Free Story: The Hitman Chronicles: Rumors of War – Chapter 5
Murfreesboro, North Carolina
It had to be a trick.
The last time he saw Nikira was the night of the rainstorm in Atlantic Highlands – the night she tried to kill him. She’d been a madwoman that night, fighting out of her mind, not listening to reason that even if The Professor had put a contract on his life, the old man was dead and there was no reason to fulfill it.
But she wouldn’t listen. She was hell bent that one of them would die that night. And so to save his own life he’d thrown her over the cliff at the Scenic Overlook.
Excerpt from The Hitman Chronicles:
The sound was almost imperceptible. In another environment he might have missed it. But it didn’t fit the music of the midnight storm. The sound was as out of place in the moment as would be the strum of a banjo during a Carnegie Hall symphony.
It came from behind him – from very close behind him – and with his nerves and instincts tuned to a high pitch he was moving as soon as the sound registered.
But he was too late.
Even as he ducked and turned to face her, Nikira came sliding across the hood of his Charger like a base runner sliding home and slammed her foot into the side of his face.
Duncan rolled with the kick as much as he could, but still caught the brunt of the blow. The impact sent him reeling back and away from the front of his car. He slipped on the slick asphalt and scrambled to stay upright. To go down against Nikira might mean death. Still, though he didn’t fall he was off balance and at a disadvantage, because even without seeing her he knew she was coming.
The instant his feet found purchase Duncan planted himself and whirled, putting every ounce of his strength into a spinning back fist. She was there – right there – but her reflexes were amazing. She leaned her upper body back and away and his punch missed by less than an inch.
Nikira went low and executed a leg whip that knocked Duncan’s legs out from under him. He went down hard, slamming onto his back with bone-jarring impact.
Pain could be managed. That was one of the basic principles they learned when training together in Japan, mastering the technique of Goju Ryu. Instead of focusing on the pain in a time of crisis, you put it away in its own place so that it wouldn’t disable you.
Instinctively Duncan reverted back to his training from over a dozen years past. He ignored the pain. He pushed himself up from the wet pavement and went into a fighting stance as Nikira was springing to her feet.
Nikira took a similar posture less than ten feet away from him. The rain had slicked her ebony hair to her head. From beneath her glistening locks she smiled at him.
He hadn’t seen her in a dozen years. She still looked very much like the girl he’d trained with, the girl he’d laughed with and shared life with for a year on the other side of the world. They’d been friends then, brought together by the pain of their own personal tragedies. Their business had kept them apart since then, but until the events of the past few days he’d believed that they would always be friends. The Professor changed that by sending her to kill him.
Nikira cooed, “Duncan – my dear Duncan. Have you missed me?”
“The Professor is dead, Nikki,” he said. “There’s no reason for us to do this.”
He didn’t want to fight Nikira. He didn’t want to kill her, which is what he knew he’d have to do if he were to win this night and to have any peace in the future. He was sick of fighting and sick of killing.
“It’s not about him,” she said. “It never was. We are two monsters created together, and one of us has to die to save the other. Don’t you know that, Duncan? Don’t you feel it? This is how we stop being what we are – monsters.”
In spite of the rain and the darkness he saw the glint of cold finality in her eyes. There would be no dissuading her with words. This was it then.
“Nikki, you’re going to die tonight for nothing,” he said.
She sidestepped slowly, circling him, looking for an advantage, for an opportunity to strike. Duncan turned with her, keeping her in front of him, his muscles coiled as tight as a springs. She’d had her opportunity, her moment of surprise. She wouldn’t get another one.
Silva said he’d never seen anyone move as fast as Nikira. Duncan knew how quick she was, and he was certain that while he’d simply maintained his proficiency in the basics of martial arts over the years, Nikki had honed her skills. She had the advantage in that. He needed to turn the advantage to his favor, to use his strengths to overcome hers.
Nikira didn’t give him time to devise a strategy. She attacked, flying at him and faking a side kick to his midsection but whipping her foot up to his face. Duncan slipped the kick, but even as she realized that she’d missed Nikki was whirling around, throwing a back fist at him.
He moved instinctively – it was all he could do against her blinding speed. To think about an action would mean a moment of time wasted, and a moment was all Nikira needed to disable and kill him.
Again he rolled with her attack, but her fist caught him high on the side of his head with a glancing blow.
This time he didn’t move away. Whirling with the blow he spun back to face her, hands up now to block the blow he knew was coming. It was a kick coming from his left. He blocked it with his left forearm and dipped to his right, shifting his weight and putting everything he had into a right hook to her side.
He punched her with the intent of crushing internal organs, of snapping her spine if it were possible. It didn’t matter that she was a female. This was life and death, and he knew that given the opportunity, she wouldn’t hesitate to kill him now that their battle had begun.
