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.

 

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.

Scavengers

Along the road he found a blind girl. Four years old, maybe, smoke-blackened in a tattered and dirty blue dress, standing under a stunted oak.

He coaxed the little girl to come with him. She walked by his side, stumbling a little, clinging to the smoke-and-grease stained sleeve of his coat.

Sometimes over the next few days he carried her — fording streams, for example, or hiking up steep stretches of the mountain roads. He put her on his shoulders, and she clung with both fists to his hair.

He didn’t know what to call the blind girl as she didn’t speak. Mute, too?

Finally, he gave her a name: Helen.

*

He’d come up from the wide river valley, walking the back roads past the weed-overgrown and empty farms. Most of the farmhouses were burnt out shells, and those that were not burnt out he skirted anyhow.

He was going high up into the mountains. Maybe as far as the high desert country. His idea was to find a cave to camp in and wait out the next few years, which would undoubtedly be chaotic.

He carried a rucksack with some small camping pots and pans and canned goods and other things in it and two canteens of drinking water and an old bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifle slung over his right shoulder. His knife was in a sheath at the back of his belt. A small box clinking in the left hand side pocket of his leather coat held the cartridges for the rifle. It was hot and sweaty work to walk all that way carrying all he owned.

At the University he’d taught philosophy. But he hadn’t brought along any books but for a thick pocket diary bound in leather with a pencil stuck in the loop. When the pencil ran out he’d have nothing to write with, so he filled the diary’s thin pages each night by fire-light slowly and sparingly.

*

It was only a few days after he’d picked up the girl that he turned a bend and saw three people sitting in the dust by the roadside cooking something on a fire. Too late to turn back or go around. He walked forward, raising his right hand.

One of the three — a teenaged girl, under the layers of dirt, he thought — got up and dashed into the woods. The two others, both men with thick beards in tattered and stained clothing, stood up slowly, one holding a stick.

He saw what they were cooking over the fire — it was a dog. Grease dripped and spat as the flames licked it. The smoke was pungent. He began to salivate despite himself, yet he was also nauseated. He wasn’t going to eat dog.

Evening, he said. The men didn’t reply. The one holding the stick grinned. The other came forward a few steps.

He could hear the girl moving in the brush, cracking twigs. It was near dark. Already, the owls were hooting.

She wasn’t going off, as he’d first thought, but moving around to flank him.

And when she dashed into the woods, hadn’t she been holding something?

His scalp went cold.

A bow, maybe.

And didn’t she have something lashed to her back? Arrows?

He stopped in the road, and swung the blind girl down to stand beside him.

Let me see that rifle there, the man who’d come forward said. His voice sounded wheezy, like an unused instrument.

He replied: No.

His ears were prickling. The girl in the brush had stopped moving. Right now she would be fitting an arrow onto the bowstring. His stomach turned to ice. He forced a smile.

This is all I’ve got, he said. I can’t hand it over to you.

The man said through his beard: Oh yes? We’ll see about that.

He shrugged the rifle from his shoulder and walked toward the man holding it out as if to put it meekly into his hands, but in the last few steps he broke into a run and, bringing up the butt, smashed the man’s chin. The bearded man grunted and fell in the dust.

He kept running and knocked away a blow from the other man’s stick with the barrel and stepped around him and, grappling in panicked silence, managed to get the barrel under his chin and drew the writhing body against him tightly, the shoulderblades pressing to his chest and top of the man’s head under his chin, and shouted: You, in the brush, come out or I’ll kill him.

After a few seconds, the teenaged girl stepped out, wide-eyed and cruel-looking. She was holding the bow drawn back. The arrow wasn’t pointed at him but at Helen, standing still in the road.

Let go, she said, or I’ll shoot this one.

He called out: No. Shoot her with that arrow and I’ll kill him then you too. Put it down.

She lowered the bow and dropped the arrow at her feet then dropped the bow next to it with a clatter.

The man he was holding to him had stopped grappling and was now just gurgling a little. He took away the rifle barrel and stepped back and the bearded man fell on his side, kicking and wheezing and trying to crawl.

He pointed the rifle sight at the teenaged girl and said: Back away.

She did.

He went forward and holding the rifle at ready one-handed bent and picked up the arrow.

Toss over the others, he said.

She took the other arrows — she had four — out of her homemade quiver and tossed them rattling onto the asphalt. He bent and picked those up, too. He stuck them into his belt.

Helen, he said. Come on, now. Helen stumbled forward and he took her hand and backed away. The teenaged girl was standing still, her arms hanging.

