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.)

For One Night Only

She knew him at once. As soon as he stepped through the swinging glass doors.

Into:
A crowded bar serving tapas and half price martinis, noisy with screeching Europop music.

He was as wiry, dark and sorrowful looking as in his picture.

The one she’d been shown in London, at Vauxhall Cross.
Of course, he was wearing an SAS uniform in the picture. And a beret. And was a few years younger.

He was now dressed a light black wool suit and a yellow pullover. Light brown leather shoes, probably made in Spain.
She chewed the olive from her martini as he approached.
Looked, as much as it was possible for her to look, bored.

-Hello, he said. May I sit?
She nodded.
He pulled out a chair and sat. They were in a corner, far from the front windows.
Even the floorboards seemed to vibrate with the bass line of the pop music. But it was possible to talk almost normally. One wouldn’t be heard beyond a few steps off.
-You like places like this? he asked.
-Sometimes, she said.
Smiling.

-You have a winning smile, he said.
-Yes, she said. Better than losing, isn’t it?
This was the code. He seemed to relax all at once, deeply.
His gray eyes looked at her. What did he see?
An ice-blue eyed natural honey-blonde, with starkly pale skin, a thrilling beauty spot low on her left cheek just under the ear, sheathed in a clinging black knit dress. Bare armed. Bare shouldered. No wedding ring. Flush of blood high on the cheeks. Beautiful, full smiling-scowling lips. About twenty-six years old.

-That’s a beautiful suit, she said.
-And the shirt?
-Yes, I like it also.
-You like many things.
-So it seems. Do you mind?
He laughed.
-No.

The waiter came over carrying a dish of almonds. He set it down on the table and turned to the man. He ordered a martini. She said she’d have another. The waiter bowed and went away.

He picked up a salted almond from the dish. His fingers were long and slender. He chewed it, cracking it between his back teeth. He wiped his fingers on his napkin after unfolding it and putting the silverware to one side. She sat back smiling at him.

-Is this your first outing?
His tone was pleasant. The skin around his eyes creased slightly.
-It is.
-Anxious?
-Not yet.
-Good. Don’t be.

Why should she be anxious? She’d already auditioned. She’d got the part.
She was going to be Mrs. David Blair.
He was going to be Mr.

-You brought the rings?
-Yes.
-They’ve put you through all the paces? Back story and all that? Anecdotes and so on securely in place?
-Absolutely.
-Then it seems we’re on for this evening. Ten o’clock. The roof terrace of the Hotel ____.

The waiter brought their two martinis on his cork-lined tray. He sat them down carefully. The glasses were misted from condensation. She took a sip. It was so cold it had no taste. The waiter scooped up and took away her empty glass.

-I’m going to call you Anne from the get go, if you don’t mind.
-I don’t.
-Though Elizabeth suits you much better.
-Does it?
-I think so.
-I go by Alwyn sometimes, too.
-Ah. Yes. Alwyn — I recall a bloke named that. Renowned.
-My dad.

Silence.
-I saw him sometimes at HQ. In passing. He always recognized me. Knew my name. Had a friendly way about him. Always a greeting, always an anecdote to amuse us. He is missed in the Service, you know?
-Yes. I know.

She is suddenly somber in her tone and even more starkly pale. The paleness causing her black beauty spot stand out even more thrillingly.

-Well, here’s to the grand old man, “David Blair” says.

They raise their glasses. Touch the rims. Clink.
-May he forever enjoy the splendor of that Paradise reserved for men who do their duty with ruthless passion.

They drink. Deeply.

