Outtake from THE HITMAN CHRONICLES: “Return to the Hurting Place”
The Hitman Chronicles: Return to the Hurting Place
Duncan Gray flew from Newark to Tokyo using a passport and driver’s license that said he was Charles Washington. Since he wasn’t working, the fake identification was probably a waste of good paper. This trip was supposed to be a getaway; a last minute vacation to reunite with a friend. There shouldn’t be danger involved, but he figured where Nikira Horikoshi was concerned, he couldn’t be sure.
Maybe it was simply as Nikki said when she’d contacted him after they hadn’t spoken in almost five years: that she missed their time in Fussa City and wanted to revisit it. Or maybe it was something else. Maybe she was the one working. Their business made them hunters. It could also make them prey.
In spite of the possibilities, Duncan had agreed to meet Nikki in Japan. His logic told him that if she was working and if he was the target it wouldn’t make sense for her to contact him. She knew that would put him on his guard. Better to catch him unaware when he was feeling safe at home than let him know he was on her mind.
Okay, if he were being honest with himself, there was another reason he’d agreed to go back to where they’d spent fifteen months training together, learning their craft. He missed her too.
He hoped missing her wouldn’t get him killed.
The Boeing 777 attained altitude over the Pacific Ocean, and there was nothing to see from his window seat but clouds. Duncan pressed the ear buds of a new device called an iPod into his ears, closed his eyes and let Sade accompany him into sleep. It was going to be a long flight, and he wanted to be rested when the plane touched down at Narita Airport in Tokyo. Once he stepped off the plane he was going to need to be alert and ready for whatever might come at him.
Using his international contacts Duncan could have had a car at his disposal when he arrived in Tokyo, but decided against it. Even though Fussa—a city of sixty thousand people—was only about thirty miles from Tokyo proper and considered one of its suburbs, with Japan’s insane traffic it could be a four-hour drive between the cities. It wasn’t worth the trouble. He took the train instead.
The people crushed against him on the train reminded Duncan of how crowded it was in Japan, and as a result how its citizens were accustomed to physical contact with strangers on the trains and streets and almost anywhere else in public. It put Duncan on edge; an assault could come from anywhere in the mass of humanity packed around him and he might not see it coming. If this trip was a setup it wouldn’t even have to be Nikki doing the wet work. The blade slipping through his ribs could be clutched in the hand of any of the couple dozen people packed around him on the train.
As he rode Duncan scanned the faces of the people nearest him. Most of them looked back at him, some of their faces curious. He was the strange one, the black man in their country. But this wasn’t like back home in the States. The people here didn’t view him as a potential threat. The expressions on most of the faces looking at him were friendly. Some even smiled at him.
The smiles didn’t put him at ease. Duncan remembered that on the one occasion he and Nikki had worked together on a job she’d smiled too, as she’d killed a man.
That job had been his assignment, while they were still in training. Against the professor’s wishes Nikki had wanted to tag along. She’d ended up pulling the trigger on the target. She was smiling at the man as she watched his fear and then watched him die.
Somewhere Duncan had heard a saying that if you loved what you did for a living, then it wasn’t really work. He had a feeling that for Nikira, killing for money wasn’t work. He’d seen it in the way she’d smiled and in the cold emptiness in her black eyes as she’d squeezed the trigger on his target.
For all the good things he remembered about Nikki, there was something wrong about her too.
Looking at the neighborhoods from the back of the taxi, at the Kanji text on street signs and storefronts, and at the people who for over a year had been his people, Duncan felt a longing for what he once had been. Though he’d killed before he came to Fussa five years ago, this was the last place at which he’d been an innocent. Before coming to Japan he’d killed in self-defense, and then to attain justice for someone he cared for and revenge for himself. Maybe, he thought, that was another reason he’d come back here. Maybe he’d wanted try to recapture some of the person he used to be when he was innocent, before he’d started killing for money. Maybe even if Nikki was working that was worth risking his life for.
The apartment complex was a grouping of five-story buildings just off Highway 16 in Fussa. Five years ago when the professor sent them to Japan to train he’d set them up in a unit in this complex because it was a few blocks from an American Air Force base. Dozens of newly arriving military personnel and their families rented units there short-term while waiting for a home in base military family housing to come available. Living there among other Americans, Duncan hadn’t stood out.
