Akiko parked the motorbike below the big red-lacquered temple with its roof of rounded clay tiles and age-smoothed stone steps.
She took off the helmet and shook out her hair.
It was late. A damp night. Owls were hoo-hooing in small, muted voices on the temple grounds. Bats darted and swept in the sky.
Tokyo. The outskirts anyway. But it might as well be deep in the countryside.
Except for the occasional hissing roar of a transcontinental flight, diving toward Tokyo International Airport, the red wing lights blinking -- always seeming just for a bare instant to be suspended in the cloudy night sky.
Akiko dismounted the bike, and set her helmet on the flesh-warm seat.
She checked to make sure her luggage bag was secured by its straps. She glanced around. There was nobody out here. She hesitated for an instant only, then took the steps at a jog.
She walked under the big wooden gate, her boots crunching on the sea-shell gravel.
It was darker now. There were some lights inside the temple. She heard chanting. A gong.
She didn't go inside. She took a path leading behind it.
There was a still, dark pond. A grove of cedars. A Zen moss garden surrounded on three sides by bamboo.
She knelt in Seiza at the edge of the Zen garden and shut her eyes.
It seemed that small vibrations were going through her body.
But the vibrations didn't enlarge and turn into thoughts or dreams. Or images. They just melted away.
She breathed deeply into her nostrils, out through her parted lips.
At last, her shoulders relaxed completely. She felt them sink.
It was like becoming stone. Or a great iron bell.
She sat calmly. The thrumming of crickets seemed to sink into her body.
No more voices. No more gong. But she could hear a "deer scarer" in the distance . . . toc . . . toc.
Spilling water from the bamboo mouth with a muted, infinitely tender splash.
She unzipped her leather jacket. She let the cool night air inside it. She wasn't cold. There was a soft, infinite warmth in her eyelids.

Akiko knelt there for maybe an hour. Maybe a little longer. She couldn't tell.
She stood up finally, her nostrils flaring.
Then she walked back to the gate and down the steps, swinging her hips.
She put on the helmet, tucking her hair under it.
Kicked the engine to life.

Off. Gone.

*
It had been a miserable day for Armand.
He'd had word from the Organization's person inside the Tokyo Police that Go Kondo was killed.
The yakuza boss had been found alive, but trussed up with silk cords in his villa. He was insane with terror, and couldn't stop moving his lips, but he hadn't said anything yet.
All the boss' men were dead. Machine gunned like idiots during a drinking party.
Go Kondo had been stabbed through the throat. After having his arm blown off by a shotgun round and getting taken down with a taser.
A shotgun round! A taser! Armand pursed his elegant lips in disgust when he heard it. This man was supposed to be a Master. A ninja, for fuck's sake.
If the boss had talked to Akiko -- and Armand was sure he had -- then Akiko was now aware of Katsumoto's whereabouts. She'd track him, immobilize him, and torture him until he told her everything he knew.
Armand e-mailed the man in Zurich. He used a secure internet connection. He kept it brief.
Then he took a cab to Katsumoto's office.
It was a nondescript, upstairs suite above a dive sex bar in Shibuya -- the kind with red lamps and a box of condoms and tissues on every table.
Attractive women were admitted to this club for free. Men had to pay a door charge, and the drinks were steeply priced.
There were "private sex rooms" that cost a little extra, and these private rooms could be viewed from other rooms via a two way mirror.
In the private sex room, a couple or a threesome or whatnot would have energetic moaning sex while, in the viewing rooms, businessmen stood around with their dicks in their hands watching and jerking off.
Some "blues" music was playing and a girl on a small stage in a white leotard was walking around a pole pouting at it and sometimes dropping and swooping and wrapping her legs around the pole. The crotch was cut out, Armand noticed. She had a nice bush.
Armand showed his I.D. to the big shaven headed tattoo laced thug at the entrance and said he was there to see Katsumoto-dono. The thug made a call on his cell phone. Then he pointed the way. Armand climbed the stairs. He buzzed another door. It was opened by another tattooed thug. He was led to Katsumoto, who was soaking in a big Japanese tub with two heavily made up underaged girls. The thug left. Katsumoto leered. He was an ugly man who resembled the caricatures of Japanese in World War II propaganda. One of the girls was soaping his back. The other seemed to be jerking him off. The water slopped. Steam rose. The girls were sweating. Katsumoto peered at Armand through his heavy, fogged glasses. The girl's arm movements did not appear to slow when he spoke, asking Armand in polite Japanese if he'd like to fuck one of these girls. Or any girl he'd like.
Armand -- blushed.
He was a man of the world. A fucking world traveller. He'd had them in Kosovo, in Fiji, in Milan. But this! It had a seedy, distasteful aura to it. No.
He said he'd go to the office and wait. He had matters to discuss. Katsumoto nodded. Armand left. He knew where the office was. He'd been here twice before. He walked down the hall, went in and took a seat on the black sofa. He watched the video feed from the sex rooms and the jerk-off rooms. It all looked so unappealing. The Japanese seemed to think they had to fuck and jerk off like robots. Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto!
Armand laughed.
After a few minutes, Katsumoto came in -- a short, squat, rat-ugly man wearing a black bathrobe, his hair slicked back. He went to his desk, sat behind it, and lit a cigar. He offered Armand one. Armand shook his head. He offered Armand a whisky. Armand accepted with a nod. Katsumoto pressed a button. A girl in a blue bikini came in. Katsumoto spoke to her in Japanese. He ordered not only a bottle of whisky but some snacks. She nodded, said, Hai and went out. Katsumoto sat back. He cracked his knuckes.

