Bravery did not compel me to act. Necessity motivated action. There was a difference, but I was too hyped-up to make the distinction for her. I cracked open the shipping and receiving door and looked inside. Probably twenty pallets of wallboards awaited transport. The voice of a Mac Eleven was distinctive from other weapon discharges. Its rat-a-tat-tat, less muffled now that the door was open, sounded from the far side of the bay hidden from view. Those discharges were not crisp and clear and did not originate from the bay, but from within a room. Five people were now in the vicinity. Good to know.
Shutting the door quietly, I slid into the high-ceilinged bay, took up position behind a nearby pallet, and listened. To my left, I recognized Gomez’s rough accent shout English instructions. Using the voice as a beacon, I crept around another pallet and stopped when I detected fire engine sirens in the distance. Soon the police would follow. Less time before Gomez departed. Any hope of maintaining the plant’s anonymity was gone. Each man for himself had become the rules of engagement. As I navigated another row of pallets and crossed an aisle, voices grew legible.
“No one with import/export details lives,” Gomez said.
“Get to it. Plant those Thermite charges on the three main pillars. Move.”
“Consider it done. Alvarez, you heard the man. Take the north column, I’ll get the other two.”
“I’m on it.”
Thermite burned underwater, and through metal at roughly 4000° Celsius, I thought to myself. What was Gomez up to? What advantage was gained in burning the unshipped cocaine wallboards with thermite? None that I could fathom that wouldn’t also be accomplished with gasoline or another accelerant. Too many employees had escaped for Gomez to contain the plant’s true function. What then, was the importance of import/export details? And which details? Addresses? Names? The questions turned over repeatedly in my mind as I used the wallboard pallets as cover to move around unnoticed. The nearby sound of heavy boots focussed my attention. I ducked around the corner of the nearest pallet.
One of the men I had sighted in the monitor came abreast of my position hugging a white plastic barrel the size of a mini-beer keg to his chest. An electronic detonator was attached to the side of the barrel. Its four-digit display flashed blue LED lights too small for me to read. I allowed him to pass by and to reach the thick iron pillar ten feet distant. After he set the barrel down at the base of the pillar I stepped out of cover behind him. Six soft steps carried me across the cement floor. As I closed the distance to three strides he pressed buttons on the detonator and then stood up while simultaneously turning around.
Our eyes locked mid-cut.
To cut had a specific meaning in kenjutsu, the art of the sword. It was not simply a matter of cutting a vegetable with a big French knife, it entailed complete commitment, an unwavering resolve to follow through and past the object of desire.
Even before his reflexes remembered he wore a pistol in a shoulder holster, the one-handed crosswind I issued met flesh. Polished Japanese steel separated his head from his shoulders easier than cutting uchikomi-dai, a bamboo practise bundle. The cut I had issued contained plenty of follow-through; my intent was obvious.
His body collapsed to the cement floor in one direction while his head bounced and thudded in another wearing the same expression when our eyes had locked. Cherry streams fountained outward from his corpse, rapidly diminishing as his heart stilled. One step more and I was close enough to analyze the electronic device that consisted of two wire leads attached to an electronic timer at one end, and to detonating caps at the other. Blasting caps were buried in grey-white putty whose sheath read Semtex. Semtex was the British equivalent of US plastic explosive, sometimes called C4. I pulled the caps out of Semtex putty. Once removed, I tossed the inert lumps of putty on top of the nearest wallboard stack, and then ripped the wire leads from the electronic device and tossed them in the opposite direction.
Two to go.
Risking notice, I ran perpendicular to the outside row of pallets and then sprinted the length of the plant hidden by the last row, bound for the furthest pillar. It made sense the man who transported two heavy barrels would stop at the middle pillar to lighten his load before moving onward. Why carry two barrels the length of the plant when he could lighten his load and carry the last one the shortest distance? From what I had discerned from the first device, it was a timer without remote detonation ability, but I was certainly no expert. Whatever the scenario, Gomez would not detonate the thermite until the forklift driver removed the pallet blocking access to the door to the little ten-foot by ten-foot room and he had departed in the tunnel I suspected lay behind the door.
Clunky footsteps sounded.
“Leonal, are you finished?” called out the voice connected to the boots.
