It was about an hour past dawn.
He sat in a park to eat a choripan for breakfast.
He’d also bought coffee — two shots of espresso and steaming milk — in a paper cup from the same early opening bar.
Yellow leaves were falling onto the gravel pathway. It was cold, but not so cold his breath steamed. He’d shrugged off his leather jacket to put on a sweater. Then he put on the leather jacket again and felt gradually a little warmer, the shudders leaving his body.
The sun rose over the trees in the park, glaring on his face. It smelled fresh and clean here in the early morning but the traffic had begun to roar on nearby streets. And now people were walking through the park, striding fast on their way to work.
An old man had set up his knife sharpening wheel on the corner. He pedalled fast with one foot to drive the wheel and held the knife in both hands as blue sparks flew from its contact with the water-sprinkled sharpening stone.
The blue eyed man found the screeching of the steel on stone pleasant.
He finished the last bites of the choripan and swallowed the last of the coffee and sat back on the bench, shutting his eyes. He saw Akiko. Of course. Why not? She was always there with him. After Mexico, he hardly saw anybody else. Maybe Ilena Sanchez sometimes.
He laughed. How absurd. He and the blue eyed assassin woman had never even made love. They’d sat in his blue car on a Mexican sidestreet and talked, as he held a cloth to his bleeding nose. The one she’d smashed for him in the bathroom of the tequila bar.
Was it love? Was it desire? He didn’t know.
Like most men in his deadly and unstable line of work, the blue eyed man had developed rituals to manage the senselessness, and also some keen superstitions.
He’d left his rental house in the bleak suburbs in the middle of the night and walked all the way here, downtown, lugging his suitcase because of nothing more than a vague discomfiting feeling. But it wouldn’t be the first time. Nor, he hoped, the last.
He’d done the same once in Algiers. Once, too, in New York City. That time, he’d walked around most of the night and ended up sitting in Washington Square Park at sunrise.
He blinked into the sun. It was tempting to stare into it, but he didn’t. He shut his eyes again. He felt the skin of his face humming like a hive of bees with sun-warmth.
The pistol was in his waistband, pressed sharply and comfortingly to the base of his spine, warmed by his own flesh. The double-edged commando knife was in the leather sheath taped to his left ankle. All of his remaining cash and fake passports were stashed in the suitcase, inside a slit he’d made in the yellow silk lining. This park bench was home, for now.
Here he sat, like a noble beggar, like a lost king.
If only he had some cigarettes.
But he’d stopped smoking long ago.
If only he had Ilena Sanchez. He remembered how comforting it felt, to lay his head on her naked breasts in that hotel room in Acapulco.
Sweaty and happy, listening to the band in the garden below play Besame Mucho for the tenth time that night. The long, sly slow languor of the saxaphone solo.
As for Akiko, he could only imagine her lying on a beach in the glaring sunlight. In a white bikini, or maybe bare-breasted, glistening with coconut oil.
If only one could go there.
If only one could get away from “the life.”
But the life was like quicksand.
Every time you struggled to get out, you just sank deeper.
Here, in Buenos Aires, he’d realized that he was sunk up to about his neck in “the life” that he’d fled.
When had he realized this? Maybe when Ilena Sanchez toc-toc-toc-ed past the cafe in her high heels and wine colored cape. That lush mouth. Those beautiful arched brows. Who’d put her up to it?
It was the Government by Shadows. The Group of 22. Clearly! They had the money to buy intelligence. They had the impunity to use it. He’d become their enemy by publishing a book documenting a few of the Organization’s ruthless plots and deceptions. It wasn’t just on the Internet, in bits and pieces, anymore. A publisher had brought it out in paperback. He’d seen it in bookshop windows, even in airports. By “Anonymous.” No author photo.
But the Organization knew precisely who he was, even if it still didn’t know quite where. Time would change that last part, too.
What a fool he’d been to run. He should have joined with Akiko. Should have persuaded her by saying: “There’s no safety in running out. We’ve got to go straight for the head. Kill them all. Then we’ll be safe.”
She was a Medusa assassin, for pity’s sake. With this beautiful and deadly Akiko’s help, he could have assembled a team and cut a bloody swath through all the hired help straight to the source.
Too late! Too late for regrets! The end of life is bitter, like the stub of a cigarette. Most men in his business didn’t make it long past forty. His ticket was coming overdue. He was lucky to have lived up to now!
It took an hour for Kenzo, the computer expert, to track down all the information Akiko had asked for.
She paid him a handsome bonus and left his apartment building into the Tokyo night, the bag slung over her shoulder.
It held all that she’d brought with her from Okinawa. All she’d need, including Tommy Ko’s sword.
She’d parked her bike on a side street. She strapped down the bag and sat on the cold seat to put on her helmet, gloves.
It was time for a decisive strike. One that would startle the Organization. Maybe after this it would draw back a little.
