“It’s okay, Odera,” I said moving to her side.
Surprise and relief poured through me. And though the magazine had long ago been depleted, she kept pressing the trigger. I took the gun from her. Blue-black smoke curled out of the barrel and the casing ejection port.
I turned toward Gomez.
Rekindled fury sparked in her eyes, in her expression, and in her voice, “I’ll see this through. That bastard intended to cut off my fingers and threatened me with tin snips and a fucking blowtorch. He would have let Princess Sick-Bitch torture us for pleasure. He would have killed our families just to make a point.”
“There’s half a million dollars in each suitcase. They’re yours. Take them,” Gomez said, fear in his eyes when he saw death in ours.
“Do it. Make his wife a widow,” she voiced coldly, ferocity bleeding from each word, “or we’ll never be safe. I choose us over him.”
At the lifeless quality in her voice, I turned to her. Unredeemed vengeance radiated from every pour. It was a look I was too damn familiar with, but her logic was sound. Everyone suffered if Gomez lived. He was the last of the Machine able to expose us to his partners. No one else left alive in the factory could identify our features to the police or anyone else. He had to die, which I had always known, which was why I had entered the loading bay. Executing an unarmed man was cold-blooded murder and a breach of Fourth Scroll doctrine. It was something I would learn to live with.
“Bruce! Look out!”
I followed Odera’s outstretched arm.
Crouched over his bleeding wrist, Gomez’s left hand came away from his ankle holding a .38 calibre snub-nose revolver, hammer coming to full cock with a distinct click. I floated forward in hiraki-ashi, flame walking across eleven feet in one smooth jump-step-glide, issuing dragon from water, splitting Gomez’s main body mass rising on a diagonal line. Carbon fed steel entered his right hip and exited his left clavicle. Blood splattered in an arc. Gomez’s chest zippered open to expose two sliced lungs and a bisected heart. Performed in slow motion, Gomez collapsed to the ground. I performed chiburi, the ritual flicking of blood from the blade, wiped the few remaining droplets off using the back of Gomez’s jacket, and then performed nōtō, the sharpened edge turned politely toward me as I put the blade to rest in saya. The urge emanating from the blade to cut receded.
Even as his corpse lay on the ground in a red heap, even though I understood it had been him or us, even though I had always known it had to end this way, remorse washed over me as I watched life wink out of his eyes. It did not matter the deaths of Gomez and his crew were justified. Two years ago, I could have killed him and anyone else who threatened our lives without conscience regard for what they had done, but not now.
Now I grieved that loss of life had been necessary. Empathy was Odera’s gift. No longer did prison’s beast taint my soul, or limit my spirit. Now I was free to share it with another. My life was my own again. My duty was clear. Such gifts always come with a price. Arms straight at my sides, I turned to Gomez and bowed. Not because he was an honourable enemy. That was bullshit. He got exactly what he deserved. No feelings of regret plagued me, and they never would. Remorse for loss of life was an altogether separate emotion. I bowed to acknowledge Miyamoto and Kira Sasamori. Without their Zen Bushido guidance, Odera and I would now be dead. My debt was obvious.
Looking down at Gomez, I said to no one in particular, “I owe a death in service to the Fourth Scroll. Grant me the courage to re-pay this debt when it comes due.” Turning to Odera I said, “Where’s Kira?”
“I am here.” Kira limped out from behind a wallboard pallet. She handed me her backpack. “You may pre-emptively take life if one’s death is inevitable.”
“And I heard.”
“When is death inevitable?”
“Let honour and common sense be your guide,” she answered vaguely. “But such conversations are better held with my father. Like you, I wonder about the different shades of honour that may be used to justify terminating that which is sacred. Nothing is clear to me now.”
“If you two don’t mind, can we get out of here?” Odera said coming to stand beside Kira.
I emptied everything Kira’s backpack contained into mine, placed her grandfather’s katana inside her empty pack and handed it back. Flames crackled loudly and the plant creaked and groaned. Clusters of explosions vibrated walls. Odera stared at Gomez, but when she met my gaze, she smiled. Gone was the glowing hatred. Another form of light appeared when she looked at me.
“Two computers containing the video file have been disconnected and await destruction. They’re in the video storage room on the floor by the door. No other electronic trace connected to the three of us exists that I know of,” Odera told me.
“Give me a moment.”
A quick search of Gomez’s pockets produced a set of keys that unlocked the door to the room the wallboards had blocked. Inside, a reinforced steel-padlocked trapdoor was cemented into the ground. The smallest key on the ring opened it to reveal a ladder that descended into a concrete tunnel.