Armand said:
That bitch Akiko killed our man.
Katsumoto's genial face sobered.
I don't know how she fucking did it, Armand said, speaking in English.
What do we do? asked Katsumoto. She kills mine, she kills yours . . .
Armand said:
Pardon me, but the Shimada Twins were idle fuckwads, and the three teams of ex-cops you sent as back up were idiots who didn't have a chance against a Medusa assassin. But Master Kondo . . . this man was tip-top in the business, absolutely top of the line. We worked with him half a dozen times before. A slice and dice artist. You know? Like a Ginsu knife. Cuts anything. Rusty cans, fishing line . . . Jesus.
Armand shook his head as if to "shake off" a nightmare.
Katsumoto pursed his big lips.
The girl came in with a tray, wagging her pretty behind. She set it down on the coffee table. There was a bottle of whisky, Japanese snacks. She straightened up smiling. Armand felt a definite thrill in his groin and thought maybe he'd like to fuck a girl after all. This one. But business first.
She left the room, shutting the door with geisha-style softness.

So, said Katsumoto. What is our next move?

*

It took five seconds for Akiko to ease the lock open with the tools she'd brought. She put them back into a side pocket of the leather jacket and pulled out the .44. Then she pushed the door in with the flat of her hand.
Master Go Kondo's house. It was dark. The hallway was empty. It smelled lightly of incense and wax.
It hadn't taken long to get the address. One stop, at a certain basement bar. The bartender was a friend of Ogata's from the old days. He knew all the people who did killings in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

Akiko'd confided to this man that Go Kondo was now dead.
He'd shifted the toothpick in his lips.
Who killed Master Kondo?
Akiko (speaking Japanese): I did.
Ogata's old friend looked grief stricken by the news. He lowered his head. Then he shrugged and wrote down the address, with his ball point pen, on a cocktail napkin.

Akiko lit her way down the hall with a penlight.
Its floating, darting white beam disclosed a vase of lowers, a low antique table, a muted carpet, a calligraphy scroll.
She found and entered what looked to be the office.
There was a small desk. She searched it, working the locks smoothly with her picks.
In the bottom side drawer she found the dossier.
A blue manila folder, robin's egg blue.
THE DOSSIER ON MOLLY VANCE, CODE-NAMED "Akiko."
She almost said, "Ah."
It was strange to see her name on this folder.
She flicked through it. Some blurry photographs. Five pages of printed text.
This was all the Organization had?
It wasn't much.
At the end, a sheet of fax paper. A nonsensical string of words.

She saw the fax machine.
Stuck the folder inside her leather jacket, into the waistband of her jeans.
She dialed the code on the fax machine to find out the number that had sent the last document. The fax machine hummed, and the display screen flashed the number. Akiko snatched up a pen from the desk and scribbled the number on the back of her wrist.


She was halfway to the front door when she saw the knob turn, by the floating beam of her penlight.
Clicking the penlight off and thrusting it into a side pocket, she veered through a doorway, into another room.
It was a bare room with a hardwood floor and a dais and racks of bokken and shinai along the far wall.
A suit of armor. A polished dais. A deer antler rack holding two samurai swords.
This was Master Kondo's practice dojo.
Akiko crouched by the wall just inside the door. She pulled the folder out from her waistband and set it down. She drew out the pistol, holding it upright in her right hand.
Breathing slow-deep.
She heard steps. Light, caution-filled, maybe terror-stricken steps.
Through the gap between the door and doorjamb, darting red laser sight beams.
No voices. They were probably giving each other hand signals.
It was a tactical assault team. No question. They were carrying rifles and undoubtedly wearing night vision goggles.
Akiko shut her eyes. Ears prickling in the hush.
There were three. No, four.

They were moving lightly, tensely quiet, around the house.
It would be only instants before they entered the dojo.

