks to the ground.