Looking back over his shoulder, the man who hugged the last plastic barrel to his chest came into sight. Swarthy looks. Combat boots with heavy treads. Glock handgun encased in a quick release clip-on holster attached to his belt. Three-day beard and a big bushy moustache complimented thick sideburns. Definitely Latino.
“Alvarez! Answer me.”
“Your friend won’t be answering,” I said stepping out of cover beside him.
Two events occurred before I had finished uttering the first syllable of the first word: first, he paused midstride; and second, I shoved kissaki, the sword tip, under his raised arms and into his ribcage where it passed through the upper portion of his right lung, bisected his heart’s left ventricle valve, and continued into his left lung before it exited the far side of his ribcage. Stunned silence froze his limbs. Letting go of the hilt, I alleviated the man of the plastic barrel he carried. While I did so, he went to his knees attempting to cry out, but the blade stopped his punctured lungs from drawing breath. Having set the barrel down, he had gone to his hands and knees, mouth opening and closing but nothing other than dribbles of blood came out. Not unkindly, I removed the blade from his torso. He looked up, which raised his neck above his shoulders.
An urge to cut, to satiate itself upon the vanquished emanated from Kira’s great grandfather’s sword. Thinking about her grandfather and his stalwart courage to protect his family honour, I raised his sword into jōdan-no-kamae, into high guard, called the fire stance when the spirit was strong enough to scorch the opponent. Bulky trench coat sleeves allowed my arms to go parallel to the ground. An indomitable spirit radiated from my being as if to say, ‘Strike at me if you dare!’ Hands separated high and low on the hilt ― one up close to the tsuba, which kept fingers off the blade and caught opposing blades as they slid down towards the hands. Other hand held near the end at tsuka-gashira, provided essential power and follow-through. As the ancient sword of the Samurai descended, my elbows moved towards each other, palms rotated inward on the hilt, wrists flexed but stayed firm, eyes intent upon the target. Thrumming steel blurred through the air, gathering momentum and speed, singing through air currents, and finally sliding through muscle and bone and tissue to come to a halt inches from the hard cold cement floor. Two distinct portions of bone and flesh hit cement, one with a heavier thud than the other.
All that was fearfully beautifully lethal slumbered again.
It was not difficult to repeat the same procedure with the second detonator that I had performed on the first. In less than a minute I was again on the move. While I had worked my way unseen to the final column and dismantled the last Thermite device in the same manner as the previous two, I expected Gomez to notice his men had not returned.
He seemed oblivious to their absence.
Now, I pressed my back against the pallet nearest Gomez without the alarm raised. Two combatants down. Two to go. And at least one target carried a Mac Eleven somewhere off the loading bay’s far end.
Gomez said, “Hurry up. Get that thing started.”
“It’s flooded, eh,” announced another voice, male, Canadian accent.
“Get the other forklift. Fucking imbecile! I told you never to block this door.”
“Ease up, Boss. It’s never been used. How were we to know that this was the day you’d want to get inside?”
“Do as you’re fucking told. Vamos.”
Carefully, I edged my head around the corner to sight a man with light toffee skin climbing into a forklift truck. Gomez stood beside a six-foot-tall wallboard pallet. Partially revealed, I sighted the door of a room that was not depicted on the architectural drawings, which meant it was a renovation added after the general contractor filed substantial completion. If I was going to dig a tunnel, that’s exactly where I’d build the room, against an exterior wall. Everything I had heard confirmed the reason to bring the ceiling down. Thermite would camouflage his escape beneath tons of burned, melted and collapsed steel and rubble. Only one pallet of wallboards now blocked the door.
Running across the bay toward an electric-powered forklift set the driver’s belly bouncing ridiculously up and down, forcing him to place a thick forearm on the top of his stomach to arrest its motion. And though Gomez’s distracted attention presented me with a perfect opportunity to engage him, my plans required the obstruction removed as well. Might as well let my adversary work on my behalf, I thought to myself.
“Hurry up! Move it,” growled Gomez.
Sirens grew louder outside. Not far away now.
