Leon sat in his car amid the thick Monday morning traffic, gazing steadily through the windshield with incredible patience as the vehicles ahead crawled forward haltingly.
Beside him sat Sara Rios, his girlfriend, and newly assigned partner within the anti-bioterrorist agency called the Division of Security Operations. She was staring out the passenger window, fiddling with the dragon-phoenix pendant he had gifted her two years since in absentminded anxiety.
Leon glanced over at her. “Hey, you okay?” he asked.
Sara turned to him, clutching her pendant, her eyes wide. “Huh?”
“Are you okay?” Leon reiterated.
Sara chuckled uneasily. “Yeah. I’m just nervous as all hell, that’s all. I don’t want to screw up on my first case,” she said.
Leon smiled at her reassuringly. “Just relax,” he said. “This isn’t a field mission. We’re just gonna go ask Mr. Matsuo a few questions, gather some information, then we’re back out.”
Sara exhaled sharply. “I know. I just don’t want to do anything stupid.” She scoffed. “Oh, God. I worked so hard for this, and now I’m scared out of my wits.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. Fear comes with the territory. It’s only natural to be scared on your first day out.”
Sara turned a pensive gaze on him. “Leon, why did you choose me to be your partner?”
Leon turned to her, his brow slightly furrowed. “What do you mean ‘why’?”
“You are an elite agent with a kickass reputation for bringing down all kinds of freaky mutants. You should be working with the best, not a rookie,” Sara told him.
“Everybody’s a rookie at some point. Fortunately, most people don’t get the kind of initiation I had. Hadn’t even gotten a chance to clip my badge on before all hell broke loose. Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, I am working with the best,” Leon said firmly.
“On Halcyon Isle, you saved me more than once even though you’d never held a gun and had no combat experience. You were even willing to sacrifice yourself to protect the city. After that, I know I can trust you to watch my back, and I know you’ll do whatever it takes to get the job done. I really can’t think of a better partner.”
Sara glanced at him, her dark brown eyes glittering. She smiled. “How do you always know just the right thing to say?” she asked.
Leon shrugged. “I’m just saying the truth. Your strength and determination are just two of the things I love and admire about you.”
Sara groaned. “Oh, now it’s really gonna be hard to focus,” she laughed.
The sound of her laughter warmed Leon’s heart. He smiled at her encouragingly. “Trust me, you’re gonna be fine.”
Ten minutes later, Leon pulled up to the gates of a sprawling mansion with a tall wrought iron gate bearing the letters EM.
Sara whistled. “Wow. That’s a cozy little cottage,” she remarked.
“Yeah; the humble abode of Eito Matsuo, founder and chairman of Seishin Cosmetics,” Leon said, unimpressed. “But all this luxury couldn’t prevent his daughter’s kidnapping, and it won’t stop the terrorist threats he’s been getting.”
“That’s true,” Sara agreed.
Leon thought of all the victims whose lives had been destroyed because of bioterrorism. The viruses unleashed by the terrorists had not distinguished between rank and money, but had indiscriminately claimed one innocent life after another.
An intercom beside the gate beeped. “State your name and business,” a man’s voice demanded.
“Agent Kennedy and Agent Rios with the Division of Security Operations. Mr. Matsuo is expecting us,” Leon replied.
A moment later the gates opened, admitting them into a large courtyard complete with a fountain in the image of a kimono-clad woman pouring water from a vase.
Leon and Sara dismounted the car and headed up to the ornate double doors. Leon rang the doorbell, and they stood listening to the silvery tones of the Westminster chime.
“Gee, guess the ordinary ‘ding dong’ didn’t cut it for Matsuo,” Sara quipped.
A wry smile tugged at the corners of Leon’s mouth, vanishing when a young maid opened the door. She led them inside and asked them to wait in the anteroom while she announced their arrival.
The pair stood taking in their surroundings as they waited. It was certainly an ostentatious display of wealth. The floor was made of glittering coral marble. A double staircase with brass banisters and coral-hued carpeting curved elegantly to the second story. Pendent from the high ceiling, was a brilliant crystal chandelier, boasting a kaleidoscope of colors along the upper walls.
Sara scoffed derisively. “How many starving families do you think they could feed with all this crap?” she muttered.
Leon grunted softly in agreement.
At that moment, the maid returned to escort them to Eito Matsuo’s study. She led them in then departed, shutting the rich, walnut doors behind her.
Seated at a large cherry wood desk was a stout Japanese man with salt and pepper hair. There was something about his bearing that Leon immediately disliked; an arrogant frigidity masked by professional affability which he exercised now.
“Good morning, agents,” he said with a faint Japanese accent. “Welcome to my home.” He rose to greet them, offering his hand to each.
“Good to meet you, Mr. Matsuo,” Leon replied. “I’m Agent Kennedy, this is Agent Rios.”
