The Mute Bounty Hunter

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She came down from the hills on a big bay horse with the two corpses rope-tied to the twin skinny pack mules she was leading. Blood had dried over the wounds and the corpses swayed as the mules stiff-walked down the dusty street. Some people watched from porches or windows. She rode up to the US Marshal’s office next to the Dry Goods Supply store and got down from her big horse, at least fifteen hands high, and looped the reins around the railing. The mules stood there in the cold, shifting a little. She didn’t hesitate. She walked up the creaky wooden steps, her boots clunking, and opened the door and went in. A bell on the door rang as she entered. Jack Ryles, the US Marshal, was sitting by the stove with his boots up on the desk, smoking a cigarillo. It stank of cigarillo smoke in the little office. The stove was giving off intense warmth. He looked at her evenly without blinking with his blue eyes as she came in. She touched the brim of her straw hat — it was a Mexican sombrero that would have looked silly on anyone but a beautiful black haired woman, which she was — and stood there returning the Marshal’s bold empty gaze with her own bold empty gaze. Aside from the sombrero and riding boots she was wearing a colorful serape thrown over one shoulder and a leather coat and a man’s white shirt under it and also a man’s riding trousers, and two Colt Navy pistols were stuck into the frayed black leather belt holding up the trousers.

-Well now, said Jack Ryles. What have we got here, young lady?
She took the folded wanted poster out of her coat pocket on the side that didn’t hold clinking rifle and pistol shells and unfolded it and held them out toward the Marshal, who didn’t move to take it but sighed, glanced at the wall where the exact same bill was posted (The Natchez Brothers, Extremely Dangerous, Wanted for Horse Thievery. Fifty Gold Dollars For Each Brother, Dead or Alive) and said, drawling his words a little:
-Where are they?
She raised her chin toward the window giving onto the dusty, near-empty street.
The Marshal swung his legs down until his bootheels touched the floor. He pushed back his chair with a squeak. He stood and crushed out his cigarillo in a clay dish full of ash and other spent cigarillos and went slowly to the window. He bent to peer outside through the warped and discolored glass panes. He saw the mules shifting in the cold and the bodies tied to them with lengths of rope, blood drying on the wounds. He rubbed his jaw. He hadn’t shaved that morning, and there were thick bristles, some frosted white by his advancing age.
-Well. You got them horse thieving fuckers. I’ll be twice god damned, he said.

Wearily, the Marshal walked from the window back to his desk. He pulled open a desk drawer and took from it a gray cloth bag that clinked when he set it down by his pistol. He opened the bag and counted out gold coins, placing them in a careful stack. Then he used the barrel of the Colt pistol to move the stack over the desk toward the silent woman. He tore a sheet of paper off a pad and scribbled a few words on it with a quill he plucked from a small jar of ink that sat open and pushed the slip of paper over next to the stack of gold pieces. He laid the quill on the paper. He said:
-Sign here to claim your bounty. I am content that you have earned every dollar of it.
She stepped up to the desk as he sank back into his chair and tilted it on its back legs against the wall. She bent over the desk, picked up the inky quill and signed in a rapid series of scratches. She slipped the quill back into the ink jar.
-Just leave the corpses of these poor sons of bitches lying there in the street if you like, and I’ll have the coffin maker come by with his wagon and pick them up later today or tomorrow after he’s made the coffins. It’s fiesta day for our local coffin maker. Oh, and by the bye. In future you don’t need to bring in the bodies of miscreants to secure your bounty money. Just the heads will do fine. Easier that way, no?
The woman nodded. Then she picked up the stack of gold pieces and placed them into a yellow chamois pouch and shut it by pulling its strings. She tucked the pouch into an inside pocket of her leather coat as the Marshal looked on with one eyebrow cocked, his boots back up on the desk and his hands folded in his lap. She nodded to him and went out, down the creaking wooden steps to the cold and dusty street where she unroped the corpses and took them down from the shifting wide eyed mules. She dragged the corpses up close to the bare wooden sidewalk and propped their bloodied shaggy heads against its edge. Then she wound the rope tightly into a bundle and tied it together and put it in one of the big stained leather saddlebags hanging over the bay horse’s withers. Inside, the Marshal had tilted his chair back down and now bent forward a little to watch her through the window. She felt his gaze, glanced up and touched the brim of her hat in Adios, then she swung up on the bay and clicked her teeth and the bay backed up four steps, turned and set off at a jog, the mules giving a few dry bleats of anguished resistance then following meekly on behind pulled by the lead-rope. She was gone in a few seconds, turning sharply at the end of the street to head back out into the arid desert with her pack mules under the vast incessant blue sky. In his office, the Marshal tilted his chair back again and rested his head against the wall and shut his eyes.
-I’ll be God damned to hell, he said.