The electric forklift truck engine whined as it zoomed towards us, nearly tipping over as the driver over-steered. Staying low, I moved into a different position crossing open space unseen by Gomez who barked orders and gestured directions with his handgun. Hissing hydraulics, followed by steel forks scraping over cement, preceded a hydraulic whine lifting the pallet of cocaine wallboards. The driver reversed his machine. As soon as the pallet on the forks cleared the door, Gomez raised his gun and shot the driver in the temple. Blood and cranial fluid backwashed out of the hole, arcing two or three feet, and then slowing to almost nothing. Five tons of electric forklift truck crashed into the loading bay door where it struggled to keep going. The engine died when the driver’s foot lifted off the dead man’s pedal. Even as the man fell out of the cab, I moved out across the floor, whisper stepping the distance between us, sword held high to perform shinchokugiri, head splitter.
“Lucien!” shouted Sylvia from across the bay, having exited one of the adjoining spaces, clutching a big chromed suitcase in each hand. “Behind you!”
Honed reflexes spun Gomez into action as quickly and as smoothly as anyone I had ever witnessed. Releasing the chromed suitcase he had retrieved from behind a pallet, Gomez dropped to one knee and fired point-blank, double-tapping the trigger. A Walther semiautomatic .380 spit out two slugs. They struck my chest left of centre, closely grouped over my heart. And though .380 is considered a low calibre slug, fired from point-blank range it struck with enough force to knock me off my feet. Facing away from Gomez, I fell facedown, forcing myself to take the hit, teeth clenched as I fought to remain still and quiet, right arm flung out at a ninety-degree angle to my body. In its softly clenched hand rested the ancient Koto blade. It, too, held its breath, playing dead, waiting to act out one last scene, urging me to vanquish our foe. Gomez’s footsteps drew closer and closer. Not until I could guarantee Gomez’s death did I risk facing the other combatant who carried a Mac Eleven stuffed into her waist. Instinct told me he would not aim for my body mass if I so much as quivered. One chance is all I had. Plenty if I choreographed my movements precisely.
Sylvia said, “Leave him. He’s dead. Let him burn. We have a charter plane waiting.”
“I want to spit in the face that has caused me so much grief before I pump the rest of the clip into it.”
From somewhere behind me, in a wild and forlorn voice, Odera cried out, “Bruce? God, no! Bruce!”
Having calmly raised the Walther PPK in .380 calibre in his right hand, arm extended, elbow locked, body turned flat to minimize his profile, Gomez drew a bead on Odera who ran between two rows of pallets fifty feet away and closing, grief-stricken, believing I had died, having forgotten she carried an automatic weapon capable of churning out thirty pieces of lead in four seconds. Calmly and patiently, Gomez let the front sight of his little Walther PPK settle on Odera’s centre mass. Fifty feet was a long and difficult shot for a Walther PPK’s short barrel, whose handgrip was better suited for smaller hands than the large hands that belonged to Gomez, which was the reason why he one-handed the sleek and sexy little Walther. Using two hands would have crowded the handgrip and scrunched his trigger finger uncomfortably within a trigger guard whose cramped space did not accommodate thick fingers well. Not the most stable stance, to be sure. Two hands steadied the front sight and controlled recoil not absorbed by the slide that released excess gasses and chambered the next round, but the Walther PPK’s low calibre mitigated significant recoil deflection to a manageable level. Gomez preferred the Walther PPK in .380 calibre, in part, because of its ability to be easily concealed within a flat shoulder holster and carried virtually unnoticed by even the most observant eye, and, of course, it was the preferred weapon of James Bond, his alter ego and favourite movie character.
From the fifty-foot distance few marksmen could claim regular success in hitting the mark they aimed at in a running figure using the little Walther. Sprinting jerked and bobbed shoulders and arms and legs this way and that. Few people ran a perfectly straight line, except perhaps Olympic sprinters, but certainly not an emotionally upset thirty-year-old woman who had suffered torture, had several small injuries, and who had neither slept nor eaten well in five days. Odds of successfully hitting his mark improved greatly if he allowed her to close the distance by at least fifty percent. Most marksman would agree a range of twenty to twenty-five feet accommodates tightly grouping lead, especially when taking into account a sprinting target. It helped Gomez’s strategy that Odera ran straight at him, and did not bisect a lateral trajectory that would have forced him to track her with the front sight. Moving directly away from, or directly toward a shooter was considerably easier than tracking a laterally moving target. Plus, had Odera so much as twitched with the intent to bring her weapon to bear, he would have squeezed the trigger and kept squeezing, but grief and love and despair stole all intent from her except to reach my prone body. Despite every logical and tactically correct reason that supported Gomez’s decision to allow Odera to close the distance, a single error in his judgement unrelated to his particular handgun’s performance, or to marksmanship, overruled all other considerations.