He dug his fist into her – tried to drive it through her slender frame. He felt her body give against the impact, and heard her gasp in surprise and pain. Nikira stumbled away and Duncan went after her, intending to finish her now if he could. He threw another right at the back of her head as she fell away from him.
Because she was moving quickly away his punch didn’t land with the skull-shattering impact he’d intended. Nikira wasn’t waiting for another blow. She cart-wheeled forward on her hands, then with the strength of a gymnast pushed herself airborne, spinning in mid-air to land on her feet facing him.
The blow to her body had nearly crippled her. It drove the air from her lungs and sent a spike of pain ripping from her side out to her extremities. The force of Duncan’s punch sent her staggering away from him, thank God, and she kept moving, knowing that he’d be right on her now that he had her hurt.
She felt the next blow at the back of her head, landing with brain-jarring impact. She acted on instinct, hurling her body forward in a cartwheel – a defensive move to put space between them – but immediately going back to the offensive, pushing herself up with her arms to spin in the air and land on her feet facing him.
The pain in her side and lower back was amazing in its intensity. She’d never been hurt like this before, not even in her most rigorous training sessions with some of the best martial arts experts in the world. For the first time in her life Nikira felt the cold edge of doubt slice into her confidence. That Duncan might actually beat her had always been a consideration; he was that good. But she never truly believed that he would. Now the hurt in her body alerted her to that possibility.
She wasn’t afraid of pain or even death. But she was terrified of what lay on the other side of death.
No, she couldn’t lose. She couldn’t let him beat her.
Put the pain away. Put it away or your soul is forfeit.
She wasn’t smiling now. Her black eyes glittered with fierce hatred. Duncan thought of Lilith, the enemy of man, the she-demon and thief of lives.
With clenched fists she circled him again, looking for an attack point.
“You made a mistake coming after me,” Duncan said. “I’m going to send you straight to Hell.”
Nikira froze in mid-step, her eyes wide with surprise. “Then you do know,” she said.
Her sudden change in demeanor meant that something he’d said had unnerved her. He pushed every button, hoping to find the right one again. “I know you can’t beat me,” he said, though he wasn’t too certain of the accuracy of that statement. “And I know that you’re going to go through Hell right here when I kick your ass before I send you there for real.”
She screamed and charged him, leaping forward with wild front kick.
Duncan moved fast, executing without thinking, his arms and fists a blur. He parried Nikira’s kick with a stiff forearm, knocking her leg aside and sending her off-balance, forcing her to steady herself on her plant leg directly in front of him.
He didn’t hesitate; he threw a left-right combination as hard and fast as he could. She slipped his left, but his right landed with full impact to her face, snapping her head back.
Nikki’s knees crumpled and she staggered back. He’d almost knocked her out with that punch, but somehow she kept her feet.
Duncan watched her wipe at the blood streaming from her damaged nose.
She wasn’t a demon. She was just a human being, a woman.
The pain wouldn’t stay away, and it hurt so much. Nikira licked the blood from her lips and willed herself to focus, to clear her head and put the pain back in its place. It retreated a little, but not completely. Something inside her was severely damaged. The blade of doubt cut deeper. He’d hurt her badly, but she couldn’t let him beat her. She whispered a one word prayer for salvation.
Nikira blinked away the tears and the rain and found him. He stood with his back to the night skyline, the edge of the cliff a dozen feet to his rear. Lightning flashed over the water, casting him in silhouette, turning him into a figure as dark as death. Maybe he was Death – Death come calling for her, to cast her into the pit where her soul would burn for all eternity.
She wouldn’t tonight. She couldn’t die. The price to be paid was too high.
Nikki was charging at him, screaming like she was out of her mind. As she reached him Duncan dipped low, nearly dropping to one knee, and grasped her at the crotch and midsection. In one motion he scooped her up and lifted her over his head.
Her fist slammed into the side of his face and the world swam out of focus. He ignored the blinding pain. He had to move now and move quickly.
Duncan gathered himself and turned and lunged toward the cliff’s edge in a shot putter’s stride. He felt Nikira grasp at him, perhaps realizing his intent, but she was too late. Using all the strength he possessed he hurled her out and away over the edge of the cliff.
For one instant she was a dark ghost in the darker night, flying through the storm, arms and legs flailing, hair wild. And then she was gone, dropping from sight into the blackness of the night without a sound.
The authorities hadn’t found her body. The official government line was that Nikira Horikoshi was dead. But in his gut Duncan had known better. That’s why the recurring dream of Nikira killing Maisha haunted him – because his heart told him that she was out there somewhere.
He kept a cache of disposable prepaid phones in his basement armory. He used one to call the number Simone had provided.
She answered on the second ring. “Yes?”
It was her. Nikki was alive. Jesus. Even from a distance of hundreds of miles he felt the threat. “It’s me,” he said.
“How are you Duncan?”
“What do you want?”
“I have a proposition for you.”
“I’m not interested.”
“It comes with a million dollar payoff,” she said.