 

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Iron Wall, Silver Mountain

For one night
she’d be his wife.
For one night only.
His name: classified.
She couldn’t repeat it.
She’d seen it once,
just once,
in a file folder.
M’s office, Vauxhall Cross.
SIS HQ.

In the windowless inner office,
as Elizabeth sat prim and pale
in a red leather armchair,
trying to appear offhand,
M had explained the task
in his usual clipped way,
his yellowed teeth clenched all the time
on the trademark ivory cigarette holder —
a Dunhill burning in it —
gazing off into space
through the cloud of blue smoke.

As if she didn’t exist,
as if her father, Alwyn Storm,
009,
has never lived
or died.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

It wasn’t, he said, a “wet” job.
Yet her training might,
just might be needed
if the thing went South, so to speak.
It was a simple hand off.
Robert Vaclos,
a Corsican drug kingpin,
was getting a briefcase
from this “David Blair” —
an undercover “00” man —
with a homing device in the leather.
The homing device was to track Vaclos,
so SAS commandoes might lift him
in a lightning ambush
somewhere on the roads
between his grand villa and San Remo.

The villa was too well defended,
and in San Remo he always rented a whole floor
of the Hotel Grand Regency.

-Vaclos’ bodyguards are ex-French Action Service,
all Corsicans. Hard men.
So it’s going to be a damnably hard operation as is.
But with the bug in place,
there’s a better chance of success.
We can pick the spot to take him
and thus minimize casualties to our people.
Get the picture?

Elizabeth cleared her throat slightly.
Bending forward, she licked her upper lip
with the point of her tongue,
and said clearly:
-Yes, Sir.

M glanced at her.
It wasn’t his habit to look at agents.
Instead, he usually just smoked, stared into space,
gave the clipped, tiresome exposition, and sent them off.
To live. To die. Who knew?
“Every field op represents a risk;
every secret foray can devolve into a life or death struggle.”

She felt the skin on her forehead prickle,
but she kept her face calm,
the lips smiling slightly.

M hadn’t glanced at her face.
He was a man, after all.
His gaze had gone to her chest.
She made an effort to keep still,
watching his lidded eyes
as he darted another hot glance at it.

Yes.
Breasts, not face.
She is aware,
Elizabeth Alwyn Storm is,
that her bust is sublime.
She’s heard it described
as perfect,
even as majestic.

She’s a legend in the Service
not for killing people,
which she hasn’t yet —
none confirmed, anyway —
but for her icy beauty.
And for those proud breasts
she carries before her so brashly.

She is shy, Elizabeth —
prone to blushing easily,
the color rising to her ears in a rush.
This used to torment her.
She had to master it.
She did master it,
during her training at the Fort.

She’s careful about her reputation. She never sees male colleagues outside.
At HQ, she dresses conservatively,
baring only the thrilling arms and white neck.
She’s even considered getting glasses,
so the men here won’t dream of making passes.

No, she thinks.
They’d dream of it anyway.
Just as she’s dreaming about this “David Blair”
after seeing just one photograph of the devil.
Handsome? Unbearably.
Slick as the action on a Luger.
“oo4” with twenty confirmed kills in the field.
Known to enjoy the company of alluring women.
All in all, the closest thing SIS has to a “Bond.”

-Sir?

-Yes, Agent Storm.

-Why do we want this man,
if you don’t mind my asking?