-As for yourself, David says.
She looks up. Alert. Eyes calm and ice-gray-blue.
-I’ve seen some of your scores. In the confidential file. It’s impressive. Pistol, rifle, knife tactics, close combat. All ultra-high. You graduated at or near the top of all your classes at the Fort. And on top of that, rumor has it you’ve mastered the semi-mythical hoda kur0su school of martial arts. “Naked Kill.” Signed and certified by a real Japanese sensei. So, as it happens, it seems you’re the only woman right now in line for the fabled double O status. You’ll get it, I’m certain. And, I predict, you’ll definitely find it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

She picks the olive out of her martini, glistening, and puts it in her mouth and chews it, looking directly into the man’s eyes.
Suddenly, she shudders.
He doesn’t see it. Or does he?
Just a twitch of the bare shoulders.
She swallows the olive. Then, smiling as if to herself, at some private joke or amusing memory, she picks up the cold martini by its fragile glass stem and drinks. It’s an even bigger gulp than before.
“David Blair” smiles at her. It seems he enjoys looking at a saucy woman who enjoys her martini. In his quiet and solid way he approves. She’s not just a killer, or a Service colleague. She’s a woman.

-But this isn’t a rough stuff mission. This is just a hand off. The target is getting a briefcase. In it is a homing device. C’est tout. Your role is to play your appointed part — the alluring and vivacious young wife of the up and coming London drug lord — observe, and get into the action only if and when something goes funny. I know you’ve got it, I know. I only repeat the boring details because I’ve been instructed to do so via Control by the suits in Whitehall. All right?
She nods.
-Say it then. For the benefit of the suits in Whitehall.
-Yes. All right. I mean, yes I fully understand.
-Good. Get the rings out now, and by the power vested temporarily in me by Her Majesty’s Secret Service, though without the proper pomp and circumstance, I’ll declare us man and wife. For the night only, of course.

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.

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.

Score

Sabine, hiking fast. Torn by brambles, whipped by fir branches.

When she hears the crack of a twig she drops and lies flat. screened by dense-growing ferns.

Two more men. She smells them before she sees them. They stink of fear-sweat. And gun grease. And nylon cloth. And fear-sweat again. Sweat is shining on their grease paint darkened hands and faces.

They’re in the same dark Ultra paratrooper Nazi type uniforms as the previous team, gliding through the primaeval forest.

Sabine peers at them, through the fronds of the lush fern that screens her, as they move softly in the fog. In the diminishing rain and the reek of metal and sweat.

They’re holding their light automatic rifles at ready and are using signs to “speak” to each other.

It seems they sense Sabine might be near but they are looking in the wrong direction.

Sabine hears it: a rattle of branches. A swishing in the ferns off to her left.

She shuts her eyes. It sounds like a deer. Yes. Probably. That.

The Ultra agents are too stupid to suspect it is a deer based on the gliding rush and the tapping of fern fronds — how could it be a human being? Even a little girl? It’s too swift, too sudden, too glissando, like musical notes played by an accomplished musician.

The agents are stupid, and fearful, and jumpy. They make tense hand signals to each other and jog double time toward the glissing rushing ferny sound.

To head it off. Off at the pass. Idiots.

Tense, their eyes wide and staring out of the smears of black grease they’ve layered on for camoflauge.

Sabine wants to laugh. To laugh herself sick. She doesn’t. She rolls over very quietly, unslings the rifle from her right shoulder, and lays it flat beneath the fern. Then she rolls back onto her belly, meantime reaching down to grasp the hilt of her combat knife, which slides from its sheath in total silence.

She lies there, her breasts pressed flat, her heart beating. One of the man hurries past her only three yards distant — she sees the black clad legs moving briskly.

He’s jog-walking with his rifle pointed at the direction of the deer-gliding-sound.

Sabine’s eyes move. She takes in the location of the other man. He disappears behind a clump of pines. He’s about twenty yards off.

Silence. Silence, except for the drip drip of rain water from the massive branches above, and the shrills of a few distant birds.

Sabine adjusts her grip on the knife. Reverse grip. She braces her elbows.

The Ultra agent is now seven yards off, with his back to Sabine.