“Interesting collection of kijo masks you have there,” Sara remarked, indicating a wall covered with eerie white masks bearing contorted expressions of rage or woe.
“Oh, are you familiar with Japanese folklore?” asked Matsuo.
“A little. They’re the accursed ‘Demon women’, bearing grudges and agony,” Sara answered.
“Very good, Agent Rios.”
Leon smiled inwardly. That was just the kind of thing Sara would know; she was practically an authority on cultural folklore. But this was no time for myths and legends. “Mr. Matsuo,” he began, “getting down to business, our files indicate that your daughter, Hana, has been missing for two days. I understand you’ve also received threatening correspondence?”
Matsuo, who had been regarding Sara with interest, turned an icy gaze on Leon, as if irritated at the interruption. The expression quickly passed, and he resumed his seat.
“Hana was scheduled for a private flight to Japan to oversee the development of our new skincare line. She was to have arrived the day before yesterday, but she never did.
I received a call from her cell phone, but it wasn’t she who spoke. A disguised voice told me that I would never see Hana again, and that my day of reckoning had finally come. Minutes after the call, I received this envelope.”
Matsuo produced a manila envelope from his desk drawer and passed it to Leon.
Leon opened it to find a photograph of a nude woman with open lesions on her body. Her face was grotesquely disfigured with unlidded eyes and a mouth open in a bloody, slit-mouthed grin. She was chained to a stone wall, snarling at the camera.
Leon frowned deeply as he passed the photo to Sara who stared at it, unblinking for several seconds before looking up at Matsuo.
“She’s been made to look like the folklore demon the kuchisake,” she murmured. “The vengeful spirit of a mutilated victim.”
Leon noticed some writing on the back of it. “Turn it over,” he said. “There’s something written on it.”
Sara flipped the photo, revealing Japanese text. She handed it back to Leon.
“What does this say?” he asked Matsuo, holding it up.
Matsuo turned a hard countenance on the agents. “The first line says: ‘The time of unmasking is at hand’ and the next line reads ‘Isn’t she beautiful?’”
“Do you have any idea what it means?” asked Sara.
“Should I? What would I know about this atrocity?” Matsuo asked sharply.
Leon looked at him with gathering suspicion. “Well, do you have any enemies who may be trying to sabotage you?”
Matsuo laughed sardonically. “I could get you a list a mile long. Seishin Cosmetics is the leading international producer of luxury cosmetics and skincare. The competition is fierce.”
“You might wanna start compiling that list, then,” Leon said. “That and anything that might be considered blackmail material.”
Matsuo frowned. “You’re suggesting a full-scale investigation into my corporate affairs. Do you realize what that could mean for my company if the press finds out? It could lead to an all-out witch-hunt. Seishin is on the verge of unveiling a new product line; a thing like this could ruin me!”
Leon and Sara exchanged discreet glances. Was Matsuo worried about his daughter or his corporation?
“I… understand and respect your concern, but if you hope to get your daughter back, we need your full cooperation,” Sara reasoned.
Matsuo sat back, looking at them alternately, his expression impassive.
Leon leaned over slightly, pressing his index finger to the hideous photo. He gazed at Matsuo intently. “Mr. Matsuo, you’re being blackmailed by a bioterrorist. This woman was victimized―mutated into a monster―just to send you a message. That could easily have been your daughter. I’d say your company is the least of your problems.
“In the interest of preventing more deaths and recovering your daughter, the DSO will have to comb through every aspect of your corporate and personal dealings. The point is not negotiable… sir.”
A tense silence followed during which Leon and Matsuo locked steely gazes. A knock at the door interrupted the awkward moment.
“Enter,” Matsuo said, eyes still on Leon.
The maid entered, bearing a small green box with an iridescent sakura across the side of it. “Sir, this package just arrived for you from Tokyo.”
Matsuo waved her in whereat she quickly placed the box on the desk then exited.
Matsuo took up the box and, having inspected it cursorily, he began opening it.
“Sir,” Sara said hastily. “Given the situation, I don’t think you should open that.”
“I have been expecting this,” Matsuo said tersely. “It is a sample of the new fragrance we have been developing complete with prototype packaging.”
“Sir―” Leon began, tamping down his irritation.
“One moment, please.”
Leon glanced at Sara disbelievingly. She shook her head disgustedly.
Matsuo resumed his inspection of the box. After removing a layer of bubble wrap, he drew a small, white glass vial covered in pink floral vines. He analyzed the bottle then pulled the cap.
Murmuring to himself in Japanese, Matsuo spritzed some of the perfume onto the back of his hand. He sniffed it and smiled approvingly. ”Hai. Excellent delivery and fragrance.”