M. sighs.
He takes the cigarette
in its ivory holder
from his lips,
crushes it out,
puts it down with a deliberate click
and sits back
in the leather chair.

He fixes Elizabeth Alwyn Storm’s ice-blue eyes with his own.
M.’s are, as always, black and fiery.
She doesn’t flinch,
but it’s an effort not to.

-Vaclos is dealing with a warlord
in Afghanistan,
who goes by the name Sukhmet.
Sukhmet supplies Vaclos raw opium
in exchange not for money
but for specialized types of arms,
which Sukhmet then peddles
to the Taliban. Among others.
We need to know exactly
who Robert Vaclos works with
on the armaments front.
It’s not just a drug issue now —
it’s a matter of national security.
“The rest is silence.” Top Secret.
Satisfied, Agent Storm?

Elizabeth bows her head slightly.
The beautiful lips part.
She says:

-Yes. Thank you, Sir.

The Sea

(This is a small excerpt from THE TATTOOED ASSASSIN — an Akiko crime novel in progress.)

It’s late afternoon when the ferry docks on the little island. Akiko crosses the wobbling gangplank. Then she’s standing on the volcanic soil of Kamijima. Gulls are skreeking. The cold breeze smells and tastes of salt. She doesn’t look around for the taxi. She’s already laced up her hiking boots while still on the ferry. She starts to walk. It feels good to be away from a city. There’s no car traffic on the narrow dirt road between low houses and shops — nothing but a few rattling bicycles. Soon she’s walking through thick green bamboo forest. The road turns steeply uphill. Sweating, she climbs, carrying the luggage bag slung over one shoulder. The sunlight is hot and blinding. She stops in the shadow of a big pine to drink water from a plastic bottle. Carefully, she screws the cap back on and sticks it into her bag. It’s a long walk up the mountain, colder and steeper with each step. Finally she’s there — at the base of the mossy winding steps to the temple. She can see the soaring wing-like eaves, the dull red lacquer of the walls and pillars dappled with sunlight, through black branching pine foliage. Home.

She climbs the steps slowly, her eyes shut.
At the top step, she opens her eyes.
There. The temple. The smooth black pillars. The green-tiled roof.

Takagi steps out onto the porch. He’s bearded. In blue jeans and a torn t shirt. He’s holding a wooden sword lightly. He stops and turns his head toward Akiko. His blind eyes look at her. His nostrils widen. He begins to tremble. He sits down on the smooth boards, like a marionette suddenly cut from its strings. Lays the sword flat.
Akiko strides forward in flowing steps. She lifts the bag from her shoulder. Sets it down on the thick pine needles.

Molly, he says.
Jiro.
Ah, Molly.
She goes to him. He takes her head in his hands. Kisses her brows, her cheeks, her lips. Smells her sunwarmed hair.
You’re here. Alive.
Hai.
I wondered.
Akiko smiles. He’s still kissing her. She shuts her eyes. His lips are dry and soft and the kisses cool and delicate.
Nothing kills me, she whispers.
I know that. I love you.
I love you, Jiro.
He’s shaking again, as if seized by panic. She helps him to stand, lifting him up by the elbows.

The sun is low. Almost drowned in the Sea of Japan. Cicadas buzz-buzz. It’s cold here in the shadows. Autumn. The great change of seasons that rebukes all vain human conceit and ambition. One finally feels it — the light is weak, the cicadas near-silent. Pine needles are falling. The small red squirrels jump in the thick foliage, their tails twitching. The few maples are a blaze of crimson. The oak leaves are edged with yellow.

She helps Takagi inside. Goes back out for her bag. When she comes in again carrying the bag, he’s lit a kerosene lantern. He replaces the soot-smudged glass chimney and turns down the flame. She sets down her luggage and kneels in seiza. It’s musty inside the temple. Takagi hasn’t bathed in a while — she can smell the layers of dried sweat under his clothes. The odor is not unpleasant. His beard is thick and his blind eyes, when she glimpses them under the sagging lids, look wild. It’s as if he’d aged a century. Then she realizes, no, he’s still youthful. His arms and shoulders are powerful — she doesn’t recall him being this muscled. He’s clearly been working out with the bokken every single day. She touches it with her fingertips. It’s stained dark at the handle by the oil and sweat from Takagi’s hands.