Always confirm your kill.
Gomez smiled at Odera as he took up the trigger slack and said, “Kind of you to save me the trouble of coming for you.”
“Not today,” I snarled, already turning over, already swinging crosswind.
The shock of watching someone crawl out of the grave stunned Gomez just for an instant, but an instant can be a lifetime if it’s the right one.
Love drove my arm.
Summoning power and speed I never imagined I possessed, the Koto blade flashed into Gomez’s right wrist and kept travelling. His hand, fingers wrapped around the Walther’s undersized handgrip, hit the cement floor with a fleshy thunk and a metal ting. I climbed slowly to my feet and took an awkward step in the direction of the discarded weapon. My chest felt as though Tornado, a two-ton rodeo bull, had danced across it. White-hot chest pain from where Gomez had sent two slugs robbed my legs of coordination. And though I tried to force my muscles to move smoothly, it was a chore to place one foot in front of another.
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! My hand!” Gomez bellowed medieval distress, on his knees, hunched over his stump.
Streams of ruby fluid pulsed in jetting arcs.
One-handed, Gomez grappled to remove his belt with which to fashion a tourniquet. I turned my attention Sylvia, who by now had dropped both suitcases and reached for the Mac Eleven shoved behind her waistband. She stood beside a wallboard pallet seven or eight paces away from me while I stood out in the open, unable to reach Gomez’s Walther PPK and too far away to engage her with my blade. The wrist launchers were empty. I regretted not taking the little 9mill Ace had offered. Mistakes Gomez had committed earlier would not be repeated by Sylvia. Seven or eight paces, approximately twenty-three feet, was about the perfect distance for a Mac Eleven machine pistol to exact catastrophic damage. Few people would miss at that range.
The Sasamori clan practised mono-no-fu, never turn your back on a blade, upon death. ‘Lord Joco,’ I said, ‘if the choice between life and death is equal, grant me the strength to take my enemy with me.’
Steeling myself to complete my task despite the pain Sylvia threatened to deliver, and despite the agony of raising my arm above my shoulder, I drew the katana back to throw it like a spear. Already she brought the Mac Eleven level. Already I saw both of her hands firm up on the stock. Quick and practised Sylvia flicked off the safety. No time left. The katana had not yet reached throwing position. I hoped Kira was correct and ancestors waited for me, or I had a lot explaining.
The distinctive rat-a-tat-tat of Mac Eleven fire heralded death.
Slugs tore and crackled through the air. Tendrils of burnt cordite smelled sour and bitter. Subsonic bees buzzed my head and shoulder. I waited for the pain to come, for my ki to be set loose. I waited to die, wondering how many lead hornets would impact my trench coat and how many my flesh.
Another salvo followed the first.
Sylvia smiled grimly.
A third and final burst erupted. Pain always followed shock, I reminded myself.
Odera’s Mac Eleven clicked empty.
Sylvia coughed out red life, her chest and stomach transformed into a pegboard of fleshy holes. Her salvo had gone wild, had zipped passed my shoulder and head when Odera’s first burst perforated Sylvia’s leg and travelled upward, kicking death up her leg and thigh, ruining Sylvia’s aim. The second trigger pull had been from about ten feet away. The Glaser Safety ammo hailstorm Odera unleashed perforated Sylvia’s torso and knocked her off balance a second time, saving my life from a second trigger pull.
Cordite and smoke curled out of the stubby barrel of Sylvia’s Mac Eleven machine pistol as it clattered to the ground. Spandex covered knees hit cement next. Chest and stomach gushing now. Fighting a losing battle to stay vertical, she collapsed face first. Burnt ruby fluid spilled out around her in an ever-widening pool.
Having lowered the katana, I smiled to myself. Not at Sylvia’s fate, but as I imagined what Miyamoto Sasamori’s response to what had just happened would be if he had been present. ‘Gai-jin! What for you let polite red lady avenge you? Ancestors were gathered to welcome you. Now Lord Joco angry. Clean dojo floor.’