She pushes off the rain soaked leaves and runs fast and silently until she is directly behind the Ultra agent. She taps his elbow. He spins, eyes wide, and tries to hit her with the rifle barrel. Sabine ducks it and flows to his right side and with one smooth movement leaps onto his shoulders, wrapping her legs around his neck. Then she drops her body to one side — in the same direction the agent was moving — speeding up his spin to a whirl. He loses his footing on the mossy earth and they’re airborne. Sabine lands first on her left shoulder with the tight grip of her legs on the man’s neck, the momentum of the fall tossing him over her. He comes down on his back on a decaying log that shatters. He grunts. Sabine releases her leg grip and rolls onto his chest, smashing down with her knees as he gurgles and tries to scream. Whips her knife edge across his throat just under the ear twice, once for each artery.

She rolls off the twitching body, snatching up the rifle one handed and spinning as she rises. Putting her forefinger into the trigger guard, she brings up her weapon and sights the other Ultra man, who has turned at the noise and is standing there  looking amazed in a patch of sunlight. She presses the trigger three times, hitting the man twice in the chest and once in the wide open mouth. He falls.

Sabine runs to him, keeping the rifle steady, looking for movement. But he’s dead. Sprawled backward, blood pattering from the back of his skull. Sabine lowers the rifle and jogs back to the first man. He’s dead, too, his blind eyes staring at the canopy. She tosses the smoking rifle on his chest.

Ultra: 0. Sabine: 4.

The One-Armed Man in the Military Greatcoat

I talked with a young man in a military greatcoat. His right sleeve was pinned to the shoulder. He was rolling a cigarette one handed as I approached him. He offered me one. I don’t smoke, but I took it and put it in my dry lips. He lit it for me. I couldn’t follow how he managed that. He was holding a matchbox in his one hand, and then out came a match and his fingers struck it into flame. I bent to let him light the hand rolled cigarette for me. The yellow chamois tobacco pouch lay in his lap. He blew out the match and tossed it away smoking. Nearby us a Japanese girl was playing with a red ball. The man in the greatcoat said he’d picked her up in the Empty Lands. I asked what that was, and where. He said: It’s a barren place, mostly just grasses and low hills, but sometimes you see a broken tower, or even a dome that turns out to be a ruined astral observatory. I asked him what other creatures he had met there. He said: A blue eyed coyote. A big raven holding a red thread in its beak. A few white owls. And this little girl here. She was walking around dazed. I took her along with me although I didn’t know where I was heading. Eventually we reached a kind of ampitheater. We walked around it. There were old broken statues in niches. It was twilight, but it’s always twilight in the Empty Lands. I saw bats shooting overhead. Then I saw a shooting star. It was night. The starry sky was vast and it took my breath away. But it didn’t look real. It was different than the starry sky here on earth. I tried to find the constellations. Couldn’t. Where was the Big Dipper? Orion? Gone. In their place were other stars in other relationships.

I asked him where he’d lost the arm. He said: At the Somme. It was probably still there. In the mud. Maybe the rats ate it. He laughed. The little girl dashed to us and crawled onto his lap. I asked her name. The man in the greatcoat said he didn’t know; didn’t even know his own. I asked the little girl where her parents where. She said, In a car. In a car where? The girl’s eyes looked at me. Upside down, she said. Then she jumped from the lap and dashed off, her bare legs red from the cold. I sat down next to the man in the greatcoat. I asked: Do you feel anything strange is happening here? He laughed. Who knows? It was strange to see my arm lying in the mud. After that, nothing seemed strange.

I asked how he’d thought to come back. He drew in a hiss of air through his nostrils. Then laughed. Thought? Yes, I said, picking a shred of tobacco from my lips. He shook his head slowly. He bit his lower lip, released it. Then he said. I really don’t know. We walked around for what seemed like years. Then I saw a town. In the distance. There was a beach, a boardwalk, like Atlantic City. A big lit up ferris wheel. There were people, eating ice cream. They were strangely dressed. A man playing an accordion, with a monkey jumping around holding out a hat for coins. It felt like home. We walked into the ocean, the little girl and I. We stood there in the waves. It felt good. Clean. Cool. We were both laughing. When we came back we got on a small train. When we got out of the train, here we were.