He hasn’t rolled up the bedding. It’s still disarranged from the morning. He tries to straighten it, feeling his way along the edges. Akiko, who has meanwhile unlaced and pulled off her hiking boots and wool socks, laughs, stands, and strips off her dark sweater and the t shirt under it in one movement. She drops these things on the floor, unsnaps her blue jeans and steps out of them. She goes to Takagi in her thin panties, kneels by him, and places his hands on her breasts. He begins, again, to shake as if with cold. She kisses his face, his hair. The kisses are like flames. Takagi groans. He sits on the bedding. Akiko bends forward, her hair covering his face. She unsnaps his blue jeans and wrenches down the zipper and takes him out hard and pulsating and she whimpers a little from her own desire as she kisses it and licks the swelling crown. Takagi moans. He lies back. Akiko’s head goes up and down. He feels her tongue playing with him, her warm saliva dripping on his balls. Then she takes him out of her mouth and goes lower. One by one, she sucks on and softly bites his testicles while holding his cock like a sword. Takagi feels the sensations begin to surge. Wait, he says. Stop. She stops biting him. Silence. He can hear her breathing. Also his own. They’re both breathing deeply as if in a sword match. Come up here, he murmurs. He hears the cotton rasp as Akiko tears off her panties. Throws them away. Then she climbs up his body, kissing hard and open-mouthed as she goes. She strips away his t shirt. He raises both arms over his head as she yanks it from him. His skin is silk-smooth, warm and sunbrowned. She straddles Takagi and inserts him in the searing heat and moisture underneath her bristling soft pubic hair. Takagi sobs. It’s so good. Ah, he says, beautiful Molly. She strokes his face with her long fingers as he holds her elbows. They’re a little rough, as always, from her constant practice with the wooden sword. She begins rocking. He’s trying to form an image of exactly what she must look like now. Above, below and around him is only darkness. His mind blazes, but there are no colors. Akiko is gasping. She shudders in her orgasm and he feels a surge of heat and thick wetness on his cock and balls. He’s cradled inside her, in the searing womb. He cries out — his semen shoots up into the all engulfing darkness.

The sea. Glittering. Infinite.

Night. Akiko opens a barrel of sake. It gurgles pleasantly into the earthenware jar. She sets down the full sake jar and takes out the cups, which she cleans out with splashes of water followed by a few wipes with a faded blue-striped dish towel — one of the ones she brought with her three years ago when she arrived on the island. She returns to bed with the jar and cups on a bamboo tray. The kerosene lamp throws her shadow — the intimate nudity of her shadow — hugely on the whitewashed wall. She picks up one cup and hands it to Takagi, who smiles and bows. He’s seated crosslegged, naked, on the futon. He holds out the cup. She fills it with a snap of the wrist, not spilling a drop. She fills hers next and sets down the sake jar. They drink. The sake is cold and subtly sweet. It’s refreshing, after the heat of the day and the almost painful joy of their lovemaking. Was it joy? Or pain?

Takagi took her three times. Akiko climaxed twice. Harshly and completely, both times. She almost came the third time but held back to fully appreciate the beauty of Takagi’s climax. As he mounted toward it, he fucked her more and more slowly — delicately, even. She shut her eyes to feel him shoot inside her — a flare of heat. He gasped and choked and his body went rigid. She held him around the ribs, tightly, and also embraced his legs with hers, crushing him into her, her bare feet stroking his white buttocks. Life is empty. A dead flower in the surf. An owl’s strange, insistent hoots in the dark pine forest of the mountain on Kamijima. She smiles as she drinks, her lips smiling on the rim of the cup — she sees that he’s erect again.

(For more like this, see 10th & Crime.)