Nikki selected the same place for their reunion. She told him that she’d leased a unit for a month. Maybe she did so out of sentiment. Or maybe, Duncan thought, she wanted him to go to a place he knew and where he’d feel comfortable and perhaps let his guard down. As the taxi slowed to a stop in front of the complex’s rental office Duncan told himself to stop over-thinking things and to just be ready for anything.
The rental office wasn’t equipped with security cameras, which was a good thing. However the old woman at the desk was the same woman who’d been there five years ago. Duncan didn’t think she’d remember him, but when he entered the office she said in halting English, “So nice to see you again, sir. A long time.”
“Yes, it has been.” He didn’t try to refresh her memory further by saying how long.
“Your wife already here,” the woman said. She retrieved a tagged key from her desk drawer and handed it to him. “This time you live in 2-C, okay?”
Duncan wished the old woman hadn’t remembered him. If Nikki was working and things happened in apartment 2-C and he survived, he would to have to take care of anyone who knew of his presence in the apartment. The old woman didn’t know his real name, but with all the resident traffic coming through this place, if she remembered his face after five years she’d probably be a police sketch artist’s dream.
Considering that he would be a sitting duck in the elevator should anyone be looking out for his arrival, Duncan took the stairs to the second floor. No one was waiting for him on the second level exterior balcony. To minimize the noise of his arrival he carried rather than rolled his carry-on down the walkway to apartment 2-C. He paused at the door, retrieved his leather gloves from the pocket of his overcoat and slipped them on. If Nikki was working and in a hurry to finish her job, and if he was able to stop her he’d might as well not leave fingerprints. He unlocked the door, and leaving his carry-on on the balcony for the moment, stepped in quickly, ready for whatever.
No response. The only sound Duncan heard was his own voice echoing down the long entrance hall.
The apartment was laid out the same as the one they’d shared five years ago. A hallway extended from the entry and terminated in the main living area. A few steps beyond the entry were two equal-sized rooms, one on either side of the hall. Duncan remembered that those rooms were barely larger than an American walk-in closet. He checked them first. Both were empty; not even furniture. The rooms made him think about five years ago; about plums.
He retrieved his carry-on from the landing, and with his senses on high alert moved deeper into the apartment, toward the main living area.
Nikira had furnished the main living area sparsely, with just a futon sofa and a 19-inch television/DVD player combo sitting on a wheeled stand. The efficiency-sized kitchen lay just off the living room, behind his right shoulder. The kitchen was empty. The bathroom entry stood just off the kitchen. Duncan thought the bathroom would be a good place to hide if an unsuspecting target walked straight through the main room into one of the bedrooms without checking it. She could sneak up behind them. He checked the bathroom and found it empty.
The rear right bedroom was as empty of furnishings as the two front rooms. The left bedroom held a full-sized bed, a dresser and mirror, and in the closet, female clothing and shoes, to include a couple of pairs of stiletto heels. Duncan thought about plums again.
Five years ago, on an evening when they’d left training after a day of learning nothing but kicks until Duncan felt like his legs were going to detach from his crotch, Nikki had told him that she wanted to stop and pick up a few things before they returned to the apartment. They went to the Seiyu shopping center, where Nikki bought a package of plant hanger hooks, a roll of shipping twine, and a couple pounds of plums.
Back in the apartment she’d had him screw one of the hooks into the ceiling of the empty front room and attach a length of twine to it. She attached a second hook to the end of the twine, and then hung a plum on the hook, about six feet above the floor. She left the room and came back wearing a pair of her stiletto high heels.
When he’d asked her what she was doing she’d said, “I figure when I’m in heels the best spot to place a kick is through the eye. Instant brain damage.”
It took Nikki a of month of dedicated practice to put her heel through a plum on the first try, every time. But she wasn’t done. She’d said that a target wasn’t going to stand still and let her kick his eye out, so she’d had him swing plums back and forth on the string. It took her three months to master putting her heel through a moving plum. And she still wasn’t satisfied. Next they were in the apartment’s long hall and he was tossing plums at her.
By the time they left Japan Duncan was pretty sure that Nikira was the only person in the world who could kill a flying plum with a pair of Jimmy Choos. Woe be unto the person who pissed her off while she was dressed up.
Standing in the bedroom that was a replica of the bedroom from five years ago, his muscle memory kicked in. Duncan flexed, and was almost surprised that he felt no pain. During their fifteen months in Fussa learning to use their bodies to kill they were always in pain, always in recovery from some training injury.