I told the girls, “Wait here.”
Stiff and sore, I forced myself into a jog toward the shipping and receiving exit and then down the hall where I picked up the CPUs Kira and Odera had left and ran back down the hallway we had originally travelled. Smoke grew thicker and the air became hotter the farther I ran. When the heat began to singe the hair on my forearms, when the flames roared fifteen feet away, I stripped the launchers from my arms and threw everything including Odera’s Mac Eleven into the flames. I shed myself of anything connecting me to death. Even the leather trench coat. Rather than immediately turn back, I waited, ensuring flames engulfed evidence empowered to send me to prison forever, and incarcerate Kira for a very long time. When the fire took hold, I tossed the unused pipe bombs into the mix and sprinted to the loading bay to discover Odera and Kira speaking earnestly.
“Take the swords and use the tunnel,” I told Kira and picked up both heavy chrome suitcases. “Odera and I will follow.” Directed at both ladies, I said, “South America is beautiful this time of year. We have more than enough money to change our identities and live very well in any country we wish.”
“No Bruce,” exclaimed Odera at about the same instance that several explosions shook the nearest wall.
The pipe bombs.
“I love you, more than life itself, but I cannot go with you.”
“If I stay, I’ll be imprisoned, perhaps forever if this sticks. You’re asking me to return to jail.”
I set the cases down.
“No, honey,” she said taking my hands in hers, “I’m not asking you to stay. If you stay, I will forever be yours, but if you go, you go alone. I cannot follow you down this path. Kira has decided to take her chances as well.”
“Can’t, or won’t? What happened to remaining at my side? Suddenly there are boundaries and conditions?”
“That’s not fair.” Her sorrow hardened. “Fine. I’ll flee with you. I promised. We’ll run from country to country, one step ahead of the police for the rest of our lives. I’ll leave Grams. She doesn’t have many years left anyway. Our families will understand if we never see them again.” Odera picked up one of the suitcases. “Let’s go. Let’s abandon Kira to face the consequences alone.”
“Stop right there Mansbridge.” When she turned, I asked, “You’ll visit?”
“Everyday. Kira said she would visit as well. It’s the three of us now. We will all stand together.”
“If I’m convicted with murder, promise you’ll get on with your life.”
Outside the sirens wailed, but not loud enough to muffle the sound of the fire feeding off the plant. Smoke leaked into the bay around doorjambs. Kira shifted more weight onto her good leg and shouldered her backpack.
“Because the parole board will never let me out, that’s why. It would be dumb to throw your life away because of a promise,” I said, and frowned, for I had just finished trying to persuade her to keep a promise, and now I’m asking her to ignore a promise.
Relationships are baffling.
“Fine, if I stay it will be my choice,” she decided and dropped the case. “Now can we get out of here?”
“Almost. What about you, Kira? Did you play a part in this?”
“Yes. I agree with Odera. We have removed evidence of our presence. I will not abandon father. We stand as one or fall as one. One cannot regret following one’s heart. We are stronger together, and we do not know if Raymond Fernandez worked with Gomez. He remains an unknown. And what about other warriors who searched for us? If we run, who will protect our families?”
“Fine. Right on all accounts. But the cops aren’t stupid. They’ll tie the wounds we’ve inflicted here back to us, especially after the deaths at your home. Some employees are bound to report they saw two people carrying swords. Even without direct evidence, the pressure on you to speak will be enormous. The police will come looking for you in the next day or so. If we’re to be successful in this, you need to find somewhere safe and quiet to allow your leg to heal. I’m going to prison for a while, so you need to stay free until I can rejoin you. Odera can speak with your dad and fill him in. That’s at least one less piece of circumstantial evidence and it’ll give you time to hire an attorney. Ace knows the best lawyers. I believe you remember Loretta. Under no circumstance are you to speak to anyone without a lawyer and your father present. Not one word. Exercise your right to silence. Agreed?”
“I am not afraid of the future, Bruce. Do not worry; father will be at my side. You don’t need my promise to know I trust your judgement. It will be as you suggest.”
I took Kira’s hands in mine.
“Now please take those swords and leave through the tunnel. Call Ace. Trust his judgement in these matters. He’ll ensure you get the best medical treatment available and provide safe haven until you contact your father. Miyamoto would kill me if he doesn’t get both of those family heirlooms back.”
Kira pulled my head down low enough to plant a sisterly kiss, and whispered softly, “Sword belongs to you. It is a family sword. Father will feel proud, though he will never admit so.”