Twelve Ans

Sabine, jolted in the back of the truck, was thirsty.
And sick.
She clutched her stomach.
Her dark hair hunging over her face.
Finally, she bent over further, grabbing her bare knees, and splashed vomit onto the steel floor.
Jolting and bouncing. The truck was moving fast.
She could see the road bouncing behind them through a gap in the canvas. The big summery oak trees as green blurs, and the pines as black streaks.
Telephone poles and wires. Crows flying, iridiscent black, letting out harsh caws.
They were in the country now. America.
Somewhere deep in the vastness of the country north of New York City.
She’d been flown in by cargo plane. Shivering, black-hooded, all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.
Aix, Toulouse. The smell of wild thyme. Paris, freezing and foggy at two AM. A clasp knife with a serrated edge. Where was it all now?
And the Africans? And Jean-Pierre, the man who’d recruited her to cut glass with a diamond edged tool and slip into second story windows? She was small and lithe and could go into very small spaces. Maybe that was why he’d picked her off the street. He told her she was too young to whore. Too skinny. She’d attract the wrong type of men. The kind that would beat her up and cut her face with a razor.
Jean-Pierre was probably dead. The Africans, too. Sabine had killed two flics (cops).
She wasn’t sorry. The first one she took with the knife as he unbuttoned his fly.
Zip. His throat slashed in total silence. He staggered, the hot jet of blood hitting her brows. Then he fell over some trash bins, spilling bottles and cans.
The other managed to get his pistol out before Sabine, quick as a bird, stuck the knife in his heart.
Broke off the blade on a rib, twisting it as he sank to his knees.
Well, he was going to rape her, too, wasn’t he? Served him right. The magistrate, however, did not concur.
In New York, they’d taken off the hood but not the manacles. She’d glimpsed the skyline.
The Empire State Building.
She looked around for where the World Trade Center Towers had been. Nothing. Then they dragged her down a long, bare cement corridor and she was thrown into a room and the door clanked shut and locked behind her.
It was black inside the room. And cold. She crouched down, shivering in her parka. Thought about Jean-Pierre. Missed him with her whole body.
The laughing Africans. Their beautiful jokes and night-black faces. All dead. Killed by the flics in a movie-style downtown Paris shootout, outside a jewelry store. The flics had machine guns and body armor. The blacks just had some shotguns and pistols and knives. It wasn’t a fair fight.
Food came into the black room through a slot in the door twice a day. It was garbage. But Sabine ate it. With her fingers.
On the third day they came in and put more manacles on her and dragged her, twisting and biting, to the truck. They threw her inside and chained her to a ring set into the floor. Then the truck started with a gasp and a grinding roar and they were off, bouncing. Sabine could see bits of Manhattan through the gap in the canvas. A red fire hydrant. A fire escape. A delivery truck. A bridge strut.
Flashing by. This was life. It flashed by you in little bits. Gone before you knew it.
Sabine wept.

That was the day she arrived at the Ultra Facility.
Sabine Delonge. Twelve ans.

To Ian Fleming, With Love

It was about an hour past dawn.

Buenos Aires.

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.

THUNK-THUNK.

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.

The Wrath of a Medusa

Morning glare. White dust in the sleeves of her leather jacket.

The sun had risen as Akiko rode her bike north, the wild hair stinging her cheeks.

She throttled down at the dusty outskirts of Ciudad Juarez.

Veering into the parking lot of a shuttered cafe.

Wind-beaten, sun darkened. Blue eyes, the intense blue of a sea in the evening, as dusk falls.

Akiko wrested off the sun-visored helmet, scalding her fingers and the palms of her hands, and set it behind her. She plucked the map of northern Mexico from her pocket and unfolded it sitting on the hot bike seat. The cooling engine ticked. Water dripped inside it.

Flies. There was a ditch nearby heaped with black plastic garbage bags fluttering in the hot breeze. It smelled raw and fetid.

Trucks screeched past, battering her with wind.

Akiko flipped over the map. She studied the red pencil marks she’d made. An intersection circled, with a red marginal arrow pointed to it.

She refolded the map and stuck it carefully back into her breast pocket.

She was thirsty, and had a headache from the tequila of the night last.

Anejo, washed down with cold Tecate, the rims of the bottles salted and a lime wedge stuck down the necks.

It’s an interesting day today. Akiko, the deadly assassin, is now thirty-one. But only she knows it. There’s nobody in the whole world to call, no voice anywhere to wish her a happy birthday, or to take her out for lunch or bake her a chocolate cake.