Akiko walked quickly to the swords. She picked up the topmost one and drew it out of the sheath.
With the sword in one hand, the pistol in the other, she moved back to the door and stood behind it.

*
The door opened. It didn't creak. It just opened steadily. A laser dot sight floated across the opposite wall. A dark, hooded figure stepped into the dojo. Barely visible, except as a darker darkness. Akiko waited, holding the breath in her Hara.

As the figure half-turned toward Akiko -- peripheral vision in night goggles isn't very good -- she stayed still.


Another figure crouch-walked in, facing the other end of the big, bare room.

Akiko watched the laser sight flare across the suit of armor, the sword rack -- with the top sword missing.

The man nearest her let out a gasp as he realized. He swung to face Akiko, knowing no doubt that behind the door was the likely place for her to be. Before he could pull the trigger, he fell back -- cut from shoulder to waist. Flailing.

Akiko glided forward three quick steps and struck the other man on the top of the head. The katana blade cut down through his jawbone with a nauseating thock. His goggles, cut in half over the bridge of his nose, swung apart. He staggered back, blood spraying. He jerked the trigger of his weapon and a half dozen rounds burst on the wall.

Akiko, by now, was sliding on the floor on her hip. She rolled upright facing the doorway. She saw the pinpoint of a red laser sight and squeezed off three shots with the .44. By the muzzle flashes she saw a black hooded figure, picked up by the rounds, slamming against the wall.

She rolled into the carpeted hall. There were rapid flashes as the last remaining team member opened up with his weapon. Akiko was showered with plaster dust. She drew in a breath, sighted on the flashes and fired three more rounds, the casings leaping out, bouncing and clattering. The flashes stopped. She heard a body fall, and choking sounds.

She slipped the penlight out of her pocket, clicked it on, put it in her mouth and went to the man. He was hooded, in assault gear, his face painted black. He was gasping. Bubbles of blood were coming from his mouth. He hadn't been wearing a vest. The killing teams almost never did. Vests just slowed them down.

But here they were, all dead anyway.

Akiko looked into the man's eyes. He was Caucasian, young. Probably ex-military. She brought up the .44 from her side and fired a round between the eyes. Clang. His head broke open in a way that she was sure would give her nightmares.

The casing bounced, clattered, and went still.

Akiko slid the pistol back into her waistband -- it was hot, now -- walked toward the door, picking up the milky-gleaming naked sword as she did. She hesitated. She couldn't take it. Deciding it would be best to return the beautiful blade to its saya, she veered back into the dojo, snatching up the dossier, folding it neatly in half and sticking it into a side pocket as she went, and padded to the dais, her penlight beam floating ahead of her. She knelt.

As she picked up the sheath, something whirred at her from the dark. She struck it clanging away with the katana blade, heard it stick in plaster. A throwing star.

She dropped the saya and flung the penlight from her lips in the direction the steel star had come from -- the far corner. The beam spun wildly. She heard it clack against the wall. The light went out. She rolled from the dais, the leather of her coat squeaking and slithering on the polished floor.


She was almost at the doorway when a kick flew at her head. The hiss of cloth alerted her, and she saved her life by blocking the heel-of-the-foot strike with both elbows. She rolled over with the force of the kick and rose to a crouch with the katana held in the middle position.

Gasping.

Another kick, this one a leg sweep. Akiko jumped over it and cut with the katana -- rapid strikes to the front, then to each side, both high and low. The sword edge hissing.

The next kick caught her high on the shoulder, and Akiko dropped the katana and slid on the floor, astonished by the pain -- a bundle of nerves that suddenly felt like a bonfire.


This was, of course, a classic ninja style attack.

Fighting blind. No night vision goggles here.

Akiko's ears prickled. She heard the sword being picked up. She drew the .44 and fired the remaining shots in the clip. The muzzle flashes showed her a short young woman dressed in black, dropping to the floor to avoid the bullets.

Akiko flung the pistol at her and rolled and scrambled back onto the dais, where she snatched up the other sword. Bathed in sweat, now, she wrenched it out of the saya in time to parry an overhead cut. Sparks shot from the blades. Akiko screamed YAAH! and kicked with both legs, her rubber-soled boots catching the ninja in the midsection. The ninja flew backward.

Akiko ran for the door and dived through it, expecting any instant to be cut from behind. She heard the sword edge hiss, even felt the "breeze" of the cut, but she made it. She wrenched her hips around and kicked the door shut. She was in darkness, gasping, her whole body electrified and flowing with sweat.

Dropping the sword, she searched on the floor until she touched bloody cloth. She searched more and found the rifle. She raised it and fixed the laser sight on the shut door. She sat up, choking a little.

Amazed. Amazed.

Who the fuck was this now?

This woman ninja was better than Master Kondo.

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