He stood in the bedroom doorway, looking at the bed and remembering.
Being in such pain, they shouldn’t have wanted to fuck so much, but they were young and strong. He was twenty-one when they began. She was nineteen. Nikki said it was because they were animals, that their training had broken them down to their base state of being. Animals hunted and killed and ate and fucked and slept, and the next day did it over again. So they learned to hunt and kill because that was to be their livelihood, their means to food. They fucked because she was female and he was male, and their bodies craved each other. They’d shared a two-bedroom apartment just like this one, but they’d only slept in separate bedrooms the first month of the fifteen.
Master Ono—who the professor had sent them to to learn lethal methods of hand-to-hand combat—didn’t allow them to spar with his cadre of expert martial artists. Rather, he told them to try to survive against them. They suffered for their survival, but they learned. Duncan recalled that on some particularly brutal training days, when their bodies were so battered and battle-weary by the time they returned to the apartment that they could barely move, Nikira would be especially horny and wouldn’t be denied. He’d wondered if she wanted sex because they were in pain. With Nikki he could never be sure.
Like he wasn’t sure why he was here.
In their conversation last week Nikki told him that five years ago she’d been too busy training to think much about her heritage. So she’d wanted to come to Fussa again. But she wasn’t even born in Fussa. Her mother was.
Her mother had been a poor shop girl who’d had the misfortune of falling in love with a wealthy businessman. The businessman had only loved Nikki’s mother for what she could do to please him with her body. When she became pregnant he wanted her gone because he didn’t want to bring disgrace to himself or his family. He was after all, a married man. So he shipped Nikki’s mother off to the island of Okinawa, seven months pregnant and with a small stipend that was gone by the time baby Nikira was born.
Nikki’s mother did what she had to do to make ends meet. Mostly that involved servicing American Marines stationed on the island for money. It wasn’t her choice, but she had to feed her baby. When Nikira was two years old her mother married a Marine who adopted Nikki and moved them to San Diego.
Nikira was as American as Duncan. Five years ago she’d shown no interest in learning about her Japanese heritage. Now all of a sudden she wanted to return to Fussa. She’d told him that as before, she wanted him by her side.
In their business the hunter could easily become the hunted.
Maybe Nikira was the hunter and he was the…
Duncan’s thoughts snapped back to the present. Something in the apartment had just changed.
It was starting.
There’d been a change in the quality of light in the apartment. It was just for an instant, but Duncan caught it. He hadn’t heard a sound, but he knew that the apartment door had opened and closed. Someone had come in. Someone who could move as silently as a shadow.
He spun in the bedroom doorway.
So fucking quick.
Quicker than him.
Duncan tensed as watching him, Nikira shrugged out of her overcoat. Beneath the coat she wore a bulky black cable knit sweater and tight Levis. Her shoes were over-the-ankle numbers with wedge heels. At least they weren’t stilettos. He didn’t see any weapon, which didn’t matter. Her body was a weapon.
Nikki said, “I went shopping yesterday, got a couple of steaks and some wine. It’s going to be nice being here and not having to do anything. Oh, and I got you some of those nasty instant noodles you like.”
Japanese by birth or not, she was more Southern Californian than anything; more about Big Macs and Mexican food than sushi and sake.
“How’s your jet lag?” she asked.
Still standing in the bedroom doorway Duncan said, “I’m good. I slept a lot on the plane.”
“Good. You hungry? If you don’t feel like the steaks tonight we can go out for dinner.”
“I could eat,” Duncan said.
“Then let’s eat now and get it over with,” she said, “because once we get undressed nothing’s gonna happen but us.”
Later, when she was naked in the bed and as he was perched over her, Duncan noticed a small, circular indented scar at the edge of her left shoulder. The wound hadn’t been there five years ago.
As Nikki clutched his erection and guided him to her he slipped his hand under her and felt rough scar tissue at the back of her shoulder. He was surprised at himself at the pulse of rage he felt; at his desire to hurt an unknown someone. Someone who had hurt Nikki.
Seeing the rage in him Nikki said, “It went straight through,” and rubbed the head of him along her silken cleft. “Pre-trial witness protection contract. I watched the safe house for two weeks. One of the two agents guarding the target went for groceries on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Just dumb bad luck that the day I picked, he forgot his grocery list. That’s what he said when he came back in: ‘I forgot the friggin’ list.’ Then he saw me.”