She’d considered confessing as much to the blue eyed man in the mountain village. A man in his late forties. A former killer, like her.

Tomorrow’s my birthday, and you know what? Nobody on this whole deranged earth gives a fuck.

An assassin’s life is a lonely one. But she chose it. Loneliness is in her nature.

She’d had trouble sleeping from all the tequila she drank after leaving the blue eyed man with cash and passports for his escape South.

At about two AM she was sitting naked but for a thin wool blanket by the open window. The night air was cold and stank sweetly of pinon fires. It was unforgettably still. The sky was a dark dark blue and there were stars in it, drifting constellations.

That’s when it came to her.

That she had one more job yet to do before dropping out of her insane line of work, heading to the little island on the Sea of Japan, and purifying her dark karma in the perfect isolation of a well-earned and meticulously planned retirement.

She puts on the helmet, tucking her hair up into it, and kicks the engine to life again.

Vroom.

*

At ten o’clock she walked into a dusty cemetary overloaded with bright flowers, many of them plastic.

She herself was carrying a bouquet. Roses. Yellow. Real ones.

She found the gravestone in the heat and the dust.

Knelt.

Shut her eyes.

Felt the heart beating in her.

She opened her eyes to a rainbow light-blur; stinging tears.

She set down the roses, their stems wrapped in clear plastic misted by water vapor, at the base of the stone.

It was carved with a simple name, clear dates divided by a dash.

A slim hyphen standing for the man’s whole life.

This was the grave of the journalist in Ciudad Juarez — the one she’d told the blue eyed man about.

She was supposed to kill him. She hadn’t. She’d appeared as if conjured by magic in his house late one night, woke him, and listened to his story.

She told him exactly what she was. She confided she’d read his articles and decided against taking his life — even though the Organization wanted it, and Omitsu had sent her to do the “hit” personally.

Then she’d left him — intact, alive, grateful and impressed.

She remembered only later that the journalist’s lush garden smelled intensely and fantastically of roses. That scent haunted her on the roads south deep into the mountains of Sonora.

Ten days later, the journalist was assassinated in Ciudad Juarez, on his way to an interview.

A grenade tossed into his car at a stop-light. He was blown to bits. Then the bits were methodically machine-gunned.

But not by Akiko.

Not by the blue eyed, black haired killer Molly Vance.

*

It was this same martyred journalist who had claimed to possess evidence that a certain unbelievably rich and powerful retired General Ortega and his eldest son “Chucho” were the men behind the disappearance and murders of over two hundred women and girls, mostly factory workers, in the city of Juarez.

He had, in fact, shown some of his documentary evidence to Akiko. Records of late night conversations with men who claimed to possess inside knowledge but refused to be named.

The gray haired journalist had presented these documents personally, even somewhat ceremonially, in a private meeting, to the Chief of Police in Juarez. But had heard nothing since. Only that the “investigation” was ongoing.

Your life is deeply in danger, Akiko told him in her stilted Spanish. This is a greater problem than just the General you speak of. There is an Organization of such men, and their power is extreme. Go. Go now. You must go.

The man had shrugged and lifted his hands from his knees.

Where could I go? To evade men as powerful as you say — this is impossible. I will stay and fight.

He didn’t go anywhere. He waited in Juarez, to see the investigation, if there was one, through to the end. And was killed. Remorselessly, by the same men who mutilated and raped young women and left their carved up bodies in garbage dumps, ditches, and shallow desert graves.

After laying the bouqet of cut roses, Akiko searched in a side pocket of her leather jacket. With two fingers she withdrew a newspaper clipping: a heavyset, greasy-haired, thick-moustached General Ortega and the blade-like dark haired and slim”Chucho” shown together in civilian clothes, posing quasi-clownishly beside a thoroughbred racing horse owned by the General.

At the Kentucky Derby, just last year.

She places the newspaper clipping under the roses. Then, bowing her head, Akiko thinks:

General Ortega;

“Chucho.”

You have awakened the bitter wrath

of a Medusa —

the deadliest assassin of all.