After he’d backed off ten paces or so he slung the rifle and swept up Helen and put her on his shoulders and walked off double-time. Up the road to the next bend and around it in the almost-dark, moonless tonight, starry and vast and ringing with those deep eerie owl-hoots.

Club Papillon

He walked slowly in the heat and smog and the smells of seared meat grilling back to his hotel.

It was not a luxury hotel. He saw the fat whore in an aqua blue dress and spike heels standing in a doorway across the street. She tossed her head and gave him a smile that managed to be both wry and inviting. She had a gold tooth. He ducked his head and gave her a small, shy pressed-lips smile that managed to be honorable and warm yet discouraging. He liked whores. He felt no contempt for this one.

He took the old creaking cage elevator to his room. Padding down the hall on a stained wine-red carpet that stank of a century of cigarette smoke.

He stopped at the laundry chute and glanced both ways. No doors were open and there was no chambermaid’s cart. He stepped up to the chute and put his arm into it and felt along the side. His fingers touched plastic. He reached in with both arms and peeled away two layers of duct tape and withdrew the parcel.

He carried the plastic wrapped package against his hip down the hallway to his room. Opened the door with his key and entered, shutting the door behind him by pushing it with a heel of his loafer. It clacked shut. He went to the sagging bed with its garish orange coverlet and set the package on it.

He then went to the window, as was his habit, to look down at the street. Nothing was going on but for traffic and the clanging radio of the small and dirty cafe across the street.

There was a stiff humid breeze and the curtains were blowing in. This breeze brought in the stench of Mexico City. Of dust and meat and earth and blood and horses and sweat and the perfume of a million streetwalkers. He shut the window. At once the little hotel room seemed eerily almost silent.

Lost in another dimension.

He took the switchblade from his trouser pocket.

A good knife, with a heavy steel handle that fit his hand well.

Flicked it open.

He bent over the parcel and cut away some of the plastic.

It was a tie-box. Yesterday he’d bought two exquisite ties at a men’s boutique in La Roma.

He shut the knife and put it back into his trouser pocket.

He tore away the lid of the tie box and tossed it to one side.

In the small, narrow rectangular box, packed in red tissue paper, lay his Remington .44.

Cleaned and oiled, lovingly, and ready for action.

He picked up the Remington, checked the safety (engaged) and removed the clip (full). He thrust the clip back into it and stuck the pistol into his waistband at the back.

He peeled away another layer of tissue paper. There was a Ziploc freezer bag containing his two extra passports and a thick wad of American currency. He’d depleted much of his travelling fund already, though he was living poor. He opened the freezer bag, peeled off three hundred in 50 dollar bills.

He stuck this small wad of cash into his shirt pocket.

He replaced the lid on the tie box. He was now sweating a little. Looking at how little money he had left now made him so tense that he began to sweat.

To a fugitive in Mexico or anywhere else, money is life itself.

He pulled open the top drawer of the small bedside table and got out his roll of duct tape. He tore off six more strips of the black, heavy tape with his teeth and fixed them to the parcel. Then he went to the door. He listened, his head bent. No footsteps. Nobody was out there. He opened the door, walked quickly to the laundry chute and reached in and securely re-taped the parcel to the rough plaster wall just inside, in the darkness where it could not be seen but only felt, and then only by someone feeling for it.

He went back to his room. He kicked off his loafers. He’d been wearing them without socks. He shut and locked the door and put on the chain. The lock and chain wouldn’t hold out anyone determined to get in but might give him ten seconds or so of time to react.

In the bathroom, he stripped down quickly, laying the Remington on the shut toilet seat, and got under the shower in the tiled stall. He ran the water hot, first, then cold — as cold as he could get it.

He soaped himself. His body was still hard. His fingertips passed over some of the old scars. There were two bullet holes and a knife wound.

He rubbed himself dry with a towel. His skin burned pleasantly.

He left the towel hanging over the shower rod and picked up the gun and went out into the room.

Naked, he stood at the small escritoire on which sat his Olivetti and two stacks of paper. One of the stacks was big, the other small. The big stack was all blank. The small stack was his book on the Group of 22. There were about thirty pages in it; he hadn’t counted exactly. He’d placed the pages with the typewritten faces down. He felt a small temptation to read over what he’d written, but he decided consciously against it. He’d heard that writers often felt a strong, almost visceral pull to reread their own pages, but that this impulse should be resisted until the book was done, or mostly done.