For Akiko had realized, standing on the balcony of Kenzo’s apartment as she smoked a cigarette, flicking her ashes into the void, that she needed more time to train, time to regain her fine edge as a killer.
Too close. They had come too close.
In Kenzo’s bathroom she’d studied the dark bruise on her shoulder. The angry suture-line of Tommy Ko’s katana cut. The powder burn on her cheek.
These were more injuries, all at once, than she’d had in her five years as a professional assassin travelling all over the wold to kill human beings for the Organization’s money.
And these came on top of the cracked collarbone given to her in the island mountain temple by another Medusa, and the rib bruised by the Chinese kung fu expert in San Francisco. A blow that was off by only a half inch of being fatal. How many more such near-misses could one woman’s body take?
Perhaps, after killing Omitsu, she’d become too relaxed, too confident in her ability.
Or was she just — finally — worn out? At the end of her rope?
I still have enough rope left to hang somebody with.
Armand took a taxi to the address Katsumoto had given him.
This was Katsumoto’s “safe house.” It was known only to himself, his bodyguards, and his two pretty empty-headed Japanese schoolgirl girlfriends.
Outside the gate of the quiet house in a secluded neighborhood, after the taxi’s lights had drifted off into the mist, Armand checked the action of the Israeli Desert Eagle .50 magnum pistol he’d brought along from Katsumoto’s office, where it was kept in reserve for him. He carried it everywhere on his periodic visits to Tokyo.
Snick. It worked smooth as ever.
It held a 7 round clip. There was one round in the barrel. A custom-made sausage-length silencer added length and cumbersomeness. Armand slipped the safety off and stuck the gun under his belt at one side, leaving the leather jacket unzipped for quick access.
He patted the breast pocket of his leather jacket. His fingertips felt the shape of the double-edged curve-bladed combat knife. The wicked blade was stuck in its canvas sheath; the naked steel H grip protruded. It could be drawn out from there in a single deft movement.
He now pressed the buzzer with a forefinger.
A crackling voice asked who it was. He put his mouth close to the receiver and gave the code in a soft undertone. The gate clicked. He pushed it open with his left hand. Then he wiped the moisture from that hand onto his trouser leg.
He shut the gate behind him and walked through the misty garden. Bamboo stood six feet tall on either side. He could hear flowing water. It was a traditional house with a traditional garden.
He could also hear girlish laughter. Katsumoto was still playing with his toys.
The front door was opened by one of Katsumoto’s yakuza guards. Fierce, black eyed, mouth drawn as always in a frozen sneer, neck blazingly tattooed. This was the gangster type that made the boss feel safe.
There was one more thug just like him inside, Armand knew. They were both armed with pistols. They probably even had swords somewhere.
Armand could never grasp the yakuza fascination with swords. They were impractical for close indoor combat. A samurai or yojimbo fantasy, no doubt.
As he stepped inside past the scowling man, Armand put a cigarette into his lips. He searched in a side pocket of his jacket as if for a lighter. Then he turned to the yakuza and asked him, in Japanese, for a light.
Sneering as if at a private joke, the yakuza brought out a fat gold lighter, held it out and chest height, and clicked it. Armand bent toward the flame.
The thug did not note Armand’s eyes glancing about the main room to make sure it was empty. He grunted. Then he coughed something wet and salty — blood. He staggered back, his eyes rolling. Armand pressed him against the doorjamb and forced the knife blade deeper into the yakuza’s throat. Then he cut sharply upward and to the side and a jet of blood hissed out as Armand turned his head away — hissing and splattering, the jet of blood instantly turned the bare wall into a Jackson Pollock canvas.
The yakuza’s knees bent. He sank slowly, Armand letting his slip inch by inch with an elbow pressed to his chest, until he was sitting on the foor.
The blood spurts ebbed and then stopped. The stark black eyes stared at Nothing. The mouth was drawn in a tight, gruesome grimace. Armand wiped his blade on the man’s polo shirt. He slid it back into its sheath. Straightening up, he drew out the Desert Eagle. Walking softly on the thick carpet, he entered the next room. Empty. Then the next. Empty. He heard more girl’s laughter. It came from the “study.”
He entered the study to find Katsumoto in his black silk robe, seated on the black leather sofa smoking a cigarette — a naked girl on each knee. He was holding a glass of Suntory in the hand that didn’t hold the burning cigarette. The other yakuza bodyguard was yawning as he lounged in an armchair. Armand waved to him as he began to stand, and as he settled back again, still yawning, Armand brought up the pistol from his side and shot the man in the chest. Twice.
Armand then turned to Katsumoto and fired, his bullet smashing to powder the right lens of the boss’s glasses and sending a spray of blood-brains over the calligraphy scroll just behind him. Katsumoto fell sideways, spilling the girls from his lap. His drink fell on the floor and shattered. His fingers still held the burning cigarette.
As the girls began to scream, Armand shot one, then the other — both in the chest. They flew backward like naked dolls.