Leon’s patience wore thin. “Mr. Matsuo, you do realize we’re pressed for time.”
Matsuo nodded. “I will give you all that you require,” he said testily. “But understand that I cannot neglect my work. This company is my livelihood; my life’s work and all that I am. Naturally, I want Hana back; she is my daughter, my legacy and the future of Seishin.”
Leon nodded, looking at him severely. “We’ll be in touch,” he said.
“I will be waiting. Good day, agents.”
Inclining his head solemnly, Leon motioned to Sara to follow him, his mind working. He was certain Matsuo was hiding something.
“Mr. Matsuo seems more concerned about his company than his daughter,” Sara remarked when they had left the study.
“Yeah. He got kinda antsy at the mention of investigating Seishin. I’m pretty sure he’s covering up some shady business,” Leon asserted.
Matsuo’s high-pitched scream issuing from the study stopped them cold. Leon and Sara shot each other troubled glances before racing back.
Gun drawn, Leon kicked the doors open and burst in, Sara shadowing him.
Matsuo was gripping his left hand and screaming in panic. He looked up at the agents, his face warped with terrified agony. “Help me!”
“Oh, shit…” Leon muttered.
Matsuo’s hand had grown double in size and was now a pulsating mass of bloody flesh and exposed tendons.
“Oh, my God…” Sara murmured, coming up beside Leon. She quickly aimed her firearm.
Several servants came rushing in behind the agents in alarm.
“Stay back!” Sara exclaimed harshly.
In a matter of seconds, Matsuo’s entire arm had become a grotesquely disfigured bulk of mutilated flesh. His anguished cries became savage and distorted as the infection continued to spread across his chest.
“The perfume,” Leon realized. “It must’ve been laced with a transdermal virus.”
Matsuo turned to face the agents and the cowering group of domestics, his eyes blood-red and menacing. A throbbing black vein bulged over the left side of his neck and face. His mouth opened in a feral roar.
Undaunted and unfazed, Leon listed his head as he carefully aimed his gun at Matsuo’s head, a grim frown furrowing his brow. “Welcome back to the trenches,” he said somberly.
As Matsuo leaped over his desk to pounce on them, Leon pulled the trigger.
Matsuo shifted his new bulk with surprising agility, evading the bullet with perfect ease.
Leon jumped aside as Matsuo recovered and lunged at him, snarling ferociously. He fired again, this time hitting him in the neck.
Matsuo howled, blood splattering everywhere. He reared up, bellowing with rage before turning baleful eyes on Sara and the petrified servants.
“Sara, shoot him!” cried Leon as he fired another round.
But Sara stood staring at Matsuo indecisively, gun upraised, even as he dodged Leon’s shot again. Instinctively, Leon understood her hesitation; it wasn’t an easy choice, killing a creature who had been a man just seconds ago. But there was no time to falter.
"Sara! Shoot… him!" Leon exclaimed, panic for her surging within him.
His urgent shout decided her, and Sara fired at Matsuo, but despite the shower of blood that issued from his riddled flesh he advanced, swiping a monstrous hand at her.
Sara ducked and rolled aside. Undeterred, Matsuo raged on, this time heading for the servants who now scattered like a flock of frightened doves.
The young maid who had brought the parcel tripped over her feet in her frenzied haste and fell to the floor.
“Get up,” Sara cried over the din of Leon’s gunfire.
Ignoring the pelting bullets, Matsuo sprung onto the shrieking girl, tearing her apart mercilessly.
Sara screamed in horrified fury and unleashed a barrage of bullets on Matsuo.
Leon seethed with wrath. “Aim for his head. Keep shooting his head!" he shouted, his deep voice rising over Matsuo’s snapping and raving.
Leon and Sara continued firing, stopping only to reload their weapons. At last the creature that had been Eito Matsuo was felled. His horrid bulk collapsed with a deep thud beside his unfortunate victim.
The agents ceased their fire and stood eyeing the misshapen corpse warily.
Certain at last that Matsuo was dead, Leon lowered his weapon. He glanced at the maid’s gory remains and shook his head dolefully.
“Oh, dear God,” Sara murmured.
Leon turned to look at her. For a moment, he saw her as she had been when he had rescued her from Halcyon Isle; the hellish covert research facility where she had nearly suffered Matsuo’s fate. The same horror and anguish were etched on her countenance, only this time it wasn’t for herself but for the victim she couldn’t save.
“Here we go again,” she said somewhat tremulously.
Leon’s grim gaze traveled over the room, taking in the brain matter and blood splashed across the walls and pooling on the marble floor before settling on the perfume bottle which still stood on the desk, looking perfectly harmless despite being flecked with Matsuo’s blood.
“Yeah,” he agreed, turning his intense platinum blue eyes back to Sara. “And by the looks of things, this is only the beginning.”