The farther we travelled away from the production floor, the calmer we felt, as evidenced by the way the girls leaned against the wall resting whenever I motioned them to stay still while I checked rooms and doorways for danger. We no longer cast worried looks behind us. No longer did they appear anxious when I asked them to wait. The heat had not triggered sprinklers in this zone. The fire was confined to the production section of the factory, for now. Muffled weapons fire sounded from somewhere up ahead. Odera tugged at my sleeve and pointed to the right at the last door separating us from the loading bay.
We had arrived.
Kira pointed down the short corridor on our left. I nodded and moved toward the door she indicated. Locked. Rather than shoot the lock open and risk gunfire notifying others of our position, I selected a probe and spatula and inserted them into the cylinder. Odera set the Mac Eleven on the floor and knelt in front of Kira to inspect the dressing. Hobbling on her leg to reach our destination had started her wound bleeding. Having untucked her cotton shirt, Kira used her sword to cut off a section of stretchy cotton cloth that had once bound her breasts. Down on both knees beside her, Odera rewrapped the cloth around the existing leg dressing to thicken the bandage. Clenching her teeth in preparation for pain, Kira disregarded her phone and the image it displayed.
“Ready?” asked Odera before pulling the cloth tight and knotting it.
Bleeding under the bandage stopped.
When the lock’s last pin lifted and the spatula seated itself properly, I turned the cylinder and unlocked the door.
Armed with a SIG 228 semiautomatic pistol, a man raced around the corner from a corridor branching off the main thoroughfare, straight for Kira who was closest. Gaging the surprised expression etched on his face, he had not known of our whereabouts, but he certainly had knowledge about our existence as evidenced by the rising handgun. Still down on one knee six or seven feet from Odera, who knelt on the floor between Kira and me, I was out of position to act before he finished raising his weapon. In the same instant that I had registered the man’s presence, Kira lunged up off from the ground using her good leg drawing her sword in one smooth movement. Had she enjoyed both healthy legs, she might have made short work of the man and maybe not, but when she landed on her bad leg, she cried out and went down to one knee, her bad leg stretched out behind her.
Less than a few hundredths of a second passed between when Kira went to one knee and when the shooter sighted and pulled the SIG 228’s trigger twice in a well-rehearsed group of seamless moves.
Travelling high and wide the bullets passed over everyone’s heads. Caught like a deer in headlights, I found myself watching the spectacle rather than putting myself into motion. On legs that abruptly churned to a halt, the man brought his second hand forward to steady the SIG and bent his knees for the next shot. Despite the pain she must be enduring, Kira had already burst into motion, driving herself upward to slash his left arm and shoulder. And though her strike lacked the power to penetrate bone, she effectively ruined his combat stance.
Despite the shock of a sword opening his arm and shoulder to the bone, the shooter one-handed his weapon to realign it on Kira’s center body mass. Another few one-hundredths of a second passed between the beginning and the end of a double tsuki, a lightning-quick set of twin thrusts. Thrust number one skewered his throat and the second entered his eye socket. Lights out. The little SIG 228 clattered off the floor when the resilient Koto blade sliced through brain tissue. She withdrew her blade, nearly falling when she hopped on her good leg to keep the weight off her injured leg, whose bandage now showed a much larger bloodstain.
The entire episode lasted two seconds.
Odera gained Kira’s side who now used her sword as a cane.
“Lean on me.”
“I could use some sake.”
“Have you tried Long Island Iced Tea?” Kira shook her head. “You’re going to love it. If we make it with green tea, we can claim it’s healthy and start the first pitcher at noon. We’ll do hot sake shooters for contrast.”
“If you two have finished placing drink orders, we’re in business over here,” I told them in a voice that belied the joy I felt watching Kira triumph.
An array of computers and keyboards met our inquiry when we entered the room. The armed man Kira dispensed had probably manned this station. Two office chairs sat at a long counter in front of eight 19”, HD monitors set up in two groups of four. Two chairs? Was there a second person en route? Four monitors in the second grouping showed split quad screens where four camera feeds depicted various portions of the plant and compound. Sixteen images in total, which may have equalled sixteen cameras at one time. At this moment, however, many of the split image screens were snowy. Presumably the fire had knocked out those cameras.
The two three-hundred and sixty-degree swivel cameras mounted on poles in the truck compound functioned perfectly. They showed an empty security gatehouse, and I hoped, abandoned. Another thirty seconds passed and still not a guard in sight. Someone had opened the long truck gate and left it open. Half a dozen plant employees, respirators yet covering their noses and mouths, ran through the gate toward the parking lot. Among the regular plant employees, I noted three people dressed in darker clothes, weapons in hand, also fleeing the property. Still others milled about in the compound looking disorganized and confused, staring upwards at the plant, as though the factory fire held hypnotic fascination. None of them carried weapons in plain view.
Production floor cameras were out of commission, nothing but static and snowy squares, filled most monitors, but cameras in the loading bay were in good working order and revealed four men.
Two male combatants, one armed with an automatic rifle and the other with a sidearm whose make and model eluded me, accompanied a dark-haired man. All three possessed swarthy complexions. The male dressed in a sports jacket and slacks sported a raptor-like nose. Soot and ash smeared his face and dress shirt. I recognized him from the second floor. Lucien Gomez. An unarmed fourth man garbed in normal working clothes, and whose belly protruded over his belt, climbed into a propane-powered forklift truck. The first two armed combatants crossed out of sight of one camera and immediately came under the sight of the next. They walked toward Gomez who waited beside a ten by ten-foot room built against an exterior wall gesturing angrily at a pallet of cocaine wallboards blocking the room’s only entrance.
“He’s grumpy cuz he’s not allowed to drink,” she told Kira from the far computer station. Limping deeply, Kira leaned on Odera. “Condition of his parole.”
“Bruce would make an excellent designated driver.”
“We should have made plans sooner.”
“Not to break up your fun, but could you locate the video feed storage drive and erase it? Better yet, destroy the whole damn unit. Gather everything linking us to this place into one pile. We’ll toss it into the fire. If you can’t disconnect it, format the hard drives and destroy the unit. Make sure you delete cloud servers as well. Cut all lines. Kira can watch the door. I’ll be right back.”
Eyeing me suspiciously, Odera acknowledged she had heard my instructions and surveyed the camera fed images of the loading bay while Kira nodded assent. She looked to Odera first, and then to me, wearing a similar expression that asked for more information.
When I reached the door, Odera said, “Wait! That’s Gomez. You can’t win over those odds.”
“Have a little faith. Four unsuspecting adversaries are manageable. This isn’t Dodge City.”
“She’s right,” chimed Kira studying the monitor. “Too many entrances and exits to control. Too many possibilities for defeat.”
“Can you execute quickly and silently on that leg?” When she did not speak, I added, “No time for debate. I know where Gomez’s bolt hole is. If he reaches it first we’re a just group of kill orders waiting to be cashed in.”
Kira reflected on my words but a moment and then said, “Use tiger stalks tall grass. Leave no footprint.”
“My thoughts precisely.”
Odera came over to stand before me.
“Fine, but I’m not finished with you yet. Don’t let bravery become a fault. Be careful.”
“That’s the plan.”
“And all this time I thought you were winging it.”
“That’s because I make it look easy.”
“Take this,” she said offering me the trench coat. “Now get out of here before I do something stupid like come with you.”