She sighed as she pressed the head of him against her bud.
“What happened?” Duncan asked.
“I already had the other agent down—got him from behind. Didn’t kill him, though; this was federal and the professor said to try to minimize collateral damage. Anyway, the target was done; bleeding out from his throat. The grocery shopper had his gun out. My Sig was holstered so he had me. Mmm, this is nice. Stay in me all night, okay? Hard and then easy, remember?”
He remembered. He throbbed in her hand because he remembered. Muscle memory of her.
“So how’d you get away after you got hit?” he asked.
“He was across the kitchen from me. I wasn’t about to try to run and get shot in the back, so I went for him. I think that surprised him, that I went for him. It threw his aim off. I didn’t give him a chance to shoot me twice.”
Nikki was so quick. Duncan imagined the agent’s surprise that she could be across a room and in his face in a blink.
“I broke his wrist and he dropped his weapon. My shoulder hurt so bad, so I had to focus the way we learned in Master Ono’s fucking torture chamber and put the pain away, in another place.” Nikki rose up and kissed him, flicked her tongue against his lips. “I miss us,” she said. “Stay inside me until we become one again.”
Duncan didn’t know if they’d ever been one, but he wanted back in to try. And it was going to be nice to do it without pain being a part of it.
“He broke pretty fast,” Nikki said. “At first he was whining about having a wife and kids, like I cared. Then it was ‘Please don’t hurt me anymore.’ And this is after he shot me. He shot me, Duncan. I took my time until he was begging me to kill him. I told him if he told me he was sorry for shooting me then I’d kill him and end his suffering, but he had to be really sincere in his apology and make me believe him. I believed him.”
She was really wet now, and Duncan wondered if it was because she’d been rubbing the head of him against her clit or because she was reflecting on how she’d killed a man with her bare hands, slowly.
With Nikira Horikoshi he could never be sure.
They spent the first week in Japan acting like tourists during the day and fucking each other to exhaustion at night. Midway through their second week in Fussa Nikki placed the keys for her rental car on top of the television, said “I’ll be back soon,” and left the apartment.
She was gone for four days.
On the third day after Nikki left the apartment the television news was full of a story about a man named Tanaka going missing. From what Duncan could tell, Tanaka was the head of his family’s business empire, manufacturing electronics.
On the fourth day after Nikki left the apartment the media announced that Tanaka’s remains had been found in a storeroom in one of his company’s warehouses. He’d been strapped to a worktable, hacked to pieces and beheaded with a meat cleaver.
At 3:17 in the morning of the fifth day Duncan was awakened by the sound of the washing machine running. He found Nikki standing in the tiny kitchen, naked and stuffing her clothes into the washing machine. Her wrists and forearms were stained with dried blood.
She picked up her bloody sneakers, looked at him and asked, “Do you think Air Jordans can stand a washing machine?”
“Screw it,” she said and dropped them in the machine with her clothes.
“Where’ve you been, Nikki?”
“You’re not supposed to ask me that. It’s not professional.”
“You had me come here under false pretenses. You made me a part of your work. So tell me what I’m a part of.”
She shook her head as he spoke, then said, “No, I wanted to come back, and I wanted to see you. I’m not working.”
“I need to take a shower. Come shower with me.”
“Tell me what the fuck is going on or I’m on the train to the airport.”
Nikira braced her hands against the countertop as if she needed support to stand. Without looking at him she said, “People with money think they have power, and think they have power over people who don’t have money. They think they can use people and discard them like trash when they’re done with them, just because they have money. I wanted to teach him how weak and helpless he was when his money couldn’t buy him the thing he needed most.”
“What did he need most?”
“He had no idea I even existed; thought my mother had aborted me or killed me at birth or gave me away or something. And then after he knew he said my mother dishonored him by not having a boy. The fucker.”
“We should go home.”
“I know. But I need a couple of days here. I need to stay here and honor my mother by breathing her air—air that’s fresh and pure again because she’s not sharing it with him. And I need you with me, Duncan, because somebody’s gotta hold me when I start crying.”
He’d never seen her cry. Not through all the bruises, all the pain. He’d wondered if she even had the capacity to shed tears, because usually she seemed so cruel, so heartless.
Duncan supposed it just went to show that with Nikira, you could never be sure.
The Hitman Chronicles series begins in 2015