The yakuza had staggered to his feet and was coming at Armand with a milk-white gleaming katana. He’d snatched up the sword from the rack beside him and whipped it out of its scabbard while Armand killed the boss and the girlfriends. The sight of the razor honed blade gave Armand an adrenaline rush. But the man had been hit twice by .50 rounds and he came without any great energy or speed. Armand shot him again, this time opening a “third eye” in his forehead, and the thug went down, his sword clanging. Armand searched the room with eyes narrowed against the smoke. He noted that the yakuza’s still-holstered pistol was lying on table halfway across the room.
Guns vs. swords. Guns win. Yakuzas had better wake up to reality.
Armand stuck the Desert Eagle back into his waistband and went slowly to Katsumoto. He took the burning cigarette from the boss’ fingers. He dropped it on the carpet and stepped on it, grinding it flat with the toe of his shoe. Then, sweating a little, he walked to the big desk on the other side of the room to gather up any documents that might connect the corpses to Dragon Industries.
There were very few such documents. After fifteen minutes or searching, he tossed a half dozen files into an empty briefcase he’d found behind the desk. He placed Katsumoto’s laptop computer and cell phone in the briefcase also and clicked it shut.
This small house cleaning operation had been a ringing success. The Homburg Man would be bitterly pleased — pleased in that bitter, silent, lizard-like way he had of being pleased — if anything could please him while deadly “Akiko” still dashed around Tokyo decimating the Organization’s hit teams. Time to go dark.
When the blue eyed man got up from the bench, his knees so stiff they cracked, he had a plan.
He picked up his suitcase and started walking with a shrug.
As he walked, his gaze drifted from side to side. Taking everything in. Always aware, always alert.
Alertness had long since become his “second nature.” What was his first? Violence. Explosive, short, and meaningless.
Plotting, also. He was, he reflected, good at plotting and set-ups.
The thought made him smile. A thin, bitter smile.
His blue eyes as he walked remained seemingly unfocussed, vague, even “empty.”
He walked slowly, like a man who knows where he’s going and doesn’t care how long it will take to get there.
He checked into a tourist hotel. He had to show a passport. He showed the one for Franz Zimmer.
He explained in what he hoped was properly German accented Spanish that he had just come from the airport and was tired.
The pretty blonde girl at the desk merely tossed her head. A strand of hair came loose and dangled over her smooth brow.
She pouted a small smile at him when she caught his glance lingering on her chest.
She was really beautiful, pale and slim, with a nice body, and she was wearing a tight gray sweater with no bra. As he glanced at her, the nipples rose.
But the blue eyed man knew he was too old for the girl. She was barely more than a teenager.
He lowered his eyelids and bent over the register to affix his sweeping signature. When he straightened up, she was smiling at him with her eyes narrowed in a silent laugh, and her stark face was suffused in a blush. It wasn’t a laugh of derision. That blush was erotic in nature. Obviously, she found him attractive in some way. Mysterious, at least. A man old enough to be her grandpa. He smiled and asked her name. Ingrid, she said. He said, Franz, and reached for her hand. They shook hands. Ingrid laughed out loud, from startled embarrassment. But her fingers were cool and slender. The blue eyed man felt an erotic thrill. He dropped her hand, nodded to her like a king, the lost noble king he was, and picked up his suitcase as he turned to walk across the marble floored lobby to the brass caged elevator.
He took the elevator to his floor. He entered the non-descript room with a creaking parquet floor and a single battered Oriental carpet, set down his suitcase by the bed and went to the window first, as he always did, parting the drapes with his fingertips. He studied the street. There was an intersection, a small square in the middle with a fountain and four dusty trees. Hooting traffic. A few pedestrians drifting along. Small shops, a cafe. He opened the drapes but left the gauzy curtain in place to screen him a little.
He took the gun from his belt and slid it under the mattress, on the side of the bed by the window. He sat on the bed. Its springs squeaked and it sank beneath him. He felt inexplicably depressed. Is this all life was for him now? He shut his eyes. “Ingrid” was downstairs, moving around lithe and self-satisfied in that tight sweater. Maybe he should try romancing this Ingrid. She was certainly beatiful enough, stark and pale, the blood pulsating hotly in her neck and fingertips. And she had a charming blush, and a ringing intense laugh. A fugitive could do worse.
Why, then, did the erotic thrill in his body sing to him only of Ilena, Ilena Sanchez? A woman in her forties, like him?
Or, if not Ilena, then definitely this amazing Akiko. He slumped his shoulders and permitted himself to suffer for a long instant — to suffer from the deranged regret that he’d never made love to Akiko. He should have proposed it. He’d felt her interest. He could almost taste her.
What was wrong with him? Maybe everything was wrong from the beginning. Maybe it had gone wrong a long time back, in Mexico or before that — at his lavish wedding in Georgetown, for example, or the fresh spring morning twenty years before it when he arrived at the assassin’s training school in North Carolina.