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.
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.
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:
You have awakened the bitter wrath
of a Medusa —
the deadliest assassin of all.
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.
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.