He went to the bed. He put the gun under his pillow and lay down naked. He gazed at the ceiling. Light reflected from the street was making flickering patterns on it.

He shut his eyes.

*

Twilight.

He opened his eyes to see that the sunlight was almost gone.

The ceiling was pink. Then, slowly, the pink vanished.

He got up and dressed again. Shirt, briefs, trousers.

He put the gun into his waistband at the back and put on a loose brown silk jacket to cover it.

He stuck his bare feet into the loafers.

He went out.

Into Mexico City.

Into the city of jackals.

*

He didn’t want to sit in the hotel room clicking typewriter keys tonight.

He felt like celebrating.

Maybe it was because of the brusque hurt he’d inflicted on the two Mexican petty thieves. Or the comical looks on their faces as he did it.

It had reminded him how much fun his life of action once was, hurting people with elegance, devastating speed and absolute impunity.

But no — that wasn’t it.

He was just feeling lonely. Morose, even.

Actually, more than loneliness or moroseness — tonight, he was suffused with saudade, a deep and terrible longing that threatened to devour him whole.

And the pistol? The pistol was for merely for any one of potentially hundreds of unforeseeable contingencies.

*

As it happened, there was such a contingency, and it arose, as they often do, out of nowhere.

*

In the glare-ridden noise of a Mexican boulevard, the blue eyed man was sauntering slowly past the Club Papillon, noting the blue lights of the entrance and the pounding beats echoing in what must have been a vast industrial space inside the building, when he noted a sleek red Lotus cruising up smoothly to the curb. It was an eye catching car, and he slowed his pace to appreciate it. Other pedestrians did, also, and the two thick, tall, colorfully tattooed bouncers working the front entrance raised their heads higher with interest. The doors of the Lotus hissed upward like wings, and out of it as if from a fairy tale climbed two desperately beautiful dark haired, teak-tanned girls in glittering low-cut cocktail-style sheaths — one flashing gold, one glittering silver with sequins. Laughing, the driver tossed her key to a parking attendant, who looked as if he could not believe his luck and had trouble deciding what he would rather look at, the car or the girls. But the girls, click-clacking on high heels, mostly naked and smooth and hypnotically voluptuous all over, were gone very quickly into the smoky, blue-pulsating interior of Club Papillon, so in the end he had to settle for stroking the roof of the car before he slipped into it, lowered the doors, and drove off with a throaty vroom.

The blue eyed man didn’t watch the Lotus speed away from the curb, however. He was looking across the street, at a parked black Humvee. A sparking cigarette butt flew out of a one inch gap in the Humvee’s rear side window, then the door opened and a young man in a leather jacket worn over a floral patterned silk shirt and jeans and black cowboy boots stepped onto the street. He had a relaxed, flat, ironically candid nowhere-and-everywhere at once gaze that the blue eyed man had come to associate with a certain type of deadly individual. The opposite door opened and a bald man in a blue silk jacket and khaki pants and black motorcycle boots came around the rear of the Humvee and joined Cowboy Boots and they walked slowly together yet apart across the street to the Club Papillion and joined the small line of people waiting for approval to enter.

The blue eyed man watched as Cowboy Boots lit a cigarette. Bald Man was glancing around. There was a small curved bulge at the base of his spine under the blue silk jacket. A pistol grip. One or two or three men — it was impossible to tell, because of the blacked out windows — were still sitting inside the Humvee. It was a hit, or a kidnapping, or some kind of take-off. No question.

Did it have something to do with the two beautiful rich girls? Two beautiful and misbehaving young rich girls driving up to a club alone and going in without bodyguards? His intuition said: Si.

He thought about it for only an instant, then walked over to the line and joined it. He was standing about five people behind Cowboy Boots and Bald man. Close enough to inhale the smoke of Cowboy’s Boots cigarette. It was a clove cigarette.

Cowboy Boots would be quick, ruthless, flamboyant — and insane. He probably favored a knife for a weapon. Bald Man would be the brains, also very quick, cold under pressure.

The blue eyed man had a sense that this was not about money. There was something extremely iconic and crazed in the air. A killing? Maybe. Maybe worse.

*

He got into Club Papillon easily. The bouncers were there only to run off people apparently without money, obvious riff-raff.

He walked around the place in the pulsating blue and red lights until he glimpsed the two posh girls at a corner table, drinking and laughing excitedly, flanked by two young men they’d apparently cut from the dance floor.

Cowboy Boots and Bald Man were at the bar, rarely taking their eyes from the girls.

It was as he’d feared.

Maybe much much worse.

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.