“I don’t need the money.”
“Then how about peace between us? Duncan, I’d like to be able to live my life knowing that I don’t have to worry about you putting a bullet in my head, or maybe something more brutal. I’m sure you feel the same about me.”
“I’m not the only person who wants you dead, Nikira.”
“True, but you’re the only one I worry about.”
“You started this between us.”
“One day I’d like the opportunity to explain that,” she said. “Duncan, I really hope that we’ll be able to sit down as friends again, and that I can explain things to you.”
He’d only seen and spoken to Nikira once since they parted ways in Japan. That was on the night she’d attacked him in Atlantic Highlands. She’d been a screaming madwoman then, and he’d had to fight like hell to stay alive. The woman on the other end of the line now didn’t sound like that madwoman. She sounded like the girl he knew in Japan so long ago – the girl who’d been his best friend…and his lover.
But he couldn’t trust her. Nikira Horikoshi was as cunning as she was skilled. He knew her ability to play any role necessary to get close to her target. She could be acting right now, to get him to drop his guard so that she could get close to him.
But, if Nikira was on the level, if she really did want peace between them, it would mean that he could take Maisha home without having to worry that she was in danger from what might be the deadliest assassin in the world.
“What’s your proposition, Nikira?”
“We have to do what we do, Duncan. The targets are multiple, but at one location.”
“As many as a dozen. This is why I need your help. If we get them all we don’t need to concern ourselves with any subsequent work.”
“A dozen? Who the hell is the target – the New York Knicks?”
She laughed. He remembered her laugh. He used to like to hug her when she laughed.
“Members of the Solntsevskaya.”
“The Russian Mafia? Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Not the entire organization. There’s one guy, Viktor Mogilevich. Look him up. It’s him and his crew in North Jersey. But I need your help.”
“This is crazy. Who hired you for this job?”
“No one. I’m doing this for a friend. And I have the word of the head of the organization in New York that there won’t be repercussions.”
“And this friend is worth you paying me a million dollars?”
“I got the money from Mogilevich.”
“Hold on – you got the money from the man you’re going to kill? Damn, Nikki.”
“Pretty slick, huh? So are you in, Duncan? Will you help me?”
He thought for a moment. He didn’t trust Nikira. He’d be a fool to trust her. But to have peace for himself and safety for his wife, he’d take the risk. “I’ll contact you again when I’m ready to meet with you,” he said.
After the call Duncan stood on the back porch of his Southern home, staring at the rear gate. That was the spot at which in the dream he always saw Nikira, clutching the hunting knife and running through the gate to the walking trail that led back into the woods…the trail that led her to Maisha. He felt a chill that had nothing to do with the winter air.
He remembered the girl he knew in Japan – the young girl who’d been his friend. And he remembered the monster he’d fought on that stormy night not so long ago. Could one fall into the pit of madness and climb out again?
“Are you okay, honey?”
He turned to see Maisha standing in the door. As it was the first time he’d laid eyes on her and every time since, he felt a pang of longing for her. It was a physical want, and an emotional need.
She had the Turkish towel from yesterday wrapped around her. It was a plush snow white, and contrasted beautifully with her complexion. Her eyes were puffy from sleep, and her hair, now cut short, was tousled. And yet, she looked so beautiful. Maisha was one of those rare women who could wake up after a hard night’s sleep looking absolutely gorgeous. Duncan knew he was a blessed man. After all the things he’s done in his life, he couldn’t understand why he’d been blessed with this woman. All he knew was that he appreciated his gift. He cherished her.
As he looked at Maisha, love and worry consumed his heart. And, as he gazed at the woman who meant more to him than his own life, he understood what he had to do. Before he could take her home to New Jersey, he had to make sure that home was safe for her. So he had business to take care of.
“I’m fine babe,” he said. “But I was just thinking – before we move back to Jersey I should go up first, make sure everything is okay.”
“Everything like what? Honey, is something going on?”
He couldn’t lie to her. But he couldn’t tell her everything. He didn’t want her worrying or afraid while he was gone. “I need to meet with someone before we go back,” he said. “I need to make sure that when we go back we don’t ever have to be concerned about anything from my past coming back on us.”
He stepped back inside so that she wouldn’t catch a chill. Maisha was watching him, staring at him hard. He knew what was coming.
“Honey, is this going to be dangerous?” she asked.
He took her hands in his. Hers were so soft, so small. He couldn’t stand the thought of anything happening to her. “I promise you babe, I’ll be back here to get you as soon as possible. Then we’ll go home together, just like we talked about.”
“When are you leaving?” she asked.
“All right then,” she said. She took her hands away and went back to the bedroom.
Duncan went to the kitchen and sat down to think about what he needed to do. A minute later he heard Maisha in their bedroom, crying.
Duncan closed his eyes and prayed that he could keep the promise he’d made to his wife.
He hoped that he would live to bring her back home.
(To be continued…)