After Kira departed, I replaced the padlock, locked the door, wiped both chromed cases free of fingerprints, threw the keys as far away as I could and grabbed Odera’s good hand in mine.
“C’mon Sunset, let’s go.”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
“You are a very complicated woman to love.”
“Um, hmm. I know.” Wearing a philosophical look, she queried, “Did you just say what I thought you said?”
“That depends, what do you think I said?”
“Tell me again,” she requested as I opened the door to find a convoy of flashing lights entering the main gate. “Just to be certain I wasn’t delirious.”
“You’re an impossible woman to love.”
More than one blue and red light behind the fire engines belonged to police cruisers.
“What’s been said cannot be unsaid.”
“You definitely have selected hearing. You ought to get it checked.”
“You said that you loved me.”
“The twins, maybe.”
Odera stopped and turned to me when we stood clear of the plant. Firemen ran around us, setting up hoses, moving ladder trucks into position, attaching hoses to fire hydrants. Two or three plant workers milled around the front gate and the guard shack visibly confused and uncertain, but the rest had fled. When the fireball mushrooming out of the roof bathed Odera in flickering, ruddy-yellow light, I noted the bandage binding her finger was brown with dried blood and soggy with black soot. Her torn blouse had buttons missing, and crud was ground into her jeans. And though dirt and ash streaked Odera’s face, ran down her neck, no woman ever looked more beautiful. We kissed long and deep, oblivious to the lights, to the bullhorn, to the blaring fire engine sirens. Even then, Odera refused to let up. It was not until I lifted my lips from hers did she pry her eyes open and look around.
“That was one hell of a kiss, Lady Fate.”
Odera’s eyes narrowed.
“Say the words.” I stayed silent. “This conversation isn’t over.” She glanced at the police who were still unaware this was anything but an unfortunate industrial fire. “Let’s go greet your fans, Opie. Once they learn you’re from Mayberry, everything will be okay.”
“Call your grandmother. She’s expecting to hear from you. Do it before 7:00 a.m.,” I instructed and shared the cell number.
“Why do I have to call her at this number?” she asked after committing the number to memory. “Tell me you did not involve my sweet grandmother in your deviant schemes. First that poor defenceless Japanese woman, now Grams.”
“Just do it. They’re going to arrest me soon,” I admonished warmly, and steered us toward the paramedic’s truck. “No matter what the cops say, no matter what assurances they offer, hire a savvy criminal lawyer before you say one word. I mean it. Not one word. Cops can’t protect you against Lucien’s American partners. We aren’t in the clear. Not by a long shot. And your story isn’t going to save me from the courts. I’ll fill you in later. For now, trust what I say is true. Argue with me later, if you must.”
“Anything you say. Anything at all,” she told me, reminding me that her most scathing tactic to demonstrate unwelcomed obedience was to follow my instructions without quarrel. “Who dyed your hair? Seriously now, and this time I want a straight answer, did you, or didn’t you, blow up my condo?”
“Do you mean directly, or indirectly?” I posed for her, admiring how the reflection of the blaze in the background licked her blue eyes with flames.
I had better inform firemen as soon as possible about the existence of three barrels of thermite and the Semtex. I leaned forward to taste her lips again.
Police had yet to identify us, had not yet tied us to the fire, but they were bound to recognize Odera eventually. She was a difficult number to miss, and impossible to ignore when she pinned her hair up and pulled it back tight, like the day she travelled the muddy gravel road. Had I not pointed at the scaffolds and distracted her, perhaps she would not have slipped on the ice, and I would not have dragged her out of harm’s way, earning gratitude, which precipitated our friendship and everything since. That’s all it takes, I said to myself, one slip and your life changed forever. There are no do-overs, only follow-throughs.
When a pair of firemen hauling a thick hose moved within hearing range, I urgently motioned them over and quickly described the presence and location of the Thermite and Semtex. They warned me to stick around as they pulled out their radios and ran toward a fire truck and a man issuing instructions and who wore a black fire hat but no fire gear. The fire station’s lieutenant, I guessed.
Paramedics had arrived and were opening up the back of their truck. Be nice to have my cuts bandaged, and maybe get something for the pain in my ribs before I was hauled into custody. Unlikely that I could expect much love buried in a dark dank cell in city lockup. Odera looked at me and then to the police. Guaranteed both of our photos graced squad room walls and the monitor of every city police car. One officer raised an arm and pointed at us.
They changed direction.
Here we go, I thought.