After today,

you will race no more horses.

*

She didn’t go back into town.

She rode the bike out into the wastes. The bleak yellow-gray desert.

Wind whipping her hair.

There were some rock formations, then the camel humps of low mountains.

In Ciudad Juarez she’d visited some stores and asked questions.

Throttling down now, the wind soothing and almost cold. Sweat dripping cold down the base of her spine and at her armpits.

She took a narrow dirt road, bumping along in a cloud of dust, sand and gravel showering her motorcycle boots.

Up into the hills.

There.

She’d stopped the bike, kicked the kickstand down, wrenched off the sweaty helmet and sat back on the seat and peeled off her thin riding gloves.

Tilting her head back, she could see the cave entrances.

They were black in the shuddering heat waves, and the cliff was honeycombed by them.

Overhead: vultures. Sky. Nothing.

She drank water from a red plastic screwtop bottle she took from her navy duffel bag.

She’d brought three more such bottles and filled them with cold water, which was now almost hot, before leaving the city.

Next: she took a flat-folded black canvas shoulderbag from the duffel.

Dismounted the bike. Slung the empty bag over her left shoulder.

And now she drew from inside the duffel a long, polished-looking forked oak stick.

She left the bike ticking in the murderous heat and eerie silence of the desert and walked uphill on a bare rocky path, her gaze fixed on the dusty toes of her motorcycle boots.

She used the stick like a walking staff, gripping it just below the forked part. Thumping it lightly with each upward step.

Here. The caves.

She crouched outside one.

Peered in. Her nostrils flaring.

It smelled stale, dry and cool.

She crouch-walked closer to the entrace and stuck her head almost inside.

Shut her eyes.

When she opened them, she could see a little better.

It wasn’t complete darkness. A litter of rounded stones just within.

She shrugged the empty bag from her shoulder onto the dusty path. She leaned her stick against the eroded cliff-side. She picked up the bag and shook it open. Then she set it by the cave entryway and picked up the stick again.

She eased the stick fork-first into the dim. Pressing her lips together, her gaze fixed. Sweat coming out cold on her body. Flipped a stone backwards.

The ferocious hissing clacking of the rattlers was startlingly loud.

There one was, writhing, its tail raised. Another writhing in the same hole.

Akiko pinned the snake close to the head with the fork and twisted it so the stone-colored body whipped and curled around the polished shaft, the angry tail clacking, and in a single deft movement tossed the snake into the open mouth of the canvas bag.

Then she did exactly the same with the other snake, which was bigger and longer and seemed even more fierce. She zipped the bag shut and sat back on her heels. Sweat dripped into her ears. She shook her head, and the sweat drops flew away in a halo.

She picked up the bag by its straps and walked along the path to the next cave.

By the time two hours had gone, Akiko had ten rattlesnakes in the bag which she carried not over her shoulder but carefully by its straps in her right hand.

She descended the steep trail, using the stick to help her balance.

At the motorbike, she drank half of a bottle of water. Gasping.

The sun dazzling red through her shut eyelids.

*

She left the hills for blazing open desert.

Parking in a windswept expanse of reddish-gray sand, she drew a pair of chef’s tongs from the duffel and hiked away from the bike amid the stumps of cacti, carrying the other, still-empty bag.

It was late afternoon, and even the shortest cacti cast same-sized black shadows.

The wind was hot and smelled of sagebrush and broken stone.

She kicked over a bread-loaf sized rock. As the scorpion beneath it tried to scuttle for a nearby shadow, she seized it with the tongs. The legs waving crazily, deadly stinging tail erect. She placed it into the bag and zipped it shut.

It took about an hour of this work to gather fifteen scorpions of various sizes.

She strapped the bag of scorpions onto the right side of her bike. The bag of rattlesnakes was strapped to the left.

Mounted again, she put on her helmet and gloves, kicked the engine to life and turned in a wide U back toward the city of killers.

Vayos Con Dios

Two days later, he was in Mexico City.
Fumes. Traffic. Men sweeping the streets with brooms.
Ice cream pushcarts. Taco pushcarts.
Billboards. Women.
Donkey carts. Plush cars. Buses.
Hooting and roaring.

Sweat at the back of his shirt.
His scalp tingling.
His nostrils full of charcoal smoke, exhaust.
The stench of seared meat.

As soon as he hit Mexico city, he went to a dealership and sold the Jeep for a pittance.
Then he bought a small, battered blue tin can of a car.
He paid the cash down on it, paid extra to have it held on the lot for him.
The Jeep screamed “American.”
The blue tin can– driving it he might pass for French, or even German.
He’d go deeper south in that. Deeper into his cover.

He’d kept a safe deposit box under one of his false names in a Georgetown bank.
A .44 pistol. An envelope full of US currency.
One hundred gold krugerands in a money belt.
Two passports.

The name on his current working passport: Cole James.
He’d bought it in French Guyana.
The Agency didn’t know.
The name on the other: Frank Younger.

*

He slept the first night in a fleabag hotel.
Had to avoid the luxury places.
At night he walked and walked around the great Plaza.
He went into a blazingly bright bar and ordered tequila, almonds, grilled shrimp.

He devoured it. Ravenous.

*

He took apart the pistol and cleaned and greased it on a newspaper spread over the coverlet of the hotel bed.
In the next room, a woman was panting and screaming.
He thought about it. Probably the fat whore he’d seen earlier, posed at the entranceway in the flashing neon.

He’d bought a bottle of Centenario. He took swigs from the neck.
Wiped his mouth with his hand.

Looked at himself in the faded and streaked mirror.
Ageing. Haggard from lack of sleep. Unshaven.

What now?
He didn’t know.

*

In the morning he walked around again.
He went into a cybercafe.
He sat at a computer.
It felt dangerous.

He didn’t open the browser. He finally just got up and walked out.

At a street stall, he bought a small Olivetti typewriter.
He carried it back with him to the hotel — a small black suitcase.
He didn’t have any real paper. He rolled a sheet of cigarette paper into the carriage.
He typed — click click click — Government by Shadows: The Group of 22.

*

At night he went out again.
Thirsty.
In a bar, he drank tequila.
He ate pork tacos from a banana leaf at a street stall.

As he made his way back to the hotel, having memorized every step, two rooster-sauntering men followed him.
They were wearing: shiny shoes, pleated trousers, colorful shirts, gold necklaces.
Both Mexicans.One had a greased ponytail.

He pondered it. They were take-off artists.
Ordinary criminals, looking for tourists.
He was only surprised they’d tagged him as American.

His blue jeans and white shirt — he could have been any nationality.

Or maybe they were going after Europeans, now, too?

He waited for them at a traffic blaring corner.
They parted slightly as they approached.
The one that wasn’t poneytailed had a goatee. And a gold tooth.

At a glance: no pistolas.
But the ponytailed one brought something out of his pocket.

Flick.

*

Greased Ponytail waves his switchblade lazily in the blue eyed man’s face.
Goatee takes hold of his shirt. Purses his lips to speak Mexican —

The blue eyed man grasps and twists Goatee’s shirt-holding hand palm upward and turns it so he lets go of the fabric and staggers, a wild Texas two-step.
Hits him twice in the throat, edge-of-hand blows.

It’s so quick that Greased Ponytail has time only to blink, once, before the blue eyed man snatches the toothpick from his lips and hits him viciously in the solar plexus.
Doubling over, Greased Ponytail retches and spills beer-shrimp-chilis-corn onto the sidewalk.

He, the blue eyed man, now takes control of the knife arm at the elbow joint, knocks the knife loose. It clangs, skitters, even as Goatee sinks to the sidewalk and lies gasping in the fetal posture, holding his neck.

The blue eyed man crouches. Picks up the knife. Shuts it. Sticks it in his pocket.
Puts the non-chewed end of the toothpick in his mouth.

Stands, slowly.

Looks at Greased Ponytail, who is still doubled over, wobbling and gasping for air.
At Goatee, who is jerking with agony and, like his amigo, wholly engrossed in the non-threatening task of trying to breathe.

Walks away.

Vayos con dios.